Edits.

Posting about 2/3 of Part One here, with some heavy edits from previous post. Playing with structure a bit and decided the novella will be three extended chapters, about 20,000 words. This has been a tough assignment, but in the end it will be worth it, even if the final product is rookie. Thanks to my friend Kim, I’ll also be submitting parts of the novella throughout the summer to this project: http://blackhillpress.com/summerwritingproject/

Before I post, I have to mention a dream I had a few nights ago that is pretty common for me. I’m on a beach, and an enormous swell comes and I have to fight against it. Only in this dream, the sand swelled along with the sea, and instead of fighting, I jumped high into the air, looking down at the sand and sea waves. I’m going to take this as a good sign 🙂

2:40 p.m.        

The funeral parlor smelled sticky sweet. Mid-afternoon sun streamed through windows filmed with lily pollen and oil soap, making the room seem more a gauzy dream of death than the true thing. Humidity from late summer storms made every movement heavy, every scent lingering, every word gummy as it left the mouth.

What Lydia noticed first about the room was the polish on every visible facade. Ornate mahogany columns that held nothing aloft, spindle-legged tables with tiger’s eye tops, oak plank floors that sagged and creaked under years of living and dead weight. The casket. All halo-bright and shining, as if maids had been working all morning to revive the interior. She wondered how a room could sit so gleaming in  Indio, California, a place burdened with desert dirt.

Mourners felt it necessary to flatter her father, now snug in his satin bed.

“So peaceful.”

“Such a wonderful job”

“Looks so healthy, you wouldn’t think…”

The word “compressed” came to her mind. Like he’d once been buoyant, but someone had applied gentle pressure that let his air seep out. Had she not already suspected the origin of the sweet smell, she would have guessed that the summer sun was bringing his unholy fragrance to her nose. But an opossum had once died in her attic, and the smell of death was an unforgettable, unmistakable thing that was absent today.

She searched the room for the source of the scent, and found it on an end table next to a plump velveteen loveseat. A great ceramic bowl of blonde dates sat in the sun, each one wrinkled and oozing from deep fissures. Of course someone had brought dates! She envisioned some kindly neighbor smoothing her go-to funeral attire, applying just the right amount of lipstick as to not seem gauche, hanging a small purse on the crook of her elbow and  buying a box from her father’s original Keats Co. roadside market. The blondes were among Lydia’s favorite – small, delicately flavored, not too chewy.

 Her father had been the first in the Coachella Valley to purchase two blonde date palms, one male and one female, and breed the new varietal. She plucked a handful from the bowl and ate them one by one, spitting pits into her palm and putting them in her jacket pocket. She swallowed the last date and wiped a sticky hand on her polyester dress. Black hid everything, didn’t it?

Since her father’s death , Lydia had reverted to childish thievery and concealment. Pits in her pocket. A pair of tortoiseshell sunglasses stolen from a vendor on the Venice Beach boardwalk. She had even planned to stuff the black dress into her purse at the local Goodwill until she’d seen the eagle-eyed manager looking in her direction. Her heels felt four sizes too big, like she was playing dress-up in her mother’s closet. Still, she kept her face hard as stone as she slid from mourner to mourner, shaking hands and kissing cheeks.

Morris Funeral home had been in business in Palm Springs for over 90 years, and was a true relic of desert expansion. Lee and Camille Morris traveled by wagon from young Los Angeles to seek a monopolistic fortune in preparing and burying the dead in a place where families were not given much choice in the matter.

For the past three days, Lee Morris III had shepherded her in the kind, mechanical way that was common among funeral directors. He had a soft voice that became  firm as she struggled to make the hard choices. He’d pull a list of prepared responses from memory in order to expedite the meeting.

“You should think about not only what your father would have wanted, but also think about what your guests will want to see when they arrive. I understand these are difficult things to balance.”

Lydia knew Lee was accustomed to doughy widows whose grief allowed them to be pushed in certain directions. He would leaf through catalogues, towering over them with his linebacker chest, horsey veneers and tanned face so unlike the Uncle Fester or Lurch type one expected. He’d suggest Stargazer Lilies instead of standard Calla. Rich cherry wood instead of oak. A gilded urn. She’d been a pill since day one because of her ability to see through every gentle murmur of  “what about hydrangeas instead of baby’s breath?” They had gone to high school together, and she had witnessed his more overt attempts at bullying. Her tough negotiations had ground him to dust, and she half expected him to blow away when he saw the parlor, splendid for such a low price.

Clusters of guests filled the room. She considered each clique an adversary, and observed their strengths and weaknesses. First there were her father’s farm employees – the lithe young men who harvested dates by climbing up ladders built into tree trunks, who flooded the fields once a week, who trimmed and bred and sorted. He was like a father to them all, and their heads hung low as they gathered and spoke in soft Spanish. They were the least of her worries, and could be won over with time. The eldest among them remembered Lydia as a child, and called her by her nickname “La Chiquita.”

There were the other date farmers in the region – all the men as wrinkled as their harvest, and their wives just as plump. She recalled sneaking out of her bedroom at night as a child and listening to the Sunday dinner conversation between these men and her father. Sometimes she was caught and sent to bed before the poker games, but sometimes she was lucky and would hear them mumble and curse into the night. She could still hear the ice cubes clinking in their highball glasses and the smell of pot roast. Each had varying levels of interest in buying the farm. Each in turn would see her full grown and prepared for battle.

