Saturday, July 27, 2013


     On the way to my gate at the airport, I saw an old friend, Neal T— ambling through the concourse. I waved to him and, when I reached to shake his hand, he pulled me close bumping my chest against his. We had been in journalism school together and, a few years before, I had attended his wedding in Brooklyn. Through the internet, I was aware that he had recently been divorced.
     I told Neal that he looked lost. He seemed to regard the airport as a large maze interesting only to the extent that it could confuse and befuddle him.
     "I’m always lost," Neal said.
     "Still with the Agency?" I asked him.
     He murmured something about freelancing and mentioned a publication that I didn’t recognize. I suppose I looked briefly quizzical.
     "Special correspondent," Neal said.
     I asked him if he had time for a drink. "Always," he replied.
     We sat in a concourse tavern as far from the television screens mounted on the walls as possible. It was noisy but I could hear him if I bent my head toward his lips. He drank a martini. I wondered if his hand trembled just the tiniest bit when he lifted the glass to his mouth. The place smelled of onion rings and sweat in the rumpled clothing of the intercontinental travelers and the waitress pestered us, begrudging us our moments between orders. Airport bars are like hospitals – the time outdoors on the runways vaporous with mirage and evaporating jet fuel means nothing inside; people inhabit all sorts of different time-zones. It’s every time in the world in an airport bar and no time in particular.
     "I suppose you want to know about the divorce," Neal said.
     "I’m sorry about that."
     "Well, you were in the wedding and, I suppose, I owe you an explanation."
     "Of course not."
     Neal had married a staff-writer from the Food Network. She was a version of his mother, but perfected. The catering at the wedding reception was memorable. Neal and his bride had seemed improbably happy.
     "Do you have time?" Neal asked.
     I took my cell-phone from my pocket to check the time. A text-message told me that my flight was delayed.
     "Everything going to the coast is delayed," I said.
     "Typhoon or something," Neal replied.
     The waitress was looming overhead. Through the tinted glass, the thunderstorms bubbling up over the horizon looked green and ghastly. We ordered another round.
     "I blame it on the goddamn NSA," Neal said.
     "How so?"
     "Well, you remember, last October – the famous leaker, the alleged spy and threat to national security, what’s his name –"
     "Sloan Marshal."
     "Right, Sloan Marshal – you recall, he was holed-up in Stockholm at an embassy, as some reported, or in a hotel a thousand meters off the runway. Hiding out while the USA was demanding his extradition for spilling the beans to Wikileaks. He told the world that the NSA was tapping everyone’s phone and logging all our secrets."
     "It was the big story of the hour. I remember."
     "Sloan Marshal, the man who betrayed his country according to the State Department and the Justice Department and every other official department, including the Pentagon, and, of course, the darling of the media, the guy who blew the whistle on the government’s spy program snooping on you and me –"
     "Shush!" I said, gesturing up at the TV screen above the bar.
     "Yeah, Big Brother is watching," Neal said. "Anyway, I had the assignment from the Agency to get my ass to Stockholm and run this guy down and score an interview. Just like a thousand other journalists, both print and media. So I kissed my darling wife goodbye, took the train to Kennedy, and crossed the Atlantic to Sweden."
     I nodded.
     "As you can imagine, it’s media frenzy at Arlanda. No one knows where Sloan is staying, although rumors abound. Everyone has a theory but it’s all word-of-mouth, nothing verifiable. And a third of the journalists look pretty spooky to me, probably goons working for the CIA or the FBI or NSA or who knows what. I kept encountering people in bars, just like this one, right off the concourses who are, so to speak, a bit too chummy, overly friendly, who just want you to give them a friendly wink and a nudge, who say they are working for anarchist journals supposedly or neo-pagan news outlets or the Socialist Workers World, for Christ’s sake, but who knows – they all look like cloak and dagger to me. And, of course, you’ve got Fox News and MSNBC and all the other cable vultures with full entourage, absolute scorpions one and all, throwing elbows this way and that. People are holding press conferences to announce that they are holding press conferences and the sidewalk outside the terminal is crowded with camera operators taking pictures of the control tower just to show that they’ve made the trip to Stockholm and the whole time, our boy, Sloan is out-of-sight, being debriefed, I suppose, by Amnesty International or the Russians, who knows? If he’s staying at the Airport Marriot, no one knows where or under what name and the Swedes are hospitable to this sort of stuff, sticking their finger in the official eye of the USA, gouging, but not too hard, and completely secretive – you can’t get anything out of their officials. Political asylum, you know."
     "Then, there’s a rumor, a friend tells a friend sort of stuff: Sloan is supposedly about to depart from some other airport on the other side of town. He’s booked a passage to some autonomous or semi-autonomous zone is Central Asia, some place that has no extradition agreement with the Americans, needless to say, a hydrocarbon republic with a name no one can even pronounce. It’s just crazy enough to seem logical. After all, the guy is on the lam, running from the CIA and so, it stands to reason, he might hop a plane to nowheresville, some ex-Soviet republic. At least, that’s the word and we all have it on good authority. I talk to the home office and they authorize me to take the same flight – Merkur to Astana, that’s the name of the capitol."
     "I never heard of it." I said.
      "No one has. But Merkur out of Deutschland, Berlin – that’s the hub city I think -- flies there, twice daily ordinarily with a load of petrochemical engineers and terrorists. Non-stop from Stockholm And they don’t take-off from Arlanda, but on the other side of the city, the other airport – I don’t recall the name right now. So I booked my flight and dashed out of the Marriott to find a cab and, there, at curbside is Whitney Soledad, the glamor girl from CNN –"
     "The ‘Whitney Soledad’?"
     "The very same. She’s waving her arm in the air and we both make a mad dash for the same cab and end up it sharing a fare across the county to the other airport. Time is short and she’s bitching at the cabbie and he’s pretending not to know English. ‘The flight’s overbooked," Whitney said. ‘That means Sloan’s flying for sure. Otherwise, why would so many folks want to go to the Semi-autonomous Zone.’ ‘Not for the scenery or the food,’ I said. ‘Exactly,’ she winked at me. "Do you have camera?’ I ask her. ‘Sure,’ she says, ‘I got a deal to share a camera and sound guy. He’s ahead of me.’ She’s smaller than she looks on the tube but even more attractive, very much put-together, if you know what I mean. ‘I’m on stand-by,’ she said, ‘but I’m equipped to buy my way onto the plane.’ ‘Maybe, I can sell you my seat,’ I told her. Immediately, and I kid you not, she opened up her purse and began flashing wads of money at me. ‘I’m joking,’ I said. ‘I can make it worth your while,’ she says. ‘I’m sure you can,’ So, you see, I’m sort of flirting with her. But, of course, I don’t want to lose my gig, the boss has told me to make that flight, and so I tell her: ‘No, no, you’ll have to do business with someone else.’ So she sits back, sends a couple dozen text messages, and, during the whole ride – maybe an hour – I think I can see some black vans hustling up to tail us, and, overhead, a helicopter that keeps coming in and out of focus, and, finally, I say to her: ‘Did you tell anyone where you were going?’ ‘No," she says. ‘Did you?’ ‘No, I want an exclusive on this. But I think we’re being followed.’ ‘Hell,’ Whitney says, ‘how do we know that we aren’t in the crosshairs of a drone right now? For all we know, they’ll take him out by drone-strike just when we hop on board.’ ‘I don’t think so,’ I say. "Of course not,’ she tells me. ‘I’m just joking with you.’ "
     "We get to the other airport, a pretty miserable affair out on the taiga, and, sure enough, there’s a big crowd of journalists hovering around the jetway. The gate agent announces that the flight is overbooked and, exactly as she promised, Whitney makes a deal with some mining engineer to buy his seat – the guy doesn’t have a clue and can’t believe his good fortune: the aircraft pays him, gives him a voucher, and he also scalps his seat to Whitney for five-hundred. Then, we start boarding. ‘Where’s Sloan?’ someone asks me. ‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘Have you seen him?’ someone else asks. "Oh, yeah, he was here before the thundering herd reached the airport,’ another guy says. ‘And they’ve already hustled him onto the plane, at least, that’s what the gate agent said.’ ‘Did you talk to the gate agent?’ ‘No, but I talked to someone who did.’ ‘Okay, okay,’ I say. And, then, we’re aboard. I’m on the aisle and the window seat right next to me is empty, and stays empty, and, pretty soon, people are circulating, they won’t stay put, exploring the airplane, checking its nooks and crannies for the famous whistleblower, and the stewardesses are plenty pissed-off and I’ve got six or seven eager beavers lurking around me, eyeing that empty seat.’ Then, Ms. Soledad comes up the aisle and steps right over me and plops herself into the empty seat next to the window. She’s removed her wrap, her jacket-thing, and you can see that she’s all set up to get the interview, to make herself irresistable to the poor guy. ‘So this is your seat,’ I ask her. ‘I’m back in the cattle-class,’ she says. Then, she winks at me again. ‘But I know for damn sure whose got this seat reserved,’ Whitney tells me. ‘You’re dressed to make a kill,’ I tell her. She smiles, a lot of wattage in those teeth, and says ‘A little glamor never hurt anyone,’ and, then, she fake–pouts ‘Don’t hate me because I’m pretty.’ ‘Not at all,’ I say. ‘He’s in the toilet,’ Ms. Soledad says. ‘One of them in the rear, by the galley, is ‘occupied’ and it’s been ‘occupied’ the whole time I’ve been aboard. The stewardess back there is really evasive. I know what they’re doing. He’s being hidden in the toilet until we taxi out on the runway. That’s the plan," Whitney says. ‘But you’re in his seat,’ I tell her. ‘No, I’m in your seat,’ she says. ‘I beg to differ.’ ‘Listen, you know, you can’t resist,’ Whitney tells me. ‘We’re a team. Just like in the cab. You run interference for me and I run interference for you. Go back into Economy for just a half-hour and, then, we switch places – you get what you want and I get what I want.’ ‘How is this fair?" I ask her. ‘We’re a team,’ she says."
     "Then, the flight-deck announces that the hatches have been closed and that all passengers must return to their seats, because the aisles are crowded, everyone is jostling around, craning their necks looking around. Whitney puts her hand on my leg and says ‘pretty please!’ and, let me tell you, I’m a sucker, I’m a complete sucker, so I went back into economy and found her seat and sat there during take-off and, then, for another forty-five minutes as we bumped our way up to altitude. Before the drink service began in economy class, I got up and barged my way into the front of the plane, actually shoving aside a stewardess who looked pretty miffed, but there were others up there too, and, there she was, Whitney Soledad, sipping a gin and tonic, next to the empty window seat, and people were queuing up to take pictures, one after another, of that unoccupied seat. ‘What happened?’ I asked. ‘We found out that the lavatory was busted; it was ‘occupied’ because out-of-order.’ ‘So where is Sloan Marshal?’ ‘Who knows?’ Someone said ruefully: ‘Well, at least, we know where he isn’t.’ One after another, journalists shuffled up and took pictures of the empty seat and a couple of guys even used digital camcorders to show the seat that Sloan was supposed to be occupying. When the photography had ceased, I asked Whitney for my seat back. ‘Have a heart,’ she said. ‘But it’s my seat,’ I said. ‘I’ll make it up to you, when we land,’ she told me. Then, the stewardess shoed-me back to the rear of the plane."
     "As you can imagine, it was a long plane ride to nowhere. The petrochemical engineers swallowed as much booze as they could, sealed themselves off behind their earbuds, and went to sleep. Chemists and engineers like that, it seems, can always will themselves into a state of profound slumber. The other coach passengers consisted of scribblers for third-rate publications, freelancers, wire-service stringers, internet bloggers and other, and various, ink-stained wretches. Some of the seats were occupied by technical crew for the on-air personalities at the front of the plane and they were on holiday from the moment that it was announced that Sloan wasn’t on the flight and so there was a lot of drinking and bullshitting and standing in the aisles notwithstanding the disapproving glares of the stewardesses and, then, after six or seven hours, we came down out of the sky and bumped onto the bumpy runway at Astana International in the middle of the Semi-Autonomous zone."
     "We staggered down the jet-way. The airport was small and smelled like curry and, beyond the windows, I could see that the runways crossed a flat, treeless prairie that somehow managed to look both very hot and dry and very cold at the same time. A saw-edge of white-capped mountains braided one of the horizons and the peaks seemed to be almost below the horizon. The oil engineers hustled toward customs but almost everyone else, and it was the majority of the passengers, hunkered down in a couple of lounges immediately adjacent to the jetway. I checked with my smart-phone and found that the next flight was scheduled for 22 hours later and the journalists seemed mostly resolved to wait out the interval at the airport. Some soldiers armed with submachine guns anxiously surveyed the crowd of writers and TV people. An official with a clipboard circulated among the passengers, making notes. Whenever someone aimed a camera, the boys with the machine guns looked nervous and violently shook their heads."
     "I thought that Whitney would ignore me, but, instead, she approached and took my arm. ‘I really appreciate your help,’ she said. ‘That was a long flight back in coach,’ I told her. ‘Listen, I owe you,’ she said. She gave me her best on-air smile: ‘Let’s get out of here and go downtown. At least, we can get a decent meal. We’ve got plenty of time.’ I shrugged and started to protest, but her hand was on my wrist and she led me down the passageway to Border Control. No one spoke English and it was impossible to state our business in the Semi-Autonomous Zone, since, after all, we didn’t have any business in the Semi-Autonomous Zone but had come completely by misdirection and accident, but, after a few minutes, the security guy tired of trying to understand and waved us through the checkpoint. We dashed after one of the oil company engineers on his hike to the baggage claim and he obliged us by writing the name of the best hotel in town. ‘It’s my treat,’ Whitney said. ‘I feel somehow like I got you into this.’ I asked her about her cameraman. ‘I have an arrangement with one of the guys in the back of the plane,’ she said. ‘I share him with a couple other gals.’ ‘Is he going with us?’ ‘No, I checked with him. He’s not interested in downtown Hooterville – at least that’s what he told me.’ "
     "After the confinement of the plane and airport, all the space and light outside the terminal had a strange effect on me – it was like a deafening sound and I couldn’t seem to hear very well. Maybe, it was the pressure differential form the flight. The cab-driver made some apologies about the route downtown, but we couldn’t figure out what he was trying to tell us. Apparently, some kind of demonstration was underway somewhere near the city center and the cabbie seemed defensive and nervous. The freeway from the airport was almost completely empty, a slick concrete channel that lead downhill from the plateau toward the city. From the distance, the capitol looked very modern and sleek, glittering towers and domes like the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. Up close, there were ravine cutting through the bare hills where the capitol had been built and those seams were festering with slums made from concrete blocks and corrugated tin, ditches full of poor people incised into huge terraces covered with government buildings and newly built skyscrapers. The avenues in the city were as wide as a football field, mostly empty except for an occasional panel truck or limousine, and the embankments above the highways were planted with dense mats of tulips. Different colored flowers seemed to spell out letters and words, but, of course, we couldn’t read them and there were traffic circles that whirled us around strange monuments, huge pedestals, plinths like the base of the Statue of Liberty except without any figure on top, big sepulchral blocks that were either mausoleums or museums or both. Smoke was rising from one of the suburbs and helicopters battered the clouds overhead and, at some of the intersections, we saw olive-colored armored personnel carriers and lines of troops in riot gear trudging doggedly toward distant barricades marked by red and yellow flags. ‘Is much trouble,’ the cab driver said grinning apologetically."
     "I didn’t recognize the trees on the boulevards, peculiar-looking things with barrel-shaped trunks from which the bark was peeling to reveal a fatty-looking wood the color of yogurt. We passed some mosques and, then, a burnt-out section of town and, after that, the cabbie seemed to favor parking lots as his thoroughfare, huge empty slabs of concrete or asphalt between the big glass buildings. We came to a dry river bed and an ancient train station built of interlocked girders like the Eifel Tower and, then, we were at the hotel. The streets were foggy with pepper gas and the air smelled of rotting cabbage and a little knot of worried-looking cops were marching irregularly down the sidewalk."
     "The hotel was serviceable and the staff at the front desk spoke some English. ‘It is not as bad as it looks,’ the girl told us. Whitney said that we would only need one room. ‘I think we need two,’ I told her. ‘You’re a gentleman,’ she said. "I can see that. I enjoy your company.’ She asked where we could eat. The desk clerk pointed the way to a dark doorway and a café where a half-dozen petrochemical types were drinking martinis with their silent, painted girlfriends. We ordered some food and drinks and sat at a table in the restaurant near a fountain that whispered obscenities to us. ‘What kind of place is this?’ I asked. ‘Who cares?’ Whitney said. She ordered shrimp scampi – ‘at least, you know, it’s been well-frozen,’ she told me. I was going to order a steak but Whitney said that in places like this steak was always horse-meat. So, instead, I had spaghetti and meat balls. The sauce seemed to be made from ketchup. At least, the booze was okay, mixed drinks without ice, in tall crystal highball glasses. Whitney said she was tired and told me she was going to the bathroom. A few minutes later, she came back to the table and said that she didn’t mind if I used the shower in the room and that we needed to take a nap."
     "The hotel was stifling and the elevator thumped and seemed to claw its way upward and, then, room was as cold as a refrigerator. I couldn’t tell exactly what time it was – for some reason, my cell-phone hadn’t reset to the local hour. A tiny balcony hung from the sliding door overlooking the city – the balcony was like a book shelf enclosed by a metal rail. Whitney stepped outside to smoke cigarette. I could smell the tobacco and the nicotine mixed up with the smell of tear gas wafting up from the city streets. There seemed to be big fire underway on the outskirts of town."
     "One thing lead to another. I told Whitney: ‘You know I’m married.’ She said: ‘You think I’m not?’ In the middle of the night, or what seemed the middle of the night, I was awakened by a loud thudding boom. It was the kind of thump that displaces the air and causes you to feel the boom in your lungs and rib-cage. I went up and drew the curtains to look out over the city. Some sirens wailed and the fire at the edge of town was still burning, but otherwise the streets below were empty. ‘Did you hear that’ I asked Whitney. ‘Maybe an earthquake,’ she said."
     "The next morning, we found our way to the café with the fountain for breakfast. The omelets and sausage looked questionable and so we had fresh fruit. The strawberries were the largest I had ever seen – they were as big as my fist and red as blood. I couldn’t identify the kind of melon that the place served. We took a cab back to the airport. In the car, Whitney said to me: ‘We need to be discrete about this.’ I agreed with her. ‘We will keep a secret,’ she said. ‘It’s our secret,’ I replied. ‘Won’t tell a soul,’ Whitney said. There were checkpoints and men with guns. Everyone was drunk and hilarious at the airport. Sloan, the man who had blown the whistle on the National Security Association and its spy apparatus, had departed from Stockholm in the night, apparently bound for Bolivia or, perhaps, Venezuela. ‘You won’t tell a soul,’ I said to Whitney as we walked to the gateway. She kissed my cheek: ‘Not a soul.’ "
     "But here I am. So, obviously..."
      On the PA, a voice announced more delays. It seemed that the typhoon was continuing.
     "The bitch," I said.
     "How do you know it was her?" Neal asked me. "After all, I’m the one telling you the story."

