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Mask of equanimity

Tuesday 12/17/19

Here is something I should be excited about, which I am not; rather, it makes me feel further wrecked, destroyed, hopeless. I have a longstanding friend who, when he reads my work, is overwhelmed, but down. They are down because, as they say to me, "I should be calling you up and we are so excited to discuss what you have created, the artistry, the advances, what the work is going to do in the world, the millions of people who are about to see it, what will be said about it, written about it. But then it all comes back to this, this fucked up system, being under the thumb of these people, it all comes back to them."

He's right in that we don't have those conversations. They would--speaking for me, at least--feel irrelevant. A waste of time and energy. Worse, they would get me further down. There were times, of course, in my career where back-and-forth was about input, what might be changed, a different approach that needed to be taken.

I've mentioned Norberg. We used to discuss matters along those lines, when there was occasion to. There isn't now. So what our conversations would be would be about how amazing something is, and when you know people won't see that work right now, those conversations kill you. They kill you as you live. They make you more angry than a person could otherwise be, given what you have, given what is being done, given the context of the situation, and the contrast between you and them, and what you can do--and do do daily--and what they never do, can never do.

I'm robbed of something further I'd enjoy, talking about how a work functions, the inventions and innovations that no one else had ever come up with, the excitement of that; because that excitement is in part predicated on the work doing what the work was made to do; or, at the very least, having its chance to do so; or, at the very least least, not being denied a chance because of nothing to do with its actual quality, but rather stemming from its quality, that someone can do that, do so much of that, and, consequently, they will be suppressed.

So we don't have the conversations. The conversations instead become, "Okay, this asshole is hooking up all of his friends, he's now seen these last ten stories you have read for one of his theme issues, you've experienced them in their totality and range, at what point--in other words, what's the deadline, when is enough enough--do I do an information dump on this guy on the blog and expose him and his practices and his career and his magazine for what they are?" Those are the conversations we have. Neither of us really wants to talk--in this case I'm talking about John--about how good, say, "Fitty" or "Jute" is. That they are so great depresses the hell out of both of us. He will actually get dizzy sometimes, can't eat, literally sees double, that this is happening, when this is what is created and offered. He's not as used to it as I am. I live it. He lives it through me, and then in his own experience in experiencing uniquely powerful and realized art.

He articulated something to me that I always think. "I wish I could tell you it sucks, or it's pretty good and you are getting there, or you're not that good, give it up. That it is the best ever work is what makes this so much worse, makes it what it is, makes the hell." I have the same thought often.

I'll put up an excerpt from a story called "Push Shadow" that I wrote this morning. There's an excerpt from an earlier portion of the story that is on here from before, I believe. When I put up these excerpts, they are works in progress. They might change a lot later; they might not change at all. As I'm composing this story--which is now over 3000 words--I am conscious of the likelihood that it will be one that stands out to me as a personal favorite. What I do, which is not done, has not been done, is I don't write anything worse than anything else I write. I write a lot of different things, range-wise, but there's never a work, a story, a piece, where someone can point at it and say, "that one is not as good." I do a lot of unique things, historically. That's one of them. What it comes down to, then, is preference. People like different things, to each their own, etc. Writers also always have a go-to. A house style, a house form, a house tone. Think of almost any writer. I don't. Everything is new. I explode notions of form, of solitary form. And there are periods and pockets. For instance, I have composed something like forty stories since July in which the narrator or the main character is a woman or girl. And then all of those stories have different forms, voices, classifications, I guess you could say. Categories. Certain stories stand out to me personally. "Fitty." "Pillow Drift." "Net Drive." "Spines." And I think this story will go into that group when all is said and done, though it depresses the fuck out of me to think about any of them because of how good they are.

The story is about a guy who lives alone, who has a problem with these loud, booming knocks on his door. And, subsequently, loud, booming sounds that seem to follow him around. He's trying to ascertain the source of the boom. He had encountered, once, a child made of shadows in his hallway of the building where he lives. The shadow child was stuck in the wall, and it needed a push to get through. And he thinks maybe the shadow child has something to do with the booms. He's pretty sure it's not the meatheads of his building. But the boom situation is becoming less and less tenable. So here we go. It's just so beautiful, isn't it?


