Friday, July 25, 2014

Chapter Seven: Decades of Patience (Imaginary Friends)

Imaginary Friends is a serial novel. New chapters go up every Friday. If you're new to it, you can catch up by starting from the Introduction.

If you're impatient to read more about Clay Dillon, click on "Books" above for ordering information for Nothing is Right, the prequel to this story.

Clay was liking Ender's Game so far. Not only did it move quickly and assume children to be capable intellectual beings, but it also played with a lot of ethical questions. Ender seemed to constantly weigh his choices and actions against the expectations of his teachers and parents, and while it seemed odd that every moral choice he made resulted in his being permitted to be violent, it was very easy to see how the boy drew his conclusions.

After all, it did seem like everyone in his life was banding together to tell him that what he was doing was the right thing. They constantly rewarded his behavior, referred to him as strong and ingenious, and talked about his ability to decide to kill as a gift. It was not hard to see how it was that those things would help him to accept his own nature, to find a way to explain to himself why he was right for what he did.

It was much harder to find a way to identify with him, though. Clay was not, by nature, one to pick fights. He much preferred to retreat, so that he could pursue his own projects without being encumbered by the expectations of others. Fighting was a protracted waste of time an energy that simply made one miss out on the opportunity to accomplish his goals.

At least, that was what he had always thought before. Ender helped him to see why it was that he needed to fight sometimes. Through the boy's story, Clay was able to accept that there would be times when he could not run, when his ability to live as he wanted to live would be threatened. At those times, the book warned, he would need to be prepared to set aside his normal rules of conduct in order to do what was necessary to preserve himself and his goals.

Ender also taught Clay how to know when those times were happening. Unfortunately, it seemed like they were nearly always happening.

Clay did not notice as he read that Ender's criteria for determining the application of force were all extroverted. Not once did he truly reflect on the choices he made unless he was forced to. Nor did the question of proportionality ever arise. It completely eluded Clay that Ender viewed force as the end of diplomacy and not a part of it.

The concept of overwhelming force was just too logical to be ignored. If one's obligation was only to his own side in a battle, then the most moral use of force had to be the one that minimized damage to your side. You couldn't think about the other side. Clay could tell that was true because his metal body woke up and made him feel strong and warm when he thought about it. The more he tempered his anxiety in its molten glee, the easier it became to keep his words.

He would warm himself with Ender's embers.

Clay let himself repeat “Ender's embers” out loud a few times. He liked it, so he started singing it to a tune he made up as he went along. The song and the syllables made time go away, and Clay let himself drift in the narrative.

The next thing he knew, his mother's voice was laughing nearby. He looked up and saw her in the open doorway. She held herself up against the theshold, to keep herself from being knocked over by her own guffaws.

Clay felt his metal body harden then.

“I don't laugh at you when you repeat the lines to Little House on the Prairie,” he said, “even though you get them wrong.”

Kitty Dillon stopped laughing then.

Clay smiled.

“I can laugh at you all I want, I had to clean your shit for two years,” she said. “When I get old and you have to change my adult diaper, then you can laugh at me all you want. Until that day, you remember who's who.”

Her words glanced sideways and rang hollow when his metal body deflected them, and Clay could see that she truly did fear getting old because she assumed that he would do something horrible to her. When he replied to his mother, daggers shot from the end of Clay's tongue and he could feel razor blades in his throat.

“Don't you ever assume that I would stoop to doing something just because you would,” he said. “That's not right.”

Kitty stormed over to him and stood above his bed, staring down at her son. Looking up at her, Clay could not see anything but her distant face and the frame of her hair at the end of her long body.

“Don't you forget who the parent is, either. I'm still big enough to put you under that faucet and wash you out,” she said.

Clay heard himself speak without knowing in advance what he was going to say.

“Do it then!” he screeched. “Just fucking do it! You won't change me because you can't wash out what's already clean. Someday I'll get that chance to abuse you back because you will be old.”

Clay grabbed himself by the throat when he finished speaking. For a moment, he thought he might have cut himself. Then he noticed that his mother was staggering away from the bed and turning back toward the door.

