We’re happy you found this magazine. You’ve taken a chance, set aside a few minutes to flip through the pages, and with any luck, you’ll be pleased with what you find.

The theme of this Rough Beast is [ non-existence ], appropriate because this magazine was born out of [ non-existence ], and it daily threatens to return to the abyss of over-ambitious emails and unrealistic daydreams from which it came. That each piece in this collection engages with the theme of [ non-existence ] in one way or another happened accidentally, but it made us smile when we noticed it. [ Non-existence ] seems like a fitting descriptor for the content of the individual elements as well as a humbling reminder about the potential nature of the whole.

It’s probably fair to say that none of us feel we are where we should be, the editors here perhaps least of all. This project is a rough beast, but its members are all rough beasts too, and the pieces presented here evince each one’s slouching towards some new birth.

If you’ve gotten this far, we’re already grateful.

ave atque vale,

Joey Horan & William Stewart, 2013

*

I

I have told stories that grew from obsession and fascination, but now I try to tell a story from the deep peace.

II

There were once two sisters who daily visited the Living Tree at the center of their village and daily ate of its leaves. They did this because that is what they were told to do.

After many years of this, the older sister began undertaking this ritual with a devotion that disturbed her younger sister. The younger sister asked, “ Why do you hum and rub your lip with your finger as we walk to the Living Tree? Why do your eyes unlock when you eat of its leaves?” The elder did not give a satisfactory answer.

One day, after they both chewed and swallowed a leaf of the Living Tree, there was a ferocious crack. The Living Tree roared and its trunk ripped open. A purple-red heart beat in the center of the wood, contracting so hard that the earth shook.

The older sister hesitated for one moment, and then ran to the gaping rupture in the tree’s body. She pressed her body against the wood in ecstasy and then the tree closed.

The younger sister ran home weeping and screaming. “We ate from the living tree and then the tree ate my sister.” But no one was home, and the village was empty. She mourned her dead sister alone.

But within an hour the older sister returned. And she lived the rest of her life – married, had children, and grew old.

III

The niece sat on the wood floor and asked about the past, looking out the corner of her eye.

Her aunt sat above her, leaning back in a rocking chair, her legs spread open. She smelled of coffee and the bergamot leaves she’d rubbed into the woodworking.

She said:

I stepped forward and the wood molded to me. The wood grew up around my neck and behind my knees. Then the wood became thick dark air.

Gravity was under my feet, and then gravity was under my back. I was lying down and heavy and blind. But before my heavy head I saw a rock of glowing blue. I stretched my weak neck

and sucked.

As I sucked the rock
it became flesh. And I sucked and drank
the burning sweetness
from the flesh that had been rock.
I opened my throat to praise
and sing and say
How Good This Is
but then I stopped.

I listened

And I heard my open, burning soul in the
center of the earth. It was a beast with an
eagle’s head and a lion’s body sitting before
the Throne of the Center, singing
“AAAAAAA”
with its eyes wide open in ecstasy.

I lay down, and breathed, and the cells at the
pit of myself sang “AAAAAAA”
and then my throat sang too.

IV

The young girl listened in agitated fascination, eating this grotesque and earthy dream.

But her aunt was calm. She breathed and rocked in her chair.

How could her aunt confess without looking out the corner of her eye? How could she confess without quaking at the true self? – a flat board with a tiny crumpled mouth and hateful gaze.

Her aunt smelled of fragrant herbs from scrubbing the woodworking, and of the morning’s coffee. She sat peacefully rocking with her knees spread apart.

The young girl dashed her mind against this calm again and again, a bird colliding with a glass pane. She couldn’t understand.

She gathered the calm against her stomach and immolated herself upon it.

V

She left
on foot
for Carthage
burning
To Carthage then she ran, burning
red and purple, Carthage burning

And the flowers she passed she snatched
and pressed them into her body to stain
rubbing, bleeding, all to dye
in red and purple

She found a rock and licked it
head bobbing up and down.
If she licked the stone away –
she licked and licked
ferociously
she licked a thousand strokes
for a promise of sweetness –
the sweetness came!
But the girl was a fool
in red and purple.

The wagon-drivers found her
in red and purple.

They took pity on her and said
“Sleep in the hay in the back and I will take you further on the journey.”

Towards Carthage, Odessa
Brussels Carcas Tripoli
she wandered
and didn’t know the color of the hearth-smoke
of home.

VI

I found this lost girl on a bleeding rock, so I carried her into my wagon, which is full of hay and warm. After many hours she woke up, and I asked her about the bleeding rock and about herself.

We did not travel together for long; but since that time, my monkey mind pressed her face on my eye. While I rode through the night a phantasm played in my mind: I brought her home. Over and over I brought her home. But this will be the last time I let her face stand before my mind.

Perhaps you will understand why.

We are both enpalmed together within the warm-black silence, so I need not hold her face before my mind.+

*

2013

*

The trees grew in the darkness. They grew when no one was looking; they grew in the night. And you’d think that the black would suffocate them — you’d think that the heat and the weight of the sky would stifle and choke and push back to the ground what was trying to rise. Because that is how it was, always: August every night, that pressing, humid feeling. The sky (in winter, distant and thin) came down to greet the rest of the world in the night, dark and heavy. The air was full of the sky, like mud ink, and the fireflies were sluggish stars that blinked and moved through it. Everything present and dense and incredibly thick, and the trees (fragile skeleton little souls) grew to meet it.

The trees grew in the darkness because they could not possibly grow in the light. Lia knew this because she watched the trees in the day — she watched to see if they grew, but they did not. She swung under the big tree (the one already grown, with his roots laced through the dirt and the patches of grass). She swung and she looked at the row of small saplings. Her feet picked up the dust and the dirt; they formed a second skin on the soles and the toes, but the trees did not grow. They waited until she was gone, until the sun slipped away, and they grew in the dark.

The trees grew in the darkness while she was sleeping. She lay under the dark of her bedroom, on top of sticky sheets with the duvet kicked off, but under the heat, and the trees grew outside her window in the belly of the shadows. They were somber little soldiers in a line: ghost trees her eyes imagined but did not see. So they grew when no one was looking; they grew in the night. They grew slowly (so slowly) so that Lia couldn’t tell most days that anything was different.

But they did grow. In the darkness, she was sure, they did. She checked when she swung on the swing, and she checked when the wiffle ball sailed into the weedy growth of the vegetable patch. She stooped down to peer through baby-finger branches, pushed through and they became thick, knobby thumbs. She glanced back through sparse needles, turned to find the ball, and looked again through obscure cluttered branches. Her brother called her, then her brothers; her sister, then her sisters. She yelled back and threw first a wiffle ball, then a baseball, through the trees and then over the trees. They seemed to grow in that moment, but she watched and did not see anything. They grew when she turned her back to run away; they grew after the sky dropped the sun to the ground, after she was hustled back into the house from the dark.

The trees grew the night of the moaning, when her mother climbed into the truck empty-handed and stepped out with a baby in arms. They grew in the shouts of go to sleep, stay asleep, Go Back to Bed! And Lia lay awake in her bed under a bed under the August heat and ran her sweaty hands over her sticky face, down the flat of her chest and her stomach, before sliding them off slippery legs and drying them on the wood of the bed frame. The trees grew in the dark outside the window blocked by another bed, another body, and so Lia did not try to look at what she could not see. But the trees were there, dark and growing.

They grew until they were up to her chin, fat branches bristled with green. Branch upon branch upon branch, they grew. Needle poked into needle, they grew. Lia pushed clothes and blankets into the back of the station wagon, and the trees smothered themselves under the down-quilt air. Her sister hoisted a box, blew thick bangs off her forehead, tensed her legs under the weight of it all, and there were the trees, growing. Lia saw them from the rear window of the wagon, barely visible through the piles of clothes in the trunk. She watched as the car moved heavily over the edge of the driveway and onto the road, and she watched from the front window as it bounced lightly over the cracks in the driveway, trunk empty, back seats down.

The trees knitted together in secret until they were choking. They grew in the darkness under the December stars, and the heat of August was still there in that moment, trapped in their needles and the rub of the branches, braided together. They grew until the night her father cut one down and brought it inside. Then the trees breathed in the dark, and they grew, except for the one in the living room, with its lights and its bulbs. It died in the darkness, in the new year, when they drove outside town to dispose of it: a tree corpse on other tree corpses, dying beyond the rear-view mirror of the wagon, after they left and stopped looking.

The trees grew up to poke the darkness, to pierce the sky and give it pricks of light. They grew beyond the window, beyond an empty bed, but Lia did not pause to take note. She knew what she could not see; she knew it better than what she did see. The trees rose up and the bed above her sank down, each night closer to her face, each night a heavier, darker wood, each night easier to touch with the tips of her fingers. She brushed the panels and dropped her hand down to her side. She ran it up her chest and down to her stomach, rising and falling with emotions and emptiness. And the trees — straight wooden and unfeeling—grew but did not move.

The trees grew in the darkness — or maybe they grew in the light after all. The row slipped by the side of Lia’s eyes as she bounded out of the sides of cars (first the family’s, then a friend’s, then a boy’s). She stepped out of his car, paused, looked back, and maybe they grew in that single moment.

The second tree disappeared silently and so anonymously that Lia could not remember when she first noticed the gap in the line. Perhaps she noticed on the day it was cut, or perhaps she noticed repeatedly, each time forgetting what she had seen before. She came out one night to cry in the dark, glancing over to branches intertwined again, over the absent spot of the dead tree. The broken rope of the old swing hung over her head like an unfinished noose, and she cried salt into the ground, wondering if she might kill the trees with the bitterness. She came out again (another night) to laugh, to lift the branches up with her happiness, to save them with the small lift of her voice.

The trees grew in the silent summer storm, lightning mutely charging the air, leaving the needles dumb, struck, shocked on the edge of the branches. Static hair erect on the branches, growing. They grew to the heated shouts from the kitchen, voices falling out from under the window crack and rising up to the pointed needle tops jabbing the sky. Lia ran out into the absence of sound, and the trees stood stiff and electrified. She slept that night to the flash of light from the window, hands up her chest and down, up her belly and down: growing, growing, growing, like a small mound in the grass.

The trees grew to match the reaches of the house; they grew to surpass the shingles and the roof. They pushed up, they pushed out, one on the other, inevitably. They grew until the third tree was felled mechanically, with shrieking saws, in a magnificent collapse. It seemed to grow even then, in the plunge to the ground, in the dig of the ax into its side. Wrapped in licks of fire, it glowed and grew and rose to the sky as smoke. Lia sat, clothes washed in burnt pine. She sat and watched the last flick of the coals, dimming, hardening.

The tree grew in the darkness, in the light, alone. Or maybe it didn’t. Lia wrapped her arms around it: left hand on a low-slung branch, right hand on a hardened knot. Each month harder to span the distance, each month harder to believe in the growth of the tree. It grew to the push of the bed away from the window, to the sweaty construction of wooden bars and legs, to the careful spread of pastel sheets, to Lia’s heavy rise and sink to the floor. It grew, finally, to the squeal of tires leaving in the night, to their steady return, to her slow removal from the car and the cries from the crook of her arm. The tree sat outside of the lit window where she sat all hours of the night, arms folded on the edge of the crib, eyes drooping but watching, determined to see what grew in the dark.

The tree grew in the darkness, sinking into the soil and lolling its head back against the clouds, nodding in the wind. It grabbed after the ground with its roots, pushed up, and grew. It grew until it was done growing, until each time Lia looked, there it was, the same. It remained, so much the same while time stretched and wound its way around the trunk, over and away and back again, so much the same that Lia let her mind roam and plant itself back in the tree. Her thoughts sat there, inside the trunk, where it grew intangibly. Shoes hitting the driveway, the tree remained. Tires rolling away, it remained. It remained so much that she imagined it there for the press of further generations, shedding its symbolism into the loose dirt below the solid trunk.+

*

2013: Jane Wageman lives in South Bend, Indiana, where she student-teaches high school English and works on her creative writing thesis.

*

She was pretty much perfect. Heidi worked there with me. I stood around in the arcade and she waited tables. We weren’t yet friendly, but that was okay since I knew we were fated to be lovers.