It was birthday week for his daughter Tessitura. He never called her that—everyone called her Tess, even his ex-wife, who made her initial case for the name Tessitura by saying it was the human version of a living song. Or something along those lines.

She meant well. Sweet. A professional singer. Dave fell in love with her voice before he fell in love with her. A friend and his wife had an extra concert ticket to Handel’s Saul. The oratorio was about the downfall of a monarch. Cecilia sang the part of Merab, the woman who is offered—as that is how things went at the time—to David after David has his big victory with the slingshot over Goliath. Must have been a nice time to be David. Other David.

Dave thought of crystal when Cecilia sang. The smoothest crystal there had ever been. A crystal with healing powers, which, when you heard it, would help you forget on days you need to forget—for an hour or two of respite—or remember on days you needed to remember—so you could make the tweaks in who you were, what you did, that would change the next year or two of your life. Decade or two. That’s how she sang, and why Dave kept coming back, alone, to listen, for the rest of the week. He tended to shyness, but her voice gave him courage. He sent a note, finally, backstage, and in a café around the corner from the hall, he spoke of the crystal, went straight into it, but with control, composure in his voice. Afterwards, he wished he always spoke like that, but he also understood it was probably just going to have been the one time. But at least it was the right time.

“Tessitura means the best-sounding tone of something. Ideal. Peak.”

“I know what it means,” Dave said. And he had. “We can call her Tess, right?”

“Of course. But she’ll have a beautiful behind her beautiful name. And we will know, and she can tell people she loves.”

His child was the human version of the crystal he had heard. He understood that some matters in life—virtues, powers—were sufficiently transcendent that this was not an oxymoron, they shed their forms, inhabited other forms, forms that matter the most to us and lodge closest to our hearts. So it went with his child.

He tried to tell Gasper what it had been like, that love, the day the divorce was finalized. The gun he bought was in a brown paper bag. The kind you put a child’s lunch in. Or that you are given to carry your coffee cup in New York City, a practice that Dave admired which one does not find too many other places. He liked that it was New York’s thing.

But the gun certainly was not coffee nor a child’s lunch. He had spilled whiskey on the part where the trigger was. The round-y part. Whorl-y. He wondered if he should wipe it down, for the coroner’s report, so they would not think his judgment was impaired before he made his decision. Then again, they wouldn’t find any alcohol in his system. He’d given up drinking when he first started having to deal with the booms. Maybe they were a symptom of alcoholism. What was the old trope about pink, dancing elephants? Perhaps they were his. They were loud enough.

He didn’t tell Gasper about the gun. Had no fear Gasper was going to see it when helped him move into his tiny apartment, the gun stashed in Dave’s backpack, with his toiletries, his beanie for the cold, which also made him feel a little safer than usual and less alone, a mirage beanie, one might say; the school paper Tess had written on Handel’s mid-career oratorios.

Dave had a cousin he had once helped move. She was thin and tall, but most people didn’t find her attractive; an asymmetry of the face. Her nose pointed towards her left cheek, the right one was slightly higher, brows not severe but recriminatory in brow-tone, all the same. Eyebrows have a tone. Just like eyes. Hand gesticulations. Our gait. She was getting divorced. Custody battle. Her little girl told the school nurse that when daddy changed her he kissed her everywhere.

Her forehead, cheeks, top of her head, shoulders, tummy, between her legs. The softest kiss, between her legs. The last kiss each time. Dave didn’t necessarily believe his cousin. She was a pill head. He had a crush on her, and when he was lonely, he’d imagine her with him. There was a lot of that kind of thing in oratorios, actually. He slid out a fancy storage box—one of those kinds that look like paper lanterns in which you light a candle and float across a pond in a ceremony to honor the dead—and saw a vibrator and a butt plug, tube of lube. She’d walked in and come behind him as he slid the box back under the bed for someone else to get. She barely stopped moving, bending down to scoop up a bag of sneakers, but leaned in close and said, “we all deserve pleasure.”

“Where are you, man?” Gasper asked on the phone.

