Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Daniel Mount's (2nd) 26-Minute Memoir

I slipped the black Levi’s up my white rail thin legs, pulled on a voluminous black rayon shirt, cape-like in its largess. I clicked open the mirrored medicine cabinet door found the stub of a waxy eye-liner pencil, whittled to near oblivion. I delicately painted the lips of my eyes black. Anything to make me look more pallid than I was. Pallid as a corpse. It was 1980 and me and my gang were the proto-goths. The 70s were over and so was tanning.

I wanted to look like a 60s cat burglar, a heroin addict, an Edward Gorey cartoon. Any-thing other than what I was. An unemployed failing college student, from a blue collar neighborhood.

No one was in the apartment but me. My activities were totally secret. I wetted a towel, wrapped a paring knife in it, and wrapped it all with a black garbage bag. Tucked it under my arm and headed out as the sky’s blue began to turn green with night’s approach.

I walked nearly 6 miles, most of it along railroad tracks through the rusty industrial belly of the city. I was merely another shadow among the many. Quiet and oily.

I had let unemployment sneak up on me, nab me that summer. I was liberated and penny-less. Plenty of time to wander, imagine. Even imagine a crime. Then perpetrate it.

I reached the back of Holy Cross cemetery, long after night had fallen. It was darker than I imagined it would be. Nearly impairing my task. I squeezed through a break in the cast iron fence, spiked by Victorians 100 years earlier, to keep gravediggers out. I had noticed this break in the fence a week before, when I walked this same route to my parents house in daylight. I stood among the oldest headstones in the cemetery which were lost in the darkness and knee deep grass. I groped at shadows,a shadow myself until I contacted them.

Day lilies.

Hundreds and hundreds of day lilies, naturalized into this neglected corner of the cemetery. I set the plastic bag, removed the wet towel, unrolled it, search for the knife with my hands, my eyes being nearly useless. I fell forward in my grasping for the solid stems of the day lilies and began to cut, and cut and cut. With quick just strokes I search through the blue black night toward the muffled orange of the flowers. And I cut, and cut and cut.

Suddenly spooked by my own weird behavior, I stopped. I gather the 100 stems I cut wrapped them in the wet towel with the knife, and wrapped it all in the plastic bag. I slipped back out of the break in the fence, exhaling a huge breath as if I had just come up for air. This was no doubt a silly crime. Maybe no criminal act at all, though I im-agined myself a thief somehow, even if all I was was stealing were flowers planted years ago on graves that were no longer visited.

I followed an abandoned street car track to where I could catch a bus home. The over-growth on both sides of the track made a dark tunnel in an already dark night. I sped up, nearly galloping to escape the crime scene. My weighty booty, 100 day lilies slung over my shoulder. I understood why criminals ran.
Suddenly my shadow flashed before me, as if a spotlight was blasting me from behind. I turned and saw indeed it was a spot light from the small overpass that workers had taken to the factories in the valley below. Though this light blinded me I could still see someone, a shadow someone not unlike me resting on the railing with a gun pointing toward me.

I turned.

I know, I know, never turn your back on a gunman.

Yet I turned to find another spotlight coming from the road ahead. I wanted it to feel like a crime, my little flower thievery. I wanted to make a few bucks selling them the next day on a posh city street lined with cafes. I dressed like a cat burglar, in a sort of old time movie way. But I never imagined cops. Guns pointing at me from 2 directions. Mil-waukee cops not known for withholding fire.

“ Drop it.”

I did. The bundle of plastic wrapped day lilies hit the ground with a corpse like thud, re-sounded in an atmosphere from which I could not draw a breath.

“Hands on your head. Walk slowly to the road.”

I did. Wondering why I hadn’t shit my pants. But even more why snitching a few posies from a dilapidated cemetery warranted such a reception.

As I move forward another gun ready cop passed me to check out what I had dropped.
When I reached the road I was pushed up against the squad car.

“Spread your legs.”

One cop held a gun on me while another frisked me. I’d like to remember it as teasingly erotic, but at the time every pore of my body gaped for breath, every cell of my brain questioned. Why all this? Over a few dozen flowers?

“What were you doing back there?” Though the cops were so close I could smell them, their commands and questions remained as disembodied as when they first broke the silence of the bright white light, burning a hole in the darkness. My secret.

I spoke. Did my voice tremble? Were my words rattled with saliva? Did they quaver be-fore a dam of frightful tears?

I lied. Actually, I did not lie. I had no skill at lying. Someone lied for me. Someone inside me who I did not know. “I was cutting flowers for my girlfriend. We had a fight because I’m unemployed. I wanted to make her happy.”

Just then the other cop came back to the car tossed the paring knife, he carried in a gloved hand, on the hood of the car.

“What is it?”

“ Flowers,” he said not without some disappointment.

They took my address. I gave them my parents’ who I knew would be out of town for another 2 weeks. I gave them a girlfriend’s name from high school. Yet I gave then my real name.

And then as if my dopey innocence had drawn on their confidence one of the cops told me, “A guy all dressed in black, just shot a cop a few blocks from here. Less than a hour ago. You nearly got yourself killed.”

