The Rise and Fall of Captain Kirk

Captain Kirk had been sleeping with the drunks in the sawgrass behind Nat’s Den, a biker bar on the railroad tracks in Boynton Beach. Then I hired him and gave him a home in the back of a cube van that was parked on my property. This seemed to be a significant upgrade for him, especially after he outfitted it with a sofa and a dresser and a little TV. He’d gotten the items during his late-night wanderings through the neighborhood, crawling over people’s garbage heaps while high on crack.

I don’t know when he slept. He’d always be waiting for me when I got in in the morning, cheerful and anxious to blubber about nothing. I didn’t like talking first thing in the morning. I’d set him to work on the lawnmowers, the weedeaters, the stumpgrinders. He wasn’t a very good mechanic but I was barely making it, and he was affordable, and always friendly to the customers, so I kept him on, helping him save enough money to buy a Winnebago which I secured for him through a friend. The Winnebago, though somewhat old, was in near perfect condition when he got it, but he smoked his cheap 305 cigarettes in it, burning little holes in the carpet and upholstery and curtains and eventually filling it up with piles of detritus he’d scrounged on his 2 a.m. wanderings. Pretty soon, it was stuffed beyond capacity – you couldn’t even walk in it – and the overflow spilled out into the yard. That’s when I discovered that much of what he’d been hoarding had not come from trash cans around the neighborhood, but from my own trash cans.

“Captain,” I’d say. “I threw this away for a reason. It’s trashed.”

“I don’t know,” he’d say. “I think I can fix it.”

Of course he couldn’t. He didn’t even try. But he kept collecting my garbage, and soon his spillage was all over the lawn. He had everything out there: track lighting, torn-up leaf blower engines, mannequins, Halloween masks, dry-rotted hydraulic hoses. In a word, anything that struck him as remotely salvageable or sellable or shiny, which was pretty much everything under the sun. In the end, I took to smashing everything into little pieces before I threw it in the garbage, knowing that if I didn’t, it’d turn up in the lawn the next day, and I’d probably trip over it.

Then came the blowout: the morning I began violently deposing his mess and he freaked out, chasing me around the building and out into traffic with a 7-foot bull float pole. It was the closest I’d ever come to being murdered but we somehow made amends and it was only after that that he started tidying up his little space, selling or discarding as much as he could bear to part with.

It must’ve crushed him though. He lost his ambition to work for me shortly after that. All he wanted to do was lounge in his Winnebago smoking crack and watching movies.

I shitcanned him. He knew it was coming. He probably wanted it. He sold his Winnebago and downgraded soon after to a teal riceburner which he had no license to drive. He mainly used it as a storage facility. Then one of my customers offered him a job painting a newly constructed house in Fort Pierce. He was also allowed to sleep in the house overnight, but the house had no electricity, so Captain Kirk brought a generator to the job. The generator, incidentally, was thrown out by me six months earlier because it wasn’t worth fixing, but Captain Kirk resurrected it somehow. It was the only thing I ever threw out that he resurrected, and he set it up in the garage and closed the garage door and ran a cord from the generator to the bathroom down the hall and plugged the cord into his little TV and sprawled out on the newly tiled floor watching late-night reruns and drinking Colt Ice and smoking crack until the fumes crept into the room and carried him away.

Patio Furniture Salesman Blues

I tried to like them, I really did. I wanted to respect them for being my elders. I even tried to feel something like compassion for them, but those feelings would begin to fall off the moment I’d catch sight of them in the parking lot.

Having descended on the place from the most exclusive golf and tennis court communities in South Florida, they’d climb out of their luxury sedans in their white linen summer outfits and their fake tans and their designer tracksuits, scowling like dung beetles.

My job was to sell them patio furniture. But because I only worked there on Sundays and Saturday was a big drinking night for me, I was rarely in top form. Still, I tried my best to be cheerful. “Hello folks, is there anything you’re looking for in particular?” I’d ask. Sometimes they’d just ignore me. Other times, they’d grimace, as if it was the dumbest question in the world. “Yea,” they’d say. “Patio furniture.”

