Thursday, September 17, 2009

Significant Things with the Madonna of Conflagration

“I’m no longer interested in significant things, okay?”

I never know how to respond to the Madonna of Conflagration when she says something like this. There’s usually an edge in her voice, a light in her eye and a hand on her hip. A Momentous Decision Has Been Reached and It Is Now Time to Talk About It.

“Um, how are we defining significant things here?”

“Anything that isn’t, like, minutiae. Matters of life and death. Matters of import. Matters of great moment. That stuff. I am no longer paying attention to it. From now on, I am going to sweat the hell out of the small stuff. I am going to take care of the little things and let the big things take care of themselves. Actually, the big things can do whatever they want. The big things can get fat and start smoking again for all I care. They no longer exist for me. I'm totally through with significance.”

She stands and starts pacing up and down the sidewalk. The very first of the autumn leaves are falling and a light wind is blowing them around her feet. There aren't many other people around, as it's one of the first colder days of the season and most everybody else has rediscovered how much they hate the cold. Even the traffic going by on Rawson Avenue seems slower and lighter, squeezed down by a bridge construction project going on a few blocks away. They're racing to finish before the first snow. They're not going to make it. I find that comforting for some reason, perhaps because poor public works planning is one of the few constants in this world.

The Madonna of Conflagration loves the cold. While the season itself often brings her down emotionally, the weather invigorates her mentally and physically. For most of October she's a blend of moping and extravagant gesticulation, hopeless sighing and vigorous pacing. Things usually reach equilibrium by the end of November, but these early weeks are often quite trying.

“Maybe I'll start collecting something,” she says. “I bet you can get really mired in the details if you collect something. That's pretty much, like, the definition of being a collector. There's rituals and conventions and message boards. Filing and labeling and organizing. All that shit.”

“Sounds like a clerical job. Are you looking for a hobby or are you thinking about temping?”

There's nothing quite like the thrill of a beautiful woman giving you the finger. This particular finger goes flying by as her pacing has intensified.

“This is bigger than a hobby, motherfucker. This is a philosophical thing. This is me readjusting how I interact with the world. It is heavy heavy business, is what I'm saying."

I nod, but her pacing has carried her too far and too fast to see it, sending her up the block and away from our bench. I watch her almost vanish from sight, but she abruptly swivels around and comes marching back benchward.

I’m going to collect antique bottles!" she declares. "I’m going to get really into collecting them. I’m going to have price guides, and a tool box full of instruments specially designed for antique bottle cleaning, and solvents that have been approved for use on old glass. I'll subscribe to a quarterly magazine about antique glass, and at least two glass discussion news groups. Maybe more! I'll go to antique stores and flea markets. Every weekend! After a while --and sooner than you would think-- I'll be able to identify and describe a bottle just from a little fragment of glass.”

“Like an archaeologist.”

Another finger goes whizzing by. “And…and….and…I’ll specialize. I'll be, like, the country's foremost expert on one particular kind of bottle. Bottles from the northeast! From dairies! If someone is making a movie about an old eastern dairy, they'll totally consult with me to get the bottles right. But I won't know all the bottles. I'll specialize in one specific kind of dairy bottle. And not milk bottles either!”

“Did they bottle anything else?”

“Butter bottles. I'll be the country's, no the world's go to source for the history of butter bottles of northeastern dairies. From 1919 to 1925.”

“Pretty sure butter didn't come in bottles.”

“It didn't?”

“Little crocks, I think. I'm almost positive it came in little crocks.”

She suddenly stops pacing. I realize the cold breeze I had been enjoying was entirely generated by her. The weather almost seems hot without it. She flumps back on to the bench.

“That’s sorta taken the wind out of my sails,” she says. “I’ve got no interest in collecting crocks.”

“Are you sure? It would be pretty, uh, minutiae-y? Minute?”

She frowns.

“No, it’s like, I dunno, trying too hard? I want to get involved with organic minutiae. Something small and real like, trainspotting or botany or...” she looks around and her eyes light on my shoes. “Or people's habits. Their weird little things. I could investigate that. Like that fucked up thing you do with your shoe laces.”


“They don’t cross. Why don’t they cross?”

“These are dress shoes.”


“Proper dress shoes are straight-laced.”

She stares at me.

