Night cook

I was the night cook. We were on a rig out in the Gulf, many miles from shore. There was a skeleton crew; we were all just there to keep the parts moving. I would wake up around three in the afternoon and get down to the kitchen about an hour later. Have something to eat and some bad coffee and get to work.

I’d help the head cook get dinner squared away. Set out the food and sit back as the roustabouts came in and slopped it onto their plates and wolfed it down. They sat around and talked about sports and girls and how much longer they could count on this job. It was like a high school cafeteria except this time the anxiety was about when you would go broke and who was fucking your wife while you were away on your three-week stints.

After dinner they all filed out and we broke everything down, cleaned it up. Then the head cook would sit down and eat something himself, and go off to bed. Each shift was twelve hours; he would not be back in the kitchen until six the next morning. I’d get things ready for the night time stretch.

This was the easiest offshore gig I ever had. All I had to do was prepare a snack and have it out at around midnight, and be sure to leave it up for an hour or so for the few luckless souls who happened to wake up. Usually this was nobody. Later I would ready breakfast, though my shift would end at four and I wouldn’t have to actually serve it. Just have it ready for when the day cook came in the next morning.

This left an abundance of free time.

I did a lot of reading. I read Tropic of Cancer out there, and thought about the girl I was seeing back home. We’d worked together in a bookstore before I took this job and I liked to imagine her walking through the tall stacks, graceful and lovely. I thought about reading pages of the book to her, speaking aloud that rough and gorgeous language, saying things to her I did not have the courage or the knowledge to say myself.

I wrote some stories. Little vignettes in the naturalist style that seemed terribly important to me at the time. I assembled them into a little volume I thought I would publish as a chapbook somewhere, called Slaughterhouses. My head was full of Miller and Faulkner and Thom Jones. I had stopped reading fantasy some time ago and did not then believe I would ever go back to it.

Sometimes someone would straggle in for some coffee and a wedge of refrigerator-flavored cake. Sometimes we’d talk and sometimes we wouldn’t.

By the time two o’clock in the morning rolled around I was usually the only one awake on the whole rig. The work in the kitchen was long done and you can only read in that awful florescent light so long before it becomes a cudgel and you have to walk out of it or go insane.

My favorite place to go was the helicopter pad. It was always empty, except on Thursdays when some of the crew would rotate out. The wind was hard up there. In the daylight, all you could see for miles around was flat blue water. But at night the lights from distant rigs ringed the horizon and you felt a part of some vast, strange city.

I would lie down on the helicopter pad and stare straight up into the stars. There was no light out here and I was at the highest point on the rig. I could see the white smoke of the Milky Way. I felt the planet press against my back, pushing me through the darkness.

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Sometimes they come back

I went to Clarion way back in 1992. It was a great class. Jeff VanderMeer, Cory Doctorow, Dale Bailey, Felicity Savage.

Me.

And Pam Noles. She was dynamic, crazy smart, opinionated, funny, and beautiful. I was struck. I think a few of us were.

A couple years after Clarion she came to visit me in New Orleans and something happened. I was on fire. And then time and distance and a variety of other factors did their ugly work and we fell out of each other’s lives. But I never stopped thinking about her. Never stopped keeping track.

And now, after a fluke exchange, and a buckle in the wind, here she is again. Suddenly and miraculously. And just in time.

Taken by Kathleen Ann Goonan last weekend. Ignore that creature shining palely in the sunlight. Look at the woman instead.

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The small hours

Too little sleep. Vodka in the small hours. My thoughts are frayed and bewildered. I am beset by unreasonable fears. And a wild, warm hope. Something is moving out there. Sometimes I can almost see it.

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A brief return to the city, part two

When I drove in it was as though New Orleans pulled out all the stops to welcome me. I got in at the evening rush hour, and the I-10 coming in was clogged with traffic. Behind me somewhere a siren erupted; I looked into the rearview and saw an ambulance trying to bull its way through. It took a long time for it to pass me; I imagined someone hemorrhaging blood on a sidewalk, someone struggling for breath on their living room floor.

I avoided the long train of cars veering towards the St. Charles exit and the bridge crossing to the Westbank, electing to take Claiborne Avenue instead. This was the way I used to ride the motorcycle home from the university every day. I turned left onto MLK, which is a wide thoroughfare split by a generous neutral ground. A block in and I had to slow to a crawl as a huge congregation of people surrounded two young guys pounding the shit out of each other. It broke up fast, or maybeI just arrived at the tail end of it; two women pulled one of the boys away and one of them turned to shout back at the crowd: “Y’all gonna see! Y’all gonna see!

