“It’s still out there,” he said. He wasn’t fully worked up, but she could tell he was headed that way. Not frothing, just the usual rolling boil. He was exhausting. Always had been.
She looked at him, now, as he stood tensed at their living room, peering through a parted curtain at the offending van parked out front. There were times lately where she noticed herself being a little disgusted by him. Now, in his agitation, was a such a time. He was only on his first goddamn cup of coffee, and he was already in a lather. Which was made worse, somehow, by the fact that he was still in the dingy long johns he slept in. They were all stretched out in the ass, making him look even more disheveled and pear-shaped than he already was.
She directed her gaze away from him, standing there all aggrieved and saggy-assed.
“Joel. Just leave it,” she said in the same kind of exasperated tone you’d use with a dog you caught drinking out the toilet for like the millionth time.
She turned back to her tablet and read the same goddamn line for the fourth goddamn time. Jesus. She just wanted to read the goddamn paper before she had to shower for work.
“Listen,” she said. “Could you grab me some more coffee?” He shambled over to her, eyes still fixed on the gap in the curtain where he’d been surveilling the van. He took her mug and headed to the kitchen, muttering.
“Idiot,” she said softly, at the screen of her tablet.
She didn’t even want more coffee. She was just redirecting him. The way you do with a toddler. He brought back her mug, trailing steam. He returned to the window. She read the same line again.
“Been out there for like thirteen days,” he said, in that voice he got when he was seething about something, but trying to sound like he was not seething. He also, she knew, tried to sound like he was estimating. “Like thirteen days,” he said. As though he didn’t know exactly how long that van had been parked out there, which she knew good and goddamn well he did. He always knew the particulars when he was on one of his tiny crusades. He believed that facts imbued his idiot causes with something like justice. In this, as with so much, he was entirely wrong.
She turned off her tablet. If she read this same line one more goddamn time, she was pretty sure she’d whip her coffee cup at him.
“I’m gonna shower,” she said. He gazed out at the van. He called it the Abduction Van. Cause it looked like the kind of van you’d see in an Amber Alert.
She turned the handle, held her hand under the faucet, waiting for the water to get hot. Was he technically correct? Sure. That skeevy-looking van should not be out there. Or the guy who owned the van should have gotten Illinois plates and a city sticker and all that shit. But he wasn’t gonna. He was gonna leave his beat-to-shit van right where it was, hulking on the goddamn curb like a dented primer gray pile of robot poop. And the handyman or whoever it was that owned the thing was probably not making a goddamn nickel now, in February, because everybody who might hire him was just hunkered in their houses waiting for a thaw to start refinishing their floors and shit.
And, yes, it sucked that this ugly space-and-a-half-taking van was out in front of our place; and yes, it is technically wrong that the dude has not gotten his Illinois tags and stuff; and yes, this unsightly Abduction Van represented an incremental increase in the hassles Joel encountered trying to park their car on the block – but guess what? Living in a city means dealing with all manner of inconvenience and indignity – it’s death by a thousand cuts. That’s what it IS. If you goddamn rail against every goddamn cut, you have no goddamn time for anything else.
But Joel was nothing if not compulsive – he pursued every inconsequential thing to the bitterest extreme. Because like every armchair revolutionary, the closer he got to being absolutely right about something, the more feverishly insufferable Joel became.
She couldn’t do this today. She had to get ready for work. Joel had time for this shit. He freelanced writing blog posts for a handful of search engine optimization companies – brainless, easy work she considered not merely beneath him, but beneath us all. As a species. Because his mind was effectively unoccupied, he could spend his days surveilling the offending van and its criminal owner.
The next day, after a crappy workday, followed by a tense dinner where Joel’s attentions remained divided, followed by passing out on the couch to Netflix and snorting awake in the dead of night to shuffle, teeth unbrushed, to bed, she awoke to find Joel skulking at the window with an even more crazed edge to him. He was just about dancing like he needed to pee. She said nothing and headed to the kitchen.
Joel had made no coffee. As she grabbed the filters, she made a mental note to use this fact in their next fight.