“It’s, you know, traditional. It’s where the term ‘straight-laced’ comes from. It...presents a neater appearance than, uh, crossing the laces.”

She continues staring at me. She leans in, keeping eye contact, further and further, until our eyelashes nearly touch. She has found some minutiae clinging to my soul and is giving it a good scrutinizing. In the scales of the universe, the Madonna of Conflagration's desire to study people's habits is sitting in one pan. In the other is the reality of things like straight-laced shoes. She sees that it's only the tip of the iceberg, hinting at a great frozen mass of banality beneath.

“My god,” she says, “I think you’ve cured me.” She stands up, gesturing for me to follow. “C’mon, c’mon, let’s go find something significant to do. Right now.”

I follow (of course), idly wondering what significant thing we'll find to do, and how many more weeks life will be like this, and whether I really want it to stop.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Anarchist, the Saint and the Foreign Visitor

A purple cloth, made from cheap and badly dyed material, is draped across the stone. Through it, one can see the outlines of a cross, perhaps a crucifix. Those lumps could be the agonized limbs and countenance of our savior, or could just be folds and imperfections. Who knows? Who knows?

The anarchist stands bowlegged before the saint's grave. It is he who has covered the memorial, as a sort of insult in drapery. His apocalyptic eyebrows follow a blasphemous arc across his buttery forehead. They are worms of corruption swimming in this wrinkled pool of pale ichor, whose wellspring must surely be his cancerous brain. He drinks a mixture of absinthe and mercury from a silver flask (the mercury as a vain attempt to cure his syphilis) and thinks about how terribly decadent and transgressive he is. How the saint would squirm if he knew the cloth had recently been the bed upon which the anarchist had violated a depraved prostitute in the most abominable way imaginable. She (she? Is he positive? So young, so young...) was vacant eyed and ready for anything. He is enjoying a private and sinister chuckle about the whole thing when he hears the voice.

"Wow, is this place classy! I mean we've got nice graveyards back home, but this place is just another....It's like a museum. Boy I tell ya, they do everything up real nice and beerokey over here."

The anarchist turns and has his senses immediately attacked by a lime green track suit that must surely be a representation of everything he despises.

"Oh HI!" says the creature inhabiting this crime against humanity disguised as a garment, "this a friend of yours?"

The anarchist smirks.

"A...friend? Ah, who can say? Our deepest enemies, somewhere within the crucible of our loathing perhaps become friends, perhaps through that alchemy that men call hatred, perhaps-"

"Only I'm not from around here, and I was wondering if you knew anything about this place. Figgered if you knew the departed here you might know the lay of the land so to speak."

"The gentleman who rests here was known to me, yes."

"Oh that's great, cuz I- Oh geezum, listen to me puttin' my foot right in it: I don't mean it's great that your friend is dead and all, but it's great that you know the place. So, this place is pretty old right?"

"It is the oldest cemetery in the country madame."

"See that's what I thought, but I wasn't sure cuz I couldn't find a info desk."

He allows himself a small smile. "Such things are not our way. We find them...lacking in respect." his glance wanders briefly to the purple cloth. "But yes, this place is very old indeed."

"So who's the oldest?"

"Do you regard that basalt monument there?"

"Basalt? What's that, hon?"

"A type of volcanic stone, famed for its tendency to be found in strangely regular fields of geometric forms. That large gray column is a fine specimen of the stone."

"Oh the tall one. Wow it's big!"

"Fix it in your mind. Beneath that column are the remains of a tribal chieftain who lived 2500 years ago."

"What, before Jesus? Goodness, I didn't know things over here got that old!"

"Indeed. What we know of his behavior shows he came before the gentle savior: the chief was know as Ludovico the Black-Blooded Kin-Rapist. By his friends."

"What did his enemies call him?"

"'That bastard who cut my tongue out and then used it do unspeakable things to my children while making me watch'."

"So he was a terrorist?"

"He was a sculptor whose medium was terror. He used the meat of humanity and the rivers of fear that course through it to create strange and eternal works, ones that echo down the centuries and millennia to bring their depravity and sublimity here to this spot, today, here now."

The track suit looks at him puzzled, smiling politely.

