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Thursday
Apr282016

The Blue Gables

 

Fawn was less quiet, now. But only because she had to be. She had to make known somehow her strandedness. She could not cross the parking lot. There were reasons for this. But Fawn didn’t understand them. Fawn was made up of a longing she could not name, for a place she could no longer conceive. She knew only that she was ensnared here.

The motel Fawn couldn’t leave was two stories tall and clad in vinyl siding that was cadet blue. It wrapped in an L shape around the lot where Fawn’s mom and dad had parked a long, long time ago. The neon out front proclaimed in a flickering white-then-blue stammer that the motel was called the Blue Gables. They were gone. Her mom and dad. Had been for more time now than she could say. Out behind the motel, shielded from the road, was a small swimming pool, shaped like a kidney and blue as window cleaner. Fawn didn’t go near the pool, wouldn’t go near the pool.

Fawn did not know much. But she did know the pool was a Bad Place, a shimmering basin of her unease, a cruel sun-lashed lagoon.

The effort it cost Fawn to make herself known was exhausting to her. It demanded all her focus and depleted her badly. Things would go sparkly around the edges of her vision and she’d have to rest. Besides. It was only the one maid Natalia who ever took notice. Guests at the Blue Gables never detected any vestige of Fawn’s presence – they were too in-between, too consumed by homes left behind or obligations ahead. Fawn stood watch over what they took to be their seclusion, bearing witness to their most secret activities, their rutting and tears. The rest of the staff at the Blue Gables was too stricken by chatter – on phones, out of radios, inside their own heads. Mostly, Fawn believed, people were too intent on being the hero of the story, and as a consequence, other intersecting stories got crowded out, shouted down.

Natalia was the only person to frequent the Blue Gables who was suitably inward and attuned to recognize it when Fawn summoned the will to slide a key card off the nightstand, watching it drop softly on the worn carpet, or to riffle the shower curtain, or jostle the squat wicker wastebasket. The vocabulary Fawn had to communicate with Natalia was vexingly small. And the messages she sought to send were indistinct, veiled, like trying to pass coded notes in a language sloppily translated. Fawn sometimes tried to trace out letters in the dust of the windowsill or the fog of the bathroom mirror where Natalia bent and scrubbed, but Fawn’s fingers exerted no pressure, had no point of contact. She could carefully trace the block-lettered message “I AM HERE” in the dust, but her powdery, insubstantial fingers produced no trail; they could not breach the skin of dust, could not cut through the rind of steam.

Fawn kept trying, though. Because she sensed that she and Natalia shared the kindred-ness of the bashful, that wordless ability to seek out the reassuring eyes of those similarly afflicted by crowds and uproar. It is the unnoticed who notice each other, who counsel each other to persevere with a nod and no more, citizens who exercise their right to assemble in solitude.

All Fawn knew of Natalia was that she spoke little, had eyes always trained far away, on the horizon, and came from one of the countries in the skinny part of a map of the Americas – Guatemala, maybe, or Panama. One of those, anyway. Fawn retained a shard of awareness from her time before that geography had not been her thing, that maps failed under her gaze to coalesce into anything sensible.

Fawn could no longer even remember, really, the house she belonged in. She could picture her father, a little. A mustache. Short-sleeved dress shirt – sometimes mint green, sometimes russet. And she could see fully her mother’s kind, wet eyes. Eyes the aqueous color of young jonquil stems. She could see also a nimbus of honeyed hair that framed a face she could no longer conjure clearly.

Fawn had been groping along through every part of the Blue Gables for as far back as her awareness stretched. She didn’t know how long it had been. Could not know, maybe. But the things in the vending machines were all different, now. Gone were the tubes of Lifesavers and sleeves of Chuckles, replaced by oblong boxes of something called Nerds and bags called Skittles that looked like M&Ms but weren’t. Over time, the bulbs in all the light fixtures got replaced by luminous coiled things that looked like whitely lustrous grubs.

She was tethered to the Blue Gables, like a goat to a stake. She could roam as far as the edge of the grass-tufted lot to the west, its corners filled with drifts of flattened cigarette filters and mashed bottle caps; the tree line to the south, fat cones like grenades opening in a ragged stripe under Ponderosa pines; and the scarred back fence of the oil-change place to the east, the bottom of several wood slats kicked out; and buckling and patched parking lot out front to the north. Whenever she attempted to wander farther than any one of these frontiers, she came dismantled somewhat and translucent-er.