Order of Service -- Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Order of Service – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
     Walter was angry that the Lutherans at the church down the street were praying for him. He didn’t believe in prayer and had not asked for anyone’s concern. Walter thought that if there were a god, it was best to stay hidden from him.
     On Monday morning, Walter punched-in at work and, then, walked from the shed to the garage where the pick-up truck assigned to him was parked. In the garage, Billy was washing down the windshield and front of his truck. He was using a hose and water was splashing around, drops beading other vehicles and a big, puddle, iridescent with oil, spreading across the concrete.
     "Why don’t you do that outside?" Walter asked, gesturing at the puddle.
     "You’re cranky," Billy replied. "I’m surprised you’re even at work.  You must be hungover or something."
     "Why wouldn’t I be?"
      Billy said that his wife had come home from church the previous morning and shown him a printed bulletin. On an insert among the pages of the order of service, there was a section captioned "Prayer Concerns". Walter’s name, correctly spelled, appeared behind the words: Ongoing health concerns..."
     Billy looked at Walter and cocked his head: "Is there something wrong with you, dude?"
     "That’s none of your business," Walter replied.
     "Well, I would pray for you too...if I thought..." Billy had shut off the tap to which his hose was connected. The tip of the hose drooled a little.
     "Don’t bother," Walter said.
     Walter stopped at home over his lunch-break. His wife worked the night-shift, but she was up already, vacuuming the living room carpet.
     "Who do you know at the Lutheran Church?" he asked her.
     "I’m not sure," she said. "Probably someone."
     "Why are they praying for me down there?"
     "Why would they be praying for you?"
     "That’s my question," Walter said.
     She flipped off the vacuum cleaner and stooped at the wall to unplug it.
     Walter went into the kitchen to microwave a bowl of spaghetti left over from the night before. Walter smelled warm garlic and tomatoes as his food cooked.
     "Is there something wrong with you?" Walter’s wife asked him.
     "I suppose," Walter said.
     "What is it?"
     "Who knows," Walter said. "Someone is lying about me."
     That evening a couple of people called, friends of his wife, and made sympathetic inquiries about Walter’s health. Walter’s wife took the calls. Walter sat in the living room watching television, his ear half-cocked to listen to his wife’s voice in the kitchen.
     Later, she told him that people were curious. They wanted to know what was wrong with him.
     "What should I tell them?" she asked.
     "Tell them that there’s nothing wrong with me," Walter said.
     "But if I say that, people will think it’s mental problem or alcoholism."
     "Do you think I have mental problems or alcoholism?"
     "How should I know?" his wife said. "I’m just your wife."   
     "I’m completely fine," Walter said.
     "They will think you’re depressed or suicidal. You aren’t suicidal, are you?"
     Walter looked at the TV screen and muttered something.
     Walter couldn’t sleep. His body sent him little messages in the form of twinges that sparked his muscles into fitful motion. He dreamed that he was waiting for a diagnosis in a hospital and, then, someone handed him a white sheet of paper closely lettered with tiny words. He tried to read the words but they seemed to be in a foreign language.
     The next day, at work, Walter was distracted and almost stepped out of his truck to pick up a fallen limb – a storm had knocked it from a tree – when the vehicle was in gear. He had heard of accidents happening like that, truck drivers run over by their own truck. As he was thinking about accidents that he had seen or been told about, he became distracted and ran through a stop-sign. A car honked-at him.
     "Maybe, there is something wrong with me," Walter thought.
     A couple of days passed and Walter saw many signs that he was failing. His breath seemed shallow to him, as if inhaling didn’t fully inflate his lungs. Obscure aches and pains afflicted his shoulders and hips and knees. He began to limp a little.
     "Why are you limping?" Billy asked him when they were unloading their trucks at the end of the day.
     "I didn’t know I was limping," Walter said.
     Billy shook his head.
     "I guess I’m getting too old for this job," Walter told him.
     On Friday, Walter stopped at the Lutheran Church over his lunch-hour. The church stood at the center of a big lawn and was surrounded by tall shade-trees. An old man riding a mower was making spirals around one of the burr-oaks. A van sat in the parking lot, seeming a bit forlorn, as if abandoned and a couple of bicycles were chained to a rack by the front-door.
     The old man on the lawn mower glided to a stop near the sidewalk leading across the grass to the church.
     "Can I help you?"
     "Is the pastor around?" Walter asked. "I don’t see any cars."
     "He’s here," the old man said. "In the office, Pastor Tom. He rides his bike to the church."
    "Can I see him?"
     "I think so," the old man said.
     Walter went into the church where it was cool and dim. The floor smelled of fresh wax and disinfectant. Down a hallway, Walter found the office. The door was open. A young man stood by a photocopy machine, wrestling with paper tray.
     "Are you the pastor here?"
     "Yes I am," the young man said.
     "I have to talk to you," Walter said.
     The pastor led him back into an office with wide glass windows that opened onto the shady lawn. Outside, the old man on the mower was cutting swaths through the glass. Walter noticed that the old man was wearing head-phones to mute the sound of the lawn mower’s motor. It seemed strange to him that he had not noticed that before.
     The office smelled of stale coffee. There were books on the shelves about alcoholism, grief, and cancer. A picture of Jesus wearing some kind of headdress like a crown and knocking at a door was suspended on the wall opposing the big window filled with green dappled light. The picture looked very old and dusty and the scene that it showed was set in the darkness with a wan yellow moon peeping through wispy grey clouds.
     "I think people in this church are spying on me," Walter said to the pastor. He told him about the notice in the bulletin.
     "I’m sorry," the pastor said. He had white skin and watery eyes behind his wire-rimmed glasses but his torso was thick and muscular, as if he worked out with weights.
     "I don’t want people praying for me," Walter said.
     "Why is that?"
     "It’s an invasion of my privacy."
     The pastor apologized again. "I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again," he said.
     "Well, how did it happen in the first place?" Walter asked.
"I don’t know. I’d have to check," the pastor said.  "Someone must have expressed a concern."
     His desk was covered with papers, brochures, magazines. There was a small framed picture beside the pastor’s keyboard and computer monitor that showed a woman in shorts standing next to three black Africans. The Africans were grinning at the camera and the woman was trying to smile, but her expression looked more like a scowl.
     "Well someone had to have told you –"
     "Not me," the pastor said. "The church secretary."
     "Well someone had to have said something about me."
     "I suppose so," the pastor replied.
     "Well, who was it?" Walter asked.
     "I think that would be confidential," the pastor said apologetically.
     Down a hallway a toilet flushed. Squirrels danced on the lawn.
     "But is there some reason for anyone to be concerned about you?"
     Walter shrugged: "I don’t think I’m any different from most people. Not unless someone’s spying. Checking up on me. Trying to find out my secrets."
     "Well, we all have secrets," the pastor said, squinting at Walter through his glasses.
     "I don’t think I’m that much different from anyone else," Walter said.
     "No, most people are pretty much alike," the pastor said. "You learn that in the ministry."
     "Someone must know –" Walter said. He paused.
     "Well, someone has to be aware, I mean, know that –"
     Walter paused again.
     The pastor looked embarrassed. "It’s pretty tough to tell Christians not to pray for someone."
     "I don’t want anyone praying for me," Walter said. "I get along fine on my own."
     On the way home, Walter stopped for a red light.  His mother crossed the street at pedestrian cross-walk.  A young man who looked familiar to Walter had taken his mother's arm and was guiding her. Walter's mother was dead and buried in the cemetery 12 blocks away.  When Walter blinked the tears from his eyes, his mother and her guardian had vanished. 
     Walter wondered if the young man was an angel.  Someone was honking at him.  The light had turned green, perhaps, many seconds before.  Walter waited for the light to turn red again and, then, pulled into the intersection.  Brakes squealed and there were more horns honking.  He shook his head and parked alongside the curb a couple car-lengths beyond the intersection.
      A kid rapped on Walter's window.  He rolled the window down.  "Are you okay, mister?" the kid asked.  "You look like there's something wrong with you."
    "I'm okay," Walter said.
     "Are you sure?"
     "I'm okay," Walter repeated.

