Tuesday, December 6, 2016

From The Christmas Crawl Space

Every Christmas when I was a child much of my extended family would gather at my grandparents' farm outside a small town in Illinois. We'd all trek there from various points around the Midwest. My own family would usually arrive early in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, and many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins who lived nearby would come out to the farm for dinner that night.

My grandparents had a big farmhouse. They'd raised seven children, so there was usually room for everybody. My uncle Dick, who had never married, still lived at home and helped my grandfather out around the farm. Dick was a bit of a drinker, and a big, jolly fellow.

One year when I suppose I was maybe five or six years old uncle Dick corralled all the kids --there were close to a dozen of us-- after our huge potluck dinner.

"Everybody get bundled up and come with me," he said. "I've got a big surprise to show you."

"Oh, Jesus, Dick," my grandfather said. "Go on and leave that thing alone."

It was already later than most of us were accustomed to staying up, and I remember it was a cold, clear night with a good deal of snow on the ground. After we'd all pulled on our boots and zipped ourselves into our snowsuits we headed out into the farmyard with uncle Dick. I imagine he'd had a few drinks by this point in the evening, and he had a big, hissing Coleman lantern that sent dark angles of shadow swaying before him as he walked. We followed him across the yard and along the fenceline that separated the feedlot from the fields, trudging through the snow and struggling in his tracks through the deep drifts.

Uncle Dick led us way back along the fence to the edge of the property line, where the corn field gave way to a wood lot, on the edge of which was a frozen dumping pond. He paused there and bent low to illuminate something in the snow. We all gazed with a combination of horror and wonder at a pink, hairless thing, wincing, glazed with ice, and curled up like a fat grub in a cradle of snow.

There was a sustained silence as we all crowded around for a closer look, the steam from our breath billowing in the lamplight.

"What is it?" somebody finally asked.

"That there is an elf fetus," uncle Dick said. "A dead little baby elf."

"What happened to it?" one of my cousins asked.

"Well, you know how it is with Santa Claus on Christmas Eve," Dick said. "He must have had an elf with him who went into premature labor, and when she squeezed out that baby they flung it over the side of the sleigh as they went flying by. That's how much Santa and his elves care about getting presents to you kids. On a night like this they're just too damn busy to fuss with a little baby elf when they're out buzzing around the world. They had to toss it overboard and go right on with their important business."

A couple of kids started to cry.

"Aw, don't you worry about a thing," Dick said. "There's more where that one came from. Them elves are like rabbits; they have babies all the time."

Someone suggested we bury the baby elf.

"Nah," Dick said. "Santa Claus will take care of it eventually, once he's done with his chores." He then reached down, grabbed the tiny creature by the head, and pitched it out onto the ice of the dumping pond.

And then we all followed Dick back along the fence to the house, our heads --or my head, certainly-- full of all sorts of disturbing images and questions.

The next morning I went out with my brother and some of my cousins to look for the elf, but --sure enough-- it was gone.

I think I believed in that dead little elf longer than I believed in Santa Claus, and it wasn't until a few years later that my older brother told me that what uncle Dick had shown us that night was actually a stillborn pig.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

No Direction Home

Alec Soth
 (Image: Alec Soth. Hearne, Texas)
I possess a dignity and a power founded on ignorance and credulity; I walk on the heads of men who lie prostrate at my feet; if they should rise and look me in the face, I am lost; I must bind them to the ground, therefore, with iron chains. Thus have reasoned the men whom centuries of bigotry have made powerful. They have other powerful men beneath them, and these have still others, who all enrich themselves with the spoils of the poor, grow fat on their blood, and laugh at their stupidity. They all detest tolerance, as partisans grown rich at the public expense fear to render their accounts, and as tyrants dread the word liberty. And then, to crown everything, they hire fanatics to cry at the top of their voices: "Repeat my master's absurdities, tremble, pay, and keep your mouths shut."
--Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary. 1764
A long dispute means that both parties are wrong.
We are surrounded by men stronger than we are: they can harm us in a thousand different ways; three times out of four, they can do it with impunity. What a relief to know that there is in the hearts of all men an inner principle fighting in our behalf and protecting us from these attempts. Without that principle, we could live only in a state of constant alarm; we would walk among men as among lions; and we could never be assured for a moment of our goods, our honor, or our lives.
--Baron de Montesquieu, Persian Letters. 1721 
For the truth certainly would do well enough if she were once left to shift for herself. She seldom has received, and I fear never will receive, much assistance from the power of great men, to whom she is but rarely known, and more rarely welcome. 
--John Locke, "A Letter Concerning Toleration." 1690
It's difficult not to feel disgusted and disenchanted with the current state of politics in this country. With very few exceptions, in fact, I've felt disgusted and disenchanted with American politics since I came of voting age. The first year I was eligible to vote Ronald Reagan won the Presidency, and in the years since there have been precious few occasions when I've felt genuinely stirred by a political candidate --two, actually: Paul Wellstone's first senate race in 1990, and the hopeful rush of Obama's 2008 campaign.

For much of my adult life I've been obsessed with the writers, scientists, and philosophers of the Enlightenment, that astonishing period when so many of the fiercest and most enduring political ideals --the ideals on which American democracy were founded-- were first being formulated. For a man in the 21st century such writings can be a source of heartache. So much hope and so many lovely (and lofty) ideals have been squandered during the more than 250 years since most of those words were written.

The writers of the Enlightenment were wildly idealistic, but they were also keenly aware of the foibles of human nature, religious hypocrisy, and the perils of both greed and power. Thus, in the 1750s, Denis Diderot could write in his Encyclopedie, "There are narrow minds, deformed souls, who are indifferent to the fate of the human race and who are so enclosed in their little group that they see nothing beyond its special interest. These men insist on being called good citizens, and I consent to this, provided that they permit me to call them bad men." And there was the Marquis de Condorces, writing in the late 18th century: "In looking at the history of societies we shall have had occasion to observe that there is often a great difference between the rights that the law allows its citizens and the rights that they actually enjoy, and, again, between the equality established by political codes and that which in fact exists amongst individuals; and we shall have noticed that these differences were one of the principle causes of the destruction of freedom in the ancient republics, or the storms that troubled them, and of the weakness that delivered them over to tyrants. These differences have three main causes: inequality in wealth; inequality in status between the man whose means are hereditary and the man whose means are dependent on the length of his life, or, rather, on the part of his life in which he is capable of work; and, finally, inequality of education."