The difficult thing about selling patio furniture was that a transaction would often take two or three hours. This meant that for two or three hours you had to ingratiate them, and be their servant, ignoring all the rude and belittling remarks they’d level at you because you were their inferior. You were inferior because they had more money than you, and you wanted some of it. You were also inferior because you represented the lie they’d been buying their entire lives: that an object bought could finally make them happy. They of course knew this could never happen but they couldn’t break the habit. To do so would be to admit that everything they’d based their identities on, everything that made them superior to other people – was false, and therefore they were false. They knew this, but didn’t want to know it, and so they had to blame someone, so why not the patio furniture guy?  “Excuse me, Sir! It’s too hot in here. Will this sling match my shabby chic décor? And how does this chaise lounge recline? It’s chintzy. C’mon, Sir. You’re not helping us here. Do you want the sale, or what?”

It eventually got to where I didn’t care if I got it. I also didn’t care much about being cheerful anymore. It wasn’t worth it. I was hungover anyway. I just wanted them to leave the store. I especially wanted them to leave if they’d arrived just after I’d picked up Taco Bell, which was often the case. It’d be sitting in a bag in the back room, four beef hard-shell tacos, the shells growing soft, the salad growing warm and soggy. It’d be sitting there festering as the customers – my superiors – took their sweet old time test-riding every swivel rocker, sifting endlessly through the color swatches and berating me for not measuring up to the ideal salesman-messiah.

Then, invariably, they would leave without buying anything and I’d return to the back room and my tacos, now cold and mushy and falling apart. Nevertheless, I’d wolf them down before the next customer would arrive to demonstrate to my impressionable twentysomething self how miserable you can be after discovering you spent your whole life chasing an artificial dream.

Die Zigeunerin (Gypsies)

“S’cuse me, speaka English?” she asks.
I keep walking.
She’s part of the posse
comitatas. Gypsies
they used to call them. Raven-haired,
high-cheekboned, purple scarf
draped over the back half
of her head, hoodie
wrapped around the waist
with the sleeves
tied in a knot, long floral
print dress, sandals. Often holding
a baby (someone else’s perhaps
or a fake one).

When I pass under a tree,
another one
approaches. “Du speaka
English?” she asks. I look away, notice
her crew in the Lustgarten.

They remind me of gecko lizards
how they scurry among the tourists,
eyes predatory, a crumpled note in hand,
hen-scratch on it approximating
English.

I cross the bridge, drop a coin
in an amputee’s cup,
scan the matryoshka dolls
on the salesman’s rack,
observe the tourist boat in the water
and then a third one comes up.
“S’cuse me, speaka
English?” she asks.

“No I don’t,” I say, “do you?”

I keep walking.

A Kind of Exorcism

A Kind of Exorcism                   
 
Lying in the hotel room,
the window ajar,
the humidity like a Finnish sauna, Erica 
asleep next to me.
I listen to her soft breathing.
I listen to the occasional whoosh of a car
driving past the hotel and roll over on my side,
quietly despairing. 
 
For month it seems, I’ve been hardly awake
and hardly asleep.
I’ve been in this odd ambiguous middling 
state, battling every night
the hellacious green dragon
of insomnia.
 
I throw the sheets off me and stare up at the ceiling for a while.
 
Then I hear it: a motor scooter
in the distance,
its grating buzz swallowed 
up by the mountains or a bend in the road.
 
For a moment, I think it’s gone
in some other direction, but the sound returns,
redoubled in fury
as the scooter approaches the hotel.
 
I lay there imagining the rider of it,
dark soul
of the Austrian night, the wind squirreling
through his clothes, his eyes underneath his visor
fixed on the dim, unraveling 
3 a.m. road.
 
Does he know that in the fifth-floor room
on the back side of a hotel
he will soon pass
– a still distant hotel – there is a man in a bed
who has been listening
to his approach for miles?
 
