Befogged

Not Alfred Prufrock’s fog, the little yellow neighborhood cat come smelling, touching, and arching once, wags, then slinks furtively off and licks herself to sleep, the house warm and safe in her arms. But the fog that falls from a hairball night, wet and thick, as sleazy as the backuped drains running up the gutters down on skidrow. A light that illuminates nothing. And the only sound one hears is the tinkle of a bell like the carriage return signal on a fin de siè·cle typewriter, the kind T. S. Eliot might have used.

Fallout and Fall In

The hidden room, while abandoned, was hardly a secret. Everyone at Hotel Julian knew about it. As I had guessed, it was built during the hotel reconstruction phase in the late 1940’s. Designed to function as a nuclear fallout shelter, the room was built by Minerva’s late husband, who had died not from fallout, but from fall in. Climbing out one night after a bout in his room with a bottle of rum, he slipped and fell to the bottom of the well shaft, where he perished from the fall, from drowning, from hypothermia – or all of the above. He had gone missing for over a week before Minerva woke up one morning with a start, the noir thought of what probably happened to him suddenly dawning on her. I had been very nervous about Zoeasta making it back to her kittens, in spite of Minerva’s expressed confidence in the cat, and, initially, anyway, a bit ruffled at her criticisms of my current, what to call it, walk of life, and also suspicious of just how she came to know so much about me, I excused myself with the rational reason I wanted to be sure Zoeasta was back safe with her litter. Sylvie, for one, would never forgive me if she were to read that something awkward had befallen the kittens. Put another way, she’d shove a ball lightning up my butt if she found I was responsible for anything bad happening to any of the cats. Minerva insisted though I return to finish our conversation, she called it that, though I had said little, apparently my deeds speaking volumes to her already. Minerva’s house sat on the corner lot opposite the grocery of Hotel Julian. It took me less than a minute to run across the street and around the back of the hotel to the basement entrance, skip down the stairs, and check on Zoeasta, who I found licking her kittens, all five of them, I made certain, while they pummeled and sucked at her teats, all in a new padded and carpet lined box that sat just outside Eve’s door, and there stood Eve and Dawn glowering at me. We know where you’ve been, Eve said. You shouldn’t have taken Zoeasta with you. We were already planning on moving the litter closer to us and to her litter box and her food and water. I must have looked pathetic, and Dawn absolved me by saying the kittens were already about a week old and Zoeasta wasn’t away over an hour, and everybody seemed happy in their places. Are you going back to finish your conversation with Minerva, Eve asked. Minerva owns the hotel, you know. She keeps tabs on everything. Julian is her son. She makes decisions, Dawn added. And she’s decided she likes you, Eve said. Is that a good thing, I wondered, but kept the question to myself.

“Fallout and Fall In” is episode 33 of Inventories
a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.
(Click link for continuous, one page view of all episodes.)

Note: With episode 30, the title of the novel was changed
from the original working title of “Ball Lightning” to Inventories.

Conversation with Minerva

Across the hidden room (no longer secret now that I and Zoeasta had broken the code) the back door opened onto a giant spider web blocking a small opening in the annulus surrounding a wellbore encased with cement. I had wondered about the absence of spiders as I had worked my way from the basement under Hotel Julian through the tunnel and into the underground room. A few webs I had seen, hanging like frayed tapestries depicting the scene of some ancient battle or site of seduction. But I have no fear of spiders (snakes, yes, but not spiders), and I quickly swept the web away from the door, careful not to harm the spider’s anchor thread, the easier for her to weave a new web. A ladder affixed to the inside of the vertical well shaft invited further exploration. But what to do with Zoeasta? She rubbed against my leg, arching her back, and rubbed her head on my calf, telling me something in cat speak. I could see rays of light at the top of the shaft. I dropped a rock, and several seconds later heard a splash. I could leave Zoeasta in the room and hope she made it back to her kittens, or carry her up the ladder with me. Either way, she probably knew her way back to her litter in the basement of the hotel better than I did. I decided to carry her up the ladder with me, thinking the tunnel into the hidden room might be too dark to navigate even for a cat. Once out of the well, I would hurry her back to the hotel and her kittens. We began our climb. I counted 40 rungs on the fixed steel ladder, about 10 inches on center. At the top, we climbed out of the well shaft into an elaborate wishing well cover, complete with spindle wound with rope from which hung a wooden bucket under a shingle hip roof held up by wooden beams sided half way up with horizontal, painted slats. On one side was a hinged gate. I opened it, stepped out, Zoeasta still in my arms, and was flabbergasted to suddenly notice an old woman, sitting apparently nude in a forest green Adirondack chair, knitting a long narrow tapestry that rolled across a yard of bermuda grass. I was standing in the backyard of a house, presumably across the street from Hotel Julian. The old woman had stopped her weaving or knitting and was staring at me, bemused, while I gazed back at her, bewildered. Disoriented, I absentmindedly let go of Zoeasta, who dashed across a grassy space and out of the yard. You found Zoeasta, I see, the old lady quipped, and she’s had her kittens, I see. Oh, my. Down below are they? Oh, my. I can see you’ve had quite the adventure, Glaucus. Hand me my robe there, on that side table. I’m just sunning, you know, getting my daily dose of vitamin D. I hope you don’t mind. Sorry if I startled you. What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue? Oh, don’t worry about Zoeasta, she’ll find her way back to her kitties. She visits us everyday, and she crosses the street to the hotel very cautiously. Smart cat, that one. Oh, yes, I know who you are, Glaucus. You’re staying at the hotel these days, and have even taken on some part time work there, though I’m damned if I can understand why. Yes, I see everything that goes on at the hotel. And you should be out adventuring, exploring the real world, not hiding out in these secret dream rooms buried beneath childhood’s ruins. What are you doing, anyway? Why have you so disappointed? What a waste, what a waste you are, Glaucus. And what have you done with Sylvie? Abandoned her for some flower girl? Though I rather like Florence. She’s had a hard go of life, so far. But I don’t see how you can be of any help. But we’ll see, we’ll see. How many kittens, by the way, in Zoeasta’s litter? Still 5, I hope.