Speaking loudest were the relatives, an assorted box of aunts, uncles, cousins. All residents of the Inland Empire  – the Yucca Valley clan, the Palm Desert gang. Dirt poor and in the throes of several addictions. Their beaked noses matched their carrion-hungry gazes – each one hoping for a piece of the pie. All she remembered of them were their cars disappearing in the dust after her father had again slipped them cash for this investment or that opportunity that soon rotted on the vine. Unworthy opponents.

She rattled through the rest of the list in her head – the old women who packaged the dates in white tissue and gold boxes (red and green for Christmas, pink for Easter), the distributors who sold the boxes at airport terminals,  the grocery store managers, liquor store owners,  mechanics, the unknown friendly and unfriendly faces. All here for him.

Mike Johnson stood at the outskirts and caught her eye. He was her father’s part-time accountant, and would be reading his will in the evening. He had been a phantom for ten years, fading in and out of view depending on how interested Bill Keats had been in his bank account. Sometimes she wouldn’t hear about Mike for months, then her father would say, matter-of-fact “I talked to Mike last week,” and she knew a financial storm was brewing.

He approached and shook her hand with both of his, lowering his head in an awkward bow. Mike was someone who was only comfortable talking numbers and would startle at common interactions. She’d seen him jump when a waiter asked to take his order.

“I think we need to have a quick talk prior to the reading of the will. It will help prepare you for any surprises.”

“Ok, where can we talk? You’re making me nervous.”

“Lee will let us use his office. Sorry, I don’t mean to make you feel that way.”

Lydia settled into a low armchair across from Mike. He pulled a manila folder from his briefcase and laid paper on the desk in stacks one inch apart. Some were yellowed and printed in dot matrix, others smelled like fresh toner.

“I’m going to explain things in simple terms, and then we can get into some of the more complex issues. The farm was incredibly profitable. It still is. Bill made sure he had people in place to make it run smoothly after he died. The problem here is his personal assets. Given the profitability of the farm and his own expenses, you would assume he was a very wealthy man. Lydia, he had $18,000 in his personal checking account, $3,000 in savings. That’s next to nothing.”

Mike paused and braced  for her reaction, but she only nodded. As sure as the world spins on its axis, her father was guaranteed to amass and squander a fortune. It happened in uneven seasons, and she measured it in Christmas presents – a limited-edition Barbie in ’92, a foal with red ribbon woven in its mane in ’93, thrift store books and electronics in ’00. A signed card and box of chocolate-covered dates last year.

“There’s also the matter of your grandparents. From what I understand their care at Hundred Palms is around $2,000 a month. I’m assuming you’ll want to continue their care?”

“Ok, I have the big picture, so can we wait for the rest of it? I have a lot of bullshit to deal with before the end of the night.”

Mike leaned back and sighed.

“Sure. I know you’re a smart woman, so you know this situation will need to be taken care of sooner rather than later. But I understand you have obligations today, so let’s wrap this up.”

She returned to the parlor and the smell again hit her with full force. She knew the dates weren’t some practical joke, but their presence had become tragi-comic given the news she’d received. She carried the bowl across the room and placed it in Lee Morris’s hands.

“Here, have someone set these out for the reception, but get them the fuck out of the room.”

4:05p.m.

Lydia couldn’t help but stare at the struggle unfolding three seats to her right. Sam Baker, personnel manager at the farm, fighting to contain his bowels during the service. He was a glutton, and found roomy Dickies overalls the best possible solution to a gut  he refused to tame. She  recognized the signs of discomfort – gentle shifting in his seat, followed by more pronounced changes in leg and torso position. Then came the sweat, pouring down his forehead and into the concave of his cheeks. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped down his face, rested an elbow on his thigh and grimaced as he released an exasperated sigh. She wondered if a pair of shit-filled underwear warranted a 10% discount in services from the Morris family.

What an odd, sad contrast to bear witness to. As distasteful as it was to discuss in polite company, the inner workings of the colon were a sure sign that you were alive. As with any well-planned building, the body needed a clearly lit exit. Lydia had a strong suspicion that revealing these truths would not ease Sam’s mind as his body worked with vigor to guarantee public embarrassment. Then, just as his face had transitioned from Roma tomato to Japanese eggplant, his wife Eleanor took his hand and with careful steps walked him towards the restroom.

Her father’s service was fast becoming a roast, with some guests ready to fill the roles of naughty jokesters. Carter Lambert, the owner of CL’s Liquor, recounted an incident in which Bill was short on cash, walked to his car, and returned with a deluxe box of Medjool dates, wrapped in ribbon like instant barter. Norm Schilling, owner of Schilling’s Dates, recalled Bill’s frequent poker game losses and biggest wins, and how his superstitious nature led him to prepare the same drink for each occasion, a double rye with two ice cubes. What the attendees saw as tender anecdotes, Lydia saw as pathetic examples of a man lost at sea. Cash-strapped. Barter. Gamble. Loss. Fortune.

She noticed that someone had woven orange fans of date branches among the roses and ivy resting on the casket. Irony was forgotten here. It had been a late afternoon harvest, her father restless and bored. Feeling confident in his body, all thin, dark skin and smooth muscle, he climbed a date palm by himself to get the blood flowing after a disheartening, sweltering day in his office. Witnesses said that one moment he had been pulling himself up the ladder and the next he was out of sight.  They found him on the baked earth, head twisted and arms splayed in grotesque directions like the bones of a long-extinct bird.

