500 Words

Each workshop should feature a theme, Joyce declared at the beginning of Workshop 2, but Solo bristled no, keep organic with the works in progress showing the way, lighting a path of discussion. Yeah, Matilda said, I just want some response, anything, comment, you know? Writing is wandering alone in a wilderness, Joyce labored on, somewhat aphoristically, and the writing workshop is bumping into others in that backwoods. All lost, Virginia quipped, or I thought it was a quip, but I was the only one to crack a one off barking smile, and Virginia gave me a puzzled look as if to say we are not in this together, but that was just my read, which could have been off by a mile of woodland. We were, for Workshop 2, to have come up with 500 words describing our project, and another 500 words of our project, typed onto a single sheet of paper, which we passed to our left, reading and commenting in written notes, in the margins, on those passed to us, and passing them on, until our page circled back around home, and we read silently the comments written for us, scribbled in margins, side top and bottom and overflowing to the backside of the page, some, that is, others I noted had fewer notes. We then took a break, allowing us to count to ten, as it were, Solo said, before reacting. The comments could be signed or not, but I signed all of mine, no worries, trying to be helpful, focussing on how the writing made me feel. Oh, feelings, Joyce scoffed. We were breaking up now, talking in pairs or across the table. Yes, Anais came to my defence, sentience, taste and touch and smell. Nonsense, Joyce snuffed, we can’t taste words. These you might be able to, Djuna said, holding up the ink drawing that accompanied her and Hilda’s submission. Sam was the first to put his page down and move toward break, followed by Penelope. Others checked their phone for whatever, news from the sitter, texts from the other, posts from friends on the outside, out of the wilderness area. I went out to the sidewalk and breathed deeply of a fall breeze kicking up a mushroom thickness into the air, thinking of heading over to the pub for a quick beer before the second half of Workshop 2, but Anais stopped me, saying she had counted my words and noted there were exactly 250 each of both analysis and project. Had I counted them? Did I know that I’d come in right on but half the assignment money? 250 words was about the max I could fit onto one page of my pocket notebook, and that’s writing crimped. Besides, it’s only one workshop behind us and here we are supposed to fork out 1,000 words? Did you count your words, Anais asked again. Sure, why not? We watched a bus stop then went back inside. I did feel like I was probably a few words short.

“Workshop #2” is episode 78 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.

Workshop #1

Anais was the first to go, of the nine of us, in the writing workshop, to introduce ourselves, briefly, Solo said (no need to ramble – we could save that for our writing), and share something of the project we’d be working on. Anais lived on a houseboat down on the Willamette and was working on memoir. Sam was a bartender working on drama. Hilda and Djuna were adjunct instructors, poets both, and partners, and they were now working together on a graphic novel, Hilda doing the writing and Djuna the drawing. Matilda was a student and waitress working on a novel. Joyce was a personal essayist and declined to say anything more of himself. Then it came my turn, and I did a show and tell, held out my little pocket notebook and said I wanted to fill it with words, but I wasn’t at all sure which ones. No one laughed. Tough crowd. Penelope was writing a novel, worked at a printing shop, supported two kids and an effete husband. Virginia was a single mom, counselor at a non-profit, working on memoir. Solo then talked for awhile about workshop etiquette and about expectations and assumptions and how preconceived ideas can ruin both writing and reading. Some of what Solo said Anais said she found liberating. We were out on the sidewalk taking a break from the workshop. Anais I guessed was in her 40’s, dark eyes buried in bushy eyebrows and thick wavy black hair she kept pushing back behind her ears, to both see and hear better I assumed. She asked me if I was joking about the little pocket notebook being my writing project.

“Workshop #1” is episode 77 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.

