The Fourth, Revisited

Those of you who haven’t visited the site much probably won’t know about my two “big” Independence Day posts. I thought I’d reprise them today:

  • The first, from 2008, appeared just a few months after I’d started this blog. The subject, in those innocent times a few months before Barack Obama was elected: certain similarities between the political atmosphere then, and the counterpart in 1776… as represented by a selection from the Broadway musical, 1776. The song: “Cool, Cool Considerate Men.” (Just the few lyrics excerpts there should be enough to convince you that not a whole lot has changed since then — at least, not for the better.) On a trivia note: this was the first RAMH post to include a little audio-player thingumabob for embedding music in a blog entry.
  • The second, from 2012, melded a bit of personal history about patriotic parades with some background information about the marches of John Philip Sousa. By that time, as you will see, I’d gotten over all shyness about incorporating music in my posts.

…and of course, if you’re so inclined, feel free to visit my post of a few hours ago. It, too, has some things to say about the occasion celebrated in the US today. Sorry, no music for that one.

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Red, White, Blue: A Holiday Fiction

Red.

The President emerged from his private Oval Office bathroom, rubbing his hands together. It didn’t help right away; they dripped on the carpet. Not his problem, though. He had people, after all — people whose only job was to sop up spills at his feet, dry the doorknobs behind him, hand him towels before he touched anything that might not shed water, or might later reveal a handprint. Documents of state. The hands of dignitaries and friends. Women. Whatever.

It was a problem in this joint, a serious problem if you asked him. Back home, in fact at any of his homes and he had a lot of homes, all right?, back home he had people in the bathroom who’d stop him as soon as he stood up, turned away from the sink, stepped out of the shower, whatever — dry him off, make him presentable to all the squeamish dopes he might come into contact with before the water and other things could evaporate or be patted away. But here in this place, wow, how did his predecessors live like this, anyway for even four goddam years? Probably some rule, some budget restriction that needed approval from the sneaky cocksuckers on Capitol Hill.

Unusually, nobody else was in the Oval Office right then. Good. He needed to pull himself together, get a grip on something before he faced anyone else — the something that had greeted him, shocked the hell out of him, when he peed just now.

The red.

Blood, all right? He knew blood. He was used to drawing it from people who got in his way. He saw it on TV, on those movies they make. Back in his school days, he saw it flowing from the nose and lower lip of a guy who’d jumped him. Yeah. That other guy had hit him first, which nobody else cares about when they tell the story, and he’d just given that guy what he asked for, and yeah, all right?, that guy’s blood was there, then, sure. But blood wasn’t supposed to come from him, the President, the Honcho. If you cut him he’d do only one thing and that was cut you back, and you better believe it, cut you back.

He couldn’t tell anybody about it. He couldn’t see a doctor about this, couldn’t breathe a word of it into the air of anyone who might hear it, which was to say, of anyone. Not his wife or his kids. Nobody. It was like his mentor once said to him: Never let them see you bleed. And then, because that left the door open to other possibilities, he’d added: Never let them know you can bleed. Ice water, not blood, right?

Smart man, his mentor. And he didn’t care what they said, that smart bastard was no queer.

No, he couldn’t mention the blood, because once he did he’d be dead. That person would tell somebody else, or that person would write it down where it could be read by somebody else who would then tell somebody else, all the way up and down the chain. And the way things worked in this fucking city, everybody in the goddam world would know about it by the end of the week, and then he’d be dead. Might as well be. Unfair. Newspapers, fucking media… He patted his jacket pocket, but oh, that’s right — they’d taken his phone away, changed his passwords. No outlet there.

He just had to tough it out. It’d go away. It was just something he ate, something he drank. The goddam food in this place, right? Mexican chef, he was pretty sure, or maybe a Frenchie, Chinaman, one of those. It’d pass, whatever it was. He was the goddam President.

White.

He had a fellow who worked for him now, did all kinds of odd jobs, ran errands, tied his tie, opened doors. Never came with him back to New York or to Florida, just stayed right here and waited for him, the President, to return. He couldn’t take the guy with him to those other places, they wouldn’t understand. They’d talk. Guy was a queer, he was pretty sure — the only person in the White House, as far as he knew, who ever used that goddam creepy transgender bathroom his predecessor had installed. And on top of that, the fellow was black. A Negro, right? African-American. Afro-American, whatever they hell they called themselves now.