One day, after Fawn had tried in vain to knock over a stack of hand towels on Natalia’s cleaning cart, she felt a jolt like a tongue on a battery. Natalia had been changing the sheets on the bowed bed in Room 116. She straightened from tucking a fitted corner. She smoothed front of her teal poly smock.

“I feel you,” said Natalia, simply. “I know you are here. I think, also, I know who you are.”

Fawn was beside herself. To have remained unseen for so long was maddening, like a ragged snag of cuticle flesh that would not tear loose. But now. To be heeded. In what she felt certain was a kindly manner. This felt bounteous and giddy-making. Fawn swatted at the hand towels, attempting a reply. Nothing.

“I visited Madame Vadoma. She does readings near my home.”

Fawn saw a flash of a battered-looking bungalow with a giant neon eye and the word ‘TAROT’ in flickering red letters. She could see Natalia seated across from a wrinkled woman with stiff pile of steel wool hair and pale gray eyes like a wolf. The cloth laid over the table between them depicted constellations. Fawn could see the scene between Natalia and Madame Vadoma unfold before her like a movie.

“She is real,” Madame said. “She is there.”

Natalia seemed relieved to learn that madness had not overtaken her.

Madame gripped both of Natalia’s coarsened hands. Madame winced in concentration.

“She died in water. She was not yet a woman.”

Natalia’s eyelashes glistened.

“She is imprisoned. Is in need of help. Your help.”

A tear escaped and made its way down Natalia’s face.

Fawn was back suddenly in the room now, facing Natalia, whose hands were clasped before her. Natalia bowed slightly, in a formal way, and extended her hand toward the door leading out of the room.

“Please,” she said. “This way.”

Fawn felt apprehensive. She believed Natalia to be good and kind, but knew somehow that she was being guided to the pool. She hated the pool. It was the only place in all of Blue Gables that she feared.

Natalia exited the room. She turned and beckoned to Fawn from the concrete landing. After a moment, Fawn wafted after her.

They descended the stairs. Fawn was feeling jagged. She did not wish to approach the pool. But she knew somehow she must. Fawn had been once to see a rodeo. She recalled now the eye-rolling terror in the face of a calf as a cowboy on horseback thundered after it and trussed up in the divoted dirt of the arena. Fawn now felt as she’d imagined that calf had – pretzel-ed and strangling. She drew lungless gulps of air, air she no longer needed.

Natalia led the way down the dewy cool of the breezeway that connected the parking lot out front to the pool in back. Natalia walked at a somber and measured pace, as Madame had cautioned her to – “You must not startle the dead girl,” she had said.

Natalia looked almost stately in her smock as she mounted the low steps up to the pool. The latch clanged faintly as she opened the chain link gate. To Fawn the latch sounded like a guillotine.

“Come,” said Natalia. “In here.” She gave a stately little bow, presenting Fawn to the pool.

Fawn felt disparate and spattered, unmoored and twitchy. The pool was Bad Place Number One. She couldn’t say why, exactly, but she knew at the root of herself that the pool was to be forever avoided. But Natalia was so patient and placid, her eyes black and shining like coffee.

Fawn hated the pool, but found herself trusting in Natalia. So she rippled up the steps and inside the fence. This, now, was nearer to the pool than she could remember being. Since… since it had become for her the Bad Place.

Natalia, sensing somehow that Fawn was beside her on the concrete deck that skirted the pool, swung closed the gate with a quiet kang noise. Natalia sat at the edge of one of the sagging deck chair and slipped off her crepe-soled nursey-looking shoes and rolled her socks down over her feet. With some ceremony, she pulled her smock off over her head, standing now in a sleeveless undershirt. She folded the smock with care and laid it over the arm of the deck chair. She sat with a hand on each knee.

Without her smock, she seemed no longer to be Natalia, of the Blue Gables. She became Natalia, human – she was just a person, now, perched at the edge of the a sun-bleached deck chair, a person alert to the possibility of helping. A breeze riffled the surface of the pool.

“Ready?” Natalia asked the air.

Fawn did not feel ready. Not in the least.

Natalia rose from her seat, and padded across the deck on bare feet. She held the chromed handrail and strode with an even grace down the three nubbled white steps into the shallow end of the pool. She turned and extended her hands to Fawn, whom she could not see. The water pulled at her thin pants, a stripe of darkness wicking up her legs.