Later that night I went to the French Quarter with the bride and groom and the bride’s family for dinner at the Court of Two Sisters. I came up from Decatur, avoiding the major tourist crowds on Bourbon Street. You could still walk down the side streets and look into open doors and see topless women, older and sadder this far from Bourbon, wearily circling a pole. Grandpa Elliot, the old harmonica player who recently┬ádiscovered a measure of fame with Playing For Change, still sat on his overturned bucket, busking through the night. When I passed him that night he was leaning back, quiet, staring into the middle distance. The crowds moved around him like water around stone.

When I moved to Asheville again a few years ago, I was shocked by how white the city is. After spending so many years away in New Orleans and, to a lesser degree, in New York, I had forgotten that about it. It took me a long time to acclimate to its monochromatic nature. And going back to New Orleans, I realized how much I had acclimated. It was such a welcome feeling to get back to a place where cultures mixed and clashed and blended. On my last night there I was sitting in a restaurant and, thinking about this, I did a quick scan of the clientele. At least half of them were black.

This is it, I thought. This is my city.

After my last post, I got an email from Monte, one of my old friends and one of the regulars at the Pub during my time there. Monte has since moved to Tampa, where he is married to Maura, another friend and Pub regular. He reminded me that I could not go back and expect to find the old place, because that place was made up by the people. Monte and Maura, Craig, Jim, Violet, Beth, Neal, Jon and Molly, Evan, Ginger, Jon and Vanessa, Darren, Ingrid, Sobha … I could fill a whole page with their names. They were mostly scattered, and that time was done.

And of course he’s right. Sometimes you shouldn’t go back with the intention of recreating something from the past, or trying to find it again. Sometimes you should just let good memories be good memories.

But it was nice to see that there is still so much to recognize. Maybe one day I’ll go back there. I don’t think Asheville is where I’m going to settle down.

At the very least, crossing the Pontchartrain bridge in the middle of a lonely night on the motorcycle will always be a thrill.

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A brief return to the city

This past weekend I went back to New Orleans for the first time in over five years. When I passed through Mobile and hit the I-10 going west, the landscape flattened, the air and the light changed. I could feel the nearness of the Gulf in my blood, and the nearness of my city.

Approaching New Orleans again

I was there to attend a wedding, and therefore my time in the city would not be my own. I did not have the chance to steep myself into it the way I would have liked. It will take me a little time to decide how I felt about being back there, and how I felt about the changes.

I went back to the Avenue Pub and it was like walking into a new place altogether. It’s mostly a beer bar now, catering to an upscale crowd. On the first day of my visit they had scheduled a bourbon tasting for later in the evening. In my day a bourbon tasting would have consisted of a lined row of shots of Jim Beam. I saw a few familiar faces — Vickie, Beth, Eileen, and Karn — but otherwise it was a new place, with new people. That bar was my world, once. I owned it, and it owned me. Now I felt like a stranger.

I was received coolly by the new owner, who takes a dim view of the Pub’s earlier, grungier incarnation. Beth, who was a regular when I worked there but has since been hired as a bartender, introduced me to one of the new bartenders on duty, and told her I used to work there. This new bartender asked me what I’d like, without making eye contact. I told her I’d take a Guinness.

“We don’t have that anymore,” Beth said, apologetically.

“What?”

“You can get that at any bar, so we don’t carry it now.”

Oh. Beth recommended another stout, which I tried and thought was all right. As the new bartender (whose name I can’t remember) placed it in front of me, I made some half-assed comment about how the place looked very clean. Trying to be friendly.

“Yeah, it’s really gone downhill,” she said. Still not deigning to look at me.

“Just the opposite,” I said.

“I was being sarcastic.”

“Yeah. So was I.”

I spent the next few days trying, when I could, to find my home again. I saw glimpses of it. There were times I felt the city open to me, and welcome me. And there were times I wondered if she had turned her back on me forever.

I’ll need a return visit. I’ll need more time. I’ll need to look with more care, and more thoroughness, to see if she remembers me. To see if she’ll still show me her secret face.

