Fiction: At The Edge

Illustration by Ali Maidi

by Richard H. Durisen

“When angels fell,

Some fell on the land,

Some fell on the sea.

The former are the faeries,

And the latter were often

Said to be the seals.”

Orcadian Folklore, Anonymous

The drone of approaching Heinkel bombers echoes in the fjords. A fireball erupts when the first bomb hits, flinging bodies into the sea….

Rose awoke on her lumpy mattress, startled and sweaty. Large waves boomed against the rocks, and the grief that had clotted around her heart during a night of intermittent sleep melted and flowed back into her veins. It was the dream about the bombers that had awoken her. Previous dreams had presaged discoveries on the beach, and climbing out of bed, Rose asked aloud, “Mum, do ya have a gift for me today?”

After putting on her work clothes, Rose took the hemp sack with rope shoulder straps down from its hook and, in it, put a jar containing a rag moistened with vinegar. She slung the pack on her back and walked toward the ocean. Today, the fog had drawn back from the coast after dawn, and the sky was an unusually deep blue. Far out to sea, a Vickers Vildebeest biplane flew along the coast, patrolling for U boats.

The rolling hills of scrub and verdant grass ended abruptly at the water, as if loaves of bread had been carved in a ragged line. Rose’s house topped one of the nearest hills. The closest other visible building, Old Tom O’Malley’s house, was about a third of a mile away up along the coast.

Rose stood at the top of the precipice nearest her house. It dropped straight down into Donegal Bay off the Irish Sea and was part of the Slieve League cliffs. The locals called this particular cliff “Imeall”, which in Gaelic means “Edge” or “Margin.” Many an afternoon or evening, long before the troubles began, she and her sister would sit here to ponder the mysteries common among young Irish women –their bodies, men, America.

Something glinted below her, where the waves foamed over a rocky beach within the steep sides of a cove. The path down to the cove was treacherous, but Rose was well practiced from her childhood days. When she saw up close what was caught in a rough edge of the tide pool, a mixture of horror and elation raced through her body, and she wept.

She tied the cloth dampened with vinegar over her nose to mask the stench, hefted the object into the sack, and then began the climb uphill. As she approached her house, she recognized her brother in the distance, bicycling along the coast road for one of his frequent visits. Anxiety crackled through her. She could not let Sean reach the house before she did. She ran.

Back home, she retrieved the sealed container of lye and the key that she kept near the Book under her bed and hurried to the back of the house, to the large trunk beneath the eaves. She unlocked it and swung open the lid. The pungent air made her wince and cough a little. She unloaded her sack, took off the military cap, gazed longingly at the decomposing head festooned with seaweed, and laid it gently in the box. She sprinkled some lye on top of all the trunk’s contents and closed the lid. She also scattered some lye over the fluids leaking from between the thick wooden slats and paused for a moment. “They’re back together again, Mum, like ya said.”

Once back inside the house, she hung the hat behind a curtain that partitioned off one corner of the main room. She shut the windows on the trunk side of the house, cleaned up as best she could at the basin, and put water on for tea. Moments later, Sean’s wheels clattered on the path to her house.

“Darlin’ sister, ya need to take better care a the place. It smells to High Heaven, ya know.”

“The compost needs a bit a straw.”

“Straw? A healthy dose of buryin’ it needs… Well, I brought what food I could, an’ some laundry. Ya know how bad ‘tis with the Emergency an’ all. U boats. Patrol planes. As if a fisherman’s life isn’t hard enough. We ought ta leave this damn place. Go North.”

“Never.”

“People talk, Rose. ‘Tis hard to find customers for yer washin’ anymore.”

“Oh, they talk, do they?” Rose said, with a forceful “Heeeck!” at the end, a guttural sound, like a cat choking up a hairball. Her eyes flashed, “And what is it they’re sayin’?”

“Feck, ya know. Dumb rot. Yer a witch an’ all. Or a Selkie.”

“Selkie, me arse! Ya mean Finfolk! Sami! Heeeck! Like Mum!”

“Yeah, Rose, like Mother. God Rest Her Troubled Soul.”

“’Er soul isn’t troubled, Sean. Not the way ya mean it, anyhow.”

“An’ how would ya know that? She jumped off the damn cliff, she did. She’s as lost as Father was in the Great Storm a ’38, a Godfearin’ Man, Bless his Soul.”

“Ya don’t know it. No one saw ‘er. Went back to ‘er home is all she did.”

“Aw, Rose, ya know what they said about ‘er. They’re sayin’ the same about ya now. I fear someone’ll get a notion. And where’s Mother’s home, if not here?”

“Ya know’t in yer heart, Sean. Ya just won’t admit it.”

“Rose, ya talk crazy. She’s County Donegal right through.”

“Where’s ‘er folk then, Sean? How come Mum an’ Dad never talked about’m? Ya heard the stories of him goin’ out in the boat and comin’ back with ‘er. Mum’s from Inse Catt way back, an’ ‘er Folk are Lochlann Sami, the Finnar, belongin’ to the sea.”

Sean ignored Rose’s occult version of their family history and continued, “Rose, ya wander around all day mutterin’ an’ givin’ folks the eye. Ya sit on the beach whisperin’ to the seals. An’ at night ya stand on Imeall there keenin’ like a Banshee. Just like Mother, when Father died. Folks talk, Rose. Ya know what they think? About Mary?”

“Sean, I didn’t kill Mary. Heeeck! I’m guilty a other things, but not that.”

“Aw, Rose. Ya know. It’s people that’re saying, not me.”

They sat in silence for a while. Then Sean reminisced a little about their childhood and was surprised that she smiled thinly and even chuckled once. Before today, the weight of everything had seemed to crush the joy right out of her. They fell into a reverie and stared out the window at the horizon.

When Sean spoke again, it was to update her on the news: another volunteer from the village wounded, more difficulties with the food supplies, another Luftwaffe bombing of Dublin, rumors about when the Americans might enter the war.

“Oh, an’ Joseph says he needs his wash done quick this time, for Sunday Mass. He’s still sweet on ya, ya know, no matter how daft ya be, an’ even with all that’s happened. An’ I added me own best shirt to the load. The stain is a bit a blood from a scuff at the pub. Defendin’ yer name, if ya must know.”

“Certainly nothin’ new, that. Thank ya, Sean, but I don’t need defendin’. Tell Joe I’ll get his cloths to him quick this time. Tell’m he’s a good man too.”

They lapsed into another silence filled by the surf and by the distant barking of seals. Sean sighed and stood up to leave.

“Bless ya, darlin’ sister! May God Look Over Ya!”

“I don’t know about God. Heeeck! But Mum does.” Rose held up the wood carving of the Celtic knot that her mother had given her and that she always wore around her neck on a leather strap.

“I worry about ya being alone an’ all. I think it’s makin’ ya daft.”

“I’m not alone, Sean.”

Sean creased his brow. “The way ya talk, it scares me, Rose. I swear. Ya’ll make me a drinkin’ man for sure.”

“Yer already a drinkin’ man, Sean.” Rose paused and added, “An’ bless ya too. Yer concern touches me. Ya have Dad’s soft heart, but deep in yer soul I think ya got more a Mum in ya than I do. Ya just don’t know it.”

With that, he smiled, gave her a long hug, and left. Before he rode his bike down the hill toward the road, he yelled, “May The Saints Have Mercy, Rose, it stinks like the docks out here! When next I’m back, I’ll help ya with the compost!”

“Thank ya, Sean. Yer right. I’ll need a bit a help with that.”

Rose sat back down in the kitchen after Sean left and ran her fingers across the rough tabletop. Splinters poked at her fingertips, and she toyed with the hints of pain.

It had begun two years back, in 1939, on the night of Paddy’s send-off party. After mourning the loss of their parents for a year, Rose and Mary were ready to let go for an evening. When they arrived at the pub, they seemed, even to Rose, to be an unlikely pair. Each was beautiful in her way, but Mary was tall and solidly built, robust, with red hair and a ruddy complexion like her father and brother. Rose took after her mother – dark, exotic, and elfin. Her protruding almond-shaped eyes slanted slightly downward at the edges, and she had unusually pronounced webbing between her fingers and toes, a trait she shared with her mother.

Mary spent most of her time at the gathering sitting near the bar, talking and laughing with Paddy. Rose was the more spirited and mischievous of the two, and her deep brown eyes and long shiny black hair flashed with inner fire. She let herself be carried away by the music and drink, spinning her skirt out shamelessly on the dance floor, hissing into young men’s ears, and downing all the beer and whisky she was offered.

Paddy was going to war, one of the early Irish volunteers. He was the handsomest man in the village, desired by all, and betrothed to Rose’s sister Mary. Rose had been happy for them, despite the grim reports of war coming from the Continent, but tonight her spirit was set free by the alcohol. When Paddy left Mary at the bar to join the dancers, Rose whirled over to him through the crowd. They danced a vibrant reel together and everyone cheered, including Mary. Once the music stopped, Rose and Paddy laughed at each other through their drunken fog. Later, as the whisky overcame Rose, her legs began to buckle and she could barely stand. Paddy told Mary he would take her sister home and then come right back to the pub.

Since the loss of their father at sea and the subsequent disappearance of their mother, Mary and Rose had been living alone on the hill near Imeall, well outside the village. Paddy borrowed the baker’s lorry and drove it somewhat recklessly along the coast road. The final walk up the path to the house was strenuous, but Rose was light and Paddy strong. Her warm body next to his and her arms around his shoulders stroking his broad back stirred a sweet and dangerous yearning. At the house, he laid her tenderly on her bed, and she smiled up at him with half-lidded eyes. The Celtic knot lay between her breasts. He professed in tears that it was she he truly loved, not her sister. He had courted Mary just to be near Rose, but had been too afraid to approach Rose directly because of her wildness.

As she listened, Rose knew that she had wanted this to be true. She had often lingered over elaborate daydreams that ended with the two of them entwined like vines. She had even muttered to the Book a time or two, at the page of forbidden love, but never really believed there was any harm in it. Mary was her sister, a soul mate, and Paddy seemed totally devoted to her. Despite the spinning in her head, her stupor cleared enough that she could remember giving joyful consent. Their love was fierce and deep, and quickly consummated. Paddy had to reappear at the pub. He promised to write and straighten it all out, and she gave him the Celtic knot as a token of their new commitment. Paddy went back to his sendoff party and left early the next day for the Irish Guards.

It was a few months before Paddy’s first letters reached Mary and Rose, and they ignited a firestorm. Mary left the house in a fury to live with Paddy’s mother. She took to shouting dangerous things in public about the Book, about ancient chants and spells, about their mother teaching Rose the old Sami ways. Even though Paddy’s letter asked Mary to give the betrothal ring to Rose, Mary refused, appealing to Father O’Connell to exorcise the Devil from Rose and release Paddy from her spell. Rose ridiculed the priest but knew in her heart that her defiance vented from deep levels of shame and remorse.

The conflict raged for the better part of a year. In an effort at reconciliation, Rose asked Mary to meet her at Imeall one afternoon, and, to Rose’s surprise, Mary agreed. The sisters sat at the brink of the precipice and looked out toward the seal rock, trying to let the ocean breeze blow away some of the bad feeling. The betrothal ring on Mary’s hand sparkled in the Sun.

“How could ya do it, Rose? ‘Twas the Book, it was. Mother’s damn Book. Ya should burn it.”

“Don’t speak so a Mum’s Book, Mary. ‘Tis dangerous. But in truth, about Paddy, I love’m. ‘Tis no more Magic than ‘tis a human thing, ya know. I couldn’t help it. I feel a twistin’ in me gut about hurtin’ ya, but ‘tis in the world now. The Book only helped t’show what was.” Though her words held conviction, Rose felt mostly helpless as she stared out at the sea. A lone seal barked far away.

“Nae, Rose, by all that’s holy, Paddy’s mine. Father O’Connell, he says it. The whole town says it. Ya know what’s right, Rose. Ya know what our Father woulda said.”