"I’m not here to argue with you," the pastor replied.
"I want you to know," Walter said. "Despite everything, I get along just fine on my own."

In the Heartland

In the Heartland
       When the alarm clock sounded at 3:30 in the morning, I was dreaming. A half-dozen people, maybe more, were standing in a line. The men and women looked worried and were gazing to their right with fixed, lip-pursing attention. Watching them, my head seemed to be mounted on a tripod that didn’t swivel and so I couldn’t see down the line to what they were watching, nor could I look past them to see where the column of people ended. They stood together on a grey plain, close enough to link arms, mud underfoot and broken glass, waiting for something. A small child, wriggling and crying, appeared and was passed down the line. The people held the child carefully as if fearful that it might be dropped in the mud and glass, but, at the same time, they were brusque and efficient, moving the child as if tossing a sack of potatoes from person to person. The child’s eyes were huge and its face and breast and hands were filthy with mud so that the people’s garments were spattered and, after the child had passed from my point of view, the men and women forming the chain looked intently and fearfully down the line, waiting and waiting and, then, the alarm shut off the dream the way you turn off a light.

      in chill earthly mist
     houseless brown farmland plains rolling heavenward
     in every direction

      Briefly, the situation was this: a man who once worked for me as an attorney moved with his family to Little Rock, Arkansas. After the man left Minnesota, I didn’t see him again for many years. From time to time, I spoke with him on the telephone. The man’s son, who I recall as a little boy, grew up and became a drug addict. He overdosed and, after lingering in a coma for ten days, died. His eyes and his heart and kidneys and liver and much of his skin was harvested and I am told that the young man, who had been very handsome and athletic, contributed to the survival of many people through the donation of his organs. The man who once worked for me and his wife asked that I investigate their son’s death and I gathered medical and pharmaceutical records. Those materials disclosed that the young man’s psychiatrist had written prescriptions authorizing him to purchase lethal quantities of highly addictive drugs. These prescriptions were filled by Walmart in the week before the young man overdosed.
      In the chaos surrounding the young man’s discovery, unconscious on the kitchen floor at his parents’ home, drug screens, positive for prescription drugs and opiates, were never quantified and concentrations of toxins in the overdose victim’s tissues were not established. After ten months of investigation, I concluded that it would be impossible to prove a medical negligence claim against the psychiatrist and that Walmart’s liability for over-filling prescriptions could not be established.
     I contacted several prominent Little Rock malpractice attorneys and made appointments to see them on Tuesday, May 21 with my former associate and his grief-stricken wife. It seemed necessary for me to be with the parents when they were told that no claims could be brought against those probably responsible for the young man’s death. So, at 4:00 in the morning on May 20, I drove from Austin, Minnesota where I practice law to Little Rock. I arrived at 5:20 pm. on a stormy Monday. I developed a bad cold and the heat and humidity in Little Rock stifled me. The next day, I met with the malpractice attorneys that I had contacted. The results of the meetings were as I expected. The parents were tearful and angry. When I hugged my associate’s wife, I could feel how frail she had become, how grief had eroded her, how each bone in her spine stood out like the hard knuckles in a hard clenched fist in her back.

