The Death of An Artist (part II)

An Interview with Chance Casper

II

 casper

            It’s 2:30 a.m. and the diner is so packed we have to wait to be seated.  A large painting hangs in the foyer.  I know it well because it was the cover of Chance’s first album, Arcade Plush.  The subject seems innocent enough, though quirky—stuffed animals jammed inside an arcade plush machine—but something about the scene is disturbing.   Maybe it’s the slightly askew perspective that seems to suggest it’s worth no more than a passing glance.  But I think it’s the dire situation of the stuffed animals that makes me feel queasy.  I didn’t notice it in the glossy, diluted form that I’m more familiar with, but in this one, I can see the bulging eyes of the animals are pleading, not so much with a “pick me, pick me!” anticipation but more of a sullen, please-get-me-the-hell-out-of-here look you’d find on a crusted-lipped, starving child in some far-off, impoverished area of the world.  And then the bodies of the animals aren’t light and fluffy but instead seem weighty and imposing as if they share a common purpose to crush and disfigure each other—a giraffe’s neck in the stranglehold of a purple elephant’s tusk; a unicorn’s head positioned between a monkey’s legs, putting an unsuspecting velveteen bunny in the immediate foreground in a precarious position.  The overhead grappling, grab-o-matic prongs seem so spindly and useless that they don’t even earn a glance from the animals, as if they know better than to expect help from above.

Chance turns down the first two available tables to get the booth he wants.  He recognizes a waitress.  He points her out to me and says, “Those eyes are like a bass groove that you can’t get out of your head and will creep up on you in some pretty random moments.”  And then I realize why he came here.

Those eyes belong to Mazie Allen, and when she sees him, she quickly approaches.  “Stanley Goldstein!”

He doesn’t stand, forcing her to stoop to hug him.  “I’m still Chance Casper until I leave this place,” he says.

“I heard you were in town.  I would’ve come to the show if I could’ve gotten off work.  It’s our busy time.  Four days till Christmas.  How was it?”

“Same.  Automatic for the last five years.  You know, this was our last—”

“Hold that thought.  We’ll catch up when things die down in here a bit,” she says.

She rushes away to check on other customers.

“She used to come to all of our gigs,” Chance tells me.  “She bought into the myth of rock ‘n’ roll glory, thinking that just a taste of that counter-culture elixir might free her to some kind of deeper illumination.  Imagination freed is illumination achieved, I’d tell her.  Girls will believe anything you tell them as long as it’s blended with the right mix of poetry and booze.  She was a good lay.”

I’ve never known Chance to talk this way.  This isn’t how he was back when he was Stanley and we were a couple of college students with crazy perspectives of the world.  There’s some bitterness and resentment built up inside of him.  He won’t stop talking about Mazie; I realize she was something more.

“You know, she did the art to our first album cover.  That one out front.  That got her art more exposure to the world than she would have ever gotten doing anything on her own.  She was an artist, self-taught, but a total hack.  The problem with her was that she was blind to original perspectives.  She spent all of her time going over the masters trying to copy their techniques and producing half-witted composites always a shade off.  Guess it’s no surprise she’s waitressing now.”

“So she was more than just your average groupie.”

“The ultimate road warrior, you know.  She had the enthusiasm of a religious disciple.  My parents hated her.”

I ask him how he felt about her.  Really.

He responds with several minutes of silence.  “I loved her.  And then she left—hitched a ride and came home to Fargo.  My mom knew about it before I did.  How the hell does that happen?  They hated each other.  Women don’t get it, but they bond in their confusion.  They have this notion of how things should be, and if things don’t fall between those two narrow lines, shit, everything falls apart.  Everyone gets bored traveling down the same highway, and women, they just freak out if you detour for some sightseeing.  And most people have to create this illusion that even though we’re bouncing off the walls, we’re somehow staying within the lines.  Not me.  I put it out there like it is.  I am about truth.  If people can’t handle it, they don’t belong in my life.”

Out of the original band, only Simon (the drummer passed out with his head on a bongo) and Chance remain.  I ask him about the rest of the original band.  He knows I’m asking specifically about Sal, the guitarist who many considered the life of the band, the one with the flare and million-dollar smile.

“After nine years of jamming with us he got amped on the fantasy that if you got married and went to school to get a business degree and had a life where you work inside an accounting office punching numbers into a computer and pressing compute and then turning it into your boss with a big juvenile grin on your face like you want a gold star or something but really you’re just begging for money like any guy on the street, that somehow that would make you happy.  And he took that route.  You know what happened to him?  He got married.  He got his job.  He got a promotion.  He got fired.  He got divorced.  Now he’s living in a shack up in Portland and working in a bookstore.  And the only reason I know this is because he randomly Facebooked me and sent a message that said, ‘Hey man, you still playing in a band?  I wanna get back.’  Fuck that.  We’d moved on.”

“So how do you really feel about him?” I ask.

He laughs.  “He’s probably happier than me.”

The crowd finally thins.  As cars back out, their lights cast a diffused glow through the snowfall.  Mazie returns and chooses my side of the booth, forcing me to scoot over.

“So how long ya’ in Fargo?” she asks him.

“Plane leaves tomorrow night.”

“Headed?”

“I dunno.  Boston.”

“That’s nice.  Visit the folks for the Christmas holidays.  How are they?”

“Hey listen,” I say.  “You think I could crash at your place?  I left the keys to the van with Simon.”

“Ah, Simon.  How is the little drummer boy?”

“Still a sucker for love but keeps a steady beat.”

“That guy.  He hardly says a word but gets any girl he wants.”

Chance puts his hand on the table and his fingers do the same unconscious crawl across the surface that I’ve seen many other musicians do—the body never relenting in its desire to make music—but here I feel like his fingers are doing a courtly dance, hoping that she might make contact with them.  “He didn’t get you,” he points out.

“He didn’t want me.”

“So listen, about the place to stay.  You think I could crash at your place?  I don’t mind waiting until you get off.”

The smile she gives him in response looks motherly.  “Stanley, I’m married.”

“What?”

