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nonfiction

Ron Yates author

Kintsugi

by L.D. Zane

 

“You really shouldn’t go back into the house.” Dori, always the reassuring voice of reason, was concerned.

“And why not? I still have some things in the house which are mine, and I have the right to collect them.”

“This isn’t about rights. It’s about being smart and not giving them ammunition to use against you. And because your attorney advised against it. With you no longer on the deed, he said they could consider it trespassing. Knowing your brother, he’s just crazy enough to press charges.” There was no anger in her voice. It was more like trepidation, bordering on fear.

“He only advised against it. He didn’t say I shouldn’t or couldn’t do it.”

“It’s the same thing and you know it.”

“Maybe so, but how will they know when they’re in Florida?”

“There’s no maybe about it. Besides, I wouldn’t put it past him to have the neighbors watch the house and report to him. You know, Ian, you’re sounding like a child throwing a tantrum. I don’t know why you hired and paid for an attorney if you’re not going to follow his advice.”

 

I was one of a triad of owners of the house in which I grew up—the other two being my older brother and his mother. Even though she is our biological mother, I long ago stopped referring to her as my mother. I just refer to her by her name—Gertrude. My brother doesn’t feel the same way.

She caused the divide when I was born, about three years after my father returned from the battlefields of Europe. Gertrude had raised my brother, Henry, alone for the better part of two years—a year while my father was still in Europe, and another while he was recovering at an Army hospital in Kentucky from a third wound he suffered—this one at the German border, while serving with Patton’s Third Army. She insisted that since she bore the burden of raising Henry for the first two years of his life, and my father really had no bond with my brother after his return, that I would be his responsibility. “This one is yours,” Gertrude said to my father, matter-of-factly. Like two once-friends kids returning baseball cards.

I’ve never been sure why she felt that way. It didn’t seem natural. None of my friends’ parents ever did that—at least as far as I knew. Maybe she was just tired, didn’t really want me, or was angry at my father for leaving her, regardless of the circumstances. Nonetheless, it was a responsibility my father gladly and wholeheartedly accepted. I was his son, and my brother was hers. There was never any sense of kinship between me and my brother and his mother. It was like two separate and distinct families living in the same house.

My father would take me everywhere. He would only take Henry if he asked to come along, which wasn’t often, or when we went somewhere as a family—like on vacation, or to an Army reunion, or to visit my father’s family in Chicago.

When my father drove a delivery truck for a restaurant food service company, he would take me to make a weekend emergency delivery. The truck had a manual transmission with a huge shift lever on the floor, and he would let me shift it into gear. At eight years of age, that lever seemed as big as me. He would say, “Ready…go!” and I would push or pull the lever to the proper gear as he depressed the clutch. I had to use both hands and all of my strength. Even if I would grind the gear into place, he would always tell me I did a great job, and tousle my tangled crop of red hair.

He, too, had red, wavy hair—like many of his siblings and family members—and a fair complexion which accented his blue eyes. At six-two, and now in his early thirties with the same physique as when he left the Army, he was a strikingly handsome man with movie star looks, who always drew the gaze of ladies—even if he was with my mother, or they with another man—and even from a few envious men.

The man had a quiet intellect. With only a high school education, he could still finish The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in about an hour without the aid of a dictionary or thesaurus. Although he was a congenial guy who could make you his friend in an instant with his easy smile and soft-spoken manner, my father was a man of few words and fewer nuances who always kept his own counsel. When he spoke, there was no ambiguity. You listened.

One event still stands out. He took me by train to Philadelphia at a time when there was still passenger train service from our small town. He didn’t ask my brother to come along. Other than my trips to Chicago—which were cloistered visits to see my uncles, aunts and cousins—it was my first trip to a big city with my father as a personal guide. He stopped a policeman to ask directions to a museum. The officer had a blasé demeanor and didn’t look approachable—until my father addressed him. Each instantly recognized the other was in the war and began to chat.

“Ninety-Fifth Infantry Division. The Iron Men of Metz. Patton’s Third,” my father proudly stated.

“The Big Red One,” the officer responded with equal pride standing almost at attention.

“We fought and slept in the same mud and dirt,” my father said somberly.

“You bet we did, and we lived to tell about it. What can I do for you, soldier?”

“My son and I need directions. Can you help?”

The officer listened, then took out his note pad and wrote down the directions to the museum, and even suggested a few other sites of interest. My father introduced me to the officer, who shook my hand. After a few more minutes talking, they shook hands and slapped each other’s shoulders as they said good-bye, as if they were long-time friends. I suppose in a way, they were. I swear if the officer would have been allowed to do so, he would have used his police car as a taxi for us! My father was that good, but it wasn’t a front. He was genuine; the real deal. The best natural salesperson I have ever met.

My fondest memories, however, were of when I helped my father cook. He didn’t get the opportunity all that often with his work schedule, but how he enjoyed it when he did. The TV shows of the day portrayed a mother who stayed at home and prepared meals, and a family who sat for dinner in the dining room at a set time every day. This most definitely was not our home.

Gertrude owned a woman’s dress shop, and my father—before he finally landed a job with the post office and had a predictable schedule—rarely sat for meals with the rest of his family. He usually ate alone late at night, most times after his family was already in bed which, in retrospect, still saddens me. Perhaps that’s why I still would rather not eat than eat alone. But when he was able to do so, mostly on the weekends, he did the cooking. My brother and I were thankful, as Gertrude really had no desire, nor talent, for cooking. To this day, I do not eat at any place that advertises meals: Like Mother used to make.

One of my father’s favorite pieces of cooking equipment was a big blue, glazed ceramic mixing bowl. I don’t know where he bought it, but I always assumed it was secondhand—probably a throwaway from one of his restaurant customers—being it already showed wear with numerous chips around the edges which exposed the white ceramic. Not good enough for a diner or restaurant, but more than good enough for our eating establishment.

He would always invite me to help him mix the ingredients du jour. We would both get our hands into the bowl—my small hands squeezing around his large hands—and enjoy feeling the texture of the mix. We didn’t talk much. We didn’t have to. Our smiles said it all.

 

“So … let me understand this—you want to sneak back into a house which you couldn’t wait to leave, and even went so far as to have your name removed from the deed, all at the risk of being charged with trespassing to retrieve an old mixing bowl. Did I get it right, Ian?”

Her tone started out sarcastically, morphed into incredulity, and ended with her being totally pissed off. I was relieved she was on the other end of the phone.

“It’s not just some old mixing bowl. It was my father’s, and now it sits in the dark, behind a cupboard door, over a stove, in an empty house.” I was passionate in my defense and could hear my voice rise. But it wasn’t anger I was feeling. All I could think about was how my father came home late at night, and ate his dinner alone at the kitchen table by the dim solitary light that was built into the range hood, while the rest of us were comfortably asleep. Not once did I get out of bed to join him, or ask how his day went. Now I felt ashamed for being so selfish. All he ever wanted to do was make a little boy—his son—smile, and asked for nothing in return. Now that bowl was alone, and this was my opportunity to redeem myself; to make sure it never again sat in the dark alone. “I won’t let it happen again, Dori.”

“Let what happen again?” her tone becoming decidedly softer.

“Never mind. You wouldn’t understand. I’m going to get it.”

“Okay, Ian. But think about this. What if your brother makes an unannounced visit to the house and is standing there when you walk in? Do you have any idea what will happen next? Do you even care?”

I remained silent, and she filled the void.

“All hell will break loose, Ian. He’s crazy enough to have you arrested.” Her voice was starting to crack with tears.

“I’m not afraid of Hell, Dori. I’ve been there enough times in my life and made it through without the Devil even knowing I was there,” trying to make light of the situation. “Besides, it wouldn’t be the first time I was arrested.”

Her voice rose in anger: “You were a teenager then—a juvenile, goddamnit. Can’t you see the difference? Now you’re an adult where you can’t hide behind your age. You’ll have a real adult record.”

“You’re making more of this than it is, sweetheart. Nothing like that will remotely happen. I’ll be in and out before anyone knows I was even there.”

There was a very long pause. “Dori … are you still there?”

“Fine, Ian. Do what the fuck you want,” she said between full sobs. “You always do,” and hung up.

 

It was true what she said. All of it. Around the age of ten my maternal, bookie grandfather started to mentor me. He had no beef with the way my father was raising me, other than he thought I was growing up too soft. They both got along because he respected my father for his service in the war. My grandfather had fought with the British in WWI after emigrating from Czarist Russia and he, like my father, was a man of few words who always kept his own counsel. He thought of my father as more of a son, than Gertrude as a daughter, and made that known to both at every opportunity.

My grandfather taught me how to fight: how to survive on the streets by using my wits and my fists. At ten he also taught me and my best friend, Mikey, how to run numbers without getting caught. By the age of sixteen, Mikey and I were his collection agency. But it was my fighting and truancy which brought me into direct contact with the police on almost a daily basis.

My father didn’t like what I was doing; he had bigger plans and dreams for me, and tried to reason with me and my grandfather. I would just retort by saying I would be okay, that nothing bad would happen to me. My grandfather—who stood an inch taller than my father—would smile, put his hand on my father’s shoulder, and respond to him in his fading Russian accent, “Larry … I love the boy, your son, and I would never let anything bad happen to him. He’s a good boy. He just needs to learn the ways of the world. You and your brothers did growing up on the streets of Chicago, and you turned out to be a good man. So will he.”