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My artistic credo

Courtesy of Pam Noles

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The Cannibal Priests of New England, part four

IV. The Darling of the Abbatoir

Alone in the first mate’s quarters, which had been surrendered to him without a twitch of protest by the one-eyed Mr. Johns at his captain’s order, Martin Dunwood lay in the cot suspended crossways across the tiny little room and tried to acclimate himself to the deep pitch and tumble of The Lady Celeste as it pushed its way across the cresting waves, on its way to the open sea. Somewhere above him rain drummed over the ship, and its crew worked the lines and the sails with the precision — or lack of it — one might expect from a congress of pirates. Martin did not care to speculate on their abilities; he felt sick enough already. Instead he entrusted his fate to God and focused his attentions on better things.

Alice.

The promise of Alice pulled him across the sea, from his meager home in St. Giles to the polluted stink of London, and then to Tortuga and this wicked man’s vessel; he resolved that he would let it pull him across the whole world before he would ever give up his search.

The light in the lantern guttered as the ship plummeted down a steep trough. Martin snuffed it out before it could spill and light the room on fire. The darkness which fell over him was oppressive, as though someone had thrown a weight over him. The sounds of the water smashing into the hull, and of the raw voices outside shouting to be heard over the storm, became impossible to ignore. It seemed as though the whole ship’s complement had suddenly crowded into his cabin and begun knocking things about.

So he thought of Alice.

He remembered the first time he ever laid eyes on her: she had been standing on a corner outside a grocer’s shop. Her fine clothes and her red hair were disheveled and there was a horror in her expression, her face as pale as a daylight moon. Blood matted the expensive materials of her dress, caked heavily near the lower hem and arrayed in a pattern of sprays and constellations further up her body, as though she had just waded through some dreadful carnage.

Martin, who had been sent to London on his father’s errand the previous day, stood transfixed. He didn’t know what catastrophe had befallen her but it seemed she needed immediate help. He waited for a carriage to pass before he stepped out into the muddy thoroughfare, but immediately came up short — an older gentleman stepped out of the grocer and joined her at the corner. He too was well-dressed, though his clothes were free of blood. He threw an overcoat around her shoulders and hailed a carriage. Within moments he bundled her into it, and with a flick of the driver’s wrist she was whisked away, leaving behind her an ordinary corner on an ordinary street. The drabness of the image seemed to reject the possibility that she had ever been there.

It was not until years later that he saw her again. By that time his father had accrued some money through real estate, and had graduated into more elevated social planes. They had been invited to a party thrown by a local banker, and as Martin lurked unhappily in a corner of the room, resenting the pomp and self-satisfaction of the people around him, he saw her again.

She was standing amidst a crowd of men, young and eager for her attention. She smiled at one of them as he gestured to illustrate some point, and Martin knew at once that none of the fools had a chance with her, that she was wearing them like jewelry. He pressed his way through the crowd until he joined her little retinue.

If she noticed him as he approached she did not show it. He stationed himself in her outer orbit and just watched her. She stood stone still, and although she was properly demure and maintained the comportment of a young lady of her station, she was set apart from everyone around her. She seemed carved from stone. She was acting.

At the first break in the conversation, he said, “Didn’t I see you once outside a small grocer’s in the East End? It would have been a long time ago.”

Her eyes settled on him. They were a pale blue. “I rather doubt it.”

“You would remember this,” he said. “You were covered in blood.”

She betrayed no reaction, but even in that she revealed herself. No shock, no disgust, no laughing dismay. Just a cool appraisal, and silence.

One of the young men turned on him, his blond hair pulled back harshly from his forehead in a bow. “I say, are you mad?”

“Possibly,” said Martin.

“It’s all right, Francis,” she said. “He’s right. I do remember that day. It was quite dreadful. A horse had come up lame and had to be shot. It was done right in front of me and I think it’s the worst thing I ever saw.”

“I don’t remember a dead horse,” Martin said.

“Perhaps you weren’t paying attention,” she said. “So much goes on right under our noses.”

Within minutes she had dismissed her pretty men and Martin found himself sitting some distance from the party, talking to this remarkable woman who seemed to fit amongst these people the same way a shark fits amongst a school of mackerel.

“Why did you say that to me?” she said. “What did you think would happen?”

“I had no idea. I wanted to find out.”

“Hardly the right environment for radical social experiments, wouldn’t you say?”

“I would say it’s precisely the right environment.”