“I’ve been married for five years now.”

“But online you’re listed as Mazie Allen.”

“The miracle of Facebook.  Is that how you found out I’m working here?”

Chance takes a slow sip of coffee in response.  “I’m not stalking you.  You can turn around and walk away, and I won’t follow.”

“I kept my name because I had a following…with my artwork.”

“You still doin’ that stuff?  Why are you working here then?”

“Aw, come on.  You know how it is with art, never knowing when the paychecks will come.  This gives me a steady income and it gets me out of the studio to draw on some real-life inspiration.”

“What does he do?”

“Who?”

“The guy.  The one you married.”

“Well, he’s in music, too.”

“In a band?”

“Kinda.”

“What band?”

“Actually, he’s the band director at the high school.”

He bellows out in laughter.  “What a pathetic, pointless job.”

She clenches her teeth.  “He’s spreading the joy of music to ordinary people.”

“Band students are not ordinary people.  They’re just pimpled kids too awkward to do sports, too dull to do theater, and too tone deaf to sing.  So you give these kids a hunk of metal to blow into and just pray to God they don’t bop someone on the head and hurt ‘em.”

“He’s—“

He covers his ears.  “You don’t have to say anymore.  I’m already insulted.  You have kids?”

“No.”

He sighs in satisfaction.  “I miss you,” he says.

“Ok,” she says before disappearing into the kitchen.  There are only a few customers in the diner now, but we don’t see her for another twenty minutes before Chance waves down the manager and asks him to track down our waitress.  She comes back to our table with her notepad covering her eyes.

“Look Mazie, I’m sorry.  Sometimes I come across as brash and tactless.  That’s Chance Casper talking.”

“You can’t hide behind a name.  You weren’t suddenly reborn as Chance Casper.  The same old Stanley Goldstein lies behind those eyes.  A new name and a fresh shave don’t give you a clean slate.”

“Look, I haven’t slept well in days, and I’m feeling emotional now, thinking this might be my last time in Fargo.  You know, this was our last show tonight.”

“And you picked Fargo of all places.”  She places her hand over her heart.  “On behalf of the citizens of Fargo, I’m honored you chose our city to be your final resting spot.”

He makes no secret that he’s livid, and I feel caught between an ex-lovers’ quarrel, a witness to his self-annihilation.

She lays her notepad on the table.  “I’m sorry I missed it.  Really.  How was it?  Did you play The Well?

“No.”

“Really?  That was my favorite.”

“Mazie, it was pretentious crap.”

“Oh my God, how can you say that!  ‘Your perception is in the angle of the reflection that meets your eye.’   I love that line.”

For Once then Something.  Robert Frost.  You showed me that poem.  All I did was twist his language around a bit.”

“Under the surface is a glimpse of something—maybe nothing—but it bends your mind.”

            “Stop!” he snaps.

“What do you have against your early stuff?” she asks.

“Because it wasn’t me.  And you should have been able to tell that the chord progression of The Well followed the one in the old tango we used to listen toYou remember the one, Por Eso Me Siento Mal, from our Buenos Aires days?”

The Well basically consists of a bass hook and a whiney keyboard that repeat endlessly until the chorus that is nothing but “Ohs.”  It was his only commercial hit, but it came at a price.  People wanted more of that hooky pop.  Chance didn’t want any part of it.

She stares back towards the kitchen as if searching for some impending crisis.  “I didn’t know any better.  But I still love those songs from your first album.”

“I could’ve written a thousand tunes like that and retired with a mansion in The Hills.”

“Why didn’t you?  Nobody needs to know how you came up with the songs, and even if they did, they wouldn’t care.”

“I care.  And I didn’t do this just for the money.  That first album was to get us in the mix.  Mindless ear candy for the masses and the musically ignorant.  All artists have to sell out a little to pay the bills.  After that, it was all about the music.  I had to break free from the template of the past.  You’ll never understand.  Most people don’t get my music, and I can’t help that.  It’s the price you pay for originality and freedom.  I had no fear.  I could write rockin’ rhythms, stilted rhythms, 5/4, 7/8 time, tk-a-boom-boom-chahh.  I could layer melodic lines with slowly diverging contrapuntal phrases and make atonal beauty.  Pure originality is hard to appreciate.”

She drops her head and speaks mostly to her Adidas.  “There’s no such thing as pure originality.  You can’t escape the past.  It hangs on.”

“I broke free.”

“It hangs on to us.  Being interesting to yourself doesn’t make you anything.  Art doesn’t exist without people to share it with.  All that matters is how you affect people.”

“My music will be important.  If no one clears the table and starts over, how does anything change?  We’ll go on recycling old tunes until creativity is sucked right out of our consciousness.  That’s why I threw it all out there.  Each song contains a little bit of everything.  If you could just understand—”

“I don’t, Chance.  You can’t suddenly decide to redefine music.”

“Why not?  Sounds have no inherent meanings.  Music needs no bounds because it recreates life, and life is not contained within an octave, and it doesn’t follow a particular scale or stay within a dynamic range, so why should music?”  He’s almost out of breath.  “I know you’ll argue—”

“I’m not—”

“—each song is just a moment, like one of your little paintings, but within one moment can’t a man be helplessly in love, stricken with jealousy, mad with rage, slightly wistful…soundly defeated?”

“I’m sorry if I hurt you.”

“I was speaking hypothetically.”  He gathers his breath.  “Look, I’m only here for a short time.  My plane leaves late tomorrow night. You wanna go do something?”

“Again.  Married.”

“He won’t let you have friends?”

“He’d be fine with it.  I’m the one who’d have the problem.”

Chance looks like he’s about to choke.  “You really hate me that much, don’t you.”

She glares at him.

Several inebriated Santas stagger into the diner and slump into a corner booth.  They’re all too young and too hardened to be convincing.  They each have their Santa hats on, but they’ve unstuffed their bellies and pulled their beards under their chins making them look a little Amish except for their obvious disdain for their seasonal job.  It’s a short-term gig, the Santa thing—two weeks tops—but their caffeine-craved faces are more than a pair of rosy cheeks from being jolly.  One of them passes by us on the way to the bathroom and glances in our direction, which I’m sure Chance will misinterpret as recognition.