Company policy didn’t allow relationships between employees but I appreciated the adversity. In truth, it was the dawn of our beautiful intimacy that started me thinking about quitting, loudly and proudly, for her — the noblest cause there was. She was real tall and skinny and she had the weirdest arch to her eyebrows, the kind of attractive that’s super up my personal alley but not necessarily anywhere near lots of other people’s alleys. She’d be my consensus number one if I ranked women like that, like college football teams I desperately wanted to take a shower with. I actively tried to avoid drawing comparisons between angelic Heidi and my other, mortal, female coworkers, but I concede I did it before at Mark’s prodding. Mark was a grizzled company veteran who’d served one too many tours up to his elbows in the muck of a skee-ball machine. He had drafted me early as his weird little brotégé. Sometimes it felt like I was auditing his introductory course to workplace canoodling. Mark’s boning stories snuck up on him like combat flashbacks. The clang of an errant Pop-A-Shot or the robo-lisped “Final-Lap!” of Cruisin’ USA was enough to open the floodgates. His stories invariably collapsed in self-pity when the remembrance of sex-past triggered the realization that he wasn’t having any sex-present. And this upset Mark. He was constantly tweaking his algorithms, yet the weekly shuffling of the WBS (Work-Babe Standings) never made any room for Heidi. He even sort of snorted and frowned confused the one time I meekly proffered her name as an example of a “work- babe” who made me feel reproductive. He shaved his knuckles and called condoms “jimmies.” I was glad he would not be trying to do to her what I wanted to do to her.

Beyond Heidi, there was nothing real redeeming about that place. From day one I hated it. I had to drop a bunch of money not only on four aquamarine uniform polos but also shiny new shoes and gray (not black) pants. This was because Kenneth, the floor manager who re-authored the official policy handbook three times in as many months, said we had to, per whatever fucking rule Kenneth made up the night before. When I first started, those were our only physical demands— that and a smile. But when Kenneth made me cut my hair, which had been dope long, it pushed me over the edge. And so began my covert resistance as the arcade’s subtle saboteur. No more smiling-on-the-clock, no more showing up on time, and no more getting “just a little, no, seriously guys, one hit” high before work. Simple subversive stuff, intended to grind the gears of Kenneth’s 2001 Kia Sephia, formed the bulk of my resistance.

Quarterly drug tests had me burning less for some spells, but I always compensated during these grueling times with subliminal psychological resistance. My preferred tactic: pathological eye-rolling to the point of popping blood vessels during staff meetings. No pain, no gain, that was sort of my mentality during those gruesome stretches. I duly watched Heidi for signals come piss-test time to see if she smoked pot too. I had been incorporating the idea of a pre/mid/post-work smoke sesh into a lot of my Heidi fantasies. Better intel could have told me for sure whether or not Heidi blazed, but if evidence did in fact lead me to the contrary, my daydreams would feel super inauthentic. So I didn’t pry too hard.

As we handed in our yellow samples (mine was clear—too dilute for veritable results, company couldn’t afford to retest me) Heidi looked super pretty and nice and kissable. Really damn inspiring, you know? I contemplated taking a huge stand against the injustice and bailing, quitting right there in the middle of the drug test, grabbing Heidi’s hand and storming through the glass front doors as Kenneth stared slack-jawed at my pure display of bravido (bravado/libido, one of Mark’s favorite self-descriptors). Instead, I crossed my fingers for fear I hadn’t drank enough cranberry juice.

+

I fucking loved smoking and fucking hated that job. I was being victimized so hard. Reggae songs about oppression started making a lot more sense. Those corporate idiots were holding me and Heidi down, but we would eventually break free together and laugh nostalgically about our times in America’s #1 Family Entertainment Center as we intercoursed in our marital love-nest. In the meantime, as I waited for Kenneth to give up his futile war of attrition against my smokeable joy, the arcade’s spacey sound-effects and cheap light shows took on a certain Zen character for me. My face got really good at doing ‘utter contempt’ for hours without reprieve. If we’re talking seven dwarves I went from Dopey to Grumpy. But soldiers got to soldier on and I was fighting for love.

Then, some weeks later, Kenneth broke all the tacit agreements/treaties between minimum-wage workers and their bosses that protect them from MAD. In other words, he went absolutely thermo-nuclear on me. “Can you step into my office?” he asked at the end of a long shift. I was supposed to be watching the game floor but I’d mostly been blankly staring at a blank space on the wall as the surprisingly soulful Time Crisis III houseband exhausted its inflexible set-list four times over. Good, I thought, the perfect time to ask him for a raise. It was nearing the three-month anniversary of my hire and I half-remembered something about a ninety- day evaluation process.

Unfortunately, he fired me before I was able to bring it up.

I kind of wanted him to say something catchy and scathing to me like “Kick rocks, kid!” but he seemed sort of morose about the whole thing. He gave me some parting advice about responsibility and I think he gestured out to his Sephia in the parking lot at one point.

As I exited Kenneth’s wicked lair, already texting my dealer, I didn’t bask in my new freedom or even dwell on the sadness of the whole situation. Instead, my thoughts went to Heidi. I knew my chances with her were just dealt a devastating blow. I would have to figure out how to feel about this pathetic and unexpected life turn later, ideally with some help from a bong-mate and a healthy serving of carne asada fries. I managed to have one moment of clarity as I undid the top bottom of my polo for the last time: if I was going to save what Heidi and I had, I would have to ask her out. In a few days, though. Probably like sometime next week, no hurry.

+

It took me two weeks to cool down enough to go back in there, uniform balled up under my arm because fuck them they can enjoy these wrinkles, that’s what you get when you fire me. I figured Heidi’d be near the host stand, radiating. She’d glance up as I approached, strollin’ in, casually gnawin’ on a toothpick, spurs janglin’ on the heels of my brand new boots.

“Oh, hey, didn’t see you there babe. Yeah, just droppin’ off these old rags. Yeah, fired. No, it’s cool, I’m cool. Ring me sometime and I’ll tell you why.”

Then she’d take down my phone number and key in “BADASS.” She’d text me five minutes later the word ‘hey’ but with like an insane amount of y’s followed by a sprinkle of XO’s and a dash of less than 3’s. She’d end up coming over later that night and we’d sit down together in the chair I built with my strong but comfortable-to-the-touch hands. It would hold our collective weight magnificently . We would make out without even banging our front teeth together but I would have to stop her hand from wandering and say, “Hold on, let’s slow down.” I’d turn the TV to HBO, yeah I have HBO, but probably not for much longer unless she’d know of anybody hiring and of course she would, and then we’d just talk and talk and talk about everything and we’d find out so much about each another. The conversation would be riveting and Oh My God Can You Believe it turns out we both have weird middle names and Oh My God she loves dogs too!! I’d teach her a really sweet secret handshake, one I’ve been saving, slowly perfecting over the years. Next, I’d escort her to my queen-size bed and utterly disappoint her in every physical way but guess what, it doesn’t even matter one bit because she knows how much I’ll slowly improve with practice. We’ d go get tacos the next morning and she’d be a sweetheart and pay because she understands my delicate financial situation and I’d get both a carnitas and a chicken and still valiantly help her finish her last fish one because I’ll be her amazing boyfriend/lover/taco-finisher.

As it turned out, she wasn’t around. I was sort of just in and out.

+

I got a text from Mark a couple of weeks later. “Brotége,” he wrote. Said that things were quieter around the ball pit with me gone. I said thanks and asked how Heidi was.

Who?

Heidi…the blonde who waits tables. ??

Oh haha u mean helen. right yea haven’t banged helen since that time a couple of months ago in the walk-in freezer.. weird shit haha got to keep your work interesting yo brotege u looking for some fire? I’m dealing these days.+

*

2013: Reggie Henke lives near a basketball court in Austin, Texas. He makes rugs out of cowhide.

*

There’s a man who blows his whistle beneath my window every night at a frequency of once per hour. I used to contemplate the quirkiness of this practice — an individual fighting hooliganism and petty crime with the audible assertion of his presence, a manipulation of air that boldly states: “You think you’ re in that dark alley alone, doing whatever it is you’re doing, but here I am, a vigilante, a witness with a whistle, dignified and brave” — but now I blankly pass the hours of the night thinking of nothing. Despite — or in spite of? — the chamomile tea, the ceaseless masturbation, and the marijuana cigarettes, my mind and body, sadistically expectant of the whistle, half-live through the darkness.

Now that I haven’t slept in a great deal of time, the whistle-blower plays a more prominent role in my better-lit hours. I spend my days thinking about the night. I ponder my role in keeping the darkness safe, a role that has moved from tertiary to secondary to primary with alarming quickness. I conclude, deny, then re-conclude that it is my restless duty to assure that the night watchman whistles on and protects the neighborhood from the vagrant criminals beneath the moon. Does he sense my secret accomplice? Should I worry about him and prepare for the worst? If the hour comes to pass when his cry does not ring me from desperate half-sleep, must I descend and save him? If he is dead — surely only death could prevent the sounding — do I yank the red rope from the heap of his heavily clothed body (where do the clothes end and the body begin? My gosh the whistler looks like a vagrant himself, his whistle is copper, girthy, and of the nineteenth century.), disentangle his limbs from the gears of a road bike, and assume the duty?

These scenarios occupy my day. They preoccupy me. I do not think of them at night because seeking rest for me has become an exercise, it demands a clear mind, whiteness behind the eyes, and focused breathing. This whiteness, of which I have less and less control each day, makes me think the whistle functions as something of a dream-catcher, far more mystical than I previously imagined, a nighttime inhibitor of daytime preoccupations.

Now I live terrified of the quiet. The true alarm will sound silently. When there is silence, I will descend. Yes, when there is silence, I must descend. Am I ready? Will there be any sort of apprenticeship? Why have I been chosen and how has the whistler made this so clear?

Sometimes I worry (worrying, in this case, is a certain knowledge) I’m becoming obsessive. My therapist has his theories, too.

“Clinically speaking, you’re an insomniac.”

Clinically speaking, my therapist probably has an MA and is under-qualified for situations of this import. But this is just crankiness talking, or is it delusion? Maybe he has a PhD.

I apologize. I’m multiplying.

He’s asking me to associate things freely.

This is what I’ve caught so far:

Whistle: Safety

Silence: End of the world

End of the world: Not a virgin

Christmas: Reading Year in Review articles while a dog houndishly licks between my toes

Childhood: Too happy or too uneventful?

Sandwich: Too much avocado spread

Copper: Fuck a P.O., fuck a piss test

Nausea/dizziness: Too much avocado spread

Ring: Flying horses

“Have you ever seen the whistle-blower?”

“No, I’m always in bed.”

“Are you at all curious what he looks like?”

“No.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because I’ve constructed a pretty detailed image of him in my head and I don’t see what the difference is.”

“The difference between what?”

“Between the imagined whistle-blower and the real whistle-blower.”

“So reality isn’t that important to you?”

“Of course it’s important to me, but a little less-so from 1 am to 7 am on weekdays and 3 am to 7 am on weekends.”

“This is the whistle-blower’s schedule?”

“Without fail.”

“Do you chart his schedule?”

“No.”

“Do you wait for the whistle to blow on schedule?”

“I expect the whistle to blow on schedule, I wouldn’t say I wait.”

“Why wouldn’t you say that?”

“Because it seems a little dependent.”

“Dependent?”

“Maybe I meant to say desperate. I don’t know.”

“What about self-perpetuating?”

“The whistle will blow whether I hear it or not.”

“Mm.”

“What was that?”

“What was what?”

“I just answered a question and you said ‘mm’ in response.”

“I was thinking on your answer.”

“Are you suggesting that I’m conflating reality with fantasy?”

“I’m not suggesting anything, we’re just conversing. Do you think you’re conflating reality with fantasy?”

“I doubt it.”

“Have you ever heard or seen a whistle-blowing night watchman anywhere else?”

“Have you?”

“No.”

“Then you’re probably not as safe as you should be. You owe it to your family to ramp up the security.”

“I live alone and I have a trusty alarm system to alert me of any intrusions.”

“And this makes you feel safe?”

“I sleep well through the night.”

“Lucky you.”

“I’m sorry, our time is up. Maybe spend some time on the stoop tonight, look for the whistling man.”

“What will that do?”

“I’m not sure, just give it a shot.”

By pushing me in this direction, my therapist thinks he is guaranteeing one of two things:

  • I recognize the humanity of the whistle-blower, his own vulnerability and fallibility, and I no longer depend on the sounding of his whistle to feel safe;
  • There is no whistle blower and my ‘delusion’ will end.

In reality, of which I have total authority over and can almost predict, my waiting on the stoop opens up the following possibilities.