Reading again those words in 2016, and reading as well the words of the founders of American democracy, is an exercise in exasperation. They have a slippery and double-edged potency, and might be appropriated by people with otherwise wildly divergent beliefs. I'm pretty sure, though, that in my lifetime, beginning in my childhood in a smallish town in the Midwest, I witnessed firsthand the defeat of all those Enlightenment ideals (as I choose to understand them), incrementally and, eventually, catastrophically. I saw my hometown, and other similar towns all over the country, gutted by labor strife and the de facto defeat of organized labor. I watched with dismay as the universal corporate milfoil crept across the nation, town by town and State by State. Family farms lost out to giant agri-business. Main Streets and small, locally-owned businesses were decimated by the incursion of huge corporate retail establishments and franchise restaurants. I saw small banks absorbed by indifferent behemoths, roadside mom-and-pop motels replaced by hideous, prefabricated and endlessly replicated motel chains. I watched as small and once autonomous local radio and television stations whose programming was once full of distinctly local color and character were overrun by the glum, generic, and virtually unlistenable and unwatchable formats of corporate media.

I experienced firsthand, in my own family, the devastations of corporatized medicine and the growth of the sadistic and labyrinthine insurance industry. I've also had exhaustive --and exhausting-- firsthand experience with the disabling and utterly callous game of Russian Roulette that the pharmaceutical companies engage in with the full and unquestioned collusion of the medical establishment.

And in the wake of all these changes --let's call them what they are: predatory and invasive-- economic cataclysm and an epidemic of psychological disorders, loneliness, addiction, crime, and pathological disconnection have followed. People have suffered. Communities have withered, or at the very least the old, quaint conception of "community" has sustained a terrible blow. Even so many of the churches, which in the town of my childhood were so often nurturing and charitable agents of community and compassion, have become political pulpits, divisive, agents of intolerance, mercenary, grasping, insular; capitalist enterprises like any other, and more mega by the year.

In the midst of all these seismic disruptions is it any wonder that our politics have become so strange, so cynical, so angry, and so charged with confusion, helplessness, and disengagement? Everyone seems to have the sense that they're under siege --their rights, their jobs, their way of life, their bodies, their families and communities-- and politics today is so divisive, so polluted with money and influence, and so bogged down by the broken machinery of Washington and the major political parties, that even otherwise principled and like-minded people are at war with each other about who's to blame and what's to be done. People on both sides of the great divide seem at the very least to be united in the two fundamental questions they most want answered--Where did our country go? Who took it?-- even as if often seems that we may be long past any sort of agreement on the answers to those questions.

I know this, though: all those changes I've seen all over the U.S., all those identically-ruined landscapes and small towns and big cities, are not representative of either progress or progressive politics. And politicians at the community, state, and federal levels have been complicit in every step of this force-fed corporatization of America. These politicians didn't just allow those changes; they enabled them and lined their pockets and the coffers of their political parties. Time and again they caved in to special interests and lobbyists; they gutted environmental and safety regulations; they rattled their sabers for destructive and unnecessary wars; they consistently turned their backs on the working class, the poor, and the minority and immigrant communities, and have succeeded in demonizing those populations to a wide and angry segment of the populace.

In my lifetime America has never known a class war or a revolution as either is properly understood. But make no mistake: we have lived through a class war --perhaps the most effective class warfare in modern history-- and a revolution, but they have been pressed, and fought fiercely and absolutely without ethics by the upper class.

It may be too late for those of us who are prisoners of disillusionment and disenchantment, those of us who agree on many, many things, to decide that this country has a soul and that that soul is worth saving. And maybe the writers of the Enlightenment were naive, impractical, and even foolish, but their notions of liberty, democracy, and basic human rights, dignity, and values were crystal clear, and they have been perverted beyond all recognition.

And if, at this late date, we're forced to conclude that all that gossamer, pie-in-the-sky stuff is in fact naive for the time and place and predicament in which we now find ourselves --that it just doesn't work given the complex realities of 21st-century America-- then can't we at least admit to ourselves how dangerously naive it also is to believe that these multi-tentacled corporations and the politicians who do their bidding have our best interests and welfare at heart?

Friday, July 3, 2015

Fourth Of July: Fort Snelling, 1971, And Beyond

Drunk, he could float, an oblivious spectacle. Gentle, wouldn't hurt a fly. People observed as much all the time. But so, so sad he didn't even know that it wasn't in fact the world he was feeling.

He could dream on his feet, standing still or moving. Giant turtles, ancient, crawling again and again from out of the surf in his drowned brain. He didn't know where that came from, but they had been coming ashore for a long, long time.

Turtles. Maybe it was something he'd looked at in a picture book at the library when he was waiting for it to stop raining, or shaking off the cold of another January night spent floating.

He trembled and thought he was being shaken in a pair of giant hands. A single dice. Die. An endless, impossible series of ones.

Often the things he spoke aloud would be remarked upon by complete strangers long after the fact: "Even the trees are unmanageable." That was one thing someone remembered years later. It was no random or idle thought, however. The world he wobbled through was divided by only one straight line in his mind; on one side was a sign that said "Unmanageable," on the other a fading but otherwise similar sign with the word "Manageable."

It was a sort of straight line, anyway, even as a teeming, disorderly city of hallucinations jostled up against the border, permanently exiled from the increasingly desolate and dying town across the way. A hamlet, he would think in the moments when he could still recall such words. A hamlet of the manageable things.

These things were quiet things, generally still and inordinately simple. He couldn't even really name them anymore, but he knew them by their ease. The hands of the woman at the Salvation Army who cut his hair. The dogs who spoke the mute, imploring language of his eyes. The sound of the night and the world retreating. Damp grass against his cheek. Once upon a time.

He depended on the kindness of strangers, and took it on unrecognized faith that the world was full of kind strangers. He had never begged, but he had been fed. He had also, of course, been beaten.

He could no longer remember if he had ever driven a car. He could no longer remember the sound of his mother's voice, or what sort of shoes his father had worn before he wore none. Things broke, of that he was certain. Tears had been shed, some of them surely his own.