Rose stood up. “Father were a good man, but I spit on the feckin’ priest. Heeeck!” And Rose spat on the ground. “Look a the sea, Mary. It don’t owe a thing to the Christ a Galilee. ’Tis the heart an’ spirit in all things, Mary. ‘Tis what matters. ‘An the sea says Paddy’s mine now.”

“The sea. Priests. Books. I spit on’m all, I do. Family, Rose! Yer me sister. How could ya betray blood between us? All me life, I thought ya loved me.”

“But, Mary, I love ya true, but what I feel about Paddy, it’s real too… If Paddy loves us both, maybe we both can have’m. ‘Tis a more common thing then people like t’say. ‘Tis only priests and matrons say it can’t be.”

With this, Mary’s face flushed crimson, and she jumped to her feet. “Rose, I won’t have any more a this crazy talk. If yer thinkin’ like this, yer no sister I know. ‘An I curse yer Mother’s Book. ‘Tis Devil’s work. She should not have given it to ya. It’s made ya witchy and dark like ‘er, it has. She’s no more me Mother, too. Poor Dad, God bless his soul. I’m goin’. I won’t speak t’ya no more.”

“Heeeck! Mary! Ya don’t know what yer sayin’!” Rose turned to the sea, “Mum, she don’t mean it!”

Mary started to leave. Rose, in desperation, grabbed Mary’s wrist and begged her to stay. Mary screamed and yanked her hand back. The cliff shifted beneath them after a particularly large wave. The rocks under Mary’s feet suddenly gave way. At the same moment, Rose lost her grip on Mary’s arm, and Mary toppled into the void beyond Imeall.

“Oh, Mary! Oh nae, Mum! Nae!”

The seals on the rock began to bark loudly, then jumped into the sea and swam toward the cliff. Rose collapsed, sobbing.

After heating a piece of toast over a burner of her stove, Rose began to work on the laundry that Sean had left. Being occupied with this mundane task kept her calm in the face of what she intended to do.

As she cranked the clean clothes through the wringer, a gull came looking for a snack in her compost pile and called out as if in answer to the squeaky rollers. Tears formed at the corners of Rose’s eyes. For someone with so much life squeezed out of her, Rose was amazed at how much and how often she was able to cry. She made a quick and thorough job of the washing before she lost the afternoon sunlight for drying. The clothesline was well away from the house, and a strong wind was blowing out towards the ocean. One by one she fought to attach the clothes to the line. It was as if all of them were trying to reach the sea.

Old Tom O’Malley had claimed that he saw the whole argument from his house and that Rose had bodily thrown Mary to her death. This seemed preposterous to some, because Rose was so much smaller than Mary, but it confirmed the worst thoughts of those who believed that Rose could summon unnatural powers. Rose pleaded for people to believe that Mary slipped on loose stones, and, in her grief, she swore it on her father’s honor. Although disconsolate at the growing losses in his family, Sean defended Rose, with his fists if he had to. He, with other fishermen, searched for Mary’s body by day, and by night he drowned his sorrow – for Mary, for Rose, for his parents – in generous amounts of Guinness and whiskey, to the point where Avril, his wife, left him and moved back to her family in Letterkenny.

Rose wrote to Paddy as clearly as she could about what had happened. She trusted in her pleadings with the Book and in Paddy’s love that he would believe her, but Paddy’s feelings became twisted by his own guilt, and in the end he accepted the version of the story written to him by his mother. In his last letter to Rose, a few months after Mary’s death, he condemned Rose for a witch, renounced his vow, and returned the Celtic necklace. A monstrous anger ignited within Rose, and she said fiery and explosive words, by candlelight, over the darkest pages of the Book.

Soon after, in June 1940, official news of a calamitous event cast the deepest shadows over the village and blackened Rose’s soul. As reported in The Donegal News & Derry People:

“Shortly after midnight on May 15, while carrying the 1st Battalion Irish Guards of the 24th Brigade, the H.M.T. Chrobry was attacked and set ablaze by German bombers near Skaanland, Norway. Paddy Maquire of the Slieve League region, originally of County Fermanagh, is officially missing at sea, presumed dead. All other volunteers in the 24th from County Donegal survived, but the following were injured…”

Paddy’s body was never recovered, but an eyewitness from the village said in a letter home that he had seen him blown clean off the vessel.

When she heard about Paddy’s fate, Rose detached herself completely from the world of ordinary folk. She wore the Celtic knot always, even when swimming in the sea, and she spent much of her time wandering alone on the beaches and cliffs, talking to the seals in the water, sometimes with the Book in her hands.  After the first time she had the dream about the bombers, a gift for her arrived on the beach in the cove near her house. A voice coming from the water told her then what she had to do to put everything right.

The clothes dried quickly in the strong breeze. Before sunset, Rose ironed them, wrapped them tidily in brown paper, and penciled Joe’s name on the bundle. She put Sean’s shirt on top and left it all on the shelf by the door. Then, with heavy heart, she turned to the task ahead.

“Mum, give me strength.”

Before the sunlight faded, a Waxing Moon, almost Full, rose over the hills and shone into the East windows. Rose gathered cleaning liquid and a candle for extra light, retrieved the army cap from behind the curtain, and sat at the table. She carefully removed the tarnished cap star of the Most Illustrious Order of St. Patrick from the hat and cleaned the wool and the metal star as best she could. She rubbed some grease on the visor to bring out a shine. Rose walked, with the hat, back to the corner of the room and pulled the curtain back entirely.

Hanging there in the corner was an essentially complete battledress uniform of the 1st Irish Guards. It had rips, holes, burns, and stains that Rose did not have the material or skills to fix entirely, but she had done well enough to honor who and what it represented. She even had the boots and the Sam Browne belt with cross strap. She put the hat with the uniform and left the curtain drawn so she could see it all hanging there. Then she reached in the jacket pocket and pulled out Mary’s betrothal ring.

Rose went into her bedroom and brought out a sheet of paper, an envelope, her mother’s Book, and the key to the trunk. She set the cap star and Mary’s ring next to the Book in front of her. She paused a long time, not sure what to say. Sean would have a difficult time no matter what she wrote. By force of habit, beat into her by the Sisters of Mercy, she put her best Catholic schoolgirl English into the letter.

Dearest Brother,

I’m sorry to burden you, Sean. If the sea doesn’t keep me, bury me here, near Imeall. I’m leaving Paddy’s St. Patrick’s star and Mary’s ring. These were gifts. I didn’t steal them. Some night soon, nail them to the trunk out back, weight it with stones, and throw it over the cliff. I am not strong enough, but it must be done. I won’t rest in peace unless you do it. Please don’t look inside. You don’t need to know what’s in there. Bury Mum’s Book with me, so it causes no more harm.

Sean, you’re a blameless soul, like Father. Pray for us all in your own way. I hope Mum helps you like she helped me. If all goes as I’ve been told, there will be signs of healing, and you’ll know I’m happy.

Love,

Rose

When she was done, Rose put the letter, the star, and the ring in the envelope and sealed it. She picked up the Book. It glowed in her hands as she opened it for the last time and turned to the last few pages, the ones that dealt with the hardest things. She read the old runes in a whispery chant and invoked the names of her mother, Mary, and Paddy. She paused for a minute, added a few whispers for her father, and then surprised herself by reciting the Lord’s Prayer for him dutifully, like a good daughter.

The Moon was approaching the meridian in the Southern sky. It would soon be midnight. Rose got up from the table and went to the basin, in which there was still grey rinse water from the laundry. Leaving the Celtic knot around her neck, she undressed, got a washcloth, and fit herself into the tub. She cleaned herself slowly and thoroughly and brushed her hair clear of tangles.

When she stood up, with bubbles of foam slipping down her back and thighs, her skin shone like varnished wood in the combined light of the candle and the Moon. She dried herself and walked to the corner where the uniform hung. After gazing for a while at the marvel of it, she began to put it on. The wool felt scratchy as a hair shirt on her bare skin, and she relished the faint odors that clung to it, odors of death and the sea.

The uniform was oversized for her, but she cinched it up with cords. She grabbed the trunk key from the table and put it in the jacket pocket, hoping to make it more difficult for Sean to look in the trunk by taking the key with her. She wore several pairs of socks to make the boots fit tight, and, even with her hair folded up into the hat, she had to stuff in wads of paper to set it firmly on her head. When she judged by the location of the Moon that it was midnight, she went outside and walked to Imeall.

Lingering above the roaring surf, Rose poured out one long howl. As the echoes died away, she felt finally at peace again with the cliffs, the stars, the Moon, and the sea. Rose murmured the Sami words for Moon, Sea, and Mother. “Mannu… Mearra… Eadni.” As she leaned over Imeall and surrendered her balance, she called out: “I’m only half Finfolk, Mum, but let me be near ya always!”

At about noon the next day, Sean found and opened the envelope. When Mary’s ring dropped out, he felt a chill run down his spine. After reading the letter he started shouting his sister’s name and ran to the cliff. He scanned the coast until he saw Rose’s body wallowing in a tide pool in the cove. As he scrambled down to the beach, his adrenaline rush turned to dark bewilderment when it became clear to him that his dead sister was wearing an Irish Guard uniform. Although he knew that she had probably been dead for many hours, Sean dragged Rose from the pool and tried to revive her. Then he rocked her in his lap and let the tears stream out.

A plan solidified in his mind. He knew that if any of the villagers saw her dressed like this they would believe it to be a truly horrible form of devilment, confirming the worst that they had always thought about Rose and his mother. Although he was now thinking the same dire thoughts, he could not allow others to dishonor them.

Fortunately, Rose was relatively light, even wearing a wet woolen uniform. He slung her over his shoulder and held her there with one hand while guiding himself up the treacherous path with the other. When he got to the house, he laid out some rags and towels and put Rose’s body on the floor. He then gathered some of her work clothes, which he found lying next to the half full washbasin, and hurried back to the cliff and down the steep path to the beach. He drenched her clothes in the surf and returned to the house.

Changing Rose’s clothes was a challenge to his modesty, but he treated it as a funeral rite and tried not to dwell on her body. He did notice, however, that she had remarkably few bruises and contusions for someone who had jumped from a cliff. It also surprised him that she was not wearing the Celtic knot he had always seen around her neck for the past year.

The military hat came off easily in his hands. It was hard for Sean to believe it could it have stayed on her when she hit the water or when the violent surf tossed her about on the rocks. He found the key in the jacket pocket as he was folding the uniform, and he laid it on the table, with a passing hint of curiosity.

When Sean was done, he gathered up anything others might find suspicious – the uniform, the Book, Rose’s letter, the star, and the ring – hid them next to the trunk out of sight, and then pedaled into town. Sean knew that Rose wanted to be buried near the ocean and not in the Catholic cemetery, but he could not show anyone her strange letter to confirm her suicidal intent. Fortunately, although he had no concrete proof that he could share, it turned out to be an easy thing for the villagers to accept.

Rose was buried the next day, during a light drizzle, on a flat area down away from her house in the direction of Imeall. About a dozen people attended, mostly men showing their support for Sean. Several of them, like Joseph, had also been sweet on Rose, attracted by her exotic darkness and flirtatious nature. Three of the swarthy fishermen who had helped dig the grave, including Joseph, offered to shovel it in, but Sean declined. He told them he wanted to finish the job by himself, and he promised he would meet his mates later that evening in the pub for a proper grieving.

Once everyone was out of sight, Sean took the pile from next to the trunk and sat with it at the kitchen table. He put the letter, the star, and the ring aside, next to the key. The Book was bound in brown sharkskin leather, now splotchy with age. Celtic patterns lavishly embossed on the cover were interwoven with other symbology, embellishments that had a more eldritch look and seemed disquietingly familiar, as if from memories of childhood dreams. The pages inside were richly illuminated to suggest what the ancient runes on them might be about. What had seemed at first to be pages drab with age began to sparkle in extraordinary colors that shone from inside with their own radiance.

Sean’s trance did not snap until some time later, when he turned the last page and closed the Book. Although he could not read the runes in a conscious way, somehow the Book had made sense to him. “Mother a God, protect me,” he murmured. Then he heard the patter of a hard rain on the roof and remembered the uncovered grave. “God in Heaven. Feck! The time!”