  • The humanity of the whistle-blower makes me feel extremely vulnerable and fallible. I take ownership of my safety by doing one of the following:

    1) I ride along with the whistle blower and learn his ways. We work in tandem for the rest of our days; 2) I kill the whistle blower and become the whistle blower;

  • The whistle blower will not pass and I will have to find him.

I balance the banalities and predictability of Western therapy with a visit to the Waning Star Café. My friend, Chango, reads cards there. He sits Indian-style at a booth with his belongings scattered before him on a two-person table: a cigarette holder that looks like a cassette tape (why do things that aren’t other things have to look like other things?), a candle, and his cards.

We begin to chat about things: sharks, subways, Mayans.

“The calendar doesn’t, like, predict the end of the world. It mostly predicts a major change in the world. You know?”

“What do you think the change will be, Chango?”

“Women, man. Women will finally come to power. It will be the rise of Amazon Feminism.”

“What is Amazon Feminism?”

“I dunno, man. But it will be hot.”

Chango’s an idiot.

The last time Chango and I met, I was in the middle of a different episode, more crippling than my current. After listening to an album on repeat for two months, I learned the tracks were in the wrong order. As a lover of truth, intention, and craft, I reordered the tracks. (Plus, I used to believe in the refreshing twist a randomized group of familiar songs can bring to a life that lacks certain things). The problem with this was I had forgotten how to live my life without the originally ordered soundtrack. This mostly manifested itself physically—the rhythms of my body were off, I was a poorly put together machine made to break. I felt like I was brushing my teeth with my left hand, chewing with another set of teeth, and looking through a kaleidoscope.

When Chango and I met that day it was to go through some edits I had offered him on his essay , “The World is Ending, That Much is Clear”. I tried to explain to him that the title would read better as an opening sentence, but he wouldn’t budge. That’s as far as we got.

When the café closed, I suggested we go for a night swim. We drove down to the springs just below the skyline and splashed around slipping on the earth’s mossy belly. Chango was convinced that eels were sucking on his foot calluses. He shoved my head underwater teasing that the eels would swim up my nostrils and suck out my brain. The shove whipped my neck more than my already out-of-rhythm body would have liked. Still angry from before (out of all the things I was not certain of at the time, I was certain that the title would function better as an opening sentence), I decided to try to kill Chango beneath the glowing skyline. I would replace all of the air in his lungs with H20. Following his initial dunk, I pushed him underwater briefly, knowing his next move would up the ante. I feigned weakness squirming beneath his grip and quickly relinquished my hold when I put him under next. This childish exchange lasted a couple minutes, Chango having fun with it, me still serious about murder.

He began to dunk me for ten seconds at a time and I would dunk him for twenty. He would hold me under until my headward veins bulged and I held him under until his lips turned purple. He would pinch the sensitive skin between my armpit and chest when he really needed air and I would twist his balls. Finally, exhausted but determined, I held Chango’s head underwater for thirty something seconds before he found my nipple with his teeth, bit, and rose from the springs gasping—my blood running watery from his lips. He punched me in the face and I spat in his. We were both crying.

He said something like, “What the fuck, man?”

“Sorry. I thought we were having fun.”

Now the Waning Star Café is closing and we are significantly buzzed but know to avoid the springs. It’s late and he drives me home silently. When I get out he asks me how I am. I apologize, mostly still thinking about the springs, “It’s nerves. I haven’t been sleeping well.”

+

In my bed I’m convinced that tonight, drunk and cathartic (nothing calms like the memory of near-murder by drowning), I will fall asleep. In fact, I am falling asleep. I am closer than I have been in weeks. I am half dreaming. There is whiteness and a distance in my head from which I can hear slight snoring. The whistle is not sounding and the whistle is not sounding and my dreams are getting more vivid and less controlled and the whistle is not sounding.

And then the 1-am whistle sounds. I am reminded of my thankless duty. I don’t need to be thanked. My breathing quickens and my mind sharpens and I descend to the stoop as the next hour approaches. In five minutes I ascend and descend five times. I’ve lost track of time. It’s an easy thing to do this late at night, this tired.

I settle on the stoop and rest my head against the rusting handrail. I don’t see the things I see everyday but I know they are there. A water tower across the street (how am I to know there’s water in the tower?). A freeway-bound ramp a few blocks down, in the middle of the street, where things always get faster. A Japanese convenient store to my left with delicious ham sandwiches (things were once delicious, when I could sleep). And a pharmacy kitty-corner with a judgmental clerk.

I think I’ve dozed off against the handrail. I don’t know if the hour has passed or what an hour feels like but I haven’t heard the whistle. The night watchman will pass if I stay put, the simplicity of a known route tells me as much. But I don’t know the route, do I? I just know the frequency and sound of its rider. Does he pass my stoop? Or does he whistle from the alley across my stoop? Its thin passage could narrow the sound and propel it into collision with my ears.

That can happen. I know that happens. The night watchman loves alleys for their visual discreetness but auditory clarification. My heartbeat has re-quickened, my lungs currently expanding.

I take off at a jog and move to a sprint. Zigzagging through the neighborhood, I try to cover much space in little time. My unconfirmed assumptions of the night watchman are that his rear tire is a bit flat and he is old. In his old age he has adopted a leisurely pace, at least physically — mentally, there is no leisure, safety has no leisure — and rides through each block thoroughly and slowly.

If our paths don’t collide I will still hear his whistle and then I will run to the sound and our paths will collide. I will pledge my support and begin my indoctrination. I will assume my duties that very minute, alone or by his side. In this hour, it seems the night watchman can no longer defend the neighborhood as he once could. Given back to its natural state, the darkness will sharpen its teeth and silence will reign. The vagrants will quickly shed their weariness of the night.

I arrive back at the stoop breathing quickly through my nose. Blood, pooling at the curb, flows toward the Japanese convenient store. It splatters about my ankles, warm and not my own. It must be the blood of one hundred men. It flows purposefully through the street, from the alley, as water from a heavy and sudden rain. Has the night watchman fought the darkness in his last stand? Surely I will find him, sucking in his last breaths, bodies scattered radially about him, snaggle-toothed vagrants dipping out the rear of the alley tales between their legs. He will hand me the whistle and whisper nothing in my ear.

At the mouth of the alley I wade through knee- high blood, then high step through it as I approach what looks like a heap of clothes. I think about the indignity of drowning in one’s blood and I begin to cry and my tears meet the ever-thinning red stream. The blood ends and begins all at once at the heap lumped by the road bike. I prod and pull away layers of clothes. Where do the clothes end and the body begin? My goodness, the night watchman looks like a vagrant himself. Bearded, toothless, leathered skin from wind and sunburn. Around his neck I find a worn red rope, tied to a whistle, girthy, copper, and of the nineteenth century.+

*

2013: Joey Horan lives in Austin, Texas, also near a basketball court. He is a delivery driver for Java Noodles.

*
*

Spindle

We watched all three Lord of the Rings movies.
In succession. We turned the volume down, got high, and started playing music.
This is how we composed our first album.
Call it folk, call it baroque, call it indie-folk-baroque. Whatever.
We call it mind poison.

The title track is pretty interesting.
It’s about a teenage boy that is half human, half bicycle.
He falls in love with a quiet, book-wormish girl named Gracie.
Sadly, Gracie’s parents don’t approve of boys that are half bicycle.

Gracie, of course, is devastated.
She desperately tries to defend her half bicycle lover.
People don’t choose to be half bicycle, she explains between sobs.
But it’s useless, Gracie’s parents just don’t understand.

In the third verse, the song really hits its crescendo.
Gracie’s father, home early from work, catches the two having unprotected sex in the family’s hot tub. Enraged, he runs into the house to get his shotgun.

The half bicycle boy, still naked and dripping wet, makes a hurried escape through the backyard.

We’re not the sum of our parts, We’re not the sum of our parts, the chorus sings.

 

*
*

Santa Fe

Smooth jazz music is small in my laptop speakers.
I take your face, fold it into an origami frog, and watch it hop into bed.
I’m not stupid; our meeting is something like a lunar eclipse.
A similar distance – I feel all spoony inside.
You reach across the table to shake my hand.
I decide to buy a new pair of shoes.
But you’re still sitting there, undoing my conception of time.
Crinkling, hopping, you move across the mattress.
You hop into my outstretched arms, my opened palms.
What color do you want to be? I ask.
Seven cans of spray paint sit silently beside my bed.
We’ve tried them all – save for one.
A few hours later, we walk out of my bedroom in single file.
I hold your rifle above my head, a soldier traipsing through the swamps of Vietnam.

 

*
*

2013: Joe Wegener lives in South Bend, Indiana. He studies English and works at Waddick’s Café.

*

Helen’s Collapse

*

Our Knowledge

 Some of the ancients believed that Helen never went to Troy. The gods fooled the Trojans and the Greeks into thinking she was there, but she never was. Helen was in Egypt all along, and men fought a war over

An absence.
Did I ever tell you that before, love? I asked you.
I’m pretty sure you have.

I guess, I’ve told you everything already.

Yep,
you said. We don’t need
To speak anymore. And we laughed because

Being generous made us happy and easy.

But now that I’ve flown away from you
I have unshared knowledge, like
Helen never went to Russia either.

*

Nails and Bolts

I sit on the dusty floor in my dorm in St. Petersburg,
And turn the wispy clouds in the sky into the kind
That pour water. It leaks into the room

Through the corners of you not being here.

 You are in the ever temperate climate
Of Hakodate bike riding to school
Where you study Japanese language.

You tell me over the phone—
Your voice breaking in and out like sad waves
Or heartbeats—

That there is a Russian school nearby
And Japan’s oldest Russian Orthodox church.
Just how is it
that your Russian landscape seems wider than mine?

Mine is ungrateful rust and mud. The rain waters it,
Growing it day by day, while my generosity
Is stunted by space.
I can’t give you everything

From such a distance. When I tell you that
Some Russian Orthodox churches forbid visitors
From wearing shorts inside, I don’t say
This repression feels violent.

To flee, I force my running mind
To read about ancient Egypt:
How the tombs there
Were carved to look like date-palms
Because of the sacredness of these trees.

When Helen came, the men
Gifted all their dates to her. When will I
Be capable of such an offering?

My gestures here
Are mostly unproductive. For example,
I stab nails into the wall for each day I don’t see you and some days
I have to stab in bolts.
Long distance was a bad idea.

*

Helen’s Boat

When I imagine Helen, she is holding
A boat in one hand and a train
In the other because desire

Birthed transport
Because there was something
Somewhere else
Needed. Well, I left

What I needed. And isn’t that
A betrayal? I take it back

At night

And try to dream of Tokyo
(Hot weather, the short dresses I’m going to wear
When I’m there) because it is the city
Where I will see you again.

*

Time Travel

Sometimes the ancient gods bend down to earth
And give us gifts to remind us of their existence.
And so, they made time

Dissolve, my St. Petersburg days
Dissolve like sugar stirred into vodka.
I dove into the Neva, tunneled down and down until

I finally dropped into Narita airport
Where I saw you waiting at baggage claim.

*

Time Zone Adjustment

Now that I am with you again
I don’t count my days with nails, but feel
Days being plucked away like flowers
From a vase. I try to imagine

That the vase is infinitely full of days and nights—
That we somehow are

Outside of the waters of time, that we are
Not powerless before the gods.

Sometimes it’s true.
When I dance before you we become

Suspended. When we pull
Our shirts off together and raise them up
Above our heads, they become the night sky, and we
Are almighty.

*

Body on Body

On the road to our hotel we glimpse her:

A woman, profile view, with black hair, red lips, in dark blue
Silk with shining sequins, her back arched to express

Her curves. She looks as though she wears the night.

It’s just a billboard, you tell me,
And I weigh this fact. True. I think
We should name her anyway.
Name her?
I smirk and say, She’s Helen of Egypt.

After we dive tired into bed,
She plays on my mind, like an unfamiliar
Game—Helen of Egypt:
How unlike I imagined her to be! Much darker

In appearance. I move my right leg
Over your left thigh, and you press
Your body over me. What is desire?
Did I come
Here for Helen or for you?

*

Red-light district

A red, neon lip-shaped arch marks the entrance of      Kabukicho,
Or the Sleepless Town, as it is sometimes called
By the Japanese.

Around midnight we turn a corner and are in the belly of its
(Our guide book tells us) 3,000 night clubs,
Bars, and love hotels.
We smile devilishly
Into its lights, and blowing signs.
I count the slickly dressed men, and you try to guess

Which of them are yakuza as our bodies loosen
Into the humid night air, and the district’s colors—
An electric rainbow—pour out on us,
Like a metaphor for ejaculation.
I point and you take photos
Until two Nigerian men beckon us
In English and make our language sound beautiful,
Come inside.