He was a little boy. Somebody put a tiny flag in his hand and he waved it and waved it and waved it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Your Man For Fun In Rapidan: An Index

Every entry from Your Man For Fun In Rapidan, 12/28/09-6/25/14: An index of links:

Alchemy. Angels, guild of. Animal Collective, as source of tension in therapist's office. Animals, speaking. Aristotle, extracts from History of Animals. Anthology of American Folk Music, discovery of. Apes, as aviatorsAssociative disorder, a case study. Automobiles, usedBananas, the airbrushing of. Barber, Samuel, Adagio for StringsBarbers, in Livingston, Montana. Beard, inhabited by fairies. Belief, a personal inventoryBergen, Jergen King. Birds, bleak; mysterious locutions of; prehistoric; speaking Farsi; history of talking. Bobagorus, from The Dialogues ofBond, James; only a girl. Bones, waltzing. Books, black; fifty favoriteBoon, D. Bridges, burningBubbles, as meteorological event. Burger King, and human trafficking. Butterflies, the shooting of. Cannibalism, on trial. Carnap, Big Leonard. Carp, hour of the.  Catcher in the Rye, an allusion toCattle, drowning. Cheese, craving. Chickens, hit. Children, three in Texas. Conductors of the Moving World, a mathematical breakdown. Contentment, the slow dazzle of. Country and Western, fifty greatest songs. Dead people, the singing of. Death, before birth. Desire, claimingDevotion, unhappy. DiGrippa, Silvio; Agents of Contagion. Dog, blind; private remarks to. Dogs, on payphones. Dream Motel, official lodging for convention of thwarted dreamers. Dreams, broken. Dying, the; what they do. Elephant, man who married a. Eminem, overheard. End Times, surrender of the Almighty; possible reconsideration. Exploration, an incident from the history of. Eyeglasses, confusion regarding. Ferry, Bryan. Fire, breathing ofbuildings consumed by. Fireflies, falling in love with swallows. Fletcher, Galen. Forever in Bluejeans, gravestone inscription. Fortune cookies, empty. Free, there ain't no. Garden, abandoned. Gettin' Jiggy Wit It, a soundtrack to one summer. Goats, talking. God, as cinematographer; birth of. Golf, miniatureGrasshoppers, in dollhouse. Gratitude, an expression of. Great Maybe Whatever, a plea to. Hamburgers, the business of. Harpo, Slim. Harps, a sanctuary of. Heart, at rest and in motion; pea-picking. Heaven, garbage disposal in; the suburbs of. Help, a cry for. Henley, Don. High jumping, the eroticism of. Highlights magazine. History of Human Futility, museum. History, smothered byHorns, French. Horses, blind; flying. House of Coates, self-promotion surrounding the release of. Hypnagogia, a brief personal history. Imagination, stretching of. Insomnia, a possible cause. Islands, in the North SeaJar, voice in aJazz, groupiesJigsaw puzzle, unfinishedJonah, the rational challenges of.  Keegen Bash, the; a reminiscence. Kitchens, an exercise in forensics. Ladder, as clumsy metaphorLandfill, at the bottom of the day. Lawn statuary. Librarian, disappointed in love. Life, dearLightning, heat. Lions, a choir of. Loneliness, and disgustLoveliness, the difficulty of. Magi, in Soho. Magic Eight Ball, desire for the 'Yes' answer. Make believe, an inquisition regarding. Malls, as factors in depressive episodes. Manistique, anecdotal material regarding. Meat, as community; pining. Memories, pleasant. Mermaid, in a bathtub. Mermaids, obese. Messengers, epiphanicMichigan, Lathrop; in photography. Milkman, dysfunctional. Mind, state of. Minnesota, nice. Monastery, bells. Monk, burningMonks, singing. Morrison, Lester B. Motion sickness, terminal. Mountains, the loneliness of. Munch, Beauteous. Murray's Suave Outlet, pioneering blog. Museum, of soundNabokov, Vladimir. National Poetry Month. Never (never, never). News, localNightmares, an inventory ofas supreme entertainmentsNoise, joyful. Osteoporosis, moral. Otherness. Paradise, a bestiary. Paranoia, religious. Pessoa, Fernando. Pandora, her unfortunate marriage. Philosophy, the consolations of. Photography, an education. Photomart. Pianos, and colonialismPoetry, about birds. Presley, Elvis; in his underwear. Professionals, so-calledPuppetry, sound advice regarding. Puppets, and homicideRabbits, blind, discussing photography. Radio Shack, a love story. Regrets, International Repository of. Relay, of words. Ribs, broken by reading. Rio de Ratones Poetry Society, imports dying castrato. River, woman who was turned into a; Sad Museum, the unspeakable nature of. Saint Nicholas of Myra, pageant of. Salamanders, on the moon. Satan, and the Sacred Bone. Schlegel, Ustave; and the giantess. Schopenhauer, argues with Spinoza about dogs. Science, mysteries of. Scrub pads, in bulk. September Song, part one; part twoShadows, and monsters. Sheep, shivering. Sherman, William Tecumseh; "March to the Sea." Show business, obscurity. Sky, as the limit. Slave, orphans. Snack crackers, bewildering slogans of. Sno-Caps, an appreciative memory. Soup, the god of. Springsteen, Bruce. Squirrels, phantom. Stuttering, and general ostracism. Sushi, truck stop. Table tennis, the Mongoose vs. The Cobra. Talk radio, and the dissolution of a marriage. Tchaikovsky, a remembrance of. Teenagers, moonstruck. Terkel, Studs. Thinking, wishful. Tim Horton's. Time, as snaggle-toothed bastard; rewinding ofTony Orlando, and Dawn. Trees, as unmanageable. Uncle, crying of. Unilever, manufacturer of the Q-TipUpstate, New YorkUrination, public. Wedding party, contemplated by an unmarried woman. Wendell, prized dog. Whiskers, brief history of. Whither, also Wither. Williamson, Sonny Boy. Winter Olympics, Vancouver, 2010. Wishes, simple. Words, uselessness ofWordsworth, William. World, of wonders. Zellar, Dean Wilson

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Strings of Bertie

From the moment she was finished, shoved in a box, and buried under a shower of styrofoam peanuts, Bertie Rathbun understood that through some accident of God she had been given a soul. As she had been dangled in the air at the inspection station, and as her strings were jerked each in turn, jiggling Bertie’s head, hands, arms, legs, and feet against her will, she had caught a glimpse of herself reflected in the eyeglasses of the woman who would initial the packing slip signaling her completion.

Bertie was alarmed not only by what she had seen reflected in the woman’s glasses, but also by the fact that she could see anything at all.

Something had happened, and though she was not quite sure what had happened, Bertie thought that whatever it was had occurred earlier in the afternoon when one of the detailers in finishing –a small, stooped, and melancholy Japanese man who was nearing retirement– had bent over her, puffed his warm breath three times directly into her face, and then buffed her painted features with a soft rag.

The little man had then held Bertie Rathbun before him in his outstretched arms, and with an expression of great sadness on his face addressed her in a quiet voice. What the man said to Bertie, before he carried her into the next room and hung her on a metal rack alongside dozens of other puppets, was this: “Such a pity, little one.”

And in that man’s warm breath, and in his strange, inscrutable statement –somewhere in that series of moments– Bertie’s soul had entered her body.

Perhaps, even, it was not Bertie Rathbun’s soul at all, but the soul of the old man, or a seed from his soul that he planted in her empty chest or head. Bertie didn’t know a thing about souls; she didn’t even know anything about knowing, but it would later occur to her that somehow she’d been given that old man’s broad ignorance and disappointments, his longings and desires and badly faded dreams, dreams that would appear to Bertie as dim and fleeting images on an almost translucent screen.