      I started back to Austin that evening and drove in thunderstorms to Fort Smith. The next morning, May 22, I rose early, took some back-roads in the Ozarks, a place that I had never visited, and hiked up a mountain to see some caves and a waterfall. I drove home through Kansas City and stopped at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Fine Art. It was cold in Iowa and very rainy. I reached home at 10:30 pm.
      All told, I had been in the car for, at least, 26 hours during the course of three days.

      At first, grey within grey, greys of differing intensity and saturation – the pale glimmer of flooded fields, quicksilver grey or fish-belly grey, eyes open and staring up at the lid of grey skies. There is no daybreak, just brightening very slowly and imperceptibly and, then, around Des Moines, green has replaced the grey and the landscape is now a million variations on one theme, green within green: lime green, the green of lichens on boulders, lettuce green, pine-needle green, yellow-green buds on trees, rain-forest green in the shelter-belts cupping in their green hands and forearms fields faintly lit, as if from within, with green light the black and brown earth luminous like panes of stained glass admitting a green radiance upward from within the soil.
     This is the flat, vast heartland – an immense agricultural empire with cities every five freeway hours set athwart great, slow-moving brown rivers.
     Country-western music: songs that rhyme "hell yes!" with "jealous." Someone sings about the moon seen through a cracked windshield on an old pickup truck.

     PYRO CITY sells fireworks just across the Iowa border with Missouri. (Perhaps, conservative, undemonstrative Iowa prohibits fireworks). The corrugated metal shed is painted firetruck red, four stories high, towering over the freeway. From a distance, it seems that a black target has been stenciled into the side of the shed, a round bulls-eye that is twelve feet in diameter. But as the freeway flings you closer, it is clear that the bulls-eye is, in fact, the emblem of a snarling black cat with demon-red eyes. A metal awning on the building advertises: FIREWORKS, COLD BEER, CIGARETTES. There is another ribbon of metal imprinted with a banner headline: No Smoking bracketed at each side with smaller target-sized insignia, each of them showing a prohibitionary bar across the painted image of a cigarette.

     Then: Kansas City.
     The outskirts of the big city are huddled under a turbulent sky, a vast upswept thunderhead that occupies half of the heavens, sculpted like the flanks of Devil’s Tower by the chisel of updrafts, grooves through which rain and hail are falling down in a barrage onto the wet fields, the staging places for semi-trucks, the fast food joints with their spidery advertising towers along the freeway, the open country between subdivisions where corn and beans are growing, the rendering and animal byproduct plants, the little beleagured cemeteries on islands of uncultivated land in the wet fields.

     I’m listening to a public radio station that is playing jazz and blues. The DJ comments on the bad weather with a silky, insinuating voice. "Just for today," she says, "I’ve got this Albert King song:
      They call me Stormy Monday,
      And Tuesday’s just as bad,
      Wednesday is the worst,  
      And Thursday makes me sad.
" I pass outside the range of the KC Blues program. Static.

      fear that we aren’t the only ones whose body could be
      beloved by all the brides of Kansas City,
      kissed over by every boy of Wichita

     A place named Coffey is under a "Boil Water Advisory."

     At the outskirts of a small city: road construction. The freeway constricts to one lane in each direction. To my left, a series of barriers set end to end wall-off the lane where the roadwork is underway. A front-end loader is parked within that lane next to the barricades and there is a stack of orange cones and, a few dozen yards farther down the road, metal tubs and a pile of gravel. This is an inconsequential amount of construction work for a stricture in the freeway that last for six or seven miles.

     KMO, a radio-station broadcasting from a Bible college, tells me that for $22.95 I can buy a book called The Genius of Ancient Man, a refutation of evolutionary theory. It is a publication of the Valley Bible Fellowship.

     It’s like having barbed wire wrapped around you body and just tightening and tightening, a woman’s voice proclaims. The Vital Petal clinic is looking for women willing to volunteer for an endometriosis study.

     South of KC, empty country: driveways lead nowhere, the farmsteads are not merely deserted but plowed under and all the shelterbelts are feral, gone to jungle.

     Far from any village, big trucks, semi-tractor trailers, are skulking at the top of the off-ramp from the freeway. Apparently, there’s no place else to stop. Across the overpass, another truck is hunkered down on the ramp leading down to the northbound lanes of the freeway.

     Another radio station: The Trader Program. Offered for sale, trade, or barter: one PlayStation, two storm windows (aluminum), an air compressor (electric), an air compressor (without the motor), a pair of ladies’ fringed leather boots with one aerosol can of leather preservative, a motorcycle that has been in a crash, a garage door.
     You can bring items for sale to the studios of this radio station.

     Town of Nevada, Mo. Nevada – the snowy one? Pronounced "Neh-vay-dah."
     In the Ozarks north of Fort Smith, two green John Deere tractors are hauling mower rigs along the median. A baby rabbit is startled and goes out on the freeway, zigzagging between semi-trucks. I see the tiny animals frightened eye flashing like a spark struck from metal and metal.

     highway cloverleaf sunk in a vast meadow

     A billboard tells me that Midland Cremation offers its services for $795 complete! Lock in your costs now!

     A message on my phone tells me that a huge tornado has just ripped apart a suburb in Oklahoma. I am 115 miles from Tulsa.

     All the Bible stations on the radio, assure me that God will chastise his people just as a loving father must punish his disobedient son.

      Road construction is ahead. I’ve been negligent, looking at my cell-phone, and, now, I am amidst the construction. Something is out of place: I seem to be on the wrong side of the barricades, between the median that is merely a guardrail between coming and going, and a row of concrete barriers that closes the lane under construction off from the traffic to my right. How did this happen? In the cement sluice between the barricades and the guardrail in the center of the freeway, the road surface seems to have been abraded. There are grooves scored in the cement under my tires and, then, I pass through a zone of puddled water, fountains wrapping up and around my car as the vehicle plunges forward, and, then, I am driving on loose gravel, then, sand, then, there is an array of orange cones with which I collide so that they are flung in all directions, then, I am swerving to avoid barrels, tubs, a front-end loader under an orange parasol, riding up a ramp of concrete slabs and, then, scattering re-rod in all directions. This road that is not the road continues for several miles, an obstacle course, and, instead of slowing down, I am accelerating, moving faster and faster, churning through an open excavation, plunging down into the muck, boring through earth, the bottoms of creeks and lakes, limestone caverns where sick bats are sleeping in their furry colonies, white subterranean chambers full of precious art, storm cellars where people are huddled together, utility trenches taut with cable, and, then, emerging atop a wet mountain to see the freeway below me, a ribbon of white running through the farmland toward the horizon where thunderstorms are grazing like a herd of aurochs.

     A text-message dings my phone. Children are buried alive in the ruins of collapsed school in the town destroyed by the tornado.

     The road kill is now armadillos, little armored beasts with banded tortoise-shells smashed like crockery on the shoulder of the freeway.

     The First Baptist Church is a quonset hut equipped with a metal awning extending out from the front door. A small cross is mounted on the top of the awning.

     A certain man was traveling across the country, driving from north to south. After eight or nine hours in the car, he grew weary and so the man pulled off the freeway and drove into a small city in Missouri near the place where four states intersect: Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and, of course, Missouri. The city seemed well-groomed and spacious with many green and vacant lots between the buildings. It must have been a very prosperous place because the man noticed that the homes and businesses were all very new – most of them looked as if they had been built in the past year or two. The traveler found a Day’s Inn and took a room. The motel also seemed to be brand new and it smelled of dry wall and freshly cured cement. In the middle of the night, the man awakened, filled with a sense of dread. The wind was howling outside and he heard the clatter of hail against the steel siding of the motel. He went to the window and drew aside the curtains but couldn’t see anything. The night was very black and, in the distance, some emergency vehicles were moving, rotating red and blue lights at an intersection far away. The whirl of lights made the black landscape seem to spin a little and he felt dizzy. A loud siren sounded with an eerie wail. The man crept back into his bed, feeling bruised and lonely. The commotion outside continued for a long time – more sirens, rumbling noises, a sound within the walls of the motel like a woman weeping, and, then, across a mirror, the streak of a red light that seemed to be signaling to him. At last, he fell into an uneasy sleep and, when he woke at dawn, the man felt more tired than he had been when he went to bed. Next to the motel lobby, continental breakfast was served in a little airless room where there was a flat-screen TV mounted in a corner, newscasters mouthing words, but the sound set on mute. A heavy set trucker sighed as he made himself some waffles and the traveler carried a banana and a bagel to his car. The boulevards and avenues in the little city seemed preternaturally broad and clean and empty and, everywhere he looked, there were beds of tulips and other flowers with bright, wet petals. The man stopped at a gas station near the entrance ramp to the freeway. "Was there a big storm last night?" the traveler asked the sleepy-looking clerk at the cash register. "Nope," the man said. "It was pretty quiet." "I thought I heard sirens and saw ambulances and cop cars," the traveler said. "I don’t know," the clerk said. "I’ve been up all night and it was real quiet." In his car, ascending the on-ramp, the man turned on his radio. A voice said that it was May 1, the anniversary of the day that a huge twister destroyed the town of Joplin, killing more than a hundred people. A sad, rumpled man was hitchhiking on the side of the freeway. He waved a cardboard sign that said that he was homeless. The man who was traveling across the country stopped in the gravel next to the road. He told the hitchhiker that he wasn’t going in the direction that the homeless man needed to travel, but that he would give him some money. "I have five dollars," the traveler said. "Can you give me ten?" the homeless man asked. He smelled of alcohol and mildew, like garments that have been laying outside in the rain for a long time. The traveler handed the homeless man a ten dollar bill. "Bless you," the homeless man said. "What town is this?" the traveler asked, looking back down to the Day’s Inn where he had spent the night. "Joplin," the homeless man said. "This is Joplin, Missouri."