The sound of his machine grows
in the room,
creeping up the walls and swelling 
the curtains, 
becoming a roar,
the last mad gasp of that wild green dragon.
 
I listen
to it crescendo and peter off,
and then it’s gone,
as if the rider, like some holy deliverance
angel – one of St. Michael’s own -
had slain with his sword
that beast
and rode it off into the mountains,
burying it in some mystic grove.
 
I fell asleep
shortly after that
and haven’t had insomnia since.
 

Austria in a Time of Corona (Day 1)

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It was the first time I’d ever been to Salzburg in the summer, and what struck me first was how blue the skies were and how everything – the trees, the buildings, the mountains, the street signs – absorbed and reflected the powerful light of the noonday sun. Salzburg was gorgeous this time of year, but so hot and humid that wearing our Corona masks on the bus from the airport to downtown was almost stifling. We did away with them as soon as we got off the bus and started walking through the streets looking for something to eat. On the way, we stopped at an H & M, where I picked up a beautiful pair of drawstring shorts for only €2.99, a birthday present to myself. I haven’t worn drawstring anything since I was a toddler.

Despite the pandemic, old town Salzburg was busy with tourists, most of them German or Italian-speaking. No Americans. I was the only American in the city it seemed. Still, the restaurants were jammed, and we were having a hard time finding a place to sit down for lunch. We did however find Georg Trakl’s Geburtshaus, which had somehow eluded me on my past two trips to Salzburg. Georg Trakl, if you don’t know him, is the Austrian poet who died of a cocaine overdose at age 27 after seeing too much as a medic in WWI. Here is a poem of his, from the 1961 Wright/Bly translation. More can be found here.

On The Eastern Front

The ominous anger of masses of men
Is like the wild organ of the winter storm,
The purple surge of battle,
Leafless stars.

With broken eyebrows and silver arms
The night waves to dying soldiers.
In the shade of the ash tree of autumn
The souls of the slain are sighing.

A thorny desert surrounds the city.
The moon chases the shocked women
From the bleeding stairways.
Wild wolves have broken through the door.

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, Trakl’s birth house was closed and so we were left to staring at the plaques in the hallway outside of it and listening to readings being played over the speaker. The readings were in English and weren’t only of Trakl’s stuff; lyrics by Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse were also being read, each by a different speaker.

We finally got lunch and a beer at an Austrian restaurant just up the street from there, and then we were on an empty train to Bad Goisern, waves of liquid light pouring through the carriage, the mountains rising and falling, lakes like a Bruegel painting, a flat green mirror down below with the pale disappearing legs of Icarus barely visible in the glimmering distance.

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position…

W.H. Auden

After checking into our hotel in Bad Goisern, we unpacked and lay in bed for a while. I was exhausted. I had only slept about 4 hours the night before. I never sleep well before a big trip, but lately I’ve been sleeping terribly or not sleeping at all pretty much every other night. Something must be happening to me. I must be molting. Is this what happens when someone else’s spirit crawls into you? I feel like I’m possessed sometimes. I lay there melting into the mattress, the curtains, the TV, the cheap paintings on the walls – Erica too – sinking into it with me.

When we came out on the other side, we were in a torn paper butterfly field and it was dusk and there was pinkish light on the mountains and a blue-green sky and a path that led us through a neighborhood of beautiful little wooden houses with bouquets of flowers spilling over the balconies and more fields and a babbling mountain stream and into the town to the pizza place we had our hearts on. We had our hearts on it because it was the only place in the town that was open that night. We found the hostess and were seated at a table on the patio. Then we ordered beers and pizza. The beer arrived first. The brand was Zipfer, which Erica knew from her Uni days in Innsbruck.

“Prepare to be underwhelmed,” she told me.

I took a sip. She was right. It was the most mediocre beer I’d ever had in Europe. It was the Kevin Costner of beers.

