Southern Gothic Great Aunts

“Forest Sleep” by Kelly Louise Judd

When I was a child, I spent, relatively speaking, a good bit of time with my great aunts on both sides of the family. My mother’s aunts, Pearl and Ruby, were the daughters of a god-fearing Baptist farmer from Orangeburg County, and my father’s aunts were snobbish women who valued table manners above morality. I saw Aunt Ruby the most often because she lived the closest. Here’s a snippet from a earlier post with the fetching title “Fragments from a Southern Gothic Childhood”:

Aunt Ruby lives on Warren Street near Condon’s Department store in a downstairs apartment with her daughter Zilla, who is one of the founders of the New Republican Party in South Carolina. Zilla is a Bircher, claims Lucille Ball is a communist, and entertains us with comic books depicting Khrushchev banging his shoe promising to bury us. Not only has Zilla never married; she’s never been on a date.

The house, which reminds me of a train — one room lined up after another — is Jesus haunted. Warner Sallman’s painting of Jesus hangs over the bricked in fireplace in the living room. Arts and crafts from vacation summer Bible abound.

On this particular visit, there’s an inflatable man sitting on the sofa. My brother David and I start smacking him as if he were one of those bottom heavy clowns you punch that falls over but returns to the upright position for more punishment.

We’re told to stop. As it turns out, Zilla is afraid of being raped. If she has to go out at night, she rides with the inflatable man next to her.

Sardonically, my father reassures Zilla that she needs not fear being raped.

Up the road in Sumter, where Aunt Pearl lived, things were a bit more laid back. She and my grandmother, “Mama Blanton,” spent their afternoons shelling beans, watching soap operas, and gossiping. Once, when I was seven or so, I saw Aunt Pearl naked through her cracked open door. It was by no means a pleasant sight, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away as in the clichéd horrible-wreck-on-the-freeway scenario.

Because of their Baptist upbringing Ruby, Pearl, and Hazelwood (aka Mama Blanton) considered alcohol an abomination, though once I witnessed Mama Blanton and Aunt Ruby swapping barbiturates like M&Ms.[1] So, anyway imbibing hooch in the house was banned, so my grandfather was reduced to hiding half pints in shoes stored in his closet.

Kiki, what’s this?” I asked one morning after finding a bottle of Old Crow in his tennis shoe.

“Hey, what you doing in that closet?  Get out of there!  Don’t you tell your grandmama, you hear?”

I found my daddy’s aunts to be much more interesting. Aunt Lou, who resided in Columbia, had married a Canadian shipping executive, and according to her, at one time lived at the Waldorf Astoria where she lent the actress Jean Arthur a mink for an audition and had struck up a friendship with “Tony Fokker,” the founder of the aircraft manufacturer who supplied German in WWI with their fighter planes.

Anthony Fokker

When I was in the 7th grade, David and I rode a Greyhound to Columbia to spend the weekend with her and Uncle Harry. She took us to the revolving restaurant at the top of Capstone dormitory and to a movie called The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.

Later in life, Aunt Lou and Uncle Harry would come stay with us in Summerville. Every afternoon, she would get tipsy on sherry and tell us the same stories over and over and over, like time that her in-law Sarah locked herself in a bedroom with a gun threatening to kill herself, then opened the door, put the gun to her temple, and fired. This was very same Sarah, the sister of the wife of my second cousin, who had managed to burn a hole in my sweater with her cigarette one Christmas Eve.

“I don’t think Sarah knew the gun was loaded,” Aunt Lou said with a twinkle in her eye. “I’ve never seen a person with a more surprised look on her face when that gun went off.”

Twice-widowed Aunt Lila we saw the least. Like a character out of Flannery O’Connor, she ran a 100-acre cotton and tobacco farm in Marlboro County with the help of her son Alec, who had not only a swimming pool in his backyard, but also a clay tennis court. Alec unfortunately had drinking issues and buried bottles in hades-hot tobacco barns to keep his wife Jenny from tearing into him. Daddy claimed that the only time he refused a drink was from Alec who had disinterred a bottle, unscrewed the cap, took a swig, and extended it to my father.

