When he boarded he saw in his familiar annoyed periphery the Beautiful Teenage Typical, already looking off with her studied thousand-yard stare, her paralytic nonchalance. ‘Yeah, I’m Beautiful. It is my misfortune and I can’t unlearn it now. I have seen it in the helpless puppy eyes of the boys since fourth grade recess, where it startled me at first. I’ll have nothing to do with you now but a masked drinking in of your helplessly flung gamma.’ But he brought his iceberg zeal to the demonstration, as he had done for a lifetime, since Lisa devastated Tony. He took his seat and opened his book without looking up. If you are beautiful you have been furtively glanced at enough already. This will be for your own good. I can see it on your expression of studied indifference. Rewarding you with even a glimpse would be pouring gin down the neck of a furniture-smashing golem. Awkward girls and boys with dated hairbands and tucked-in shirts bought off the wrong rack, they are the prize, you are the wallpaper. Your carefully arranged, traditionally attractive sphinx-face is as thrilling as a spiral notebook. I’m still on fire, still on fire, I believe you broke me that day, and in the many days after that day. In Mrs. Petrie’s third grade lunch line at Clark Elementary in Cheyenne we waited in blanched sunlight and you told my penurious friend Tony, my quiet buddy with the always-mussed hair and worried expression, the farm kid, you said that of all the ink-clumped mimeographed recipes shared through our weekend assignment, his was the worst. ‘We tried your Breakfast Cookies and they were awful.’ Tony looked down and away, horrified. He’d worn the same checkered shirt all the previous week, the hem shiny and frayed with wear. Your macabre attack was an air horn in a stilled chapel. My scalding blood sprayed into my head and I saw stars. What did she say? Someone can say that? I looked sideways at Tony, his eyes brimming, and I crushed my beige circular milk ticket in my shaking right hand oh god! oh god I could have killed you, Lisa! I could have maimed you! In too many dreams that year I lunged at you, madly clawed your beribboned hair, your self-satisfied little face, your beautiful little ferret face with its cheekbones and haughty forehead. If you’d taken a shot at my mom’s Angel Food Cake recipe at that moment I might have torn you like a phone book. Rage at all the well-built assholes who criticize our Breakfast Cookies! ‘Well-Lisa-we-tried-your-cake-and-it-was-terrible!’ I bleated in cracking girl-voice, a Tourette’s attack that seemed to gush from someone else before I knew I was saying it, I could not believe these goings on. And you said ‘Ha ha! My recipe wasn’t for cake, liar.’
And one other thing; how to walk down the main street of one’s home town without blanching in horror at glimpsed scenes of seemingly ordinary people getting pedicures? Pedicures? Leave aside the timeworn First World/Third World shame reflex. “I mean, in some parts of the world people have no FOOD and here we are managing our CUTICLES and having our shins DEPILATED.” Listen, I’ll see your filthy limbless beggar in Calcutta and raise you one bored, well-off, recumbent shopping maven having her calves massaged as she flips stone-faced through the latest issue of Tipsy Showbiz Toddler. Limbless Beggar; take me away from here!
And yet…and yet. We’re fascinated by grotesquerie, aren’t we? Mesmerized by the morbid? Compelled by the creepy, hesitantly hippity-hopping in the vicinity of the hideous? I’m drawn inexorably to the pedicure mystery, like a fly is drawn to a really good-looking other fly. In awe of the toenail-centric rituals whose imaginings torment my waking hours, I’m sometimes able to work up the courage to sneak a peek through the doorway of one of these pedicure ‘establishments’ as I pass by at a nervous trot. What I have seen, people! As William Shatner demonstrated in the classic ‘Horror at 37,000 Feet’ (not to be confused with his Twilight Zone episode at a mere 20,000 feet some 10 years earlier), a spiritual abyss merely glimpsed is sometimes sufficient to paralyze the visage in a silent but otherwise powerfully over-acted scream.
What I have seen, I say! My brave investigative forays have revealed to me such scenes of spirit-breaking horror as one expects when gazing on the flaming canyons of the damned. Sound the Mission bells! Fetch the holy water and give me a quick shot! Bring me some rotary beads or whatever those things are called! I have seen row upon row of the penitent; supine, eyes closed, pants and skirts hitched up, feet trapped in whirring little machines while throngs of smallish chattering foot-folk hover busily about the lower legs, fussing and plucking and kneading, kneading KNEADING; a Personal Space Blitzkrieg that beggars the imagination YES!