As Kitty Dillon ran away, she listed to one side like a wounded animal.

For some reason, as Clay watched her go, he was reminded not of Ender's Game and its philosophical rationalization of force, but of The Joy Luck Club and its winds and hidden daggers.

“Lindo,” he said to himself.

“Ender Lindo,” he sang. Then he started to mix it up. “Ender's embers. Lindo's windows. Linder's winders. Endo's embos…”

He kept going as he picked his book back up.

* * *

Kitty Dillon stormed down the stairs and into the kitchen, cursing under her breath. Almost as soon as she started sputtering obscenities, though, she started chastising herself for doing so. Kitty did not want to be the kind of person who would curse at her own son, even under her breath. Parenthood required more than that. Still, between Clay's uncanny, fixed glare and his brother's rampaging temper tantrums, she felt like nothing she did made any difference.

Kitty stopped everything and forced herself to breathe. She knew she made a difference, and she took a moment to tell herself so.

Her chest tightened against her resolve.

Kitty felt like she was lying to herself, but she knew that she was not. Without a thought, she dropped to her knees. The cold tile hurt her shins, but it also drew the frustration and anger out of her limbs, leaving a chilling tranquility. She said a “Hail Mary” prayer.

The anxiety receded a little.

She said it exactly eight more times, followed by an “Our Father.”

It hardly mattered that the rosary her mother had given her at confirmation was upstairs in its leather pouch. Kitty held it in her mind, and her fingers recalled the well-worn texture of its pearl beads.

At the end of the second decade, she felt like herself again.

When the anxiety and the vulgar thoughts caught up with her, Kitty Dillon always relied on the rosary to set things right in her mind. No matter the problem, it was always there for her: When her father made her drive him to the liquor store because he was too drunk (she had been twelve); when her friend Samantha had talked her into chewing a hunk of Red Man tobacco and she had accidentally swallowed it while trying to hide it from the teacher (third grade); when her period had not come and she had made the lonely trip to the drug store, knowing the truth all the while and dreading it anyway—that she would be pregnant and it would result in a son (at the age of sixteen)…

She could see, in Clay's behavior, a dangerous tendency that she had always felt in herself as well, and she wished he would realize her guidance and her religious instruction were meant to help him manage it. She made it, she married the father of her firstborn son, and their small family lived in one of the more genteel blue collar suburbs that ringed Grand Rapids. The rosary worked. Trust in God worked.

Even if they didn't, repetitive behavior and quiet time alone worked. It was just a matter of helping Clay to see that. The hard part was trying to convince him to listen, because he was right. He was a temperamental, rude little shithead, but…

Kitty took a deep breath and said another decade.

Clay's dignity was right to be wounded, she told herself. She had done something that belittled him. And when it came to the books, he had lived up to his side of their deal. He even made sure that he was choosing a positive, moral kind of story to read for himself, and she had overreacted because she did not trust him.

Or he thought she did not trust him.

Kitty chastized herself for slipping into Clay's frame of reference. Mark always pointed out that she did that, and that it didn't do the kids any good for their parents to indulge them in the short-term. She needed to worry less about whether her son had a point and more about how she was going to recover enough credibility to convince him that she really did know what was right for him.

When Kitty asked about what The Joy Luck Club was, the librarian suggested that they read it together. Kitty could not even keep up with the progress that the boy was making in his Bible, though, let alone keep pace with his appetite for other literature. Nor did she totally understand his interests—space and robots one day, but then family dramas and folklore the next. It all seemed so scattered, and when she managed to ask him about what he was reading and why, he always seemed so sure of his choices and so offended at having them scrutinized; it was hard not to think that he was up to something.

She hoped that some day he would figure out how to exercise his need for privacy without…

Without what? she asked herself. Without acting like...

Kitty Dillon did not like any of the suggestions her brain was giving her for the rest of that sentence, so she refused to finish it. Instead, she prayed another decade and tried not to think of anything but the stained glass image of the blessed heart in the memorial windows on the west side of St. Jude's.