A few minutes later, the pizza arrived, and I was equally underwhelmed by that. It was only slightly better than frozen supermarket pizza. It was as mediocre as the beer, and if it was a writer rather than a pizza, it would’ve been Dan Brown wearing boots with hooks on them and hanging upside-down like a bat in his living room – I heard he does this for inspiration.

“I thought the pizza would be better in Austria,” I told Erica. “It’s close to Italy – you’d think Italy would rub off.”

“South Tyrol’s in the way,” she said.

A few minutes later, the owner of the restaurant came out onto the patio and sat with the group, of Austrians at the table next to us. The owner was Italian. I hadn’t expected that. He lit up a cigarette and with his heavy Italian accent began making puns and telling jokes, everyone around him laughing. Meanwhile, Erica and I sat there drinking our Kevin-Costners-for-beers and eating our Dan Brown pizzas. The pizza, like I said, was slightly better than frozen supermarket pizza, but there were no other Italian restaurants in that small town, so it was the best game going in the area and the owner knew it.

To be just good enough to be the local best was apparently enough for him.

It gave him the right to play the comedian.

When in Austria (Day 2)

The next day was my birthday. I was 49 years old and though I didn’t feel it in a lot of ways, the mirror was always there to remind me of my rapidly graying hair, the sausaging of the jowls, my thickening wrinkles and the flabbening of the muscle. 49 years old, holy shit! How’d that happen? Well, I guess I shouldn’t bother asking. When I am 59, I’ll think of my 49-year-old self as quite privileged.

After our delicious continental breakfast at the hotel, we walked through the village and around the lake to Hallstatt. On the way, we saw countless ebikes and passed several fellow hikers, all of them greeting us with the term Gruß Gott, or Griaß di. It had been the same the night before on the way to the Italian restaurant, everyone we passed acknowledging us with those words. In that way, Austrians are very different from Germans – at least the Germans I’ve encountered. Germans don’t greet you. You’re dead to them until you’ve cracked the outer mollusk-like shell, then they begin to soften.

In other ways, Germans and Austrians are very similar, though Austrians are a kind of extreme variety of German. Austrians are Germans on steroids. I say this with regards to rules, regulations, order. In my four days in Austria, I never experienced a delayed train, I never saw any trash in the streets, the garbage cans were all perfectly aligned and equidistant, as though a laser lever and slide rule had been used in their placement. Strangely, there’s one place that all this order seems to fall away: in a queue. I found this out when Erica and I made it around the lake and arrived at the ferry that was to take us across the lake to the town of Hallstatt. As we were standing there innocently waiting to board, something happened – an almost invisible rush of bodies came geysering forth – and we were suddenly at the ass-end of the line. It wasn’t the only time it happened on the trip. It happened almost every time there was a queue. Austrians had an almost supernatural ability to get themselves in front of you in such a way that you didn’t know it was happening until it was too late.

Because Hallstatt is considered one of the most Instagramable places on earth, it usually suffers from overtourism. Thankfully, due to the pandemic, the crowds weren’t too bad when we were there. We were only there for about five hours, but it was enough to see all the popular tourist attractions, and then we took the boat back across the lake, and then we took the train back to our village, and then we went out to dinner and everyone at the restaurant saying Gruß Gott, or Griaß di to each other. I even started saying it. In fact, once I got into the swing of it (after a few beers and a couple of blutorange schnapps) I became one of the most shamelessly gregarious foreigners that place had ever seen. I was greeting everyone – the cooks, the busboys, the waitresses, every patron that came into the place. “Gruß Gott!” I would shout, standing up with my drink and sending up a toast.

Luckily for them there were no queues for me to get into.

