Strange Instruments

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Strange Instruments

Holed up in this dim
ground floor unit, curtains open
to the cool green shade of the garden,
swivel chair like an old man groaning under you,
a bright white screen gaping at you,
the cursor blinking.

You sit hunched in the glow of it, feel the knot
in your back, your legs cramp.
You stretch them
under your desk. You have been here all day,
gone into it, lost in yourself, departed from humanity,
fighting against light and shadow.

Isn’t there something else
you could’ve gambled your life on?

You think about all the dead souls
you’ve drifted from, the lovers, the money,
the impossible distances,
the years piled on top of each other,
the hours spent bent-backed
in the maddening orchards
of literature,

your dreams bound up in the harvest,
your heart like a tiger
roaming the earth, oblivious
to the wind,
the rain, the seasons, the moon.

Only knowing the strange
instruments
in its head,
only listening to them.

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Inspiration

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Inspiration

I live in the back building in a ground floor flat that faces
a little German garden. The only people with access
to the garden are me, the Turkish family that lives next door,
and the widowed hausmeisterin
who lives next to them and keeps it green.

This morning, the garden is empty except for the little birds
fluttering around it. I stand on the stoop
in shorts and bare feet and no shirt
and watch them, listening to them chirp
as I smoke a thin
bent joint. Beyond the garden,
there is a sunlit
parking lot, a little tin-roofed garage,
and newly blossoming trees, hemmed in on all sides by
the surrounding buildings. I stand here
in my bare feet feeling
a dizzy rush in my blood and my blood trying to keep my brain
from becoming a fusty
beehive
of troubles.

Now is not the time, I tell myself. Now is the time
to go completely out of myself.
Now is the time
to become nothing
so that the nymphs and sprits of the trees
(who only see nothing,
who only work with you after you’ve reduced yourself
to nothing), will fill me with something

like cloudbursts and pale fire,
with fragrant burning twilight,
and violins,
with the lewd plump sea
and something especially
like the sweet ecstasy glowing in the hearts
of the little birds
as they flutter among the fenceposts.

Jakob Böhme

JAKOB BÖHME

Long, stringy black hair in a middle part.
Wizard’s beard. An old, lavender cape taking on light
and wind
as he floats along amid
golden
clouds and the clattering of dusky evening
cathedral bells.

To the local scourge he’s just a shoemaker.

They don’t care about his view from the sky,
the Gates of the Paradisiacal
Garden
of Roses,
or the sacred portals of his electromagnetic
mind
wherein resides the Cumaean Sibyl in her virgin apparel
smoking Benson
& Hedges
while surrounded by shoals
of cloud-eating purple
fish,
high voltage wires, stargazer lilies and wild orange trees.

They don’t want to know
about that.

What concerns them are the practical
things: bread, candle-stubs,
a clear and definitive
statement: he makes shoes.

Everything else about him is fuss.

The Small-Potatoes Confidence Artist

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The Small-Potatoes Confidence Artist

Greg used to come into my shop to sell tools
he’d just stolen from Home Depot.
“You in need of a monkey wrench?”
he’d ask, and dredge one from the sweatpants
he was wearing under his trousers,
the packaging still on it.
“No thanks.” I’d say.
“Is there anything you do need?”
“I don’t know,” I’d say.
“Does your supplier
carry diamond
blades for angle grinders?”
He’d scratch his head and brainstorm for a moment.
Confucius
couldn’t have looked deeper in thought.
“I’m pretty sure they do,” he’d say.
“I’ll have to check.
I’ll get back to you.”

He’d then exit the store and
I wouldn’t see him again
until he’d come back with something else,
something other
than what I needed,
and the cycle would repeat itself.

Then one day
Greg disappeared.
I don’t know what happened to him.
I figured he was either dead, in rehab or in jail,
and eventually
I forgot about him,
for the most part anyway.
I would sometimes
laugh thinking about how
he’d come into the shop,
his trousers stuffed
with tools
and me pretending everything was on the up and up.

It was like seeing a resurrected
god.

About a month ago,
when I was sitting in the shop, I glanced at the
surveillance
camera aimed toward NE 3rd St.
and saw in grainy black and white
a man
that looked exactly like Greg
pushing rapidly an empty
wheelchair
along the west side of the building.