Except I didn’t, and my father reacted. There were several incidents, at different intersections in our lives, and all had a profound and defining effect on the relationship between us. The first was when I was about fifteen. My father was now working for the post office and was able to sit with his family for dinner. Dinner, when made by my father, was one of the few times I would join him and Gertrude. This time, Henry was home from college for the weekend and we sat and ate as a family: my mother and Henry on one side of the table, and my father and I on the other. I sat to my father’s right.

That night I wasn’t particularly hungry. I was in a hurry, as I needed to attend to my errands, as my grandfather euphemistically referred to his illegal dealings. I finished only about half of my meal, then stood up. My father, without even looking at me, said in his firm but quiet way, “Sit down and finish your dinner, Ian. You’re not excused.”

“I’m not hungry, Dad, and I have some things to do. Thanks for the dinner.”

“I said sit down. I won’t tell you again.”

I sat back down, and then my mother chimed in with her two cents. “There are children in China who are starving, and they would love a meal like this.”

I was, and probably still am but to a lesser degree, a consummate smart-ass. I said, “Then send my meal to them.”

The back of my father’s right hand caught me squarely across my nose and sent me flying backward off my chair onto the floor. I had been hit in the face many times in fights, but I was always prepared. No hit to the face, before or after my father’s, ever caught me more by surprise, or caused such shock. He never struck Henry or me—ever. That task was always left to my mother, who prosecuted that endeavor with great skill and sadistic satisfaction. Henry sat there transfixed, utterly speechless at what had just happened. I have never asked him, but I have no doubt he felt some smug pleasure that his father’s golden boy had just been knocked on his ass—by his patron saint, no less.

My father turned slightly and raised himself from his seat, reached out his hand to me—which I took—and pulled me up from the floor. He handed me a napkin to wipe the blood from my nose. He then grabbed the chair and stood it upright. I was still reeling from the hit as my mother rushed over and ushered me to the sink. There, she soaked the napkin in cold water and directed me to hold it over my nose with my held tilted backward. I saw her shoot a sharp stare toward my father, but he wasn’t looking. He kept his head down and continued eating as if nothing had happened. It was then that the tug of war over to whom I held allegiance began.

My mother calmly said, “Ian, go to your room and lie down until the bleeding stops. You can finish your dinner later.”

“He’ll finish his dinner now, Gertrude,” my father said without looking up. “There’s only one dinnertime, and this is it. Ian, sit down and finish your dinner.”

There was a pause, a very long pause, to see which master I would serve. They were two people calling the same dog, waiting to see which one the dog would run to. I sat down.

My father looked at me and, with an even, low tone, spoke: “Don’t you ever speak to your mother in that manner again. Ever.”

He continued eating. I didn’t respond, because no response was necessary. Both Gertrude and I had our answers. She and father may not have had the most loving of relationships, but there was still a strong sense of generational honor—and Gertrude was still his wife.

My father and I never spoke of that incident until almost twenty years later—a year before he passed away—when I came to visit. I was sitting next to him on the couch, both of us watching a ball game. His hair had faded to auburn with streaks of gray, but his mustache remained fiery red. He was still a handsome guy. As much as I enjoyed being with him, I wasn’t smiling this time. He had a sixth sense that I wanted to say something. My father picked up the remote, pointed it at the TV to turn it off, and lit up another Lucky Strike.

“What’s on your mind, Ian?”

I thought about playing stupid and just saying “Nothing.” But I knew he wouldn’t believe it. Besides, the man deserved the truth, especially after all the hell I put him through when I was younger. “Do you remember when you hit me at the dinner table?”

He took a drag on his cigarette. “Yes, I remember. What about it?”

“Well … I just wanted to say that I’m sorry for the way I behaved and spoke to Mom, that’s all.” I was hoping for an apology in return—something that would show me how he felt about striking me.

Instead he put down his cigarette, looked straight into my eyes, and said, “It took you long enough, but that apology is owed to your mother, not me.” With that said, he turned away, picked up his cigarette, and clicked the TV back on. I should already have known how he felt, because of a discussion I overheard about fifteen years earlier. I just wasn’t as smart or insightful as I thought, and didn’t connect the dots.

The summer after I turned eighteen I was arrested for stealing a car. It wasn’t the first car I stole, nor was it the first time I disappointed my father, but it was the first as an adult rather than a juvenile. The judge gave me a choice of either four years in the military—at the height of the Vietnam war no less—or four years in the county prison. If I served honorably, my record would be expunged. If I went to prison, I would have a record forever. What a choice—either possibly dying in Vietnam, or living with a record. Both my father and grandfather—for whom I decided to no longer work, after an irate customer, during one of our collections, caught me in the head with a bat causing a two-inch gash which required a dozen or so stitches—convinced me the military was the better of two evils. I joined the Navy.

Before I acted on that decision, I came home earlier than usual for one of my father’s weekend dinners. I was always hungry. Running numbers, fighting and collecting bad debts from deadbeat customers will do that. My parents were in the kitchen and didn’t hear me come in. I could barely make out the conversation as they were talking softly, but something told me it was one which I didn’t want to walk into. I stayed in the dining room, but still in earshot for the last part of the exchange.

“When are you going to get rid of the blue mixing bowl, Larry? It’s so chipped, and it’s not like we can’t afford a better one. And speaking of damaged goods,” my mother sanctimoniously stated, “I can’t wait for Ian to leave. Perhaps then we’ll have some peace knowing that the next knock on the door won’t be the police.”

I peeked around the corner and saw my father turn toward my mother to address her question. “You’re right, Gertrude. This bowl is a piece of shit. But even damaged goods still have value and purpose.” His response was a culmination of all the death and misery he had seen and experienced in his life. Silence from my mother. My father had made his point, but I didn’t make the connection.

He reinforced those feelings later when he was the only one to write or visit me, while I was recuperating for four months in a Hawaiian hospital from wounds I suffered in ’Nam. My river boat was the sole target of an ambush while on a classified mission with two other boats. I was the only survivor. Not one call, letter, or visit from Gertrude or Henry; just my father. And yet, I still didn’t get it. God was I dense.

It wasn’t until some five years after his death that I told my mother, in one of our rare civil conversations, that I had apologized to my father. I then, finally and formally, apologized to her for my comment. She thanked me, but what she said next was yet another bat to my head. “I never saw your father cry, but he cried that night in bed. Your father never forgave himself for hitting you, Ian. As you know, your father was a man of few words, much to my chagrin. But I cannot tell you how many times, right up until his death, for no apparent reason at all, he would blurt out: ‘I should never have lost my temper and hit him, Gertrude. He didn’t deserve to be treated that way.’ Through all of the disappointments and heartaches, he always loved you, Ian. Always.” This time…this time, I finally got it. But I didn’t feel relieved or vindicated. I felt repentant.

Given the nature of my relationship with my mother, I have often wondered if she told me to assuage my torment, or to add salt to that open wound. I would like to think it was the former, but believe it was the latter.

 

A few days after that last stormy conversation with Dori—in spite of her protests, in spite of my attorney’s advice—I stopped at the old house. It was night, and there was a single light on in the living room. I walked straight to the kitchen, also illuminated, but only by the light under the range hood. I stopped for a moment, fully expecting to see my father eating his dinner. That should never have happened, I thought.

Over the stove, behind the cupboard door, sat the blue bowl. I needed something in which to carry it—something inconspicuous. I spotted a large brown bag—the kind the grocery stores still offer as a choice between paper or plastic—and promptly put the bowl into it. Then I threw in a couple of other items and quickly left, hoping none of the spying neighbors had ratted me out to my brother or the police. Driving to my new apartment I felt relief and satisfaction—like someone who just rescued a hostage without being spotted or apprehended.

I parked the car and opened the passenger door to retrieve my backpack and the brown bag lying on the front seat. After slinging the backpack over my left shoulder, I grabbed the bag with my right hand. That blue bowl, that old blue bowl with the weight of all of its memories, was too much for the bag. Before I could place it on the ground so I could shut the door there was a tear, a clumsy attempt to grab the bag, and then a sickening crack as it hit the sidewalk. I wasn’t sure if the sound came from my heart or the bowl. I stood there for a few moments in somber shock, trying to comprehend what had just happened. Then I cradled the bag, now full of my shattered plans, in my arms, and raced up the stairs to my second floor apartment, as if it were a dying patient I was attempting to get into the emergency room before it expired.

Five pieces. All clean breaks. I spread out a dish towel and carefully placed the pieces onto it. I stared at it, willing it to heal itself. What have I done?

I walked to the den, sat down in my lounger, lit a cigarette. It was about the time I usually called Dori, but we hadn’t spoken, or even texted each other, since that last tearful call two days earlier. Do I tell her what really happened, or just put on a happy face and say nothing? I decided I had to tell her the truth. She would find out sooner rather than later. Besides, Dori had become my confidante, and I didn’t want the relationship to be encumbered by lies or omissions of the truth. I had to walk into that minefield.