Sean jumped from his seat and wrapped the uniform, the letter, and the Book in a dry cloth. Outside, he eased himself down into the muddy grave and laid the package gently on top of the coffin over where he judged Rose’s heart to be. He paused and surprised himself by whispering some sounds that came to him in a language he did not know. He got out and started filling the grave.

It took Sean a couple of days to sober up enough to honor Rose’s peculiar request concerning the trunk. He had already assessed that, in addition to stinking, it was extremely heavy and in some danger of falling apart due to a dampness that saturated the wood and oozed through the planking. So he showed up mid-afternoon one day in old clothes with a dilapidated wooden cart, material from old sails, lengths of rope, and pieces of netting. He went into the house to take care of a few things and noticed the key from the pocket of the uniform still sitting on the table. He stared at it for a while before realizing that it must be the key to the trunk. Up to that moment, curious though he was about the trunk, Sean had never dreamed of violating Rose’s wishes by looking inside. He had not forgotten about the uniform, and had ominous thoughts about the trunk’s contents, but had not wanted to know. Now, seeing the key before him, he decided maybe he was meant to.

Sean brooded over the trunk for several minutes, then finally inserted the key and turned. With a little jiggling, the rusty lock popped open. When he lifted the trunk’s lid, appalling sights and smells assaulted him. He stepped back and turned away, shouting “Jesus, Mary, an’ Joseph! The Fecking Devil, Rose!”

As best Sean could tell, the trunk contained the disjointed pieces of one or more human bodies, badly decomposed and partially liquefied by the lye. Sean grew dizzy from the gory bizarreness of what he saw. His lightheadedness was aggravated by the smell, which reminded him of the stench wafting from heaps of dead fish after a Red Tide.

As he stared, what he saw seemed to rearrange itself, with scintillating outlines tracing the shapes of the pieces as they once were. He could sense, without knowing exactly how, that there were two bodies, one male and one female, intimately commingled. A horror gripped him, even through his preternatural trance, as the skulls assumed the contours of Mary and Paddy’s faces.

Sean needed several hours over a quart of whisky, which he had providently brought with him, before he could act again. By the time he stirred, it had grown darker. The Sun had dipped down and the Moon, waning now, had not yet quite risen. Conventional morality and his unequivocal devotion to family, especially to his sister Rose, were at war within him. As he was about to take the last swig of whisky, a vision of Rose holding the Book appeared suddenly before his eyes. “Mother of God!” He put the bottle down. The vision faded, but a single compelling idea crystallized and pushed all others aside: his obligation of blood loyalty to carry out his sister’s last wishes.

Sean went outside, locked the trunk without looking inside again, and nailed the eight-fold St. Patrick’s star and Mary’s ring securely to the lid. He swaddled the trunk in the old sails and tied it tightly with ropes in the hope that it would not fall apart when it hit the water or was tossed by the waves onto the rocks at the cliff’s base. It was difficult, but he leveraged the whole thing onto the small cart. He pulled the ropes attached to the front of the cart like a horse. The Moon was now just clear of the hills in the East. Sean stopped the cart several meters from the brink, and he gathered up big rocks, put them in the netting, and secured them to the trunk to ensure that it would sink. He walked up to Imeall and looked over. The cliff shadowed the water from the moonlight. He could only sense the tumult below from its sound and from the saltiness wafting upward as seawater battered into tiny droplets. He walked back behind the cart and gave it a running start. There was no sound until the final splash.

Over the next few days, pieces of the cart appeared as driftwood on the neighboring beaches, but nothing of the trunk or its contents washed ashore. Sean eventually moved himself into Rose and Mary’s house. Rose’s grave was still unadorned, and he felt an urge to make the marker himself. He got a rectangular board of kiln-dried ash heartwood. It had a dark olive-brown color that made it look like leather. Sean borrowed some woodworking tools from a friend and began carving elaborate decorations around the name “Rose,” which itself was fashioned out of curving branches that sprouted leaves and braided vines to join the bordering patterns. Except for Rose’s name, it resembled what he had seen on the Book’s cover.

He had never done carving like this before, but he could somehow discern the pattern lurking just beneath the surface of the wood. All he had to do was trace it carefully with a newfound deftness in his fingers. As he worked, he couldn’t help noticing—with not a small amount of unease—that the webbing between his fingers looked more pronounced than it used to. “Feck! For sure, I’m goin’ daft, I am.”

The Third Quarter Moon rose up from behind the hills as Sean worked on the plaque well past midnight. Glancing out the window at the newly illuminated view, Sean was startled to see five figures standing over Rose’s grave, one at the head and the other four around the foot. Two of them had a smaller stature than the other three, with the shortest standing at the head of the grave. He watched, mesmerized, while each figure in turn bent down and seemed to touch the grave.

It occurred to him, through the amber haze of his drunkenness, that they might be some local hooligans bent on desecrating the “witch’s” grave. He jumped up and grabbed the oil lamp from the table, but by the time he got to the door, they were gone. He cursed aloud, “Bloody Wounds a Christ, what’s this now?” As he approached the grave at a brisk pace, Sean swung the oil lamp back and forth every way the visitors could have gone or might be hiding. When he reached the grave and shined the light on it to see whether any mischief had been done, he was brought to his knees.

There, on the otherwise undisturbed earthen mound, were five things: Mary’s ring, the cap star of the Irish Guards, Rose’s Celtic knot necklace, the rosary beads their father carried when he went to sea, and, at the very head of the grave, the Book. Despite all he had seen and experienced so far, Sean had managed to keep his inner keel fairly even. Now, he was pulled from his moorings by a tidal wave of new feelings.

The Book radiated brightly as if touched by St. Elmo’s fire, and it drew him in until he could see little creatures dancing in the flames. His senses heightened a hundredfold. He could discern every rock and blade of grass on the distant hills, feel the slight breeze lifting each hair on his head and arms, hear Old Tom O’Malley walking in his socks on the squeaky floorboards of his house.

Sean felt his capsized spirit right itself within these powerful new currents. He was at home in the world for the first time. The many arcane things his mother had told him as a child returned with a new significance. She had warned that if he let himself enter the Real World, he would never be able to leave it. Now the voices of his ancestors, going back to the dawn of time, whispered on the wind and filled his soul.

Seals barked in the distance. Sean got off his knees and walked to the top of Imeall. The rumble of the waves vibrated up through his feet and into his chest as if his pulse were just an extension of the churning sea.

With acuity he would not have believed possible before, he could see a small pod of seals in the water out beyond the edge of the cliff’s long shadow. They were all looking directly at him. He could even see the tiny images of the Moon glinting in their eyes.

They continued to bark. Sean smiled and called out to them, with a hearty laugh, “All right, all right, on with ya then.” As they swam away, Sean sat down at the edge of the cliff. Letting his legs dangle over, he watched the moonlight play on the waves until the first soft glow of dawn.

Richard H. Durisen has lived in Bloomington since 1976 when he joined Indiana University’s Department of Astronomy as a theoretical astrophysicist. He retired in the summer of 2010 after 34 years on the faculty, with over a hundred refereed scientific publications. Since retirement, after family, friends, and travel, he has devoted his time mostly to creative writing, including poetry and short stories. His work has appeared in 713 Flash (Kazka Press), Disturbed Digest, Illumen, and The Sentinel, the newsletter of the Monroe County Civil War Roundtable).

Illustration by Ali Maidi.

The Ryder ◆ July 2014

Fiction: Animals Begin On The Porch In Days And Nights Of Dark War

Illustration by Ali Maidi

by Willis Barnstone

For Bruno Shulz (1892-1942)

Animals begin on the porch. My daughter sees them first and she says they come in all sizes and they are goats, but my son says no they are deer, perfectly-formed deer who have come in from the forests and their coats are immaculately clean pelts of Irish setters but they are certainly not dogs, and I wonder what is happening to my son’s and daughter’s eyes, because I can see they are horses, and possibly Egyptian animal deities of revenge and resurrection, and I wonder why these live statues have settled here on our porch in days and nights of dark war in far continents, live gods in our house in 1942 when our people are also contending; and while we are descending the porch the animals we’ve just spotted vanish yet we are all now in the sloping fields, family and many more animals or maybe deities, and we are walking slowly up these meadows of grass and wildflowers, and I am frightened, not of the still horses who are certainly figures of grace but of my own body, because suddenly they take all the juice out of me, and I am thinner than usual and can barely stand and ask my daughter if I can hang onto her, and my son comes to my other side and we move a bit higher when we notice a car, an old-fashioned car for the year 1942, since it is a rich man’s car from the Packard or Hudson or Pierce Arrow days of fancifully named mechanical masterpieces, and outside the vehicle stands a veiled attractive lady, very dark because of her black triangular dress and her triangular hat, and she and her husband, surely a ruddy Irishman with panther eyes, are huddling around their Packard with its red leather interior, trying to coax sunrays against the black enamel of the doors to make them sparkle with purple haze like princess trees in the afternoon.

Under the couple’s feet the fields are violets as on an English king’s speckled overcoat, but they glance forlornly at us, and they are bored and we are penniless, which alarms me because we have come from a house, our big chic house, yet those horses, the perfectly tiny ones and the huge ones who look at us, seem to sap all my energy and wealth, though not my hunger to be alive, and I suppose that, being bored, the curious couple wants our company, and Tony tells me they have asked him if perhaps we would possibly like to eat with them, and my son says yes we would be delighted, and I am pleased because the horses leave me emaciated even though they are creations of grace and beauty, without cruelty or malice, with no desire to see us murdered by famine and poverty or so wasted that we can’t move.

So we all begin to walk, still with pleasure, up the hill while the horses remain in place, but there are always more good beasts ahead of us, greeting us with pleasant silence. I’ve turned as skinny as a child but am happy that they bring adventure and wonder into our existence until I recognize that we are rambling in another continent since right ahead of us are young Gestapo officers blocking our way, and they do not appear horrible as in the films and they have no intention to burn us alive or have us dig death pits and pop us off, one bullet per body, in our open graves, but it is not as if they want to speak to us about art and poets, which, after all, many Germans like to do when they remember good old days and the celestial imaginations of their syphilitic lyrical creators Hölderlin, Heine, Schubert, and Nietzsche.

Most prominent about the officers are their glimmering jackboots, not in strict goosestep, since wildflowers are stuffed just below the knee in their combat boots and petals are flittering in the wind and the knife-eyed SS can’t see these meadow wildflowers, nor the Tibetan vultures and Mongolian ponies nibbling funeral carnations also stuffed in their boots. Humming black hymns, the surrounding animals are busy burying bundles of boots together with funeral carnations in the sky and also right under the soldiers’ romping feet. In a flash the captains and lieutenants are naked, hairy all over fat bodies, their jockstraps stuffed in their mouths, and from their tiny brown penises hang bags of creamy foreskins and white scorpions. The sun turns into black sackcloth and the full moon into blood and the SS vanish like a scroll rolling up and disappearing beneath the Black Sea. But then in a flash everything is normal. The Tibetan vultures and the Mongolian ponies around the Nazi warriors disappear instead, the afternoon is its weird self, and the reclothed officers go on doing nothing in their regular shit-brown uniforms and glimmering jackboots.

Amid a few stone horses, Heinrich Himmler’s racially elite SS are in our way but they ignore us. The paramilitary death squads can’t see us. We walk through them as if through a wall. Perhaps our protector equines intimidated them, grabbed some of their powers and made us invisible too. The Einsatzkommandos in Poland are known for on-sight shooting of musicians holding their instruments and of painters holding their brushes yes in the middle of performance or creation or house-building, but for now one might suppose they are innocently confining their curiosity to looting famous paintings from museums and enjoying the sun. The off duty SS are horsing around on the meadows, letting go in slow motion, drowning in lager, unaware that invisible equine beasts are observing them and that in the future—in five years—the horses will perform their own withering nightmare attack on Einsatzgruppen executioners on the run from the law, in safehouses, in Berlin, Buenos Aires and Assunción, Paraguay, and that with Jehovah’s anger these equine demiurgic foes of the humorless brownshirts will spit out fire and abominations on the skulking boots, and inflict on them a trial, a cell, and a noose in Warsaw.