At first, I thought it was just someone who bore
his resemblance.
But two nights later, as I was driving through
the parking lot of a shopping mall a few miles
from my shop,
I saw the same man sitting in the wheelchair
he had so rapidly been pushing,
a tin cup in his hand,
a down-in-the-mouth expression.

An old lady approached him. “Good evening,
ma’am,” he said. She dug in her purse,
something flashed
in the sunlight. “Thank you, thank you,” he said,
and complimented her
on her dress.
He peered into his cup.
“Yes,
yes, yes,” he went on.
“A lovely
dress
indeed.”

The Proverbial Bad Penny

An eternally down-on-your-luck Polish-Italian New Jersey native, Bob Milktrout worked for me in the 90s as a part-time mechanic but never really had his heart into the job. He mostly just stood around smoking Marlboro lights and drinking Pepsi, lapsing into emotionally-charged stories about his high school football days, or other stories where he always seemed to come out the victim. He used to tell me he didn’t want to turn wrenches for a living. He was trying to establish himself as a remodeler of homes, but to do so he often had to borrow my tools. I let him use them for free because he worked for me, but then he quit, more or less, and still expected to get them for free, even though his having them would often cost me money because of the miles he’d put on them, or the fact that I wouldn’t be able to rent them to someone else because he was using them. Finally, after listening to several of his hard luck stories, lies and tales of persecution, we agreed that I’d rent my stuff to him for half price, but that never worked out. He racked up a tremendous bill, and it just kept growing, so I cut him off. Things got ugly after that, especially when it became apparent that he had no intention to pay me anything. I started having my alcoholic mechanic – his replacement – badger him drunkenly on the phone about the money, which infuriated him. After one call, my mechanic told me that Milktrout was so hot you could fry an egg on his skull.

He vanished for a long time after that, leaving the money unpaid and no trace of his whereabouts.

Then one day, a while back, he turned up again, like the proverbial bad penny.

It had probably been ten years since I’d last seen him and those years had not been kind to him. He used to be quite handsome. Now, his hair, though still without any gray in it, had become thin and sprouted from his head in long, disparate spikes, his eyes and cheeks had sunken into an emaciated skull and his complexion had gone bad – he looked like the after picture of Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian politician who was poisoned by government agents at a dinner in 2004.

The reason he had turned up wasn’t to pay his old bill, but to pick up a bucket of driveway sealer his friend had ordered. After that, he started coming in regularly to pick up his friend’s sealer and would occasionally buy something for himself. The old bill and the old calls from my now-deceased drunken mechanic were never mentioned. Instead, he would stand around telling victim stories of an entirely new genre. In these, he wasn’t a victim of other people’s doing, but of nature herself. He had had two cancer scares in the last three years, he said. Also, he suffered from acid reflux, heartburn, migraines, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, low testosterone and erectile disfunction. And yet according to recent tests, his doctor told him he was the healthiest fifty-three-year-old he’d ever seen. This led me to believe there was some lying or severe hypochondria going on. It also led me to believe that the persecutors of his past were as imaginary as his physiological ones were now.

Milktrout came in the shop the other day to rent 100 feet of pressure washer hose.

I told him we didn’t normally rent hose, the reason being that it was a small, relatively inexpensive item that people would either not return, or not return for ages and expect to pay nothing for because they’d forgotten about it in their garage or some such. It was just easier not renting them, we preferred to sell them, but Milktrout somehow persuaded me to do him the favor, promising he’d bring it back on time. He didn’t of course. It was two weeks before we saw him again. He came in with the hose rolled up neatly and slung over his shoulder, but no money of course. His excuse? There were several, all of the same genre. He had been gravely ill; his girlfriend couldn’t return it for him because she had leukemia; his dad was in a Colorado hospital for something or other; and Jim, the fellow he would pick up driveway sealer for, couldn’t return it for him because he had just had an operation to remove a large hunk of flesh from the top of his skull. Skin cancer.

“You know Jim and his pale Irish skin,” said Milktrout, and made a circle with his hands to show the size of what had been taken. “They had to drill into his skull with a bit yeabig,” he said, spreading his hands about a foot apart. I envisioned a large, 4” diameter core drilling bit going into the top of the Irishman’s head. It seemed a bit much, but according to Milktrout’s way of thinking, the more extreme the story, the more valid his excuse for returning the hose late and not paying for it.