“Hi, Ian. Funny you should call.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because I was about to call you. I wanted to apologize for the way I went off on you the last call.”

“No apology necessary, sweetheart. Everything you said was true. I’m sorry I was such a rock head. But thanks just the same.”

“How was your day?”

“Work was fine, but I need to tell you what happened after work.” Stepping into the unknown, I recounted all of it. “I never should have put the bowl on the bottom. That was stupid.”

I hoped to garner some sympathy. Instead, there was dead silence on Dori’s end. I was now in the center of that field of explosives, and saw no clear path by which to extricate myself safely. When Dori finally spoke, the whole field started to explode around me. She made no attempt to hide her anger.

“No, Ian … stupid was you entering the house. The bowl didn’t break because of your stupidity. It broke because of your arrogance.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means just what I said, you arrogant, selfish, son of a bitch. All you thought of was yourself. You really didn’t give a shit about the bowl, or you would have taken better care to make sure it was protected. And you certainly didn’t consider my feelings. You just wanted to stick your finger in your brother’s and mother’s collective eye to say, ‘See? I can enter the house when I damn well feel like it and take what I want.’”

“That’s not.…”

“Shut the hell up, Ian. I’m not through.”

I felt like I was back in ’Nam, in the middle of a horrific firefight with no ammunition. That minefield was tearing me apart. Why on earth did I ever enter it?

“I’ll give you credit, Ian. You’ve been in some tough spots in your life and always managed to come through on the plus side. But that didn’t make you stronger, or more humble, confident, or thankful. It made you cynical and arrogant. What is it you always said? ‘I’ve done so much, with so little, for so long, that I now believe I can do the impossible with absolutely nothing, forever.’ I used to think that was cute and clever, and, in some way, I admired you for your strength of character and tenacity. Now I see it for what it really is, for what you really are—a spoiled, arrogant child who can’t stand to have things not go his way. I know you had to repeat that mantra to keep you going, but you’ve said that bullshit line for so long, you actually started to believe it! And that’s what really scares the shit out of me.”

The tears started to come through the phone again. “I thought I was starting to really know you. But I now realize that’s not possible, because you don’t even know yourself. Knowing you is like attempting to put your arms around fog. Get a grip, Ian. And when you can admit what you’ve really become, then maybe, just maybe, you and I can have a relationship that’s built on something more stable than delusions of grandeur. I gotta go.” She hung up.

Dori was right…again. I still wasn’t connecting the dots. Had the bowl meant that much to me, I not only would have taken greater care when I transported it, I would have taken it when I moved. But the bowl did have meaning to me; it connected me to my father—the one parent who loved me unconditionally. I did the right thing, but for the wrong reason. It wasn’t the first time.

I volunteered—yes volunteered—for combat duty in Vietnam, even though I had already graduated from Submarine School and was attending the Navy’s advanced communication courses. And not for some patriotic reason, but because Mikey—my best friend and accomplice in my youthful, nefarious enterprises—who enlisted as a Marine, was killed halfway through his Vietnam tour. I wanted to avenge his death. After I recovered from my wounds, I served five more years on submarines. Again, not because I wanted to serve my country or because I had a great love of working in the depths of the sea, but because I was doing something most people didn’t have the balls to do, and it also gave me the time I needed to hide from the world and recover emotionally from ’Nam.

The right things, for the wrong reasons. The story of my life. Dori knew what I had done, but she didn’t know why I had done them. She was on the cusp of understanding it all, and that scared the hell out of me.

 

Several days after that last call from Dori, I confided to a friend at work all that had gone down. Within earshot was a young girl working part-time while she attended graduate school. Though she had been there about a week, I had never made the attempt to introduce myself—a hangover habit from my days in the Navy, especially Vietnam.

While on a smoke break a couple of days later, she came over and introduced herself to me, and asked if we could talk. I was expecting her to ask me about work and how she could do her job better. Instead, she hesitated for a moment and then sheepishly said, “I overheard your conversation with Alex.”

I stared at her and remained silent, not knowing where this conversation was going. She continued: “I studied in Japan during my junior year in college, and became fascinated by the people, their history and culture. My graduate work is an extension of that experience.”

“That’s interesting, Bailey, and I wish you well in your studies. But what does any of that have to do with me?”

Bailey responded timidly, hearing the less-than-enthusiastic tone of my voice: “I believe I have a solution for your bowl.”

“How’s that?”

“Have you ever heard of kintsugi?”

“No. What is it?”

“It’s the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum.”

“Terrific. Let me know where I can get my hands on some of those materials. For me, it’s going to be super glue.”

“But people use glue to hide the damage.”

“Precisely. Who wants to see the cracks?”

Bailey explained, “The philosophy behind kintsugi treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object—something to celebrate, rather than something to disguise. An art form, if you like. The life of an object is extended by transforming it, rather than allowing its service to end just because it’s become damaged goods.”

Damaged goods. That caught my full attention. Perhaps my father was using kintsugi intuitively: attempting to extend my life by transforming me into someone of value and purpose—not by disguising my flaws, but by having me recognize them, and understand that they, too, are a part of my history.

“Thanks for the advice, Bailey. I’ll give it serious consideration. Really.”

“You’re welcome. The bowl apparently means a great deal to you, and it deserves a better place than stuck away in a cupboard to be forgotten. I may be going out on a limb, Ian, but my guess is the bowl isn’t the only thing you want to repair.”

I could feel a small smile form on my face. “You’re a smart, intuitive young lady and wise beyond your years.” I paused briefly, then said, “We should be getting back in before they start to miss us.”

As we reached the door to our office, I stopped and turned to Bailey. “I apologize for not introducing myself earlier. Just an old, outdated, and stupid habit. I’m delighted we had the chance to chat.”

 

Several months after I moved into my apartment, I was finally unpacked and had my new place furnished and decorated. It was time to open the doors to my friends for an inaugural dinner. The apartment was ideal. I occupied the second and third floors of a completely renovated and refurbished, three-story, Victorian mansion located in what they now call The Historic District of the city. It had all the room and amenities I ever wanted. More so, it was the first place I could really call home since my divorce years earlier.

The apartment wasn’t the only thing that went through transformation. Bailey’s comment continued to gnaw at me like a river slowly, relentlessly, carving out a canyon. I still believed in my mantra, and came to the conclusion there was absolutely no reason I couldn’t transform myself. My life, my relationship with my friends and my children—and especially with Dori—depended upon it, now. I didn’t have the luxury of several thousand years. My relationship with Henry and Gertrude? Well, that would have to wait for another epiphany.

After about an hour of socializing, I ushered everyone into the dining room, which I had kept hidden behind closed doors until that moment. The spacious room with its ornate, but tasteful, woodwork was the crown jewel of the apartment. Its high ceiling was adorned by a Victorian-style chandelier in the center. Under it sat a period-appropriate cherry dining room set I found at an estate sale, which rested regally on a lush, pale oriental rug with a simple, graceful, multi-color design. The centerpiece of the room was a stately fireplace bound in exquisitely carved mahogany, capped with two mantels which framed a mirror.

As the guests were about to be seated, Suzanne—the better half of a couple I had known since before my divorce—looked at the mantel above the mirror and said with childlike wonderment, “This blue bowel, Ian. It’s so unique and beautiful. Simply elegant. I have never seen a piece of pottery decorated in such fashion. Where on earth did you find it?”

I glanced over at Dori, who gave me her crooked smile, and nodded her head, as if to say: Go ahead, Ian. Tell the story. You’ve earned it.

I put my drink down, and pushed my hands into the pockets of my pants—a tell of mine since I was a kid, when I was about to share some secret. I glanced down reflectively, then raised my head and smiled at Suzanne. “Have you ever heard of kintsugi?”

 

 

BIO

L.D. ZaneI served seven years in the Navy, which included a combat tour in Vietnam on river boats, and five years aboard nuclear-powered, Fast Attack submarines. At 65, my life is quieter now: anything would be quieter than my military venture. I am a member of the Pagoda Writers Group, and find that I’ve been devoting more and more time to my writing. I write under the pen name L.D. Zane.

Stories published: Red Fez, Solomon’s Shadow, February 2015; Indiana Voice Journal, One Out of Three, March 2015; Red Fez, River of Revenge, April 2015, Remarkable Doorways Online Literary Magazine, The Box, May 2015, and The Writing Disorder, Kintsugi, June 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Laura Wang writer

Synesthesia

by Laura Wang

 

 

It is September, three feet away

Stalking each of my footsteps

With each stomp, I hear tickles

With each sip, I taste glass

This cold coffee hums middle C

And C is green and green is three and three is an isosceles

 

Your eyes flit between 5 and M

Depending on the light

Your blue fingers often curl to form a pure G#

When you leave, I feel 4

3 lips taste of rectangles, velvet on my fingertips

Sorbet plus sorbet equals U

Your name is turquoise neon yellow lavender coral mauve

But I call you my September

 

*  *  *

 

The Synesthete

She points at our microwave. Her eyes are a bit glazed; her head cocks to the right; her fingers point at the number “1.”