“I don’t hate you,” Mazie says.

“Maybe the three of us could do something,” he says.  “I’ve gotta meet the guy.”

“And what?  You and I would reminisce about the past?”

“I thought you’re the one who loves the past.”

She picks up her notepad and jots something down.

He tries get a look at what she’s writing but she conceals it against her chest.  “What did you write?” he asks.

“Don’t want to forget what you said, so I wrote it down.”

He grabs her arm, but she pulls away fiercely.  “Read me what you wrote.”

She runs her fingers over the words a few times before she reads them aloud.  “Eggs.  Toast.  Bacon.  Make you fat.  Anything else?”

“More time with you.”

She shakes her head in disgust.  “What world do you live in?”

“Well, you and I are talking here.  How does that fit with your enlightened morality?”

“You’re my customer.”

“In that case, have you ever thought about investing in gold?  It’s the safest investment in these financially uncertain times.  Come be a customer of Goldstein and I’ll tell you all about it.  Lunch at noon?”

“No.”

“Two?”

“No.”

“Four?”

She turns to walk away.  “Do-I-take-that-chance,” she repeats like a mantra as she laughs and shakes her head.

He finally acknowledges my existence again and asks me, “What did she mean by that?  ‘Do I take that chance?’  Or did she mean ‘Do I take that Chance?’  Or ‘Do I take that, Chance?’  I swear to God, I really need a middle man to explain her little riddle that’s probably nothing more than just a joke, but it makes me feel small.”

The santa passes us on his way back to his table and laughs.  He’s caught the tail end of Mazie’s performance.  Chance threaten him with a spoon as the santa joins his friends.  “Do you know who I am!” he calls out.  Every head turns to look at Chance, but the one he’s concerned with doesn’t flinch. She continues on her path and disappears again into the kitchen.   She doesn’t return.

III

 

            We’re stuck at the airport the next night since all the evening flights have been delayed until morning.  I’m accompanying Chance back to Boston.  I have family I need to see there, too.  The sun eventually rises and we’re allowed on the plane along with other weary-eyed passengers bundled up in scarves and coats.  My first attempt at doing an interview was a complete failure.  A wasted flight for an unpublishable piece.  I find my seat and immediately check out the on-flight music selection.  There he is.  At least one of his albums made it—his first one, Arcade Plush.  As we ascend into the white sky, I can see the virginal snow expanding across the land until it merges at the horizon with the stratus clouds.  There is so much beauty on that vast, frosty canvass.  Whiteness closes in until I can no longer see the wings.  When exactly that happened, I’m not really sure.  It’s a thousand miles to where we’re going, but I won’t be sleeping anytime soon.


The Death of an Artist

An Interview with Chance Casper (Part One)

“Your perceptions are in the angle of reflection that meets your eye.” – Chance Casper

chance guitar

Closing time.  Fargo’s arctic chill blasts through the bar’s propped doors.  Bright lights flood the room alerting the remaining stragglers that it’s time to go.  They trudge out into the snow.  I’ve come to Fargo to see an old friend play his last show. It is a different crowd and a different time here at The Cauldron, the hottest live music venue in Fargo if you believe their radio ads, but there aren’t any flashing cameras, or backstage groupies, or even a real backstage at this venue.  The only noise comes from a trickle of beer seeping out of a toppled bottle and falling from the table to the concrete floor with a sigh.  There’s a stench of alcohol and smoke advancing toward the stage, but it’s not going to arouse the drummer who’s passed out at his set, his head planted on a bongo.  Seated on a wobbly stool in front of the drummer, too sore to stir, is the man I’ve come to see.  Chance Casper.

Dried blood coats his leathery fingers.  His angel of pain lies facedown, unplugged at his feet, the snapped E-string wrapped around the neck.  He looks up and recognizes me.  His expression is both of embarrassment and relief that I held true to my promise to interview him after his last show.  I counted thirty-two people in attendance tonight, and I know this isn’t how he wanted to go out.

His last song of the night, appropriately titled This is Goodbye, would seem to be a fitting farewell between an artist and his followers at his final show, but it is unmistakably clear the lyrics are directed inward, the singer saying goodbye to the artist.

Musicians (and writers) talk frequently of writing only for themselves as if writing for an audience would be a massive sellout.  While it’s true that people can write simply for themselves as some sort of cathartic experience, art itself does not exist in a vacuum.  The whole point of art is to communicate something that can affect an audience in such a way that can be achieved only by the medium the artist has chosen.

Great art is religious in the way that it touches truth or achieves a sensation that resides a level below conscious awareness.  It doesn’t matter how much effort and craft went into the production of the art; if it doesn’t communicate its message, how can it be appreciated?  Was it even a worthwhile effort?  Art that gathers an audience of thirty-two might be interesting, but it will never be important.

This is Goodbye, despite its stubbornly simplistic groove and arrangement, is a complex yet forgettable song where the melody and lyrics have this very discussion about art.  Lyrically, the song is about looking back and reflecting on the journey that sacrificed happiness for a greater goal.  Melodically, the song is interesting because while it is in the key of G, the melody never touches that root note.  In the verse, which is patient and plodding, the phrase feels like it’s building to the G but gets hung up on F# before falling back down to the B.  In the chorus, the music intensifies, the intervals become more bold, and the melody once again battles all the way up to the F# before retreating once again without tasting the tonic G.  Finally, when the melody climbs and reaches the G in the dissonant bridge, it hits it not with a bang but with a whimper.  The payoff is anticlimactic, like an artist toiling for years before calling it an end in front of an audience of thirty-two.  This is Goodbye.

“A glorious plane crash ten years ago would have been a better end,” he tells me.

I laugh until I realize he’s actually serious.

Instrument cables slither across the stage under Chance’s gaze as Paul, the young bartender/stagehand, loops the cords around his shoulder.  “You think you can move?” Paul asks him.  “I need to get the barstool off the stage.  We’re closing.”