They are handing out flyers, but tonight
We cannot ignore them. Come see
The goddess dance. Once inside,
With others jamming in behind us, we’re pressed against
A sweaty wall of people,
But on my tiptoes I can see
Her move as though she were touching me,
And I lay my eyes over you

Like want. You look
Good, you tell me,
Raising your voice over the crowd’s
Noise. Come here.

*

The mountain of Us

And as we move over each other
Our rhythms
Are like the rhythms of the monks’ drums
Gonging on Mount Koya, where pilgrims

Bring melons and pineapples to give
To small, grey Buddhas. Those gods
Wear pink and green bibs

For the feast. But I—being pagan and
Strange here—see only you and Helen
On the mountain.
Do I worship her?

Maybe, I did once. Bearing down on me,
She looms, still and sharp as a stone idol:
Harsh, cruel. I realize she is scared

Of being usurped.
What happens to desire now
That I have everything I want?

I hand her back her ships and planes, but I give you
All my fruit and trinkets of my body. As we stand against

The grey night, grey mountain, gleaming,
The moon plates us in silver. She watches us
Like a mad step-mother.

*

Our temple

After we stretch the sun into the sky,
You tell me, I love you.
I watch the earth awake

Outside my hotel window, and hear
Its neonatal cries
Shooting forth

From the cars already roaming,
And it’s strange—I feel

We made this world.
Raised above the traffic,

Helen floats, wavering in herself—
She is becoming us.
What is it like
To be desire itself?

I press against you, and time and space dissolve,
Dissolve completely
Into us, and we are transformed

Forever into the moment when I am coming
To meet you at Narita airport.

*

2013: Hilary Rasch is an AmeriCorps member at the non-profit College Forward in Houston, Texas.

*

The images I keep of Termite Hall are always in the time around the two solstices. It’s late in the night, early morning hours even, and gas lamps are burning. That’s probably anachronistic. At the summer solstice, guests sit out on the porch, quiet laughter and near-empty gin & tonics. Some lean over the railing and hope to catch a rare breeze against the heavy, still heat. Full of crickets, the yard is deafening. In winter, the porch is full too, 50 degrees a respite against the superfluous wood fire next to the Christmas tree. String lights run between the eaves, and whiskeys mix again with quiet laughter, subdued this time because token children somewhere in the neighborhood are already asleep.

I don’t exactly know what all this means, but it seems like something.

Termite Hall, the rambling three-story Victorian at 2000 Dauphin St., listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the Greene-Marston House, sits five minutes by foot from the home I grew up in. For a while, Termite Hall ca. 1940 embodied for me the high point of culture in Mobile, Alabama, some kind of gravitational center (socially and geographically) for the intellectuals and poets that I supposed the city once had.

Passing by on Dauphin, it can be hard to get a good view of the place. Unkempt hedges and brambles in front, just a mossy pair of columns at the foot of the driveway, and a manor of arches and gables half-hidden behind a grove of oaks. There could be anything back there. Maybe those first few snippets of lore about Termite Hall, odd tales about enormous parties thrown there, extended families and guests who never moved out, even the fact that it had a name — Termite Hall — had a similar effect. They obscured my perspective on the house, allowed me to envision things about it, kept me from seeing the place up close.

This obscured perspective means that my obsession with Termite Hall is a tangled knot of: distorted childhood memories of Mobile (wrought iron things—benches, fountains, gates); old assumptions about the kind of events that occur on a regular basis in the city; the mythology I have of my birth place; Eugene Walter and roads with names like ‘Grand Boulevard Street’; a history of Termite Hall far richer in the retelling than in the actual occurrence; Adelaide Marston Trigg; a tendency to believe in golden ages; a wish that things of cultural significance have been hidden under my nose all along; etc etc.

The task of untangling this knot around Termite Hall means untangling my understanding of culture in the Azalea City. And explaining culture in Mobile — well, talking about it abstractly at least 1 — means explaining first the city’s inexplicable sense of self-importance and resultant (and unfortunate) small-mindedness. Second, however, it also means attempting to put into words what I have often heard in conversation but never had explained to me to any degree of satisfaction: the concept of a water culture. What follows will demonstrate the impossibility of this task. I now believe that what is called Mobile’s water culture functions as a sort of mysterious and ubiquitous force which pushes all fantasies and fictions about the city toward a degree of reality. I believe in water culture not as something of content (i.e., some concrete and demonstrable set of traits), but rather something formal and categorical (i.e., the name given to the trend of contradictions that seems to abound in Mobile and from which spring inordinately exaggerated, deep-seated, and honestly-held beliefs about life there). Water culture, as I understand it, is elusive, insubstantial, and, worst of all, thoroughly inconsequential. But whether or not its products are mirages or realities, water culture most certainly exists.

+

I first heard the term ‘water culture’ from my father. As in, the city of Mobile’s complex social structures and hierarchies reflect the water culture of ship captains, trade routes, ports, and longshoremen that have been present since the earliest days of the colony. I didn’t really grasp the deeper and more nuanced economic commentary on sea-centered capitalism that my father probably meant in this example, but ‘water culture’ felt hefty and mysterious on the tongue. I filed it away as something that might sound intellectual in certain social gatherings.

The first time I pull it out, it’s late October a few years ago, and Ben sits beside me on the bus to Chicago. I make a remark about fall in the Midwest: It’s different from home, where we barely have any autumn at all, where the leaves all give up the ghost on account of the never-ending heat of the late and then, later, indian-summer, which occasionally extends even into the first weeks of December.

Ben asks what it’s like down there. It’s like here, I shrug. It’s America. But I reconsider. That’s not really true. Maybe I engage with it differently because I grew up there, but Mobile’s something different. Then I remember my father’s words: it’s got a water culture, I explain, having no idea what that actually means, but thinking it sounds impressive enough and complex enough to mean something.

What’s a water culture? he asks honestly, inadvertently calling my bluff.

It means we have boats, I answer dumbly. He grunts and turns back to the fields streaking past the window. Unsure if my inability to expound on the concept indicates an irresponsible use of the term or its inherent vapidity and lack of content, I decide to let the conversation die and avoid any more embarrassment.

+

Well, the city does have boats. The conversation with Ben returns to my mind some time later. The docks are the city’ s most important industry . Yet the very idea of a water culture or water society suggests more than a mere economic dependence on the water. It suggests a total inundation into and governance (however subliminal) of every part of life in the port city by the phenomenon of water.

I try tackling the concept abstractly. Perhaps water culture is a geographical manifestation of objectivity—a clear differentiation between land and sea, a line, an example from nature of a binary world-view, either you are in the water or you are on land. In addition, the city has a clearly identifiable source: growth is forever understood linearly, from the water→inland. Life on the water suggests an overarching, clear-cut construction integral to nature. A cartographic explanation for the Mobilian’s disposition toward fundamentalist thinking, perhaps, black and white moralities, black and white in general.

But that’s nonsense. San Francisco sits on a bay , too; Chicago has a lake shore; NYC is built upon bridges; and those cities certainly don’t project the proclivity toward conservative or objective ideologies that one may want to pin on Mobile. Besides, geographically speaking, the water topography in the Azalea City is in actuality far more convoluted and ambiguous than a clear-cut water’s edge.

Mobile is no beach town; there is no simple coastline. The bay is formed by the collision of the Gulf pushing up from the south and the Spanish, Tensaw, Mobile, Blakely, and Apalachee rivers all flowing in a complex tangle of branches and fingers from the north. The Mobile-Tensaw Delta and its brackish domain, neither fresh nor seawater, is the second largest in the nation. Marshland, swampland, neither terra firma nor a sand bar. Dog, Fish, and Fowl rivers slice into the walls of the bay like some early draft of Yeats, and the Mobile river flows so close to the western shore that even long-time residents of the city pause and silently question themselves upon exiting the old Bankhead Tunnel: what body of water did I just drive beneath?

To speak of Mobile’s water society, attempts to get at something far more complex, far more involved, even more so when taking into consideration that the ‘city’, the one in which people live and have society, only indirectly links to the water, at least geographically speaking: downtown lacks true access to the bay, and what riverfront it does have on the Mobile is largely obstructed by industry and docks. Locating water culture paradoxically requires a search inland, on dry ground.

A drive down Dauphin Street beneath the canopy formed by the century-old live oaks, or an evening stroll around Washington Square to the noise of the fountain and the shuffleboard shouts from the open doors of Callaghan’s bar might give evidence of it. Try standing under the pergola of string lights at the Blacklawn block party in late fall or passing by Georgia Street porches overflowing with flowers on Easter Monday. Maybe it has to do with the curious feeling given off by the enormous white faux-Baroque Methodist church that dominates the corner of Government and Broad Streets, the one with a historical marker bolted to its stucco façade that attests to the origin of its nickname, the Beehive, on account of its one-time status as the religious and social center in the city.

These are the vestiges of old Mobile—those parts of the city that pre-existed World War II. Fearnway, Ashland Place, Monterey, Houston Street, Oakleigh District. The wrought-iron porches on Congress and Joachim or the odd rituals that take place in the Church St. Cemetery in late February. The fish and oyster markets down Old Water Street or the 19th-century artifact cottages out behind Tuthill.

Yet whatever key these parts of old Mobile provide to the question of water culture, whatever aura or sense of authority these sections of town hold on account of their age or former status, it only shimmers on the periphery; turn a focus on it, try to look more closely, and it flakes away, instantly disappearing into the flatness of the present. The streets of old Mobile are all too short. They quickly empty out into a much newer city, a six-lane, a self car wash, a string of fast food huts, and the old mystery suddenly seems like a mirage or rainbow-end, surpassed without ever having been reached.

That’s not necessarily intended as a lament or critique of the new against the old. If the new Mobile represents a departure (in whatever respect, aggressive, relaxed, intentional, accidental) from the true water culture of the old city, this is not without certain advantages. Travel, for instance. Water culture is slow; travel by boat requires time. Commercial jet lines began operating out of the abandoned Bates Field sometime in the late 70s. I’d much rather fly to Houston than take the steamer.

+

Part of the difficulty in writing about the Azalea City is that it forces one to compress the aura of the place—the incessant self-inflation of the city’s ego, the cultural richness lacking relevance, the old Mobile water culture je ne sais quoi—into an intelligible sentence. All the more difficult, writing about Mobile forgoes the canonical benefit of the novels, essays, poems, dialects that accompany and instruct the writer of New Orleans, Atlanta, Savannah, or myriad other Southern cities. Even Yoknapatawpha had a Faulkner. Writing about Mobile is an isolated and isolating experience.

Ignoring whatever brief references to the city appear in Lee’ s To Kill a Mockingbird, a literary tradition of any serious and non-incestuous character for the city can claim something like two works: ‘My Dream of Mobile’, an essay in the 1945 travelogue The Air-Conditioned Nightmare by surrealist Henry Miller, and The Untidy Pilgrim, a 1954 novel set in the port city by native son Eugene Walter.

Miller’s stream-of-consciousness sketch reads like the account of a near broke, strung out, exiled, and quickly unraveling writer who stumbles upon a copy of The Travels of Marco Polo in a public library and fancies himself cobbling together a similar account of contemporary exotic locales–mostly because that’s what it is. The former French colony of Mobile (among other places in America that he has never visited, Miller admits early on in the essay) strikes the author as a suitable place to begin on account of the same aura that I mentioned above, the one that evades expression so well. But Miller doesn’t even try to wrestle with it, simply characterizes the city as hazy, fuzzy, amorphous, crumbling.

Miller fixates on the image of the Union Navy’s Admiral David Farragut steaming up to the city during the Battle of Mobile Bay . Though he can’ t verify that Farragut ever did steam into Mobile Bay (he did; August 15, 1864), Miller likes to imagine that his own entrance to the city would unfold in a similar fashion. The essence of Farragut’s importance to Miller is unclear, as his writing quickly veers to claims about

  • the etymology of the city’s name (‘Mobile is a deceptive word. It sounds quick and yet it suggests immobility—glassiness.’),
  • the musical persona of the city (‘Guitarish. Perhaps not even that resonant — perhaps mandolinish.’),
  • and the general atmosphere of lethargy that hangs over downtown (‘I have never once though of work in connection with the word Mobile. Not anybody working.’).