Insomnia Interlude (Austria Day 2.5)

For all walking in the hot sun that Erica and I had done on my birthday, you’d think I would’ve been able to sleep that night. Well, I couldn’t. Not even the beer and schnapps that I drank over dinner were enough to knock me out. Part of the problem was that the room in the hotel we were staying at was unairconditioned. The air in there was hot and stale and motionless, even with the window cracked open. I lay there on my back with the pillow over my eyes, wide awake. Occasionally, I could hear a car pass by on the road that leads past the hotel. Our room was in the back of the hotel, so the sound was very faint, a soft whoosh followed by silence.

It happened at about 3 a.m. I was at the point in my insomnia where I was almost despairing about not sleeping all night, and how the next day of this rare and wonderful vacation would most certainly be ruined. A motor scooter. I heard the sudden wasp-like buzz of it in the distance and then it was quiet, its sound swallowed up by the surrounding mountains. Then, about thirty seconds later, after it turned a corner or came over a pass or something, I heard it again, though this time the buzz was much louder, and grew louder and more annoying still as the scooter approached the hotel.

I lay there imagining the rider of it, the dark soul of the night, the wind rippling his clothes, his eyes underneath the helmet gazing intently at the dim, 3 a.m. road ahead of him. He too was wide awake, though totally unaware that in a fifth floor room in the back of a hotel he would soon pass – a still distant hotel – there was a man in a bed who’d been listening to his approach for miles, half-dreading it.

When the rider reached the hotel, the sound of his scooter seemed to fill our entire room. Then he went by, and the buzzing leaked out of the room like air from an innertube. Finally, it was quiet again, but it wouldn’t be for another two hours – a little after daylight lit the curtains – that the sleeping fairies doused me with their golden dust.

Three hours after that, I would be awake again. We couldn’t be late for our continental breakfast. We needed fuel for the mountain we were going up that day.

Tote Fliege mit Berglandschaft (Austria Day 3)

There are two types of people. Those who are prepared for any eventuality, and those who are never prepared. I fall into the latter category, especially where physical comfort is concerned. Not considering what the temperatures or conditions might be like on the mountains of Austria, I neglected to pack anything heavier than a short-sleeve T-shirt for the trip.

   It took two Seilbahn rides to get to the top of the mountain, and when we got there it was 14° C (57° F), a far cry from the 31° (88°) temperatures down below. It was also pouring out. This didn’t matter so much to Erica who had foresight enough to bring a raincoat along. Most people up there had them. Some even had umbrellas and ski poles and all kinds of other mountainous gear. I was one of about three or four (in a crowd of dozens) who was wearing only shorts and a t-shirt.

   We stood in the Seilbahn building with all the others waiting for the rain to let up. It took about an hour, then we headed out into the drizzle. Our plan was originally to hike the long, rocky, three-hour route to the next Seilbahn station, but since we’d lost an hour, we only had time to take the straight, one-hour trek to get there. But first, we headed along the path to the Five-finger viewing platform, a half-hour, mostly downhill walk. The walk would’ve been easy if I only had to deal with cold air. The problem was the rain added to it was freezing, and the further we got in our journey, the more it started to come down. I was soaked to the skin, my shirt, my shorts, my socks, my shoes squishing as I walked.

   Well, at least I was awake now.

   There’s this Liverpudlian journalist I know who’s an insomniac and said the worst thing about it is that you’re never quite awake and you’re never quite asleep. This same Liverpudlian moved away from Berlin recently because it’s not hilly enough for him. He said he needs hills to ride his bike on, otherwise he can’t wear himself out enough to fall asleep. “What if you just go faster on the flat surfaces?” I asked him. I don’t remember his answer, but he now lives in Nuremberg.

   When we got to the Five-finger viewing platform, we took a brief look at the town and the lake way down below, and the silver clouds in the heavens, and the mountains in the distance, and the glaciers wrapping like a scarf around the crags. The view was stunning, but by now it was absolutely pouring out, and I was chilled to the bone.

   “How ‘bout we go back to that restaurant next to the Seilbahn station and get a beer?” I said to Erica.

