Jan '03 [Home]
Bookshelf: First Chapters
by Mark Nickels
Los Angeles, The Fourteenth of June, 1940
The entire universe is happening in the center of each atom, a copy of the god turning in each mullioned port. Everything that ever happened is happening now, and I have this knowledge all to myself.
Dusk has begun. I expect it to go on for very long, as though the unseen film editor inside had spliced one sunset onto another in some eccentric, lopsided masterwork entitled The Land of the Midnight Sun, an Esquimaux Epic, or whatnot. I, however, only wear away slowly in the light and the needling rain like grained wood worn smooth, a spread of roots near the brookline.
I have also been a smoking knot pulled from the ash.
Blear and unsteady again, just this dark morning I dumped the hatboxes three times, tumbling them into the brush, when the front wheel bit the stones and turned. By the time I got to the trash barrel, it was a heaped chaos of old felt and beaver and greening pasteboard waiting to be burnt. The vaguely Tudor W emblem on the hats, last initial of my name and the name of my father, rhymes with the shape of the constellation Cassiopeia that pales and glints on the mountains eastward in the ante-dawn.
Gene Fowler and Sadakichi Hartmann and Bill Fields were still with me in my mind then, around 4 o'clock in the morning, when nothing good happens, so they say. Jack Barrymore was at that fete last evening also, with his famed instrument rising out of raspy, thuggish locutions into Shakespearean flow, the eyebrow like a canting hook corralling the lines on his forehead. I reminisced there, only a little, sometimes drowned out, so as not to date myself too much.
"Michigan!" snorted Jack, launching how he purloined for his own use a downtown department store window in Grand Rapids to advertise one of his poorly attended entertainments, a rare occurrence to be sure, in his vaudeville days.
He was sitting on the divan with a pluming cigarette in one hand, a rock glass tumbler in the other. Somebody put on a phonograph recording of his Richard, at which he hooted and snorted: one of the most singular talents in the world in, I think, unfeigned self-loathing.
And I, like one lost in a thorny wood,
He looks bad, does Jack, except perhaps for the still exquisite Plantagenet nose, The Prrrrofeel, as he calls it. Otherwise, I don't recall very well what happened, but the ribaldry went on as I tipped into that cab, a chorus of wheezy catcalls following me as they enjoin me to wake my wife for some well-deserved frolic.
Even after midnight, the asphalt was still as warm as skin as I tumbled comically into the cab. I was relieved to at least remember the intersection nearest my building; numbers, markers of duration, are always the first thing to go.
But I wasn't thinking of these thespians and scribes in front of the trash barrel, sand leaching into my sandals. I was thinking of her. I am the Wizard—without, maybe, Board Certification as Wizard—relearning both the old grimoire and the dance steps of the drunkard, and not well, not well. Perhaps both are a useless magic.
I am also a contract character player, at this moment in wet socks. I'm punctual, and make my marks, though lately an extra line or two of chalk has become necessary on those dawn sidewalks or in the dim, cacophonous studio, where Hebrew comedians from Brooklyn, the talent, collapse in chairs and clout each other with rubber wrenches.
I make a fine old man in the odd scene that calls for it, rather a cross between Adolphe Menjou and G.B. Shaw, as though everyone were born to be most themselves in one era of life, and this is mine. This is the only industry or calling I ever engaged in—and there have been many—where I was paid to reenact most nearly who I, at that moment, was. The other employments were all more or less a dumbshow, a blurrred image in a scrying stone. I'm afraid I've enjoyed eudaemonia only willy-nilly. Maybe in the next go 'round.
'Wizard' is what they call me, except for the script girl who calls me 'Gramps,' though I'm haler than my hosts last night, at least at the evening's onset. I'm poorer, haler, ridiculously more obscure, munching my boiled egg at lunch break, taking it somewhat too reverently from my dinner pail on which she has carefully written my name (as though anyone else would want my lunch!). Most of the men and women in this flicker industry could have been anyone, and they know it. So, eminently egalitarian, they make way for me. But what an assortment of sad, old pre-war pharaohs, myself not excepted. Even the comparatively young and celebrated ones are wizened behind the eyes. It's the price paid for being actors in the future dreams of others, out on this arid coast where the last great Neolithic migration westward stopped dead and froths back on itself in endless parking lots and inconsequential amusements.
Suppress your disappointment. I may not mention the vivid worthies above, known to everyone, again in this narrative. They are not my subject.