When she had a coffee, finally, she went out and sat in her chair and fire up her tablet to read the paper. Out the corner of her eye, she could see Joel bouncing on the balls of his slippered feet, head swiveling between the van outside and her in her chair. He was clearly bursting with a desire that she ask him what he was so keyed up about. She sipped her coffee, pointedly ignoring him.
Something happened outside. Something Joel had been waiting for. He flattened his nose against the cold window. She sipped her coffee. Joel, suddenly, was crestfallen. She suppressed a malicious laugh.
She rose to get ready for work. Joel followed her to the bathroom, and the bedroom, and the kitchen and the bedroom again, barely taking a breath in his incensed monologue about the note he had written to Van Guy, a note that Joel quoted liberally, using air quotes each time, a note that repeatedly featured the word “discourtesy” and told the heroic tale of how he snuck downstairs in the predawn to tuck it under the van’s wiper then hustled back upstairs for the big reveal. Then, in sputtering outrage, as she snagged her keys and made for the door, Joel told how Van Guy had plucked the note from under the wiper, balled it up unread, and deposited it on the curb.
As she left, the thought she might have seen a tear quivering on Joel’s lower lid.
“Idiot,” she said, as she made her way down the stairs.
Of course it escalated from there. Of course it did.
In the coming days, Joel called the city’s non-emergency number a bunch of times, anonymously, to narc on the shirking van. Then he let a bunch of air out of the van’s tires. His masterstroke, she thought, was when he scattered a bunch of birdseed and crumbled suet cakes on the van’s roof. Within hours, the criminal van was spattered and streaked with a Jackson Pollock’s worth of bird shit.
But ultimately, of course, Joel’s frenzy and fury led nowhere.
Because Joel, she could see clearly, now, was very much the idiot she’d been calling him for months. As his jihad gathered intensity, she soured on him completely – expressed as a line graph, Joel’s van fervor climbed in spiky ascent, while her Joel fondness plunged precipitously downward.
Joeal was an ineffectual turd and she had come to hate him.
Eight days after the bird shit caper, she kicked him out. Joel made like seven trips back and forth past the van as he loaded his shit into an Uber.
She watched out the window as the Uber pulled away.
“Idiot,” she said, really meaning it.
A week or so ago, I saw this clip of Donald Trump being interviewed by filmmaker Errol Morris about his favorite movie. Trump chose Citizen Kane, because he seemed to think this would be a selection that would make him appear smart.
According to Trump, Citizen Kane is a film about acquisition. Which I think is an apt and penetrating analysis, save one aspect: Mr. Trump – you have taken away the exact opposite of its meaning. You have managed to watch the rise and fall of Charles Foster Kane and have made an assessment of his story that is DIAMETRICALLY OPPOSED TO EVERY ASPECT OF WHAT IS TRANSPARENTLY AND SELF-EVIDENTLY THE POINT THAT ORSON WELLES SEEKS TO MAKE.
Honest to God, man – whatever its many narrative and cinematic virtues might be, AN ELUSIVE MORAL AMBIGUITY IS NOT AMONG THEM. There is literally not a single frame of that fucking movie that could lead you to reasonably conclude that it is ABOUT acquisition. It INVOLVES acquisition, certainly – it DEPICTS the main character having amassed a huge trove of artifacts to stuff his palace, but that is by no means the same as it being ABOUT acquisition. It CONCERNS acquisition, in that it portrays to devastating effect the HUMAN COST of a life squandered in acquisition.
To watch that fucking movie, and come away from it having concluded that it is the story of a successful man who buys a mess of stuff is only possible if you are the most literal-minded, Cliff Notes motherfucker that ever walked the earth. Because it takes a seriously remedial mind to watch that movie and MANAGE SOMEHOW TO ESCAPE ITS INESCAPABLE CONCLUSION.
Look – I don’t mean to harp on this one miniscule Trump failing. Especially since it’s nested inside a giant bulb of other Trump failings, tightly wound like a cabbage – leaf after leaf or bitter-tasting failing, clinging for dear life to the globe of bitter-tasting failure inside it.