   The way back was all uphill. It was much steeper than we realized when we came down, but we had inspiration about 100 yards ahead: a doughboy of about 14 walking with his equally doughy mother. His mother didn’t seem to have any problems with the incline, but he was having it rough, stopping to cry or snivel every few minutes, and we kept gaining, and finally surpassed him.

   It was toasty in the restaurant. Erica and I ordered a beer, and we began talking about body types, mostly female body types.

   “My body was trying to be an inverted triangle,” she said, “but my legs didn’t get the memo.”

   After the beers, I took a photo of a dead fly sitting on the ledge next to the window. Tote Fliege mit Berglandschaft (Dead Fly with Mountain Landscape).

   Then I went into the bathroom and took off my soaking wet shirt and looked at my body under the fluorescent lights. What happened in a past five or six years? I had the body of a virile twentysomething till I hit my mid-forties, and now this? I’d gone soft. I wrung (wrang? did wring) my shirt out in the sink, then ran it through the hand blower about 10 times. It was no good. The whole top of it was still damp, but at least it wasn’t raining anymore. We paid the bill, headed down the rocky path, and by the time we made it to the next Seilbahn station – our goal – the sun was starting to poke through the clouds, and I was pretty much dry.

   Ten minutes later, we were in the Seilbahn toddling down the mountain with a group of Poles, all of us with our Corona masks on. We stood there facing each other for a while. Then I glanced out the window at the part of the mountain Erica and I had just come down. It was a steep, rocky landscape, barren except for a few clumps of tree and the two tiny vague forms in the shadow of the cliff: the doughy mother and her tender little doughboy bringing up the rear.

The End (Austria Day 3, cont.)

We were a half-hour early for the train by the time we got down the mountain and made it to the station, so we decided to check out the graveyard up the street. To me, visiting a good and noble graveyard holds the same charm as going to the mall does for some people. It’s one of my favorite leisurely pastimes, and it’s especially charming when you’re in a town or country you’ve never been to before.

   To get to the graveyard from the train station, it was only about a 5-minute walk, left at the first street and up a hill. On the way there, we passed a big house that was having work done to it on the inside, and in the yard, there was a guy painting a long piece of baseboard or something.

   “Gruß Gott,” I said, when he looked up from his brushwork.

   “Griaß di,” he replied.

    The graveyard (Friedhof is the term in German), though very small, was beautiful in that it was built on a grassy slope at the base of the mountains near a train station in one of the most gorgeous areas of Austria. The strange thing about it was that every tombstone had a photograph of the interred set into it. I started walking down the lanes, looking for something to photograph. Then I took this picture,

and at that very moment – as if in response – the sky ripped open and buckets of rain began to pour. I ran out of the graveyard and Erica and I took cover under a leafy purple tree on the other side of the street.

   “Where’d that come from? “we wondered.

   I thought of the guy who just minutes ago was painting in his yard. He didn’t see it coming either.

   We waited for a few minutes, hoping for it to pass or at least let up a little.

   It didn’t.

   It kept driving down, chisels, hammers, dogs, cats, wildebeests falling from the sky, so finally we ran down the same hill we’d just come up and made it back to train station with plenty of time to spare.

   Later, on the walk to the hotel from where the train had dropped us off at, we got caught in another shower, the third that day. It wasn’t too bad for Erica who had her raincoat, but I looked like I’d just gotten a 5-gallon bucket of water dumped over my head. I had to wring out all my clothes when we got back to the hotel, but the hot shower felt orgasmic, as did getting into fresh, warm clothes for dinner, the last of the trip.

   “Gruß Gott!” I said when we entered the place.

   The place was empty except for the sixty something waiter who was standing behind the bar and drinking a glass of beer, his corona mask pulled down under his chin. He looked us with our masks. “Ab mit dem Ding,” he said, a wave of the hand and a tone of disgust in his voice. In English, the phrase would’ve been: Get those damn things off your face, you look ridiculous.

   We tore them off and he seated us for one of the best dinners we’d had on the trip.

   Austrian food, of course.

11 MAG: CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS

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