“It’s kind of a whitish yellow,” says Melia. “Two is pink. Three is red. Four is yellow. Five, blue. Six… light green. Seven, dark blue. Eight is a magenta-pink color, probably closer to magenta. Nine is purple. Zero is white… or clear.”

She puts a pen in her hand and writes out her name on a piece of notebook paper. Her handwriting is precise. She spells her name green orange black blue yellow.

In Greek, “synesthesia” means “to perceive together.” It is a psychological phenomenon when a person perceives two senses to be linked when they are not. Melia sees numbers and letters in colors, the most common form of synesthesia, but there have been reports of tasting in color and hearing in color. Some think of abstract concepts, such as time, in terms of spatial distance. Others, when they hear sounds, feel sensations on their skin.

When Melia was younger, her mother, with handwriting even clearer than Melia’s, would write in bubble letters: HAPPY BIRTHDAY. She and her sister, Tia, got to color them in to celebrate.

“Tia, why can’t you just color them the right colors?”

Tia, purple crayon in her hand, stared at Melia. “What?”

“It’s an ‘H.’ Why can’t you color it pink?”

“Why can’t you be less bossy?”

Tia scribbled purple all over the “H,” not minding that it got outside of the lines. Melia sighed and quickly colored the “P’s” red, as they should be.

Melia and I were randomly placed to live in the same dorm room during our freshmen year of college. I’ve lived with her ever since. One night when we were white-years, we stayed up particularly late talking. She mentioned that she had synesthesia. My eyes widened and mouth gaped when she told me. She shrugged it off.

Today, Melia sits before me, sipping hot M tea in a 7 plaid skirt.

“I wouldn’t say that I found out that I was a synesthete. It was more like I found out everyone else wasn’t. When I was in eighth grade, a girl asked me what my favorite color was, and I said ‘yellow.’ She asked me what things I liked that were yellow and I gave her a list: lemonade, daffodils, and the letter ‘A.’”

Melia’s realization that she had synesthesia is actually similar to most other synesthetes. According to Boston University’s The Synesthesia Project, synesthetes almost never consider that their perceptions might be unique until they realize that there’s a discrepancy between their experiences and their peers.

Around the time that Melia discovered she was a synesthete, she was in a chemistry class and trying to keep up in her extremely competitive Silicon Valley high school. After discovering that she had synesthesia, she looked for ways to use it. Soon, elements and chemical compounds became blocks of color. NaCl, sodium chloride, was green yellow red lightish-yellow, but mainly just green red because those were the capital letters.

She retells with more difficulty the only time she ever remembers cheating on a test. After a particularly stressful week, she had a math test that she didn’t have enough time to prepare for and was panicking. She avoids my eyes as she tells me this story.

“I couldn’t remember the formulas, so I drew little colored dots on my hand. It didn’t work as well as I thought it would. When I see letters, the colors are vivid, but it’s not as effective the other way around. It was more like I remembered that the colors and letters were linked when I looked at the dots, instead of actually seeing the letter when I saw the color. I felt so bad afterwards. I thought I was sick.”

The only other synesthete Melia has ever met was the star flute player in their high school band. The girl heard in her color. She had perfect pitch, and with each distinct note she heard, she saw a differently colored orb-like blob. Melia, always the over-analyzer, tries to piece this out for me.

“I don’t know if her natural perfect pitch helped her develop synesthesia, or if synesthesia helped her develop perfect pitch. I don’t know which one caused the other, or even if there’s a causative relationship. I just think it’d be really cool to listen to music in color.”

“I think it’d be cool to read in color,” I tell her.

She laughs and nods. “That’s fair.”

Other than pneumonic devices and her one-time cheating attempt, Melia doesn’t use her synesthesia as a tool all that often.

“It’s like a party trick. It’s something I could bring up during an icebreaker or get-to-know-you game. I’ve actually written personal statements where I tap into that quality, but that’s about it. I don’t notice it most of the time.”

In truth, synesthesia is everywhere. The Synesthesia Project says that some scientists consider phantom limb as a type of synesthesia. Phantom limb or sensations sometimes occur when one gets a limb amputated. Even after their arm or leg is gone, they can still feel it, experience pain where their limb used to be, and even “move” it. Unlike Melia, whose had her synesthesia since she was born, people with phantom limb develop it later in their life and, with therapy, can overcome it.

The link between taste and smell also seem synesthetic. Our taste buds can only detect sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. All of the flavors we perceive in a vintage wine, apple pie, or yellow curry are mainly due to the sense of smell. The nerves in our eyes and mouth, not taste buds, are even linked to our sensation of taste when we eat spicy food. Each time I take a bite of a spicy hot chicken wing, I simultaneously experience seemingly unrelated senses, the smell of barbecue, the watery of my eyes, and sensations that create one, unified flavor.

Melia and I have a Star Wars poster on our living room wall. The poster is printed in Technicolor-bright ink, and its graphics appear vintage but I bought it at Target for ten dollars a year ago. It’s the largest poster in Melia’s and my apartment. As I sit talking with Melia, my head tilts to the side, studying the poster.

“So when you see that,” I point and she turns her head with me, “and you see ‘Star Wars’ written on there in red, what does your synesthesia do?”

“I don’t have colorblindness, so if something is written down, I don’t have trouble distinguishing the ink,” she tells me. “But on top of it, almost as a shadow, I see the colors that are associated with my synesthesia.”

I remember once when I was eight or nine (I’m not sure what the context was), my brother mentioned that spoken language is really just sounds. When people speak, all they’re doing is making noises and sound waves with their mouths and vocal chords. There’s no inherent meaning in any of it; we, as people, just attach significance to particular noises. It seems obvious, but this was a revelation for me at the time. Any word is only a word to me because I’ve learned to recognize it as such. When I hear someone say “Laura,” I can only understand that the combination of an “l” sound, with an “o” vowel, followed closely by a hard “r,” and closing with the neutral vowel, “uh,” is referring to me because someone taught that to me. If I heard someone say “hey woman” or another term of address in a foreign language, there would be no meaning, no “Laura.” I’d just hear sounds.

As we look at the Star Wars poster, Melia comments on the atypical font. “You know, out of context, I don’t know if I’d recognize the ‘S’ and ‘T’ as ‘S’ and ‘T,’ but as soon as I realize that that’s what they are, I simultaneously see my colors for ‘S’ and ‘T.’”

I ask Melia if synesthesia has ever brought her anything negative. She thinks about it, collecting her thoughts, before answering.

“You realize how subjective words are when you have synesthesia. Any sensory perception is a very subjective experience. I could say ‘color’ or ‘shape,’ but I don’t even know if you think of the same thing as I think of when I say those words. There are so many different ways of perceiving different qualities in our world that it’s difficult to describe something that, to me, is specific but to someone else is not.”

I immediately think of the way everyone seems to question, at least once in their life, whether people see the same colors. What if my yellow is your blue? And your blue is my white? The thought used to bother me quite a bit. I remember asking my mom about it when I was in eighth grade.

“They know.” “They” meaning scientists. She told me, “They’ve done tests for it before. There are differences between each person, but it’s not a big difference. People might see different shades or tints of the same color, but it would never be a different color entirely.”

My mom’s a scientist, but I’m not sure that she actually read any study on this because to me, Melia’s right. A researcher could run as many tests as he wishes on Melia’s brain and see which sections of her brain are triggered when she sees a letter or number and understand what causes synesthesia and why, but how could he ever know what her synesthesia looks like for her? Questions like this used to drive me crazy. A world in which the understanding of color was up for debate seemed a world that was far too unstable.

And yet, when Melia sees the letter “A,” she sees white-yellow, but she also understands that it’s an “A,” the first letter of the Roman alphabet, just as I understand that an “A” is an “A.” And when Melia sees “Star Wars” written in red, she also sees a handful of other colors, projected on top. I see the same “Star Wars” Melia sees, but I also see the ten dollars I spent on the poster. I see the Ewok my brother bought at Universal Studios when we were kids. I see my father, whose all-time favorite movies are the Star Wars movies. I see him thirty years ago, going to a movie theater to watch A New Hope, and I see a smile on his face because for the first time since he’s moved to America, he finally feels that he, at least a little bit, gets American culture. I see his excitement pulling out our VHS tapes, playing the movies for my brother and me. But I also see, “Star Wars” written in a sans-serif, wide font, printed in a vibrant red.

 

 

BIO

Laura WangLaura Wang is an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, studying English, Creative Writing, and Chinese. Laura was an Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates Summer Fellow, in which she worked with the International Writing Program to translate Chinese literature into English. She has participated in readings throughout Iowa City and presented at the Upper Midwest Region Honors Conference, Midwest Undergraduate Conference in the Humanities, and the UI Fall Undergraduate Research Festival.

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I Spy Cameras:
Intriguing Cameras of Intrigue

Story and Photos by Paul Garson – Cameras and documents from the author’s collection

 

francis x bushman

 

Shoot Bullets and Photos

Sometime in 1933 the famous screen actor/director Francis X. Bushman seen here came up with the idea of melding an actual gun with a camera that could shoot bullets as well as still and motion pictures as an aid to law enforcement. The idea was even if the bad guy escaped the bullets, he couldn’t avoid getting his mug shot taken and thus sealing his eventual captured. Something smaller and less noisy was needed by real world spies which prompted inventors around the globe to search for the perfect spy camera. As a result untold variations were created, a few literally shaping the history of nations and wars, cold and hot. As an offshoot, “spy camera” compact design eventually entered the consumer market, some basically toys, others hi-tech wonders. Here are a few from the author’s collection of vintage cameras, but only touching upon the tip of the spy iceberg.