“Did you know this was my last show?” Chance asks the kid.

Paul shrugs.

“Well, can I have my paycheck?”

Paul pulls it out of his pocket and hands it over unceremoniously.

Chance unfolds it, sees the total and hands it back.  “No.  This isn’t right.  This is only two hundred.  The deal was for five.”

“We only had thirty-two tonight.  You promised you’d fill the place. We’re taking a loss as it is.”

“I can’t help it that the blizzard kept people away!”  Chance stands and confronts the tired kid.  “Don’t you know who I am?”

Paul takes the opportunity to snatch the stool and disappears quickly into the back.

“Look at me.  Fighting for pennies!”  He then offers to buy me dinner at a diner down the road.

We step outside and are hit with a choke-the-life-out-of-you cold that makes me feel like I’ve been face-planted into a snow cone.  It’s my first time in Fargo since the 90s and can’t say I really miss it.  But this is where Chance wanted to end it.  Concertgoers in Fargo are pretty savvy, and they depend on music in the worst way, since the wet chill can make life pretty harsh.  Maybe it’s this seasonal brutality that keeps people trapped here in this valley, but then again, even on those odd days when the weather clears and the wind forgets to blow, people just can’t tear themselves away from Fargo and its grid-ordered streets, stubbornly symmetrical buildings, and imported elms that line the curbs like obedient school kids.

The generic sign for the Woods’ End Diner burns its neon glow into the darkness.  I’m prepared for a long night.  Every night with Chance Casper is a long night.

“Why is it that genius is never recognized until we’re dead and the Mozarts of the world have to lie in pauper’s graves?” he wonders aloud.

I can never tell if his unabashed conceit is just part of his Chance Casper persona or if he’s just testing my reaction.

“The reward for greatness is never prompt,” I answer to placate his ego.  “But maybe someday they’ll have good things to say.”

He stops suddenly.  I try to do the same but I slide on the icy pavement and have to grab his arm to keep from falling.  I’m losing control of the interview.

He holds my arm to his chest like it’s a guitar and says, “They’ll say I could make rain with my voice and thunder with my guitar.  That my music dripped with an awareness of all that is pure and true, baptizing chaos.”  His voice is lyrical but raspy, like a radio song fighting through static.

I try to take back my arm, but he holds it tighter.

“You know, they have computers now that tell you what songs are good, what people will listen to.  I’m not shittin’ you.  They take stats of every hit and computers track the characteristics of these songs so they can tell you ahead of time whether your work is crap.”

It’s true.  The first company to do this successfully was Spain-based Polyphonic HMI and was followed by Music Xray.  Both use sophisticated algorithms that use data of past hits and analyzes beat, melody, and chord progressions to determine what songs will be hits and to allow record company execs decide which songs they’re really going to push.  It predicted the success of Nora Jones’ Come Away With Me when music critics had already written it off.  This is scary.  Computers are better at telling us what is good than we are.  I think of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball and wonder if art, like athletic potential, will be assessed by complex algorithms before it ever reaches human consideration.

“If you only look at the past to shape future behavior, you never go anywhere.  Just wait until this software is available to young musicians on their home computers.  They’ll just be writing songs that achieve the highest scores in the program as if artistic expression were some game.”  He winks at me.  “Maybe computers will decide whether your writing is worth a shit before letting people see it.”

As we arrive to the diner, he studies his reflection in the window.  His face has gotten a little chubby and he’s shaved the mane of hair before his receding hairline could conquer it first.

“I’m not so sure about this late night snack,” he says.  “Last thing I need is to look like I’ve got a taiko drum stuffed under my t-shirt.  Besides, who knows what kind of people are gonna be there.”  He gathers courage and pushes open the door.

(continued)

Superheroes

oak

“Whatever you do, no climbing any trees while I’m gone,” my mother had said before she left the house to go shopping.  The simple warning had slipped out of her mouth, fallen to the floor, wiggled through the carpet, squeezed behind the TV set, crawled up the wall, wafted over my head out the window, and caught up with me thirty minutes later as I was shimmying up the largest oak tree in my neighborhood.

Dressed in my Spiderman suit—which were really pajamas with sleeves that no longer reached my wrists and tattered bottoms that extended just beyond my knees—I stopped just as I reached a broad, upwardly expanding limb.  I watched in wonderment as Steven carefully eased himself away from the trunk, avoiding prickly branches as he neared the end of the limb.  His Superman suit fit him perfectly, and the falling sun cast a phosphorescent glow on the red cape tied neatly around his neck.

“I don’t think I’m supposed to be climbing trees,” I called out as I made the critical mistake of looking down.

Steven remained focused on the branch supporting his broad chest.  “You don’t have to.  I just want to see how high I can get.  I’m Superman, remember?”

I looked up.  We weren’t even halfway to the top, but we were higher than I had ever climbed.  I timidly followed my friend out onto the limb, hugging it securely and ignoring the pricks on my forearms and ankles.

I had a sinking feeling.  With our combined weight the branch bent until it was nearly horizontal.  But it didn’t break.  Steven sat upright and flung his cape proudly over his shoulder.  He watched with compassionate concern as my fragile frame inched closer to him.  A semi-circle grin rounded out my elated face, and I was beginning to maneuver myself upright, to sit beside greatness, when I heard the crack.  The geometry on my face reversed itself as I whipped my head around to see what had happened.  The limb remained securely attached to its trunk, but my reaction had been too abrupt, and I lost my balance.  The world flipped as I swung around the limb, my arms flailing but catching nothing but empty air.  My legs, though quivering, held strong, and I hung upside down staring at the hard ground that awaited my head.  I cried out in fear.

“Grab my hand,” said Steven.  I strained my neck to find his silhouette framed in a flare of sunlight.  Reaching out my arm, I swung it until I found his hand.  My fingers wrapped around his, and I sighed in relief as I began to be pulled upright.