Well, this fellow who worked for him was in the Oval Office one day, standing along the wall like he did, at attention or whatever. Like a flagpole. Sculpture. Piece of furniture, something you didn’t have to deal with or even pay attention to. Also in the office at the moment was his counselor, his — what’d the Guidos say? — oh yeah, his consigliere. And the consigliere was going on the way he’d started doing, getting a little full of himself in fact, some days he didn’t think the guy would ever shut up, and jeezus could he have a more annoying laugh? But the guy was going on, blah blah blah, and then he said it. He said: Don’t forget, we gotta give the niggers something, too. And then he stopped and raised an index finger and waggled his hairy goddam eyebrows over the top of his glasses and then he pointed at him, the President, and added, No, correction, you gotta give them something. And then the goddam laugh again.

The President looked away from his counselor, over to the fellow who worked for him. Guy didn’t even flinch. Or maybe he’d flinched already, but fast so you couldn’t catch him in the act. Sometimes they were like that — one way when you’re looking, a different way when you weren’t.

But then the guy did something — maybe it was nothing, maybe it wasn’t nothing, who knew. He didn’t flinch, but he twitched. And not twitched his face, or a shoulder, or his body. It was almost invisible, real fast, just one little flick of that one finger, the middle one… He wasn’t even sure he’d even seen it, and he looked up at the guy’s face thinking he’d catch him looking embarrassed or something. But embarrassed, well, who even knows if they get embarrassed? It’s not like they blush or anything, right?

Tell you one thing. It was funny at first, all right? It was funny and it was fun, this whole thing. Being President. Signing, signing, signing. He was a signing monster in the early days. He’d write his name, hold it up so the cameras could show he signed it himself and didn’t use pre-signed stationery or automatic signing machines or any of that crap. All those people standing behind him, grinning. He got along with those people, with everybody who got along with him, all right? He was a lot more genuine than they all thought. Really real, you know? And so he’d sign all that stuff, and somebody would take it away, and he didn’t know what happened to it after that but the way the left-wing dopes screamed maybe it was being shoved up their keisters. He hoped so. And he could feel the country changing under him, behind him, and that was good, right?

His counselor was still talking. Talk, talk, talk. He waved the guy away, out of the office. Shut the door behind you, right? He looked over to the fellow who worked for him. Still a statue. Not a twitch. Maybe something in his eyes, something the President had never seen in a statue…

But then it was gone, and the President’s attention turned to other things.

Blue.

They all thought he had enemies, the President knew. And yeah, okay, he might even have used the word enemies a few times himself, back in the days when he could still use his phone.

But he didn’t really have enemies. He just had pains in the ass.

And the worst of all the pains in the ass were the liberals, the lefties, the fuckers who controlled the newspapers and the media and the other countries and even the companies and all the people who’d turned against him. They had to be behind it, because who would turn against him otherwise? He was great at what he did, right? Lies. They just lied about him, constantly. All the time. And they were lying about his so-called enemies, but if any of them had said pains in the ass instead, he’d have nodded like he was agreeing. And then he’d have pointed right back at them.

Democrats. Bastard turncoat Republicans, the weak shits. “Independents,” and who the hell knew who else was in the mix. Communists, anarchists, socialists, bomb-throwers, queers and women, African-Americans and Mexicans, Canadians, Muslims, the plain old goddam people anymore — the people who used to talk about him in the old days, talk about him all the time, in titty bars and in their kitchens and at baseball games and after church and in schools…

Ungrateful pains in the ass, all of them. They think he was doing all this for fun? No, he wasn’t doing this for fun. He was doing this for them, and so they’d know he was doing it for them — for their outspoken knowing. Applauding or bitching, he didn’t care back then, right?

The hell with them. He didn’t care anymore, either. Because they didn’t care. They were all talking about other shit. March Madness. Report cards. TV shows, and they couldn’t even talk about his TV show anymore because the bastards had pulled the plug on that two years ago. Food prices, gas prices, toilet fucking paper prices. Didn’t they know who he was? Didn’t they know what he could do to them?

His, what was it, counselor… no, his consigliere had quit, saying publicly that he had personal reasons but privately that he was just “tired.” (Tired, the weakling.) The fellow who used to stand at attention in the Oval Office when the President didn’t have anything else for him to do — he was gone, too. Took a research job with the National Science Foundation, the guy told him with a smirk on his face, he knew it was a smirk, and he didn’t understand that at all because he thought he’d signed something in the early days that canceled the National Science Foundation, hadn’t he? (He himself couldn’t check on the Internet anymore because they still wouldn’t let him have a phone but he’d ask one of the kids to look it up and tell him, answer the question: did he pull the plug on The Egghead Show or didn’t he?) The Vice-President was still around somewhere, but probably out of town the way he always was anymore. Making speeches, visiting Capitol Hill and K Street, with his tie all tied and his hair close cropped and his jacket buttoned in front. Posture of a phony, that one. Keeping his own hands clean, the bastard. Never trusted him. Never.