* * *

Ender was just getting to know his squad when Kitty Dillon walked back into Clay's room, and for just a moment as Clay heard and smelled his mother's presence, but before he turned to look at her, it seemed almost as if she was striding through Ender's barracks on the space station.

The weird overlap in Clay's perception blipped out of existence when he closed the book and looked up.

“I've decided that I was unfair,” Kitty Dillon started.

Clay smiled.

She held up a finger at him. Then she continued.

“I have been nervous about keeping my end of the bargain, because it wasn't really my end. Your father was the one who said you should be able to read whatever you want if you also read the Bible. I want you to enjoy your reading, but I believe that you should be talking through the things you read and comparing your thoughts to someone else's. This is what we do in Bible study, and it's what you need to do when you read books above your grade.

“To help you with this, I've decided to read an adult book with you. It's one I've already read, so we can talk about it as you go. It is called The Screwtape Letters, and it is a book that was very important to me as a teenager.”

“What's it about?” Clay asked. He liked the idea that he was going to be able to read something that his own mother had not understood until she was a teenager.

“It's about sin and temptation, and the difference between good and evil. The main characters are demons.”

Clay's eyes went wide when she said that last bit. Somehow, she had a hard time with nice aliens who looked like demons (in Childhood's End), but she did not see anything wrong with reading a book whose main characters were actual demons. She hated the idea of his reading a book about Chinese families (The Joy Luck Club), but she totally ignored the science fiction book that was all about how and when to commit yourself to exterminating your enemies (Ender's Game).

He had no idea what motivated his mother, but he was excited by the idea that she wanted to read something that seemed so… fun… after trying to stick him with the Little House books for so long.

* * *

Kitty Dillon's smile warmed as she watched her son's appreciation and excitement break in waves across his face. He would see—he would come to understand the forces she was working to protect him from, because now he was going to start to read about them, and she would be there to guide him. Mark was wrong about turning the boy loose in the library to fend for himself. All that did was lead to his reading novels that no one else had read, which would isolate him. The only way to make sure he was understanding what he was reading was to guide him through it, and that meant that you had to be able to commit to reading what he read.

That was why it only made sense to have Clay reading things that she had already read and understood. The librarian had meant well, when she suggested that the two of them debate the books he read, but the idea that the debate should not have a predetermined course was unsettling, and Kitty suspected it could be morally hazardous.

No, she told herself as she hugged her son, this is better. Infinitely better.

Next Friday: Pig Pen is Happier Than Linus (Part I)

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Imaginary Friendship (For Nasir Jones)

Editorial Note: Imaginary Friends will not appear this week. Before going further with that project or Neurotropes, I need to clarify a little bit of the position I'm in as I write these things. Here's a missing section, a dedication poem and the seventh part of my Thoughts on Writing. I hope you like it.

Books built my vocabulary,
but gaps the between
your syllables
honed my flow.
Fuck Iggy Azalea.
This is what
her fans should know.

I wasn't ready when
I first heard you
pull a Descartes;
I'd missed Illmatic
and It Was Written
because my life
was falling apart,
but when I was alone
I'd steal your CD
out of my deadbeat
roommate's player
and hear your
declaration of being,
back to backing
I Am with Outkast's
Stankonia
and feeling the tension
in the difference
between kinds of
rhythms.

I knew you through
Tre's obsession
with The Blueprint,
but I couldn't begin
to sense the importance
of the fact that
while I was listening
to the Dead Prez set,
he was only interested
in what you said
'cuz you had beef brewing.

I knew he wouldn't be
looking
for the missing disc
because it happened
to be older than
106th & Park's
weekly top vids,
and it didn't have you
calling Jay's name on it.

I won't pretend
that I don't like Jay-Z's
first architecture,
and I got the Black
Album on wax,
but the fact is
that that's it.

And at the age his career is?
That's like a one hot record
every ten year average.
I got my reasonable doubts
about anyone whose lyrics are only
about money,
making it,
and being mad at the work
that someone else did.