 

TheHitwasit

The HIT – Was It?

If you were a kid growing up in the 1950s and read comic books, you saw an endless flow of ads, small ones, for The Hit…and you just had to have one because it was so “spyish” and cool. Your parents probably tried to explain that it was a toy and you couldn’t photograph a barn door with the Honey-I-Shrunk-a Real-35mm Camera. But no doubt you pressed on as I did until you had one. Okay, so it took 40 years before I added a Hit to my current collection and now you many find many for sale on the Internet, some with their original cases and even film. In any case, The Hit seems to remain on the hit list of spy cameras even if no self-respecting agent would use one.

The Hit was the product of the Tougodo Optical company founded in Japan in 1930 and named as things often were at the time after a military personage, in this case Admiral Tougo of the Japanese Navy. The camera relied on 14x14mm film.

Actually there are several variations of sub-mini 1950s cameras from Japan, the prices ranging from $10- $3,000 depending on their level of rarity. This one cost me $3 at a garage sale.

 

mec 16 camera

MEC-16 SB – History Maker in Miniature

The MEC 16 was produced by Germany’s Feinwerke Technik around 1957-60. This example, an SB was updated in 1960, and gained milestone status as the first TTL Camera (Through the Lens Metering system) by incorporating a Gossen Selenium Exposure Meter in its subminiature design, no mean feat as the camera in closed position measures only 4 x 2.5 x 1.5 inches. It utilizes a high quality Rodenstock f 2 22mm lens, making it one of the fastest subminis ever made. Its “Cats Eye” pupil diaphragm is adjustable f 2.0 to f16 with focal plane shutter speeds from 1/30 sec. to 1/1,000 sec. with a range of focus form 1ft. to infinity. Considered a top of the line “mini,” they are considered rare, prices reaching $250 and beyond.

 

universal 16 mm

Universal Minute 16

Produced apparently for only one year, 1949, it was designed to mimic the shape of a movie-camera. While certainly spyish in appearance and size and all metal in construction, the optical performance of the f6.3-11.0 Anastigmatic fixed-focus lens with a fixed shutter speed of 1/50 second, was mediocre at best. It did sport a pop-up viewfinder, flash synch and provided 14 exposures per magazine. A later version included an f8 lens and a slightly fast single speed of 1/60 second. Boxed sets include the camera, flash and spare bulbs, negative holders, tripod and film and still have good cool factor.

 

mamiya super 16

Mamiya Super 16

Post-war Japan produced a slew of high quality cameras of various formats and sizes. One major company, Mamiya, made 16mm subs from 1949-62 and judged as exceptional in design and performance. This model, appearing in 1959, was its built-in selenium meter is actually larger than the original Mamiya 16 that came without the meter. As far as being “automatic” it was actually a matter turning various dials that provided for a quality image. The lens was either an f2.8-16 25mm with speeds up to 1/200 sec. It was also the first Mamiya 16 with a flash shoe.( I got lucky and found this one for a grand total of $18.10. It pays to stay up to 3 in the morning scouring the Web.)

 

true spy camera

True Spy Camera

Popular with the KBG and other international espionage organizations up until the 1990s when digital took over, the incredible Minox was actually designed and first built in Riga, Latvia, then later in Germany. This example, a Minox-B literally fits in the palm of your hand at least without its various attachments as shown here including flash and binocular mount. Production started in 1958 and ran to 1969 when it was replaced by the improved Minox C, but it never surpassed the popularity of the Minox-B.

The Minox B features a Complan 15 mm f/3.58 4-element lens with shutter speeds of 1/2 – 1/1000 seconds with a focal range from infinity down to eight inches. A special braided metal chain allows for precise distance measurements for documents being photographed. The Minox B is capable of producing up to 50 photos using a single cartridge and still a highly usable camera, film and processing available, though not cheap.

 

norton univex camera

Norton/Univex/Universal Micro-Mini

There are miniature cameras, sub-miniatures and micro-miniatures…all based of course on size and weigh though not necessarily quality of images produced, such is the case of this camera that wore several brand names.

Founded in New York City in January 1933, The Universal Camera Corporation was the brainchild of loan company exec Otto Wolff Githens and his partner, taxicab insurance agent Jacob J. Shapiro, both believing Americans needed a very affordable camera. With that idea in mind, they approached the Norton Laboratories requesting they design a small Bakelite camera, simple to use, and cheap to manufacture. Naturally, seeing a good thing, Norton started selling the camera under their own name. Not giving up, the original Universal company went on to manufacture the Univex Model A themselves as well as several other cameras.

Although most people have no recollection of the camera today, Universal eventually sold more cameras per year than any other company in the world, at least for a time. Keeping to their prime directive of affordability, the Univex Model A sold for 39 cents with over 3 million purchases in the first three years. Boosting the sales was the inexpensive six-exposure rollfilm that was packaged in Belgium and sold for only 10 cents in the United States. 22,000,000 rolls where sold in 1938. However, it was the monopoly on the special Univex film that contributed to the collapse of the company in 1958.

 

micro 16 camera

Whittaker Micro 16

Described as the size of a deck of cards, it was actually much smaller and could be concealed inside a pack of cigarettes, apparently a popular combination with detectives of its day. Using 16mm film via a 24 exposure cartridge, it appeared on the “spy camera” scene in 1946, just after WWII’s end, the design of a Hollywood, CA concern named after its founder, It relied on an achromatic doublet f6.3 lens with fixed focus and a single speed although the aperture could be adjusted for lighting conditions and color film usage via 1:11 (bright), 1:8 (dull), and 1:6.3 (color). Production ended in 1950, a short run for the popular mini that sold for a relatively expensive $30 in the 1940s, about what people were earning on a weekly basis at the time. Today prices range from $25 to several hundred for very rare editions.

 

last camera

In closing, if you’ve got the bug for vintage cameras, small or larger, remember condition, condition, condition….and keep both eyes open on the Web, at garage sales and swap meets. You may just find that treasure. But remember, the value is in the history, the quest and the kinds of cameras that open wide your own apertures of interest. Do your research by surfing the Internet or purchase a couple quality camera collector books as resources. Happy hunting!

 

 

BIO

Paul Garson SelfiePaul Garson is a writer and photographer. He has contributed to many magazines and periodicals, and has published both fiction and nonfiction books as well as written two screenplays that have been produced. He served as a university instructor of composition and writing, as well as a martial arts instructor. His public relations and marketing projects included several for national and multinational companies.

His previous books include Album of the Dead, concerning WWII in Europe, available through Chicago Review Press, and New Images from Nazi Germany available through McFarland & Publishers.

 

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Paula Panich

What God Hath Intended

by Paula Panich

 

Pectin makes it all possible. Pectin is one of God’s best ideas, purveyed in fruity packages. No question: God intended us to have jellies and jams and marmalade. This is why I take my marmalade straight, by the spoonful.

So my friend Julianna and I decided to make marmalade. We were inspired by a perfect bitter orange marmalade we had eaten in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and the delivery, by my friend and Los Angeles neighbor Léo, of a recipe for kumquat marmalade.

We were also inspired by this truth of communal cooking: It lightens the spirit. “It suffereth not the heart to be burnt,” as my seventeenth-century friend the Countess of Kent would have said. My heart, as it happened, was burning.

Shared labor with beautiful fruit, sugar, sharp knives, good conversation, and a big solid pot put to the fire—the citrus fragrance alone was a tonic.

 

Marmalade in our day seems to carry its own definition, which is a conserve of oranges. That’s what most of us think of when we think of marmalade, if we think of it at all. In fact, in Europe until the eighteenth century, the word marmalade, when used by itself, according to the British food historian C. Anne Wilson, meant only one thing: a marmalade of quinces.

The word for “quince,” in Portuguese, is marmelo.

But nothing is simple with the human heart, nor is it easy to untangle the means and the meaning of what looks to be an uncomplicated mix of sugar and fruit in a small glass jar. Human relationships with food, like our relationships with one another, are a complex and passionate matter, and involve politics, religion, and invasion.

Homemade preserves were known in Roman times; Greek physicians were convinced of the efficacy of quince to aid digestion; Dioscordes recommended it for dysentery and complaints of the liver and kidneys. His recipe for kudonites, made with quince, pops up in Tudor and Stuart times as “quidony of quinces,” and wouldn’t you, just once, love to attend a dinner party at which someone asked for this and it was brought forth?

It would be awhile, though, until marmalade was used to break the nighttime fast.

Marmalade of quinces was prepared dry, and cut, as you would a pie, with a knife, thanks to the discovery that cooked fruit combined with sugar (honey) and acid (vinegar) would result in a solid, thick, leathery, and delicious substance.

You can buy the offspring of this idea in quince paste from Spain, membrillo, sold in gourmet shops, to be eaten with cheese.