The casual loafing around outside a town, a major town in southeast Poland with a large Jewish population, does not seem to match the hidden snapshot of German command officers, and I hardly imagine that being cool and nonchalant can be the perfect uniform for SS (Gestapo) and SA (Storm Troopers), whose mission is execution. More, they keep good records, proving how commonplace they are when they are doing their job. Take SS captain Felix Landau, who will be of special interest. He writes in his diary about daily routine three months before our gang of five happen into his command terrain:

12 July 1941. At 6:00 in the morning I was suddenly awoken from a deep sleep. Report for an execution. Fine, so I’ll just play executioner and then gravedigger, why not?… Twenty-three had to be shot, amongst them … two women … We had to find a suitable spot to shoot and bury them. After a few minutes we found a place. The death candidates assembled with shovels to dig their own graves. Two of them were weeping. The others certainly have incredible courage… Strange, I am completely unmoved. No pity, nothing. That’s the way it is and then it’s all over… Valuables, watches and money are put into a pile… The two women are lined up at one end of the grave ready to be shot first… As the women walked to the grave they were completely composed. They turned around. Six of us had to shoot them. The job was assigned thus: three at the heart, three at the head. I took the heart. The shots were fired and the brains whizzed through the air. Two in the head is too much. They almost tear it off.

Who are those equine ghosts who drop us into the demon’s jaws? I don’t know. Are they salvific friends? I suspect them of fable. Somehow they come at a time of stupid slaughter by the brain-damaged Goths. I bought a book of short stories by a nameless Polish writer, who caused uproar in my blood and a primal walk into hell. Call him Bruno or Bronislaw or Bron. A child of passion from a mother who dies at his birth, Bruno Schulz possesses genius, he is a natural, but at the peak of his brief literary career, the Luftwaffe is air-bombing Poland brutally and Storm Troopers are black cobras spreading over the countryside, including Bruno’s birth town. Bruno writes and paints until his art vanishes on a whim.

But to be fair, the actors playing Gestapo in these scenes don’t invent terror. All religious scriptures are soaked in the blood of death squads upholding the faith. Death squads are the noble protectors, the enforcers for a sojourn of torture in hell, on the Buddhist walls of the Potala in Lhasa and in Dante’s cold chambers of the Inferno. In Rome, the Italian astronomer and mathematician Giordano Bruno dares to write that the earth circles the sun. Declared a heretic, Bruno is gagged and bound to a stake and he tastes papal fire in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome in 1600. In keeping with his noble precursors, my companion Bruno is a target of Gestapo fury; he is guilty of being a Jew.

My Bruno is real yet I see him as a birdman, a mythic condor with immaculate feathers made of lace clouds, who passes his years as the overhead watch eagle, an ancient dirigible below the clouds, who is the benevolent and beautiful master of all rosewood-colored horse deities in Poland, Belorussia, and Ukraine. But that is Bruno speaking, not me. The author is a temporal mortal born in 1892 in Drohobych, by the Ukrainian border, a town in the Austro-Hungarian Pale whose inhabitants are forty percent Jews, the remainder Poles and Ukrainians. Of the eighteen thousand prewar Jews, four hundred survive the multiple massacres. After the war they immigrate. The town is clean. In his youth Bruno studies architecture in Vienna, and thereafter remains in this Galician city that keeps changing name, nationality, border, and language.

Bruno comes from a family of assimilated Jews and, unlike the Hasids who stick to Yiddish, which is medieval Alsacian German, he composes in Polish, his household language. Modest Bruno—or is he Bron or Bronnislav?—evasive Bruno is black light and illumination. This high school art teacher is solitary and shows his stories to no one near him, but does write to a faraway secret reader, to a poet medical doctor in Lvov, Deborah Vogel, the bird. It doesn’t make him nervous to write secretly to a songbird he doesn’t know (he never tells his high school colleagues he is an author) and he composes, each mythic letter about his town and its orphans and its grandfathers, and his father, a fantastic scientist, who sits each night on the broad cobbled bricks at the bottom of the chimney and discovers and tracks threatening wild cosmic comets hurtling toward the earth. He warns people to stay at home until the sky dinosaur hits devastatingly on the planet or hops off into the infinite pleroma.

His pen pal Lily Vogel pieces his epistolary masterpieces together, encouraging him for more. She nourishes him with manna. Eventually, he gives his wisdom tales to a leading novelist who gives them to a publisher, and thereby his mythopoetic letters of unknown eccentric loners in a demiurgic world are published and to grand success. Critics say he is the best between-the-wars author. The Polish Academy of Literature awards him its highest prize and he is no longer alone but acclaimed by a coterie who threaten his solitude, yet he remains the hermit, the great heresiarch of central Europe. Even when the German troops enter and Polish writer friends give him false papers and money to escape, he does not escape from the ghetto where he is imprisoned with the other Jews, and his writing frees him from self-captivity. The same SS officer Felix Landau likes his drawings and paintings and protects him for a season.

Ich persönlich werde Ihnen eine Genehmigung zum Verlassen des Gebiets, sagte Laundau. 

I personally will give you a permit to leave your area, said Laundau.

Ja, Bruno antwortete.

Yes, Bruno answered.

And Landau gives the teacher a permit to leave the ghetto and comes to his house and paints a grand mural for his children’s room.

By now Bruno is fifty, one year older than my father in 1942, and there is terror in the air and Bruno has no tiny or behemoth horses to take the energy or jackboots away from the ordinary SS soldiers who are slaughtering Jews in the streets, any Jew face they can find. That strange appearance and disappearance of the horses is ominous and comic like the high octave of Bruno’s tales and when the planet is collapsing the octave drops with tragic hilarity as when before a shower you kill a stray ant on the tub. As we walk I see that Bruno is my father, but I grow up in other continents, yet he is my father, and I am lucky to have him as a father, unlike Bruno who has a faraway fiancée and no children. But why feel sorry for Bruno the mythic visionary, who is not alone since no one is alone, and the recluse Bruno reads Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, and knows what it is to be a kidnapped brother. The Pole adds many stories about quadrupeds, reptiles and birds to his collection and they crawl out of his collection into the meadows and bellow a secret music that deafens ears of even the friends he creates and the animals in the field fall asleep, yet in the end he weakens nobody who lives in his stories.

Bruno has written a novel called Messiah, which is of a man who is always a child, a youth on the earth whom we should emulate by maturing into childhood, but the boy is himself, not the heavenly messiah and therefore he is the earthly messiah, and Bruno entrusts all his papers to a friend, including his novel, just in case something happens to him.

My daughter and son and I keep walking, and we are glad that now we are a comforting group of five and there are all these tiny and big horses near us, though I wonder if they can truly protect us, and after all we aren’t Poles or Russians or from Ukraine and why would we need protection? But suddenly the horses start to disappear, the elephantine ones and the delicate ones, and their color remains in my eyes, and I regain my physical strength again, yet I realize that there is at last no hope for us, for any of us to tell this story, because all our rising meadow leads into a street and the street into a town, Bruno’s provincial town of Drohobych in southeast Poland, now Ukraine, and I remember with fierce intensity that my grandfather Michal was born in 1860 in Drohobych, finishes the yeshiva there before he floated over the Atlantic to Boston, and yes unlike sixteenth-century Bruno, who never is released from his dungeon, Bruno the art teacher has a protector and can leave the ghetto and paints and he isn’t burned alive. Nor is Bruno burned alive like all the Jews herded into huts and temples in the Ukraine, since my hero falls when he ventures outside his SS officer’s house to buy a loaf of bread, when a rival SS Kommandant jealous of his protection fells the philosopher Bruno in the street with two bullets to the head, and on this “Black Thursday,” 19th of November, 1942, there are another one hundred forty-nine Jews shot in the streets, and when I see the bodies I discover with disbelief and displeasure that my son and my daughter and even our rich hosts, who are to buy us a fine meal for sharing our company since they are bored and we are talking art and poetry, they are all lying on the street with me shot dead in my grandfather’s town, but fortunately one of Bruno’s good friends has seen the writer’s body and at night when no one is there takes the body and buries it in the Jewish cemetery, though the cemetery disappears along with the Messiah and all the other writings given to a writer friend because she too disappears like the rest, and the animals on the porch and the meadows and in the city streets begin to howl night and day, and, behold, later a museum is built by the Poles to house Bruno’s celebrated letters and whatever saved stories are found in magazines and his drawings and even remnants of the mural he painted for his protector the SS Einsatzkommando, and the Poles are good and honor the Polish violoncellist of the word Bruno as a visionary, their grand mythic fabulist in the decades between the wars, and hearing the animals still howling I am sad to be dead near him and sad that he cannot fulfill his myth of the novel, and infinitely more than sad it breaks my heart, I am heartbroken that Bruno can’t live a long life and waken us to the hermitage of a comic mind that is more cosmic than an orphanage on clouds, and if he had lived he would have unraveled the knot of the soul and informed us of the image, but Bruno knows that art must never assume a knowledge of revelation, only an ignorance that keeps us moving, that makes us go further inside and color the darkness, and isn’t that salvation enough? And so I am not that terrified or sad because I hardly know him when I start seeing the horses which my children think are goats or deer and that lead us to discovery, and we don’t seem now to be truly dead because I am telling you of a new voice, which is always wondrous to discover, and I am thrilled and hopeful, but know I am dead because we are also shot and we are lying very still with our beautiful hermit Bruno, the secret and solitary Bruno, whom I envy for his purity.

Willis Barnstone, born in Lewiston, Maine, and educated at Bowdoin, the Sorbonne, Columbia and Yale, taught in Greece at end of civil war (1949-51), in Buenos Aires during the Dirty War, and in China during Cultural Revolution, where he was later a Fulbright Professor in Beijing(1984-85) Former O’Connor Professor of Greek at Colgate University, he is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Indiana University. A Guggenheim fellow, he has received the NEA, NEH, Emily Dickinson Award of the PSA, Auden Award of NY Council on the Arts, Midland Authors Award, four Book of the Month selections, four Pulitzer nominations. His work has appeared in APR, Harper’s, NYRB, Paris Review, Poetry, New Yorker, TLS. Author of seventy books, recent volumes are Poetics of Translation (Yale, 1995), The Gnostic Bible (Shambhala, 2003), Life Watch (BOA, 2003), Border of a Dream: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado (2004), Restored New Testament (Norton, 2009), Stickball on 88th Street (Red Hen Press, 2011), Dawn Café in Paris (Sheep Meadow, 2011), The Poems of Jesus Christ (Norton, 2012), ABC of Translation (Black Widow Press, 2013), Borges at Eighty (New Directions Press, 2013).

Illustration by Ali Maidi.

The Ryder ◆ July 2014

Fiction: To Build A Playset

Illustration by Ali Maidi

by Christopher David

“Her brain’s swollen. They doubt she’ll fully recover.”

“Her parents are insane.  How do you let a seventeen year old girl go out, all alone, to California?  Even if it is with a Christian biking group, I mean, who knows what kind of sick people are just out there, you know, waiting….”

Your left hand tightens on a spaghetti-smeared plate, your right a fresh new sponge.  The other parents talk at your kitchen table.  You frown at your wife.  She doesn’t notice.

“Her parents should have seen it coming,” Ashley continues, “High school senior or not, you can’t just let a teenager do whatever they want!”

In your backyard, the girls sprint across your well-manicured lawn.  Your daughter Danielle chases after Kayla and Josie, who run hand in hand, crying out shrilly, evading Danielle’s grasp.  It’s dusk. You’ll give them fifteen more minutes.

At the table, some sit still, others nod or shake their heads. All are silent, lost in the horrible thought of one of their own careening down fifty feet of seaside cliffs.  Ashley’s grin of faux solemnity can’t hide what she, what you, what everyone must feel. It happened to someone else.