In fact, lyrically
I did not even know
Talib Kweli,
but Jay-Z's diss got me
listening,
and then I developed a sense
for Common Sense,
and it seemed like Chicago had beats
like New York had in the nineties,
only not the same sound,
just the same quality.

Like Water for Chocolate
opened up for me
because of Jay-Z's words
and your help developing
a sensibility.

That and the love
of my best friend
also let Jill Scott in.

I found all that
by figuring out Jay-Z
only dissed out of envy,
so his targeting you
during your troubles,
at least gave credibility
to the idea that each
of his dismissals
was a reference
to some shit I should be
listening in on.

Imagine my surprise,
followed by the laughter in my eyes
when you got him out of Linkin Park,
talking truth about being a Black Republican,
and then ended the feud once and for all
by reminding everyone about the monotony
of listening to a businessman
bragging about money.

Even if that song was a work
I got a real thrill
out of you showing us Jay-Z's heel.

But also imagine the frustration
I felt over Graduation.

It winning a Grammy
was only a travesty
because of the album it beat,
but it was still a real blow to me.
It made it difficult for me
to embrace Kanye
until I heard Black Skinhead
sounding like a marriage
between you and Marilyn Manson.

Then I realized that even if he beat you,
he still knew who to pay attention to
if he wanted to keep the tap open
and flow truth.

Hip Hop is Dead is a master work,
and any southern rappers
who didn't recognize
the call to action had to be
overcompensating
for shit they said
that they know shouldn't have happened,
because it's not like
you originated the sentiment.
Andre 3000 had already said it,
and when Big Boi got
temperamental
about your album,
I noticed Dre stayed awfully quiet.

Looking past the moment it responded to,
I'd like to think it's got a deeper lesson
that kids should appreciate too,
so I load my own extended clip
and play it for my cousins, calling attention
to the first time you reference it
and the different phrasing
to point out that you're not
about to start shooting
'cuz the clip goes in a deck,
and speaking until you own the beat
is how a DJ gets wrecked.

And from there we talk about how
musical samples and history
coated with pastiche
creates holographic imagery
of a culture
that kids who weren't living yet
need to be in touch with.

That starts a conversation
about generational duty
and the fact that cultures only die
when they're either
colonized by outsiders
or when the rift between
mentor and mentee
is about power
and not artistic development.

Thanks to your eighth album
being a textbook, a handbook,
and a check list,
I don't think there's an excuse
for any younger musicians
not to have a sense of what
came before them,
and I recommend you
to all of my friends
who don't know more than
the beats on Top 40
and the performers
who speak weak
simple rhythms
over them.

You were my point of access
for a world that was able
to string together syllables,
covering over the same kind of hole
in the throat that drove
my frustration
and kept me from speaking
the way that I wrote.

Multidimensional
references
to shared experience
was how I thought,
and until I encountered hip hop,
I didn't know
that it was how
a whole culture held conversations.

I was stuck at Tanagra
with Star Trek conventions
when my head was opened
and Big Daddy Kane was shoved in,
and then I understood
what Eminem was stealing
and the things that would be necessary
before my own efforts started to succeed.

I really appreciated you turning Will.i.am
into Well.i.did, and it made me take
The Black Eyed Peas
just a little more seriously.

After I got older and finished my degree,
I went back to Illmatic and got myself a schooling,
and even though grad school taught me to script,
It Was Written was how I learned about dramatic writing.

You gave me power,
and lessons from a Firm hand
that showed that
if Foxy was alive
I needed to pay attention
more than I had been.

If you didn't call Jay-Z a homo,
I'd think your words
were letter perfect,
but my queerness gets agitated
every time I hear that.
It's a rotten spot, and
this is coming from a fan
who even jams to your bricks.
I can hack Nastradamus,
but I can't tolerate
that homophobic shit.

Still, you were the best friend
I ever met in music.

When Marilyn Manson
was on the High End of Low,
your references to people I should know
put me off that and into
The Low End Theory
and from there it was only a short distance
before I could sense the 7th Chamber,
and another year before I entered it.