Now where was I? Yes, looking for a bridge to take us from quince to orange marmalade. Without Wilson’s The Book of Marmalade (1985, 1999), I might still be standing on a riverbank looking first to an island and then to the shore beyond, with no idea how to cross.

The first bridge is the apple; the second is a moving force we might call the conquering Arabs and the resulting Crusades.

The apple’s gift was its suitability for making jelly. (Many are the early recipes for “jelly of pippins”—pippin meaning for a few centuries any apple grown from a seed.) The pectin content of apples is highest when they are newly picked, in autumn.

The Crusades caused many hearts to suffer, both Arab and European, but left behind, in southern Europe, orange and lemon trees and the knowledge of how to make them flourish by means of irrigation.

Wilson surmises that if apples were put by to make jellies later in the year, intrepid magicians of the kitchen discovered that the addition of lemon juice would push along the jelling and that a bit of orange “pill” (peel) made it more interesting.

Here is a recipe from A True Gentlewoman’s Delight (1653), my own Countess’s cookery book, at least the one published under her name. (I’m obsessed with this cookbook!)

 

Take Pippins and pare them and quarter them, and coar them, lay them in water. And when you set them on the fire, shift them in another water, and put them in a skillet, and put as much water as will cover them and a little more, set them over the fire, and make them boil as fast as you can, when the Apples are soft, and the liquor tastes strong of the Apples, then take them off, and strain them through a piece of canvas gently; take to a pound of juice a pound of Sugar, then set in on the fire, and when it is boiled up then scum it, and make it boil as fast as you can, and when it is almost boiled, put in the juice of three Lemons strained through a cloth, and if you will have Orange pill pare it thin, that the white be not seen, and then lay it in water all night, then boil them in the water till the pill be soft, then cut them in long pieces, then put it into the sirrupe and shift it about and fill your glasses, and let it stand till it be cold, and then it is ready to it.

 

Julianna and I, at least on that day, had misplaced our faith in God and her pectin packaged in citrus fruit. We winged it a bit. But what we did wrapped us right into the feverish activities in the kitchens of the Countess four hundred years earlier, though with the reliable and consistent delivery of fire by my Viking stove. We, too, were boiling as fast as we could.

In our cookbooks and online, Julianna and I looked at many recipes urging a twelve- or twenty-hour “curing.” That’s when if you put seeds and pith into a cheesecloth bag, natural pectin will come forth and fulfill its proper function: that is, to provide just the right amount of thickening. We didn’t wait long enough in the cooking, however, curing or not curing, and foolishly lost faith in the natural process.

We used commercial pectin. We used commercial pectin and made the dry marmalade of the Middle Ages. It took a bit of work to excavate it from our pretty jars once it stood until cold—in our case, in the refrigerator.

But we loved our marmalade. We used mostly rangpur limes, Citrus x limonia, a cross between a mandarin orange and a lemon: very, very bitter, and not a lime at all. We used a great deal of sugar. Our marmalade was good to eat from the spoon, but its texture was not to everyone’s taste. It defied the expected.

 

Apparently John Lennon loved marmalade. And if I could easily get it, I would eat daily Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade, the thick-cut version, which Captain Robert Scott took on his fatal trip to the Antarctic a century ago and Edmund Hillary toted in his pack to his icy death on Everest. They found momentary comfort in those jars. I’m sure of it.

 

Julianna and I had a jolly time, and later drank good white wine and ate delicious hearty Greek dishes brought in from a restaurant. Making marmalade with a beloved friend kept sorrow at bay, for, as my Countess says, it isn’t right for “melancholy or flegm to have dominion above Nature.” And what is melancholy except “flegm” of the heart?

 

 

BIO

PaulaPanich2My essay, “What God Hath Intended,” is part of an unpublished collection of personal essays entitled The Cook, the Landlord, the Countess and Her Lover. The subjects and themes of this book make up my primary concerns as a person and a writer — food, shelter, landscape, history, and of course, love.

My work as a professional writer was born the same year as my daughter, 1984. Some of this work has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Gastronomica, the Harvard Review, the North American Review, and other publications. I have written books, one of which is about nonfiction writing: Cultivating Words (Tryphon Press, 2005).

I’ve taught writing in many places, a great joy to me because I learn far more than I could possibly teach.

I have lived in Los Angeles with my family for nine years. In my north-listing 1921 garage in the middle of the city, I am a printmaker by avocation. I can see daylight through its peeling old boards.

 

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daniel carbone

In the Details

by Daniel Carbone

 

Carl believes he is Jesus. Not a metaphorical or a pretentious “fuck you” kind of Jesus. He believes he is the real thing. I want him to prove it, to show me what the son of God is like, but I’m worried he may stab me or set me on fire before the night is over if I upset him. I don’t try convincing him that he is a delusional psychopath who is no more like Jesus than I am like sour dough bread. Then again, I’ve never met Jesus. I don’t know anyone who has, and I think that perhaps Carl is exactly like him. Jesus was all into self-sacrifice too. Maybe when I watch Carl through the window in the backyard biting a tree, he is sacrificing the bark, the enamel of his teeth, for some reason other than obscurity. God works in mysterious ways.

He comes back into the house, grabs the glass pipe from Ella and takes a hit. He looks at me. “I used to bite my arms, my legs, sink my teeth into my skin until I would bleed, but it hurt too much. That’s why I bite the tree now. It hurts less,” he says, “but, but it’s less intimate.” He rubs his hands up and down across the hair and scars on his forearms. These are his public displays of mutilation.

I nod my head. I’m concerned that the wrong reaction will send him charging, sinking his teeth into my flesh instead of his own. Ella asks me if I want another beer or some wine and when I say both, she starts pouring the wine into my tall plastic glass. I indicate with my eyes to keep going when she is about to stop. I just met Carl, I just met Ella, and the alcohol makes what they say more believable. I enjoy the warm buzz it creates in my head. It makes it okay to become one of them.

Carl says he’s going to take a nap before we go to Maynard’s Cafe and he skips back into his room and I hear him close the door, slowly, trying to make the sound of it clicking shut seem as if it’s happening within a vacuum. “That’s your roommate?” I ask Ella.

“Yeah, that’s Carl,” she says. “People give me a hard time for taking him in, but Carl has a good heart. I couldn’t possibly turn him away.” Ella tells me she pays his rent. He looks homeless. If he really is Jesus, he traded in his seventies rock star look from his crucifixion days for a badly executed crew cut with large sections where he had completely buzzed off his hair. The well-kept goatee that Jesus displays in pictures and paintings had been replaced by a badly shaven face covered with cuts, and now he kind of looks like Popeye, the sailor. Carl is forty-four, Ella is twenty-three.

I am not interested in Ella. I thought I was while reading her online profile and talking to her, but I was impatient. I wanted to meet. And Carl—I didn’t even know he existed. Cut to the present and the only thing that keeps me from running out of the house and towards the ignition of my car is curiosity. These people—their relationships—fascinate me, and I think if I make it out alive, I’ll have plenty of material for whatever I write next. I no longer look at the night like a traditional date. It’s a date for information, a date for details, and Ella and Carl and whoever else participates in this evening are the characters that will illuminate the pages. I smile; more excited about the night than before, when I thought it would be a romantic night, when I had hopeful expectations.

It’s just Ella now, standing with her shoulders hunched forward with an old lady’s posture in the kitchen. I want to talk about Carl, about how unattractive she is to me, how repulsed I am by the whole situation yet strangely excited to fill empty pages with the little that has already happened. Instead, I ask about her best friend and her best friend’s boyfriend, who live upstairs, Leah and Chris, who she says will be joining us soon. “Where did you meet them?” I ask.

“I’m training Leah to be my replacement at work. And Chris—I met Chris on an online dating site too, but of course he had a huge crush on Leah. He only kept coming back for her,” she says. “It’s bad enough they hooked up. Now I have to hear them having sex above me every night.”

“Wow,” I say. “I promise I won’t have sex with any of your friends.” I can’t help thinking that would make an interesting story too. I put down the tall glass of wine I am holding and ask Ella where her bathroom is. I don’t use the filthy toilet, but I notice stains running up and down the walls by its side. I don’t wash my hands. I rub my eyes and look at myself in the mirror. Then I take notes in my phone. I’m already drunk. I don’t care if it’s rude. Ella just told me she was moving, that she got a job offer in Washington—that her old job ended and she wouldn’t be sticking around. I see no reason to perpetuate a lie, no reason to return her affection, when before we met I told her I wasn’t into short-term dating. She lied to me. I see no reason why I can’t enjoy myself and get something out of this misadventure, even if it comes at the expense of what she thinks of me.

I come back from the bathroom and I realize I have no idea what Ella does for a living. She told me before but I couldn’t comprehend the profession, forgetting what she told me almost immediately. I should ask Ella why she is still friends with Leah and Chris after they started dating, but I think it will be more interesting if I meet them and let the relationship play out for itself. Like a movie or book I’m experiencing for the first time—the details will be more vivid and exciting. I don’t really care about Ella’s feelings, but she is a part of this group, a part of the story, and I push her off to the side, willing her, forcing her to become the flat character I have already decided she is.