He promised to give us something when he got paid from his customer, but we knew what his promises added up to. In 20 years, nothing had changed.

You can drive out nature with a pitchfork, she’ll come back.” ~ Horace

He set the hoses neatly on the floor and tiptoed out of the shop, knowing that we were the victims of this deal, but telling himself that he was more of one – his victimhood was on a grand and universal scale, deeper and wider and more complex than ours could ever be – and for that we owed him. It was our birthright.

George Washington Silt, 911 Hijackers & The Man Without a Face

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When I was in my late teens and 20s, I worked for my dad selling and delivering patio furniture at his store. I did it during all my breaks in college, and for a year and a few months after I graduated. Then I got all the money I earned together and used a Home Depot card, a Sears card, and several credit cards to open the tool rental shop in Boynton Beach, Florida. The total cost was about $20,000, and the business just barely got by for the first ten years, so to make extra money I worked for my dad at his patio furniture store on Sundays. This meant I had no days off all year except holidays because my tool rental shop was open from 7-5:30 weekdays and 8-2 Saturdays, and I couldn’t afford to pay for any help, not regular help anyway. I couldn’t even afford a mechanic in those days. I used to send my equipment out to be repaired by a half-Japanese, half-American fellow named George Washington Silt, who worked out of his garage in Boca Raton. George reminded me a little of Bill Murray’s character in Caddyshack, except for the half-Japanese part. He stood about five-feet-eight, had thick mop of straight black hair, always seemed to have a shit-eating grin on his face, and wore his clothes slovenly, often with his shirt unbuttoned and his pale toad’s belly punching out. George was the first in a line of several insane mechanics I’d worked with. I’m not exaggerating when I say insane. I remember one night I called him to find out the status of a couple concrete cut-off saws he was supposed to be repairing for me. He spoke to me in tongue. I didn’t know what he was saying. Something about burning circles and the river’s voice and combustible leather sofas and an apple fairy. He hadn’t taken his medication and had been smoking crack all night with Lil’ Bit, a petite twenty-three year-old Jamaican who worked as stripper at the now defunct Porthole, a strip club in a strip mall in Pompano Beach. They ended up getting in a huge fight, and Lil’ Bit called the cops. When they showed up, he was chasing her around the house, but she managed to escape through an unlocked door with another roommate, and George barricaded himself inside. The standoff lasted almost fourteen hours, ending when he burst through a door like a Himalayan brown bear and began throwing Chinese stars at members of the Special Response Team. A beanbag bullet was then fired into his chest and a concussion grenade was thrown into the house. The officers, “armed high-powered weapons and wearing riot gear,”, according to an article in the Sun Sentinel, then stormed the house and arrested Mr. Silt, taking him to an area hospital and then the Palm Beach County Jail. I don’t know how much time he had to spend in jail, but he did at least nine months that year in a madhouse, and I never got my two concrete cut-off saws back. One was a customer’s and he still brings it up whenever he comes into the shop, even though I compensated him for it. He likes to pretend the saw had sentimental value, which makes him feel I’m indebted to him forever.

When I began this blog, I hadn’t planned on talking about George Washington Silt or the tool rental business. Something happened yesterday that got me thinking about my days selling and delivering patio furniture. The dead body of a man was found. It was found behind the patio store I used to work at, along the canal. An old man who lived at the apartment complex nearby came upon it, and I’m trying to imagine the shock he must’ve felt. Earlier in the week he said he saw that same dead man, presumably alive, sleeping somewhere. But it was a very cold night, so the old man went into his apartment and got a blanket and draped it over the sleeping man. Two or three days later, seeing him again, the old man approached the reposing body and beheld the gruesome spectacle. The man’s face was now gone. It had been picked away by turkey vultures or some other wild creature. My mother told me this story last night. She got it second-hand from a friend of hers at the patio store.

“To think that that man was once a little baby,” she said. “Lying in the arms of his mother who could’ve been kissing him and giving him all the love in the world… if she only knew he’d end up like that!”

Which brings me back to George Washington Silt. His mother owned, and maybe still owns The Manatee Inn, a hotel in Boynton Beach that a few of the 911 hijackers stayed at the summer before the attacks. I got this from a recent article in the Palm Beach Post.