“I’m in the apartment. Where else would I be?”

“Not what I meant. You sound gone. Your own world.”

Dave looked at the gun again. He didn’t have any paper towels. He could spit-polish it with his shirt. But more DNA that way. Which wasn’t very efficient thinking, he realized.

“No, I’m here.”

“You going to be okay?”

“Of course.”

Silence. It was easier for Dave to trick himself with a lie than it was for him to trick Gasper, and it’s not like he was awesome at pulling fast ones on himself, a reality he viewed as unfortunate. A handicap in life. Too much sight. It wasn’t long after that he first saw the shadow child, helped it in the hallway, with his push, squirting it through that wall.

“Look, man,” Gasper said, breathing in what seemed to be a huge amount of air, like he was taking a hit of it, a huge, lung-filling hit. “Look, man,” he repeated. “This is not your fault.”

Dave didn’t want Gasper to say that it was his wife’s fault either. He could blame her for boiling a pot of water and dumping it on him, scarring him for life. He could take his child and pull her away to the far side of Neptune if she had hurt her. He’d find a way to get there, if that was what it took to keep her safe.

But she hadn’t done anything with water or necessitating Neptune. They had a rule never to lie to each other. It was a family rule. Between all of the configurations. Husband and wife, mother and daughter, parents and daughter. Father and daughter.

When she told him, he imagined reaching up over his face and pulling down a mask—a mask of equanimity. They made scary masks and happy faces masks, but no one had ever thought, he assumed, to make a mask of equanimity.

And as he asked her how long—in as controlled a tone as he could, an emotional tessitura of managed duress—she had loved this other person, a man with whom she sang on many stages, a man he knew and he liked, he understood how she’d answer. How she would say who can measure? Questions are always statements, in their way.

She wouldn’t be lying, for her. He could never have given that answer, to her, when it came to her. Not that she had asked in a long time. There are questions we ask, he thought, not because we don’t know the answer. But because we do. For him, there had been the crystal, such as it was, that he had heard in what was the recreation of the peak period of David’s career, post-Goliath, when Merab was offered to him, and Dave’s own special time was about to begin. Less heroic, without the whole overtly impressive slingshot deal, but maybe somewhat sling shot-y at the end. “I don’t want you to be unhappy,” he said, the mask melting into his face, which is maybe why no one makes masks of equanimity.

The less he saw his child, the louder the booms became. He’d wake up in the morning, having heard them even as he slept, and there would be dried blood in his ears, like someone had used an amazingly powerful cheese grater against hunks of brick. He washed the blood out before he showered, and put on a maroon winter hat that covered his ears, because there would be more blood in the day.

She was always so happy. “Daddy,” she would say, “are you as excited about the ballet as I am?” He was taking her to Onegin. “You know I am,” he countered.

There was a problem in this, in that his child was smarter than he was, and also the woman who had been his wife. She didn’t know more—yet—but she was born with greater mental acuity. More had been poured into her than either of them.

She paused to consider, thumbed the bottom of her chin as she evaluated the quality of the heart in the foam at the top of her latte. They got a lot of coffees together. That was where they went. He didn’t like to go into the house. He didn’t want her to see the apartment. “I feel like you are telling me the truth but you are also sad,” the child opined. The last part made her sound like such a kid to him. “But you are also sad.” He smiled. She continued. “Am I correct in my conclusion?” That part didn’t make her sound like a kid at all.

“You’re not,” he said. The muscles in her face flexed firmly, rendering her compact features taut, as if even her tiny nose wished to pipe up and say, “Something must be done about this!” Gasper’s wife had given him a spa coupon for a deep tissue massage that Christmas. It hadn’t helped. “When are you ever not correct?” Dave said, after the requisite beat—the installation of a note of playfulness—and her face relaxed again, slightly. “I am going to keep my eye on you, daddy,” she concluded, brows descending to their normal level.

“That’s fair, little B,” he said, pushing his untouched biscotti towards her with the top of his finger. He was the only one who called her that, and only when they were alone. The beautiful name behind the beautiful name behind the beautiful name. It meant little buddy.

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