I fucking realize that his job is not to be Film Critic In Chief. But it just seems like SUCH a perfect encapsulation of how this strutting, emptyheaded capon can look at the SINGLE MOST FAMOUS AND CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED MOVIE IN AMERICAN HISTORY and fail entirely to see the same sonofabitching movie that you or I do.
But of COURSE he takes it to be about acquisition – because he himself is about acquisition.
Because if you extrapolate from this one Errol Morris clip – and there is a distressingly vast body of evidence, now, to support this – our President – and he IS our goddamn President, in the sense that we are fucking stuck with him along with all the Oxy-popping hillbillies who put him in the Oval fucking Office – retains a fixed and impregnable capacity to look upon the world and to see what he wishes to see.
Which, to varying degrees, we all do, obviously. We’re all prey to our own wishful thinking and blind spots and habits of mind. But – BUT – I would hope that we at least endeavor to adjust our beliefs and discard our bad ideas BECAUSE WE HAVE REMAINED FUCKING CURIOUS AND LEARNED NEW THINGS AND, WHERE NEEDED, WE HAVE ALTERED OR AMENDED OUR CONCEPTION OF THE TRUTH.
If you have devoted your life to acquisition, you must therefore conceive of acquisition as a virtue; if you encounter people who have failed to – or worse, even – have CONSCIOUSLY AND WILLFULLY REJECTED the Cult of Acquisition, then, as a means of psychological self-preservation, you MUST vilify and marginalize and denigrate such people. Because where acquisition constitutes success, the believer MUST believe that any deviation from such a conception of success is aberrant, and presents a threat not merely to your own success, but to the philosophical bedrock that underlies your success. Hence the name-calling and pettiness and constant monitoring of what others are saying about you.
When the architecture of belief is so shoddily constructed, of course it requires constant upkeep.
But here’s what I know:
He is wrong. About everything.
He is wrong about Citizen Kane, obviously, but it is because he is wrong about so many other, much bigger and more enduring things, that he is wrong about Citizen Kane in the particular way that he is.
Because he is wrong about what is important in this life. Because he was raised by wrongheaded people who pushed him into his lifelong embrace of wrongness.
His ideas are wrong.
And he is wrong in his rhetoric.
And he is wrong in his conclusions about things.
And he is wrong in the answers he arrives at.
And he is wrong in the way that he frames problems.
And he is wrong in his analysis.
And he is wrong in the solutions he seeks.
And he is wrong in his humanity. Yes. He is that wrong. His wrongness runs that deep. He is wrong all the way to the base of himself.
He is a clown and a brute, to be sure. He is a huckster and a bully and a fraud.
But the reason he is dangerous, and the reason is he is now powerful, is that he is
To have summoned his own shallow, shitty wrongness and to have heaved it toward enough of the fearful and the credulous, the damaged and the dumb that they have cast their fortunes in with his shallow, shitty wrongness, and have pushed us now to the precipice.
But this I know, and this I promise – to my children, and to my neighbors, and to you my fellow citizens, and to myself above all:
Whatever the perversions and subjugations and diminishments that lay ahead of us, whatever indignities and cruelties and violations are in store, I will know he is wrong.
However badly the sands of reality are made to shift underfoot, however degraded and downtrodden the factual is made to become, I will know he is wrong.
However stridently his supporters defend him, however clamorous becomes their chorus, I will know he is wrong. No matter how many breads, no matter how many circuses, I will know he is wrong.
Whatever the shape and breadth of the vast and fizzing clusterfuck that awaits, I will know he is wrong.
I believe he was born wrong. I believe he has rushed headlong into deeper wrongness all his life long. I believe that the more wrong he grows, the more convinced he becomes of his rightness. I believe his wrongness is of that calamitous variety that impels him to drag us all down into the slurping pit of his wrongness.
And it may seem small, now. But I believe that a solid little patch of knowledge – knowledge that he is fully and perilously wrong – will come one day soon to mean a great deal, maybe everything, even.
So I resolve to defend this solid little patch of knowledge against every incursion, against all the forces of erosion, against even my own sloth and despair. And however long he maintains his illegitimate grip on his current position, and however surrounded on all sides by his false majority I might become, I resolve to stand fast on this solid little patch of knowledge, saying over and over, even if only to myself:
He is wrong.