Aunt Lila lived in a circa-1810 plantation-like house complete with columns (see below). It hadn’t, I don’t think, ever been renovated. I remember a wagon wheel suspended from the ceiling providing light for the kitchen and a giant ship’s wheel in the foyer. Of course the house was haunted by some woman who had died there. Aunt Lila herself had seen the ghost on several occasions. She also claimed to possess the power of prophecy. Whenever she dreamed of diamonds, someone died. On the night before her daughter, Lila Moore Stanton, perished in a car/train crash with two of her friends from Winthrop College, Aunt Lila had, of course, dreamt of diamonds and had warned Lila Moore not to go out.

Mimosa Plantation

Unfortunately, I don’t see my own great nieces often, but two of them, both under seven came to the house after my wife Judy’s memorial service. Emily, the older one, with that wonderful candid openness of children, asked if she could see the bed where “Aunt Judy died.”

So I showed her – actually it was a futon – and told her a little bit about the death, and she listened wide-eyed, fascinated, so maybe I too am keeping the gothic great aunt/uncle tradition going.


[1] In fact, in grad school I actually copped a downer from Mama Blanton to settle my jangled nerves before a presentation.

Dog Gone

 

Long gone Saisy (read and hear her elegy here)

When I teach poetry, I get technical, especially with meter, because to me the marriage of sound and sense is what alchemizes verse into poetry.   Over the years, trying to get students to replicate a line of iambic pentameter or anapestic trimeter, I’ve had them bopping bongos, rapping desktops with drumsticks, clapping their hands.

Frankly, rhythm doesn’t come naturally to many — if not the majority; nevertheless, I’ll continue to emphasize meter until the end of my career, which is just around the corner, almost within shouting distance.

With the six-month anniversary of Judy’s death approaching, I have been ever so slowly inventorying and eliminating. Going through some drawers yesterday, I ran across this twenty-year-old poem/parody I wrote as an answer to a student who asked after a session of metric hand clapping, “Is there such a thing as iambic monometer?” Right then and there, I composed an answer on the chalkboard (I believe it was still the age of slate and chalk, but I could be wrong).

That night in my drafty garret at the Isle of Palms, I typed the poem and went on an over-interpreting binge, which was probably bad pedagogy since most students believe that teachers read far too much into poems anyway, but I just couldn’t help myself. I had to justify the reason for anyone ever to write a poem in iambic monometer.

Without further ado, I present it to you here, the annotated version.  Read it and weep.


Yes, Preston Wendell, There Is Such a Thing as Iambic Monometer[1]

The old dog barks backward without getting up.

I can remember when he was a pup.

The fret-[2]

ful Dog

is dead

and gone.[3]


[1] Preston Wendell studied under Wesley Moore in 1996-7. Wendell’s question led to the genesis of the poem. The epigraph is from Frost’s “The Span of Life.” Obviously, the choice of iambic monometer and the resultant abbreviated lines with their clipped cadences offer a visual and auditory parallel to the relative brevity of a dog’s life.

[2] Cf. Macbeth 5.5 “Out, out brief candle/Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets (emphasis mine) his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more.”

[3] It was been pointed out that the approximate rhyme dog/gone, not only embodies the crux of the poem, but also may be taken as a minced oath bemoaning the transitory nature of life.


Now, let me remove tongue from cheek and put some whiskey there instead.

Old Dog, New Tricks, featuring Dick Dale and Jimi Hendrix

Stratocaster

“Don’t know much about history.” Sam Cooke: “(What a) Wonderful World”


This semester I’m teaching my first history course ever, America in the ‘60s, which has been a challenge because (one) I wasn’t even a history minor, much less a major, (two) I’ve never taken a course on the ‘60s [1], and (three) I’m beat (as in Ginsberged/Kerouaced [2]), i.e., beaten down. Like, every glance in the fluorescently brutal faculty restroom mirror finds me staring into the red-rimmed eyes of Charles Bukowski’s doppelgänger, a visage that makes Bill Murray look dewy.[3] It’s not the face of a novice teacher. Or a middle-aged teacher.

Charles Bukowski

And this teaching a new course takes energy. I find myself in a sort of a footrace with my students, maybe half a block ahead, as I learn the material and create content through multimedia lectures. It always feels as if they’re gaining on me.