Concerning water culture, about the best we get out of Miller is a reassurance that, yes, there is water somewhere on the edge of the city, a bay in fact. But beyond that, for all Miller’s piece provides, the Bay could just as easily link Mobile to Perpignan, Ponce De Leon Springs, or Maine as it could (and actually does) to Bon Secour and Fort Morgan Point.

At any rate, Miller’s Mobile never actually appears. Instead, the essay snags on the author’s free association and tangential discourse until the entire piece founders on a line of moon-soaked French nonsense somewhere out in Mobile Bay, never having actually reached the shore. I’ll let Miller be, content and alone on his cot, still floating with a bottle of absinthe out in the shallow water. Besides, steaming into the Bay, as Miller wants to imagine, wouldn’t take you to the city. You need to navigate the River for that.

Eugene Walter, on the other hand, took advantage of his native status and approached a description of the city from within. Walter, Mobile’ s literary patron saint, used the city as the backdrop for his first novel, The Untidy Pilgrim, which follows a presumably autobiographical young man in late forties-Mobile as he spins in and through the city’s many social circles. With the true bravado of Southern Lit, the novel pits the cultural trappings of the Azalea City against the only other metropolis in the country that Walter believes could rival it (New York) and not without a southerner’s heavy skepticism about the place. When three of the novel’s central characters flee to Manhattan for a year, the events are boiled down and glossed over in about 35 of the books 250 pages before the Big Apple becomes boring and the action returns to the southern port. The rest of the chapters move lazily through southern living rooms, dockside warehouses, and cabaret brothels, slow-cooking the city into a caricature of its pre-war aspirations. Pilgrim paints a Mobile that is sultry like Savannah and fetid like New Orleans, overgrown with enormous oaks and Spanish moss, populated by eccentric old maids and tangled genealogies.

The novel’s opening pages make clear Walter’s conceit that Mobile represents something different merely by merit of its location. When heading south toward the city, he writes, one notices about forty miles or so north of the coast a distinct change in the landscape, the plant life, and the sanity of the inhabitants. The Salt Line, he (and no one else) calls it, referring to the infiltration of the salt water and all its cultural effects up from the coast. Water culture, in other words. Having grown up with it, Walter understands the oceanographic nuances of the city far better than Miller. The significance of the River (which, in a very pragmatic sense, Miller failed to note) figures explicitly into the novel’s treatment of this water culture, a treatment that is uncanny if not also tongue-in-cheek. One character, looking out over the River, explains that the water has a strange way of hiding things: after long rainstorms like this, skeletons have been known to wash up on the banks of the River.

Walter’s most condensed and oft-quoted description of the city’s society is as figurative as it is ambiguous. ‘Down in Mobile they’re all crazy, because the Gulf Coast is the kingdom of monkeys, the land of clowns, ghosts and musicians, and Mobile is sweet lunacy’s county seat.’ Mobile is a separate land, he writes. It doesn’t belong to North America so much as it does to North Haiti, a position that corroborates (oddly) the observations of the positivist Bertrand Russell in his essay ‘Homogenous America’: the Old South is the only part of the nation that can actually claim to be different than the rest of America, so different that ‘one feels as if one had arrived in a different country’.

All well and good save two major issues. First, if Walter’s novel of north Haitian monkey kingdoms indeed points to the powerful water culture I want to claim for the city, it doesn’t help articulate what the characteristics of the phenomenon actually are. Second, a closer look at the life and work of this author reveals that Walter, native son though he may be, spent so much of his life away from Mobile that a good deal of homesick nostalgia must be first distilled out of his comments for them to be of any use.

+

In the late 1970s, about the same time my father was returning to Mobile after a few years working in Birmingham, Eugene Walter was returning to the Azalea City, too. Walter’s pilgrimage home, however, involved a slightly longer route than my father’s and far more fanfare.

Shipped out to Alaska as a cryptographer during World War II, Walter lived briefly in New York after V- J Day before heading onto Paris and Rome for the next three and a half decades of his life. Digging through the box of letters—now housed in the McCall Library Archives (1504 Springhill Avenue)—exchanged between Walter and his first cousin and lifetime Mobile resident Caldwell Delaney presents a paper trail as remarkable as it is geographically diverse. He addresses Delaney as ‘Fust Cuzzin,’ scratching out notes to him

  • first on military letterhead [‘Afterwards, Lt. H—(the handwriting expert) analyzed our scribbles. Mine was judged “impulsive, nervous, unusual,” though anyone could have judged that.’],
  • then later on self-made stationery [8, Rue Garanciére, Paris.IV; 18 Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Rome],
  • or crammed into blue- and red-bordered envelopes from the Paris Review [‘I hope the people who destroyed the Russell house will ROT in the deepest pits of HELL for eternity.’].

Indeed, Walter’ s adventures are noteworthy, if only for the cast of characters he managed to connect himself with. After Walter left childhood friend Truman Capote and new acquaintance Tallulah Bankhead in Greenwich Village, Paris found him in the company of Richard Wright, T. S. Eliot, Gore Vidal, and George Plimpton, the last whom he helped with the founding of The Paris Review. In Rome, translation work for Federico Felini landed him a part in 8 1⁄2 (in addition to a series of Italian television soaps), and his friendship with Ingeborg Bachmann and Hans Werner Henze resulted in the two creating for Walter the central (silent) role in the opera Il Giovane Lord.

If you want to read the incredibly bizarre story of Walter’s life, you can, and in his own words even—Milking the Moon, the memoirs he dictated just before his death. But the Walter that I’m interested in is the Walter that all his biographies and autobiographies take for granted: the Eugene Walter who, despite spending the prime of his life outside of Mobile—in no less than the three most culturally elite cities in the world—with a clique of literary, film, and music gurus to rival nearly any artistic circle, still returns to spend the last two decades of his life in the Azalea City. In fact, the periods in Mobile that bookend Walter’ s life reveal more about the origins and effects of the city’s ineffable water culture than anything he wrote in The Untidy Pilgrim.

Walter’s correspondences with Delaney are perhaps most telling of all. From his first reports in Alaska to his complaints about having to pack up his life in Rome, an odd juxtaposition underlies them all, namely an ever-intensifying rhetoric of homesickness against his continued and mostly voluntary absence from Mobile. His letters are filled with unelaborated references to addresses in the city (156 St. Anthony, 1511 Government, 1115 Palmetto, 2000 Dauphin, 109 N. Lafayette, 62 Ridgelawn) and incessant, berating demands to be kept abreast of events and gossip in Mobile: ‘Please write me, write me. A long letter. I’m hungry for Mobiliana, especially Caldwelleán Mobiliana, with lewd surmises and dirty digs. • I’m excited, there have been earth-shaking things happening in Mobile and me not there. Alas, I’m nearly died at missing the Trigg-Marston, & am now molargnashing over missing the forthcoming Plum-Young. • How’s Mobile’s sex life? Vernal, tolerable vernal, I’spose. • Tell me WHAT ARE MOBILIANS SAYING ABOUT ‘STRANGE FRUIT’ AND MISS LILIAN SMITH.??????? I can just imagine, but tell me anyway.’

To read these letters and hear Walter caw on about the city suggests a social scene as squalid as it is vibrant, but alive and virile regardless. And yet, these comments come from Walter’s pen while he charts a course from Alaska to New York, from New York to Paris, from Paris to Rome, farther and farther and farther from his beloved Azalea City. For more than thirty years he threatens Delaney with his homecoming before it actually takes place in 1979.

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Walter died of liver cancer when I was very young, but while he was still alive, following the return to Mobile, he lived with his cats three blocks west of us in a bungalow renovated by the city’s historical commission. He would turn up on Mr. Boyd Miller’s front porch, drunk as a skunk at 1 in the morning, reporting to have been locked out of his house and asking if Miller by chance had a key to let him in, my father laughs. Southern humorist Pat Conroy describes Walter’s cooking as incomparable, even if the table was coated with a layer of cat hair. The former ex-pat made his presence known in the city by devoting his last years to a weekly ten-minute radio program on the local college station, ‘Eugene At Large’.

Practically speaking, Walter’s homecoming may have been a case of the road simply running out on him. Despite the general fanfare and falderal surrounding his arrival, he returned to Mobile nearly penniless. Worst of all for Walter, though, was the port city’s cultural poverty that stood in stark contrast to the vibrant scenes he participated in (or at least waxed nostalgic about in his letters to Delaney) during his youth. ‘What’s really got to me since I’ve been back is that Bienville Square, which had formerly been like a street salon, with everybody downtown on Saturday, was absolutely empty. I remember one Saturday when I came back taking a walk in Bienville Square. There was nobody there. And I thought, Oh my Lord, what’s happened?’

To Walter’s dismay, the culture he remembered so fondly had been eroded by the complex socio-economic forces that redrew the city in the twenty-five years during and following World War II. This compounds, of course, with the nostalgic scaling-up and buffing done to Mobile-ca.-1940 by Walter’s own memory. But I have a hard time believing that a man who had spent the previous thirty years running with the cultural elite of Paris and Rome could then return to the spiritual damps and Alabama anoxia of Mobile (‘Twenty four hours in Mobile and you have the feeling a plastic bag is tied around your head and you’re breathing your own air,’ notes Walker Percy.) and be satisfied living on Grand Boulevard Street [sic]. He had no family save his cats, and one would think that Walter would have needed something more than a 10-minute weekly radio spot to keep him occupied for those last two decades. He would have searched in more places than on Bienville Square and down Broad Street, and he must have found it somewhere, in someone.

Well, he was all the time hanging out at Termite Hall, my mother explains casually—common midtown gossip from earlier days in Mobile. That is, at the family house of the née-Marston sisters, 1940s friends Eleanor Marston Benz and Adelaide Marston Trigg, at 2000 Dauphin St.

I don’t know when Walter and the Marston sisters first became friends. Perhaps Mobile’s Catholic society, of which they were all a part, brought them together from a young age. Maybe it was an adoption of sorts, sympathy from the Marston family toward Walter’s lack of one. Raised first by his grandparents, Eugene was taken into the care of local department store owner Hammond Gayfer after their death. From all accounts, Gayfer and Walter fit well together, as Gayfer’s house often found itself hosting local southern writers and artists, in whose presence young Walter was all-too-eager to be. Yet despite the support he received from Gayfer , Walter’s adolescence in Mobile had something of an orphan quality to it, a point that reveals a darker irony in being called a son of the city. Perhaps it was pity or good Catholic guilt that encouraged the Marston sisters to extend hospitality to him.

Nothing, however, suggests that the friendship that grew between Walter and the members of Termite Hall was contrived; in fact, just the opposite. Odds are that Walter and the Marston sisters found a common love of books. Eleanor Marston Benz worked as the librarian of the city’s Catholic high school for nearly fifty years, a library whose front face now bears her name in enormous black letters. Her sister, Adelaide Marston Trigg, gained an even more prominent bookish reputation in 1941 when she opened on Bienville Square what, at the time, was Mobile’s only existing bookstore, The Haunted Bookshop.

Although the shop managed to develop a respectable presence, hosting readings and book signings with writers as diverse as Thomas Mann, Harper Lee, and native-Mobilian William March, a look through the old guest registers reveals the impact Walter had on the bookstore. The signatures and dates quickly give way to full-page doodles and cartoons signed ‘EW’ or ‘Willoughby’ with an accompanying four-circle dog paw print, the latter being from Walter’s sometimes-human, sometimes-canine alter-ego, Sebastian Willoughby.

I think he started coming around here because he was bored and looking for company and would just end up spending the whole day nosing around the shop, explains Angela Trigg, Adelaide’s granddaughter and owner of Bienville Books, a resurrected, relocated, and renamed offshoot of the no-longer-extant Haunted Bookshop.

I visit to ask Angela what she knows about the history of Termite Hall. Well, I live there now, she explains flatly. She lets me look through what boxes of Adelaide’s keepsakes she can find in her attic apropos to the bookshop and Walter. I get the feeling he got on my grandmother’s nerves, she notes.2 I spend an hour flipping first through diaries and registers from the early days of the Haunted Bookshop. The entries turn quickly from lists of books read and thought-provoking quotations to costs of plumbing repairs and logs of hours spent working overtime.