No sooner was Bertie Rathbun folded up in the darkness of her box and she began to feel the first fierce stirrings of resentment at her fate. She hated the very idea that she was a puppet; even worse was the realization that she was being sent out into the world as the most hopeless and hackneyed of all-purpose metaphors.

Bertie also recalled with horror that glimpse of her own reflection: she had absolutely no idea what sort of puppet she was supposed to be. Was she a mouse? A little boy bear? A kitten? Perhaps, even, a wingless bat?

Like all puppets that have been cursed with consciousness from time immemorial, Bertie Rathbun dreamed of autonomy, of free will, of a life unfettered by her cursed strings and her dependence on the hands and whims and attention spans of complete strangers. Bertie wanted to play the bongo drums and dance of her own volition and, regardless of what sort of creature she was supposed to be, she wanted to live in a hole in a river bank, ride about in boats, and sleep in a luxurious four-poster bed.

All of these thoughts went through Bertie Rathbun’s head during the many days she spent smothered in the darkness of her box and being jostled about and then, eventually, dangled and jerked around in a store full of other bright and noisy toys.

A fat and smiling woman finally purchased Bertie Rathbun one day and took her home and hung her from a fireplace mantle alongside a glowering nun and a stern gladiator, both of which were clearly as devoid of feeling and soul as the leering nutcracker displayed on the ledge above them.

The next morning a little boy came down the stairs and squealed with delight when he saw the puppets hanging above the fireplace. Bertie watched as the boy first took down the gladiator and swung him around the room gracelessly, tangling his strings and then letting him drop in a heap to the floor. She saw the boy crouch to remove the giant sword from the gladiator’s fist, and Bertie felt a spasm of hope and excitement jigging in her chest.

With her eyes Bertie Rathbun tried to implore the boy to cut her strings and set her free. And then she watched with horror as the little boy took the gladiator’s sword and, rather than cutting Bertie’s strings, plunged it directly into, and through, the neck of the nun.

The nun did not make a sound or shed a single tear, but slowly at first, and then in a bright torrent, blood began to stream from the wound in her neck and started to drip, drip, drip down to the fireplace hearth, entirely unnoticed by the little boy, who had moved on to play with the other toys that were splayed beneath the Christmas tree.

And at that moment Bertie Rathbun watched as the translucent screen on which the old man’s dim dreams were displayed in her head went entirely blank, and she felt her soul leave her body.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Any Old Business? Ere Mine Errs Wer E'en O'er...

Good lord, it seems another month is now stretching before me like the long mirage scene in Lawrence of Arabia, a scene I recently spent some time fantasizing about recreating in the windy sand dunes of the Florida Panhandle, with my dog playing the Omar Sharif role. It turned out, however, that try as I might I could not get my trusty dog to move slowly enough. I could not get him to trudge. He is a Chilean Dasher, a very rare specimen, a representative of one of only two dog breeds ever to appear on the endangered species list, and such beasts are simply not built for plodding.

I can trudge and plod enough for both of us, though. That's something I try to remind him of on a daily basis, perhaps as a way of trying to get him to slow down.

Another National Poetry Month, as you may or may not know (or care), has recently come and gone, and though I tried to spend some time each evening properly observing the holiday in my own fashion, I should confess that the last poem I read before the month's expiration left a very bad taste in my mouth. I will not name the poet (he is, so far as I can tell, nothing if not insignificant), but I cannot get these lines from one of his poems --which pretty much exemplify everything I hate about so much poetry-- out of my head: "the sun dies once more in the west/the blush and bruise of vanquished light/ creeps slowly across the/troubled American is/children are anesthetized by television before sleep/in the gloaming along the river/the great heron kneels."

That sort of thing isn't deserving of a month, let alone a moment of silence, let alone a moment of silent contemplation. Yet here I am, sharing it with you, for which I beg your pardon. I was going to try to tell you the story of a boy who was turned into a fox by his father for cheating at bridge, but it's a long story I haven't quite worked out in my head. Suffice it to say that in the end the boy --who hated bridge yet was forced to play it each night with his parents-- discovers that he rather enjoys being a fox, and eventually --quite soon, in fact-- recognizes that his father has done him an unintended kindness, which inspires the only actual feeling of affection he will ever feel for his father, the great project of whose life was building a pyramid out of garbage deep in the woods. The garbage, as I imagined it in contemplating the writing of the story, was gathered each day by the mother, who would leave the family's modest cabin each morning at the first light of dawn, outfitted in an orange jumpsuit and toting an armful of burlap bags, and return, exhausted, after darkness had fallen --having traveled great distances and filled as many bags as she could carry with garbage-- just in time to eat an uninspired dinner and play bridge with her husband and son.

There's really no reason now that I'll ever have to tell that story. It's likely no reason ever existed, but I nonetheless have time on my hands and feel compelled to think of something.

Tonight, earlier, I was thinking of some kind of great river metaphor --lame, I know, but I'll generally spend at least a little time mulling whatever comes to me, if anything comes to me at all, and I'm sometimes grateful when something does. Sometimes not so grateful, of course, particularly when I'm feeling all mulled out, which is often.

Anyway, I was thinking of this river, which in my imagination is too big and moves too swiftly, and this size and ferocity combined with the sense I almost always have that the ground is moving beneath my feet, makes it impossible to accurately ascertain what exactly the river is and contains, other than everything. Even so, I like to at least try to discern the constituent parts of things I'm looking at, even imaginary things, and I was --and am-- bothered by my inability to see all the things that are moving --or not moving, either temporarily (because they are stuck), or permanently (also because they are stuck, but in a different way)-- beneath the surface of the river, which I became more and more convinced was everything. Perhaps this business was prompted by the enigmatic phrase uttered to me by a hermit who lived at the edge of a swamp on the Florida Panhandle. In answer to my request for directions to the Apalachicola River he had replied, without a moment of hesitation, "Hell, son, it's all the river."

I should say, regarding part of the above (the phrase "beneath the surface"), that I mean supposing there is a surface and we can agree what it is. Does the notion of a bottom necessitate a surface? Is the surface a starting point, or a sort of platform, the place from which one's fall commences, or commenced?

By this point I'm just going to assume that you have no idea what I'm talking about. Which is fine, but consider this: What is Ike Quebec, whose music is on the stereo as I type, doing right this moment, a moment that has sustained itself and been replaying over and over (if only hypothetically, but, make no mistake, I am hearing a dead man breathing) for fifty years now? What is he doing if not going down a river?

The wonders of recorded sound and all art, all preservation that, in one way or another, moves: You can just keep sending these boats down the river --the same river, yet, in both Heraclitian and literal terms, a different river-- again and again and again. And fifty years from now some poor fool, similarly addled as myself, will still be able to put Ike Quebec's boat in the water and listen to it go. The same fool could also launch any one of the boats from the foxed fleets of, say, Henry James or Henry Adams, William Trevor or William James, and every one of them would still float and still take the fool somewhere else.