Now I shift back and forth between
old rock, the Black Label Society,
Strange Famous (especially Sage Francis),
and the people you brought with
when you waltzed into my life
and gave me something to do during
my longest internship,
when I had to learn about unemployment.

In fact, you might even be
the reason
the unemployment ended,
since unlocking this ability to hear
musicality before worrying
about meaning
is how I developed
a coping mechanism
that allowed me to speak
in front of a classroom.

It turned me from a television addicted kid
into a storyteller who conceives of lyrics
as verbal paintings.

I wasn't a working writer
until I was working on understanding
the thing that pulled me out
of my own experience
and demanded that my attention
turn itself to your stories.
I learned to look past the things
I was taught to see,
and to hear meaning in everything.

Nas albums are gospels,
and even if you can be a little homophobic,
at least you're not a misogynist,
and I probably wouldn't know
Queer artists like Angel Haze
if I hadn't started at your shit.

Before she ever said it,
I already knew I was Dirty Gold
from the way my self-esteem was rebuilt
from my interaction with interpreting
your coded messages,
and I still can't believe
they ever questioned your intelligence.

Still, I'm feeling what it's like
to have a life
where everyone does it.

I've heard interviews with Kanye West
where he stops playing at being
an entertaining guest and starts
to get his creative process off his chest.
He says that he sees colors
when he's composing,
talking about beats like they're flashing.

I'm synesthetic like that too,
only more tactile,
and when I hear your verse,
it's not flashing colors I see,
it's a gallery hanging only Dali
and a sense that
The Persistence of Memory
is a fractal object that
a certain type of artist
can't stop himself from re-creating,
and I want to do that too,
so I start trying to devise
these Tesseract Tracts,
studying Ghetto Rainbows
alongside you, seeking
images of other dimensions
and illuminating points of intersection
where I can catch glimpses of
the things I can never know directly.

You taught an ignorant kid
raised in the grip
of suburban white
supremacists
to sense the place
where hip hop lives,
and I'm never forgetting it,
and I won't deny I sometimes
borrow a cadence
but I respect you too much
to take vocabulary I shouldn't
or to fake an accent I didn't get
through natural exposure to the sounds
of the new family I entered
after being liberated
from the one where I began.

Sometimes I sound southern now,
but not dirty south,
and I know
what words do and don't
belong in my mouth,
and I can finally control
how they come out.

Your example taught me
to channel my Autisticness
out of frustration
and into this productive shit
and the only problem I've got now
is I can't stop talking
until I get too tired
and collapse from it.

You made me too happy,
and now I'm burning my candle at both ends,
making neurologically inspired
rhetorical performance theory
and an Imaginary Friend story
collide and cause a Big Bang.

This is how new universes get born,
and in a couple billion years,
when all of this happens again,
we'll laugh and watch from outside
while they live their lives
without realizing that they're just holograms
and that higher dimensions are projections
of master artists describing the interaction
of small particles, like quiet lives
lived without access to basic resources.

Then one of them will hack a tesseract track,
and it will begin again.

It Was Written.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

American Pickers (A Poem)

Editor's Note: This might be satire. 
Any resemblance to any people, 
living or dead,
should probably be taken 
as a sign 
of intentional disrespect.

I.

“American Picker”
you call me
when you dial
in to
digest
the remnants
of your own sense
of your last
half century,
trusting
your nostalgia
to a network
that calls work-based
reality T.V.
History.

II.

Still, you have to know those bastards
are nothing but actors.
Their sales might be real
but the patter is a matter
of performance
and hours of practice.
They run a brick and mortar store
without knowing brick or mortar,
roofing,
factory temp gigs,
timber contracts
or desperate acts,
so they don't know what it is
to live off a story and a worry.
They call this thing a game,
and making them overpay
is the only way we feed
everyone who shares our names.

I.

I got past that
and bought
forty acres
accessible only
by two tracks.
We got our
own lake and
no neighbors,
just hectares
of oaks packed
against any
prying eyes
that might want
to shrink my
business
by getting
themselves
a free supply.

No cellphone
reception though.
We gotta get
around that.