More interesting, though, are the pieces of memorabilia from Termite Hall. (1) Hand-made programs from meetings of the so-called ‘Willoughby Institute’: 1941-42, 156 St. Anthony St. and 2000 Dauphin St., members (among others) Francis Kinney, Willie Mae Smutz, Caldwell Delaney, Adelaide Marston, Eugene Walter (pres.). The program (blue cardboard with fountain pen-inscribed parchment leaves) lists roll call, recitation of minutes, then contributions from each member—lectures on fashion or etiquette from some, poetry readings from others, and a play from Eugene. (2) A log for the meetings of the SIP Sisters, a women’s group led by Adelaide. After opening their meetings with a roll call answered by choice verses of Shakespeare, The Sisters In Progress devoted themselves to the discussion of local society and occasionally took up a new piece of literature or contemporary moral argument. The evenings usually closed with a communal supper, except when the women were too hungry to wait (often), in which case they began with the cooking, whose planning and grocery gathering, as Adelaide notes in the log, usually dominated so much time that afterwards, there was very little energy left to stir up interest in a debate on women in the workforce.

If the SIP Sisters represented the intellectual and progressive feminine avant-garde of the city, they still carried out their agenda within the boundaries of Mobile’ s conservative and religiously oriented social system. Adelaide is quick to remark in the introductory notes to the SIP Sisters’ logbook that the acronym SIP should by no means suggest that the meetings involved the consumption of alcohol. Whether this was a product of naïveté or deep-seated conviction is unclear (there are rumors that in the later years of the Haunted Bookshop, those who regularly hung out in the store knew that the selection of a few choice books from the shelves would reveal a hidden bottle of hard liquor). The paraphernalia from the Willoughby Institute rings with a note a bit more raucous and a bit less disciplined—to be expected with young Walter at the helm. Stationery, pamphlets, and small volumes of poetry from later in his life appear under the name, too, paired with locations equal part European capitals and Mobile neighborhoods (again, the conceit of the Southern writer): The Willoughby Institute ROME•SPRING HILL•DOG RIVER•PARIS. These locations, I realize, refer not to offices or contacts, but rather to the locations that bore Walter’s self-created and ever-expanding aura.

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‘The Hall has always been a place where people came for a week’s visit and stayed a year, where everybody read and ate, ate and read, and listened to music and danced and painted pictures and climbed trees and ate and gardened and read and ate. Naturally, it’s haunted, delightfully so.’ The Termite Hall so described by Walter in 1982 is a salon of the highest intellectual and cultural variety, most of all, one where Walter, even with his cultural caliber and artistic status, comes off as just one more guest, hardly the center of attention. No wonder no one wanted to leave.

But I get carried away. Angela Trigg points me to a passage in her grandmother’s diary: Adelaide’s worries that the Bookshop will never survive in Mobile, warnings from friends and relatives—no one in Mobile wants a bookstore, because no one in Mobile wants to buy books. If that is a fair barometer for the cultural climate of late 30s and early 40s Mobile, then not only the Haunted Bookshop, but other like-minded intellectual endeavors (Willoughby, SIP, etc) as well would have been a bit out of place and swimming upstream in the city. If the Termite Hall of Walter and Marston was ever the cultural high point that I want to imagine it was, it was an aberrant spike and not a culminating zenith.

Interestingly, Termite Hall’s role as a meeting place for Eugene, Adelaide, & co. is hardly the house’s first time in a role as a joining point. Before the monikers Termite Hall or Greene-Marston House, 2000 Dauphin St. once was called the Half-Way House, as it purportedly lay halfway between the courthouse downtown and the wooded escapes (as well as escapes from yellow fever epidemics in town) surrounding the Jesuit university up Spring Hill. In the age of Eugene Walter, the house continued this role, but it transcended a mere geographical midpoint and became an intellectual and cultural meeting point, too. Most of all, as a symbol of the societal shift between old and new, pre- and post-War Mobile, the 2000 Dauphin St. of Adelaide Marston and Eugene Walter should be seen, figuratively speaking, as a temporal Half-Way House, too.

Most important for Walter upon his return to the Azalea City in 1979, however, was the house’s perceived resistance to the post-War societal and urban shifts that concerned him so much about new Mobile, now a city of malls, poorly planned six-lanes, and the unapologetic suburban sprawl of the 70s. For Walter, the chief detrimental consequence of these shifts wasn’t the white flight, which in fact placed the most noticeable blight on the old city and his boyhood downtown. Rather, Walter seems most upset by the linking (and, in his mind, subsequent bastardization) of the old city French colony culture with the rural agri-culture of the western part of the county. For Walter, the creation of the suburbs in the west part of the city and the infiltration of the old high society with the formerly separate rural customs would have been doubly devastating. The shift was a microcosm and an aftereffect of Mobile’s linkage to and integration with (or contamination by, from Walter’ s perspective) the rest of the state in the period around 1945. ‘Then in the Second World War,’ recalls Walter in his memoirs, ‘all those peasants from the fields came to work in the shipyards. Forbes magazine said that Mobile was one of the towns that grew the fastest during World War II. And those peasants did not go back to the fields when the war was over. They stayed in town and built Baptist churches on every corner.’ An erasure of the old Salt Line, in other words. A desiccation of the water culture.

But it would be irresponsible not to note, too, the larger questions of social justice at play in the background of Walter’s grief. Although he directs the lament toward what he saw as the end of Mobile’s real golden age (symbolized in places like Termite Hall), his complaints are admittedly hypocritical. Declining to return to the Azalea City after his service in Alaska, Walter escaped the post-war changes for brighter stages and bigger parties. Meanwhile, the salons of 2000 Dauphin St fell prey to more abstract termites, namely 1) chauvinistic or (more accurately) pre-feminist social archstructures of the city ca. 1940, pressuring the SIP Sisters one by one all to fulfill the southern expectation of marriage and children, and sacrifice Ophelia’s soliloquies for more domestic duties; and 2) the war, which shipped men like Walter off to the Aleutian Islands, which forced the Hall to partition off its living rooms to create housing for the non-Mobilian workers imported to work at Brookley Field, and which ushered a wave of modern expansion and development into the city following the fighting’ s end.

Further, although the salon’s patroness Adelaide, in her capacity as a female entrepreneur of literature and philosophy, represents a strong and important counter-cultural figure in early-40s Mobile, the social platform of Termite Hall’s golden age was one rooted (even if indirectly) in segregation and a static socio-economic structure. The flowering social scene of Walter’s youth in Mobile, the one he shoots through such glossy and nostalgic filters in The Untidy Pilgrim, is a southern city whose structure is inherently linked, whether intentionally or unintentionally, with pre-Civil Rights segregation and Southern hierarchies of wealth. No discussion of that time can completely avoid an association with those integrated injustices, even though I can imagine neither the flamboyant Walter nor the progressive Adelaide as segregationalists or bluebloods. In Walter’s mind, the disappearance of the Willoughby Institute, the SIP Sisters, and the other salons of Termite Hall represent a decline of the city’s true water culture and coincide with the appearance of a nouveau riche — people whose wealth was made independent of docks capitalism, people who had no interest in spending Saturday evening on Bienville Square, and people who could not claim to be native Mobilians. As tragic a blow as this was to Walter, and as much as this nouvea riche undermines my own mythologizing of water culture in Mobile, it represents a democratization of wealth in what was formerly a static aristocratic system.

Finally, I suppose that any student of Walter would begin to doubt the legitimacy of his depictions of the city, at least generally, when considering the questionable literary ethos presented by his curriculum vitae. Despite the fact that his Untidy Pilgrim won a Lippincott Fiction Prize for Young Novelists in 1952, that he picked up an O’Henry citation for the short ‘I Love You Batty Sisters’ in 1957, and that he helped George Plimpton found The Paris Review and Botteghe Obscure with Marguerite Caetani, Mobile’s one true literary golden boy nevertheless presents an oeuvre whose large majority is cookbooks: American Cooking: Southern Style, Hints and Pinches; The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink; Delectable Dishes of Termite Hall.

Appropriately enough, it is in the last title that one finds his description of the Hall cited above. But even there, it comes to reader in a one page introduction, misplaced, unexplained, and frankly, unrelated to his recipes. It feels like a line from an aborted novel, as if Walter had ideas for a piece focusing on the power of the old manor at 2000 Dauphin St., but was forced to abandon it when he realized that even his talents for creation and invention out of near-nothing (Walter explains in his memoirs how he would occupy himself at Gayfer’s by constructing costumes and scenery from construction paper for use in the one-acts he wrote and directed in his foster home; elsewhere: ‘As a child of the hurricane, I always have the basics. And colored paper to cut out for games.’) wouldn’t be enough to keep afloat the massive nostalgic weight of yearning located in that house. Perhaps the most powerful termites of 2000 Dauphin St were the very thoughts and idealism that allowed Walter to create it—he could only find a salon of such grandeur and magnitude at a great distance, in the powerful deceptions of homesickness that he continued to feed, even cultivate from New York to Paris to Rome. If Termite Hall is indeed haunted, as Walter claims with delight in the cookbook’s introduction, it is so only with the inventions of his own memory.

Ultimately, it is Walter’s very ability to craft such a vivid picture of Mobiliana that makes me call into question entirely his claims about the city’s water culture. Termite Hall exists today as an old house slowly crumbling and rotting away, with no help from the man who could do nothing more than steal its name to promote a cookbook that Mobilians don’t use. I can’t help but feel a bit cynical when an old Eugene Walter remarks. ‘Eventually, all Southerners return home, not to die, but to eat gumbo.’

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I suppose Walter’s description of Mobile — this kingdom of monkeys, north Haiti — is a kind of wishful thinking and another manifestation of the city’s perpetual insistence that it is relevant. But post-reconstruction Mobile has never once competed with the cultural oddity of New Orleans nor with the ambitious economic gunnings of Atlanta. It didn’t witness civil rights like Montgomery or Birmingham, and, despite being home to a few of James Brown’s J.B.s, it never had enough of the artistic consciousness of a place like Memphis. Its very name suggests transience and instability. It’s hot, stuffy, and wet. The climate is oppressive, people say. Mildew appears from nowhere and overgrows an entire front porch.

Perhaps that’s the best depiction of water culture — like humid air so saturated with water that an invisible mildew spore can grow to consume a house, water culture is that tendency for societal value to appear and bloom out of nothing and for no apparent or discernable reason. Mildew’ s tendency to drive Mobile’s house owners insane further substantiates the comparison. After all, Walter names the city sweet lunacy’s seat, and for all I know, the hallucinating and intoxicated Henry Miller is still drifting in the Bay. The two authors’ indifference to—even embrace of — the insanity might be the only true way to approach the Azalea City.

Maybe my dream of Termite Hall is like Walter’s view on the course of civilization or like Miller’s admission that his knowledge of the city is a total fiction, illuminating something essential about the obsessive and lunatic Mobilian culturalist, namely our tendency to imagine things out of thin air and pass them off as the way things really were:

  • Walter: ‘I don’t know one tiny bit of history. I mean History. For me, Columbus discovers America, then the War between the States takes place, then Tallulah and the Sterling girls are born, and then we’re now.’
  • Miller: ‘The Mobile I knew was thoroughly imaginary and I wanted to enjoy it all by myself.’

Oddly, what Miller’s tale leaves out about Farragut is the historically bizarre note that, not only did the admiral steam into Mobile Bay, he did so lashed in Odysseus fashion to the mast of the flagship Hartford. I’d venture to say that Farragut had it right, that the city indeed has a Siren quality about it, smashing fools like me and Walter and Miller (and anyone else who wants to sail into port and capture the city) on the rocks of our own fantasies. Perhaps that’s where all the skeletons in the river come from in The Untidy Pilgrim. Sirens, mythology says, are fated to live only so long as the mortals who hear their songs do not pass the singers by.+

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Footnotes, various and sundry:

1 i.e., avoiding laundry lists of who’s-who and scales of petty social hierarchies, avoiding scrutinizing to which sorority the girls in the family belong or to which Carnival societies standing dues are paid, which is a serious part of Mobile society at one level and in other discussions could under no circumstances be omitted.

2 Adelaide’s granddaughter seems to miss the irony of the statement. On both afternoons that I stop by Bienville Books to speak with her, a young male shuffles around awkwardly, pulling a few books from the shelf without actually shopping, never entering our conversation about Adelaide, but later working Angela’s ear about his plans to write a screenplay for the Iliad (Didn’t they already do that? asks Angela) or his analysis of the plot flaws in the latest George R. R. Martin novel. He’s no Walter, but it’s amusing to see the dynamics of Marston-Trigg bookshops in Mobile maintained across the generations.

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2013: William Stewart lives in Berlin, Germany. He is studying for a master’s in German Philology.

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-Ça va?

-Oui ça va bien, et vous?

-Bien bien merci, et la journée?

