Tuesday, December 29, 2009

New Years' Eve: Billy In Trouble

New Years Eve is usually presented as a time of champagne, carousing in good (or bad) company, and soul kisses at midnight. The following excerpt is taken from a novella called BILLY IN TROUBLE. Billy is a selfish, foul-mouthed, often drunken student who's been sent by his parents to live with religious relatives, in the icy far north of the state, as a punishment. His uncle and aunt go to bed early on New Year's Eve. Billy creeps out hoping to locate some company and excitement, and finds more than he bargained for:

"I climbed out the window, crossed the frozen lawn and began walking down the dark road. I had no plan. There was no one around me. It was lonely. But about a mile down the road I could hear the howling of the wild dog pack Joe had told me about. They just raged around the country and tore a living out of the land with their vicious teeth. A minute later they howled again, closer. Joe had told me what they did to deer: ate them alive and spat out the crunchy bits. I began to picture myself, disembowelled and gobbled up while those big northern stars coldly looked down.

"I was turning to run back to Joe's when headlights surged over the hill, then an old Chevrolet followed with the backend souped up high and shouts and loud music coming from it and even legs hanging out the open windows. I almost wept with joy. The wild dogs weren't going to get me, not this time; but also, I'd been missing kids my age, and here they came, roaring and pillaging right down the hill.

"They knew I was the sheriff's nephew Billy, and I knew they were from those crazy Finn families that lived back in the woods. They were about my age and there were seven of them, ice-blond like ghosts would be if ghosts were born Finns--and they were all related, brothers and sisters and cousins. I never did get it straight. We were all jammed in together. They were all bigger than I was, including the girls, a white-headed giant tribe, and they were at the stage of drunk where you're blazing with the flammable delight of existence. They had names like Helga and Elga and Friedelund. It seemed they'd been having a whale of a time all evening and hadn't finished yet.

"We drove flashing fast like a comet cuts through stars down those deserted country roads, tossing bottles of whiskey and peppermint schnapps back and forth and glugging out of them, stomping our boots and doing some kind of seated jig to the rock music hard enough to pop the rivets in our jeans. Gradually I noticed that several of my new friends had teeth missing, a scar where normally an eyebrow would be, or a nose mashed toward an ear. One of the boys had what looked like a serious head injury, and he laughed about how he'd been piling wood with his dad that afternoon and the old guy thought he was too slow and threw a log at his head to wake him up.

"There was no heat in the car, and you could see the moving road through holes in the floor. There was duct tape over every inch of the car seats, and old and new fast-food wrappers and empty bottles were jammed into every crevice One of the girls dandled me on her knee like an infant, she was that big, and then the old Van Halen song "Jump!" came on and she suddenly jogged me up and down hard with her knee in time to the music so the top of my head kept smashing into the car ceiling. I hoped this was some kind of primeval Finnish seduction. I was timidly making the first moves to feel up her tremendous chest when she whomped me hard with her fist like a mother bear and just about knocked my head off. Even though I feared I wouldn't survive the car ride I laughed with everybody else.

"I never knew kids that were so much fun, until I asked if somebody had a doobie. Then all of a sudden they fell silent, and seven pairs of icy, crystal-pale eyes looked at me with whiskey-bombed malice.

"We don't use them dirty drugs," the drunkest one said in a quiet, deadly voice. They all leaned in toward me, the girls too, clenching their paws into fists, and I began to gag and retch wildly. I was afraid I would faint from terror and these boys and girls, who seemed to exist out of time, would do something terrible to me--maybe eat me, and my bones would join the fast-food wrappers and empty bottles.

"He's throwing up, he'll ruin the car!" somebody shouted, and as I was seized by enormous hairy hands and flung out the door of the moving car I heard the radio solemnly and sweetly begin to play "Lest old acquaintance be forgot..." The car peeled out smoking. The dog pack began howling again.

(excerpt from "Billy in Trouble", a novella)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter Wedding: Conjuring For The Bride and Groom, a poem

A wedding is a curing ceremony.
The priest formally disarms the dark
of spooks, red teeth and loneliness,
but the rest of us know
white satin is so frail, and fate the guest
that's always hungriest and thirstiest.
My ears quiver like tuning forks
to these spells and pledges. I feel us all,
mother, father, sister, brother, friend,
conjuring safety and charmed zones,
fields of honey for the pair.

What could ever be safe enough?
Because they know nothing, nothing.
Furiously we spin from straw
a favorite saint crowning each bedpost,
a Cossack with sword guarding the door,
huge wingspreads unfurling warmth and light
over the baby steps of the couple.
May they take care of their lives.

We can only hope. But this morning
through battering sleet you couldn't stop
with a train, cathedral stone
flowered into biblical beauty.
And at the night dance
we saw the bride's ordinary human hair
turn to a mane of stars.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

EATING THE BLACK RADISH: a winter poem, by Margaret Benbow

"For general winter misery, pioneers used to cut a hole in a big old dirty black radish, and fill it with honey. They let it rot on a plate for a few days, then ate it."
Eleanor Randolph

A big black torpedo of sour and sweet
blows open the airways and routs them out,
old gorgeous ghosts waving their arms like Ivan the Terrible
reeling through the scarlet corridors of the sinuses
and also thoughts born on white nights
of a seven-month winter, small as nose-hairs
but each hair an iron root,
and mental fumes rising from bogs of cabbage soup,
icy firefalls of brandy, so that a man can hardly find
the tight growth lines of his own mind--

all blown sky-high by the black radish bomb:
you're lightning-struck, surprised to be alive:
then ribs of the brain-cave flare outward
to gold air and sun.