Jim speaks up. “I don’t know, Ash. How could anyone have seen this coming? They’re good people. Good Christian people. Valerie was Kayla’s Sunday school teacher.  I mean, I see what you’re saying, but….”

You try to catch Jim’s eye, offer him your silent approval, but he doesn’t see.  He is silent now, playing it out, watching Kayla instead of Valerie slip over the edge, watching her fall, her bruised and pulped body, strapped to a stretcher, and him, forced to sit through a plane trip to California that lasts forever, rushing into the hospital room to find her covered in bandages, comatose, wondering if she will ever wake, if she will ever speak again.

The girls swing on the eight-years and up playset you bought in April.  Josie plays boss, pushing Kayla and Danielle.

You still worry there might be some flaw, some defect in the contraption. You didn’t assemble it. You wanted to. But the store sent a young Arab man to do the work.  He was nice. All smiles. You knew you ought to be building your daughter’s playset, and said as much.  He nodded and smiled. When you asked him his name he was silent for a moment, wrenching the monkey bars, and then he said, “Mohammed.”

“Ah, that’s easy to remember. Like the boxer?”

“Yessir,” he said, tightening the crossbeams onto the longer, hollow beam. “Just like the boxer.”

“I’ve heard that’s a pretty popular name over there.”

Mohammed wiped his sweaty hands on his coveralls. His eyes search the piles of steel poles, nuts and bolts. “Wouldn’t know myself. I haven’t been to Algeria since I was about four years old.  I don’t remember much.P

“Ah, yeah I guess that’d make it difficult.” You watched him work, felt stupid. “Sorry about assuming, you know. I thought because of your accent and all. I’m sorry.”

“No worries, sir.  I take my accent from my parents, uncles, and close friends.  We’re very close.”

“Well that’s good.” You smiled and nodded. “As I understand it, you all have been getting the short end of the stick, what with the discrimination and all. Pretty unfair, if you ask me.”

His low smile told you that he’d heard this plenty of times from white people. But it was still a smile, and he nodded. Jittering your empty hands at your side, you went inside and grabbed two cold ones. A gesture of solidarity, or kindness, or maybe just a beer.

Mohammed was absorbed in his work when you returned. He didn’t notice you. For a moment you stood above him, staring down on the balding whorl at the crown of his head. “Here you go,” you said. He turned quickly and you held out the cold can of beer. “How can I help?”

He didn’t take the beer.  He looked at it, then at you, and then looked away, still smiling. “Sorry sir, we’re not supposed to let our clients help with the construction.  It goes against some insurance policy or something.  Same goes for the beer.  I’d lose my job.”

“Well, I won’t tell anyone,” you said, your arm still outstretched.

“It’s also against my religion. To drink alcohol.”

You stood there, still holding the beer out to him, as clarity came. You nodded, but much too fast. “Right. Of course, yeah. Well, can I get you anything else?”

The table kicks and chuckles. You’ve missed a joke.  Your wife catches your confused glare. “Jim was just telling us about Mrs. Donavon’s hysterics down at Sir Tans-A-Lot.  You know, they just added that indoor suntan tan.”

You nod, lower lip protruding.

“I don’t know,” Ashley says. “Seems pretty ridiculous we let our government tax us so much.  I mean, aren’t heavy taxes the reason we left Britain in the first place!”

The others roll their eyes or lower their heads.  It’s bait, too plain and easy.  No one bites.

“I’m serious!  I was talking to Josh about it just the other night. We were thinking of going out to one of those Tea-party rallies.  The property tax here is thievery!”

Ashley’s words wriggle like a malnourished worm. The gleam of the hook shines.  You fantasize chucking a coffee mug at the back of her head.  As you walk across the kitchen, kettle of lukewarm tea in hand, your eyes catch the girls outside, no longer on the swings. They are standing together now, in a line, all facing the same direction, staring into the darkness of the woods beyond the yard.

A form comes out of the shadows, takes a step and then another. A dog, you think, stepping toward your daughter. “Dani,” you say, though she can’t hear you. You set the kettle in the water, slowly, too slowly, still thinking through what you’re seeing and what it means.

“Miranda,” you say slowly, and then, rushing, “Miranda! Whose dog is that?”

The parents rise and look outside.  Swift steps bring Jim’s hand to the sliding door’s handle.  The glass doors part and you step through first.  It’s about the size of a collie, but its fur is brown-grey, matted and greasy.  As the others back away, Danielle steps closer, holding out her hand.

“Dani, no!” You yell.  The creature and the girl both look at you.

You rush forward as the animal quickly sinks back into the dark woods, and you take your crying daughter in your arms. The parents, your friends, flood behind in a swirling flurry, trailing the chill of AC.

“That was a coyote!” you shout.

“It was?”

“Did you not see the teeth on that thing?”

“Must be separated from its pack.”

“Holy shit, we have coyotes in the suburbs?”

“How do you know it was a coyote?”

“Oh my God, we are so lucky.”

“Did anyone else get a good look?”

“Can you imagine if he hadn’t…?”

“Jesus.”

“Keith, how do you know?”

The question silences all but the muffled sobbing of the girls.

“How do you know?”

“I don’t,” you reply. You don’t.

Christopher David was born in Bloomington, left months after, and returned the summer he turned ten years old.  After graduating from Bloomington High School North, he stuck around to double major in French and English at Indiana University. Christopher currently lives in France teaching English at l’Université de Strasbourg.

Illustration by Ali Maidi.

The Ryder ◆ July 2014

Fiction: The Watchmaker

Illustration/Ali Maidi

by Sara E. Leslie

A dozen watches ticked, some within a hairlength of one another, but all together, somehow, as if in the same key. The watchmaker’s steps moved measuredly toward the front desk, where an open watch lay carefully positioned from the night before. His mind was already elsewhere as his hands took the watch up and fingered it, gently, with the inborn skill of two generations of repairing watches. The quiet ticking of the watches on the shelves no longer startled him. In fact, he could almost no longer hear them.

He stopped, suddenly thirsty, his hands still involuntarily moving, hovering over the watch’s open back, twisting and gliding in the rivulets of intricate muscle memory. There was a ham sandwich and a drink waiting on him in the back. He carefully laid the watch down on the glass counter, rose, and headed for the back room, giving one final glance at the watch’s positioning before the sudden, loud sound of the bell at the door.

He saw the shape of a woman and immediately turned on his heel and strode back over to the counter, pushing the watch he had been working on neatly behind the cash register. “Good morning,” he called out.

Halfway across the room, the woman was already fumbling with her purse. She pulled out something, and the watchmaker saw the glint of slightly dulled silver. “Here,” she said almost inaudibly. She raised her head and began to approach the desk, holding out the watch for him to examine. “It’s a bit battered,” she said by way of apology. “It’s…it’s come by a lot over the years.”

The watchmaker did not need to look twice at the watch to see that it was cheap, a mere bauble, but probably easily fixable. The glass wasn’t even scratched. The hands had stopped, but that was the case with almost every watch brought in to the shop. In fact, this one didn’t even look that “battered,” save a little rusting and dulling of the silver band and end piece. He held it by both ends of the band and placed it carefully on the counter.

“Do not worry, Madam. I will have the problem fixed in no time, whatever ails it.” He smiled, a courteous, easy smile, his eyes already flicking to the other side of the room where other, more important matters awaited him. She was still standing there, still looking at him. She did not seem satisfied. He grunted, cleared his throat, and then picked up the watch again to briefly examine it in the shaft of sunlight coming in through the door. “It looks like it will need some minor repairs, perhaps a little oiling to get it back to its original shine. I can have it ready for you first thing Friday morning, yes?” He smiled again, at the watch this time, placed it ever so lovingly back on the counter, and looked up at his customer. Her eyes were still on him.

“I can tell it’s got a few things wrong with it,” she ventured. “I think, in fact, that it’s been stopped for quite a while now. It’s just that I only took it out recently, which is when I noticed it had stopped.” She looked away, and the watchmaker was surprised to see a look of something close to shame flit across her face.

He had seen many women walk into his store over the years, kerchiefed and housedressed, ogling watches for their husbands. He was dismissively polite to those women, but for the most part let them wander about, alone or in groups. They never ended up buying anything. And then there were some who would bustle in, all brisk and domestic-like, and hand him the broken or stopped watch just as if they were handing in a dress to be laundered or an order for a cut of meat for dinner. “I’ll have it ready for you by Friday,” he’d say, without looking up, and these kerchiefed women, already thinking of the night’s dinner, would nod, turn swiftly on their heels, and leave without another word.

This one, however, was leaning over the counter, scarcely two feet away, staring at him openly. “Well, I might as well tell you,” she said after a pause, “I haven’t looked at that watch for thirty-eight years. For thirty-eight years it’s been lying in my bureau drawer, under a few old things of my mother’s. Only yesterday did I bring it out to examine it, and saw that it had stopped.”

The watchmaker’s eyes moved expertly over the open watch, flitting in and out of its contours. He had to pause and blink a few times as he adjusted his vision to the smallness of each piece. Most of his customers were men, so he was used to fixing men’s watches. This one, though, was clearly a woman’s watch—every piece so delicately crafted as to almost be invisible. A cup of warm soapy water and bottle of clear acetone lay at the ready next to his cup of coffee. He sighed, settling down in his chair. It was an old watch, as she had said, but an easy fix, and he had until Friday.

This was the sort of rhythm he liked—complete silence, save the universal hum of ticking in the next room, steaming hot coffee to warm his body and clear his head, and the neat parts of a coil watch spread out before him. He had seen his last customer of the day an hour ago, and now he could concentrate solely on the perfect geometry of the tiny designs before him.

He held the coils up to the size chart, spread out like snakes against the flat wall. They were the right size, and he put them aside. Next, the connecting pieces, which were perfectly linear. The gear box opened like a mouth, the gears comfortably side by side, gently touching like a full set of teeth. He readjusted his position in the chair, but upon further thought, got up and stretched.

Now came the calming part: soaking everything in a miniature hot soap-and-acetone bath, which warmed the tips of his fingers until they tingled. This took a full hour, and three more cups of coffee. Next, a slick, shiny oil bath. He oiled each piece so gently he may as well not have been touching them. At nine o’clock, he put everything back in, and then wound the watch. The tiny animal, cold and glistening-bright, like a made-up corpse newly laid in a casket, smiled silently up at him and did not utter a sound.

He grunted and turned the watch over. A whole evening’s work had yet to reveal anything wrong. Well, old watches were seldom easy to diagnose or fix, but they were still a loveable challenge. The day’s project fit neatly in his desk drawer, cushioned in a velvet cloth. The darkness of the shop finally matched the darkness outside as a flurry of gentle clock-voices bid him goodnight.

She was at the shop the next morning, at 8:33 according to the clocks on the wall. He stood in the back corner winding his favorite clock of the moment, an early 19th century French Empire mantel clock he fondly called “Napoleon Bonaparte”. He tried to mask his surprise at seeing someone in the shop so early, and walked over, his silk trousers rustling ever-so-slightly. He smoothed his hand over his impeccably-combed hair.

“How is the watch coming?” she asked as she approached the counter.  As if she hadn’t just left it with him the day before. Did she expect him to have finished? Perhaps she was confused as to when she was supposed to come back for it.

“Madam,” he said, “I assure you I am doing the best that I can. The watch still needs a few more repairs—”

“The watch was given to me when I was seventeen,” she said. “By a boy named Tico Miranda. I was seventeen, he was nineteen. Tico found the watch at a shop somewhere, thought it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He said he knew I was meant to have it. Whenever he stroked my arm he would always stop and stare at the watch, unfasten it from my wrist and hold it up to the moonlight. Sometimes he’d playfully put it on his own large wrist. ‘How did someone ever make something so small, so feminine?’ he’d ask the sky. Then he’d take the watch off and kiss the glass, kiss the frame, run those kisses down my arm to my hand. The watch’s face, the glass would reflect the glint of the moonlight. It glinted in his glasses too.”

He had never had so many words directed to him by a customer. The women that came in usually gossiped amongst themselves, and with him they were all business. He was a watchmaker, after all, not a hairdresser. He was at a loss for what to say, so he stared fixedly at the counter, feeling her breath on his sleeve. Then she spoke again, more softly this time.