“Minerva” is episode 32 of Inventories
a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.
(Click link for continuous, one page view of all episodes.)

Note: With episode 30, the title of the novel was changed
from the original working title of “Ball Lightning” to Inventories.

Zoeasta and the Hidden Room

Zoeasta, one of the range free cats living about Hotel Julian, disappeared, and it was assumed she picked a spot to give birth to her litter. I found her in a box licking five closed eyes kittens when I returned with a flashlight to the storage room in the basement under the grocery to continue my inventory of supplies, surplus, and stowed stuff. The light startled her, but she recognized me and did not seem perturbed. I turned away and of course left them alone. I had reached the far back of the unused storage area, curious to explore around the walled room and find an entrance. A closer look at the blueprints I had found suggested there might have once existed a root cellar in the space, or a wine cellar. Maybe an old cistern. I smelled soil, felt a draft. Who were the workers in the 1940’s who worked on the hotel? The laborers, framers, plumbers. How long had this stone box been sealed? The dry, stone walls were built of riprap, cracks and joints sealed with plumber’s oakum. I made my way around the corner of the room and found what appeared to be a piece of the old unfinished basement. I stepped onto a space of smooth, hard packed dirt floor. The wall and ceiling here were shored with thick, rough sawn beams. A header beam built into the corner of the foundation topped a crawl space door with round side posts functioning as jambs. I sat on the ground and kicked against the wood panel with my boots. It cracked open and broke free in a burst of dust and splinters, and I peered in with my light. Three steps of railroad tie led down to another opening, a larger door. I crawled through the crawl space opening, scooted down the tie steps, pushed opened the door in another sneeze of dust and falling clutter, stooped through, and found myself in a clean, post and beam shored tunnel, about 6 feet in height and 3 feet across, its sides, between the posts, open dirt. The tunnel continued for about 50 feet. I must now have been under the street on the front side of Hotel Julian. I might even be across the street, under one of the old houses opposite the hotel. At the far end of the tunnel, another door, this one finished, ornate, like the door of a church, leafed and paneled, carved of hardwoods. I felt the door, rubbing my hand on the wood, and at the same time felt something rub against my leg, and there was Zoeasta, who then went to the bottom of the door, sniffing to and fro across the ground plate of solid timber. I did not have to force this door open. I turned the baroque arm of a twist handle, and the door opened easily, as if expertly hung just yesterday, and into a high ceilinged, unfinished but furnished room, stepped me and Zoeasta. The flashlight zipped quickly around, and I almost expected to surprise someone, the space looked so lived in. Zoeasta sniffed the air, back arched against my leg. But I surprised both the cat and myself when I flicked a switch on the wall next to the door we’d just come through and a ceiling lamp, a chandelier with multiple bulbs, flash flooded the room with light, revealing: a US Army canvas cot, a folding bed, a piss pot basin shoved under it, a wool blanket folded across the cot; a mirror hanging over a wood table on which sat a ceramic jug and bowl; an armoire and foot locker; male and female shoes, high laced boots and low quarters, polish and brushes; metal wall cabinet, helmet atop; a kitchen area – towels, bowls, tin cans, counter, small sink, cups; two chairs and a stool; a closet with a sitting stool over a hole and a pull rope from a small tank above; a bookcase full of books; a couch, coffee table with chessboard; ammo boxes, a gun rack; an old turntable and vinyl record albums; a spinet piano, sheet music; rugs, braided; round section of hardwood floor; electrical conduit pipe; a bellows attached to ductwork in the ceiling; a dart board; an accordion; a guitar; at the far side of the room, another door, Zoeasta already sniffing at its sill.