On the other hand, I have learned a great deal about civil rights and Vietnam. Ask me about the Little Rock Nine, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, or My Lai, and I can name names, Calley and Colburn, for example. In fact, when that trove of Kennedy assassination papers came out last week, I could better appreciate LBJ’s’ theory that JFK’s offing was tit-for-tat revenge after the CIA had sanctioned the assassination of South Vietnam’s sorry-ass Premier Diệm.

Of course, acquiring knowledge is a valuable side benefit of teaching. You reread Emerson and discover you were too young to appreciate him back when it was pimples, not crevices, you saw in the mirror. The Faulkner sentences you couldn’t unravel back then start singing. Hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Those hairs begin to samba.

Anyway, with those students in hot pursuit, I decided to segue from campus protests to the counterculture and the evolution of 60s pop music. I figured with my not inconsiderable knowledge of those areas, [4] I wouldn’t have to prepare as much, which hasn’t been quite true, but getting the scoop on Berry Gordy isn’t as nearly a downer as revisiting the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

I don’t have a text, so, like I said, I’m creating the factual content in Keynote presentations that students download from my website. They’re pretty cool because you can embed videos without jumping off to access YouTube. You can watch Elvis swivel instead of reading descriptions of him swiveling.

I’ve divided the decade into four mini-eras: Early 60s (1960-3)[5], the British Invasion (1964-66), the Summer of Love (1967), and the Late 60s (1968-1970, including Woodstock and Altamont).

Of course, this division is overly simplistic. I’ve put Motown and Stax in the early 60s despite Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Otis Redding’s triumphant, heartbreaking performance at Monterey in ’67.

One of the subdivisions of early 60’s is surf music, which I divide into vocal groups (Jan and Dean, The Beach Boys) and instrumental groups (The Safaris, Dick Dale). What occurs to me after watching some Dick Dale performances and interviews is that he might be one of the most under-appreciated innovators and influences in rock history.

Methamphetic bio: Arab descent, Eastern music scales, California surf breaks, Stratocaster reverb, souped-up riffs.

Dig this from 1963.

 

Hendrix in 1969

 

 

Hendrix famously said, “You’ll never hear surf music again.” Did he mean the Beach Boys? That Hendrix was so good surf guitars wouldn’t hack it?

Here’s what Dale says in an interview with Surfer Magazine:

I read that when Jimi Hendrix said, “You’ll never hear Surf music again,” that was in reference to your battle with cancer. Is that true?

You know what’s so funny? Why didn’t they say the rest of his sentence? Do you know what the rest of the sentence is?

No, I have no idea. What is it?

I had never missed a gig in my life, and I had a temperature of 104, and I couldn’t even talk…and had got hit real bad with rectal cancer. Jimi was recording in the studio and said, “I heard Dale did a no-show. That’s not like him. You know?”

His guitar player said, “No man, he’s dying.”

They had given me three months to live.

Then Jimi said, “You’ll never hear surf music again.” And then he said, “I bet that’s a big lie. Let’s pack up, boys, and go home.”

That was the full f–king sentence.

Gotta go.  I got class tomorrow and the British Invasion to tee up.


[1] I did, though, pay attention while stuff was happening like the assassinations, the fire-hosing, the ’68 convention, etc.

[2] Pronounced Karo-whacked.

[3] The trade off in losing 25 pounds is resulting gaunt face looks older because facial fat has a Botox like effect.

[4] Note the arrogant modesty in the double-negative.

[5] I place Motown and Stax in this unit, though, of course, those artists flourished in the mid-to-late 60s as well.

The Duchess of Doggerel

On the week after his thirtieth birthday at the onset of the Great Recession in June of 2008, the day after his girlfriend of two years had dumped him, Bennington A. Rhodes IV lost his job at Citigroup.

On that Thursday at her condo in the early evening, Amy had lowered the axe, explaining that their relationship had “plateaued upon a plain.”

“So being with me,” Bennington had asked, “is, like, a long, boring stretch of Kansas Interstate?”