Waleed Shehri checked into The Manatee Inn in June and paid his $260 a week rent and deposits with a Visa card, records show. Shehri had at least two associates who slept in Room B-308. The men gave the impression they spoke little or no English, housekeeper Valrie Williams of Lake Worth said in September 2001. She said one always would stay at the room, sitting in a chair partly in the walkway and partly in the threshold of the open front door.

“I would talk to them,” Williams said. “They made like they didn’t want to talk.”

My tool rental business was only a few miles from The Manatee Inn. My mechanic at the time, a drunkard named Kevin Wagner, lived just south of the Homing Inn, in a little efficiency behind Denny’s, where two other hijackers, Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, were late-night regulars that summer.

Waitresses recalled serving two Middle Eastern men who complained about their bills and left meager tips. One was Atta.

Anyway, I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. I guess because it gives me a strange kind of pride thinking about how the people responsible for the biggest, most world-shaking event of the 21st century – awful though it was – could’ve been anywhere on the planet, but were in my little no-event town, going to my haunts, dealing with people loosely associated with me and my tool rental shop, just weeks before it happened. What if I’d seen one or two of them out at a bar one night? What if I held the door for one of them at a 7-11? What if my mechanic, Kevin Wagner, had eaten at the next table over from them one late night at Denny’s? Maybe he did. Maybe he even heard their plans to crash into the World Trade Center but it was in an undertone and he was so drunk he forgot the next morning.

I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I’m sure it was the alcohol that did it. His organs probably just shut down. Kevin Wagner, who I write extensively about in the novel I have finished but have yet to do anything with, Ramblin’ Fever, died in 2010, at age 46. George Washington Silt died a few years before that. He was about 50. He was 41 when he got out of the madhouse, and you know what he did after that? He got a huge loan from his mother and opened a tool rental shop in Broward. It was successful from the outset, partly because he could buy whatever he wanted with his mother’s Manatee Inn money, and partly because he had a great location. Also, he was good to his customers so they kept coming back. But then, after about five or six years, I started hearing stories from wholesalers and mutual customers about how gaunt and pale and terrible George looked, and I thought it was because he was off his medication and on crack again. I’d call down there. He usually wasn’t around. He’d put some young Latino girl in charge of the place, and she was always vague about his whereabouts. Then one day in about 2008 I heard he was dead of AIDS. At first I didn’t believe it, but it turned out to be true. Did he get it from Lil’ Bit? Did he get it from someone before her? In the article I found on him in the Sun Sentinel, it says he was arrested 17 times between 1989 and 1997. Those arrests included solicitation for prostitution, drug charges and transporting of explosives. Could it possibly be true? Not the arrests, this: George Washington Silt, like the man without a face – a baby once – an infant, his mother holding him in her loving arms, kissing and coddling him, full of dreams for his future, completely oblivious to the tragedy she was nursing. I guess it always works out like that. One way or another we’re all tragedies.

Old Cantankerous

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It was a little before 7 when I got to the beach this morning, and the sky was just beginning to light up. On the horizon, there were clumps of purple clouds piled up, and behind them, the burnt glow of the rising sun.

I wasn’t the only one out there.

I could see the silhouettes of about fifteen or twenty people along the shoreline, most with cameras, some with cameras on tripods. I threw my chair in the sand next to the pier and sat down. I was in a black mood. I didn’t know why, but I suspected the people had something to do with it. I had expected to come there and be alone, at one with my thoughts, the ocean, the sun. Instead, my view was fouled by a mob of people who had come – not necessarily to see or experience the sunrise – but to provide evidence of it on some social media site later that day, accompanied (most likely) by some recycled life-coaching advice about how you should embrace beauty, or be a mindful, good person. It’s funny how the wisest sages I’ve ever encountered have been twentysomething bimbos on Instagram.

I sat there stewing.

I’m deleting all my social media accounts, I thought. I cursed myself for having wasted so much time on them over the years.

For nothing.

I’m deleting everything, I told myself. I can’t contribute to that plastic world anymore. It gets more plastic every time I look at it.