The Fall

Clouds crept over the north beaches and the vintners celebrated the annual crush in fog and rain and wind blowing inland across the coastal ranges and into the interior valleys and bunching up against the big mountains and emptying and running into streams and rivers and lakes as fall developed into a long and wet run-on sentence. Sylvie returned to Central America with her baseball team for fall and winter practice and play. No hard feelings, she said, she had just suddenly come down with an allergic reaction to my company, and when she ran into Pinch who offered her a flight out of Dodge she jumped. That was understandable, my company often giving off toxic pollins venom and dander, and Sylvie loved the sunny outdoors and adventure and felt the fog and fall in the offing, and I left Pinch to his medicine and made my way farther north up the coast and then over into Portland, increasingly hard on the road to maintain any kind of outdoor living or working in the deteriorating weather conditions. I had traded Pinch the yellow Hummer for a more practical and economic wagon I could sleep in and he threw in a bicycle and surfboard and camping and fishing gear to balance out the exchange. The surfboard wasn’t much use in Portland where I took a room in a hostel in the Hawthorne District, but the bicycle was keen and I traded the camping and fishing gear to a couple on their way south for a used Gypsy jazz guitar. And I thought I might kick back and do some writing in the little pocket notebook Sylvie had given me. I joined a workshop at a local writing school, but I wasn’t much interested in plausibility, page turning plots, credibility, memoir type stuff. Still I felt the urge to write, pencil to paper, inky fingers, daily exercise. I was interested in the rules and ways and means of writing only to the extent I could experiment with syntax and grammar and style and, in a word, language. I didn’t have any particular reader in mind, though I hoped Sylvie might be interested in getting her notebook back full of words. And around the same time I started thinking about fate, how Sylvie had said fate is the decisions you make, and about the gods, the old gods, the ones that make mistakes, as humans do too, toys of the gods, lives so full of mistakes and griefs and all the seven deadly sins oozing and piling up like oily rags until spontaneous combustion and rages erupted all around, but it was time to relax, to take it easy, to consider not just the deadly sins but the works of mercy and grace. Easy to say of course for a guy living on an annuity funded by the temporary borrowing of someone else’s capital such that he no longer needs to work, even as work is what, he’s learned in passing, most fulfills him. But the gods these days, one to ten percent of the population, it is estimated, continuing on much as the gods of yesterday, co-mingling with and catching their standard human wannabe-gods unawares in the snares of their own cravings, for attention, for respect, for a nice big piece of the plutocratic prosperous concentric pie, for publication, for a post, for stage time, minutes and hours and days and weeks and months and years of fame, terms of fame, concentric circles, and round and round and round we go, and where we stop, nobody knows, amateurs as we all are, for the wages for being human are nil on the open market.

“The Fall” is episode 76 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.

Pick up and Delivery

Quickly but gently Pinch said and the three of us downloaded a dozen boxes from the plane into the yellow Hummer. The work done Pinch and I stood between the Hummer and the helicopter and watched the airplane take off and swoop west and over the hills. I was to drive back to the schoolhouse where we would unload the boxes. Pinch would follow me from the air in the helicopter. What about Sylvie, I asked. What about her? She said you’d be a good delivery man. The boxes were all the same, the size of a case of wine, and weighed something like six bottles of wine each, I guessed, but they must have been packed exceptionally well because I didn’t hear any glass as we shifted them from the plane to the Hummer. Unmarked, tightly taped, thick cardboard boxes. Was there a black market for wine? I asked myself. I was on a country road, the helicopter visible, crisscrossing above me, but when the road narrowed and curved and passed under a canopy of trees growing near the river I pulled over and cleanly cut open one of the boxes. Bottles, labels taped to each with handwritten numbers and letters and dates, not commercial labels, but coding that might have been winery production information. I removed one bottle and stuck it under my seat and pulled back onto the road and saw the helicopter again above and ahead of me. At Pinch’s place I pulled into the backyard and he was waiting and we carried the boxes into the covered back porch and he told me to put the bottle I’d taken back in its box. It’s not wine, he said. It’s medicine. You don’t want to drink it. Or talk about it.

“Pick up and Delivery” is episode 75 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.

In a Pinch? Call Pinch!

Flying high over grape vineyards, hills of oaks, and country roads, Neder Pinch handed me his joint, which I declined to a shrug of his shoulders, and he took another toke himself. We reached the private airfield where Pinch had found the yellow Hummer, parked in the field near the short runway. Neder Pinch works out of a two room office scabbed into a defunct one room schoolhouse in a small town in wine country. In the front room Pinch’s receptionist and secretary mind the store. In the back room Pinch spends most of his day on the phone or in discreet meetings with individuals at large. Pinch provides, according to the sandwich board in the school front yard, for financial and other services requiring license or expertise in the field, including high risk insurance, bail bonds, notary public, realty (rents and sales), payday loans, civil marriage, used car sales, air-taxi, private investigations & missing persons, copies faxes and photographs, post office, city and county utility payments, and plumbing repair. His helicopter pad was in the back school yard. We landed unceremoniously in the private airfield, disembarked, and walked over to the Hummer, which was unlocked, empty, cleaned out, keys in the ignition. We climbed into the Hummer and Pinch advised we now wait patiently for the plane to land. It usually came in around what he called his sit-out time, and he often watched the plane’s landing pattern coming in over the town and school house office as he and his staff sat out in the school yard with a beer or wine drink, chomping on fried carrots and mushrooms, cheeses and bread chunks dipped in oil and vinegar, while chatting up the day’s business and the plans for the morrow. In a Pinch? Call Pinch! his ad in the local paper read, and I had called him, pursuant to what appeared to be Sylvie’s direction. We rolled down the windows in the Hummer and waited for the airplane to come in, Pinch falling asleep sprawled out in the back seat, his feet sticking out a side window.

“In a Pinch? Call Pinch!” is episode 74 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.