Amy, a slender, doe-eyed only child with a tiny mouth and incredibly meticulous handwriting, was going places, and Bennington had liked to imagine that he’d be tagging along.  He meekly stormed out of her building (an emphatic door shut, carpeted condo stomp) and headed downtown to drown his sorrows in a tsunami of single malts.  (After unwadding the $68 bar tab the next day, he came close to weeping when he saw the $32 tip).

When Zaubi called him into his office at five the next afternoon, Bennington was still feeling terrible, suffering the worst hangover since Kappa Alpha.  As Zaubi’s soothing baritone – the voice of reason – clicked off the numbers, Bennington sat there across the desk dumb. It wasn’t as if getting laid off was such a shock – he was the most recent hire – but psychologically the timing couldn’t have been worse.  It seemed like a curse.

Axed, and then, axed, whack, whack.

Amy had assured him that there was no one else in the picture and perhaps their relationship might resume somehow in the vague future, but that had been four months ago, and he’d only seen her once since, at Rue de Jean’s among a too loud table enjoying a late lunch that had stretched to four on a Friday afternoon.  Sitting at the bar nursing a Miller, Bennington glanced over to his left to try to catch Amy’s eye, but every time it seemed her head was tilted back in open-mouthed laughter. The table was raucous – there were nine of them – ricocheting guffaws off the dark brick walls of the converted warehouse.  Bennington, pointing to the table with his thumb, asked the bartender Smoak if he had a taser he could borrow, and Smoak said he’d put on music to create some background noise.  Somehow, when Bennington was in the toilet, Amy had disappeared.  He was running out of money. The economy was tanking, He was heartsick.

Saturdays had become especially grim.  No longer able to afford the sports bars, he sat alone in his mortgaged condo in front of his no-money-down flat screen TV watching SEC football, pulling for his alma mater Vanderbilt, whose games were virtually never broadcast in the Charleston market.  He watched whatever SEC game was on, keeping a vigil to catch the current Vandy score that periodically crawled across the bottom of the screen.  Today’s CBS broadcast, Georgia vs. LSU, was a blowout.  However, if Vandy could beat lowly Duke this afternoon, the Commodores would become bowl eligible for the first time since 1982 – since Ronald Reagan. The bad news, though, was that they were down early, so Bennington sat on a beanbag chair munching Cheese Nips, keeping an eye peeled for the score.  How he used to look forward to Saturdays, furloughs from panicky investors and irksome emails; now he dreaded Saturdays the way he once had dreaded Mondays.

The final score crawled across the screen:  Duke 10 Vandy 7.

He had to get out.  To rent a DVD from the library, to read a good biography, to somehow shake off the lethargy. With gas prices soaring, he thought about walking to the Library on Calhoun, but it was too far, especially round trip, so he drove instead, crossing the bridge with the top down, the wind ruffling his hair,  a month past its usual close-cropping.  Parking was free under the library building if you got your ticket stamped, but as it turned out, traffic was light, so he snatched an open space on the street.

Once inside, Bennington decided to scan new book releases before heading to biographies and then the DVD section.  This new library, open and airy, was so unlike the old one on King Street with its dusty stacks and down-and-out warmth-seekers.  Here, high school students paraded past t-ball moms laden with stacks of books while retirees stared into computer monitors.  In the new releases section, Bennington toyed with picking up Hot, Flat, and Crowded, hoping that the imminent destruction of the planet and all its life forms might put his own puny problems into better perspective, but he left it there and made his way upstairs to check out the biographies.

On his way through the stacks, walking slowly, he ran his finger across spines of volumes of poetry making a soft rat-a-tat when one of the titles caught his eye: From the Green Horseshoe: The Poetry of James Dickey’s Students.  Marisa, a summer Vandy fling, had been one of the last of Dickey’s students.  Maybe one of her poems had made it into the anthology.  He removed the volume and opened it, rifling the pages, looking for her name.

Whoa!  Wait a minute!  What was that?  He thumbed through more slowly, and it was there, a  $100 bill.  Excited, he flipped the note over to assure himself it was legal tender.  Someone had written something above the trees and steeple of Independence Hall.  A message?

Hi, poetry lover. It’s your lucky day. Let me know how you like the poem on page 137. 843-
402-2342. D.D.