I singed myself as I tried to light the moldy cardboard, the last of the Winterset Hats, my only material legacy. Many years without drinking—until last night, anyway—and still I found the carton of safety matches in the icebox, of all places. The flames are yellow and violet as the pile begins to take, the beaver and felt headgear smelling of cooked vegetables or scalded hair, bubbling with the fortified liquor of some kind I pour on them.
When the last of the hats had writhed and flopped into smoke and the embers were no threat to the tundra, I turned back toward the bungalow. The jumbled, faint Alhambra of Los Angeles was still obscured. From the distant past came the injunction: Don't play with fire or you'll wet the bed.
"Did you finally burn those godawful hats?"
She asks this while making a pass through my hair with bed-hot fingers, a downward inflection to her question, as though to a boy in short pants.
She has been away, so on my return to the bungalow I must make room for her when she finally gets out of bed, where I have asked her to remain, the hour is so early. I busied myself with this, before sitting down to paper, as we've long promised ourselves.
My household arrangements most nearly approximate camping, I'm afraid to say. We have never had many visitors, and those that come know how we are. Perhaps it's not as much camping as a kind of burrowing—everything close to the bed, as many tasks as possible performed recumbent. I'm not even infirm; it has always been so for one of the laziest men ever to have come from New England, a region not known for pokiness. Fortunately, I was the son of a once prosperous manufacturer of headgear—fedoras, slouches, formals, driving caps, smoking caps, yachtsman's caps, military hats, deerstalkers, tams, bowlers, homburgs, what have you. All this has really meant, slender as my emolument has been, is that we have never been stuck anywhere, the way many are, without the means to leave.
I have just remembered something I'd forgotten, one of the first things to be hauled out with the moths and the ordure of mildew, prying open the old crates of the mind that contain this volume of my life. It came to me as I turned back to this notebook after glancing over at her folded form, deliciously settled back into slumber.
I once knew someone named Marigold, an Anishnabe woman, in Northern Michigan. She was already an ancient of days when I made her acquaintance. When I left Boyne City for good, I purchased a few dozen quantity of penny postcards. I stamped them and addressed them to my post office box in Cleveland and asked her please to dictate to someone who could write, her daughter, for example, and send us a note form time to time. Once or twice annually, one of these clumsily photographed woodland scenes would arrive.
On the back, dateless, and in a quavering hand as the years passed, were small, graceful drawings: a porcupine, a squirrel secreting acorns, a miraculously rendered brown trout suspended on a set-line, one continuous trait from mouth to tail. In one corner you might see an aged hand holding it aloft. In the lower corner was a single x, a shaky rood, as though the attempt to signify the self required more effort than to draw anything else from Nature.
Finally, in about '26, the balance of the unused postcards arrived in a flurry. On each was written a single sentence: Misses Marigold past away.
In Boyne City, paint peeled from the houses in the town. I see the cold twilight at the end of each day, the sky yellow and violet. Exploding over the black tree line, it kindled and waned and fanned out over the Lake. Everything you looked at was flickering in and out with beginning and dying.
A fair copy of this Northern Michigan place exists in eternity, all high summer or brute winter days filed in a shuttling file of days. This file is mostly blue, but with the gray days and black nights superadded, a very dark blue.
I wish there were a more faithful method to retain it than this, set in characters, but, in the end, this is a spell as miraculous as any.
Some of my books are leaved inside with dried eucalyptus or linden flower, stolen from a hall vase or meadow. Thus weighted, the pages chase each other, propelled by gusts of Pacific wind from the open sash. Or by her fingers, as she has, over the decades, read most of them, as she said she would. At the last, the book turns over and shows the verso cover, as hard and final as a pair of narrow shoulder blades scissoring off through the wood.
I have observed that no one looks ludicrous while reading a book. And she—she who looks deliciously grave even when her eyes laugh at me from the other side of the table, who never looked silly in the first place, other than by design—looks doubly fine and grave with her matte, white complexion, the fall of hair still ringleted and black, the skin around the eyes only slightly creased over time by her full grins, rare as they are.
She will have a lot to write as well, she says, before drifting off, but for now, our glances are wordless, our eyes fixed pair to pair as we watch their counterparts darken and slide inward in their recollection. I will interleaf her vivid contributions, as per our programme.
Boyne City. The air was astringent with the scent of evergreens and long, blue Pine Lake, but embittered with the scent of tailings burning at the mill. If trees had ghosts, each clapboard rooming house and farmhouse was a haunt.
But then, I've come to reckon everything a haunt.
Ungainly box elders twist in the yard. White pine shingled dwellings expand in the summer heat and set brittle in the ice. Thickets of sumac are huddled in the vacant lots, five dollars down and five dollars a month.