“Tico left me for another girl he had met on a trip to Amsterdam, where he was going off to study that same year. I was seventeen. I had a lot of growing left to do. I took the watch off, put in a drawer under some of my mother’s old shirts, determined not to look at it or think of him. My arm felt bare and fresh for a while. The skin there felt cool and strange. I was determined not to think of Tico. But then, a year in, he came back.”

She paused: for effect or because she was out of breath? The watchmaker realized that he had been staring at a vague point below her left earlobe, and it was now making his eyes hurt. He cleared his throat.

“Ah, I see.” What did he see? Well, never mind. He couldn’t look her in the face. He should never look directly at his woman customers. It might give them the wrong impression. She seemed, though, not to care whether he looked or not. She continued talking, rapidly, almost leaning in to grab his arm as she did so.

“Tico came back, and this time he wanted more. He wanted me again, but it was different. The girl had broken his heart, and so he came back looking for me. He called the house many, many times. But I wasn’t home. Ever. He finally stopped calling. But, you know, I was sort of hoping he would never stop.”

Out of the corner of his eye he could see her hand, thick, work-worn fingers outstretched, very near to his sleeve where he was gripping the counter. He felt himself stiffen.  “Madam, I understand this watch is very important to you. It’s currently in the back room, and I’m working on it, but like I said, it won’t be ready till Friday morning.”

Her face betrayed a look of clear-cut disappointment, although he did not know what he had done wrong. “I understand.” She turned away. “Thank you again.”

Nighttime. The clock voices in the shop chimed eleven before he registered it, the sound pulling him out of the watch’s body and back into his shop. His stomach rumbled. He had rechecked the coils, checked under the glass for any small bits of dirt that might be obstructing the hands.  Checked again for rust. There was some still lingering on the bolt. He soaked the bolt in acetone again and replaced it.

As usual, he began to review memories in his mind. He had, as he long ago discovered, an exceptional memory. He could look at a picture one day and think, “Ten years later I’m going to be able to see this very picture again.” And then, thirty-seven years later, he could still remember that very moment, the square white farmhouse in the picture, the cheap gold-colored frame. Over the years he had stored up dozens of these mental pictures, and he took pride in the organization and efficiency of his brain.

Reviewing these memories one by one as he fixed his watches comforted him. Just as each little cog fit into place, so the cogs in his mind fit together, pulling out pictures from the compartments of his memory to review, over and over and over. Over and over anD….

Suddenly, his body jerked upward and his feet, already knowing what they were doing before he did, went over to the file cabinet where he kept the receipts from his estimate charges. He pulled hers out and glanced it over. Her name did not ring any bells, but it was a nice name, aforeign-sounding name. He smiled and whispered it aloud to the dozen or so clocks that listened steadfastly from the next room. Then he crept back to the watch on the desk like a guilty man.

When Sylvie Schollstein walked into the watch shop the following morning at nine o’clock, the watchmaker was ready. He was ready with an explanation of everything he had done up to this point, a detailed account of the watchmaking process, anything that would distract her from the fact that the job was not yet complete. He had arrived a half an hour early that morning, in such a hurry to get to the shop that he had forgotten to comb his hair or pack a ham sandwich. He stood at the counter because it was the only place he could think of to stand, winding and unwinding a watch coil because it was the only thing he could think of doing with his hands. At 8:34 he began to feel panic rising within him, so he went back and made himself a cup of coffee and, setting it on the desk, accidentally walked back into the front of the shop with a bottle of acetone. He remembered the clocks, and began to wind Napoleon Bonaparte.

The bells jangled as she came in. He did not turn around.

“I’m fifty-five years old,” she said. “Fifty-five! Think of it. I was married once, to a hideous man, a German immigrant. I have a son named Raúl. He’s a doctor now. That’s the family practice. He lives in Spain now, in Barcelona.”

Her heavy frame couldn’t have been more solid, more imposing, distorted slightly behind the glass counter. He was surprised she hadn’t bypassed the counter and just walked right up to him, deftly swiped the clock from his hands, and demanded ownership of the whole place.

“Back again?” He wanted to keep his tone light and airy, but it seemed like all the air had been sucked out of it, along with the air in the room. “Is there something else I can do for you, while you’re here?”

“Yes,” she said. “Make me seventeen again.”

“I… I beg your pardon?”

“When I wear that watch again, I’ll have come full circle. Fifty-five to seventeen, all in a night. Just ready for something to happen.”

He opened his mouth, ready to ask a question, if needed, although he didn’t have one in mind. He realized Napoleon Bonaparte was still lying inert in his hands and set the clock back on its shelf. Without something to hold, he realized his palms were sweating.

“I’m all alone now. No husband, thank God.” She put a hand to her forehead. “My son is all grown, and Spain’s so far away… he’s engaged, did you know? She’s from a good family, Catalan, I think, but he’s never even given me the chance to meet her. They’ll probably get married in Spain, not here… I’m alone, sir, just like when I was young, for the first time in thirty-eight years. Maybe this is the right time. To find him, I mean. Or else….”

Her voice drifted off, but she resumed quickly, looking him straight in the eye.

“Maybe it’s just as well to continue living with ghosts. His, I mean. I’m not who I was at seventeen, that’s very clear. I’ve been through a lot. But…if…were to see him again, God knows where he is…” She reached out a finger and lightly touched his arm. “Is it… like trying for something impossible?”

Her touch was warmer than he expected, and he realized that he had been wondering what it would feel like.  A faint but recognizable pulsing began at the spot she had touched, and spread lower until it had buried itself like a fleck of sand deep in a tiny crevice. He watched her finger as it dropped to the top of the glass counter and traced what appeared to be a watch outline on the surface. She sighed and turned, not waiting for a response. “This means so much to me,” she said as she left.

The watchmaker finally raised his eyes at the door clanging closed, the bell jangling wildly. His breath returned, loud, discordant. “This means so much to me,” he repeated aloud, embarrassed at the croak in his voice. “This means so much to me. This means so much to me. This means—”

“Shut up,” Napoleon Bonaparte ticked crossly.

Four-forty in the afternoon. He stood up. “Damnit!” The anger in his voice surprised him. He sat down again, sipped his now-cold coffee, took out a new set of coils and laid them all out before him. She wanted to do the impossible… and yet he found it impossible even to fix her watch. The tiny thing seemed to have taken on the hue of Sylvie Schollstein’s deep grey eyes. They were there, the more he looked. And when he tried to conjure up mental images, to distract himself, all he saw were her bare hands, work-worn, her surprisingly thin wrists. Thin and soft, vulnerable, where the flesh met the hand.

He straightened himself, rubbed his eyes, massaged his temples. After thirty years in the watch business, and his father before him, he was finally losing it. He sighed, looked for the acetone, and began to disassemble everything again.

At ten-thirty that night, he finally discovered what was wrong with the watch. One of the gears had a tiny chip on the end of one of its teeth, nearly invisible. It was a usual occurrence, but as he replaced the gear he wondered why it had taken him so long to find it. He reassembled Sylvie’s watch, gave it a once-over, and carefully wound it. The graceful, almost inaudible ticking struck up as if it had never stopped, as if it were talking to him, carrying on a one-sided conversation of its own.

The watchmaker thought about people who talked out of habit. People who talked out of nervousness, to fill the silence, to reassure themselves with their own voice. These were lonely people who paraded under a mask of confidence, who just needed, above all, to be listened to. Who said too much to avoid having to think about what they said.

And here he was, sitting in his chair, unable to get a word out to anyone.

He thought of Sylvie coming in tomorrow, overjoyed at finally getting her watch back. “This is it. I’m off to find Tico,” she’d say, or something to that effect. She’d snap the watch on her wrist and prance out like a seventeen-year old girl, her eyes shining, ready to find her long-lost love. He would watch her through the glass in the door as she turned the corner.

He would fix Sylvie Schollstein’s watch. He would give her a wonderful gift, and she would leave happily, not thinking twice about the watchmaker whom she had spilled her life story to. He was just doing her a service, after all.

After all? Panic suddenly rooted him to his chair. Tomorrow she was coming, coming to open her wallet and pay him what she owed for a service well-rendered.

“I am more,” he said aloud, “than a service well-rendered.” He clutched the watch to his chest. “I am more,” he murmured, “than just a pair of hands that fixes watches.”

He held Sylvie’s watch gently up to his ear and closed his eyes.

At 8:30 on Friday morning, when Sylvie Schollstein walked in the door of the shop, the watchmaker was waiting for her, his hair combed back and his shirt neatly tucked into his dress pants. He smiled at her from behind the counter, where he had set out her newly working, polished watch on top of a red velvet cloth.

His heart was pounding, but he felt strangely elated. Throughout the store, the clocks were ticking in perfect unison. Napoleon Bonaparte, over in the corner, was sounding especially triumphant. As Sylvie approached the counter, the watchmaker held up her watch for her to see.

“It’s as good as new,” he said. “All it needed in the end was a change of one of the gears.”

Sylvie opened her hand; let him drop the watch into it. “Oh, it looks beautiful,” she murmured. She carefully fastened it on her wrist, as he had anticipated, and the watchmaker felt his breath quicken. “I’d be happy,” he said calmly, “to charge you a bit less than we had discussed, for such a small service.”

“Oh, that’s perfectly all right,” she said. “I’d much rather pay what I feel I owe you. After all, I did come in here and bother you every morning for three days straight.” A soft, nervous sound issued from her lips, and he realized it was the first time he had heard her laugh.

“Oh, no, you didn’t bother me,” he said. “Not at all. I assure you, it really wasn’t a bother.”

She looked up at him, suddenly wistful, and he would have seen it had he dared to take his eyes off her wrist. “I’d really like to thank you, sir,” she said, “thank you for… for being… well….” He saw her wrist tremble slightly, and felt she must have been blushing above it. “I… how much do I owe you?” she asked, taking her hand off the counter and reaching in her purse for her pocketbook.

He told her, and she paid. Afterwards she stood there, wavering, her eyes suddenly too bright, her hands suddenly too eager to fidget with the buttons on her dress. Looking for all the world, suddenly, like a seventeen-year-old girl, confused and stirred and open. “Sir—” she began, then stopped. “Sir, I….”

He watched her reflection in the glass countertop.  He watched her look at him, read the unmistakable expression in her face. That was all he needed to know. He felt his fingers relax. The perfect, geometrical ticking of the clocks echoed distantly in his ear. He finally, slowly, raised his eyes and looked her full in the face.

“Thank you, Madam,” he said. “I hope you have a nice day. Goodbye.”

Sara E. Leslie is a first-year graduate student at Indiana University, studying French Linguistics. She grew up in Miami, Florida, and finds the existence of all four seasons somewhat miraculous.

Illustration by Ali Maidi.

The Ryder ◆ July 2014

Big Talk: Charlotte Zietlow

Charlotte

The Grande Dame of Monroe County Politics Talks about JFK, Czechoslovakia, Frank McCloskey, PCBs, role models, and chicken soup ◆ by Michael G. Glab

She helped change the political landscape in Bloomington in the election of 1971. First as a City Council member, then as a County Commissioner, Charlotte Zietlow put the people before the bosses. Now, she’s the go-to woman for blue ribbon commissions set up to study modern day problems in our little corner of the world. Every Bloomington-area Democratic woman candidate of the past four decades owes her a debt of gratitude. And Charlotte herself wonders how she’ll feel when the first woman takes the oath of office of President of the United States.

Young newlyweds Charlotte and Paul Zietlow were no different than many other academic couples at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1960. He was working on his master’s degree in creative writing and she wondered if she was cut out for the life of a housewife. She already had accomplished plenty on her own: she’d earned her own master’s degrees in German and French literature. Later, she’d earn a doctorate in Linguistics. She had her own opinions, too, and she wasn’t afraid to share them. That fall, she’d spout off any chance she got on the presidential race. A friend, perhaps weary of her harangues, threw down the gauntlet.

“Why don’t you do something about it?” the friend said.