Bennington pocketed the bill and read the poem:

From the Porch of Her Glass House, the Duchess of Doggerel Chunks Rocks at the Grave of Joyce Kilmer

                                                                                  By Delaney Dodd

The metronomic tick-tock of his maudlin verse

is like Chinese water torture, only worse.

Worse, because his sugary singsong strut

goosesteps across your forehead, then stomps down your gut.

And those monosyllabic Dollar Tree words!

Plopping in sequence like marshmallow turds!

Sure, Joyce, trees are worthy of our veneration,

even if they’re the products of random mutation.

But, dude, it’s great poetry, like Milton’s, that a-stone-ishes me,

not the prosaic process that produces a tree.

Bennington wasn’t a fan of poetry.  He had often wondered in school why they made you read it all the time.  At least this poem rhymed.  But it didn’t flow right.   Should he call this woman?  He was guessing it was a woman. Would she want the hundred back?  She had to be crazy.  Desperate for attention.

Really, really, lonely.

Her answering machine engaged:  “Leave a message.”

Beep.

“Uh, Delaney. I found your note and the money in the book.”

Click.

“Hello.”  Her voice was breathy.  “What’s your name?”

“Uh, Bennington Rhodes.”

“I see. A man of truth.”

“Huh?”

“Like, it says on my Caller I.D. ‘Bennington Rhodes.’  You’d be surprised how many Bobs claim to be Antoines.”

He wondered how many c-notes she had distributed in libraries. “Really?  Why?”

“To cop a cool vibe from a new name.  Like, Bennington, your name screams Republican, municipal bonds, bow ties.  You might think, ‘I’ll punk this chick by copping the name Slade Rucker.’  Now what kind of vibe do you get from Slade Rucker?”

“Sounds like a cross between a private eye and some sort of industrial machinery.”

She laughed. “Bingo!  Look, Benny, I hear you’ve come into some cash.  How bout buying me a drink?”

“When?”

“Now.”

“Right now?”

“Where are you, Benny?”

“Downtown.”

“Great, I’m just around the corner on Heart Attack and Vine.  Say fifteen minutes at The Roof Top Bar on Vendue?”

“But how will I know you are you?”

“Don’t worry.  I’m me.”

***

On the short drive to Vendue, Bennington suffered a pang of buyer’s remorse.  He’d read about people hooking up on-line with imposters, sultry-sounding sirens who were actually hairy-backed bald-guys in wifebeaters. This woman sounded young, but she could be in her fifties for all he knew.  Though he didn’t hang with artistic types, his poet friend Marisa had been stuck on herself, as if her tendency to see dewdrops on eucalyptus leaves as symbols made her somehow precious.

The bar was on top of the Vendue Inn, a quaint hotel with dark pine floors and Oriental runners. In a narrow hall, he waited for a tiny elevator, the kind you might find in a European hotel.  As the elevator door opened, an attractive twenty-something blonde in jeans and a black turtleneck hurried through the lobby, so Bennington pressed the open-door button to wait for her.  Could this actually be Delaney?  No way his luck could be this good.

“Thanks,” she said, as the elevator jerked into motion.

“Read any good poetry lately?”

“Can’t say that I have,” she said coldly, staring at her toe cleavage.

The bar was nearly empty. Bennington ordered a Yuengling and sat at a table outside on the uncovered terrace.  The first beer disappeared, and he wondered if she might not show.  Poets who put $100 bills in library books were probably not the most dependable people.  He walked back to the bar and ordered another Yuengling.  He’d down that, and then, if she didn’t show, he was out of there.

Leaning over the bar, he felt someone touch his shoulder.

Jumping back, he said, “Damn, Amy!”

“C’mon, what kind of greeting is that?”  She was smiling, those big brown eyes wide open.

“Hey, I heard about you getting laid off.  Sorry.”

“Who’d you hear it from?”

“Phil.  I keep up with you through Phil, though he says he hasn’t seen you lately.”

 He hoped to God that she wasn’t seeing Phil.

“Well, you could have called. I would have told you how I was doing.”

“I thought it might be awkward, you know.”

A tall woman in black slacks and a black vest and sporting a backwards tweed Irish cap stepped up from the elevator pit and strolled across to the bar.  A long black scarf dangled from her neck.