No. He was alone now. Nobody was looking, nobody was listening.

Talk shows had other things to talk about.

Comedians joked about married life.

Cab drivers bitched about traffic and pedestrians.

Pains in the ass. Everygoddambody. He’d show them yet. He was the President, and they’d remember him all right. He was the President.

He pulled the drawer of his desk open, and reached inside.

______________________

Copyright 2017 by John E. Simpson. Feel free to make use of this piece however you’d like; that said, please include this copyright notice in the reusing work. I’d appreciate it, too, if you could include a link to the story’s original posting on my site, at this URL: https://johnesimpson.com/blog/2017/07/red-white-blue-a-holiday-fiction/ — but I won’t unleash the lawyers on you if you skip that step.

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Paying Attention to the Story that Was

Space colony of O'Neill cylinders (NASA Ames Research Center, via Wikipedia)

[Image: a so-called “space colony” consisting of a pair of O’Neill cylinders, courtesy of the NASA Ames Research Center (via Wikipedia). This image has little to do with the story (or the spaceship(s)) discussed in the post, but it felt suitably “epic” (and at least vaguely relevant).]

For a good while now — maybe a year and a half — I’ve been working on a science-fiction novel (working title: 23kpc). The action takes place almost entirely aboard an interstellar space ship, the ISS Tascheter; the protagonists, Guy and Missy Landis, are something like a spacegoing Nick and Nora Charles (cf. Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man stories, especially the films — starring William Powell and Myrna Loy — made from them).

About six months before starting 23kpc, I’d actually written a short novella, or long short story, featuring Guy and Missy and the Tascheter. That story sprang from nowhere in particular; I just wanted to try my hand at SF (again), and was at the time too distracted — by real life and the marketing (still in progress) of Seems to Fit — to focus on anything major. In fact, when I began writing it, I didn’t even know it was SF: it took me several sentences to realize it.

In the course of writing “Open and Shut,” as the original story was called, I realized many other things. I realized how little consideration I’d ever given to the practicalities of space travel, particularly from one star system to another. What would the ship have to be like? If it weren’t capable of faster-than-light (FTL) speeds, how could individual humans ever hope to survive such a journey? (I sure as hell didn’t want Guy, Missy, et al. to die en route — requiring the invention of fresh characters over and over and over…) Perhaps humans were somehow different then — evolved with significantly longer lifespans. Or perhaps there were some ways of keeping them inert for long stretches of time, à la “suspended animation”… or… or… And what about where they were going — what could they even hope to know about their destination? Had at least one other generation of humans preceded them into space? How could a “crew” of, say, a few dozen individuals, even hundreds of them, possibly keep going during a trip which might take not just decades but centuries?

And so on.

Well, I took “Open and Shut” through to the story’s end. But all those practical concerns compelled me to tackle the general project correctly, in its own right. Hence, 23kpc. It no doubt comes with its own set of problems, as I’ll realize when I re-read the whole thing (when I’m done writing the whole thing). But it’s backed by much more (read: any) research, and I think I’ve gotten a lot more of it “right.”

Still, “Open and Shut” has its virtues, especially as a seat-of-the-pants exercise. It gave me Guy and Missy, and several of the other main characters who’d show up in the novel as well. It gave me the Tascheter — in vastly different form. It gave me some of the underlying themes I’d been thinking about (e.g., the evolution of culture and language). It’s told in the present tense, and the first person (from Guy’s point of view), which makes the action feel more “immediate” (to me, anyhow). Finally, it gave me a certain clipped, smart-alecky tone which seemed well-suited to the characters. And re-reading the first few pages reminded me of how much fun I’d had back then…

What follows: the first few hundred words of that story. Hope you enjoy it, too!


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The Other in the Mirror, through the Glass, on the Page

[Video: Photorealist artist Melissa Cooke serves as her own model for a “drawing” of a sneering but otherwise Chaplinesque character. As I understand this light-hearted “making-of” demonstration, she’s excerpting bits and pieces of her various poses, costumes, facial expressions, and such, and amalgamating them into a single image.]