Lydia grew up thinking a lot about death, and the absurd ways people died. She’d read a news story about a family of six dying in a head-on collision with a drunk driver, and wonder what each victim must have felt in their final moments, as each spark of life was snuffed out at the exact same time. She’d heard a statistic once about the number of people who died when vending machines fell on them. Reading the details of freak accidents over and over convinced her that her fate would be different. Her own mother had a slow death from cancer, and she expected the same from her father, maybe something to do with his liver or mind. But not this. Not a hand-over-mouth incident that created a traffic jam of Internet rubber-neckers.

It had taken Sam Baker two days to reach her. She was participating in a three-day symposium about Gothic poetry at UC Santa Cruz, and had failed to recognize the new area code he’d called from – Indio was growing larger, and now boasted the digits ‘434.’ When she arrived, there had been no homecoming. No hearty exclamations from townies about the ‘Prodigal Daughter,’ or any indication that she had been missed. This wasn’t how these things were supposed to unfold. There were cursory offerings – dinner discounts at Hattie’s, beers “on the house” at Locke’s. What she really wanted was to either disappear completely from their view, or be celebrated for her return. None of this middle ground, hackneyed sympathy.

Grief and stress gathered behind Lydia’s eyes in two inky pools that fell drop by drop down her nasal cavity and echoed in her stomach. Each splash awoke a different sense to the realities of the day. DRIP, SPLASH – the smell of roses was nauseating. DRIP, SPLASH – all the hollow, wrinkled eyes made this look like a funeral of the dead, for the dead. DRIP, SPLASH – she’d had no appetite all week, but suddenly craved an open-face cheeseburger smothered in chili. DRIP, SPLASH – the cheapness of her dress was evident in her darkening armpits and itchy thighs. She thought perhaps the dress would disintegrate as she left the service, leaving her a wild-haired Godiva in the driver’s seat of a ’63 Studebaker.

At last, the carousel of speakers stopped, and Father Nelson said a final prayer. Mourners hugged her, the last remaining connection they had to a man who had, 40 years ago, created an industry in his image. She heard murmurs of the “end of an era,” and knew they saw her as the broken link in some old American ideal. 

5:45 p.m.

Guests gathered in the gift shop, where merchandise displays had been rolled to the sidelines of the room and stood like teenagers waiting to be asked to the dance floor. A series of card tables were draped with white table cloths and festooned with platters and bowls of  mayonnaise-based funeral fare.

Bev Daniels had planned the reception and was the first to greet her. Bev was the manager of the farm’s restaurant and gift shop, and was as close to a maternal figure as Lydia had after her own mother’s death. It was Bev who had whipped the place into shape after the Sunny Egg had closed and Bill bought the property. She saw in him a shared vision of Indio as a tourist oasis, with dates palms hanging over all of it, thick with fruit. Like Bill, she was fascinated by the cultivation of dates, their finicky nature, the way they tore off the pit like meat on bone.  She claimed that she had also invented the date shake, one of the most popular attractions in the region. She was the jolly face of oddball television segments about date farming, and she played the part to perfection.

Every part of Bev was soft – mushy jowls, hands lotioned twice daily with cocoa butter, even a smile that made little pillows of her cheeks. Her hair was a cotton candy still life, a bouffant trifle in a sticky web of Aquanet. You could feel the truth of her hug.

“Baby, do you need anything? You wanna glass of water or something to eat? I have a granola bar in my purse.”

“I’m OK, I just need to sit down for a little while once we get to the reception.”

“Okay, baby. How’s that new job treatin’ you? I saw the book with your poem in it, and I’ll admit I had a hard time understandin’ it, but I could tell Bill just loved it. He always kept your poems when you sent ‘em around.”

“I’m really enjoying the job. I mean, USC is a much bigger campus than I’m used to, and the facul—“

“Well I’ll be right here nearby if ya need anything,” said Bev, interrupting. “I thought it was a lovely service, didn’t you?”

“It was nice, yeah.”

 

Chapter One

OK so here I am, moving a mountain stone by stone. I’m posting a chapter at a time – note that editing will occur, chapters will merge and change, but I’m posting each one to keep myself accountable. Not sure of the title, but I’m calling it “Land of Fruit and Nuts” for now 😉

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I.

2:40 p.m.        

The funeral parlor smelled sticky sweet. Mid-afternoon sun streamed through windows filmed with lily pollen and oil soap, making the room seem more a gauzy dream of death than the true thing. Humidity from late summer storms made every movement heavy, every scent lingering, every word gummy as it left the mouth.

What Lydia noticed first about the room was the polish on every visible facade. Ornate mahogany columns that held nothing aloft, spindle-legged tables with tiger’s eye tops, oak plank floors that sagged and creaked under years of living and dead weight. The casket. All halo-bright and shining, as if maids had been working all morning to revive the interior. She wondered how a room in a town burdened with desert dirt could sit so gleaming.

Morris Funeral home had been in business in Palm Springs for over 90 years, and was a true relic of desert expansion. Lee and Camille Morris had traveled by wagon from young Los Angeles to seek a monopolistic fortune in preparing and burying the dead in a place where families were not given much choice in the matter. Those were different times, yet the business still stood, fat with bills and coins of the desperate.