     Lake Dardanelles, someplace called Toad Suck.


     On the billboard, this question: If you die tonight? Heaven? Or Hell?
The word "heaven" labels an image of fluffy-looking cumulo-nimbus clouds pillowed on blue. "Fire" marks a spiky portcullis of flame.
     People came from the part of the suburb that wasn’t flattened. They came in panel trucks and vans and pickups. Volunteers met in the First Baptist Church parking lot and they boarded a battered-looking school-bus and rode a mile or so to the fields of wreckage. The ruination astounded everyone. At first, none of the volunteers could do anything – they were overwhelmed and so they simply stood together in little groups, whispering among themselves, and, sometimes, a middle-aged man, or a woman, might step aside and wander a dozen yards or so, exploring the splintered debris shed across the muddy lawns that no longer looked like lawns. It was disorienting and the volunteers stumbled about as if they were traversing the deck of a vessel buffeted by high-seas. A line of people stretched across the muddy plain. The human chain was anchored near a tumulus of smashed dry-wall and shingles and lathe intermingled with pink-colored bricks. A couple of ambulances were parked beside the mound of broken building materials and people were ripping at the debris and flinging it aside. Some injured dogs limped back and forth, sniffing weakly at the groups of people, apparently, searching for their masters. A great choral hurrah rose from the human chain. A child had been lifted from the rubble and was being passed from person to person. Cameras flashed and a crowd mobbed the child. Under a mound of timber and sheetrock, a cell-phone was ringing. Overhead, the rotors of news helicopters made a chattering sound. The pastor of the First Baptist Church had come to the ruins in a small van that the church sometimes used for youth outings. He unloaded some crates of bottled water from the back of the van and set them in the mud. The youth pastor walked over from the group of people disembarked from the school bus. No one said anything. The youth pastor loaded a wheelbarrow with bottled water. "Is that too much?" he asked the Senior Pastor. "I can take some more," the Senior Pastor answered. The youth pastor added more bottles of water to the load. "Now, that may be too much," the Senior Pastor said. Experimentally, he tipped the wheelbarrow. It was heavy but he could move it so long as his path crossed sidewalk or asphalt road. The Senior Pastor walked down the street, shoving the wheelbarrow in front of him and calling out that he had bottles of water. Smoke was rising from fires and the ruins smelled of natural gas, rotting food, sawdust and burnt rubber. The cul-de-sac was blocked by some overturned cars with their fenders and side-panels shredded. A spinning light from an ambulance zigzagging across a distant lane was the only color in the landscape and that bright red flare lit the wreckage like a torch carried through a cave far from the sun. A man and woman were sitting on two steel buckets next to pad of concrete covered with wall-boards and two-by-fours. A couch that had lost its legs rested on the cement pad. The couch was wet and bloated-looking, like the carcass of a dead cow. Lying under some shrubs were heaps of pornographic magazines, naked flesh, pink and bronze, turbulent and contorted under the tattered bushes. Some shreds of paper hung on thorn. The Pastor saw a picture of large black transsexual with an erect cock. The transexual was wearing a black leather corset. The pornographic magazines were scattered along the foliage edging a sidewalk that lead to a small concrete stoop at the edge of the concrete pad. "Is this your house?" the Pastor asked the man and woman. They had been crying and their eyes were red. "This is where we live," the woman said. The man just hung his head and said nothing. "I have some water," the Pastor said. In the distance, at the smashed school, another cheer was flung up into the wet sky. The Pastor set a couple of bottles of water next to each of the upturned buckets where the man and woman were squatting. "We’ve lost everything," the woman said. The man shuddered as if he were frost-bitten. Naked people decorated the edge of the path to the house that had been ripped apart. The Pastor tried to look somewhere else. "Do you want to pray?" the Pastor asked. The man said: "Not right now." "I understand," the Pastor said. He set another couple of water bottles next to the couple and, then, tried to turn the wheelbarrow around. The little wheel sunk into the mud. The Pastor took the handles of the wheelbarrow as if they were a yoke and, turning away from the barrow, dragged it out of the mire.

     Perhaps, Little Rock was once devastated by tornadoes. Or, perhaps, the city was underwater for a summer month, drowned by the river that flows through it. In any event, real estate must not be too valuable in Little Rock: downtown, there are big vacant lots, empty places among the old stubby commercial buildings erected before the Great Depression. The buildings are like the plinths for statues that were never raised, cornices oozing terra-cotta ornament, windowed boulders lodged among the streets that crawl like worms on the muddy banks of the big river. It seems that something has destroyed parts of the city, knocked its ramparts down to the thistle and weed of vacant lots where nothing has been built in the scatter of smashed masonry, plaster, and broken glass. These are voids in the City, convenient places to commit rape or murder, imploded fire-blisters, cavities among the structures where crimes are enacted or where madmen wander in slow, sad processions. I suppose corpses are discovered in the weed over-grown lots between half-empty asphalt parking lots broiling in the sun.

     Bill Clinton’s presidential library lies a little beyond a knot of hot on and off ramps where the freeway crests over the muddy river and, then, bisects the city. The building is all white and buses stop at a little elliptical round-about in front of the marmoreal facade picking up black cleaning ladies and their children. Somehow, the building, which is straight-edged and like the wedge-tip of axe, gives the impression of a trainwreck, a collection of pale carriages derailed but, then, rationalized into a linear – what? – a linear statement of some kind...

     I can feel the sad woman’s spine under her blouse. I am hugging a grief-stricken mother. Her bones line up under my fingers. What? A linear statement of some kind...

     The man is sitting on a bar-stool trying to explain what has ruined him: I think it was the humidity, you know, that sticky, suffocating summer humidity. You’d have to be a frog, naked as a frog to pass through that humidity, those fogs of wet, stinking vapor, unscathed. We were sitting in the car sweating, with the engine turned-off so we couldn’t run the air conditioner, and I swear to you that our sweat was congealing on the windows, it was fogging the windshield. She kept saying that it was over, that we were done, that she had enrolled in college and planned to attend and there was nothing I could do about it. So I said that I would follow her to college and could get a job there and we would live together, but she wasn’t willing, wouldn’t even listen to my arguments – "Somehow," she said, "I don’t see you as a part of my college experience." "So what does that mean?" I have to ask. She just shakes her head. "Experience," I say – "so what do you mean by that? What kind of experience do you want?" "I’m not going to answer that," she says. But I won’t stand for it. I can’t. We are soaked with sweat in the hot car, parked on the edge of town where the fields of beans and corn and cotton glisten all wet as if it has just rained, but its only the humidity, the moisture in the air that glazes those leaves and, far away, I can see big storms boiling up over the flat plains. She gets out of the car and says that she is going to walk back to town, she isn’t willing to ride with me, and so I follow her, trailing along like a beaten puppy pleading with her to come back to the vehicle and, at least, continue the discussion. A car swoops by on the county highway, one, then, another and I’m afraid that she will flag down on of those vehicles in order to make her escape from me. "Come here," I shout. But she doesn’t even turn toward me. I see her shoulders flinch a bit, but she continues to walk away, increasing her pace. There’s nothing that I can do but run after her. It’s humiliating and the sweat is spraying off my forehead and cheeks. I’ve got her by the wrist, by the forearm but she’s slippery as an eel and breaks free. So I take her by the arm again, but she hits me with her fist. "You can’t hit me," I say. But she punches me again and so I club her with the side of my fist and, then, throw her into the ditch, sliding down to follow as her body flops against the culvert. I want to say that I blacked-out or something because it’s not clear what happens next, it’s just a blur. A car whizzes by and this seems to wake me up and, then, I can see what’s happened to her so I panic and run, staggering over the gravel on the shoulder of the road to my car and, then, I can see myself covered with blood in the rear-view mirror, my hands all ragged and cut and I don’t know what to do so I drive as fast as I can back into town, blinded by tears and sweat with the air-conditioner roaring in my eyes like a lion. I stop at the police station and sit for awhile in the parking lot where I can see the squad cars coming and going, sometimes with sirens screaming, and the light outside has turned as green as a bruise, blue-green and the trees are motionless along the boulevards as if they have turned to emerald jewels and a strange darkness is coming over the prairie. I open the door and feel that it is cool outside, clammy like being in a cave, all gloomy with shadow. I will walk across the sidewalk, the short distance to the door into the police station, and I’ll tell the dispatcher what I’ve done and where her body is located and, then, that will be that. But I pause. Not a breeze is stirring, no breath of wind, the world is like a dead body. What’s the point? There’s no reason to survive this day. I’ll just go back to the car, fire up the engine, and drive out into the country and, once I’m at eighty or ninety or a hundred, I’ll aim the vehicle at a bridge abutment or a tree or a semi-truck and finish it up that way... I turn the key in the ignition and, suddenly, the landscape lights up as if with an explosion and all the sirens mounted on poles at the intersections begin to wail and my windshield is awash with hail, hard chattering hail that pours down out of the sky as if to bury me alive. More lightning and the sirens are screaming and, somewhere in the green underwater gloom, huge things are moving. The car rocks side to side like a carnival ride. I turn off the engine. Something whips across the windshield and, then, the car rotates, tires screeching under me. Everything goes tense, like a cable stretched to the limit of its endurance, and, then, the entire great world goes limp and I can see that everything, all around, in all directions is ruined. The tornado is growling at the edge of the horizon, its nose burrowed in a fat, greasy cloud of whirling wreckage. They find her body two days later battered in the ditch and, of course, conclude that this is what the storm did, the tornado did this, the tornado killed this girl and carried her aloft and left her smashed and broken in a culvert filled with green and brown floodwater. I know what I know but no one else understands. So many have died. Pointlessly, I suppose – so many have died, are dead...