I got a
satellite
dish for the
internet,
so I can
check out
information
on the
reptilians,
and the
NSA's
fanfics
about its own
abilities.

II.

I hope you feel a shiver
when we're at the same function
and I walk up on you wearing
my twenty-year-old Rustlers.
You don't know what to make of 'em,
you assume they're couture
because
you never heard
of 'em, and you wonder
where they came from,
me being just an old fart.
I forget you weren't even sixteen
when the last K-mart
went bankrupt in these parts.

I go get emotional at estate sales,
looking real pale and
staggering, hand-over-my-heart
to buy things to remember
my dear friends who aren't
there to argue about the veracity
of my performance
or my choice of part.

I'm selling my picks to you later,
and at a markup,
after the sale ends and I realize
“my dining room won't fit a table
with these dimensions!”

And you fall for it over and over again,
because the television
has you looking for store owners.
You haven't caught on
that they say home, have you?

I.

This is a game
where if you
outbid me,
I might follow
you home
to know your
community,
then come back
at night
with two friends
and steal the
aluminum
bleachers
off every
outdoor
facility.

You want to
take my
inventory?
I'll take the seat
out from under
everyone
in your whole
town,
then drive 'round
with my new haul
for a week
and sell
a little piece
to every
metal dealer
in the
vicinity.

II.

You're kidding me.
You think they don't already
have a security camera pointed
at every piece of public metal
that can be approached by
a pickup truck at night?
You made sure to come to
my community, right?
The tactics that you practice
are my daily fight for life
and I don't have a family savings
or marriage money from my wife.

This ain't an operation, it's my existence, right?
You can't just fight
as if anything you do is something I can come through.
Don't you have any idea about people who
didn't grow up with the resources you are accustomed to?

You want to pick a fight for sport, fuck you.
Everything I do is a fight for survival.
You want to wax philosophical about
taking turns winning,
turn our business into a work,
and lock down auctions,
only to cut me in for a fraction
of the action
I could have on my own?
You might have the bucks to succeed,
but I'll take a shit on your throne.

I.

In the middle
of my forest
is my
production
floor—four
acres of hearty
Afghani,
bred for
the outdoors.

It came back
with me
after my
last tour.

These days, I
feel bad for
the bastards
who can't catch on
or whose
personal chances
put them in
unfortunate
circumstances.

I'm branching out,
employing
as many as
I can now,
but there's always
gonna be more
hungry mouths,
and hungry mouths
seem only to have me
to jaw around.

It's gotten
so I have
to support
open carry,
but only
because
my business
would be
impossible
without a
shotgun,
and I need
them deregulated
so no
searches
turn up my weed
just because
cops see me
packing.

But guns bring
gun things, and
gun things bring
lucky chances
and freak
happenings,
changing games
and making me
ever more
aggressive.

I might need
to pull out,
go back to
picking
estate sales,
and let
the market
cool down.

II.

People, we need to pass open carry
to protect all this inventory,
because at this point,
antiques are just a front
for selling Kush at cash-only
venues across the county.

I spend every day
taking tourists for their wallets
on living room pieces
while handing out
eighty dollar quarters
to everyone who can spot
what my hustle is.

Can you give me a break, please?
Legalize my subsistence
just a little bit?
And it wouldn't hurt if the law came
with no grandfather clauses,
secret license bids,
or any other bullshit in it.

Oh, and please throw in some
antitrust protections
so that I can grow this
in my backyard
and put this bastard
out of business.

After all, I'm not the only one who benefits;
I couldn't be selling this shit
if all of you weren't buying it,
and if I could I'd work a living wage
doing nothing but this.

It's a win-win.

I.

I don't need
your attitude
fucking up my
business.
And what the
fuck is this?
You want to
“legalize it?”
Are you
trying to
fuck with my
entire life?

Wait. This is
about the
bleachers, right?

So you're going
to regulate
me right into
a corner
by undoing
the criminal
law and
turning my
grift
corporate?

And you can't see
how that affects
your ability
to achieve
what I've done?

Hello?
I'm still
talking...

Way to go,

wait...

leave the
lights on...