Lee Morris III had shepherded her in the kind, mechanical way that was common among funeral directors. He had a soft voice that became  firm as she struggled to make the hard choices. He’d pull a list of prepared responses from memory in order to expedite the meeting.

“You should think about not only what your father would have wanted, but also think about what your guests will want to see when they arrive. I understand these are difficult things to balance.”

Lydia knew Lee was accustomed to doughy widows whose grief allowed them to be pushed in certain directions. He would leaf through catalogues, towering over them with his wide, strong chest, horsey veneers and tanned face so unlike the Uncle Fester or Lurch type one expected. He’d suggest Stargazer Lilies instead of standard Calla. Rich cherry wood instead of oak. A gilded urn. She’d been a pill since day one  because of her ability to see through every gentle murmur of  “what about hydrangeas instead of baby’s breath?” They had gone to high school together, and she had witnessed his more overt attempts at bullying. She was a tough negotiator, and had ground him to dust. She half expected him to blow away when he saw the parlor, splendid for such a low price. But that smell…she didn’t recall that part of the bargain.

She searched the room for the source of the scent, and found it on an end table next to a plump velveteen loveseat. A great ceramic bowl of blonde dates sat in the sun, each one wrinkled and oozing from deep fissures. Of course someone had brought dates. The blondes were among her favorite – small, delicately flavored, not too chewy. Her father had been the first in the Coachella Valley to purchase two blonde date palms, one male and one female, to breed the new varietal. She plucked a handful from the bowl and ate them one by one, spitting pits into her palm and putting them in her pocket. She swallowed the last date and wiped a sticky hand on her polyester dress. Black hid everything, didn’t it?

Since her father’s death , Lydia had reverted to childish thievery and concealment. Pits in her pocket. A pair of tortoiseshell sunglasses stolen from a vendor on the Venice Beach boardwalk. She had even planned to stuff the black dress into her purse at the local Goodwill until she’d seen the eagle-eyed manager looking in her direction. Her heels felt four sizes too big, like she was playing dress-up in her mother’s closet. Still, she kept her face hard as stone as she slid from mourner to mourner, shaking hands and kissing cheeks.

Clusters of guests filled the room. She considered each one an adversary, and observed their strengths and weaknesses. First there were her father’s farm employees – the lithe young men who harvested dates by climbing up ladders built into tree trunks, who flooded the fields once a week, who trimmed and bred and sorted. He was like a father to them all, and their heads hung low as they gathered and spoke in soft Spanish. They were the least of her worries, and could be won over with time.

There were the other date farmers in the region – all the men as wrinkled as their harvest, and their wives just as plump. She recalled sneaking out of her bedroom at night as a child and listening to the Sunday dinner conversation between these men and her father. Sometimes she was caught before the poker games, sometimes she was lucky and would hear them mumble and curse into the night. She could still hear the ice cubes clinking in their highball glasses and the smell of pot roast. Each had varying levels of interest in buying the farm. Each in turn would see her full grown and prepared for battle.

Speaking loudest were the relatives, an assorted box of aunts, uncles, cousins. All were residents of the Inland Empire  – the Yucca Valley clan, the Palm Desert gang. Dirt poor and in the throes of several addictions. Their beaked noses matched their carrion-hungry gazes – each one hoping for a piece of the pie. All she remembered of them were their cars disappearing in the dust after her father had again slipped them cash for this investment or that opportunity that soon rotted on the vine. Unworthy opponents.

She rattled through the rest of the list in her head – the old women who packaged the dates in white tissue and gold boxes (red and green for Christmas, pink for Easter), the distributors who sold the boxes at airport terminals,  the grocery store managers, liquor store owners,  mechanics, the unknown friendly and unfriendly faces. All here for him.

Mike Johnson stood at the outskirts and caught her eye. He was her father’s part-time accountant, and would be reading his will in the evening. He had been a phantom for ten years, fading in and out of view depending on how interested Bill Keats had been on his bank account. Sometimes she wouldn’t hear about Mike for months, then her father would say, matter-of-fact:

“I talked to Mike last week.”

Mike approached and shook her hand with both of his, lowering his head in an awkward bow. He was someone who was only comfortable talking numbers and would startle at common interactions. She’d seen him jump when a waiter asked to take his order.

“I think we need to have a quick talk prior to the reading of the will. It will help prepare you for any surprises.”

“Ok, where can we talk? You’re making me nervous.”

“Lee will let us use his office. Sorry, I don’t mean to make you feel that way.”

Lydia settled into a low armchair across from Mike. He pulled a manila folder from his briefcase and laid paper on the desk in stacks one inch apart. Some were yellowed and printed in dot matrix, others smelled like fresh toner.

“I’m going to explain things in simple terms, and then we can get into some of the more complex issues. The farm was incredibly profitable. It still is. Bill made sure he had people in place to make it run smoothly after he died. The problem here is his personal assets. Given the profitability of the farm and his own expenses, you would assume he was a very wealthy man. Lydia, he had $18,000 in his personal checking account, $3,000 in savings. That’s next to nothing.”

Mike paused and braced  for her reaction, but she had seen this coming and only nodded. As sure as the world spins on its axis, her father was guaranteed to amass and squander a fortune. It happened in uneven seasons, and she measured it in Christmas presents – a limited-edition Barbie in ’92, a foal with red ribbon woven in its mane in ’93, thrift store books and electronics in ’00. A signed card and box of chocolate-covered dates last year.