The dead men thumb rides at street corners while I cab around towns I do not know well, but which always seem to be situated in valleys. The contours of the surrounding high ground seen from the bottom of the bowl are strangely familiar.
The dead women, in high black dresses, hair Castile Soap-crisped, pinned back, and still with their work stoop, are laying out their haunts, for lifetimes, or however long it takes, Good-bye on their lips, cameo brooches at their throats, low and questing and determined but with a china delicacy. When the stars rise, they are mapping their corridors among us, the passages they will use.
These dead like an aurora, pacing in my North.
None of them big grinners, or criers. For the men there were the whiskey groves, or certain railroad cuts that were sacred, walking home in either twilight, maybe in early spring, when they had more money than they had before and had slept enough, eaten and drunk enough after a cold winter in the shanties and the green world became visible to them as if for the first time. They paid for the arms and mouths of some woman strange to them to encircle them, if only for a moment. Then, despite whatever random grace made available by drink or women, or, for a few, the round grove that drew them though they didn't know why—the quiet, long-headed men with small hands, the mossbacks, the ones who cut the trees or otherwise abetted their deaths—began sometimes to come into a dread of their own in the piney, claptrap towns. They lurched home in sand roads, opal-colored under the moon. They took the air at a diagonal, wheeling, contending with memory and the hard things in them that they didn't build, could not fell, and that never change.
Still, they had children, grunting them out when they got there, in the small birdhour before dawn. They would have ten, or twelve even, as though they were a species born to plenty and had somehow, under some enchantment, lost all their natural predators. In photographs, you might see them crouched beside a buckboard, in front of a rented house perched crookedly on a rise like a bad hat, surrounded by a wilderness of stumps.
Through a tangle and over a rise had been drawn such a road, in places no more than a stream of sand with generally parallel margins, running on over fields and off into moiled haze. Unevenly graded and hard-panned, at the edges—or even in the middle for the unwary—any conveyance might sink to the hub in soft sand. If the wood creeps nearer the road[,] the smell of the air changes. You might nose alongside a watercourse, slow with murk in a dry summer, or in a liquid one quick with frogs at dusk. The tree line moves in suddenly, or recedes as you go.
The forest grows thickets of tamarack or sumac near the edge, small poplar and maple, the odd birch. (When the wind comes up, the birch saplings reel like adolescents with stolen beer at the rim of a dance.) You might pass an oak eight feet around, lightning riven and half dead but with quick leaves bending down over the road. These leaves incised against the blue sky are more gothic and complex than other leaves, and in the autumn noisier and dryer, in a death shuffle.
The road bisects a meadow with low growth, and underneath it, someway visible every few feet, pine stumps standing on into the field which shades to black where the unshorn portion of the wood broods. You can walk acres of this uneven or rolling ground, descend into a swale and back up again, merely stepping from one to the other of these charred stairs. If cleared as long as a generation ago, the field would have given up its second growth, the aspens and maples and jackpine and hemlock, tall enough, but not yet towering; cover for deer and wildcat, concealing—though scarcely ever anymore—small and irritable wolves.
Presently you come upon knots of rusting iron, chain and harness, the clues of a timber harvest abandoned. There, sitting in ragweed and fireweed, what remains of a short railroad spur, like the spine of a large blue leviathan. The oak water barrels, once mounted on buckboards to fill steam locomotives, are this summer a roost for tree sparrows or a nest for black snakes.
From time to time, there are cultivated fields. Corn stands and wavers secretively, or in late summer a mown wheat field stretches off with bales set in it in patterns, like game pieces. You might note something almost arch at work in the arrangement, though this not often. The fruit trees are laid in sober, soldierly rows—apples and cherries, sour, or black and sweet. If your conscience bothers you and it has been a cool and rainy summer, you eat only the fruit split from the surfeit of rain, or take what you want from the ground after the tree has been shaken.
In each of these fields, the fact was that a man and his sons and neighbors, born in New York State or Denmark or Holland, in Quebec or Silesia, in Sweden or in the Schwarzwald, ripped the stump and root system of every pine in every acre of their claim from the ground. The horses strained and lathered at harness and the men swore and cursed on top of a silence too dense to carry the complaint of the torn roots. Dadgum or in any case Goddamn anyone who ever thought of such a thing as a tree. Maybe some of them had felled the very trees that had stood here, once, when they worked for White and Sons in Boyne, or collected their pay in April from Stone and McMullen, or W.R. Floyd, or Gebhart & Estabrook. Leaving the paymasters line, they noted the receipt stamped with the same insignia branded on the high floating cork pine now swayed down the rivers by river hogs, two and half miles to the cross-country mile.