And now I'm thinking of all the ghost boats on my shelves, continually going down the river, or waiting to go back down the river. The ghosts don't even have to paddle anymore; long, long ago (or maybe not that long ago) they built their boats out of words and sound, put them in the water, and the river carries them still.

The thing is, I guess, is that I always wanted to build boats that would still be going down that river when I'm gone, even if they spend the rest of forever traveling exclusively under the cover of darkness. Even if they're just docked on some lonely stretch of backwater, a lone lamp burning in the cabin into the wee hours, waiting for one more launch, one more trip back into the dreaming world that is the river.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Like Listening To A House Full Of Music Breathe

I once had a job driving harps to market.

For a thousand miles across the Great Plains the wind blew through the open slats of the truck and the harps jostled in their trusses and keened mercilessly. By the time I pulled into the market stalls in Chicago some of them were still humming, but it was nothing like their highway music.

If I live for another hundred years I won't forget that sound.

There was no demand for harps anymore, and every one of those poor sons of bitches was destined for slaughter or salvage. You might think you've heard some piteous sounds in your life, but you haven't heard anything until you've heard a harp being slaughtered. It seemed like the dying just went on forever. It was like listening to a house full of music burn.

That was a desperate time in my life. I needed the money, but after three trips I couldn't take it anymore. When I'd unloaded my last bunch of harps in Chicago I started talking. I wrote letters to the editors of local papers. I made phone calls. With the help of my daughter I started a Facebook page to call attention to the plight of the doomed harps. A young couple in Aberdeen started a shelter, but in six months they only managed to find homes for three of the harps, two of which showed up almost immediately on eBay and went unsold. One of those was eventually found busted up in a truckstop dumpster near Rapid City.

When the shelter couple lost their lease I agreed to foot the bill for a couple storage units at a place just outside of town, and with the help of a few friends I hauled all the remaining harps out there and packed them in so tight they could barely breathe. There was no light or heat in those units, and it was the dead of winter. The thought of it kept me up nights.

Then, just as spring was finally breaking out in earnest, I got an email from a woman in the western part of the state. She said she had a big family spread and was willing to set aside a parcel of land for a harp sanctuary.

In early May I rented a truck --the same sort of truck I used to drive back and forth to Chicago-- and loaded the harps. On the trip out there I got to hear their old highway music one more time, but I swear it sounded different headed west. Lighter, I think.

The woman had recruited a lively group of volunteers to help us move the harps out into the range. After we got them all situated --there were 61 total-- we walked silently back across all that open space; behind us we could already hear the harps beginning to breathe again.

By the time we got back to the woman's ranch house, dusk was settling. It was a warm night, but a gentle breeze was blowing and the harps had begun to really sing.

We all just stood there in the driveway and listened until there was nothing but the darkness and the music of those harps moving on the wind. Pretty much everyone agreed it was the most beautiful goddamn thing they'd ever heard.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Woman, The River, The Sand

One day a long time ago a sad and beautiful woman was turned into a river. This transformation was intended to be a punishment for perceived insolence to the gods, who felt that the sad and beautiful woman was not sufficiently appreciative of her many gifts.

The woman, however, quickly discovered that she rather enjoyed being a river. It was never boring and all day and all night she was singing and moving and going places. All she had to do was shake her hair and all sorts of interesting things happened. Sometimes --often, actually-- she saw faces and heard voices, and some of these were familiar to her from her days as a sad and beautiful woman. As a river she had the marvelous gift of being in many places at the same time. She traveled again and again, ceaselessly, past the little town where she had grown up and lived her entire life. Nothing there seemed to have changed since she had been turned into a river.

She heard the happy laughter of children, the voices of fishermen, and the women who gathered in the shallows to thrash their laundry on the rocks. Everyone seemed happy. It was possible, she realized, that the people she had once known loved her more as a river than they had as a woman. She herself had never been very happy in that place and had always felt that she was a burden to her old mother, whose own life had been a constant trial since the gods had turned her husband into a serpent for cursing the wind.

Every day the woman who had been turned into a river felt more and more delighted by her existence as moving water. She had never been so free as a human, and often had occasion to wish that she had affronted the gods much earlier than she had. It was liberating to have no bones, and no appetite for anything but grace, transition, and transformation. She did, though, love the rain, and looked forward to the quiet and endlessly fascinating changes that winter brought. Any displeasing trespass she was capable of disgorging with relative ease, but many pleasing things also, of course, found their way into the river, and these things she collected, treasured, puzzled over, and dispensed as gifts and surprises to favored visitors.

At some point, however, the gods recognized that their punishment had been received as a reward, and their response was swift and merciless. Jove ordered the river's desiccation, and the once moving water became an arid trench, and the woman was turned to sand.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Long And Fruitful Life, For Which Operating Instructions Were Unfortunately Never Located

Too much lurching makes a crooked man, and this is for damn sure a world full of crooked men. Is there such a thing as moral osteoporosis? I'd say there should be, because I don't see a whole of people standing upright.

Me? I can hardly stand, period, so understand that I'm not pointing fingers.

Good lord, here's a horn chart from Nigeria (c. 1972) that's straight off a Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass record from my salad days.

Okay, listen, I do have a message: somebody has to discover the worlds this world refuses to discover.

Once upon a time I intended to be one such person, but I've run out of gas and I've been having a hard time breathing and getting out of bed in the afternoon. I am 100 years old today. That is, I'm sure you'll agree, a long time to live, and almost certainly too old to still be buying Hold Steady records. The fact of the matter is that I may not live through this night, and that possibility, repeated over too many nights, will take an old man's thoughts on dim and bittersweet journeys.

How many kindred spirits, I wonder tonight, does a fortunate man encounter in his lifetime? I'm thinking of truly kindred spirits, the sorts of people in whose company one can be both fully himself and fully alive, and at the same time have the unswerving sense that he's being seen and understood with absolute clarity.

I don't have an answer to this question, unfortunately. I'm sure there are those who, owing to the place or circumstances of their upbringing, or just plain misfortune, never bump into a true kindred spirit in their entire lives.

I once imagined a band of kindred spirits, possessed of almost genetically-linked imaginations, instinctively inclined to easy collaboration and boundless curiosity, working together over many years to create an encyclopedia of that collective imagination, complete with elaborate and fictional biographies, histories, maps, bibliographies, discographies, filmographies, photos, and art.

I guess what I was after was a scene, a movement, something that would be assigned a name that would resonate into posterity.