“There’s also the matter of your grandparents. From what I understand their care at Shady Palms is around $2,000 a month. I’m assuming you’ll want to continue their care?”

“Ok, I have the big picture, so can we wait for the rest of it? I have a lot of bullshit to deal with before the end of the night.”

Mike leaned back and sighed. He saw a bit of Bill in his only daughter.

“Sure. I know you’re a smart woman, so you know this situation will need to be taken care of sooner rather than later. But I understand you have obligations today, so let’s wrap this up.”

She returned to the parlor and the smell again hit her with full force. She knew the dates weren’t some practical joke, but their presence was tragic-comic. She envisioned some kindly neighbor smoothing her go-to funeral attire, applying just the right amount of lipstick as to not seem gauche, hanging a small purse on the crook of her elbow and  buying a bag of blondes from their original Keats Family roadside market. She knew very little of her father’s true wishes, but she knew he would have seen this gift as truly absurd. She carried the bowl across the room and placed it in Lee Morris’s hands.

“Here, have someone set these out for the reception, but get them the hell out of the room.”

Fundamental Things.

Struggling tonight. Thinking about audience – do I seek to please an existing audience, or create work for myself and myself alone? If I make this choice, will the work develop its own audience because of its power or flounder because it is weak? Sometimes I think that it take a great ego, and “great singular vision” as I say frequently, to make this kind of decision. Do I embrace this in myself? Does it exist within? Is is cultivated? This Sunday is an important day for me, where I’ll be committing myself to a project and will spend the day writing, outlining, getting to the heart of things before moving forward. So these thoughts naturally run through my mind.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m a toddler who looks up to her big brother or sister, and poorly mimes them.

Ugh.

 

Vivian Maier was an alien.

Note: I’m outlining a piece of fiction that will probably take me a while to finish. However I don’t want my blog to become a desert, so I’m keeping the tumbleweeds at bay in the meantime by writing some short observations, reviews, and wee stories, while also posting chapter drafts as they are completed. Enjoy, loyal readers (if you exist).

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I’ve been following the Vivian Maier story for a few years. She’s the woman who was a lifelong nanny and housekeeper, and who used the freedom of movement the work afforded her to take over 100,000 photographs throughout her life. The photographs (and short films) she took are intimate, surprising, and touching depictions of bustling Chicago streets and the day to day lives of families she worked for.

I recently watched “Finding Vivian Maier,” a documentary directed by John Maloof, the man who bought boxes of Maier’s undeveloped film at auction and who has spent years researching her life, developing her film, and increasing awareness of her work. After watching the documentary and putting my thoughts together about this rather curious woman, I came to the following conclusion:

Vivian Maier was an alien.

OK, hear me out. This theory didn’t just come out of thin air. It came from numerous viewings of “Earth Girls are Easy” and a teenage obsession with “Third Rock from the Sun.” It also came from the following observations:

She seems to have come out of nowhere

Maloof researches her family tree, and finds that the majority of her family is disconnected – siblings who no longer correspond, cousins so distant that they had never met or learned each other’s names. He eventually discovers surviving members of her family living in a tiny town near the French Alps – but I find this thin familial connection suspicious. Next you’ll tell me she broke her leg while climbing Pitz Palü. When she came to earth, she must have discovered that one needed to establish some background, or else seem odd. Her solution wasn’t to concoct relatives in a remote village – but worse, she visited the village and claimed to be an American who was blood-related to some of its inhabitants. All she had to do was some cursory research to establish the French Connection. She was also known to have changed the spelling of her name regularly, and was always hesitant to give her name to strangers at all.

Her appearance and manner was strange

Former employers describe her tall, lanky figure and awkward gait – as if she were not comfortable in her own skin. She wore oversized clothes that were far out of fashion, and kept her hair cropped short. These are classic signs of an alien who has taken on the physical characteristics of a human, but who has difficulty adjusting to a new body. Think Vincent d’Onofrio in “Men in Black.” She also had a French accent that a linguist claims is most likely affected. Perhaps this served the dual purpose of confirming a French background while compensating for the difficulties of speaking a newly-learned language? She was also a known hoarder, who saved not only her film, but also stacks upon stacks of newspapers and magazines. Were these specimens to take back to her home planet? Finally, she had a difficult time managing money, which makes sense if you come from an alien civilization that long ago moved beyond archaic forms of currency.

She was fascinated with people, especially children

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The majority of Maier’s photographs are of human beings simply existing. They are eating, shopping, observing, reacting to off-stage incidents. For most of her photographs she used a Rolliflex camera that could be held at abdomen level, making her photography much less conspicuous. One has to take great care when documenting the human race for your home planet. And of course the film would need to remain undeveloped so it could be easily transported to the Mothership. She even took a solo trip around the world – the purposes of which was to further document various human cultures, while at the same time meeting other alien implants like her, stationed in other countries. In addition to her street photography, she documented the lives of the children she cared for. What better way to observe the growth and development of adolescent humans than working as a nanny?

Have I made my case? Have I convinced you?

I hope not.

The truth is: we don’t want to believe that people like this exist. We get uncomfortable with the thought that there are among us those who prefer to be on the outside, looking in. And if we acknowledge their existence, we must give them escalating labels:

Odd.