What happened next was one of those rare unexplainables, like biting into a salad fork or poking an eye while putting on a t-shirt.  My feet suddenly lost their grip, and though I tried to hang on to Steven’s hand, I flew—miraculously feet first—toward the ground.  Impact sent a violent shock throughout my entire body.  Pain had no identity, but it overtook me.  I squeezed my eyes and rolled on the ground in anguish.  I needed my mother to absorb my pitiful groans.  Burying my head in the ground, I let the tears puddle beneath the bridge of my nose.  It was my own fault.  I couldn’t let Steven see this—my defeat.

Even as I suppressed my barking breaths, they lingered, orbiting around my head.  After what must have been almost a minute, I took a deep breath and held it, but the gasps continued.  I realized they weren’t my own.  I cautiously lifted my head, and my eyes climbed the tree and followed the limb to the red cape firmly in the grasp of prickly branches.  Dangling several feet below, his head in the noose of the cape, was Steven.  His strong fingers struggled to untie the knot around his neck.  His legs thrashed the air as raspy whimpers escaped his throat.  My tears hardened as I watched in horror.  I was going be in trouble if my mom found out where I’d been.


Months later, standing on the stage in front of my classmates, I accepted the wooden, shield-shaped plaque amidst the chorus of cheers.  My mom had taken off work to be there for that day, and my eyes teared when I saw her smiling proudly at me from the back of the auditorium.

I stood uncomfortably beside the principal of our school as he gave my little hand a firm shake.  He put his hand on my shoulder and spoke into the microphone.  “Steven Keller wanted to fly like Superman, and for a brief time he did.  He was a model student and this award, in his memory, is given to a student who best exhibits exemplary behavior.  You should be very proud, son.”  He handed me the award and pushed me forward to the front of the stage to accept the applause.

I didn’t know what “exemplary” meant at the time, but in my mind it was something horrid.  My refusal to speak since Steven’s accident had been mistaken for good behavior.  Exemplary behavior.

But to this day, every time I hear the word, I remember the scared little kid who ran home and cowered in his bedroom while his friend dangled from a tree.

I Confess. I Cheated.

cheat

You’re in school taking the most important and hardest class you’ll ever take.  There’s a lot of pressure because if you make an A you’ll be guaranteed a job.  A B might get you the job depending on how everyone else in the class does.  But you’re pretty confident because you’ve worked harder than your classmates.

First test you make a B.  A few of your classmates make Cs and Ds but the majority make As, and you wonder how they did that.  Soon, you hear that one of your classmates has a copy of all the semester’s tests, obtained perhaps by cleverly hacking into the professor’s computer.  The ones who are cheating ask if you’d like to come over and “study” with them for the next test.  You decline because you don’t want to be a cheater.

You study more than you did for the last test because you know you have to just to keep up.  You end up with a B plus.  They make As again.  They’re contacted by job recruiters.  You are not.  Even some of the ones who made Cs and Ds on the first test are now making As, moving you closer to the bottom of the pack.  You’d like to tell on them, but you have no proof.  Besides, that would really tick off the whole group, and they pretty much detest you anyway for your goody-two-shoes routine.

You do what you have to.  You join them.  You make your A.  You get the job.  You’re financially independent and so happy about that.  You get married and have kids, whose piano and tennis lessons you can pay for thanks to that good job.  Your family is happy.  No regrets.  You and your college buddies laugh about that class years later.

Now you’ve got this great job in a tight economy.  Again, you’re working your butt off, eating lunches at your desk, never taking sick days or personal days, yet the productivity of your co-workers is surpassing your own.  You know they’re cutting corners, backdating documents, shredding customer complaints and doing what they can to stay a step ahead of the curve.  One misstep and they could be fired.  They know that.  You know that.  At the same time, you know that management tacitly condones this behavior as long as they don’t make an obvious blunder that forces management’s hand.  You have a family and hate taking risks especially when it comes down to your livelihood.  However, you wonder that if you can’t keep up with the pack and their inflated numbers, you might lose your job.   You give up vacations, work on holidays, extend your work week to eighty hours just to do what your co-workers claim they do in a forty hour week.  You have your integrity.  You keep up this pace for twenty years, put your kids through college, watch them have families of their own, and finally you retire.

When you look back, you wonder what it would have been like to spend just a little more time with your kids?  You regret not spending more, because when it comes down to it, isn’t the family the most important thing?  You feel bitter at the rest of the world who seems happier than you with fewer wrinkles around the eyes.  They never faced the consequences of their misdeeds.  Or were they really misdeeds?  You wonder if making three follow up calls and fibbing on the required fourth would have made that much of a difference.

We face these kinds of tough decisions every day, sometimes without even considering the moral and ethical significance.  Cheating and getting ahead is the easy decision.  Choosing not to cheat is the tough one.  However, cheating does, after all, imply getting a competitive advantage.  What if you are at a competitive disadvantage if you don’t cheat because everybody else is?  It’s easy to justify it in our own heads when we are pursuing our goals to be successful and respected.

Let’s be honest.  What we all want is to be successful.  Society puts pressure on us to be successful.  In our culture, success is measured by the acquisition of things.  A businessman who nets one million dollars is more successful than one who nets a hundred thousand dollars.  No one asks to compare their bookkeeping or business practices.  An NBA superstar who has five championship rings is more successful than one who doesn’t have any.  Even successful parents are ones who produce successful children, children who are able to obtain a lot of things and money.  Sometimes we need to see ourselves as successful.

It’s time for me to come clean.  I am a Scrabble cheater when it comes to games played on my mobile device.  At first I just played against a friend at work against whom I racked up a record of twenty wins and no losses.  I branched out and began playing other players online.  I’d lose a few games here and there, but I was much more serious about the game than ninety-five percent of the other people that I played, so that in itself gave me an advantage.  There was one guy I liked to play.  We’d have close games but I’d win about eighty percent of the time.  Then his average score suddenly shot up by sixty points.  I’d been playing long enough to know the difference between making good use of the board and pulling insane words out of nowhere, and not just crazy two or three-letter goofy words like ZO and ZA that every Scrabble player with a hundred games under his belt begins to know.  These were words like ALUNITES or HODJAS or ORIGAN (no, not “origin” or “Oregon” but “origan”, in botany, another name for marjoram).  I didn’t want to directly accuse him of cheating but I sent him a message that said, “Are you a Muslim botanist and chemist?” to which he replied, “No.  Someone just played these words against me once, and I remembered them.”