-Ça va, ça va—

-Et la famille ça va?

-Oui, merci, ça va.

This repetitive and automatic series of greetings was always tiresome, the false smile and rapidity of the exchanges often belying the honesty they tried so hard to maintain. It was hard to hear the man over the chanting in the background under the tent. The man seemed quite drunk.

-Are you just here to watch? the drunk asked in French.

-Yeah, what’s going on exactly?

-Le Grand Marabout is in town, the drunk said craning his neck towards the tent.

I had no idea who or what the Big Marabout was but I nodded as if understanding.

-So it’s a party then?

It was. A spectacle even. The entire street had been taken over. A makeshift tent of stretched tarp covered the night sky for an entire block, and mismatched bits of turf and multicolored plastic carpets covered the sandy concrete. Some three hundred people filled the space, standing or sitting in plastic chairs and talking very little over the loud religious chants. Drummers, off to one side. One man stood in the center, warbling praise to Allah through two large stacks of speakers with “DJ Dou” hand painted on the screens.

Yet something was very different about this event. Twice before I had seen and heard late night gatherings like this one. Each time it had been the same: sitting in the courtyard I could hear the distant call of drums and a fuzzy crackling voice screaming an incoherent melody in a language somewhere between the native African tongue and Arabic. Standing in the doorway, I could make out the general direction of the sound. All I had to do was follow.

For the last two nights in a row, “following” had led to a group of men gathered in a tight circle under a single bright spotlight, chanting, gently swaying to the beating of the drums and the hypnotic call and response prayers. One man held the mic and called to Allah. The members of the circle looked at him or at the floor, listening for their chance to respond.

For the last two nights in a row, I had stood among the other onlookers, fifty or so, the only toubab in sight (typical), but unchallenged. Once a young man had even handed me a cup and offered tea. It was the only entertainment this late at night, and it seemed normal for people to all join in watching the chants. A social event. A chance to sit together without the obligation of talking. But tonight was different.

First, there were women present. In fact, the crowd seemed to be mostly women. All dressed in their best clothes. Weeds of unimaginable colors and combinations with elaborate embroidery around the necks and hems, sheen and glitter, gold and pounds of makeup to make their skin look lighter. Fabric that hung stiff like it was thickly starched. The men were just as fancy. Some in bright colors, some in patchwork but all in the traditional matching pants and long tunic of West Africa. This the drunk wore as well, a tunic of unnaturally bright colors and brand new white leather sandals. I wore a pocket tee shirt, my cut off work shorts and a pair of ten year old sandals.

-So it’s a party? I asked again because the drunk couldn’t hear me the first time between the double bombardment of alcohol and loudspeakers.

-Oui oui, you want to—?

The drunk’s inflection signaled that it was a question, but I couldn’t make out what the end of the phrase had been. I responded with a knee jerk Oui. Just saying yes usually worked in these situations, and for a moment the drunk seemed satisfied by my answer and had gestured towards the tent, grabbing my hand. The drunk turned away and paused, as though looking for a friend, and then began leading toward the edge of the crowd.

I followed, trying to take my hand back. We were at the far end of the tent now. Separated from the large crowd outside, those inside the tent were seated, obviously important. The drunk and I stood amidst the crowd at the canopy’s threshold and looked from side to side. A thin path sliced through the mass of colorful garments and led straight to the far end. Straight to the Big Marabout. With a sharp intake of breath I realized what the man had asked and before I could say anything against it the drunk, who had never let go of my hand, began pushing through the crowd, his bloodshot eyes fixed on the far end of the tent.

The chanting continued and the drumming never stopped as we broke through the wall of people, but our sudden presence on the scene brought a tangible silence to the air. Heavy women on either side looked at us and only us from their plastic thrones. The stares followed us like a wave as we continued forward, past the drummers, then stepping carefully beside the man with the microphone. Always more stares. I did not belong, that was clear, but an escape was not.

And so I followed, feigning confidence, pretended I knew exactly where I was going and why. The music surged louder, the drums beat faster and the entire room was watching as I inched toward the platform at the far end. In front of me the drunk man marched in his Sunday best and short flat dreadlocks, bumping into waiters passing by with trays of rice and fish. We walked through the crowd on the long thin pathway for what felt like a year or a split second and then, as if the stage and throne emerged from the foaming crowd, like Poseidon surfacing from the blue, there he was.

The Big Marabout sat facing the crowd. Dignitaries and well dressed men with sunglasses surrounded the throne. The Big Marabout’s elbows rested on the arms of the big brown leather armchair, the hands met at eye level,touching only at the fingertips. The Big Marabout was thinly bespectacled and the only person dressed in all white.

As we approached the low and carpeted platform, the drunk the drunk fell to his knees genuflected in reverence and I followed his lead without hesitation. The drunk crawled toward the Big Marabout and took the Big Marabout’ s outstretched hand. The drunk kissed the back of the hand, and then touched it to his forehead. The Big Marabout bent forward, prayed for a moment, and then touched the drunk on the shoulder, a dismissal. Still kneeling, the drunk backed away in a sort of unsteady knee-shuffle until another man dressed in darker clothes with a shaved head and light sunglasses helped the drunk to his feet. The man with the shaved head and light sunglasses pushed the drunk back towards where they had entered. The man with the shaved head and light sunglasses knew the drunk was drunk and handled the drunk in a way appropriate for handling a drunk.

Left alone now in the middle of the crowd and before the Big Marabout, I turned away from the drunk and back toward the throne. I crawled, clumsy, with my heart pounding, lacking all dignity, towards the sandaled feet of the Big Marabout. My bare knees felt the rough carpet, and I thought quickly that maybe I should have taken my sandals off. Carpets were respected here, I knew that but had forgotten in all the commotion. Glancing up, I saw the outstretched hands and the sun stressed eyes of the Big Marabout before me. I took the outstretched hands into mine and touched them to my forehead like I had seen the drunk do before. The hands of the Big Marabout were dry and cool. Calm, resolved, the feeling swept through me like a cool breeze.

My eyes lifted and met those of the Big Marabout as I murmured an inaudible and automatic Merci. The Big Marabout nodded, and with his right palm open, gestured for me to have a seat, there at the Big Marabou’s feet; words wouldn’t have mattered anyway, we were so close to the stack of screaming speakers. It was clear what was meant, and I turned as I sat, meeting the stares from the crowd, which watched the exchange with disbelief and open mouths.

The music droned on but now I felt separate from it. Like I was behind glass, observing something bizarre I could never understand. Slowly , as though I’ d become part of the scenery , the stares left me and turned back towards the singers and other guests. A young man approached and took one of the Big Marabout’ s feet and began giving a massage. The Marabout slowly sank back into the deep embrace of the leather armchair and resumed the wiseand patient position with the fingers falling now to form a cage over his chest. A man approached me and sprayed my neck with a perfume bottle. It was a cheap perfume that smelled unnatural, and I said Merci to the man with the perfume bottle as he passed on to the others on the tiny platform.

Now two men stood in the center chanting into the microphone, singing in reverence to their leader, directing their hands and voices just over my head.

Minutes, maybe several years passed in a wash of sound, color and movement, and I was shuffledslightly sideways to make room for other humble followers to pay respect. Each passed and brushed my side without looking or speaking to me, intent only on the Big Marabout in white. They approached on hands and knees, heads bent. They mouthed thanks through tight smiles. Each came and went, passing off to the side, grinning from ear to ear and filled with an energy they could not control. Waiters passed with trays filled with couscous and onion sauce and fish and the people were happy. More men joined the singers and soon the people rose on either side dancing and raising their arms in celebration. A sea of color and light and sound danced before me, and I watched calmly and at peace, like the Big Marabou in all white behind me, separated from the mass at the center of the tent. I did not belong and yet I was right at home. No one knew my name.

The air was warm and dry as it entered and exited my body. It was time to leave. That moment came clearly and truly, and I turned back towards the Big Marabout. We took each other’ s hands once again and nodded in respect. I rose and exited through the passage off tothe side of the platform. I pushed through the crowd of dancing colors and into the street, just behind the wall at the far end of the tent. It was dark and the street had no lights except for the stars which shone bright and clear. I was alone. The street was sand and the sound of the celebration was muffled by the tent walls. The street was sand and rubble and trash and the stars shed a silent light on my walk back home.+

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2013: Thomas Rowell lives in St. Louis, Sénégal where he studies traditional African dance and builds masks with a local sculptor and bicycle repairman.

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My ‘Happy Graduation’ gift from the universe came in the form of a rain check for another graduation at a later date. Perhaps I wasn’t enthusiastic enough at the first one, or I jinxed myself by forgetting a few lines to the alma mater. Maybe my cap decoration was so lacking in craft as to be offensive to the great graduation spirits, dooming me to thirty weeks’ punishment of (near) solitary confinement in Charleston, Illinois, where I derive a trivial, ironic comfort from the fact that the city is so small I can ride my bike anywhere but the train station. I find myself once again among small town campus life, but this time as a ghost, reliving a kind of 2.0 of my college experience, hanging in graduate-limbo until the University gods redeem my voucher.

Yet one element of this collegiate afterthought stands in stark contrast to the previous track: as a graduate student, I teach one course. The prospect of having students put me on edge initially, and my anxiety heightened when I discovered I had to design the lab portion of ‘Introduction to Art’, a gen-ed course for non-art majors. In other words, the unfamiliar and the uninterested. I was nervous about putting my art-knowledge to the test. For the last four years, when I was wrong about something, my professors corrected me. What if a student asked me one of my own questions, one I still hadn’t answered? It took about three weeks for that to happen.

Though the details are fuzzy, the question itself, delivered in equivalent measures of truculent teenager spunk and genuine rational hunger, I can recall verbatim:

‘How do we know what’s valuable?’

I had just shown them the infamous Fountain (1917) by Dada Ambassador to America Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp’s piece — an upturned urinal, conspicuously signed under the alias ‘R. Mutt’ and originally mounted on a pedestal — had just validated the student’s assumption that what is valuable in the art world is, on the surface, defined simply by whether it garners the acclaim of influential people — this nod of approval often as arbitrary as it is insular. Yet this question is highly consequential to any artist seeking to sell her work. As professionals, artists deal not only with the values of their clients (dealers, gallery owners, collectors, etc.) but if they wish to be considered avant-garde — that semi-hackneyed accolade mostly indicative of culture’s helpless preoccupation with the new — they must address the institutional values of art practice itself. It seems that this has never been a more daunting task than it is today. Studies indicate that the increasingly pluralistic art world is losing the ability it once had to ‘determine the artistic value of emerging work.’1 Why would this be? What are the ramifications on the structure of the art world? Is institutional value true value, or is it just the mirage of centrality and power structures?

When I asked my own painting professor the question of value three years ago, he didn’t seem to be too concerned with mirages or institutions. He told me, plainly, that we are free to value anything we like, as long as we have sufficient reason. This is common advice in academia these days, and I think he’s ultimately right, but at the time I took issue with such a response. Art in a self-indulgent vacuum threatens to become limp and futile, so we look to an institution — some structure embedded in its history — to help inform prevalent artistic considerations in more concrete, meaningful terms.

We might begin by searching for an institution in a very concrete sense, a museum perhaps. Last time I stepped into the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, I found: an enormous replica of a fallen tree trunk made of wood from another tree; a painting whose frame was as deep as the picture was wide so that the tall form popped out from the wall like a brilliant red-on-gray architectural polyp; a mass of industrial felt nailed droopily to the wall; a wooden cabinet laden with photographs, news clippings, and other seemingly random objects splattered with waxy white paint; a simple but deceptively realistic oil painting of a lit candle; a thin, colorfully striped wooden dowel propped against the corner of a room by itself like a forgotten broomstick; and a pile of hard candy.

To distill from this sample a semblance of internal logic that informs a rigorous system of value is next to impossible. The educated visitor to the Institute might answer that a working knowledge of art history would unlock this collection as a rich, eclectic, cleverly insightful, playfully referential, and even touching body of work. Yet even an extensive knowledge of art history can only teach us so much about inherent value until it begins to explain instead how value is constructed, in part because ‘history’ itself is arbitrary and vulnerable to power structures. Its content is framed by subjective curators with self-interested (or present-interested) biases. Just as a shrinking globe forces competing political agendas and religious institutions into confrontation, it also elucidates the inherent pluralism and subjectivity of history’s narrative. The assumption that our museums, because they are institutions of ‘high art’, are collections of the most valuable, advanced, and successful cultural artifacts ignores the inherent historical relativism and arbitrariness of that institution’s decisions to place a piece in its collection. Attempting to abstract from the museum’s contents a set of ideal axioms that could effectively and consistently gauge the value of the works inside the museum involves a completely circular logic. It begs the question, to use that phrase correctly.