Eccentric.

Insane.

What I found most poignant about Maier’s story is that she LOVED people. She loved every emotion captured on their faces, every spec of beauty they created, and every piece of evil they unleashed. But she never lived among us. This, to me, was a very conscious decision on her part.  Many who are socially awkward and simply cannot fit comfortably within societal norms will feel shame, will close themselves up, will even end their lives in despair. Yes, Maier withdrew from what we consider a “normal” life, but she had a gift and a motivation that made her luckier than other lost souls. She had a window to the world that made her astonishment with humanity known. Everything about her seemed alien, and that’s a shame. Her story can teach us all about acceptance. About the dignity of the silent.

As I watched the movie, I recalled a little gift I have for remembering. I realized early in life that not everyone possessed the ability to recall whole conversations and incidents from years prior.  Friends and family have been astonished by my ability to recall minute moments of life lived. I like to think this ability is based in my lifelong lonerism, paired with a true and deep fascination with being human. In Maier I find a sisterhood, a quiet understanding. I also find a cautionary tale, and a lesson – to look through life’s window, and occasionally open the door and say “hello.”

 

Light and Line

So…I don’t have a name for this story yet. I tried on a few different ideas, but none of them fit. So I’m calling it “Light and Line” until inspiration strikes. This reminds me of high school, when I hated titling my essays and would write snarky things like “I don’t believe in titles” on my papers and still manage to get an A. What a rebel.

I’m noting my interest in examining close interpersonal relationships, but I want to move beyond that a bit. It sounds plain wacky, but I thought of a book idea today. It was a little terrifying. But for now, here’s my naked morsel – title ideas welcome!

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“¡Ven aqui!”

“¿Como?”

Flora wrapped herself in a knit blanket and rose from the armchair. She’d drifted to sleep for perhaps five minutes, and already warm spittle had dripped down her chin and left sticky Venn diagrams on her blouse. She noted as she began to walk that her back bent at a more acute angle than before. These things were all measured in degrees. When she found him, Julio was sitting in a folding chair in the garage with an elbow resting on each arm. His eyes did not move from the canvas as she entered.

“Do you think I need to add more copper before she arrives?”

“I can’t say one way or the other, but do you think the glue will dry in time?”

“I think so. I’ll add more copper.”

“Well, you had better do it now.”

He reached for a toolbox on wheels and pulled a copper triangle from the top drawer. He studied the canvas again, licked his lips, then brushed the triangle with industrial grade adhesive before securing it to the lower right corner of the painting.  

“There. It’s finished now. I feel better.”

“Good. I’m going to finish my nap.”

Flora pitied the paintings because Julio did not honor them. He never prepared the canvas, instead choosing to lay the cheap acrylics raw. He never used an easel, but rather set the canvas on concrete blocks and leaned it against the back wall of the garage. The edges of each piece were gray and worn, some even torn. He stacked them face to face in haphazard rows, making them appear as ragged urchins huddled for warmth. Flora believed that your materials were an extension of yourself, and therefore must be protected as one would bandage wounded fingers. 

The morning had been set aside for preparation, and in those hours Flora had resigned herself to perpetual weariness. She woke earlier than usual, and brewed strong coffee for breakfast that she cut with heavy cream. Both she and Julio had gradually lost their appetites, as if each year of their lives meant one less bite from their plates. She used dried mint from her garden to make a strong tea that she would later put over ice, filled a crystal pitcher with water and lemon,  and assembled paired platters of meat and cheese and cookies and cakes. Mirasol had switched her cleaning schedule to assist her, and together their rags and brooms ate up every dust mote. Julio wanted the good silver and the porcelain serving set, all of which needed cleaning and polishing. By 11a.m., all the filth of the home had congregated on Flora’s cotton shift. She took a long, hot shower, changed into a pair of pressed lavender slacks and a cream silk blouse, and collapsed in the armchair.

Julio wandered in from the garage and stood tense in the middle of the living room, his arms behind his back like a private school bully overcompensating for his maliciousness. She had never seen him look so nervous, and it filled her with wicked glee. She put a hand to her mouth so that an upturned lip would not betray her.

Did you hear a car? I thought I heard a car brake in front of the house.”

“No.”

“I’ll check anyway.”

Julio lumbered toward the bay window and peeked through the blinds. His arms were abnormally long even for his tall frame, and as he aged he began more and more to resemble a Yeti.

“She’s not here. Well, maybe she arrives in a few minutes. Maybe there is traffic.”

“She” was Connie Grundheim, one of the most well-known and respected gallery owners in Los Angeles. She would be examining Julio’s work for possible inclusion in her impressive roster of artists. The whole thing made Flora nauseated and thrilled and jealous all at once. She was grateful to the morning’s labor for distracting her mind and releasing some of the hot energy that roiled in her belly. What a moment for him. What a pleasure.

***

On a Sunday morning five years ago, Flora was standing in front of a fruit vendor at the farmer’s market, comparing the quality of two mangoes. The saleswoman had eagerly held one in each hand as she spoke through a smile.

“These are in peak season, you should just get both!”