“Well,” Bennington said.  “I think I see my date.  So long, Amy.”

He left her standing there and approached the woman, who was somewhat older, well a lot older now that he got a closer look at her, in her forties with salt and pepper shoulder length hair.  She was attractive, what his mother would call dark Irish, with very brown eyes and a small upturned nose.

He gave it another try.  “Read any good poetry lately?”

“You must be Ben-ning-ton.”

“And you must be Delaney.”

“My friends call me the Duchess.”

“The Duchess, huh?”

 “Just Duchess will do.”

 “What are you drinking, Duchess?”

“Vodka martinis.”

He glanced over his shoulder.  I thought it would be awkward, you know.

“Somebody tailing you, Bennington? A stalker?”

“Naw, just Ol’ Man Trouble.”

“Benny, I like you already.  You in the mood to hear my life story?”

“Does it rhyme?”

She hacked a smoker’s laugh. “Tell me something.”

“Okay.”

“How’s Ol’ Man Trouble been messing with you?”

“Stole my job and my girl.”

“Look on the bright side.”

“The bright side?”

“Today’s your lucky day.”

Bennington wasn’t too sure about that, but at least he wasn’t sitting at home watching two Big Ten teams clash.  Though this tough talk Bogey and Bacall business would probably get old soon, he did have the feeling that his luck might be changing.

I thought it would be awkward, you know.

The martini and the Yuengling arrived.

The Duchess tapped his glass.  “To the New World Order of Obamarama,” she said.  “The times they are a-changin’.”

He raised his bottle and managed a smile.

“How’s that beer, Benny?”

 “Okay.  How’s the martini?

 “Mos scocious.”

 “I take it that means good.”

 “Better than good.  But hey, tell me about the poem.  Did you dig the poem?”

“Yeah, sort of.  I’m not going to lie.  Poetry’s not my thing.”

“I, too, dislike it.”

“Huh?”

“Benny boy, you got a lot to learn, but, like I said, this is your lucky day.”

“Who’s your favorite poet?”  he asked.

 “You mean besides me?”

 “Besides you.”

She clinked her glass with his bottle again and took another sip of her martini. “Not Joyce Kilmer,” she said.

 “Hey, you want to go sit out there on the terrace?”

She led the way, not exactly swaggering but sort of stalking, thrusting one foot in front of the other as if she were headed up the aisle to receive her Oscar.  She chose a table in the corner at one juncture of the wrought iron railings that wrapped around the terrace to keep people from wandering too close to the edge.

She sat facing the harbor and he just around the corner to her right.  Scraping her chair closer to the table, she looked at Bennington. “Hey, Benny – I hope you don’t mind me calling you Benny-“

“Not unless you mind me calling you Dutch.”

She smiled.  “Well, then Bennington,” she said in a mock patrician voice, “I have a question for you.”

“Okay.”

“If poetry’s not your ‘thing,’ how come you’re checking out poetry anthologies?”

He smiled sheepishly, scratching the label of his beer with his thumb.  “Well, I happened to be passing by and noticed the name James Dickey.  I had a friend, Marissa, who studied under Dickey. She was a poet, and I thought she might have a poem in there.”

“And it might have been about you?”

 “No, not at all.”

 “What was Marisa’s last name?”

 Bennington started.  “How did you know her name was Marisa?”

 “I’m clairvoyant,” she deadpanned.

 He leaned back slightly in his chair.

Again, she gently touched his arm.  “Bennington, earlier you said her name, Marisa.  Look, I’m going up to the bar and grab us another round. Before a waitress intrudes herself.”

“Put it on my tab,” he said.

While she was away, Bennington looked around.  The Roof Top was becoming more crowded.   Two couples and a triple had grabbed tables on the terrace, and the bar was about full.  This Delaney woman was intriguing, entertaining, though full of it.  Her rough words didn’t match her light touch.  She talked like a toughie, but when she leaned over and touched your arm, it was almost maternal, then again, not at all maternal.

She returned with a new martini and yet another Yuengling.

“Now, it’s my turn for a question,” Bennington said,  “Why in the world did you put a hundred dollar bill in that book?  How long has it been there?”