Whatever.  I knew he was cheating.  It’s easy to hop onto the internet and use an anagram solver, and no one on the other side can ever prove it.  He started beating me.  It made me mad.  I watched my win/loss record fall below ninety percent, not that it really matters since no one but me ever looks at it.

So then, I started doing it, using the anagram solvers.  I started to beat him again.  And it felt good.   I didn’t feel guilty about it.  If that’s the way he wants to play, that’s the way I’ll play, I told myself.

The point of all this is not to suggest that cheating is the proper way to go but merely how easy it is to justify to ourselves that not only is cheating the better way but also the vital way.  There is an insane pressure placed on us from birth to succeed, and although many of us are brought up in the Christian tradition of humility and charity, we all know that piety and moral purity are not the main criteria society considers when labeling a person a success.

Since we are social beings, how others see us is so important to how we define and view ourselves.  We want others to like us and we naturally hide our flaws.

So now we come to Lance Armstrong.  Of course I had to watch his interview with Oprah.  I genuinely feel bad for him not because I sympathize with what he did but because I can only imagine how painful the fall from the top to the thorny pit of despair must be.  The truth is, we’ve all been in his situation.  You might say my Scrabble example is nothing like Lance Armstrong because there was nothing really at stake.  But really, that makes my actions even more preposterous.  The only thing at stake was my own vanity.

I’ve talked to some who might understand why he cheated, but cannot tolerate the way he viciously went after the people who accused him of cheating.  Anyone who has had an affair and is trying to hide it will scorch the earth before they reveal their lie.  It’s not noble or right.  It’s just a desperate attempt to stay above everything and scrape and claw at whatever might catch before the inevitable avalanche sends us tumbling down the mountain.  The deeper and more important the lie, the more people we are willing to hurt to protect it.  The way I see it, a man at his worst is usually no worse than most men.

To be clear, I’m not excusing Lance Armstrong’s behavior.  His titles should be stripped, a ban implemented, and his legend in the sport of racing tarnished.  But I don’t hate him either.  I’m just considering the reality that Lance Armstrong, like us all, is human.  Perhaps that is the biggest disappointment.

lance

Snitch

secret

Dragging with her the gossip queen
She slips away to hidden space along the edge
Where whispers are suppressed by industrial woosh
And where webs are weaved
And transgressors trapped
And where ears sneak into seismic cracks
This is the real business
Salt and pepper to the filet of mundane
 Can you believe
    No way, no how
    It’s the truth
    Here’s the proof
    Maybe it’s something misunderstood
    But how can it be, how can it be
    It is, it is

The shame of secrets spilled
From voices
from voices I know
Nowhere better to follow the show
Than from behind a thin sheet of drywall

Let me tell you something…something about what they said
As I…As I heard it all.

Mr. Lin’s Family

Also made it in the latest issue of the Sagebrush Review.

MR. LIN’S FAMILY

Mr. Lin awoke before sunrise, jabbed his arms through the sleeves of his stitched-up winter coat, slung his burlap rice sack over his shoulder, and opened his front door to the cold rush of air and the sound of cars whisking over the Manhattan bridge.  A spark of moonlight lingered in the sky basking in the urban glow.  Fall had been unseasonably temperate, but luckily, on this day the wind was from the north, blowing the stench of rotten garbage and excrement back towards the East River.  When Mr. Lin arrived to New York City a few years before from the humid climate of Guandong, China, he found the winds irritating and more nimble than even the rats at burrowing through unseen openings and interrupting sleep, but now he welcomed the fresh air with open arms and smiled at his good fortune.

His home was the marvel of the Canal Street shantytown.  He had built it without the traditional tools of nails, hammers, hinges, and saws.  Mr. Lin’s specialty was knots.  Discarded packing cords held together the mattresses and bedsprings that made up his walls while dusty rugs and sheets of canvas tied over wooden pallets formed his roof.  On the outer walls, hanging along streamers of bright florist ribbon were fresh oranges elegantly secured in yellow plastic bows labeled “CAUTION.” 

Read the rest in the latest issue!

http://www.amazon.com/Sagebrush-Review-Volume-Brooke-Wallace/dp/098234533X

The Rant of a Monster’s Protégé

This guy walks into a bar

That guy is me

That guy doesn’t know what to say to this girl

So someone suggests with sincerity—

BE YOURSELF

Of all the hollow, uninspired, lame excrements of human thought

This advice is the worst

And might as well read

BE

because tell me, wise man,

Who is the “myself” I’m to be to you?

Myself is accustomed to customs

And I can never really be free to be me

 

Otherwise I’d

Scratch my ass, lick my plate, kiss the dog, sing off key

Run through halls, slap the queen (it’s just a game) but I’d slap your back just the same;

I’d say you’re fat (it’s likely true); thumb my nose at the men in blue.

Is this the me you want me to be?

Or is how I am determined by you?

I don’t know the many MEs of ME so how can you tell ME what to be?

Be myself

Is that really it?

Don’t you know you’re full of—

Wait!

Would the me you know say that?

You say no

Who’s this dude who speaks so crude

Maybe I am myself right now but you don’t know because

The you that’s me you thought you knew was just an imposter through and through. Maybe you want me to be a yester me

Simply because it favors you

 

When there’s so much MohammeDalaiLamaKrishnApostlePeterPandaExpressChineseFortuneCookieMonster wisdom

How can anyone know how to be?

Maybe it isn’t at all about “be this or be that.”

There is only

C

Which is for cookie

That’s good enough for me.

Meet the Author

“The only way to get there is to pass through Griffin.  No one wants nothing to do with Griffin.”