She knew that she’d made a decision about the mangoes, she could see their oily red and yellow blush, she could still feel her mouth beginning to form words, but she could not recall her response. What she did remember was the woman’s face melting as the scene unfolded behind her – Julio, falling like a great tree in a teeming wood. His arms flailing and reaching like a toddler whose object of desire was just out of grasp. The market crowd opened into  a wide circle around him, then closed as the young and capable rushed to assist. Flora thought they looked like pigeons scattered in a town square. She knelt beside him and slid her fingers between his, convinced this would be last time she would feel the warmth of his touch. She waited for the moment when a man’s devotion is demonstrated in his final words, but instead Julio stared at her without recognition as urine spread across his khakis and pooled on the asphalt.

The days following were slowed to a crawl, and again few details remained for her of this time. Doctors and family alike referred to Julio as a “bear,” a “lion,” a “bull.” All manner of beast. A miracle. He had suffered a massive heart attack, and through the determination of the doctors and a rough massage of his heart in its open chest, he had lived.  No physician wanted to be known as the one who had let Dr. Vasquez slip from their mortal grasp. He was, after all, a renowned and long-retired surgeon. Visitors poured into his room, stroking his head and speaking to him while he was half conscious, like a modern memento mori.

During recovery, a small clot had adventured to his brain and caused a stroke that left his right side partially paralyzed and his speech impaired. Just days before, Julio had been a vital man, perhaps suffering from the bit of ennui that set in after retirement, but content overall. Now, Flora was left with a six-foot-two infant with 30 staples in his chest.

Julio was a terrible patient, as she expected. He threw tantrums during physical therapy and refused to eat hospital food. He had little respect for the doctors, though they had an endless supply of reverence for him. He embarrassed Flora at every turn with his piercing stares and condescension toward any white lab coat or orderly he met.

“He’ll get into a routine, and he’ll get over it. Dad used to have such a strict routine, remember? It drove us all insane!”

Her daughter Maria stirred hot water with a teabag as she spoke. Flora watched the brown plumes rise and spread in her mug.

“I remember. He never stopped. You moved away, but he never stopped.”

They soon exhausted the television programs and films that could keep Julio’s interest. Dr. Abramian recommended books and magazines, but ones that were easy to read, with lots of pictures.

Flora came home from the hospital just long enough to pack her own breakfast and lunch for the following day and bring Julio fresh clothes and missing toiletries. She passed their library as she left, and studied the titles. Years of attending gallery openings and museum galas had yielded an impressive collection of art books. At last she plucked a book from the shelf, examined its cover, and carried it out the door.

The book was about Hard Edge Abstraction, an art movement that embraced the power of sharp lines. Paintings that weren’t wishy-washy, but that made their intention known at once. The kind of work that would silence a party when it entered the room. Names like Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson,  and Frederick Hammersley. She had chosen the book because of its adolescent appeal – big recognizable shapes and bold primary and secondary colors. She had a flash of memory in which her son, one year old at the time, had idly turned the its pages before teething on its thick cover.

“¿Qué es esto?”

Julio fingered the first few pages and sighed.

“The doctor said it will help with your therapy. It will also keep you from bothering me about changing the TV channel.”

***

Flora was a painter. This could not be denied. When the last of her children had moved out of the house, she sought to ease her boredom as she waited for grandchildren to bestow her well-curated knowledge. Her schoolhouse scribbles of youth were breadcrumbs leading her to weekend trips to the arts and crafts store, where she would buy three canvases – two tiny and one large. While teaching her children about basic principles of depth, color and line, she would daydream across her canvas. Landscapes that belonged nowhere on earth, but felt like home. Still-lifes of fruits and flowers that she had never seen. An alien world that lived inside her.

Once a month, she joined like-minded women in a country club ballroom, where the Los Angeles Art Society would meet, then work plein-air in a meadow 50 yards from a putting green. While most of those meetings were filled with gossip and white wine, she relished certain moments  –  when a soft breeze passed over her face, or when the wind sought to be taken seriously and blew her watercolors into fantastic Rorschach patterns. Each painting was the memory of her daughter’s sweet laugh, a childhood reminiscence of bottle-feeding newborn goats on the ranch, or the nights when Julio’s passion for his work was carried to their bed.

She could not have understood the consequences of giving Julio the book. The news that he was living on borrowed time had not diminished his ego, but fed it. He saw in the book an unfulfilled calling – a thrilling detour at the end of life’s path. He used his long-dormant laptop to research artists, and fixated upon Carlos Cruz Diez, a fellow Venezuelan and a master of light and line.

 He asked her to drive him to the arts and crafts store, her sacred temple, and help him choose cheap supplies in large quantities. He worked well into most nights, when lying in bed she would hear a muffled “Ah-ha!” or “¡Madre de Dios!” from the garage.

She was no longer able to bear the humiliation of watching Julio walk with great bombast into galleries, paintings in hand. She had always been the one to drag him to the art world’s latest hot ticket, and now he held the unearned belief that he was better than all of them. Flora convinced him to hire a marketing and publicity firm to hustle the work. They camouflaged the paintings with good photographers and lighting and made him write an artist statement. Guests he met at gallery openings found him alternately naïve and honorable and pompous. For a man who had spent his life using his hands with great precision and skill, it was difficult to come to terms with their limitations. After months of hard luck, the firm received a call from Connie Grundheim, asking for an at-home appointment.

***

A late model Mercedes convertible announced itself half an hour late.  Julio walked away from the window and shifted his weight while he waited for Connie to cross the walkway.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Grundheim, and welcome to my home. This is my wife, Flora.”