She offered a half smile. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Martin Dunwood. My father owns the–”

“Are you some sort of anarchist, Martin Dunwood?”

“Would it make me more interesting if I said yes?”

In minutes they were in the banker’s bedroom, fucking with a furious, urgent silence. Thereafter they met often, and always clandestinely. She was even more contemptuous of the world than he, prone to stormy rages, and he got drunk off of that rage. It was wild and different and echoed his own sense of alienation from the world. Their illicit sex was as much an act of defiance as it was a hunger for each other. After a month of this she took him to his first Farm, and he saw what she did there.

It was when he watched the blood drip from the ends of her long red hair that he knew he was in love with her, and that he would break the world to keep her.

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A corrective to the previous post

I’m feeling a little guilty about inflicting the clowns on you. So as a corrective — and keeping in line with the theme of miracles — here’s Roger Waters singing “It’s a Miracle,” from the album Amused to Death.

This is my favorite song on the record. It’s sad and angry and beautiful.

We cower in our shelters
With our hands over our ears
Lloyd-Webber’s awful stuff
Runs for years and years and years
An earthquake hits the theater
But the operetta lingers
Then the piano lid comes down
And breaks his fucking fingers.
It’s a miracle.

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“Long neck giraffes, and pet cats and dogs … I seen shit that’ll shock ya eyelids!”

The update to the Cannibal Priests will be delayed a little bit longer, as I have a deadline in three days and all else must wait. In the meantime, because I love you, I’m going to leave you with some heavy shit to meditate on.

“We don’t have to be high to look in the sky
And know that’s a miracle opened wide
Look at the mountains, trees, the seven seas
And everything chilling underwater, please
Hot lava, snow, rain and fog
Long neck giraffes, and pet cats and dogs
And I’ve seen eighty-five thousand people
All in one room, together as equals
Pure magic is the birth of my kids
I’ve seen shit that’ll shock your eyelids
The sun and the moon, and even Mars
The Milky Way and fucking shooting stars!”

And my favorite:

“Fuckin rainbows, after it rains, there’s enough miracles here to blow ya brains!”

Bring the wisdom, crazy clowns!

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The week that was

1. We’re going through a mild cold snap here in North Carolina, one of the last before Spring settles in for good. I’m going to miss winter, though I know I’m alone in that.

Goodbye, winter. Nobody understands you but me.

2. Mia rewrote Rihanna’s “Only Girl in the World” last night. It’s new title is, “Only Girl in the World (spoofed into a milkshake).” These are the lyrics:

Ma ma ma malt ma ma ma malt

ma ma ma malt yeah ma ma ma malt

I need to give my tummy something chocolately

mm yum

I want to drink something smooth and sweet

Forget the veggietables cuz I need to have a treat

I don’t want to eat

I don’t care about the calories.

chorus:

I want to have something besides a bottle of Coke

Stuff like smoothies they’re a joke

I don’t care about my diet right now besides a bottle of Coke

I have I have the money don’t worry I’ll brush my teeth

I’m hungry but not enough to eat

No diabetes

No I’m not gonna get sick please Dad I don’t want to fight

Smooth creamy goodness with whip and a cherry to make it nice

Large medium small I don’t care about the size …

She performed it and it was kick-ass. I immediately introduced her to Weird Al Yankovic, so she could see the proud tradition she is working in.

3. I started reading Ninety-Two in the Shade, by Thomas McGuane. I’ve never read him before and the jury is still out on this one. The prose is cooked over a high heat, which produces mixed results. On the one hand, there are infuriating sentences like this one:

“That’s right,” Skelton said positively to this basilisk drunk.

I like “basilisk drunk,” but the word “positively” is just the kind of thing that gets produced in the fury of the moment and ought to be caught in editing. Because now it’s a stupid sentence. On the other hand, you have amazing paragraphs like this one:

“Then, a fifty-seven-day bad marriage to a Catholic from Chokoloskee that ended in the court reconciling everything he had acquired but a skiff and it all went off in a Bekins moving van with the wife up front by the driver, headed for the Everglades. And drinking of the kind that is a throwing of yourself against the threshold of suicide though lacking that final will to your own ceasing, without which all the hemlock and Colt’s patented revolvers are of no more avail than ringside tickets, photostats of lost deeds, or snapshots of Granddad’s five-bottom plow.”

4. It is past time to update “The Cannibal Priests of New England.” This weekend.

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