On the farms of these men, the houses are mostly of the same style, one and a half storeys, a peaked gable with one or two windows set in it, baldly and without shutters. The one-room extension that contains the kitchen has been covered with tarpaper prior to adding the outer boards, which might be whitewashed or not. This house is hard to keep warm in the winter. It leaches its heat so generously into the dark that stalactites of ice hang halfway to the ground from the eaves. In a thaw, they careen recklessly into the snow. The yard in summer is a riot of weeds, a ditch near the road rocking with Queen Anne's lace, fescue, and timothy. Some children drag a board around and try to seesaw with it on a cinderblock. Clothes hang on the line untenanted and slack, ordered from biggest to smallest. Even in the largest there is a glimpse of the frail, somehow the same sensation evoked by sleeping people we care for when we see a pair of their run-over shoes sitting alone in the middle of the floor.
There is a barn set back from the road, with hay in it or not, the heads of some pike with ferocious teeth nailed to the door, and turtle shells scattered in the mud.
Scarcer still than the wolves, and something that plenty living had seen and then seen pass, a stand of the first white pine: straight and massive and careening upward to a hundred, a hundred twenty, a hundred forty feet. The lowest branches might begin at thirty or sixty feet. The standard metaphor is a gothic cathedral, but of course the cathedral was patterned on this, not the other way around. There might have been stands this highborn in some primeval Normandy and someone thought to go one better by roofing it. There is little undergrowth other than the dense coppery carpet of dead needles and cones, and ferns burgeoning, limpid but still, as though in a prehistorical museum diorama. The sand underneath is loose and gray, and a drop of rain or dew will bead and roll on it first before sinking in.
One could wonder at the sadness that might loiter on in whoever lived to see such things pass, wordless and invisible sadness, like a mist at the bottom of your boots, sadness spiked with contempt and cynicism and resignation—sadness that doesn't even look like sadness. One wonders what it could do to a man, or a woman, to someone who lent their small lungful to the moneyed, main-line winds that sheared off this place. How that might have gone into what they put in their mouths, what they swallowed, like the smoldering, hickory grief tonic—whiskey, drained and cast into the weeds out back there to balance clear on fronds like a teardrop. This is not about any measure of justice; there is none of that written anywhere, in the clouds or under the ground, and surely not in fire, which might do the work of ten crews in a hundredth of the time.
This loss need not piggyback on guilt to be called loss. In truth, not many felt pangs of loss they could name, and to think so would be to imbue them with the sympathies of a time that is not yet. Could there be a table of such losses somewhere, no longer an imponderable, but quantifiable? I doubt it. But there are grids of lines around the eyes, and trudging aimlessly, or labor to point of collapse, or random, sudden violence. There are the shades of trees mentioned earlier, their abandoned murmuring in houses. The brown eyes at the center of the knots in the wood blink from the walls like photos of hurricanes from the air, or the sudden iris of any mammal you can name.
And then there is the soft but astringent smell, both old and new, serious, maybe noble, if you can use such a word for a smell. And light! You are aghast at what such verticals can do to shape it, bearing in mind that the smallest recreations seen in the house, angled from a window onto the floor, are a mere reprise of this.
There is a rumor—buttressed by intuition somehow—that trees tell each other when fire is coming, though it is unclear what it might occur to them to say, except maybe So long, or Pleasant standing adjacent to you all these many years. Probably that is anthropomorphism as bad as an old zoo. Do shanty boys, lumberjacks, all day in the woods, absorb something of treehood even as they kill trees, as hunters come to know prey with an intimacy that non-hunters don't grant them? What do you learn about a being you sashay and prance death with, over whom you preen in old snaps, arms crossed and head cocked, on an overloaded wagon of lop-limbed pines, boles out?
The tiny-looking horses seem aghast, or maybe merely puzzled. Trees might make a man gradual in his clothes as they are gradual in their bark, even more gradual than the farmer, with his frenetic husbandry and furrowing. But at the same time, it makes of men killers of the productions of time, many thousand files in a bright file of days and nights flickering in the skin of the tree like generalized heat lightning. And then he builds his house with this time. The destruction in his axe and the life in the tree are so under the porous web of his perception and so dense that they escape the man, who listens but little in any case, and drones a monotonous song.
A is for AXES we swing to and fro
And so on, through all the letters of the alphabet.
(Mark Nickels's poetry collection is Cicada from Rattapallax Press. He won this year's Ann Stanford Prize and was a finalist in the 2002 Lyric Recovery Festival competition at Carnegie's Weill Hall. Sumac is his first novel. He lives in Brooklyn.)