     Cotham’s Mercantile is a road-food joint in a little cotton gin town about twenty minutes from Little Rock. The black fields surrounding the intersection are flat as a skating rink except for some mounds ascribed to the Toltecs but built by some other group of long-vanished Indians, grassy welts and tumors occupying the elbow-crease of an oxbox bayou. Cotham’s stands on rickety stilts improbably cantilevered over a swampy bend in a river from which mist rises like poison gas over the West Front trenches. The place is dark inside, walls and dusty counters heaped up with rubbish, and, on the wall, near the toilet there is a framed color photograph of the young man whose death by overdose has brought me to Arkansas. Apparently, the young man was famous in this restaurant for his appetite and, after his organs were harvested and the respirator shut-off, family members gathered here to remember him. Eight months later, the picture is still displayed on the wall and the boy’s mother goes to inspect it and comes back to our booth even more red-eyed than before, the young man’s father gulping and stammering a little. He says: "Once I saw a cottonmouth come out of the bayou. We were sitting on the porch outside and the cottonmouth climbed right up a downspout, slithered to a nest where there were some baby birds and ate them." According to legend, Bill Clinton met with his lieutenants at this road-house weekly to plot his political campaigns. Somewhere a cell-phone is ringing and a thunderstorm sweeps across the flat-land and scours the corrugated metal roof of the building and the cotton gin across the road where the rain is hissing in the ditches and grooved drains along the asphalt clanks like Marley’s ghost, chains banging together.
Cotham’s is famous for its "Hubcap Burger", a platter of meat the size of a hubcap and served on a bun oozing with grease. I’m told the young man once ate several hubcap burgers in quick succession to the astonishment of all present and received a commemorative tee-shirt or something on that order. Guidebooks recount that several of the Toltec Mounds a couple miles away were kitchen middens heaped with the bones of small prey and catfish and burnt-up maize – feasting has always been an important part of life in this locale.

     We have an appointment mid-afternoon and a half-hour drive to downtown Little Rock. My writing is deteriorating. If you want a guidebook, buy a Frommers...

     I am standing under a carport at the hotel waiting for my clients to drive me ten or twelve blocks to our next appointment. It’s grey and humid. The day is as wet as the inside of a cave. Something catches my eye along the frontage road. A man is lying on the asphalt, a wheelchair tilted to his side. The man wrestles with the wheelchair but it seems to squirt out from under him, obstinately alive and resistant to his grasp. I put down my brief case and hurry over to where the man has fallen out of his chair. When I reach him, he has regained his place in the wheelchair and is breathing heavily.
     "Are you okay?"
     The man brandishes his finger. I can see, if I use my imagination, a trace of blood on his knuckle.
     "My hand is hurt," he says.
      He’s a black man, probably about forty with a thin face and greyish whiskers. One of his legs is missing, just above the knee.
     "How did you fall?"
     "I don’t know," he says.
     "Can I do anything for you?"
      He says he needs some money. He is making an explanation but I don’t listen. I fish out five dollars and hand it to him.
     "I need more," he says.
     "I don’t have any more."
     "But this isn’t enough."
      How much would be enough.
     I give him another five.
     He grimaces at me sullenly, and, then, applying his hands to the wheels of his wheelchair, jets away toward a vacant lot.
     My clients appear at that time, their new car gliding soundlessly along the frontage road.
     "That cost me ten dollars," I say when I get into the car.
     "You’re kidding me," my client, the dead boy’s son, says.
     "Well, you bought him some booze," the woman says.
      It begins to drizzle.
      She tells me that with other nurses from the psychiatric hospital, she sometimes would bring hot meals to the homeless people sheltering under the freeway bridge that spans the river. "They have an encampment down there," she tells me. "When we would bring them food," she says, "they were always mad. They would have preferred cash to a hot meal. But we brought them food."

      Little Rock’s scattered, blunt commercial buildings look like a mouthful of broken teeth.

      Driving out of Little Rock with rain glittering in my headlights. Flooded fields to my right and left. It never gets exactly dark. The twilight is pearl-grey like the belly of a dead fish. You can’t get decongestants in Arkansas without a prescription. (My cold continues to torment me.) Too many folks manufacturing meth. At a Cracker Barrel restaurant on the edge of the Interstate, a truck driver specifies that his meal is to contain "ordinary white-bread."

     A little after dawn, I drive up into the Ozarks. There’s too much fog to see much of anything and the road is flexed with innumerable bends and twists, running in a pale, green and soggy tunnel of trees. Sometimes, the two-lane blacktop dips precipitously into a hollow and the little blind valleys are tight and musty, confined spaces like an old closet where you might find a winter-coat from several seasons past, some gloves that have lost their mates, boots that you no longer wear and the skeleton of an umbrella. In some of these dim, little pits, ancient foundations lurk against outcroppings of black stone and trails made from reddish mud lick at the stony hillsides.

     If I hurry, I can reach Bentonville, the home of the Waltons and Walmart, just about the time that the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opens its doors. I was in Philadelphia once when the City Fathers discovered to their horror that the Walmart heiress had acquired the Eakins’ painting "The Gross Clinic" as the jewel of her collection. Headlines screamed "Eakins to go to Arkansas" and "Walmart buys Gross Clinic." The City Fathers took up a collection and Philly school children saved their dimes and quarters and, finally, there was enough money to pay ransom to Miss Walton and free the painting that she was holding hostage. Until Crystal Bridges bought the painting, no one in Philadelphia cared that much about it – the canvas was displayed in a dingy conference room at the Pennsylvania College of Surgeons and you had to bribe a janitor to see the thing. (Now, the big canvas, arguably the greatest painting ever made in this country, hangs in a rotunda in an annex to the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art, across the street from the museum-Parthenon on whose steps Rocky Balboa trained for his big fight.)

     Devil’s Den State Park: I hike uphill, zigzagging the switchbacks to a spine of crumbling fissured black rock. The fangs of cliff at the crest of the bluff are cleft with dangerous-looking pits, the shaft-mouths to a half-dozen caves the riddle the hill. It’s wet on the trails and the stony parapets of the mountain drain down across ledges on which I am scrambling upward. Suddenly, it occurs to me that I am no longer young, that I am a mile from a road on which I encountered no traffic, not a single pick-up truck or motorcycle when I drove down into the glen below the bluff, and that if I slip and fall on these stones I am likely to break a leg or dislocate my hip and, then, I will be in serious danger. The caves are black pits, some of them armored with iron gates – this is to keep hikers from descending into the earth to annoy the bats said to live in colonies in these stone holes. The trail dips downward and the rocky boulders over which I descend are all covered with algae, slick as ice, and I can hear something roaring in one of the groins where the mountain spreads its thighs. Water is plunging off a cliff-top and the trail snakes down into the declivity and circles behind the cascade and, if I were younger and more spry, I suppose, this would seem a glamorous place to me, fat loops of cold water leaping off the mountain top and striking the gorge below like lightning, but instead I sense only peril, a chill of fear – this is not a good place to lose one’s footing with the water pouring down from overhead – and, after creeping past the cascade, I decide the descend the steeper parts of the trail on my ass, bumping my butt down from above the treetops into the trees and, then, cautiously inching my way along the slick precipices down to the parking lot and the sullen brown river that oozes like molasses under a steel web of ancient bridge. I’m muddy when I reach my car, muddy and relieved, and I can see in the treetops the thunderstorm starting to fire-up above the ridges and the boulders and the tangled trees hiding the caverns full of sick bats...

     Posted on a wooden board near the trailhead, under glass foggy and smeared with condensed dew, there is printed advisory in the form of a catechism:
      Why are the caves closed?

      To protect our colonies of bats under stress from disease.      What is "White Nose Disease?"
A mysterious disease, infectious to bats, that weakens and kills the animals. Why should we worry about bats?