Friday, December 4, 2009

"Maximus, I Want To Have Your Baby!"

Many years ago, I happened to be reading a trashy showbiz rag when I noticed a photo spread of two poor, struggling, raggedy young actors. One of them was blinking at the camera as though he'd never seen one before. Maybe he hadn't. He was strikingly called Jude Law, a cool name like two bold calligraphic slashes. The other unknown actor suffered under a dumpy, commonplace, plumber's-mate kind of name: Russell Crowe. God, you had to feel sorry for the guy. Who would ever remember that? The caption underneath the two grainy pictures asked: WHO IS THE HOTTEST? I took a close look, and then I thought: Are you freaking kidding me?

Here we had young Jude Law, with flossy gold hair and lips like a Southern belle. I don't want to be mean, and it's not his fault, but Jude Law looks like a girl. He always has. These days he looks like an older girl.

And over here we had the strapping young Aussie/New Zealand buck Russell Crowe: laughing at the camera as though he didn't even care that he was obscure. His chestnut curls were in manly disarray, but what counted, then and later, is that he's got something extra in his face. Maybe it's the blood of his Maori great-grandparent, maybe plentiful pints of gleaming beer, or a brain lobe he'd shaken loose with all his thrashing and head-banging in his youthful band. There's a liveliness in his eye.

Crowe's rise to stardom and his filmography are well-known. I'll focus instead on the tribulations of his faithful fans, including me. It's not all peaches and cream, being a Russell faniac. Because the good news is that the man literally breathes talent and fearlessness and a robust appetite for life out of his pores. But the bad news is that if he can get his tit caught in a wringer in public, he will.

There was the time during the BAFTA awards that a producer edited out Russell's recital of a sonnet in his acceptance speech. Russell furiously threatened the man: "You'll never work in Hollywood again!" Doubtless the producer would have wet himself in fear, except that he was an Englishman who'd never worked in Hollywood, and never wanted to. This incident probably cost Crowe the Best Actor Oscar for A BRILLIANT MIND (2001).

Next Russell was vilified in the press when he bounced a phone off a desk clerk's head. Russell was in a New York hotel, lonely, passionately missing his wife and baby Crowe, and the goddamn phone wouldn't work. WE understood perfectly, but the police led him away in handcuffs. Not every actor can rise above handcuffs, but Russell was unfazed. He looked as though he was planning what to have for lunch. Eventually there was a settlement with the desk clerk, well in excess of $100,000. A few more customer complaints like that, and the guy could retire to Palm Beach. "In Australia, we would have settled it over a beer," said Russell.

Then there was the interview I saw, where the newslady was scolding Russell for being on a different continent when his wife Danielle gave birth to their second child. "Oh," he said with a sunny smile, "it will make her happy to get back in shape so she can be Magic Girl for me when we see each other again."

Whoa! In America, for some reason, a guy isn't considered a good father unless he's not only present in the delivery room, but practically has his nose up the birth canal urging on the crowning baby while simultaneously capturing professional-style footage on his video camera. So Russell's remark enraged the Birth Fascists. They thought he was commanding Danielle to lose the lard so he wouldn't be repulsed by her balloon bazooms and gross baby fat when he finally wandered in. But WE knew that both Russell and Danielle were gym rats, and this was probably her wish more than his. And if they hoped to be Magic Boy and Magic Girl together, with a newborn and a toddler, well, good luck with that!

Personally I believe that Russell's true character is within shouting distance of his most famous role, the noble but gentle warrior Maximus Decimus Meridius in GLADIATOR. Maximus is brave, but also wise and tender. And if one dropdead gorgeous killing machine is called for, he is the man for the job. In fact, a geneticist might think that Maximus should be allowed to father all the babies in the world. But there is one tiny, tiny hitch in his behavior in GLADIATOR that troubled this faniac and, for awhile, made me lose faith in my Maximus. (I first worried about this in my October 12 post, WHAT WERE THEY THINKING??)

We're all familiar with that moment in the movie when all of the gladiators are in the Coliseum, in the death ring, and feeling very nervous since Siberian tigers and Roman legions and spiked chariots and numchuk-swinging dwarves are about to descend on their trembling enslaved asses. It's at this moment, not before, that Maximus casually asks the others, "Were any of you guys ever in the army? Because it would really help us if we can use our old battle strategies..." It turns out that they are old soldiers and they do snap back into fighting form, and within two minutes Maximus is taking his victory gallop on a white stallion around the Coliseum, prancing over his enemies' corpses. But does he deserve to?

Why, I worried, did he wait until this juncture to ask that question? Wasn't it important? Hadn't they all been together for days in their cells with nothing to do but chew the fat? What if, with the Coliseum's giant tigers' saberteeth breathing down their necks they'd answered, "Actually, I was a potato farmer from Thrace," "I gave the Sultan foot massages in Turkey," etc.

It was troubling. Had Maximus done something dumb? But the fine veteran blogger Cal happened to see my post, and was kind enough to explain Maximus's thinking. Those gladiators were not talkers, even at the best of times. They were seriously mad at the world. And they would not have taken kindly to some big dude shimmying up to them in their cells wanting to practice frenzied battle rollovers with them. "And just let me oil you up a little bit so those nasty breastplates don't chafe!"

Yup, makes sense. Maximus would have known better. So now I'm a true believer again, and can watch GLADIATOR with a tranquil heart.