From whiskey river:

Everything that gives the illusion of permanence, familiarity, and intimate knowledge: isn’t it a deception invented to reassure, with which we try to conceal and ward off the flickering, disturbing haste because it could be impossible to live with all the time. Isn’t every exchange of looks between people like the ghostly brief meeting of eyes between travelers passing one another, intoxicated by the inhuman speed and the shock of air pressure that makes everything shudder and clatter? Don’t our looks bounce off others, as in the hasty encounter of the night, and leave us with nothing but conjectures, slivers of thoughts and imagined qualities? Isn’t it true that it’s not people who meet, but rather the shadows cast by their imaginations?

(Pascal Mercier)

…and:

Should we be grateful for the protection that guards us from the strangeness of one another? And for the freedom it makes possible? How would it be if we confronted each other unprotected by the double refraction represented by the interpreted body? If, because nothing separating and adulterating stood between us, we tumbled into each other?

(Pascal Mercier [source: ibid])

and:

When I surprise myself in the depths of the mirror I get a fright. I can hardly believe that I have limits, that I am cut out and defined. I feel scattered in the air, thinking inside other beings, living in things beyond myself. When I surprise myself at the mirror I am not frightened because I think I am ugly or beautiful. It is because I discover I am of a different nature. After not having seen myself for a while I almost forget I am human, I forget my past and I am as free from end and awareness as something merely alive. I am also surprised, eyes open at the pale mirror, that there are so many things in me besides what I know, so many things always silent.

(Clarice Lispector [source])

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Ecstasy in the Commonplace

'Mill City is Crumbling and I'm going to Art-A-Whirl!,' by user jadammel on Flickr

[Image: “Mill City is Crumbling and I’m going to Art-A-Whirl!,” by user jadammel on Flickr. com. (Used under a Creative Commons license.) This is an example of something called a Holgarama: a panoramic photo taken with a camera called a Holga, whose cult status is attributable to the weirdly and unpredictably flawed photos it takes. Wikipedia calls this, delicately, “its low-fidelity aesthetic.”]

From whiskey river:

Everything Is Going to Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate

the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window

and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?

There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.

The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.

The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.

(Derek Mahon [source (and elsewhere)])

and:

Every day my early morning walk along the water grants me a second waking. My feet are nimble, now my ears wake, and give thanks for the ocean’s song.

This enormity, this cauldron of changing greens and blues, is the great palace of the earth. Everything is in it — monsters, devils, jewels, swimming angels, soft-eyed mammals that unhesitatingly exchange looks with us as we stand on the shore; also, sunk with some ship or during off-loading, artifacts of past decades or centuries; also the outpourings of fire under water, the lava trails; and kelp fields, coral shelves, and so many other secrets — the remembered and faithfully repeated recitations of the whales, the language of dolphins — and the multitude itself, the numbers and the kinds of shark, seal, worm, vegetations, and fish: cod, haddock, swordfish, hake, also the lavender sculpin, the chisel-mouth, the goldeye, the puffer, the tripletail, the stargazing minnow. How can we not know that, already, we live in paradise?

(Mary Oliver [source])

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Crossings

'The Other Side,' by Gisela Giardino on Flickr

[Image: “The Other Side,” by Gisela Giardino on Flickr. (Click image to enlarge.)
Used under a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river:

Happiness

A state you must dare not enter
with hopes of staying,
quicksand in the marshes, and all

the roads leading to a castle
that doesn’t exist.
But there it is, as promised,

with its perfect bridge above
the crocodiles,
and its doors forever open.

(Stephen Dunn [source])

and:

The fierce poet of the Middle Ages wrote, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” over the gates of the lower world. The emancipated poets of today have written it over the gates of this world. But if we are to understand the story which follows, we must erase that apocalyptic writing, if only for an hour. We must recreate the faith of our fathers, if only as an artistic atmosphere. If, then, you are a pessimist, in reading this story, forego for a little the pleasures of pessimism. Dream for one mad moment that the grass is green. Unlearn that sinister learning that you think is so clear, deny that deadly knowledge that you think you know. Surrender the very flower of your culture, give up the very jewel of your pride, abandon hopelessness, all ye who enter here.

(G. K. Chesterton [source])

and:

Gone

It’s that, when I’m gone,
(and right off this is tricky)
I won’t be worried
about being gone.
I won’t be here
to miss anything.
I want now, sure,
all I’ve been gathering
since I was born,
but later
when I no longer have it,
(which might be
a state everlasting, who knows?)
this moment right now
(stand closer, love,
you can’t be too close),
is not a thing I’ll know to miss.
I doubt I’ll miss it.
I can’t get over this.