Bats are useful animals that control mosquitos and other insect pests. Can I catch "White Nose Disease" from a bat?
No. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art turns out to be located at the end of a road that promenades through a series of parks like manicured golf-courses. Even the Kwik-Trips are hushed and elegant, like country club clubhouses, and they smell of fresh pastry and strong coffee. The day is now hot and clear and the Ozark fog has lifted and there are men on riding lawn mowers grooming the big lawns.
The museum seems to be a sprawl of tubular galleries embedded in the side of steep hill. It is all below grade. A tour bus has just arrived but the museum will not be open for another fifty minutes. Vines drip brilliantly colored flowers and the riding lawn mowers hum in the distance and so old people in shorts and with cameras dangling from their necks mill around an entry-lobby that is an empty glass prism.
I’m not willing to wait for the place to open and so I turn-around in the cul-de-sac and drive up and away from the subterranean museum.
I am lost for awhile on the placid boulevards. On the radio, there is a contest. "It’s pretty simple," the announcer says. "I will play a famous classical tune, but in the style of a popular Top-40 artist. You need to tell me both the classical tune and the pop song that is based on it."
A retired schoolteacher from Pennsylvania has called the station to compete.
The pianist plays floridly, three or four minutes of tinkling, cascading music. I can recognize Wagner’s "Ride of the Valkyries" woven into the arpeggios and chords.
The retired schoolteacher seems like a nice man. If he were hitchhiking, I would pick him up and we would travel together all day long. Modestly, he says: "I hear a little Wagner in there."
"The Ride of the Valkyries?"
The host pauses and asks: "But what is the pop tune?"
"Can I hear a little of it again?" the nice schoolteacher asks.
The pianist plays obliges.
"When I’m 64," the schoolteacher says.
I don’t know what he means – it’s an incomplete sentence. "When I’m 64 – what?"
"Absolutely right," the radio host tells him. "It’s Paul McCartney’s ‘When I’m 64.’
The pianist plays a little of the piece again.
"It’s remarkable how ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ and ‘When I’m 64' have the same tune," the host says.
The schoolteacher wins a coffee mug and tee-shirt.
Then, the radio-host plays ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ in a orchestral version. He tells his audience that it is the anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birthday, apparently two-hundred years ago.
"We’ll be playing Wagner all day today in honor of his birthday," the radio host says.
I’m an old man now, and a lonesome man in Kansas
but not afraid
to speak my lonesomeness in a car
Because not only my lonesomeness
it’s Ours, all over America
O tender fellows
& spoken lonesomeness is Prophecy

Using a Uher tape-recorder, Allen Ginsberg recorded his impressions of Kansas and the midwestern plains as he drove to Wichita. It was 1966 and Ginsberg transcribed his words as the "Wichita Vortex Sutra". Some people think this anti-war poem is greater than "Howl." Ginsberg was driving a battered VW bus into topography that he identified with the transcendental landscape that Whitman proclaimed in Leaves of Grass: chants going forth from the state of Kansas and, then, equidistant
shooting in puslses of fire ceaseless to vivify all.
Wichita was the birthplace of the temperance crusader, Carrie Nation and, rather unfairly, Ginsberg identified her with strain of puritan censoriousness that had "defoliated the Mekong delta." Wichita, Ginsberg thought, was at the center of the American vortex.

Weird squawks and cries coming from my radio: obscured by the strange orchestration
and odd vortices of sound, the song seems familiar. "Pink Elephants on Parade" from Dumbo. The car-windows are engulfed by prairie – 360 degree panoramas of swampy river-bottoms, distant grain elevators aimed like intercontinental ballistic missiles at the sky. It’s a Kansas City station, public radio from a college. A suave youthful voice intervenes: "This is our tribute to Sun Ra. He was born today one-hundred years ago."
Sun Ra and Richard Wagner. Rest stops on prominences of land with the plains stretched out in all directions, rumpled, seamed with green shelter belts. Small towns. I pull off the freeway to make a call and, because it is hard to hear in the car, I pull up to a Casey’s C-store, park by the dumpster and pace around on asphalt dappled by the shade trees nearby. A wood pile, an alleyway, a dog is sleeping by a doghouse. A tire swing in a backyard. A small sign on the street tells me that I am a couple blocks away from the boyhood home of Harrry Truman.
Black Herman was a African-American magician, famous for pretending to die and, then, resurrecting himself. As a tease for his shows, he would appear at the Ethiopian-Abyssinian Masonic Lodge, perform a few simple tricks and, then, fall over comatose. His assistants would lug his corpse to the graveyard and bury him in a flimsy wooden casket. Three days later, Black Herman’s men would return to the cemetery with spades, unearth the coffin and the magician would rise from the grave, shaking the dust off his shoulders to performs more tricks including the Asrah levitation – that is, hypnotizing an audience member and, then, floating them midair under a shroud. Black Herman sold patent medicines from the stage and gave advice on lucky numbers. He did astrological readings and would cast hoodoo spells.
One day in the thirties, Black Herman had a heart attack on stage. The audience had seen him die and come back to life many times before and they refused to believe he was dead. Black Herman’s right-hand man had him embalmed and exhibited the corpse in a velvet-lined casket for a number of months to enthusiastic crowds. Everyone expected Black Herman to rise again, but this time he stayed dead.
In Alabama in 1913, a black woman saw Herman’s show and was so impressed that she decided to name her son after the magician. The boy was called Herman Blount. Later, after visiting Saturn in 1936, Blount changed his name to Sun Ra.
When he was enrolled at the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, Herman Blount fell into a deep sleep. He cast aside his body and traveled through the astral planes to Saturn. The Saturnians told him that a period of great chaos was looming for the world. The creatures from Saturn were very wise and gentle and they had antennae over their large, floppy ears. "You shall be our prophet on earth," the Saturn-people said. They told Blount that they worshiped the Sun and that he should do likewise.
Now the city surges into view, a range of hills covered with trees and crisscrossed with the shadows of huge clouds towering overhead. I have heard Sun Ra’s Arkestra play "The Theme of the Stargazers" and "Love in Outer Space".
It’s time for Blues:
I’m a cross-cut saw
Baby, drag me ‘cross your wood.