“What can I do?” Charlotte asked.

“You can knock on doors and talk to people.”

“No,” Charlotte said, “I can’t do that. I’m too shy.”

“If you’re going to talk all the time, do something about it,” the friend said. “Otherwise shut up.”

Charlotte Zietlow wasn’t about to be shut up.

Charlotte Zietlow: I felt pretty strongly about Kennedy and also about Nixon. So I got a list of people to go and talk to. I knocked on doors and I talked to mostly seniors because they would be home. I would talk to them about Kennedy and they would say, ‘Oh, I really like that man.’ They were so scared that they would get sick and they wouldn’t know how to pay for any of that. One person after another. And he was talking about doing something about that; he was talking about Medicare. And then they went on to say, ‘But we can’t vote for him because he’s Catholic.’

I would say, ‘My father was a Lutheran minister and I went to parochial school and I’m going to vote for him. If I can do that, you can do that.’ I changed votes. I changed about 40 votes. Kennedy won the state by about 3000 votes, less than a vote per precinct. Without a hundred people like me, he might have lost and the world would have been different. I’ve never stopped working in a campaign since. At that time, when you looked at the poverty rates, the poorest people were the seniors. Now that’s not true. The percentage of impoverished senior citizens is way down and it’s because of Medicare.

Michael G. Glab: If I were to say to you, I’m running for president and I am going to urge the Congress to pass universal, single-payer health care….

CZ: [interrupts] I would give you my fortune.

MG: Can you name me off the top of your head three good things that you’ve done as an officeholder?

CZ: I was first elected to City Council in 1971 and I was part of a group of people — it was a motley crew of novices who took over the government with no experience in governing.

MG: This is the Frank McCloskey gang? [McCloskey had been elected the first Democratic mayor of Bloomington in decades. Zietlow and eight other progressives also swept into the City Council.]

CZ: Yeah. We were a council of activists. The thing that was most important to me was to make sure people got heard. I lived in Czechoslovakia in the previous year, where people were not heard, could not speak. I came out of the ‘60s with all the turmoil, of all the things that were going on, and it seemed to me the important thing was people wanted a voice in their government. So suddenly I was with this motley crew of people and a common factor that united us was our desire to have the people speak.

I became the president of the council for the first two years, which meant I ran the council meetings. I had no experience of running meetings of any sort so I probably was not very tidy in the early days. But people got to talk. They were welcomed and they were listened to and we wrote down, the minutes will show, what they were concerned about. That was a huge change; it was a 180 degree shift. That can be proven; you just go read the minutes books. So, just carrying through on that and establishing the right of people to participate in the meetings as well as in the government. We opened up government. We started creating boards and commissions in every direction and people went, ‘Oh my God, what are they doing?’

And then, not going to our best friends and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got this position for you.’ We said, ‘You all come, and if you’re interested submit your resume and you’ll be chosen on the basis of whether or not you’ll contribute the most.’ That happened and I oversaw that. I was only one of nine but I was the chair.

MG: Prior to the election, were all nine of you allies?

CZ: Not all nine of us because we elected one Republican. But he turned out to be the maverick Republican that the other Republicans had kind of cast out. A very interesting guy, Jack Morrison. He was half Indian [Sioux] and he was not up to the social requirements of his fellow Republicans and so he was not included in their social activities. But we included him! The second thing we did was we named Jack Morrison number one on the council, from the 1st District. We wanted him to feel that we understood he was important.

MG: Did he appreciate it?

CZ: Yeah. And I think the other thing he appreciated was when his wife got sick I took her chicken soup.

We really wanted to govern better. We really wanted the city to be a different place, which it is. It’s really the Bloomington it is because of that election.

MG: And you and Frank McCloskey were close?

CZ: Of course. Actually, we kind of pulled him along until, I think, his friends and advisors said, ‘That council’s kind of far out there. Don’t you want to be a little more conservative?’

Some tension arose. We had disagreements, there’s no doubt about it.  After years and years and we had some really big fights, I ran against him in a primary [for mayor]. It wasn’t personal; there were issues. But by the end of his life, my son worked for him as a staff person in Congress. We were like family.

Another of the things I’m proud of, obviously, is the Courthouse. After two and a half years of taking one alley and then another and then another, eventually arriving at our goal of restoring the courthouse and ultimately building the justice building and jail because it had to be part of the deal. That was a very hard job which required an enormous amount of kicking and shoving and stroking and smiling and groveling. We got that done at budget and in a reasonable amount of time.

MG: Why was the Courthouse worth saving?

CZ: Because it’s a nice building. And it’s the center of town. And it creates a sense of community. The whole idea of community for me is one of the strongest motivations for doing things.

[During the struggle to renovate the Courthouse, many men of power in Bloomington would tell Charlotte she was naive, that she didn’t understand how politics and businesses worked, that she’d never even had to meet a payroll in her life.]

CZ: In 1973 my friend Marilyn Schultz and I decided over lunch one day that we were really tired of being told that we couldn’t understand budgets because we were just mere women and hadn’t met a payroll. The men on the Council hadn’t either but, forget that. So we decided to meet a payroll and we decided to create a store that would purvey cooking goods because we were both really good cooks and this city needed a store like that. It would be the kind of store that would revive and maintain the downtown. Home-owned, small, high-end boutiques would be the salvation of downtown.

We walked around the square three times and then saw people moving out of one of these stores and said, ‘We’ll take that one.’ That was in May and we opened in November. And it really was something that helped save the downtown. And all of a sudden all those guys said, ‘Oh my God, they’re so smart! See what they learned because they’re in business!’ Yeah, right.

Zietlow & Schultz

Marilyn Schultz (l) & Charlotte Zietlow In Their Store, Goods For Cooks

[The two friends’ business would be called Goods for Cooks. The store is still open on the west side of the Square, under new ownership.]

[In 1984, the Westinghouse company, several local governments, the State of Indiana, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced they’d signed a consent decree to erect just outside Bloomington a garbage-and sewage-fueled incinerator to dispose of hundreds of thousands of tons of PCB-contaminated soil. Residents feared this would release poisonous dioxins into the air. Charlotte, a County Commissioner at the time, opposed the plan. It was finally killed in 1995.]

CZ: Another major thing that I’m proud of is that we do not have a garbage eating, dioxin-spewing incinerator to the south of Bloomington.

My County Commissioner days are probably the most demanding of anything I’ve done. The first four years I was there, Vi Simpson and I and to some extent Warren Henegar and to a great extent Phil Rogers, who was a Republican, and Norm Anderson, and some of the other Republicans, Carl Harrington and Morris Binkley — we were able to bring the county into the 20th Century. Not the 21st, but 20th. That was hard work.

The PCBs, the Courthouse and all that construction stuff, reorganizing the airport, creating a veterans service office — I’m really proud of that. My predecessor on the Commission, the one I defeated, didn’t think we needed it but the veterans did. We listened to them and we figured out how to fund it. It was really necessary. It turned out to be one of the best things we did.

It was great hard work to persuade the men that I wasn’t crazy and that I did care and that I knew how to add and subtract.

MG: If you come to me and I think you’re crazy, how are you going to change my mind?

CZ: I’m going to talk to you and tell you what I think and what we need and why we need it and if you don’t agree, that’s okay, but I’m willing to listen. I’m not going to say I’m absolutely right. But I will not come to you and tell you something unless I’ve thought it through and done some homework.

MG: Do you have hope for the future?

CZ: Yes.

MG: Why?

CZ: Because I don’t want to think of not having hope.

MG: I’m going to go out on a limb and say our next president will be a woman.

CZ: I think that’s probably true.

MG: Will that be a great feeling for you?

CZ: Probably. [Pauses.] You’re bringing tears to my eyes. When they named the Justice Building after me, Mark Stoops called and said, ‘Charlotte, we’d like to name the Justice Building after you, would that be okay?’ I said, ‘I suppose I should say no’ — you know, in all humility — ‘but I’m not going to.’ I got off the phone and I told Paul they’re going to name it the Zietlow Building and he said, ‘It should be the Charlotte Zietlow Building!’

I said, ‘I’m not going to tell them that.’

So, the day they unveiled it, it was the Charlotte T. Zietlow Building. The number of responses I got, especially from older women, was pretty overwhelming. It meant so much to them to have a woman’s name on a building. If you think about it, there are very few buildings in this country that have women’s names on them. Very few. Not because it was me but the symbolism of having a woman appreciated meant a lot to a lot of women. I think that’s the way we’ll all feel if we have a woman president, you know, the 52 percent of us.

MG: What else happened between your days ringing doorbells for JFK and your first election eleven years later?

CZ: We moved to Czechoslovakia in October of 1969. [Paul had been offered a job teaching at Komensky University in Bratislava.That was after the Warsaw Pact had invaded the country. The axe was beginning to fall by the time we got there. We lived in Bratislava, which is the capital of Slovakia, on the Danube. We were the only Americans in that city. We were guests of the Ministry of Education. We were extremely well-treated, like royalty. We had everything that we could possible want that they could give us. And it was the hardest year.

We had children in school: a five- and a seven-year-old. We saw what it was like to live in a country which was totalitarian, where decisions were arbitrary, where there was no room for discourse or discord. We listened to the Voice of America on a short-wave radio that we were not supposed to have. We heard people denouncing the actions of Nixon, the arguments about why it was wrong to bomb Cambodia, for example. We heard all that dissent on this government-funded radio station and there we were in a country where it was illegal — treasonous! — to say anything negative about the government in groups of two or more. Our Czech friends would say, ‘We want to touch you because you breathe a different air.’

MG: I imagine if you live in a totalitarian society you have to shut a part of yourself off, pretend it doesn’t exist.

CZ: Yes. So what they did is they went and tended their gardens and they drank a lot. People would come over to our house — it was a government apartment, it had to have been bugged — and they’d start berating the government and we’d [begins waving her hands in front of her face to indicate they should shut up]. We didn’t want to get people in trouble. We were immune but nobody else was. We tried never to say negative things in front of the children so they wouldn’t repeat them.

MG: Did you have any political mentors or idols?

CZ: I come from a generation where women didn’t do much. I came of age before the women’s movement. I was born in ’34. There weren’t a lot of women role models out there. I have enormous respect for Eleanor Roosevelt but I didn’t know much about her. I have a picture this big in my dining room. And I just read the biography of Frances Perkins who, if I’d known about her….

MG: She was the first female cabinet secretary [Franklin Roosevelt named her Secretary of Labor in 1933.]

CZ: She basically pushed Social Security through. She drummed it through. The New Deal was, in many ways, the result of her pushing and shoving Roosevelt.

The reality is I came from a Lutheran background. Women still in the Lutheran church don’t have a vote. My mother and all my relatives were ministers’ daughters. I was told to behave myself, don’t make noise. My mother told me later, ‘You were always so independent.’ This was not a good thing.

You know, I have a feisty edge. I get my back up. I’ve run into a lot of brick walls in my life.

I wanted to be in the Foreign Service when I graduated from college. I had good language skills and was really interested in political science and government. And I’m not stupid. I took the tests for Foreign Service, for the NSA, and for the CIA. I got high marks on all of those. I got an interview with the Foreign Service in Chicago. A bunch of white men from the East interviewed me. We spoke German and we spoke French. At the end they said, ‘Your record’s really good and your tests scores are outstanding. We can see you’ve got a touch. You would make an ambassador a wonderful wife.’

So, then I got an interview with the CIA. Some guy was going to meet me in Lambert Field in St. Louis. I would know him because he would be wearing a red rose. At the end he said, ‘Really good, fantastic, wonderful interview. And you’d make a spy a wonderful wife.’ That was the end of that. That’s why I went to graduate school.

MG: How did you feel when you heard those words?

CZ: I didn’t expect it. I couldn’t believe it. I got angrier and angrier as I walked down the hall. But there wasn’t much to be done, not at that time. There was no recourse. Anyway it was infuriating.

MG: One regret.

CZ: I try not to regret. [Long pause.] I guess I regret not having had a mentor. That I had to find my own way. That meant some blind alleys. There really wasn’t anybody who guided me.