(Lia Purpura [source])

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The Devil(s) You Don’t Know

'The Cadejos,' by Todd Freeman

[Image: “The Cadejos,” hand-painted etching on paper, by Todd Freeman; found on Flickr.
(Click to enlarge.) For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds. Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.

(Neil Gaiman [source])

…and:

My definition of a devil is a god who has not been recognized. That is to say, it is a power in you to which you have not given expression, and you push it back. And then, like all repressed energy, it builds up and becomes completely dangerous to the position you’re trying to hold.

(Joseph Campbell [source])

…and:

To feel anything
deranges you. To be seen
feeling anything strips you
naked. In the grip of it
pleasure or pain doesn’t
matter. You think what
will they do what new
power will they acquire if
they see me naked like
this. If they see you
feeling. You have no idea
what. It’s not about them.
To be seen is the penalty.

(Anne Carson [source])

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Missing the Point (or Nearly So)

'Irony at BBworld,' by user bionicteaching at Flickr.com

[Image: “irony at BBworld,” by user bionicteaching (Tom Woodward) at Flickr.com.
Used under a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river:

West Wind
(excerpt)

You are young. So you know everything. You leap into the boat and begin rowing. But listen to me. Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me. Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile away and still out of sight, the churn of the water as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the sharp rocks — when you hear that unmistakable pounding — when you feel the mist on your mouth and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls plunging and steaming — then row, row for your life toward it.

(Mary Oliver [source])

and:

The History of Poetry

Our masters are gone and if they returned
Who among us would hear them, who would know
The bodily sound of heaven of the heavenly sound
Of the body, endless and vanishing, that tuned
Our days before the wheeling stars
Were stripped of power? The answer is
None of us here. And what does it mean if we see
The moon-glazed mountains and the town with its silent doors
And water towers, and feel like raising our voices
Just a little, or sometimes during late autumn
When the evening flowers a moment over the western range
And we imagine angels rushing down the air’s cold steps
To wish us well, if we have lost our will,
And do nothing but doze, half hearing the sighs
Of this or that breeze drift aimlessly over the failed farms
And wasted gardens? These days when we waken.
Everything shines with the same blue light
That filled our sleep moments before,
So we do nothing but count the trees, the clouds,
The few birds left; then we decide that we shouldn’t
Be hard on ourselves, that the past was no better
Than now, for hasn’t the enemy always existed,
And wasn’t the church of the world always in ruins?

(Mark Strand [source])

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Feeling Your Way

Cartoon by David Sipress, from The New Yorker 2000-07-31

[Image: cartoon by David Sipress, from The New Yorker (July 31, 2000). Original here.]

From whiskey river:

Goods

It’s the immemorial feelings
I like the best: hunger, thirst,
their satisfaction; work-weariness,
earned rest; the falling again
from loneliness to love;
the green growth the mind takes
from the pastures in March;
The gayety in the stride
of a good team of Belgian mares
that seems to shudder from me
through all my ancestry.

(Wendell Berry [source])

and:

Even now, all possible feelings do not yet exist, there are still those that lie beyond our capacity and our imagination. From time to time, when a piece of music no one has ever written or a painting no one has ever painted, or something else impossible to predict, fathom or yet describe takes place, a new feeling enters the world. And then, for the millionth time in the history of feeling, the heart surges and absorbs the impact.

(Nicole Krauss [source])

and:

298

A monk said, “In the day there is sunlight, at night there is firelight. What is ‘divine light’?”

The master said, “Sunlight, firelight.”

(uncredited [source])

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Scraps and Leavings: What I’ve Been Working On

Cover: 'Night of the Living Dregs,' by the Dixie Dregs

[Image: album cover for Night of the Living Dregs (1979), by the Dixie Dregs]

For some time, I haven’t talked much at all here — anywhere — about what sorts of things I might have been writing since I finished the putative final draft of Seems to Fit, now a couple of years ago. I haven’t talked about it because it’s hard to classify:

No books, certainly not completed ones [Update: see the note at the foot of this post] — although much of what I’ve been writing has (you might say) potential in a bookwards direction. Instead, I have been sort of puttering around with well over a dozen short projects. A handful of these are complete, more or less; most just stop — some in mid-page. I don’t even remember a few of them: the act of writing, or even where the story was headed. But every one of them contains something, some scrap of verbiage and/or some scene or scrap of dialogue, which I was happy to encounter today, as I set about revisiting (not revising) them.

Here are some samples.

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