It didn't happen, of course. I met the occasional kindred spirit, but they've been surprisingly rare. Most people just aren't crazy enough, and the world conspires against long term relationships of any sort. People are always pulling up stakes, acquiring new affiliations, growing up and old, and settling in and down. I've long despised the word "bohemian," but in my dotage I do find myself wishing the modern world turned out more people who genuinely fit the job description, as it were. Plenty can master the pose --and that's often all it takes to make one's name as some sort of artist or eccentric-- but the real deal strikes me as a very rare creature indeed.

I never entirely gave up on my encyclopedia --it has, in fact, sprawled off in many unexpected directions-- but I lost a good deal of steam as I aged, and in middle age turned much of my attention to a series of suicide scrapbooks. I now have a half dozen of these things, compiled at ten-year intervals. In many ways I like to believe I was ahead of my time in at least one respect; back in the 1960s I had an acquaintance who was one of these courtroom artists, and I hired her to produce aged portraits of me as I might look at fifty, sixty, and seventy. I can now report to you that many of these renderings, which she did annually over that thirty-year period, turned out of be uncannily accurate.

I've also written and updated countless versions of my own obituary, penned reviews of the dozens of books I never published (or wrote), as well as fond remembrances from a long list of old friends, acquaintances, and the scores of fictional companions who have proved to be my most steadfast collaborators. I've even, on at least a half dozen occasions, mustered the inspiration to compose poems in my own memory.

Paging through these scrapbooks now, on what could very well be the last night of my long and mostly happy life, I see photographs, random notes on scraps of paper, quotes, book and record receipts, old gym and library cards, as well as dozens of other forms of identification that prove I was once a reasonably active member of society; several sets of dog tags that once jangled from the collars of beloved dogs (and dozens upon dozens of photos of those dear creatures), postcards and other mementos from out-of-the-way places I've visited, and various other found scraps and curiosities.

There are a half dozen set lists (compiled at different junctures) of songs to remember me by, or at least songs that were once capable of stirring in me some old happiness or sense of the preciousness of life.

For each scrapbook there is, obviously, a suicide note (in some decades there are dozens), as well as letters to friends and family members, and some attempt to divvy up my possessions, or at least to insure that certain objects of significance to me were placed in loving and properly appreciative homes. With each passing year I have assembled an ever larger (and, frankly, obsessive) photographic inventory of my favorite things, including individual books and records.

In 1990, when I turned 80, I decided that I wished to have my cremains cooked down until they corresponded as closely as possible to my birth weight. I've made it clear that I don't wish to have my ashes merely flung about, but would prefer to have some inspired person incorporate them into some beautiful piece of art.

Traditionally the last dozen pages of each of my suicide scrapbooks have been blank, and black. That was always meant to be symbolic; so much life yet to be lived, and all that. I now wonder, though, if there might not have been a bit of optimistic thinking behind the gesture --it was possible, after all, that there was still more life to come, and more material for future suicide scrapbooks. I'm not sure, however, that optimistic thinking could properly be said to have ever played a role in the assembly of something so portentous as a suicide scrapbook.

The scrapbooks --along with the tottering mess of my encyclopedia-- are here beside my bed right now, and they will perhaps be of some mild interest to some stranger should this, in fact, prove to be my last night as a resident of this beautiful and merciless world, and this the last entry in the last of my suicide scrapbooks.

I will miss a great deal, I'm certain, but pretty much everyone and everything I would miss I've already been missing for far too long.

I have very little in the way of advice to surviving members of my traveling party, other than perhaps this: Carry a tune. Carry it with you until it's capable of making you and those dear to you dance.

I wish I had done this more often.

"Whoever brought me here is going to have to take me home."

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Gift That Sets The Stars Free

One night long ago in a once-upon-a-time world there was a little lost dog in a faraway forest. The dog was alone and hungry, and it was a bitter winter. The dog was settling into the den he had burrowed for himself in the snow around the roots of a tree, and as he curled up in the darkness he heard the distant shimmer of bells and, a moment later, voices carrying in the cold night air, a great many voices joined in some happy song. The dog had never known anyone to pass through the faraway forest, not once in his lost time in that lonely place had he heard voices like these, or the beautiful and wondrous stamping of bells.

The little dog crept to the edge of his den and sniffed, peering, in the direction of the music. A moment later, light from the many torches of the travelers swept creeping shadows into the clearing outside the den, then chased completely the darkness before them and  became full, hissing light. The dog watched in wonder as the brightly clad travelers –laughing and singing—paraded into view, enveloped in a moving cloud of steam and smoke.

There were tiny acrobats and a tall, thin fellow toddling on stilts and several laughing jugglers. There were five shy horses pulling bright clattering wagons, and interspersed amongst the parade were dozens of chattering clowns. At the very end of this colorful parade, lagging almost outside the very last of the torchlight, there was a small, limping clown, leading an old and slow donkey. As the dog crept from his hiding place, the happy songs and jangling bells of the travelers were already fading away into the distance and the darkness of the faraway forest. 

The dog trotted along after the parade and soon found himself beside the limping clown and the old donkey. When finally the sad-faced clown became aware of the dog’s presence, a look of surprise and happiness came over his face and he let out a cry that startled the little dog. The clown crouched in the snow alongside the donkey and clapped his hands and called out, and when the dog came into the clown’s arms the little clown began to laugh and the small, laughing clown held the dog in his arms, rocking him gently and murmuring. 

The clown –murmuring and giggling happily all the while—carried the dog in his arms as they brought up the rear of the noisy and colorful and clanking parade. 

They traveled that night until the torches had all burned down to darkness, and then they stopped and set up their camp along a frozen river. It had grown cold, and the travelers bundled together under their blankets beside roaring fires, with the horses and the donkey huddled stamping and steaming just outside the circle of jugglers, acrobats, and clowns. 

The clown had swaddled the lost dog in an old wool blanket, and he held the dog in his arms and rocked him as the others told stories and laughed and gradually drifted into silence and sleep. 

The clown’s name was Munch, or so he was known to his fellow travelers, and now he whispered to the dog in his arms, “I shall call you Beauteous Munch.” Together they sat up until the bonfire had faded to embers, and together they saw a sky above them where there were millions upon millions of bright stars. The clown sang quiet songs and interrupted himself at one point to say, “Look, Beauteous Munch, there goes a shooting star!  Sweet dreams, my little wish.”

And that night, as he lay curled up beneath the blankets with the little clown, Beauteous Munch was warm and slept without shivering for the first time since the long ago day when he had first found himself lost in the faraway forest.

There had been a time when Beauteous Munch was a puppy living contentedly with his mother and his brothers and sisters in a wooden box in a small town. One day a man and woman had come to take him away to live with them in their house. They were loud and unhappy people, and try as he might Beauteous Munch could not make them any less unhappy. The old man was impatient with Beauteous Munch and shouted at him often.