Gabby arrived to the conclusion that she wasn’t going to get any help from the man in the orange hammock, but she felt it would be rude just to walk away.  The last customers of the day were loading their haul of junk into their pickup trucks.  She wondered how any of these items actually sold.  They weren’t really antiques as the sign advertised.  They were just unfinished, well-weathered pieces that had never seen better days.  “So once I get through Griffin, where do I go next?  Wait, Griffin’s a town, right?”

The man in the orange hammock sat up.  His face looked worn as if the sun had tattooed an old leather glove onto it.  He wore workman’s overalls and had an oval patch with “Dan” written on it in white, cursive letters.  “You ain’t curious why no one wants to go through Griffin?”

“I just assumed it was because it didn’t have a Dairy Queen.”

“Oh, it gots a Dairy Queen.  Fact, looks like any ordinary place.  But once you step outside, you’ll know you ain’t in just any ol’ town.”

“I don’t plan on staying.”

“Hah!”  His laugh was coarse and guttural.  “They ain’t gonna let you leave that quick, I promise you that!”

“Can you just tell me where he lives?”

“I can tell you, but you really need someone in town to show you.  It’s kinda complicated—a couple forks in the road, some landmarks that are tough to see.  That’s how it is in these neck of the woods.  Why you so bent on seein’ Mr. Salvador?  You an author, too?”

“Me?  No.  I’m a nobody.  At least for now.  But I’ve read some of his stuff.  Meet the Author was the one that did it for me.”  It was no exaggeration.  After reading that story she had to meet D.F. Salvador.  It was like her existence depended on it.  The story hadn’t answered any questions or exposed hidden truths, but it connected with her, like she knew exactly what the author had gone through in writing it.

“I read that one,” Dan said as he flicked a fire ant off his arm.  “There was a big to-do ‘bout that one ‘round here when it got published, you know, on account of the familiarity of it and all.”

Gabby thought about biting her tongue, but she couldn’t resist.  “I can’t help but notice, but in that story he had a guy in overalls on an orange hammock.  Did he base that character on you?”

“Nah.  I based me on that character.  Honestly, I don’t care for the man.  After the drought, he bought out my deeds forcin’ me out here to the fringes.”

“So you know where he lives?”

“Sure.  Right on the banks of the Oeeokee River.  If you can find it.”

Gabby pulled out her map and studied it.  “Now I know you’re messing with me.  There’s no Oeeokee River on the map.”

He tumbled out of the hammock and stretched his limbs.  “That’s cause it didn’t exist until Mr. Salvador moved in.”  Dan put his finger on the map, leaving an oily smudge where he dragged.  “He dug some trenches along here, moved some boulders around, redirected the flow of that other river you do see here on the map.  Made the old house riverfront property.  Suppose he wanted to make an oxbow, but I guess he didn’t have time to finish.  Problem is the Oeeokee ain’t got nothing to flow into, so it kinda bottles up and busts its banks whenever we get a good rain like we did last night.  Floods the place.  He’s always cleanin’ up the place, but the waters always comin’ in faster than he can clear it out.  That’s what happens when you fight nature’s course.”

“Does he live alone?”

“Yup.  He has some children in town, but he let go of them some time back.  You’ll probably run into them.  Griffin’s a small place.  Maybe they can tell you where to find him.”  He coughed out another laugh.  “You best be goin’.  Storm’s comin’ in.”

He seemed to be ushering her back to her car, now the only vehicle in the dirt parking lot, but Gabby felt somewhat compelled to buy something, at least for Dan’s time.

“How much for that Velasquez print?”

“Ma’am, that ain’t no print.  That is a genuine painting.  Lost Manyness, I think is what it’s called.  It reminds us of when we lost our many niceties.”

“It’s Las Meniñas.  It’s by Velasquez.  It’s like in every art book.”

“Then this Velasca fella’ must’ve copied this work here.”

“It was painted in Spain—”

“Still could’ve seen this one.”

“—like five hundred years ago.”

“How you know so much about art?  You an artist too?”

“Maybe I am.”

“Good luck findin’ your writer friend Mr. Diego Savador.”

Dan walked Gabby to her car, a shiny, new hybrid.  He held her door open as she got in.  She thanked him and said goodbye and tried to pull the door shut, but he held firm.  “They say he killed a man,” he said.

“Do you believe that?” she asked.

“The important thing is if you believe that.  You’re the one goin’ to see him.”  He finally let go of the door.  “But you can’t believe everything you read.”

Gabby pulled out of the dusty parking lot of the antique shop and followed the road north to Griffin.  When she rolled into town, she was struck by the familiarity of the places lining the main road—the pizzeria with the cartoonish pepperoni pizza missing one slice painted on the window, the coffee shop with the wrought iron cafe chairs on the patio—but they existed together like an impossible memory, incongruous with the reality she knew.  She had never been to Griffin before.

She stopped her car when she came to a red light.  She found it peculiar that there should be a stoplight at a point in the road where there was no intersection.  Minutes passed.  Was this what Dan had meant when he said the town wouldn’t let people go?  She was about to run the light when a sheriff’s cruiser pulled up behind her.  She waited longer.  He inched closer.  She didn’t know what to do.  The sheriff turned on the flashing red and blue lights, but she still had nowhere to go without running the light.   Finally, the sheriff pulled alongside her in the southbound lane where oncoming traffic would have been had there been any traffic.  He gestured for her to follow him to the Dairy Queen parking lot.  She followed.

She parked, rolled down her window, turned off her car, put her hands ten-and-two on the wheel, and waited.  The officer walked to her door and leaned in.

“You must be lost.  The road pretty much ends here, or a little ways down the road.  The only people who stop here at this light are people who are lost.  Everyone else just drives on through.  So, what exactly are you doing here?”

Gabby wasn’t sure if she’d done anything wrong.  “I don’t know exactly where I’m going.  I’m looking for a writer,” she said.  “D.F. Salvador.  Do you know him?”

“I sure do!  If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be sheriff!”

“Can you help me find him?”

The sheriff removed his cap and scratched his head.  “Well, you follow this road until it comes to a T-intersection.  Take a left…you know, it’s complicated.”  A few more cars pulled into the parking lot diverting the sheriff’s attention.  “I’m late for a town hall meeting, too.”