“Come,” said Natalia, her hands welcoming, palms up, coaxing. “You have nothing to fear.”

Fawn could nearly believe, as she hovered next to Bad Place Number One, under the soothing spell of Natalia’s cool, quiet voice, that she did have nothing to fear, that the gnawing frazzle at the center of her was a lie.

“Come,” said Natalia again. Matter-of-fact. “Your name. Was Fawn.”

Fawn entered the pool. The water did not touch her, for there was nothing of her to touch. Fawn felt a panicked spike of distress run up through her. She saw flashes of herself. Her former self. Her fleshly self. Thrashing in the water. This water. Then a big inrush of water into her windpipe. The witch hazel-y taste of chlorine. The divestment of tears from her eyes, invisible, subsumed by the water. This water.

Then. Blackness. And floating a few feet above her body. Her dad in a rumpled taupe shirt, bent over her. Her honey-haired mom, dropping to her knees, wailing.

As Fawn strode without striding deeper into the water, she could feel herself – whatever self of her there was – begin to dissipate.

Natalia thought for a moment, in the late afternoon angle of the light, that she spied something like iridescence dancing languidly upon the water – like motor oil in a rain puddle, but lighter and lovelier.

It was pleasant enough, thought Fawn: this dissolving. As the water claimed her once more, Fawn was unafraid. And she was free.

Thursday
Apr072016

Hot Doug's. And My Death Wish.

So the Chicago Reader is letting me do infrequent pieces for their online feature "The Contrarian."

My first one was about the death of Justice Scalia. Nobody gave a rat's ass.

My most recent one was about an overrated hot dog place

Response has prompted my playwright pal Mark Chrisler to observe: "This is the piece that will make you the Salman Rushdie of Cook County."

Another playwright pal, Bilal Dardai had this to say: "Ian Belknap: The Captive-Bolt Gun for All of Your Sacred Cows." Which may be the highest goddamn praise I've ever received. Whatever his intentions may have been.

Dummies take it as an attack on Doug Sohn, or on hot dogs generally. Which it is not. It's about hype, dummies, and your susceptibility to it. 

Sunday
Apr032016

Chicago Literati - 3/28/16

The site Chicago Literati had the theme "Crytopzoology"

So I wrote THIS goofy thing, which they were kind enough to publish. 

 

Friday
Apr012016

WRITE CLUB, Skin - 10/20/15

Do me a favor. Close your eyes.

Now run your tongue along the roof of your mouth.

Nice, right? Little nubbly, maybe, but nice.

Now run your tongue along that same roof of that same mouth, but as you do, imagine its covering of skin is gone. Imagine you’re running your tongue along the underside of your own skull, that the veneer enfolding you is gone and that you are suddenly lapping at yourself like a cannibal with a soup bone.

It is your skin alone that prevents each of you from being totally sickening right now. We are each of us just a sausage casing away from lurching around like a mess of slaughterhouse castoffs.

Whatever shame the beauty industry has heaped upon you, whatever deficiencies of pigment and elasticity, of smoothness and suppleness that bum you out about yourself – whatever dry patches or smelly regions – ANY of these shortcomings is INFINITELY preferable to heaving your skinless self around, leaking like a bloody stack of flank steaks.

Think of it. Soaking through all your clothes. Leaving a trail of your fluids like a goddamn slug.

Think of the keypad on the last ATM you used – imagine scores of skinless fingers gristling their transactions over those buttons, commingling into a gruesome human paste before you place your own glistening finger on there.

Think for a second about plunking down into a seat on the El, into a shallow bowl of the more horrifying soup warmed by the seepage of a thousand asses unknown to you.

Imagine you try to keep things sanitary, so you get a squirt of antibacterial stuff and you rub in, and IT IS TOTAL FUCKING AGONY SINCE YOU JUST WILLINGLY APPLIED ALCOHOL TO YOUR EXPOSED NERVE ENDINGS AND JESUS FUCKING FUCK DOES THAT BURN.

A properly administered high five would make you pass out from the pain.

Think now of a world without facial expressions – each of us a toothy Lon Chaney Phantom of ourselves, an unblinking and toothy wet mask. It’d be like living inside the world of Mars Attacks! which, like every fucking thing Tim Burton does has the subtlety of a two-hour dick punch with a frenetic fucking soundtrack by Danny Elfman.