I chug the rest of my wine and she asks me if I want some more. She empties the bottle into my cup and I hope we leave for the bar soon before my buzz wears off. I take a seat on the recliner in the living room and she sits down across from me and picks up her banjo.

“So—do you know what you’re playing tonight?” I ask.

She tunes the banjo and strums different chords and strings while she talks. I shift my gaze towards Carl’s room. I wonder what he’ll do next, when he comes out. “Well, yes and no,” she says. “I think I’m going to read the poem “Pinocchio” by Shel Silverstein. Maybe one song. I’ve never played the banjo live before.”

“I’m sure you’ll do fine. You’ll do great. I’m excited.”

Leah and Chris barge through the front door with their arms wrapped around each other, dragging the strong smell of marijuana into a room already soaked with the scent, and Leah screams out a war cry of excitement that makes the panda hat she’s wearing look like it’s dying on top of her short-cropped red hair. The sound she makes is a loud-pitched wail, her hands high in the air and her eyes closed towards the ceiling.

If Carl thinks he is Jesus, Chris is John Lennon. Lennon’s glasses sit on his nose and the circular glass in the frames magnifies the pupils in his eyes. He’s tall and skinny and has an acoustic guitar strapped around his shoulder. I look behind him to see if Yoko Ono is following. I introduce myself to them and hand Chris one of Ella’s beers. I tell him to drink up. I make it a personal goal to make sure there will be no sober people tonight.

I met Ella on an online dating site. I wanted to meet alone. I wanted a personal introduction at a coffee shop or a bar or in a third world country, surrounded by malaria-infested mosquitoes—anywhere but here with a bunch of her friends whom I’d never met. They constantly stare at me. Leah keeps asking if I’m having a good time. She says I look like I’m bored, like I don’t like them. I don’t tell her that I’m studying them intensely, that my looks aren’t judgmental but perceptive. Ella told me her friends are cool, her friends are interesting, her friends are awesome. If she would have only added weird, I would have completely agreed.

“Chris, we need to practice this song,” Ella says. “Did you hear me, Lennon? We need to be at the bar by seven, and I haven’t practiced yet.” Chris doesn’t lower his beer. He raises the bottom of it higher to force the alcohol down this throat faster, dragging the oxygen away from the corners of the can by his lips, and I want to tell Lennon to wait for me to grab a beer so I can join him. I use the distraction he creates to write in the note sections of my phone, “Lennon,” over and over again, all in capital letters. Then besides that note, I write, “Goofy, Leah and Chris, hippy hipsters.” I hope what I write makes sense to me in the morning. When Chris finishes his beer, he swings the guitar over his shoulder and goes behind the counter of the kitchen.

“You should have practiced. We don’t have a lot of time.”

“If you got the weed earlier,” Ella says. “How was I supposed to practice without you, exactly?”

“I’m going to get a private show, then, huh?” I say. Ella smiles and plugs in her keyboard.

“Ready,” Chris says. “One, two, three, four.”

They play the song “We Are Young” by Fun a few times, never making it through the second stanza. Ella doesn’t hold notes down long enough during the chorus. When they finally get their timing right, they play through the song, and Leah and I listen, happy spectators. I can’t help but smile in her direction more than in Ella’s. I don’t find either girl attractive—Ella is a liar and a hippie and physically unattractive and boring. She has nothing interesting to say, nothing interesting to offer, and I don’t know what I saw in her when I messaged her on the dating site for that first time. I think I was just looking for something to do, a distraction from the feelings I had for someone else I couldn’t be with. Leah has something to offer me, though—a panda hat. A comparison to Ella, the girl I follow for the story, like a reporter following a soldier in a war zone, not for the solider, but for the action he will ultimately lead her to. And I hope Carl is an active Jesus who will help the story, and me, along. I hope God really does help those who help themselves.

“I’m just here for moral support,” Leah yells into my ear.

“Huh? Yeah, I have no idea what’s going on,” I say, and smile. “I’m just trying not to get in the way.” They play through the entire song, Chris singing like any proper Lennon would, without disturbing the excitement in the room, and the song seems nostalgic and perfect for the evening. I write the song’s name down in the notepad of my phone, having never heard it before, but knowing I’ll want to listen to it the next day.

When Chris strums the final chord Leah throws her hands in the air. “And the crowd goes wild!” she says.

“You guys are awesome,” I say. And I think I mean it.

Ella goes back into her room and changes her clothes. When she comes out of the room, she is wearing a tight tie dye t-shirt that shows her weight spilling over the side of her jeans and hugging the fabric of the shirt, stretching it beyond its designed size. I’m glad she pulls her jeans up high above her waistline—it prevents her stomach or her backside from popping out into the open where they’re not welcome to be seen. Closely behind her, Carl is following her into the room, shirtless. The circus is in town.

“Carl’s not coming to Maynard’s,” Ella says to Leah and Chris.

“Why not?” Chris says.

“He’s sad,” Ella says. Carl grabs a beer and lights a cigarette. “He’s upset that I’m moving.”

“No, Ella. It’s that neighbor. I swear, when you move, I’m leaving too. If these people don’t want me here, I don’t want to be here.” He takes two slices of pizza from the rack in the oven.

“What happened?” I ask.

“Our neighbor called the cops on him. He was trying to record Carl speaking, so Carl went and took a shit on his car, and then the neighbor, he called the cops.” I feel guilty, for a second, and realize I need to be more careful about my note taking. I don’t want to have to clean feces off my car. That neighbor has access to Carl and these people on a daily basis, and whatever other odd people lived in the area. He had the idea before me. I just hope he’s a poor writer.

“I’ll tell you what—Dan? You said your name’s Dan, right?” Carl says. “Dan, these people don’t understand. They don’t get what I’m trying to do. They’re all ungrateful. They don’t appreciate me. What did I tell you, Ella? Huh? I told you. What did I say? Yesterday I said there was going to be no more bad weather and what happened?”

“Today was beautiful.” Ella turns her back towards Carl and looks at me and rolls her eyes into the back of her head. Carl is serious. He believes he is Jesus. A bitter Jesus disappointed about the ignorance and weakness of his followers. You’d think he’d understand, I mean, after being crucified and all, that humans are imperfect.

“That’s right, Ella. If these people don’t appreciate what I’m trying to do, then fine, I’ll go somewhere else.”

Leah and Chris are sitting in the living room that connects to the kitchen. They aren’t paying much attention to Carl. I notice the guitar of Carl’s that Ella showed me earlier. Carl made it himself. Ram’s horns have been morphed into the frame of the guitar, wrapping around and protruding out of the edges of the solid dark wood, ending where the frets begin. It looks incredibly intricate and detailed, beautiful in a horrific way, but it doesn’t seem saintly. I can’t remember if it’s “God is in the details” or whether the saying is “The Devil is in the details.”

“Ella, do you have any cigarettes. I’m out,” Carl says. “Ella, do you think you could buy me cigarettes?”

“I’ll buy you cigarettes if you come watch me play.”

“Okay, Ella. For you, darling. I’ll go for you. Call me when you are about to go on. I’ll walk over.”

I shove Ella’s keyboard in between my body and my arm and we are getting ready to walk over to the bar, Maynard’s Café, a few blocks down the street. Chris leaves his guitar strapped around his shoulder and Ella brings a laptop bag and video camera. Leah is carrying a large beach bag, which she fills with beer.

“What are we going to do with this?” she asks.

“We can just hide it outside the bar,” Chris says, “or you can bring some of it in your bag. We’ll just go outside when we want a beer.”

“Okay, but I can’t carry that much,” Leah says.

“We’re only five minutes away,” Ella says, her glasses slipping down her nose. “We can just run back and grab more. Come on, let’s go. We’re already late.” I hold open the door for the three of them and they start walking down the dark streets crusted in the smell of ocean and the decay of the beach town of Margate just outside of Atlantic City.

We pass a Wawa convenience store and cross streets without looking both ways, and Chris starts singing the song they played earlier. Everyone joins in, and even though I don’t know the lyrics, I attempt to mouth the words of the stanzas and sing what I know of the chorus. When they finish singing the song, they start over from the beginning. Ella puts her arm around my shoulder and it feels awkward and uncomfortable. I don’t lean in. She leaves my side and walks close to Leah and starts talking to her, leaving me in the back, playing follow-the-leader, where I can observe them without fear of being caught recording.

I see the bar and it’s a dive. It is one of those outside bars with a roof and four walls giving the illusion of a building but not the heat or insulation. I walk into the bar and see that it’s worse than I thought. People are smoking cigarettes and the air is cloudy with tar. In each corner of the small bar is a fake fireplace emitting heat, and we claim a spot in the corner by the stage near the heater. I look around the bar and see a world I’ve only seen in movies. A tall blind guy sits behind the bar, clutching the reins of his Seeing Eye dog. He must be running the audio equipment. Either that or the owners of the bar let him run his fingers through the dozens of wires and play with the knobs of the equalizer before the show begins. It gives his dog something to do, as he is trying to untangle himself from the wires that the man has shoved the dog into. The sign on the bar says beers are two dollars for a draft, and I can’t believe we went through the effort of dragging a twelve pack of beer into the bar in our bags and pockets. I see the guitarist Ewan Dobson, who lives locally and occasionally plays free open mic nights to hone his skills. He is relatively famous and I wonder if I could add that detail to whatever writing comes out of this night, but I’m not so sure. Then again, I know sometimes a writer jots down a lot more than he uses, and I take note of his presence.