Um, yes. I have intimacy issues. Yes yes yes. I would rather have a fulsome bee beard go angrily wrong than suffer a stranger placing his/her/its hands on my body for purposes of rubbing, knuckling, or doing that two-handed chopping thing I saw once on the Bob Newhart show. Begone professional comfort-wielder with your portable metal table, chipper demeanor and slightly botched dreamcatcher tattoo. Hit the road, foot-handling hellion. And you, muumuu-filling Earth Woman friend of a friend, who at the dinner party approaches in a cloud of patchouli and would massage my temples if only I would stop making like a terrified weasel with the wide eyes and pursed, scream-suppressing lips. Healer, your touch catalyzes in me the shrinkage of many parts and appendages. You want to relax me? You want to repair my troubled soul? Go over there. Way over there. Little further. Okay, that’s good. Now fold up your lil’ aluminum ping-pong table and get out.
I’ll be the first to admit it; I’m unenlightened. A Californian in name only. I’m unnerved by your Groovy Empath friend and his de rigueur 4 minute hug. Why are his eyes squeezed shut like that? And when I release, shouldn’t he? And huggers who solemnly flutter their eyelids and say “C’mere”, or “C’mere, you” while gesturing you closer with waggling, ringed fingers? Huh uh. On the other hand I’m totally cool with an orgy as long as nobody looks at me or touches me or cracks wise about my argyle tube sock. I get enough grief about the argyle from my wife, so lay off. I have rules – too many rules, some would say. “Why the sock? Always the sock!” My wife says. Oh yeah? What of it! That’s what…..of it.
The pedicure may be the nadir of legally-sanctioned, comfort-seeking personal zone annulment, but here’s a close second; those massage places that roll out the face-down padded chair and invite sidewalk passerby to press their frontsides into maroon vinyl and be molested in broad daylight while visiting Japanese and Belgian tourists stare in slack-faced wonder. You sir? The hipster masseuse pivots, points to me; my viscera twist like a wet towel. Me? Oh, please, yes! This’ll be great! Shall I just lie down and press my face into this padded vinyl hemorrhoid donut? Right here? Is this good? Can you touch enough of me? Is enough of my back available to your invasive stranger hands? Can everyone see? Gather round, good people! Gather round, I say! Don’t be shy. Take a close look! You’ll like this, because in about 90 seconds I’m going to turn completely inside out in a fit of otherworldly revulsion. Like an inkfish. Woo Hoo! Massage THAT, soul-patch guy.
We’re desperate for comfort in this town, and in our cash-soaked Western World generally. I mean, desperate! Acupuncture, Rolfing, our collective glad surrender to occasional woodland episodes of extraterrestrial anal probing – these are the signs of socio-structural stress. Santa Barbara alone sports dozens of pleasure domes and they run the gamut from Evan’s Relaxing Station to the thrillingly named Center for Lymphatic Health. Why? Where’s the stress? What was the tipping point? Was it the closure of the Stanley Kubrick Macaroon Shop and its brilliantly overlit single smocked attendant? Earthquake jitters? The fear that your neighbor may own a nicer 100-year-drought shower-bucket? Let’s relax, people. If we stop offering these flesh-and-foot-grabbers our patronage they will likely gather up their sapphire files, pumice mittens and vibrating love bullets and head on to the next little town willing to buy their outlandish snake oil. Go ahead, fools. Step right up and let them rub your shoulders, your arms! Let these charlatans rub the back of your fool necks! Sure, that’ll make you feel better. Oh a little deep tissue massage oughta feel pretty good. Oh, for goodness sake!
I must conclude with a true and horrific story of Personal Space Invasion. For a time I was writing sporadically for a magazine called Healing Retreats and Spas. Incredibly, my gig was going to day spas, receiving the treatments offered and reviewing the experience for the magazine. How I managed this I’m not sure, but it was a writing job and that was everything. That is, until the day I was sent into the Spa Whose Name Shall Not Be Spoken, in the L.A. area. When I arrived and introductions seen to, I gestured carelessly at a menu item, began with a bracing swim and segued into a hot sauna. Finally I was shown to a plain, unadorned room, where a fastidious little man in Cambodian casual bade me remove my towel and lie down. Ever the professional, I did as I was told. It was then he produced a large metal pitcher and poured hot milk slowly over my body, from toes to scalp, and proceeded to massage my quickly mummifying carapace. Any curious security camera shooting from directly above would have recorded a stock-still, mortified nude man with the pin-eyed panic-face and fluttering thorax of a hard-breathing gecko making its fight-or-flight preparations, his lithe and quick-moving tormentor scuttling around him with arthropod fussiness and working the victim/client as a crab might its recent catch.