I may not know much. But I do know that I feel brutalized by this year, a year I'll happily roll into a shallow grave, hastily bury, and hustle away from. I know lots of people who feel likewise. I feel confident that if I was able, and organized a Kick the Corpse of 2016 party, there would be a line wrapping around the block and down the street to get in - scores of people stooping to lace up their steel-toed-est boots. Bet I could charge extra to kick it in the dick.
There's a hashtag. #fuck2016. When you earn a goddamn hashtag, you know it is for serious. In this shimmering and spastic age, it is the equivalent of having your name carved into the stone plinth of an immortalizing statue.
For the handful of you that might actually read this, I am known as a person perpetually sitting in a burbling tub of vitriol. As such, it would seem my course is clear: continue to rail against the world and its idiocy. This I will do, for it's how I'm wired. I will holler myself hoarse. I will grit my teeth into powder and lean into the idiocy. I will carve crescents into my palms with my nails as I shudder in rage. I will bloody my knuckles on the brick walls of bullshit. But this is not all I aim to do.
I aim to hunker down and make the best, most fearless, most precise and clear-eyed art I can make.
This, finally, is the only means I have at my disposal to quiet the caterwauling hoggishness and dirtbaggery that abound. I am not an evelope-stuffing drudge equipped to dig like a mole at the mountainside that needs leveling. I am not a gregarious and earnest young person who can stand with a clipboard and accost passersby with well-intended imprecations. I am not a power-grubber equipped to roam the corridors of control to strongarm legislators and whatnot. I am not a preacher who can set souls aquiver to conquer the unrighteous peaceably.
I write. I am a person who says things. As such, in the face of the rapidly massing clouds of shit storm that gather ahead of us.
It may not be much, this arsenal. It may not amount to anything like a serious defense against the pummelling armored hordes that are pouring over and through our long-breached walls. It may not provide cover for the thin-boned and timorous remnants of our fighting force. It may be little more than the last whimpers of those consigned to the flames.
I concede it is not much. But it is what I have. And I'd rather die clasping it than to acqiuesce.
The orphanberry bush will not grow in the sun-dappled patch where huckleberry brambles bob in the breeze. It will not grow in the moss-lined gulleys where the gooseberry and currant take root. The orphanberry will only sprout in spots that have known trouble and hardship. You will not find it alongside the clean-rushing brook, or the shaded glen that echoes with birdsong.
The orphanberry will only grow in the weedy dooryard of the butcher, or the rutted mud where the carnival has moved on; it will bud in the dust along the tannery wall, or the scalded soil of the alms house. Where tears are shed for the stillborn, and blood spilled in battle; where blight has claimed the wheat, and where fire has swallowed the church - anywhere widows are made, anywhere the fugitive dies trapped, the elbowed stems and the mean leaves of the orphanberry will shiver and unfurl.
The fruit of the orpanberry bush is harsh, and is shunned by ruminants and grazers - the deer will avoid it, as will the the sheep. Only the hardy, well-muscled gut of the ominvore can withstand it. Black bear have been seen to nibble at it, only reluctantly, and raccoon only in leanest times.
The berry itself is no bigger than a sparrow's eye, and black as an undertaker's hatpin. It is said to taste of sugared tears and of a longing unnamed. The rare person that dares eat of the orphanberry bush will grow afflicted and offish. In the North, they once called this this plant the hermitmaker bush.
Many, when they find it, will rip it from the ground, attempting in vain to banish its sad magic. Where it has taken root, though, it will always reappear. Until its mournful work is done.
The orphanberry leaches the grief from a patch of ground, lixiviates the unease and dismay from the earth. It goes where it is needed, the orphanberry, to probe the earth with its lanky-fingered roots to draw up the poisons we leave in our wake, to dissolve and abridge the suffering so that the sweeter fruit might one day grow there.
Where you see its crotched stems and jagged leaves, affirm that you will know a bitter harvest for a season or so. But we soak the ground in our poisons, and so must wait for its slow and reproachful reclamation. And strive for some lull in the heedless sloshing of our toxins.