Our search for a stable institution is not made any easier by the general motto of rejection by modern and post-modern art against any entity claiming to represent an establishment. In ‘Radicalism as Ego Ideal’, Diedrich Diederichsen terms this a ‘fetish for radicalism’ — its Oedipal complex that critical acclaim comes from imitating, and then dethroning the reigning ideological presumptions of the season. Modernism (in all its –ism manifestations: impressionism, expressionism, fauvism, cubism, suprematism, futurism, constructivism, and so on) had a certain hand in hatching this splintering of the institution precisely on account of the ironclad assurance with which each of its constituents presented their often-oppositional value schemes. The result is a self-created lack of institutional cohesion within art. This complex is deeply tied to modernity’s premise of a linear historical narrative, so the weathering and eventual exhaustion of this fetish — yesterday’s institution — may indeed be the reason we are now asking ourselves the question of value in the first place.

More recently, another dimension of the pesky value question has become visible in contemporary art criticism. The discipline has been approaching a ‘crisis’, one that stems in part from a new generation of art critics sympathetic with postmodern relativism who have flooded the discipline from the bottom-up, resulting in a ‘flight from judgment’ among other things (see Elkins, ‘What Happened to Art Criticism?’). Value judgments that were once of ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ have been tempered into the more Facebook Age friendly ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’. Academia has been under fire for entrenching art rhetoric in alienating jargon and exclusionary, ‘objective’ principles. And although not all critics believe the academy is entirely responsible (some even believe it offers critical solutions), this deepening insularity of the art world has ‘greased the slippery slope to irrelevancy’, echoing our earlier recognition of the difficulties the art world faces in assigning artistic value to emerging work.

Art criticism’s largest problem has to do with the fact that money is often times more persuasive than cohesive critical logic. Benjamin Buchloh succinctly states that ‘you don’t need criticism for investment structure, you need experts’. When he says experts, he means value-arbiters, a role which once belonged to these critics and which now has been outsourced to gallery owners, collectors, and other ‘insiders’ who define value behind closed doors rather than through published essays and magazine columns. They assert (not discern) the ‘value’ of emerging works of art on private terms of economy and investment without even the façade of public critical discourse. When the investment value of a work of art outstrips its critical-rhetorical esteem, cultural evaluation becomes wholly inseparable from the economic architecture underneath it; Chelsea begins to look a lot like Wall Street. Could we say that the language of modern value systems is in fact money?

Yes, except that it’s important to note the arts market operates simultaneously in two different versions of economic spheres: there’s the high niche market, open to a relatively small circle of billionaires whose private collections account for a good portion of the works currently cycling through museums around the globe; and then there’s the mainstream commercial market of concert halls, record stores, museum gift shops, theatres, etc., tailored to middle-class consumers of cultural artifacts that may be highly valued but are, as artifacts, too common or reproducible to sell for a very high price. Thus, at each node, value hierarchy is represented differently; the high market operates on valuation, or an individual work’s price tag, while the mainstream market operates on popularity. Both become a tacit indication of the cultural value of that object or artifact – one that can be used as a point of reference to which we may compare all other objects in its category.

So now we’ve reduced what’s ‘valuable’ to either a) it’s incredibly popular or b) someone bought it for a very large amount of money. Now I can tell my student that in order to be a successful artist, she must indulge trending styles and price her work at astronomical figures. She must hype her work as much as possible while also appearing personally impervious to fame and popularity in order to avoid accusations of egoism. She must either mystify us with her seeming insider authority, cast herself as a cult hero to generate intrigue and buzz, or, to appeal also to those who aren’t yet insiders, appear as if she is brilliantly radical, original, and ultramodern. She may even hedge her success by creating alter egos who produce artwork in a multiplicity of styles and media so that, no matter the season, at least one of them always finds the spotlight. She must market herself to death. Then she will be the most successful artist in the world.

This answer unsettles us. On the one hand, a market- and money-based system of value offers little beyond a barometer of gullibility (‘Art is whatever you can get away with’ –Andy Warhol) and the rapacity of capitalism (‘ M-C-Mʹ ‘ –Marx). But on the other hand, tracing a ‘tradition’ of art does coincide rather strikingly to tracing a history of money.

In the pre-industrial centuries, tradition evolved in units of monarchical generations, progress was slow, ostensibly linear, and determined by a very, very narrow conversation. But as industrialization allowed the Western world to expand and connect to farther and farther flung lands, it forced this tradition to fracture also. Weakened by an increasingly decentralized patronage in the growing bourgeois class, the conventions of artistic evolution received a coup de grâce of melancholic inspiration during World War I, refracting aesthetics taste towards a colorful, if not also incoherent schizophrenia of style, concept, and form. On the positive side, the development of the last three centuries finally removed economic patronage (projects commissioned by an aristocratic family in exchange for money and general being-taken-care niceties) from the list of prerequisites for being an artist

Clement Greenberg’s 1939 ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’ notes this connection particularly well, in part because Greenberg understands the original intention of the avant-garde as an attempt to subvert precisely this link between money and ‘classical’ art. The essay pinpoints the arrival of the avant-garde in high-art’s departure from (and confusion of) the socio-economic ruling class, whose patronage had formerly comprised the lifeblood of high art:

The avant-garde’s specialization of itself, the fact that its best artists are artists’ artists, its best poets, poets’ poets, has estranged a great many of those who were capable formerly of enjoying and appreciating ambitious art and literature, but who are now unwilling or unable to acquire an initiation into their craft secrets.2

Greenberg follows the claim, however, by noting (and not with a little irony) that the avant-garde of his day still belongs to this ruling class: no social culture, no matter how militantly bohemian, can exist without a dependable and stable income. The ‘ambition’ of Greenberg’s avant-garde paradoxically thwarted itself when it threatened its own economic base. Accordingly, avant-garde high-art burned itself from both ends, first by ostracizing itself from its economic patronage but second through its self-contradictory dependence on the bourgeoisie.

And of course kitsch, Greenberg’s antithesis to the avant-garde, i.e., whatever brings up the rear of the avant-garde’s advance, also exemplifies in the most extreme and often vilified way the relationship between ‘art’ and cash flow. Starting with pre-digested fragments of high culture, kitsch concerns itself only with the question, will it sell? At the same time that the avant-garde worked diligently to confuse the historical patrons of the aristocracy, a new patron-base immerged from 19th/20th-century industrialized nations in the shape of the economically-independent middle class: individually, the members of this group were less monetarily powerful and less ideologically homogenous but, together, they represented an equal-if-not-stronger buying block. And to this new group of patrons—less familiar with the ‘tradition’ of the old families and thus uneducated in the specialization and complicated commentary of the avant-garde — the art industry of kitsch served its processed and easily-palatable results. Except now those being served weren’t so much patrons as they were consumers.

Greenberg’s charitable but nevertheless critical treatment of kitsch argues that the new middle class’s mere access to art — or perhaps more precisely articulated, mere potential for control of art through buying power—could not serve ‘to distinguish an individual’s cultural inclinations, since it was no longer the exclusive concomitant of refined tastes.’3 Yet Greenberg’s own presentation of art’s relationship to money (namely, tradition) does not allow for such an easy dismissal of the artistic value reflected in kitsch. While Greenberg may have been correct in identifying the gap between what populous masses are capable of understanding and the avant-garde’ s advancements in art practice, work that earns the popular vote of the middle class’s wallet still deserves some kind of consideration as having gained establishment within the tradition. Despite the middle class’s ‘uninitiated’ status inside the tradition of high art (i.e., historically unconnected to the aristocratic patronage system where style and taste exclusively lived), when the money shifted, so did this tradition and whatever system of value it espoused. And so the taste of the middle class became . . . legitimate.

This isn’t intended to suggest that the tastes of the middle class suddenly became refined; whether or not a work’s popularity bodes poorly for innovative, challenging, or even interesting practice is a separate discussion altogether. Rather, this line of reasoning seeks to point out that even the works of a kitsch mogul such as Thomas Kinkade cannot be dismissed as value-less. If, for example, Renaissance patronage helps explain why Raphael or Titian are masters, then this middle class voting ($) block deserves to have a say in the artists in which tradition finds value. For the 5% of American households (primarily middle class, one would assume) owning a work by Kinkade, his paintings do indeed have value, first and foremost the dollar value paid by the ‘collector’ via QVC. And the attribution of value, monetary or otherwise, establishes the piece within tradition. But that shouldn’t be worrisome: ‘all values,’ Greenberg reminds us, ‘are human values, relative values, in art as well as everywhere else.’ If you didn’t give up reading when this essay asserted the relativity of history, this last claim shouldn’t be too much to bear.

The truly worrying extension of this line of thought, however, is not the impossibility of a linear art tradition that exclusively purges out those works failing to correspond to some unnamed ideal (invisible PERFECT ART in the heavens). The real problem with a whole-hearted vote from the middle class wallet for a kitsch artist like Kinkade (named by some as the ‘most successful’ artist of his generation, his profits were somewhere in the 30 million USD-range) is kitsch’s utter complacency with the cultural status quo and the perpetuation of such complacency by the monetary success of an equally complacent art work. If Greenberg’s statement holds true – that artwork gains attention when the reality it generates corresponds most closely to the reality recognized by the audience—then the value (monetary , popularity, otherwise) of a Kinkade reflects a generally satisfied reality, that of the economic security idealized by the middle class. This tendency realizes the biggest fear of those crabby intellectuals discussed above: it encourages and protects an art that utterly lacks a critical element. ‘Only when [it] becomes dissatisfied with the social order…does [it] begin to criticize their culture,’ concludes Greenberg about the middle-brow sensibility.

Whether or not the work of ‘masters’ belongs to a cohesive and continuous tradition, and whether or not the tradition corresponds to any real ideal of good or bad art, all ‘masters’ have had one thing in common: a desire to challenge and a desire to move. In its humblest terms, the litmus test of valuable art becomes: is it personally moving? The middle class über-patronge of someone like Thomas Kinkade may deserve a serious place in the discussion of late 20th-century art tradition, but a reflection of complacency is by definition necessarily un-moving.

This doesn’t leave us with much to stand on. History, it seems, is problematic for structuring value because it’s based in a hierarchy as relative, pluralistic, and money-driven as the present. This helps to explain why contemporary art criticism has a hard time gaining authority when it isn’t backed by a price tag — or is it the very fact that we presume a connection between the two that destroys the authority? Sell-out is not a friendly word among artists. And even if the reliance on the market as a gauge of value isn’t a sign of an artwork’s thorough whoring, trust in a comparison of nominal values leaves us to praise the Kinkade who can hang a light-effusing cabin in every living room in America. Even then it’s hard to say whether that value is real and pertinent, or if it’s just another arbitrary substitute necessitated by the economic infrastructure of society. Value is an elusive concept.

So what would the correct value structure look like? returning to my poor freshman in “Intro”. That society has such trouble reliably delineating value leads to one final question; what is the role of our own

personal value systems in evaluating art, and how does that relate to these? It’s here where I must conclude that my former painting professor may have actually had the most sensible contribution to this conversation after all. Perhaps, by valuing whatever we want, we are creating the most organic vision of value possible, one that parallels another development within the art world indicated in recent studies: the increased importance of niche markets within smaller, more localized communities to patronage roles. For a discipline that has found its richest, deepest rewards in a medium that transcends verbal logic, perhaps it’s appropriate, and maybe even beautiful, that the answer isn’t so simple.+

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Footnotes:

1 McCarthy, Kevin F., Elizabeth H. Ondaatje, Arthur Brooks, and András Szántó. ‘A Portrait of the Visual Arts: Meeting the Challenges of a New Era.’ Rand.org. RAND Corporation, 2005. Web. 26 Sept. 2012. Summary xv.

2 Greenberg, Clement. ‘Avant-garde and kitsch.’ Partisan Review 6.5 (1939): 34-49.

3 Greenberg actually applies this quote to literacy, but uses the example as a direct analogue to kitsch sensibilities. This would suggest (problematically) that, at one time, such access indeed was concomitant of fine tastes—a claim that becomes difficult to accept at face value in light of this essay’s position.

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2013: Nicholas Gunty lives in Charleston, IL, where he pursues a graduate degree in studio arts in new media.

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