After an eternity of whole-milk drenched mortification and the not inconsiderable kneading of the expressionless little guy in his white button-up Phnom-Pen blouse, I was released to shower, dress and interview my hosts in a stunned murmur. When I finally made my way out to the parking lot and my car I concentrated fiercely on not breaking into a run. It was then I spotted my masseuse. He was sitting at the edge of the lot in a lawn chair under a shade tree, smoking a cigarette, regarding me carefully through narrowed eyes. I’m sure I needn’t add the whole episode was incredibly relaxing.
Milk. It doesn’t always do a body good. You have been warned.
*Jeff writes the column State Street Scribe for the Santa Barbara Sentinel – where an ineptly edited print version of this particular piece can be found this week.
SB Sentinel, Volume 3/Issue 18/Sept 6-20. Page 33
This bus driver looks 62
and is wearing Converse high tops.
He looks out the side window
frequently, and sighs gustily
A woman across from me
is holding a box
the box holding a kitten, or cat.
The woman is wearing
the sort of elaborate hairpin
that can make one pine
for a Henry Mancini
a Ralph Waite.
Spencer’s Mountain, too
and James MacArthur
all that family
to love, to revere, actually
The boxed cat meows.
“what” the woman says
in a remonstrative tone
peering through an air hole
what’s the cat saying, I ask
and she stares at me with fading smile
as if I were a talking cat
the bus driver is wearing yellow shades
possibly a gesture
at what was? Might have been?
He calls out the stops
in a clarion announcer’s voice.
and in the meantime sighs elaborately.
a sigh that says
This isn’t me
and don’t you think
for a fucking minute
Adam suddenly found himself naked in Eden and desperately managed, through the alchemy of hurried and botanically uninformed Bible illustration, to affix a leaf to his privates.
Then Adam and his recent, painfully procured wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God sought Adam in a manner that calls into question His credentials as an omni-thingy. “Where are you?”
“I heard you in the garden,” Adam answered, “and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
“Who told you that you were naked?” God said in another very early instance of His lofting loaded questions at us and then calling lightning and fire down on our puzzled asses. “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
“I would remind the Lord that ‘from’ is a preposition and subject to the usual nattering rules. And the woman you put here with me—she’s trouble, god.”
“Right. Sorry. This otherwise very attractive lady whose creation for some reason necessitated, despite your reported omnipotence, the painful and bloody non-surgical ripping away of my rib? She gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
“What is this you have done?” the Lord thundered, turning to the woman.
The woman was seen to gaze indolently about the garden for several minutes. Then seeming to start at a sudden sound said, “Oh. What?”
A multi-colored pigeon
filthy and ragged
as the interior
of an old metal trash can
about the breakwater
the milling sunlit tourists
loose a cascading shower of crumbs.
Pigeon lifts his arms
and moves away
when his cockeyed startled side-glance
sees the indistinct silhouette
of approaching danger
He has about him the look
of a living thing
teeming with disease,
a pandemic vector
to whom God has given
the gift of flight
Good idea -
these jewels of His creation
are plague magnets.
Let’s stick wings on
and see what happens
The feathers on this specimen
He flies hither and to,
inhabits the vast spaces
of our blue cathedral.
When he comes to ground
he cants his face
and lashes at the sidewalk,
strikes like a maddened, staring idiot
at a black raised splotch
on the cement. He’s eating
I guess; my staring
makes him defiant.
‘I am naked, filthy.
more prey than predator,
unless my own prey be this
ancient wad of gum I am obliged
to labor over
with you big shots watching.’
After every strike he looks at me
with crazy umbrage eyes
as if to say ‘What!’ What!’ What!’
or ‘So what!’
Very defensive, this one
Spinning, toiling, glaring
the effect is
slam! ‘What!’ slam-slam! ‘What!’.