“Zoeasta and the Hidden Room” is episode 31 of Inventories
a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.
(Click link for continuous, one page view of all episodes.)

Note: With episode 30, the title of the novel was changed
from the original working title of “Ball Lightning” to Inventories.

Birdbrain, Bird-witted, and more on Thought

Reflecting yesterday afternoon on my morning post, “On the Coast Starlight,” in which I suggested thought, if we are to try to compare it to anything, seems more bird-like than the train of thought first found in Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 “Leviathan,” I thought, to force thought onto a track where ideas are coupled one after another in forward motion toward some predetermined destination results from printing press technology, as McLuhan has shown. Thinking like a train does produce advantages, but the linear notion of thought may put us in a cage. Then it came to me that a reader might have commented that I seem birdbrained.

Since I’ve had comments and likes off for recent posts, no such reader was able to suggest it, so I’ve come forward to suggest it myself. (Readers intent on comment, like, or dislike, btw, will find an email address at the bottom of the Toad’s About page.)

But why we have come to disvalue flightiness to the extent we have, I’m not sure. Birdbrain, according to Google Ngram, is a word product of the second half of the 20th Century, while bird-witted has a more storied past, with interesting spikes of usage in both the 1720s and the 1820s.

I readily agree that my brain seems to be more bird-like than train-like. But upon discussion with Susan, she informs me that only the hummingbird is able to fly backward. Trains, of course, can travel forward or backward, but not at the same time. Yes, but trains can’t leave the track (except to switch to another track), and two trains running in opposite directions on the same track – well, in a quantum train world, perhaps a train may indeed run forward and backward at the same time. In any case, the intelligence of birds is not in question. The question is whether to think like a bird offers the human any advantage over thinking like a train. But we are only speaking to the metaphors, of course, because of course trains don’t actually think at all, and people don’t and can’t and will never think like birds any more than they’ll be able to fly like a bird.

It’s probable that in the era of trains, people did think more like trains than bird-like, while before artificial locomotion was mass produced, people thought more like other animals think. Now, people no doubt think more like automobiles. And we might update Hobbes to suggest an automobile of imagination.

The poet Marianne Moore, in her poem “Bird-witted,” leaves no doubt that to think like a bird is to think like a human:

parent darting down, nerved by what chills 
  the blood, and by hope rewarded -  
of toil - since nothing fills 
  squeaking unfed 
mouths, wages deadly combat, 
and half kills 
    with bayonet beak and 
    cruel wings, the 
intellectual cautious- 
ly creeping cat.
The last stanza of “Bird-witted,” from The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, Penguin, 1982, p. 105-106.
Photo: Susan and Chicken, Culver City, circa 1952.

The House in Summer (for ZZ & Chloe)

The house is not a mystery
that’s made from trees and history
from every old nook and cranny
you hear the voice of a nanny.

Papa pops up to make early
the coffee and lets out Zoe
the cat points like a unicorn
the approach of a vacuum horn.

The grand girls all day play
pretend puzzles of their world
while the board games nap
gathering light into a lens.

At night the windows fly
boat sails lift the sky
climb the moon high
and breath falls to a sigh.

An Old Cat

He ate no more,
“Please me no tuna
dish at your open door,”
around the room a moat
filled with stone worms.

For bait he’d chummed
kittens cutely perched
in nooks of paper cut hearts.
A trawler he rowed to catch
the bones of relict relish.

He went on like this and on,
a sophist uttering disgruntled
guttural grunts mistaken
for charms by gullible
attendants on holiday for good.

His gig whirled on the briny beach,
bodies of ditched sea snails filling
with new fats and oils and muscle.
He stow away in a cave,
plenty likes to last a new day.

isit

is it? is it? is it?
what time is it?
the cricket asks

the night notes call
a view of space with
ornamental lights

near like the cat
hiss skin rips
claws a violet sky
saturates maroon
the cauliflower
cumulus moon

this squall passes
as does this darkness
the outdoor words
drift over the river
as the last cricket replies

is it? is it? is it?
time to get
out of bed yet?

The Cat Music Critic

The Cat Music CriticI’ve noticed when I pick up the guitar and the cat Zoe is hanging out, she’ll scurry off to a quieter corner. Cats have excellent ears.

Yesterday, home from the afternoon music theory class I’ve been taking, I organized my notes and handouts, reviewing each page. I left the pages in neat piles on the dining room table.

This morning, I go to resume my music musing, and what do I find but the cat music critic’s overnight review – Zoe had barfed over my notes.

Cats are excellent communicators. I’m glad she doesn’t tweet.