Call Pinch

Of course I had tried Sylvie’s cell, but the signal was dead, or least very ill. I was staying now in a rooming house in a small town on the outskirts of a bigger town, up north, in vineland, a couple of hours out of San Francisco, friendly place, if you didn’t ask too many questions, like where people came from or where they lived or what they did for a living or where they might be on their way to, if you didn’t ask any questions at all. I took a job washing dishes in a local tavern, three hours a day, an hour after the breakfast rush, an hour after the lunch rush, and an hour after the dinner rush, not that any of the rushes was much to write about, short of a filler in the local weekly (Lots of dishes to wash yesterday at Taberna’s Tavern said local dish washer Glaucus, hired to handle the meal rushes during the annual month-long Taberna Jazz-Grass Fest), and one night, after the dinner dishes, sitting out on Taberna’s western style wooden sidewalk, raised a couple of feet above street level, drinking a beer and watching the passersby, tourists mostly, and flipping or flicking through the pages of the little pocket notebook Sylvie had given me for my writing but in which I’d yet to write a single word, a habit I’d picked up, the flipping of the empty pages, I espied something written, a scribble that passed by in a flash, and I had to thumb slowly through the pages again to find it. Call Pinch, it said, in Sylvie’s handwriting. How had I missed it? When did she write it? What did it mean? Who or what or where was Pinch?

“Call Pinch” is episode 73 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.

Missing Persons

Going north a sign indicated the last thing I remembered before awakened by Sylvie groggy from road sleep parked in a poorly lit motel space outside Room 3. Dark out and Sylvie said let’s just go in and sleep and sort our stuff out in morning, but she handed me my cowboy kit and she grabbed her backpack so we might complete our nightly personal ablutions before entering the torpor of little brown bats. Late morning I awoke and went in search of coffee. I was away about an hour, wandering up the road until I found a coffee hutch, and when I got back to Room 3 Sylvie was missing, her backpack too, the yellow Hummer also, the parking space in front of the door empty. No note. I waited, finished my coffee then finished Sylvie’s coffee. Check out time neared. The housekeeper knocked. At the desk in the lobby I was informed the bill for one night had been settled, and that’s all they knew. I started walking back up the road, retracing my coffee search steps, passed the little coffee hutch, and kept walking. Then I went back to the coffee hutch and asked the baristas if they’d noticed a yellow Hummer that morning, described what Sylvie looked like to them, her blue eyes, round cheeks dotted with a few freckles, straight hair, thinking maybe she’d stopped for coffee. No. Sorry. Maybe I was headed in the wrong direction. I wasn’t even sure where I was, what city we had wound up in. I kept walking, surrounded by local business minding its own business as usual as far as I could see, the main street a typical two way affair, one side leading out of town, the other into town, ending in a turnaround, and the other way around. I walked around the town twice, once stopping for breakfast at a small cafe, the big yellow Hummer noticeably absent from anyone’s morning as I asked around, in the cafe, at the two gas stations, the old grocery in the middle of town, the newer stop and go at the end opposite the motel. Down a side street I passed a church and a small graveyard. On another street a grade school, the yard empty. Little houses with big porches and big yards, a vegetable garden gone to seed, garages with no doors, bicycles and toys strewn about, a swing set, a tire swing hanging from a giant maple branch, two women talking over a fence, an old man in a pickup truck making deliveries, a feed and supply store. A building with a tall flag pole out front, not exactly the county seat, but I might have considered a missing person report. A single police car in the driveway. But who was missing, Sylvie, or me.

“Missing Persons” is episode 72 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.

Morning Motel Coffee

Every day now followed a similar pattern, beginning with a walk for a cup of coffee I would bring back to our motel room for Sylvie, who slept on, from a nearby cafe or coffee shop, where I might sit drinking my first cup at the counter or a small outdoor table, my little pocket notebook for company, giving every man Jack the impression I was productively occupied, not that any Jack would care, but some mornings I had to settle for the coffee brewed in the motel lobby, or, last resort, made from a rickety electric drip coffee maker in the motel room, using the premeasured packets of coffee and water from the bathroom sink, the coffee poured from the carafe into plastic or foam cups, the foil wrapped mints left by the housekeeper intended it was my guess to smooth the bitter oily watery edge of a coffee made with dirty equipment, water heated only lukewarm, with beans ground to dust. But when I got back to the room with Sylvie’s coffee from abroad, she might still be sleeping, or the television would be on, and she would catch me up on the local news, weather, and road conditions. Check out time was usually 11, though most motel guests were out and back on the road by then, as we often were, too, the noise of a neighbor’s flushing toilet, pipe gurgling shower, slamming doors, the awakening road rush of 18 wheelers, motorcycles, family vans loading up, delivery trucks coming and going, or a squealing housekeeping cart preventing further sleep in any case.

“Morning Motel Coffee” is episode 71 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.