“Go get your flowers.” They were still barking orders, as they crawled back into their cars, disappointed.
Before they drove off one of them wished me good luck out the window, as they sped off flashing.I sold the flowers the next day. And read the papers which I rarely did.A cop was shot, not dead but critically. And they never caught the assassin.

And I was never convicted of aiding and abetting. Though my little crime let him get away.


Monday, February 1, 2010

Kelly Shire's 26-Minute Memoir

It was another Thanksgiving – they all flowed unremarkable into each other then, much the same way they do now. Another turkey, another go at a new stuffing recipe, another sweater that is too warm, really, for the balmy Southern California late afternoon. But this Thanksgiving, my mother and I were alone together in a car, driving to visit my father. I don't remember if we were driving the turquoise blue egg of our Ford Pinto, or the later, brown version of the same car. I do know it was before the Pinto that had its passenger door lashed on with rope to hold it in place. That was following an accident that wasn't either of my parents fault, but since the other minor dings, scrapes, and metal-on-metal “kisses” our cars endured were all at the hands of my father, that more serious injury was just another to be absorbed and dealt with, no need to get insurance companies involved.

So, a Thursday in late November, after the buffet dinner at my aunt's house. My little sister wasn't with us, but as a preschooler, she wouldn't be. We were to going to visit my father, because it was a holiday, the most family-oriented one of the year. My dad hadn't been with us for the dinner, but we knew where he was, a marked improvement over most of the spells when he wasn't living with us.

My mother and I were driving the brief route from my aunt's house in Santa Fe Springs to the Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk. The Met hospital was a locked down facility for the state's mentally challenged and incapacitated citizens. My dad wasn't one of these, no matter how often my mom might hiss late at night that he was sick, crazy. And unlike the overwhelming majority of residents at the Met's main campus of buildings, my father was not in lock-down, or held against his will. Rather, he had enrolled himself for a volunteer stay into a building on the outer edge of the hospital's grassy, tree-filled acres: a place deemed Cider House, for men struggling with addictions, namely alcohol. The Cider House building was an actual house, a tall two-storied, flat-fronted sort of saltbox, with a peaked roof of dark wood. There was a fire escape of stairs from a second story door, but the house looked charming to me, old-fashioned, compared to the pastel stucco houses of our own neighborhood, and it seemed homey, especially in the twilight hours of this Thanksgiving, when there was finally a slight chill in the air and even a hint of woodsmoke.

Inside the Cider House was a men's world as manly as any exclusive club lounge. It was dim and there were televisions on, and already someone had tacked up a hopeful string of Christmas lights around the doorway between one sitting room and another. For that was evidently the main occupation of the men at Cider House: sitting around, waiting. Hours to spend, without a drink. One Day at A Time, and all that. I already knew about all that. There was cigarette smoke in the high rafters, smoke in the tattered tired sofas, cigarette burns in the massive console television in one room, burns and coffee cup rings on the low table before the portable TV in another. The men were polite, the men were quiet and respectful and seemed not a little abashed to be seen here on this holiday by an attractive mother and her adolescent daughter. The same could be said about my father, himself.

Still, there was a sense of openness, of generosity, queries if we were hungry, for there was still plenty of food to be had: coffee, pumpkin pie, the rich dark brown aroma of long-simmered barbecue baked beans. There was a brief tour: here, the sitting areas and their motley TV's, here was the dormitory, rows and rows of plain beds where, like the famous little girls in the French convent, they brushed their teeth and went to bed.

There was alone time, precious on this day. Hello how are you, how is school, how is work, your little sister. Perfunctory words to to glaze over moments, chafing all of us in the worn leather chairs. A joke: my dad handed us a cup, a coffee mug that he had molded, painted and glazed in some unimaginable Craft Hour, some therapeutic working of clay by men unable to quite make the shape of their outside lives fit the mold, take a sturdy and useful permanent shape. The joke, from me, the smart-ass cracker of jokes learned at the knee of the professional wise-ass himself: What's next, Daddy? Basket weaving on the lawn? And then the sought-after chuckle, the wry twist, as another cigarette was lit. Everyone in their places, everyone in their roles. All is right after all, within our small unit, behind a chain-link fence and the guard booth at the parking lot entrance off Bloomfield Avenue. Not many years later, my dad would work as a bartender again right down the same wide, industrial road, driving past the same long chain link fences each late afternoon and later evening, going to and from another job of pouring drinks, being a wise-ass. Decades later, the mug with its painted desert sunset glaze remains in the hall closet of my parents home, holding dry pens and lost keys.

On this Thursday evening, the twilight giving way to the sudden dark of late autumn, my mother and I said our goodbyes and crossed our arms for warmth as we returned to the Pinto. Into a crack on the dashboard, my mother had stuck a metal button: I Used to Be Disgusted, But Now I'm Just Amused. I don't remember the words we spoke as we passed by the guard, passed through the gates and sat at a traffic light. But, this: the oldies station, K-RTH, playing the Beatles “All You Need is Love.” Right, my mother breathed out slowly, as we merged back into the sparse stream of holiday traffic.

By Kelly Shire