I slip sideways off the freeways, spinning down through Kansas City, along a channel where it seems that mighty floods must sometimes roll because the passage between the buildings and the houses seems reamed-out, emptied as a result of intermittent torrents. Today, the sky is immensely high with clouds and the concrete levees are blazing like branding irons in the sun and the water-course is mostly empty and there are hedgerows of lilacs flopping over the alleyways and sidestreets. Several huge shuttlecocks are on the lawns of the Nelson-Akins Museum of Fine Art, sculptures by Claes Oldenburg, and there is a reflecting pond that shimmers next to wedges of white alabaster like the fins of shark breaking the green wave of the hill. An old beaux-artes style museum, made from a peculiar tawny stone, surmounts the hill, sculpted with friezes and ribbed with colonnades entrapped in the brown facade.
As usual, parking is underground, great expanses, a gloomy elysium field for automobiles, many cars in the shadows most of them showing little or no damage.
At the information desk, the girl looks at me oddly. Only a little later, as I am traipsing through the pale buried hallways of the new Bloch addition to the Museum, do I recognize that I am covered with scaly red mud, that I have spilled ketchup on my shirt, that I am stained with the scarlet filth of the Ozarks.
Cranach’s Three Graces stand identical, nude, rotated as if by computer program to show off various aspects of their anatomy. The halls are cool and shapely and the Old Master paintings on display are ridiculously inept, their draftsmanship awful: arms bend in the wrong place, the baby Jesus looks like a bald caterpillar, flaccid muscles dangle from an armature of limbs like tubes of meat from which jerky is being made.
Treasure halls buried in the ground.
In the bookstore, a man with strong homosexual inflections in his voice is explaining something about theater to a bovine girl at the check-out counter. I listen closely to the man’s lecture and notice that everything that he says is not just questionable, but, in fact, factually wrong. But it’s nice and cool in the underground galleries.
North of Kansas City, I have the odd sense of driving a high-line, that is, traveling at great speed upon a ridge that runs through the open land.
Wagner’s Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhauser, something from Lohengrin, the overture from Der Fliegender Hollaender.
A enormous cumulo-nimbus cloud casting a black shadow over several counties, sculpted on its heights by great jets of wind, peaked by two opposing horns – on one of them the luminous figure of Richard Wagner, on the other Sun Ra transfigured by the radiance from the western sky.
A truckdriver was making his way cross-country once, over-the-road on the wheat plains of eastern Colorado. On a particularly lonely stretch of highway, his headlights picked-out an old man who was leaning on a cane and hitchhiking. The truckdriver was contracted to a firm that didn’t allow hitchhikers and so the trucker didn’t stop, didn’t even slow down for the old man waving at him on the shoulder of the road. For an instant, the headlights speared through the old man’s eyeballs, blazing back to the very retinas of his eyes, and he glared red as fire at the passing truck.
Near Denver, the trucker became afflicted with the idea that the old man had been Jesus Christ and that he had committed a very great crime by failing to stop to assist him on the edge of that barren stretch of road. In the basins and ranges west of the Rockies, the truckdriver became lost. The freeways went on forever, one interchange knotting into another, and empty dismal stretches of highway crossing dismal, bone-dry passes through mountains that seemed to be heaps of gravel. His tank was always full and his load always perfectly balanced, but it seemed that he could never reach his destination. He slept in truckstops on the treeless desert, on the slopes and terraces of volcanic mountains, overlooking sandy ravines.
The truckdriver was the prisoner of the highways for twenty years or more. Then, one day, at a truck stop, he met a pure young woman waitressing in the café. She caught his eye and, at her break, they talked and, then, when she was off-duty, she came to the cab of his truck. He had no idea why such a lovely young woman would be interested in an old, bitter man such as himself. They embraced. At dawn, he said that he had to go, that the open road was calling him, and that his load was behind schedule.
She begged him to stay, but he said no.
The truck driver pulled onto the freeway. As his big rig descended the ramp onto the high-speed divided highway, he saw something falling from the overpass behind. It was something white that fluttered down from the concrete bridge.
The young woman had thrown herself from the overpass onto the highway. A passing car hit her and she was sprayed across the pavement like a deer slaughtered by pickup truck.
In that moment, the truck driver felt the curse lifted from him. He delivered his load and, then, returned to his wife and family.
Perhaps, it is a drama of this kind that the trucks pulled up on the ramps across from one another in Missouri on the freeway far from the nearest town are rehearsing. Certainly, something secretive is underway.
I think I can make Osceola, Iowa by supper time and I will stop there. Osceola is a casino town and there should be lots of beds available.
But I encounter a wonderful radio station: Frank Sinatra sings "Saturday night is the loneliest night". Then, there is a song by Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, "Dancing Queen" by Abba, "Sweet Home Chicago," Paul Simon’s "Kodachrome," "Son of a Preacher Man," "Calendar Girl", a song called "Undeneath the Amarillo Sky,"Linda Ronstadt singing "Love has no pride/ When I call out your name."
This is the best pop song-list that I have ever heard. Some huge raindrops splash on my windshield. I take out my moleskin and begin to write down the names of some of the songs.
The prairie momentarily darkens.
I have missed the exit to Osceola. The next reasonably sized stopping place is Des Moines. But Des Moines is only 2 ½ hours from home and so I might as well drive the rest of the way.
A public radio station on the south outskirts of Des Moines: a girl is announcing the music; she pauses; then, her voice, a little skeptically, says the we are going to hear "Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks" by Richard Strauss. She pronounces each of the German words slowly, with great gusto, perfectly. It is a pleasure to hear.
A U-Haul speeding on the freeway roars by me. On the side of the U-Haul, a huge black bat grimaces at me. Printed on the trailer are these words FUN FACTS ABOUT BATS. Several paragraphs appear beneath that legend but, then, the trailer is ahead of me, jolting over the Interstate.
Now, everything seems connected. Things in isolation are not beautiful. Rather, it is the connections, the associations between things that proclaim themselves as true and beautiful. When you sense the connections between things a fine, fierce feeling like joy enters your heart and makes you strong.
Why were Sun Ra and Richard Wagner born on the same day of the month?
North of Des Moines, I stop at a Culver’s restaurant for a hamburger and some fries. My legs feel a little shaky, as if I have been traversing rough seas so that I can’t quite stand on solid ground, as if there is something a bit inaccurate about the way that I put my feet down the concrete.
In the restaurant, a boy announces to his grandma that "on the bus (he) calculated the square root of 85." He says that the number is 9.22. I only write down the first two decimal points, but, in fact, he recites another four or five digits.
The boy has thick glasses and seems to be about eleven and he is wearing a shirt emblazoned with the Batman insignia.
There is crumpled looking man at a table nearby talking to a woman with bleached blonde hair and bad teeth. The woman is much younger than the man and seems somehow cowed by him.
The man says: "The trouble began at Coffey. I was living there and driving truck and I’m not going to deny that all that isolation, the loneliness of the long-haul, it got to me and I did some things that make me ashamed and so I lost my job. Then, I was at loose ends. I got into more trouble, you know, and had to be hospitalized. Addiction and stuff. It was all part and parcel of the same problem. You can get lost out there, you can really get completely lost."
"Well, after I was discharged, I kept waiting for something happen. I kept hoping that there would be something to get me back on track. You know, restore the meaning that I had lost."
The woman sighed and nodded.
"I heard on the radio that the Community College up at Joplin was training people to be First Responders in the event of a tornado disaster. That interested me, what with some of the things I had seen while driving, weird stuff in the sky, hailstorms, and cyclones and so on. So I enrolled and paid eighty dollars and went to night classes twice a week for a couple of months, and I learned some EMT skills, had disaster relief training and first aid and was taught how to dismantle a house that’s fallen on top of people, learned about setting up water systems and toilets and logistics. It was all very fascinating and I think I was an excellent student. But when I graduated, the instructor said: ‘You know, we don’t guarantee that you will ever be deployed.’ And I said: ‘Yes, that was clear when I signed-up.’ The instructor handed me my certificate and said: ‘It takes a certain – I don’t know – a certain something and not everyone has it.’ ‘But I have it, teacher,’ I said. And the teacher handed me my certificate and shook my hand and, then, said again, something about not guaranteeing that I would ever actually be deployed in the field. So I said: ‘I hope not. Let’s hope there’s never another tornado like that again.’ ‘We can hope so,’ the teacher said. But all the time I was thinking that it was discrimination, that they were discriminating against me for things that I couldn’t control."
"And, in fact, there were several big storms and no one called me and I wasn’t deployed. But, then, one night, when it was clear and moonlight was shining on the pastures, I got a call and the voice on the other end was very calm and clear: ‘There has been a horrible storm and much destruction and we need you.’ The voice spoke my name and it was clear as a bell. I went outside and thought that it was too cool and the weather was too fine and clear for a tornado, but the summons had come and it was for a town maybe three or four counties away and who knows what the weather was like in that place."
"I had been waiting for this call for several months and my duffel bag was packed and my rescue gear was in the back of my pick-up truck and so I was on the highway hours before dawn. The moon went down and, then, fog came up out of the ground and clutched everything, holding the trees and the lanes of the highway tight, the way a child might hold a kitten to her chest. The fog meant that I was coming to the zone of destruction and, in fact, I began to see fallen trees in the shelter-belts, trees that were tattered and dangling down broken limbs, and, then, buildings in the mist that looked like a giant had squashed them. There were road-blocks, but the cops waved me through and, then, the sky brightened and I could see that there was ruin all around. The road cut across a plain where open basements were gaping up at the sky, pits half-filled with water and slippery plumes of mud all over the sidewalks and streets. National Guard trucks blocked the intersections and people were wandering around, shouting names, looking for lost dogs."
"Someone directed me to a line of people stretching from a smashed building spread out like a fan on the wet grass, the queue extending across the field to some tents where ambulances were idling. I joined the line of people. Everyone was packed together, close enough to link arms, and you could smell their sweat in the humid air, the stink of leaking natural gas, the ozone tingling overhead. The ground was squishy, mud and broken glass underfoot, and there was a hush – we were all waiting. Then, a great cry went up, a shout rippling down the line of rescuers, and I saw a child being passed, arm to arm, the kid wriggling and gasping as if it had just been pulled out of the drowning pond. Then, there was another child and another, a whole series of children, all of them gasping and squirming, and this went on for a long time, the human chain passing the children like sacks of potatoes down its length. Then, the mist came up out of the desolation and you couldn’t see the front of the line or where it ended. The stress was too much and people began to collapse and fall down and others took their place. We were standing together, rescuers grouped in a line snaking across the muddy plain, and a fine, fierce feeling of joy filled my heart and made me strong. Then, I was told to go somewhere else and I saw a man with a wheelbarrow full of bottled water pushing his burden through the filthy fields and I followed him and came to a place where a house had fallen out of the sky, a house with a plump dead cow sprawled next to it, and from under the corner of the house, protruding feet and black boots from someone crushed in that place. And you could smell death on the breeze."
" A tall soldier wearing a white face-mask sent me to a big parking lot. Some stores, part of a mall, stood at the other side of the parking lot. Now, the sun was scorching me. Some of the cars in the parking lot had a little damage on them, but nothing severe, and most of them looked fine. I walked through the rows of vehicles looking for the ambulances and rescue trucks but couldn’t find them. Then, a man appeared riding a golf-cart with an awning over his head. He asked me what I was doing. ‘Disaster relief,’ I said. ‘For the tornado.’ ‘What tornado?’ the man asked me. He looked puzzled. ‘Surely, you’ve heard,’ I said. ‘There is no tornado,’ the man told me. ‘Not here,’ I said, ‘but...’ I pointed. ‘There is no tornado,’ the man said again. He looked concerned. Later, some police came and talked to me and said that there was no tornado. ‘You must be hallucinating,’ the police told me. ‘But there must be a tornado,’ I said. ‘I saw the ruins and devastation.’
     The man looked down at his french fries. Outside, storm clouds were gathering in the
     "I just wanted to help. I just wanted to be of help to others," the man said.
     "Well you’ve told me your story," the blonde woman said.
     "But what good is that?" the crumpled-looking man asked.
     "It helps," she said. "It helps me."

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Jason and the Argonauts

Jason and the Argonauts -- Although nominally directed by someone else, the great special effects technician Ray Harryhausen must be considered the author of this 1963 sword and sandal film.  A tour of monsters, the movie features stoic and brawny heroes battling stop-action beasts, most notably a skyscraper-tall bronze warrior and seven or eight grinning and malignant skeletons.  A serpentine hydra, not fully realized and implausibly propelled, and some gnat-bat harpies also make appearances together with the clashing rocks visualized as a perpetual tawny landslide of boulders pelting a foaming blue bathtub where toy galleons are tossed about.  Harryhausen's creatures are charming enough and their herky-jerky motion is strange enough to convey the quality of legend about these images, but the movie is bland and most unexpressive.  Archaic marble Kouros figures are better actors than the musclemen populating this show and the goddesses and nymphs, including Honor Blackman, are Ursula Andress lookalikes, all seeming vaguely embarrassed by their coiffure and form-fitting chlamys robes.  Already in 1963, special effects extravaganzas felt licensed to ignore narrative precision and physical reality.  In an early sequence, a bad guy kills a young woman praying at the throne of Hera.  A baby left on the altar and material to the plot is simply ignored -- the infant seems to vanish.  Portentous prophecies are made much of at the outset of the film -- Jason is supposed to kill Pelias -- but the movie seems to run out of steam after the combat with the skeletons and just screeches to a halt, someone intoning a promise of "further adventures."  The hydra seems curiously distracted from its murderous assault on our hero -- whenever it gets Jason down or clutches him in its coils, the beast pauses politely to let the protagonist escape.  A vast and towering bronze giant who chases the argonauts in the first bravura special effects sequence is disabled by being drained of its ichor -- a water-tower full of the stuff is released through the bronze automaton's heel but simply vanishes from sight as it pours out.  Harryhausen apparently couldn't figure out where to put the stuff cascading from his monster.  A couple of grim opening scenes involving the destiny of men and the sardonic cruelty of the gods are effective and, indeed, capture, in a miniature way, some of the tensions in Greek tragedy, but anything approximating thoughtfulness is quickly submerged in the special effects.  By far the best thing about the movie is Bernard Hermann's majestic score -- sometimes, the music sounds like The Rite of Spring, other times Hermann channels Mussorgsky and Bartok.  There are ominous Dies Irae chords, wild fanfares, and, in general, the score gives the impression of a massive gate being slowly and ponderously opened on its rusty hinges to the bleating of maddened bassoons.  There are some impressive landscapes, a day-for-night view of the ruins at Taormina that has a dream-like beauty, and many rock-girt coasts that look like Sicily or, maybe, Malibu.  Great flippered tails vanish into a viscous-looking brilliantly blue foaming sea -- this is an effect that I especially enjoy.