After a few hours, Ella is spending most of her time talking to other patrons of the bar, and Leah and Chris are making out. Dobson is playing a twelve-string guitar and he plays so quickly that my eyes fail to follow his fingers dancing up and down the fret board. I close my eyes and let my mind get lost, using the loudness of the music as an excuse to remain silent, and I think this is exactly where I want to be, away from everyone, alone, but feeling more connected to the life of the town, the setting, the characters that I am creating in my head for my next story, than I could have in an empty room.

Eventually, Ella rests her body beside me. She inches close to me. I keep my arms in at my sides and my hands on my lap, and I don’t turn in her direction. I wonder if my next online dating experience will be this productive. I’m excited to find out. We don’t talk much and in between our conversations I find myself texting my roommates—who are excited by the prospect of me spending the night with Ella—about the date and taking more notes in my cell phone for further reference. I tell my roommate no, that I’m not into her, that I’m out late because this is too interesting to walk away from, that I’m having a good time, a good experience, and I have a fun story to tell her tomorrow, and I snap my phone shut, but it’s too late. Ella catches me.

“Are you texting, right now?” she says.

“My roommates were worried,” I say. “I just wanted to let them know I’ll be back later.” She looks down and lets out a nervous laugh and shakes her head. She isn’t pleased. I shrug it off in a conversation with myself. A few minutes later, still sitting beside me, Ella starts texting random people religiously. I think she is trying to do to me as I have done to her, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m not jealous. I’m happy she has a distraction.

We run out of money and the three of us want to drink some more before Ella and Chris’s set. I think more alcohol could lead to a more interesting set, and I encourage the idea, telling Ella that she will be a lot less nervous if she drinks a little bit more. We go outside and pull the beers out of their hiding places. Leah pulls one from her back pocket and Chris untangles one in the webbing that lines the inside of his jacket. Everyone else grabs one from the beach bag. Then we walk around the corner of the building and attempt to chug some beers, but all of us fail. It is cold. We are shivering. When we are about to go back inside Carl shows up screaming and yelling in the parking lot of Maynard’s and Ella runs over and pulls him away. The second coming isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I want to run over and help, to grab some insight, to find out how the world will end and if I have time to publish this story before it happens, but Ella tells me to wait with Leah and Chris. She comes back a few minutes later, having pawned Carl off on an older woman whom I don’t know. Ella leaves again to talk to Carl and doesn’t come back.

“So what’s with Carl?” I ask Leah and Chris.

“He’s crazy,” Leah says. “Ella always wakes up to him screaming or banging his head against the floor. She says he cuts himself and beats himself to represent what society is doing to itself. He thinks he’s some kind of martyr.”

“Yeah,” Chris says, “one time, he said he was going to make flowers grow, and the next day Ella got a call from her parents that there were dandelions outside their house that weren’t there before. Sometimes she buys into that garbage.”

“I heard the story about the weather,” I say. “I didn’t have the heart, or maybe not the courage, to tell him I knew that too. The weather channel can be useful. The least he could have done was made the night warm as well.”

Leah and Chris are shivering as one, so I lead the way back into the bar and we take our seats next to the glowing television-like fireplace. Ella is inside setting up her keyboard, getting ready to play her set. Carl is in the back of the bar, apparently calm now, standing against the wall, talking to the older woman.

“Ella, do you know what you’re playing? I think it’s time to decide,” I say.

She shrugs and tells me the poem by Shel Silverstein and the folk song “Circles of the Sun” by Sally Rogers. The owner of the bar introduces her and she sits on the stool with the banjo strapped around her neck, red in the face and clearly drunk, and she trips on her own feet and almost falls off the stool, despite the fact that she is sitting. She recites the poem, but I only hear the first stanza. “Pinocchio, Pinocchio, that little wooden bloke-io. His nose, it grew an inch or two with every lie he spoke-io,” she says, stumbling. Jesus leans against the wall and watches his roommate, his provider, embarrass herself, and I think it’s ironic. Someone could pull her off the stage after the poem, to prevent further disaster, but Jesus reincarnated in Carl form doesn’t do anything. If he’s not going to do anything, the merciful one, I decide I certainly can’t either. What would Jesus do?

Once she finishes the poem, she sings the short folk song, and the few people left in the bar clap unenthusiastically. Then Chris goes up and he plays the song with her that they rehearsed earlier, and then he plays a few songs by himself. After they kick us out of the closing bar, we walk back to Ella’s apartment, with the equipment in our hands. When we get back, Carl is already at the apartment in the backyard, sitting in the tree he had bitten earlier, playing a banjo. God is in the details, I think. The saying is definitely God is in the details. I wonder if I should protect the tree from Carl, or maybe just patch the dozens of empty areas where he has bitten off bark. We walk past him and into the house and Ella fills her glass pipe with more weed and hands it me. I don’t typically smoke, but I take a hit and hold the smoke in my mouth before blowing it out into the room, refusing to inhale so I don’t get high, and pass it to Leah, who takes one hit and falls to pieces. Ella and Chris call her the “one hit wonder” and within minutes I understand the name when her eyes get bloodshot and she becomes the clown version of a catatonic person, unmoving with an enormous giggly smile on her face and a set of red circles in her eyes. Chris, concerned, wants to put her to bed, and he takes her by the hand and leads her out the door, outside, towards their apartment on the second floor.

“It was nice to meet you both,” I say, and shake Chris’s hand.

“Yeah, it was fun. I hope to see you again.”

Ella packs the rest of her drugs into the glass pipe and hands it to Carl, who has walked back into the apartment. He finishes off the entire pipe in under a minute. He says she should have known better. Then when he asks Ella if he can borrow money so he can run to Wawa and buy milk for coffee, she tells him no, that she has no money left for him. He starts digging pennies out of drawers, picking them up off the floor, and fishing them out of little nooks all over the apartment. He collects a little bit and says he has about a dollar, but he’s not sure if that will be enough. Ella refuses to give him any money, but watching Carl, Jesus, crawling on his hands and knees and collecting pennies for milk makes me feel sick. I don’t know who I feel bad for; Carl, Ella, myself, or the attendant who will have to count the pennies, but I decide to give Carl the money. It feels like charity, but he doesn’t refuse. He acts like he wants it. When I hand him the money he shakes my hand and cups the hand he shakes with his other hand, like he was getting a peace treaty from the president. He looks me in the eyes when he does it and holds onto to my hand tightly. His smile terrifies me, but I don’t know if it is because of the way he looks at me and says “thank you” or if I’m terrified at the thought of this man being Jesus. What if he really is Jesus? I could never really know the truth.

“Okay, this has been fun,” Ella says, “but I need to go to sleep. Dan, you can stay here with Carl if you don’t think you’re okay to drive.”

“No, no. I’m fine.” I walk around the kitchen counter and hug Ella. “It was nice to meet you. I had a great night.” There is no romance in the hug, but I mean what I say. I avoid shaking hands with Carl, but I tell him I had a good time, and that I’ll see him again soon. I don’t mean it, but I don’t feel the need to explain my desire to leave.

When I get to my car I sit in the driver’s seat for a couple minutes contemplating the night I have just experienced—the people, Ella, Carl, the odd romantic triangle between the friends—and how I should interpret the evening and the characters I have created. Lennon, Jesus, the stereotypical Hippie Ella, and Leah, who I think forms a subcategory within the hipster demographic. I can’t help thinking that it was one of the least successful romantic experiences of my life, but all I can do is smile and laugh. I’m laughing, alone, trapped in my car, away from people at four in the morning, and I enjoy every second of it. But then, I begin to cry. I don’t know exactly why I am crying. I am drunk. All I know is that something is missing, that the characters aren’t as complete as they could be, and I want to go back inside and talk to Carl and Ella again. I’d like to sit down with Carl and interview him, gather his entire life story, but I still don’t think the character and the person could ever become one and the same. I look through the notes I took in my phone. I didn’t realize how diligent I was during the evening with my observations. There are over twenty separate notes, literally pages of notes, but I have no better sense of who Jesus and his friends are. The notes are snippets, fragments of a person, and the story itself is only a series of short moments in time, forming an evening. It’s not complete. The story, the characters, never will be. I drive away with the notes in my phone, knowing they, the notes, the events, and the people will make a great story, but that I will never see them again, that whatever I write, the full story, will still be my creation. “Jesus H. Christ,” I think.

 

 

BIO

daniel carboneDaniel Carbone was born in Howell, NJ. In 2012 he graduated with an academic standing of magna cum laude from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and accepted a scholarship to the Rutgers Camden University School of Law shortly thereafter. He has served as an editor for Stockton’s Stockpot literary magazine and published his first short story under the same title in 2011. While busy studying law, he continues to find time to write for readers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry to satisfy his need to tell thought-provoking stories. He resides in his hometown with his Fiancé, Stephanie.

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