The Foreboding Bed

We drove through a tunnel of noise, adding our own tiny tinnitus to the cacophony of tinkling horns, ringing roads, buzzing bells, babbling motorways, looking for egress to ingress in some small motor motel to recess and relax and redress for a new beginning, a new morning, an internal spring, a fresh start. These motels are not hard to find, cities big and small all designed for the convenience of the motorist: the traveller, the travelling salesman on a limited per diem, the tourist on a budget, the trucker desiring a shower nap and cup of coffee, the rodeo rider on tour, the four piece garageband on a trip booked of small venue gigs, the soldier sailor or airman on leave on weekend pass or perhaps just Absent Without Official Leave, the family of four on vacation, the adulterous couple, the relocator, the lost, the looking, the hiding. The first place we pulled into because Sylvie liked the name: Motel In Vino Veritas. But the beds had coin operated boxes on the nightstands – for 50 cents you could make the bed vibrate for a couple of minutes – and Sylvie refused to stay in such a place, said such a bed forebode bad dreams.

“The Foreboding Bed” is episode 70 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.

Of Sanity and Sanitary

Little significance I found in riding in a yellow vehicle called a Hummer in a yellow land called California, mile after mile after mile after mile of streets filled with lookalike cultural paraphernalia: quick stop and go snack needs shops; gas filling stations; forests of telephone poles with crisscrossing wired canopies (but on select boulevards the wires now buried in tunnels, electronic catacombs, poles sticking up through the cement, independent flag poles topped with lights such that no bird got a good night’s sleep); strip malls, movie theatres, bowling alleys; cafes, diners, coffee boutiques; bars, taverns, pubs, breweries; car lots, parking lots, big box stores; churches, schools, parks, amusement arcades, golf links; clinics, hospitals, fire and police stations; refineries, manufacturing enclaves, buildings so tall one could no longer imagine leaping one in a single bound, nor imagine what went on in those buildings; hotels, motels, mattress and furniture stores; underpasses of concrete massive waves, railroad crossings, onramps, offramps, turnabouts; banks, auto repair shops, storage units; alleys full of graffiti covered dumpsters, fences, walls, two and three story buildings with only a ground floor; concertina wire and barred windows and doors. But up and down the side streets modest early or mid century dwellings built as single family homes, with well kept yards, only the cars in drives and lining the streets testifying to the current date. Maybe we should just go home, Sylvie said, leave the rambling to ramblers, but where was home, what was home, and of what value. Join a church, she said. Go to the spaghetti dinners, the crab feeds, the social dances, the concerts and one act plays and bingo nights, the little festivals, visit the sick and elderly, help the poor, volunteer to sweep the floor, whatever needs to be handled. We passed under another overpass where a tribe of homeless had gathered their tents and tarps and carts together, where a laissez faire system no doubt prevailed, and a true democracy existed, no one represented by another, but each deciding how they would live, under what conditions, and what beliefs, but still connected to other individuals, each with different wants and needs, even if under the state’s non exhaustive unavoidable uncaring umbrella, free, even if that freedom came at the cost of sanity and the sanitary.

“Of Sanity and Sanitary” is episode 69 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.

Mission Imagination

Avo did not pick up, and Sylvie didn’t want to just drop in on him, imagining a happy reception. I suggested we change course again. We could reach San Juan Capistrano in the afternoon, walk around and pray some, relax, and find a place for the night in Laguna. Check out the surf at San Onofre and Trestles on our way to the Mission. That’s not very far at all, and I’m beached out after Ocean Beach, Sylvie said. Let’s head inland and visit the Nixon Library. La Casa Pacifica, that’s what I want, not the $100 million dollar place, a simple place near the beach. Did Nixon suffer from a poor self-image? That’s what others said, who helped him come to realize he’d grown up poor, which in itself was not a problem, because he enjoyed a great imagination, Nixon did, but doors of opportunity were closed to him, and he remained devoted to his family. Takes imagination to want something more than what one has been given. Who knows what he thought of himself. Takes some imagination to see ourselves as clearly as others see us. I always did say so. Takes imagination to see ourselves at all. The artistic imagination is different from other forms, from a political imagination, from an imagination of the body. Yeah, the body politic. Imagine the importance of imagination to a blind person. Without imagination even those with perfect visual acuity are blind. Blind to what? To what others see? How do we know what others see is any more or less what we call real than what someone else sees? Figmentation. Is that a word? It is now. What does it mean? It takes imagination to discover reality. In any event, the Great Stone Church in Mission San Juan Capistrano fired my imagination. The low retaining wall, leaning, reinforced with rusted metal plates and large bolts through old cements, lines of forms still visible in the granular rough face full of notches, chips, divots. Sun weathered, thin brush strokes of yellow-lime moss on the wall in the shade of an ancient pepper tree.

“Mission Imagination” is episode 68 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.