“Let’s see.  The first question’s easier.  I did it on a bet, a bet with my Ex.  She bet me that no one would ever check out that book, in other words, that no one would ever read my poem, and I bet her a hundred dollars someone would.”

Bennington was disappointed.  Why was she flirting with him if her ex wasn’t a he?  There went one of his more hopeful scenarios.

“So how long did it take?”  he asked.  “I mean, for me to find your message.”

“Let’s see,” she hummed.  “A decade give or take.”

“Man.”

“And let me tell you, something, Benn-ing-ton, a hundred dollars was real money way back then in the last mil-len-ni-um.” She huffed it out like a hip-hop artist.

“Well,” he said.  “Are you still in touch?  Can you collect?”

“Not yet.”

“Why not?”

“Not only does someone have to read the poem, but I have to write a short story about them, about you as it turns out, about you finding the poem and me meeting you.”

“A story about meeting me?”

“Exactly.”

“What would you write?”

“More or less the truth.  You call me.  We meet here at the Roof Top. The autumn sun’s melting like butterscotch.  Having you unemployed and heartbroken is a plus.  I wasn’t counting on being so lucky – no offense.”

“My turn to fetch the libations,” he said and noticed Amy leaving with her sister Jill.

When he returned, Delaney had an unlit cigarette in her hand, holding it between her fingers as if she were smoking it.

“Anyway,” he said, glancing at the cigarette and then away.  “How does it end?  The story, I mean.”

For the first time, she seemed entirely sincere.  “Don’t ask me if you don’t really want to know.”

He waited for a smile.

No smile.

“No, really, I want to know.”

“Bennington, here’s where fiction is much better than real life.  By meeting me, the Duchess of Doggerel, you realize that being a Republican ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be, that the system’s played you for chump.  Thanks to unregulated markets, you’re out of a job – I’m guessing insurance, something like that – and that you own a condo whose equity has deflated in this housing meltdown like a post parade Macy’s Day Snoopy.  And, look, don’t take this personally – I see your ex as a – forgive me – as a vapid, spoiled woman who color codes her to-do list.  In other words, boring.  You realize after our chance meeting that there’s more to life, that ultimately your ex is small-minded, materialistic, so you end up being a so-called developing character, which makes the story much cooler.”

“Damn,” Bennington said smiling goofily, “You’re good.  You about got Amy nailed.”

“But seriously, Bennington, that’s not how real life works.  It’s too big of a change in too short of a time.  Even the Duchess’s charismatic personality can’t undo a quarter century of Republicanism in twenty minutes.”

“Wait,” Bennington said.  “How did you know I was a Republican?  I’m thinking seriously about voting for Obama.”

“What’s this?  The end of Perry Mason?  Look, Bennington, puh-lease. You winced when I toasted Obama; your name is Bennington; you don’t like to be called Benny; and you’re wearing a polo shirt and khakis for godssake.  Case closed.   But, let’s forget all of this mumbo jumbo and go out and have a good time, okay?  You up for an early dinner?  My treat. Look, I like you Benny.  If I didn’t, I’d drop you like a bank stock.”

Bennington looked out beyond the steeples at the river and remembered that daylight savings time was over tonight, that tonight he could turn back the hands of time. A whole extra hour and then the Sabbath to recover and nowhere to go Monday except maybe up to the mountains to see his good friend John Woodmansee.

“Hey Dutch, I like you, too.  You’re a character.”

“No, Benny, you’re the character, remember, and don’t hand me any static.  We’re going to have us a little denouement tonight.  How does Snapper Jack’s sound?”

“Sounds good.”

She downed what was left of her martini.  Pushing her chair back from the table, she stood, flicking her hair away from her eyes and throwing her scarf over her shoulder.  Bennington followed her out into the night.  It wasn’t until they rounded the corner of Vendue and East Bay that he realized that they hadn’t paid.

What My Horoscope Say

original painting by George Quaintance, photoshopped by I-and-I

 

 

Sagittarius, my name’s Wes. Half

Shetland pony, half man, half drunk,

Spunky, funky feetswise, street wise

Not so much. Hobbling on All Day IPA

Crutches, engaged to a duchess, a

Non bullshitter my horoscope say.