It would be a world without nostrils, you guys. We’d all be drizzling snot all down our fronts all the time. Like even when it’s not winter.

It would be a where we couldn’t wink or whistle. Snapping your fingers would just be a clammy slide.

Kissing, you guys. Kissing. Would just be clacking teeth together with somebody while you ooze on each other.

And, before I move on. I would like for you each in your mind’s eye to view any scene from any porno ever. Look at it: the raunchiest, writhing-est no-skin porno scene. Do NOT look away. GAZE UPON the skinless porno playing in your mind right now.

STARE into the madness that is two or more bodies, glazed in their own juices, gyrating on each other in a viscous pile making a sound like couple of uncooked mutton legs in a washing machine full of Crisco; a sound like snatching a panicky trout from a bucket of Jell-O; a sound like hauling a nest of angry weasels out of a crawlspace full of Ranch dressing.

Look at it, you guys. LOOK at it. Because THAT is a world without skin.

Which isn’t to say that there would not be advantages. In a world without skin, celebrity chef and noted racist Paula Deen would have no place to put all that orange.

In a world without skin, Black Lives would not have to Matter, since we would all of us be red and raw as ground chuck and would greet each other with a soundless and bulge-eyed scream-smile.

In a world without skin, there would be no white privilege, since we’d all be sporting the same meat leotards.

In a world without skin, the Trump candidacy would collapse in chaos when he grows confused about who to hate.

In a skinless world, sexual aggression would cease because dudes would be rightly horrified by their own quivering jerky boners.

Cosmetic surgery would be a thing of the past, as we would all adhere to universal aesthetic standard of being totally fucking horrifying – a brave and sickening new world where videos of Kate Upton dancing are the stuff of Clive Barker nightmare.

So, yes. A skinless world – it might prove an inadvertently more egalitarian place, a place better equipped to judge not by the presence of our skin but by the content of our character. We might become better able to hate each other for the right reasons, the productive and just reasons. Like the looming class warfare which is so long overdue.

And yet.

YET.

Skin – despite the trouble it causes us – remains worthwhile.

Consider the massage. Consider the caress. Consider the kiss – WITH lips.

Consider – the thigh of a 16-month-old baby. Consider well the bulging softness of the baby leg – bursting and creased, like a ripening peach. There is no more delighting thing in all this world than the leg of a well-fed baby. To deny ourselves the chance of hand-chomping the velvety blubber of a baby leg that’s swaddled in the softest skin you can conceive of.

So to review:

On the one hand: a no-skin world of jackhammering squelchy porn that smells like a wadded up Band-Aid soaked in pus. 

On the other: the fleshy and sweet-smelling innocence of a pudgy, pudgy baby leg that leaves you cooing and hopeful.

The choice is yours.

Wednesday
Dec022015

You're a Crooked Jerky Jockey, and You Drive a Crooked Horse

With deepest apologies to Dr. Seuss. Whose moral compass we really could use.

So. You're the mayor of a major metropolis - the third largest, say, in a fading relic of the Empire of Sneetch. And say some of your residents have Stars on their bellies. And some do not. 

And they're shooting each other. Like all the time. Star Bellied Sneetches mow down the Starless Sneeches, who shoot each other. And Sneetches who are really young - too young, even, to know or care whether they have a goddamn star on the Sneetch-bellies or not - get cut down routinely by the Sneech mayhem that surrounds them. 

Sneetch pundits weigh in on this, like constantly. Sneetch reporters wade in Sneetch blood, standing with furrowed Sneetch brows in the rain or the snow or the heat, lights atop the Sneetch cruisers pulsing behind them, Sneech police tape cordoning off the many little evidence tents of the many, many shell casings strewn across the Sneetchy street.

Sneetch blood is the same color - whether it pours out of a Sneetch with a Star or not.

There's a vocal bunch of Sneetches - all across the Empire, a shrill and dogged bunch of Sneetches (nearly all these have Stars on their bellies - nearly every goddamn one) who insist that the right to bear Sneetch arms cannot be infringed upon, and that a pile of dead Sneetch babies is a price worth paying for this most Sneetchy of liberties. These Star Bellies wish to give Sneetch teachers guns to combat the crazed Sneetches who, with growing frequency, come to shoot Sneetchy children in their classrooms. These Star Bellies are furious. Like all the time. Mostly about the Empire's Head Sneetch, who has no Star - a fact to them that is as sickening as it is galling.