I dug my feet in the cool sand, listening to the wood pigeon cooing from the pier and watching the sky slowly change color. It was now a lighter, transparent blue, beams of sunlight bursting through the clouds, throwing crimson light on the waves, glittering in the foamy tidepools. A seagull sailed over the surf, its reflection mirrored in the sands. I could smell the salt and the strong odor of fish in the air and felt a cool breeze lifting the hairs on my arms. But my mood was still black. I couldn’t contemplate with so many people around. There’s nothing worse than being in public – whether it be the beach, the supermarket, the driver’s license bureau, the public transport system – and having to share a small space with a lot of people you want nothing to do with. I often liked individuals. It was large, protean, faceless masses of humanity I couldn’t stand. Listening to their babble, their dumb opinions, looking at the senseless backs of their necks, their hairlines, waistlines, thier unoriginal existences. Like I say, I was in a foul, cantankerous mood.

He came from the north.

A man of about fifty. He came loping along with his tripod, planted it in the sand about 10 feet in front of me, and stood there blocking my view of the sunrise. I waited for a moment for him turn around and notice me, but he never did. He was completely oblivious to everything behind him. Could he really be that self-absorbed? I thought about saying something. Then I had this fantasy about marching over there, wrestling his tripod from him and hurling it in the ocean. I got out of my chair, walked around him without saying anything. I stood on the shoreline directly where his camera was pointed. I squatted down and began talking my own photos.

When I turned around he was gone; my mood elevated after that.

I took my chair to the other side of the pier where it was less crowded; took a sea bath, floated on my back looking up at the sky, went underwater and stayed under for as long as I could hold my breath.

I liked it best underwater.

There were no people under there.

Ship of Fools

The strangest crew of misfits I ever had working for me at one time consisted of a six-foot-nine sixty-year-old redheaded Vietnam vet named Robert who rode a three-wheel bike with an American Flag sticking up out the back of it, smoked pungent, off-brand cigarettes and drank 10-15 tall cans of Natural Ice a day; Mason, a twenty-year-old blond boy who was handsome enough to be on the cover of any men’s fashion magazine, but was dim as night and lived in his car; and a husband and wife couple who tattooed each other’s names in cursive on their wrists. The husband was my chief mechanic. He also drank much beer during the day. Budweiser. He drank it warm, out of the can. He drank it while he worked on my equipment. I let him, I didn’t care. I was on the verge of going out of business anyway. I was so close that I struck a deal with my dad, who owned a patio furniture store nearby, to take care of the furniture his customers brought to him for restrapping. He paid me piece rate for the work – $10 per chaise lounge, $5 per chair – and this was how I paid the hourly salaries of Mason, Robert and the mechanic’s wife. They did the restrapping. They did it in the alley behind the shop. This was in 2001 when the shop still was in its original location, in a strip mall called The Villager. Other businesses in the strip mall included a barber shop, a headshop, an insurance agency, a vet, a shoe shop, a sandwich shop, a beauty parlor and two dive bars. Robert and my chief mechanic had met at one of the two dive bars, The Villager Pub, which was two doors down from the shop. There was an old drunk named Fred who lived in the bar. He slept on a sofa in the back of the place. The owners let him. They liked him. I liked him too. Fred was an electrician in a past life, married with one or two daughters, successful, well-respected by his peers – I always got the sense that he was highly intelligent – but there was some tragic break. No one knew exactly what happened. All we knew was that he’d been broken, and had since lost half his teeth, grown a long, Dostoyevskian beard to obscure the fact, and slept on the sofa of that old, smoky bar every night.

Well, one day, as my misfit crew was restrapping patio furniture in the alley behind my shop, Fred came out the back door of the bar and noticed them working. He lit a cigarette in his trembling hand and watched. There was Robert, six-foot-nine, standing in the July sun with his shirt off, a pungent cigarette dangling from his bottom lip as he talked about the stages he built at Woodstock and the little Southern Illinois town he grew up in; there was Mason, the young unusually dumb unusually handsome blond pulling strap over a chaise; there was the mechanic’s overfed wife destrapping a chair; there was the mechanic, drunk and babbling as he yanked the recoil of a chainsaw.

Fred saw all this as he was smoking his first cigarette of the morning and looked at me, the deranged P.T. Barnum who had hired them all. He smirked, shook his head, and kept smirking. Then he stubbed out his cigarette and went back inside.

He could now officially say he’d seen everything.