“At Dairy Queen?”

“You think we have a town hall?  Look, I’d help you, even drive you out there, if it wasn’t such a big meeting.  It’s our Third of May Celebration tonight.  You should stick around.  Bring your gun.”

“A gun?”

“Yeah.  Everyone fires off at midnight.”

“Wouldn’t that be the fourth of May?” she asked.  The sheriff began to slowly retreat toward the Dairy Queen, and Gabby wasn’t sure if he’d heard her snide question.              “Listen,” he said.  “If you’re looking for your author, just listen for water and head in that direction.  You’ll probably find him in the river.”  He backpedaled a little faster.  “Sorry, I can’t help you more—”

Gabby stepped out of her car and called out, “I heard he has family in town.  Do you know where I can find them?”

The sheriff laughed.  “Everyone in this town is related in one way or another.”  He pointed a finger pistol at Gabby and winked.  “But try to make it tonight.”  He disappeared inside the restaurant.

Suddenly, something prodded Gabby in the back.

She spun around and found a scraggy, one-legged man waving a crutch.  His other arm was in a sling, propped up at a 90 degree angle.  “You’re looking for Diego Salvador, aren’t you?” he said, falling hard back onto his crutch.  “Do not let him see you or he will use you.  He will, he will use you.  You know, he did this to me.”  His eyes were expressionless, but she quickly realized it was because he had no eyebrows.  He was painfully lacking.

“You know where to find him?” she asked.

“Last time I went looking for him, this happened to me,” he said, nodding to his limp arm.  “Here.  Take this.”  He held out the crutch.  “I need to give you something.  Hurry!  Take it!  Do you want me to help you or not!”

She put a hand on his shoulder and took the crutch.

He continued to hop around while he searched his pants.  He yanked out a gun.  Gabby recoiled, nearly making him fall in the process.  “Gimme my crutch,” he said.  He waved the gun wildly as he tried to balance himself.  “Here.  Take this,” he said, offering the gun.  “Trade.  Gimme my crutch.  Quick!  Before I fall and break my one good limb.”

She didn’t want it, but she she didn’t want to see him fall either.  And she certainly didn’t want the gun to go off accidentally, so she took it.  It felt warm and heavy in her hands.

“You seem like a nice girl.” the man said.  “You have a name?”

“Gabby.”

“You’re a lucky one, I can tell.  I just don’t want to see what happened to me happen to you.  It ain’t easy being half a man.”

She tried to hand the gun back to him.  “I’m sure he didn’t intentionally hurt you.”

He pushed it away.  “Are you his mouthpiece now?  He’s using you and you don’t even know it.”

“I don’t need a gun,” she said.

“Keep it.  I really have no reason for carrying it.  I guess I just had it for the celebration.”  He smile widely.  “But tonight, you’re the celebration.”

Gabby pulled the gun closer to her.  “I don’t know what you want me to do with this.”

“You’ll need it.  I’ll show you exactly how to get there, but first you have to promise to me to do something.”

She followed the directions, moving slowly down the path.  She had been warned not to startle him.  She had been warned not to step in his shadow or pass over his reflection.  The one-legged man had warned of many things, but the consequences of ignoring the warnings were vague.  As long as she beat the storm, which gathered strength at the edge of the tree line, she’d find him on the river, which would be the “safest place to confront him.”

It was when she felt the first twinge in her chest that she first turned around and assessed her progress, wondering if she’d be able to return the same way she came or if she’d even recognize the path from a flipped perspective.  Why had she trusted the one-legged man over her own instincts?  She closed her eyes and dampness closed in on her senses until it filled her body.  Thunder just beyond the tree line.  The natal smell of rain.  Water.  Water flowing.  She opened her eyes and followed the sound.  She hopped over prickly plants, trusting the stability of makeshift stepping stones.

Finally, a shallow stream swarmed around her ankles.  She’d reached the outer nerves of the Oeeokee River.  The little house was where she knew it would be, but she knew D.F. would not be inside.  Upriver, a cluster of boulders parted the river, unleashing rapids on one side and a calm flow on the other.  A small tree sprouted from the largest of the boulders.

She mapped her way there, choosing the flattest rocks and stones and imagining the occasional leaps and feats of balance that would be required to reach the cluster.  She knew she’d find him there on the other side of the largest boulder.

She moved quickly but quietly.  A few rays of sun broke through the clouds.  Her shadow danced along the boulders until her shape took form in the reflection of the river. She was aware of her pounding heart as she climbed atop the boulder.  She gave one final look at where she’d come from and she caught a glance of her reflection, full and colorful, in the river below.  She felt more resolute than ever as she pulled herself atop the boulder.

There he was under the shade of the tree, his back to her, his journal in his hands.  The rolling water obscured her footsteps as she crept up behind him.  Before she did anything else, she had to see what he had written.

On the page were two sentences and his hand hovered above, prepared to add more.  She moved closer to read what he had written.

The only way to get there is to pass through Griffin.  No one wants nothing to do with Griffin.”

            Then

Gabby arrived

Don’t Search My Bags

Don’t search my bags
I don’t know
I don’t know
what is in there
yes I packed
yes I packed my bags

lemme pass
take a chance
lemme pass
I’m in a hurry
to move on
I’m movin’ on

I’m dyin’
yes I am
but not a drug
for this man
just need a wave and a nod
to get me goin’ on

do you really wanna see
all the baggage in the bag
all the crap
that I have
and listen to my story
of how I got what I packed?

ain’t got the time
or the tissue
or the drops for the eyes
threw away
all the tears
‘cause I knew they had to go

where I go is where I go
do you really wanna know?
if you’d seen where I’d been
you’d zip it up again
and let me through
and let me through

here it is
see it all
do you wanna hold me?
grab my wrist
check your list
did you miss
anything
anything at all?

what I say is who I am and
what I am is what you’d say
is a mess of a man
with a bundle in his bag.
not a threat
just a mess

did we really need to check it?