All day Beauteous Munch would sit at the window staring out at the children playing in the street and passing by his house. Then one day when the nights were beginning to get cold, the man put Beauteous Munch outside. It was raining very hard, and cry as he might and scratch at the door as he did, Beauteous Munch could not get the old man or woman to open the door for him so he could come in out of the rain. Beauteous Munch sat on the steps of the house for a long time that night, until he saw the lamp in the front room extinguished and it was dark up and down the street and the rain was beginning to turn to snow. That was the night Beauteous Munch wandered away and eventually found himself lost in the faraway forest.

That first night away from his home Beauteous Munch tried to sleep, but he was wet and cold and lonely. He missed his long ago once-upon-a-time life. He peered up through the big, wet snowflakes that were cart-wheeling out of the sky and he found a star there barely twinkling, a little star that looked lost and distant and alone. And as Beauteous Munch closed his eyes he wished upon that lost and distant star, wished that somewhere there was another wish lost and longing for a dog, and that attached to that wish was someone special with quiet magic in his hands and a soft voice and a smile that could wag a dog’s tail.

That same night, far away from the faraway forest, Munch the clown was bundled up in a blanket next to his donkey, listening to the laughter and the songs of his traveling companions. He was stout and not as graceful as the others, nor as skilled. Even as a clown his only real role was to lead the donkey and the horses around the ring, and to assist some of the performers with their stunts. He could not sing, and because he spoke with a slight stutter he was the quietest of the troupe, and tended to settle by himself into the background, talking quietly with the donkey and the horses. 

The little clown looked up into the sky and wished upon a distant star; he closed his eyes and showed his crooked teeth to the moon and offered only the simplest and most humble of wishes: Please, he whispered, Something Nice.  Something happy.  A small, happy thing.

 And so it was that on the first night he spent with Beauteous Munch, the little clown saw the beautiful shooting star tumble all the way down the sky and he thought to himself, So that is what happens when two wishes collide with one another: An old star is freed from the heavens and falls into a distant sea where it becomes a thousand bright and glimmering fishes. A wish come true is a gift that sets the stars free.

And that is the story of how Beauteous Munch came to live with Munch the clown. Together they learned many tremendous and difficult tricks; the little clown taught Beauteous Munch  to ride on the old donkey’s back and walk across a rope and leap through the tiniest of hoops, and all the signs the performers took around and posted in the towns and villages now said “BEAUTEOUS MUNCH –WONDERFUL SHOW DOG!” He was very popular indeed, and people would come from far and wide to see the amazing clown and his astonishing dog.

On clear nights, as Beauteous Munch and his friend the clown tuckled up and drifted off to sleep, they would stare into the sky above them and watch with drowsy wonder as star after star tumbled through the darkness and somewhere, they knew, a wish had come true.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Next Year All Our Troubles Will Be Out Of Sight

 A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark, mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
          --James Joyce, "The Dead." 
Sleep, lucky world.
A star is born.
No, sorry: A child.
The star was just an announcement
to this little light lost.

I would follow a star
like that if it was
the dead of night
and I was alone with a bunch
of shivering sheep.

Even, I suppose,
if I was a wise man
on some sort of inexplicable
no-girls-allowed walkabout
in the desert.

I think it was a desert.
I imagine it was.
I'm sure it felt like one.

Trust me, though,
beneath these ribs lurks
the heart of a true believer
with a big, booming drum
and a feather in his cap.

I'll believe anything if it can
make me feel like something
other than a disposable
razor or a pink, quivering
grub nestled in shavings.

For God's sake, people,
there is not one thing you
could ever say that would
convince me that I am not
the proud father of a dog.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Fall On Your Knees

It was a quiet horse, the color of gray corduroy, or those elephant slabs of damp clay wrapped in cellophane. They delivered the horse to the pasture out back of my trailer, and it had taken four men to coax her from the truck. She didn’t kick or fuss, but simply refused to budge. I’d paid 100 dollars for the horse to save it from being put down. My old girlfriend had a pathological weakness for downtrodden animals of all kinds.

One of the delivery fellows kept referring to the horse as ‘daft,’ which I thought was an unusual word choice for a young man who couldn’t have been more than 25 years of age. I didn’t think the horse was daft, at any rate, just depressed. She tended to stand in one place out in the pasture, with her head down, and I very seldom saw her eat.

I’d never in my life spent Christmas alone. The day before Christmas Eve I’d driven into the nearest decent-sized city, a college town of maybe 70,000 people, just under a half hour’s drive from my trailer. The city was crowded with last minute shoppers from the small towns that were clustered in the long valleys throughout the mountains. I’d stopped at some cheap steak chain for lunch, and later splurged on a bunch of new CDs for myself and nearly fifty bucks worth of treats for my dog. Heavy snow was falling even as I made my way back out of town, and by the time I pulled into the half-mile gravel road that led to my trailer visibility had been reduced to next to nothing.
I stumbled through the blowing snow to the door of the trailer. My dog, a mongrel so strained as to look exotic, was waiting for me in a state of pitched agitation, and I opened the door and watched the dog disappear into the whiteout beyond the trailer.
That night I drank enough to feel genuinely sorry for myself, and almost managed to talk myself into flying out the next day to spend Christmas with my sister’s family in Colorado. 
The next morning, Christmas Eve, I woke up on the couch, as hungover as I’d been in years.The trailer was completely drifted in, and the wind was still tossing snow around and obscuring the range down the valley to the north. I’d left every light on in the trailer. The only radio station I could pick up in the valley was wheedling with Christmas carols, the signal drifting in and out –some choir somewhere, with a big echo effect that suggested a live feed from a cathedral.  I was determined to drink down some Alka-Seltzer and go back to bed, but I realized with a start that my dog was still someplace out in the storm. It was rare that I would allow the dog to spend the night outside in any weather.

I went to the door and called out into the blowing snow. There was no response, and I still could not even make out the gray horse in the pasture less than 100 yards away. I pulled on a pair of boots, parka, mittens, and a hat with earflaps, and ventured out into the drifts. My truck was almost completely buried. I tried to call out into the snow for the dog, but my voice was swallowed in the swirling wind. Wading knee- and sometimes hip-deep through the drifts I made my way around the side of the trailer and managed somehow to locate one of the fence posts from the horse pasture. I couldn’t see much, or far, but there was no sign of either the dog or the horse.
I crawled back into bed, bundled myself in blankets, and tried to take a nap. My head was throbbing, and as I lay there I kept imagining that I heard the dog barking somewhere out in the storm. I actually got up and went to the door twice, but there was no sign of the dog and no sound other than the howling of the wind. Even as I slept fitfully I was aware of my heart pinging in my chest like a sonar in an abandoned submarine.