But your city - we'll it Sneetchago - is plagued even worse than other places. Every Monday, the Sneetchy news has a box score of the body count. A weird thing about your city is that all the Star Bellies live on one side of town, in the North, and the Starless all live on the South Side. Long time back, this Sneetchy animosity prompted a bunch of Star Bellies, who owned everything, to banish the Starless to their own part of town, and things settled into a low Sneetchy boil.

And say you, as mayor of Sneetchago, have a Star on your belly. Goes without saying, probably, that the cabal of Sneeches who put up the money to buy your election also have Stars. And say you're a bottomless pit of ambition and, behind your Star, beats the heart of an abrasive asshole. But your Star Bellied advisors just have you dial it down a little and wear a sweater in interviews, and the residents of Sneetchago never pay much attention, so you're good, mostly.

And say the cops you hire to patrol the perilous streets of your city have mostly got Stars, too. And say - beyond the usual degree of hate speech and paternalism - there's a handful of cops on your Sneetch force who regularly beat the shit out of Starless citizens, who torture and abuse them with seeming glee. And they have a history of thwacking a Starless suspect with their night stick while he's cuffed, say, or pepper-spraying demonstrators and hissing about how they're all a bunch of Starless goddamn animals.

And say one of these Star Bellies - a real sack of shit, who has demonstrated over and over how he's a hate-filled Sneetch who honestly has no business wielding police powers, just totally loses his shit one day. And he empties his service pistol into the prone body of a Starless Sneetch, who was really just a kid. 

Bummer, you'd say. That would be a drag. And after that Starless Sneetch's untimely end was chronicled on the news, as just another item in the weekly box score, that would be the end of it.

Only this time, this sack of shit Star Belly's execution of that Starless kid got caught on video.

Shit.

So you hustle the Sneetchy Council to authorize paying out a bunch of money to that Starless kid's family, hoping they'll keep their Sneetchy traps shut. And you delay release of the video - NOT BECAUSE you have a Sneetchy election to win, or anything.

But then a Sneetchy journalist perseveres enough to get a Sneetchy judge to order you to release it.

Fuck.

So you try to bury the release around a holiday weekend when all the Whos in fucking Whoville will being singing carols and you can put this fucking nightmare behind you.

But it does not work. Like at all. The Starless rise up and link arms and ring your palace and chant for your ouster. 

Fine, you think. You can wait this out.

But it does not work. The Starless are right. And even the usually compliant Sneetch media know they are right. And you are fucked.

So. You stand tall - well, not tall, exactly, for you are frankly a pretty pipsqueaky little Star Belly - and you summon the full might of your office to empanel a Task Force.

But it does not work. The Starless see through this. And so do the usually compliant Sneetch media. You are even further fucked.

So. You ratchet things up a little. You fire the Police Sneetch in Chief.

But it does not work. And Sneetches everywhere - Star Bellied and Starless alike - are clamoring for your ouster.

And you put on TWO sweaters and you stand before the microphones - there will be no questions - and you talk about healing. But as you do, you don't really acknowledge the centuries of Star Bellied hatred, or outline a plan to dismantle the systems that have oppressed the Starless. 

So it does not work.

So you shut your office door. And you rage and throw lamps, you heap abuse on your Star Bellied advisors and the Sneetch who timidly suggests you put on a third sweater - you send him packing.

So you start scheming about who else you can sacrifice - what other Sneetches in your administration, like the Sneetch State's Attorney, maybe, you might dispense with to deflect attention from you, who are, after all, a good and civic-minded Sneetch currently wearing not fewer than two sweaters.

But it does not work.

And so. Say you are the mayor of a major metropolis - the third largest in the fading relic of the Empire of Sneetch - and your Star Bellied ass has been painted into a corner by brushes dipped in the blood of gunned-down Sneetches. And you have no one left to sacrifice. And the Starless citizens are demanding your departure. And the usually compliant Sneetch media is doing the same. And the deep-pocketed Star Bellies who put you in office are not returning your calls. And even though you used to work for him, the Empire's Head Sneetch, who's never really made too big a deal about his own belly, which is Starless - he won't help you, either.

And you are out of sweaters. And the chanting grows louder. Because now some Star Bellies are chanting, now, too.

What do you do? What can a Star Bellied mayor, who had a good goddamn thing going, do? When the floor starts to buckle under his feet?