 

My horoscope say I promise more

than deliverable, say I so un-

diplo make Donald Trump

shiver with the faux pas machine

I be revving 24/7. A freedom craving

charming ass knave, it say.

 

But I know this cat born on the same day

who be ain’t at all like me, good at math,

half Chinese, don’t waste his time

pumping out faux funk, got good

teeth, non-nomadic, tactful, wrath

less, leave no mess, a Sagittarius?

 

Wonder what his horoscope say.

 

 

My Favorite Vulgarity

I can’t believe it’s been five years since Aaron James published Assholes, a Theory, a book that got me in trouble at school when I explained to a star student athlete breaking in the lunch line that he was an “asshole” according to a philosophical treatise I’d just read.

Much to my surprise, although a senior, the violator-of-queue-protocol told his mama, who called the higher-ups demanding an apology, which I refused to offer. “Would she rather I call him despicable?” I asked rhetorically, mentioned he was older than an acquaintance of mine killed in Nam, that I had offered the Anglo-Saxon descriptor in the context of a bone fide academic argument, etc. My bosses, to their credit, demurred. After graduation, I did, however, tell him that I was sorry calling him an asshole had upset him, but he claimed it hadn’t.

Anyway, “asshole” is an example of synecdoche, one of the gadgets poets use in their bag of tricks, a part standing for the whole, illustrated here in Eliot’s famous lines from “Prufrock”:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Synecdoche, a sort of cinematic device, focuses the mind’s eye on concrete images, renders the airy world of words in flashes of substantiality as we atomistically see the part and perceive the whole, our mental cinematographer panning out from the rugged claws to the crab itself and our imaginations morphing the symbol into meaning however our imaginations will.

In explaining this concept to students, I actually use asshole as in a despicable person to illustrate synecdoche because, flash, they immediately get it and tend not to forget it.

I have to admit I love the word [1] – almost a perfect spondee – bam-bam.  Not surprisingly, it comes to English via the Vikings [2], those juvenile delinquents with battle-axes, as one of my history professors described them.  Actually, though, according to Wiktionary.com (my OED doesn’t list asshole), its vulgar usage as a despicable person doesn’t appear until the 1950’s in of all places, the Harvard Advocate 137, March 1954.

Asshole’s popularity as a derisive term is not only evident in its broad usage but also in the number of offshoots it has spawned – assholery, assholic, etc.

But back to James’s book and his ruminations. He writes

Our theory has three main parts.  In interpersonal or cooperative relations, the asshole:

  1.  allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
  2.  does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
  3.  is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

I say, bravo.

Professor James is less successful, however, in classifying assholes because he doesn’t base his division on one principle; therefore, he creates categories that overlap, e.g., the boorish asshole, the smug asshole, the asshole boss, the corporate asshole, the self-aggrandizing asshole.  Obviously, it’s easy to perceive a corporate boss like Donald Trump as being smug, self-aggrandizing, and boorish all in one.

Certainly, he is by far, according to James’s theory, the ass-holiest US president in this and the last century if not the most egregious of all time.

At any rate, I enjoyed James’s book and now that it’s five years old you can probably cop it for pennies on Amazon.


[1] Cognate with Norwegian rasshøl (“asshole”), Swedish arsle (“asshole”). Compare also German Arschloch (“asshole”). Attested from the 1370s, replacing earlier Old English earsþerl (“anus”, literally “arse thirl”). First recorded in Middle English, as ers hole (Glouc. Cath. Manuscript 19. No. I. , dated 1379, cited after OED), ars-hole (Bodleian Ashmole MS. 1396, dated ca. 1400, ed. Robert Von Fleischhacker as Lanfrank’s “Science of Cirurgie”, EETS 102, 1894, cited after OED.) Wikipedia.com

[2] Check out TC Boyle’s “We Are Norsemen” for a primer on Norse assholedom: “The idiot.  The pale, puny, unhardy idiot. A rage came over me at the thought of it – I shoved [the monk] aside and snatched up the book, thick pages, dark characters, the mystery and magic.  Snatched it up, me, a poet, a Norseman, an annihilator, an illiterate.  Snatched it up and and watched the old man’s suffering features as I fed it, page by filthy page, into the fire.  Ha!”