I’d traveled so far from the person I had once been that the people I’d allowed myself to be close to, as well as those to whom I was conjoined by blood, had become mostly uncomfortable strangers to me. I had drifted out of touch. I had no axe to grind, no extravagant grievance or baggage, and it now seemed sad and even a bit shameful to think that my mother did not even know where I was now living or how to get in touch with me. I hadn’t spoken with her in over ten months. When my girlfriend had grown tired of the west and had moved back to Boston –it had been almost two years—I’d given up the apartment in Bozeman and taken the trailer in the valley. I was supposed to be finishing a set of illustrations for a children’s book, but hadn’t made any progress in weeks.
I’d been traveling further into loneliness and its odd, romanticized solace and pleasures. My girlfriend had been in possession of a more polished set of social instincts. She’d been an English professor at a local college, and liked to host small gatherings, enjoyed going out for dinner and shopping. Left to my own devices I seldom did anything that might be considered social. I had made few real friends in the years I’d been living in the west, and still hadn’t even bothered to have the trailer wired for a telephone. The dog was a perfect companion: a good listener, an enforcer of routine and a reasonable order in each day. It was also patient, even-tempered, and eager to please –absolutely companionable. That Man’s Best Friend business really was not overstating, not in this instance. It was unconscionable that I’d allowed myself to get so drunk that I’d left the dog outside in a raging blizzard all night. The poor animal could have strayed miles in search of shelter by this time. 

The odd thing about the whole affair was that I’d seldom even gone into town without taking the dog along. I’d been made careless by melancholy and drink, and I would chew myself up forever with grief if anything had happened to him. As I lay there drifting miserably along the blurriest edges of sleep and hangover, I imagined being hounded to the end of my days by the ghost of that dog. In the two preceding years the only real highlights of the holiday season had been the long walks down the valley we had taken together on Christmas Eve.
I finally bundled myself up again and ventured out in what was left of the afternoon daylight to look for the dog. The storm had apparently lifted or moved on; I could see the last of the clouds departing down the valley. The odd and alarming new development was that not only was my dog missing, but there was no sign of the gray horse anywhere in the pasture. The sky had cleared to the point that I could see the entirety of the horse’s fenced enclosure, and the horse was nowhere to be seen. I waddled along the drifts that were built up along the fence line and inspected the gate. It was not only firmly latched, but drifted completely shut.  I walked the length of the road to my trailer, all the way out to where it intersected the main gravel road that led out to the state highway. I saw no evidence of any traffic whatsoever, no animal or vehicle tracks other than those from my own truck the previous evening, and even those were mostly obscured.
I managed to get the truck started and backed out to the turnaround.  From there the four-wheel drive got me through the drifted snow out to the gravel county road, which was in pretty good shape.  From there to the blacktop state highway, a distance of just under two miles, I saw no signs of either the dog or the horse. Once I hit the stop sign at the highway I decided to make another trip into town. I had no idea what I expected to accomplish there on Christmas Eve; it was almost five o’clock and already getting dark. The highway had been plowed and road conditions were fine. There were still Christmas carols looping on the radio station, and I made up my mind to attend Christmas Eve services at some church in town. I hadn’t been in a church in a half dozen years, at least, but I had fond memories of the holiday services from my childhood, and felt very much like a man who needed somehow to be forgiven. If God was ever going to grab me, I’d never felt so susceptible. 
In town I found a phone book and tried to call the local animal shelter, but got the answering machine and a deadpan voice wishing me a merry Christmas and encouraging me to neuter my dog. I walked around downtown checking telephone poles and bulletin boards where I thought I might find notices of lost and found animals, but turned up nothing that fit the description of my dog. In the empty Greyhound station I picked up a copy of the local newspaper and found an advertisement for Christmas Eve services at area churches. There was a six o’clock service at a big Lutheran church right in town, so I left my truck on the street and went off in search of the place. 
The service was packed with families, and there were dozens of scrubbed and squirming children. I had a tough time staying awake through some of the readings and much of the sermon, but I nonetheless felt somehow better for having gone. My heart felt lighter and heavier at the same time, a strangely emotional state that I have always associated with the holidays. As I walked back to my truck I was greeted warmly by at least a half dozen strangers. I remembered my late father coming in from a last-minute errand on Christmas eve long ago; the old man was rosy-cheeked, half in the bag, and happy as a clam. He was a man who loved special occasions, and as he came in with his arms loaded with shopping bags he had bellowed, “The whole damn town is lousy with Christmas spirit!”
All the way out to the trailer I tried to repair the years in my mind, to line up memories and freeze them in a place where there had still seemed to be so much time, all the time that had since carried me past dark off-ramps, dimly-lit intersections, and all the forks where I had chosen –or, unconsciously, not chosen—the direction that had led me to this road along which I was now driving. I’d basically always let each day shove me wherever it wanted, and when it stopped shoving I stayed put. I missed the old man, a guy who’d been a shover, a dictator in the best and most intoxicating way; he’d always gone his own way and dragged others along who were helpless to resist him, right to the end. After he died my mother had admitted that she’d been little more than one more of his tag-alongs. “He told me he was going to marry me,” she said, “and I believed him.”
Back at the trailer I stood out in the middle of the drifted-in driveway and called out to the dog.  The sky had been blown entirely clear of clouds. I stood and watched a jet make its way right through Orion’s belt in the east. It was already close to nine o’clock, and I went back into the trailer, mixed myself a glass of eggnog, and managed to nod off on the couch for a time. At some point I was awakened by what I thought were bells. I sat up in the dark and listened. All was silent, and then I heard voices. I pulled on my boots and stepped outside the trailer. It was a gorgeous night. I could see the Christmas lights twinkling from my neighbor’s yard across the valley. The trees at the farthest edge of my fence line seemed to be nested with glowing corposants. I walked around the trailer and there, a hundred yards away in the pasture, was my dog, sitting attentively before the gray horse.
The horse was standing perhaps three feet from the dog, and her big head was hanging directly above the dog’s, and their joint breathing had created a surreal little pocket of steam in which they seemed frozen. It was an absolutely clear night, eerily quiet. The horse appeared to be conversing with the dog, and as I approached the fence I swore I heard the words –clear as they could possibly be: “And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.’” The dog emitted what sounded like a hoarse, incredulous chuckle. From across the valley I heard once again the ringing of bells. Stars were stretched out above me, precise, detailed constellations, the clear, dusty clutter of the Milky Way. I was astonished to see fireworks bloom suddenly above the valley in the distance, and was inexplicably moved to see the dog and the horse raise their heads in unison to marvel at the display. 
I let out a belly laugh that snapped out into the cold air and was quickly swallowed up, and at that precise moment my dog turned and saw me. As he came bounding in my direction I fell to my knees in the snow, opened my arms wide, and braced for the impact.