“Wonderful to meet you. I’m so sorry for being late! I don’t come to Palos Verdes that often and have a horrible sense of direction. So, I understand you were a surgeon. That must have been such rewarding work. Saving lives every day!”

 “It was. It was very rewarding.”

“Well, it’s not uncommon for people to pursue art later in life, once they have time to focus on it. But you know, I do have a 3:00 in Manhattan Beach so I would love to see your work now. I don’t want to make it seem like I’m rushing you, but you understand.”

“Of course, let’s see it!” Julio clapped his hands together and set aside an untouched plate of cheese and ham.

Everything Connie did was clipped short – her voice, the clack of her heels, her knock at the door, the half glass of tea she poured, the wedge of cookie she ate. A story an author was satisfied to leave unfinished.

Her  nose wrinkled as she entered the garage.

“So, is this where you store your paintings?”

“Yes, I store them here because it is the only place my wife will let them stay. She is the…she…you know…she wears the pants, you know?”

Flora thought the false self-deprecation was the largest insult. He had been the one to relegate her gentle watercolors to the laundry room that connected the kitchen and garage. For years they had remained, hung with cheap hooks – her tiny soldiers for truth and beauty. Each day when he left for the hospital or the golf course he had failed to give them a second glance. She presented each painting to him only once, which yielded a perfunctory nod  and tight lip.

Yet he had given her this life, the children, the home, the porcelain serving set. The wind, water and earth of Palos Verdes Peninsula.

“Mmmmhmmm, mmmhmmm…okay, yes, I see.”

Julio flipped through the paintings, each one a blur of grotesque colors and tone-deaf configurations. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead and on the tip of his bulbous nose.

“…and this one I painted after I was given an honor by the city of Los Angeles…”

“Yes, oh, OH, yes.”

“This I painted when there was that terrible storm on the coast last year.”

“I see, OK. Yes, I remember. Can you show me your recent work?”

“Oh of course. It is a treat because I admit I finished this painting only one week ago!”

Julio reached for the canvas he had studied that morning. It was painted black, with triangles  in assaulting shades of red. Copper pieces were arranged as sunbursts and pierced the darkness. In print that was outsized for the painting’s dimensions, were the initials J.D.M.V.

He held it with his fingertips curled around the painted edges. He craned his head and smiled over the canvas, waiting eagerly for a response. Flora balled her fists and practiced slow breaths. The room was silent except for the dull hum of central air conditioning.

“TINK.”

The copper triangle, the shiny offender. Flora saw it in slow motion – a slight waver before gravity did its work and the metal fell to the ground. It flipped and tumbled into the shadow of a drafting table and out of sight.

Later, Flora would struggle to explain why this was the moment of failure. She asked him to imagine he were a mechanic who installed a part backwards, or a director who left a scene out of his first movie screening, or a surgeon who stitched half a wound.

“Well, this has been a pleasure, but I do need to get to my appointment. I will be in touch one way or the other.”

Connie marched down the hallway then braked abruptly. She gazed at one of Flora’s paintings – a bright morning scene in which thick clouds menaced beyond a series of hills.

“How lovely. These are really beautiful. Not something my gallery typically exhibits, but I’m really impressed. And so different from your work in the garage!”

Her voice faded as she walked to the door, not waiting for guest courtesies.

“Wonderful work, I’ll be in touch. Thank you for the lovely afternoon!”

They stood stunned and helpless in the airless living room.

“I’m going to take a nap.”

***

Flora believed that men were born with all of themselves, and that women were made to wander life in search of missing pieces. She thought this was a gift rather than a curse – for if one were born complete, how could you yearn? Where was curiosity and wonder?

As the afternoon sun sunk low, she unbraided her long gray hair and used a stepstool to climb into bed. She clung to his back and stroked his face.

He was just a child, frightened by a nightmare.

Just a man, heartened by a dream.

Just a piece, a shard of herself that she pushed painfully back into place.

She crept downstairs to her paintings, gave each one a long, loving gaze, and allowed herself to smile.

On the Iris – Ouzo for Two-zo

Image

My latest Getty Iris post about some of the lesser-known but historically and artistically important cities in Greece. Note: I have not been to Greece. http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/a-trip-through-byzantine-greece/.

I was hoping to have a new story up today, but it will likely be today or tomorrow instead. In the meantime, I’m going to pretend I’m on a Kastoria beach…

Drifting into Storylandia again…oops!

I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited about a tale at the outset. 800 words in, but a taste:

On a Sunday morning five years ago, Flora was standing in front of a fruit vendor at the farmer’s market, comparing the quality of two mangoes. The saleswoman had eagerly held one in each hand as she spoke through a smile.

“These are in peak season, you should just get both!

She knew that she’d made a decision about the mangoes, she could see their oily red and yellow blush, she could still feel her mouth beginning to form words, but she could not recall her response. What she did remember was the woman’s face melting as the scene unfolded behind her – Julio, falling like a great tree in a teeming wood. His arms flailing and reaching like a toddler whose object of desire was just out of grasp. The market crowd opening into a wide circle around him, then closing as the young and capable rushed to assist. Flora thought they looked like pigeons scattered in a town square. She knelt beside him and slid her fingers between his, convinced this would be last time she would feel the warmth of his touch.