"Here madame. These feet in these blood red boots, support the spiritual heir of Ludovico. These legs, in these black velvet trousers, lift those feet above the faces of the innocent. These shoulders, off of which hangs this black silk cape with lemon yellow lining, go up and down when I laugh at the torments of the helpless. The sight of this profile, including this hair piled high into dizzying shapes using only the most costly of pomades, destroys the goodness in any soul and leaves it comatose in a puddle of its own fluids."

"Now is that your job, dear, or is it a, a, 'lifestyle choice'?"

"Madame, I am only as I have made myself."

"Well good for you! Everyone admires a self-made man! But look at me, jawing away, when you're here to pay your respects to your friend in peace."

The Anarchist looks at the covered grave of the Saint, remembering the look on his milk white face as the velvet rope pulled ever tighter around his throat, even as the detailed arabesques lovingly carved onto every inch of his flesh bled out a new alphabet of scarlet betrayals. He had seen peace there, a peace that said "I forgive you." He had rejected that peace, spitting in the Saint's blue eyes as light faded from them.

"You have a good day now. It was awful nice of you to point out that old grave."

"It was my pleasure."

Yes, yes, yes, it was his pleasure, as were all things in life. All was pleasure to him, from the deepest pain, to the sublimest ecstasy, from the gray mindlessness of a tedious afternoon, to the most violent cocaine-spattered wild night, all was pleasure, all was pleasure, all was-

"Oh, before I leave you in peace could you point me to the, well, um, facilities?"

He pointed a foppish finger towards the mausoleum of a family well known for decades of charitable works.

"you may do your business in there madame. I apologize if the fixtures are a bit...European for you, but I'm sure you'll adapt."

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Two Named Women Taking Shelter From the Storm

Flashing and frightening, the lightning comes down around them. Nancy and Andrea huddle by a puddle, under a tall tree, childhood lessons about storm safety forgotten in the rush for shelter. Fate will smile upon them this time, but there will be adjustments to be made later. In the end it will be one more bad debt to pay off, when they least expect it. But for now they are dry.

"God damn is this wet," says Andrea, looking up with furrowed brow.

"Yes, rain usually is," says Nancy, looking down at her glasses as she tries to dry them off with her soaking wet shirttail.

"Yeah but this is like, extra wet rain. Like it's got more hydrogen in it or something, you know? I'm pretty sure I read about that."

"I...can't say I've ever heard that myself."

"Yeah, no, it's a thing. They call it 'super rain' and it's because of jets or something. Maybe missiles. Anyway there's like chemicals in the atmosphere and they get in the water and make it more hydrogen-y, which makes it more wet. It's a real problem. You haven't heard of this?"

"I haven't heard of this," says Nancy. She puts her glasses back on and finds them unsurprisingly streaky.

"I can't believe you haven't heard of this, Nancy. You have got to start living. In the real world." Andrea taps herself on the side of the head with her index and middle finger. It makes a tiny splashing sound that is somehow audible over the sound of rain falling. "You spend way too much time up here, in your head."

"Do I? I didn't think I did."

"No, yeah, really you do." Andrea looks up. "Still raining. Cripes. Anyway, some people think it's a good thing that we've got more hydrogen in the rain now. Because hydrogen can be used for fuel, right?"

"I've heard about that."

"Sure you have, everybody has. So if the rain has more hydrogen in it, and we collect the rain, and then get the hydrogen out of it-"

"How's that done?"

"Chemicals and electricity I think. So like if we get the hydrogen from rain instead of normal water we get extra hydrogen. It's a bonus."

"Everyone likes a bonus."

"Of course they do. And it's more efficient and environmental too. Because you're using water that's been contaminated in the first place, yeah? It's totally sound."

"It certainly sounds sound." Nancy tries to clean her glasses again. "I think it's letting up a bit."

"How can you tell?"

"I can almost see out of my glasses now." Lightning flashes across the sky, turning everything briefly to day. "Still pretty wet though."

"Still pretty extra-wet."

"Extra-wet, right." Nancy frowns. "Andrea are you absolutely sure that's a real thing?"

"Positive. Just because you don't know about something doesn't mean I made it up."

"No, that's true."

"You don't pay attention." Andrea taps vigorously on the side of her head again.

"Guilty as charged."

Lightning strikes the tree across from them, shattering it into fragments and filling the air with the smell of vaporized sap.

"Huh," says Andrea.

"Indeed," says Nancy.