Nothin’, that’s what
you idiot bird slash miracle
of not-terribly intelligent design
stop looking at me
between mouth slams
I’m not vying for your raised spot
of blackened gunk
nor judging your frankly
in the present realm; woops.
you can fly
enjoy that with my blessing
we top the food chain
and, yes, are tied to a chair
with the surly bonds
that pilot wrote about
bound to the Earth
and in thrall to your buoyant
brushes with Heaven
God has made you
the venerable center
of our sleeping lusts,
flight the ongoing winner,
100 eons at Number One
in the Twitching Soma Hit Parade
I will, though, forgo the gift of flight
if I may also forgo the need
to nourish myself
by slamming my mouth against
He struck out in the direction of home
the hushed scuffed aisles of the grocery store
first he pulled his red car out of his colorless garage
the grey junk hung and jumbled there
said he was going for cereal and a razor
there is no magic in that shopping list
no depth to plumb nor glyph to puzzle over
he really was going there for cereal and a razor
Raisin Bran Crunch, a Schick with aloe
he started up his dumb red car and sailed away
heart-racing, unbridled, stars a-twinkle
and switched on the little radio
How to explain and why to explain
it’s been years since he needed the company of men, or man
years uncounted (about 20) since he could endure
the vibrant chatter, the cutting blank
the bright self-ignorant line right down the middle of everything
commercial jingles and artistic gestures
Lichtenstein-dumb and warm with the glow
of puny self-satisfaction, an ossified frieze
ecclesiastical complaining gets one nowhere fast
that there is nothing new under the sun goes unmentioned
he just wants the puppets to see the strings
and say a word or two not hauled up from a khaki past
One afternoon he stares through a streaked windshield
and longs. California sun strikes the glass like a match.
wind-blown families people a littered seaside lawn
mingle easily as phantoms, and as without form
picnic tables, happy summer sun, bovine cliques and claques
a beachfront birthday party for another tween
his untenable terror of the other grown-ups there
roots him to the bucket seat
all this tired glow, all this roseate gift, the dizzying chances lost
look at the fools, what news can they bring
professional guys with graying temples drape their arms and laugh
seen through an arc of wiper smear opaque and bright as frost.
Summer nearly two thirds gone
the doomed ninnies running down the shore
as any hireling might in a Don Henley video
sea beats anciently under ancienter sun
somewhere through the glare Hubble gawps at nebulae
it’s all of a piece
for all the thumb and drang the body of salted water
is clear and busy and simple
a cheap sheet of foil turning and pitching
Someone, Roseangela, exultant with fear
arms raised in fear, motherfear, the oldest fear
a child in the water and electricity approaches for its own reasons
‘Get out of the water!’
so saying, Rosangela is struck down in the shallows
her little boy escapes, let off with a warning; he was never the lightning’s theme
a photo taken by happenstance captures the instant
if not the transfiguration, which is concealed behind a pickup truck
eyeblink shows the lightning absent its Special Effect
a drizzling-down of death
suggestion of cupcake sprinkles
delivered by the swollen mitt of a gourmand
you don’t know where the fury can be stored
you can’t let the fury seep out or rush out
that is its own mayhem
a daisy chain of damage
someone could get hurt.
but this fury is anyway as frail as you please
the chemical fury has outlived the Furies
and no longer serves a useful function
is but temporary and earthbound and inconsequential as a dryer sheet
despite squalls of sorrow and raging headaches
there is no ledger or other illusion of mathematical redress
Thor, or Odin, or whomever, thins the herd like an angry drunk
then offers succor
then offers someone else a seashell by the seashore
what is this damaged Superthing
that waves us like dolls
gives us lower case babel, organ donor cards
and a sacrament the size and shape of a tiddly wink.
Walking to the car in heavy weather
you see the trees frowning
they know something about the mom knocked down
but they’re not saying
The burning sparking split of the tree limb from, what,
torso or neck
these dumb living things have no faces.
you call that living
the crowded flora know the vacuum
‘Don’t warn us, stand stock still
in your annoying floral pretense.’
what good the warning that keeps to itself
these magisterial plants, 1000 years old
stately living wood
and lofted Mariah Carey ‘here i am!’ arms
under the surface they clutch the earth in fear,
root system a panicked paw clutching for dear life
what are they afraid of, what are they not saying
if the tree which knows in its sap what awaits us
if a twisted ‘mighty’ oak having famously sprung
from the cartoon acorn
all that matter pulled out of the system like abrading taffy
if that tree is scared enough to clutch the soil
with a wooden panic-paw
what chance do we have
I remember in 8th grade Mr. Crowley said
Aluminum comes from bauxite.
“Picture that aluminum box,” he said,
and it worked
but that’s one of the last pieces that fit.