MG: Have you ever been bored?

CZ: In high school my fear in life would to be bored.

MG: So, have you ever been bored?

CZ: Not really. I find something interesting to take up the time. I’m a great tourist because I like everything. Everything’s interesting: the streets and the windows and the supermarkets and the people.

[Big Talk is a joint venture of The Ryder, WFHB, and The Electron Pencil. Listen to Charlotee Zietlow spoeak with Michael G. Glab on WFHB’s Daily Local News here.]

The Ryder ◆ June 2014

Coming of Age with the Zero Boys

Zero Boys

◆ by John P. Strohm

[Editor’s note: In May, 32 years after their debut LP, Indianapolis’ Zero Boys went on tour and released a new album, Monkey, which we will review in an upcoming issue. In 2009, their debut 1982 full length album Vicious Circle, as well as the legendary lost second album, History Of, were reissued by Secretly Canadian. We thought this would be a good time to reprint John P. Strohm’s appreciation of  the Zero Boys, originally published in 2009.]

The Zero Boys changed my life. My discovery of the 1980s Indianapolis punk band as a teenager helped set the course for my adult life. More importantly, however, the Zero Boys kicked major ass.

I first saw the band in the summer of 1981 at a free outdoor show in Bloomington. I was a lonely, long-haired 14-year-old totally obsessed with rock  n’ roll. I played the drums and I dreamed of being in a band. On summer afternoons and early evenings I would follow the thump thump of distant music to live concerts by local hands. Bands seemed to play all the time in those days—on the rickety stage outside the student union, at fraternity ice cream socials, even at random front yard parties. I saw mellow, bearded students playing Eagles covers, freaky “new wave” bands with wraparound shades and bright-colored jumpsuits, and meandering post-hippie jazz-rock weirdos. I didn’t discriminate. I loved it all.

The Zero Boys show was a street dance, sponsored by a local cable-only freak radio station. The term “street dance” must have been a holdover from a bygone era, because nobody ever seemed to actually dance. Nevertheless, I never missed a street dance if I could help it, because the bills were strange and unpredictable. All the local freaks came out. That evening I’d already witnessed an arty band of mopey chain-smokers dressed in all black, and a band of high-schoolers, friends of my older brother, playing punk covers. I left happy at that point, but I wasn’t about to miss the band I’d really come to see. Someone told me the headliner was a “real” punk band from Indianapolis.

[Image at the top of this post: the Zero Boys today, (l to r) Paul Mahern, Dave Lawson, Scott Kellogg, and Mark Cutsinger.]

I knew a little bit about punk rock. I read Creem magazine religiously, which extensively covered the London and New York punk scenes. My best friend Harry had spent the prior year in England, and he brought back a bunch of punk and ska records that we devoured. Despite my growing interest in punk, however, I enjoyed nothing more than going to the arena concerts to check out the big rock acts. I saw ELO, Van Halen, Styx, Cheap Trick, The Police, ZZ Top, Black Sabbath, and many others. I’d beg my parents to take me to see anything that came through nearby Indianapolis that wasn’t completely wussy, and then I’d proudly wear my concert T-shirt to school the next day. As far as I knew, the Police were a punk band, as were the B-52s and Talking Heads.  I had a sense that the culture was in transition, but all I really cared about was whether or not the music rocked.

Although I didn’t discriminate among the bands I saw at free shows, I drew a clear distinction between local music and the bands that toured and played at arenas. That’s why street dances were free while concerts cost ten bucks, right? The arena bands just played better music. If the local bands were that good, they’d be playing arenas. I clung to this attitude as I watched these four lanky guys from Indianapolis in sleeveless T-shirts and canvas sneakers set up their gear. I hoped they’d play some good rock n’ roll, even some Ramones covers. I hoped to be entertained, but I didn’t expect all that much. My parents regarded Indianapolis as a cultural backwater; the popular bands from there that I heard on Indianapolis radio seemed to be run-of-the-mill, blue collar bands in the mode of REO Speedwagon, or Bob Seger. As I’d learned from Creem, real punk rock came from faraway, exotic places.

Zero Boys launched into their set with awesome precision and ferocity,  leaving me dazed and disoriented. I’d never heard a band play songs at such fast tempos, or with so much energy. I had no context for the music; it wasn’t heavy metal, and it didn’t sound like the punk records I’d heard. I guessed it was something new. The singer, a scrappy kid who appeared to be only a few years older than me, commanded the makeshift stage as he launched into one melodic song after another. I couldn’t even process what I was hearing but in that moment I abandoned all of my notions about rock music.  I was seeing the future — a future I wanted desperately to be a part of.

The next couple of years, inspired by that fateful summer I diligently filled in my knowledge gaps regarding punk music. I read every fanzine I could find. I snapped up everything I could get my hands on: The Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, Fear, X,  The Misfits, Bad Brains, The Germs. I loved it all, but nothing really compared to my memory of the Zero Boys show. I met other punk kids. I adopted the style of the day of cropped hair, a leather jacket, and army boots, plus buttons and stickers and advertising my favorite bands. I finally started my own band. I told everyone who would listen about the Zero Boys, but few had heard of them and nobody had seen them play.

In the fall of 1982 a few copies of  a lurid, bright yellow album depicting grotesque drawing of a severed head arrived at local stores: Zero Boys’ Vicious Circle LP. More than a year had passed since I’d seen the Zero Boys, so my memory was dim. I now realize that the show I saw in ’81 occurred around the time they recorded the album. By that time, a couple years into their existence, they’d gelled  into a fierce unit. Vicious Circle is practically unique among hardcore punk albums  since it was professionally recorded and performed by seasoned rock n’ roll musicians. The material is as strong as any album of its time with accessible, sing-along choruses;  the execution is far  more assured and realized than many of the hardcore standard bearers. I literally wore out my copy. I learned every word, beat, lick and nuance of the album. To me, at the time, it was perfect.

Vicious Circle lineup consisted of three seasoned instrumentalists in  their twenties (ancient by hardcore stands): Terry “Hollywood” Howe (guitar), David “Tufty” Clough (bass), and Mark Cutsinger (drums). Each had played in pre-punk bands, playing glam, hard rock, even funk. Teenage singer Paul “Z” Mahern completed the lineup. Howe and Cutsinger had scouted Mahern after hearing his high school band play at party. A short-lived original lineup, consisting of Howe, Cutsinger, Mahern and bassist John Mitchell, started out playing covers, eventually composing a set of original material heavily influenced by first-generation punk acts such as The Ramones and the The Sex Pistols.

So how did the Zero Boys evolve from a transparently derivative reasonably competent local punk act into the incredible band that recorded Vicious Circle in the course of year? It’s apparent that the addition of Tufty Clough helped. As represented on Vicious Circle, the Aero Boys’ rhythm section actually swings, which is rare if not unique in early hardcore. Cutsinger demonstrates a subtle touch on the drums, often adding intricate accents on the cymbals to embellish his thundering back-beat. Clough played the bass with his fingers rather than the typical punk pick style, adding dazzling speed runs and arpeggios to the simple bass lines. The ultra-tight, rather clean rhythm section provides a strong foundation for the dirtier guitar and vocal. Howe plays actual solos — anathema to hardcore — and they work. His signature pick drags and controlled feedback bursts color the spare the spare tracks. Mahern’s assured voice serves the songs perfectly; it’s at once melodic and abrasive, snotty and sincere. Every piece fits together, every sound is essential.

The Zero Boys were my true entrée into the punk scene, and I didn’t look back. I saw them perform several times, and each set proved better than the last. My friends and I listened to and discussed Vicious Circle constantly. We talked about the lyrics, some of which were brilliant while others seemed downright goofy. But it all sounded cool, so we gave it the benefit of the doubt. We drove to Indianapolis regularly from the winter of 1983 through late 1984 to see them perform with numerous lesser acts, both local and national. I lived for the adrenaline rush of sweat, crashing bodies, clenched teeth, screaming the lyrics at the top of my voice with a cluster of kids as Paul held the mic to crowd. Once I returned home from a show at 3:00 am with a slam dancing injury: a gash on my chin that required a late night emergency room visit and seven stitches. I lied to my mother and told her I’d hurt myself skateboarding. I didn’t mind being forbidden to skateboard, but I wasn’t about to give up going to Zero Boys shows.

Rumors circulated about a Zero Boys album, but eventually the band just stopped playing altogether. Tufty left to join the more established Toxic Reasons, a popular, workmanlike band from Ohio. I’m sure it was the sensible thing to do at the time.  Paul formed a psychedelic band called the Dandelion Abortion and started playing more frequently. My interest in hardcore gradually waned; I started playing guitar, writing songs. After high school, I packed my crate of LPs including Vicious Circle and moved to Boston for college. I didn’t listen to Vicious Circle much; I didn’t really have to. I’d memorized every second of the record; it had become part of my musical vocabulary. Despite my own love for Vicious Circle, it didn’t really occur to me that the Zero Boys were anything but a local band. Then one day a year or so after I’d moved to Boston I was listening to college radio.

I’d started my first real band at that point, and things were coming together very slowly. Every Sunday evening, both for entertainment and for research, I listened to a show on the Emerson College station that featured a live set by a local underground band.
On the Sunday in question, the show featured a new band called the Lemonheads, a trio of local recent high school graduates. I liked their sound, which was sort of a scrappy pop/punk stew with short, melodic songs. The two singers switched between guitar and drums on every other song. Suddenly they launched into a familiar riff, a distorted two-chord boogie. Then the singer came in: “I have no heeeeroes, I’m just havin’ a gooooood tiiiiiimmee.” My heart lept in my chest; it was the Zero Boys’ Livin’ in the 80s.

Eventually I met the Lemonheads; later I joined the band. The first time I spoke with them, we discussed the Zero Boys. They’d learned about the band from the Harvard College radio station WHRB. Vicious Circle was considered by aesthetes and record collectors to be a classic in the genre. The album had, apparently, found its way into the right hands and the right ears. The music prevailed.

Once my own career as a musician hit its stride, I sought out Paul Mahern. After the Zero Boys split, he had become a skilled and sought-after audio engineer. He fronted an excellent psychedelic rock band called the Datura Seeds. I found him to be approachable and gracious; he even tolerated my constant raving about the Zero Boys. Paul and I became good friends, and we made several albums together. We even shared a house for a year or so in Bloomington. But I never stopped being slightly in awe of him. In fact, I’m still slightly in awe of him.

The Zero boys eventually re-formed. A young, talented local devotee named Vess Ruhtenberg stepped in on guitar. The re-formed band made a couple of albums in the early 90s, which were released overseas. Various indie labels re-issued Vicious Circle, as interest in the album continued to grow. The most recent re-issue of the album on Secretly Canadian Records, along with the re-issue of the odds and ends compilation History of the Zero Boys (featuring an early EP along with tracks recorded for the shelved second album), represents a high-water mark, over 25 years after its initial release.

Album Cover

The Zero Boys’ 2014 Release, Monkey

After listening to Vicious Circle for the first time in at least a decade, I completely understand why I connected so strongly with the album as a teenager. The songs and performances have aged well; despite some dated lyrics, they sound as fresh and relevant as ever. One can’t help wonder how things would have been different if the album had been released at a different moment. They could have — should have — been superstars. But it doesn’t really matter now, because they inspired me and others like me at the time, and they will likely inspire future generations of disenfranchised kids as well. Rock n’ roll this great transcends time and context.

[John P. Strohm is a native of Bloomington and currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama. John performed and composed music professionally in bands including the Blake Babies, the Lemonheads and Antenna. He has released three solo albums: California, Vestavia and Everyday Life.  John is now an entertainment attorney, an adjunct law professor and the father of three children. He still writes, plays and records music when time permits.]

The Ryder ◆ June 2014

After All These Years: Gaga for the Gizmos

Gizmos D&R

Bloomington’s legendary proto-punk band will perform live for the first time in 38 years ◆ by John Barge

Not everybody makes a gold record, but the Gizmos did. Oh sure, it took them more than 30 years to get their 500,000 sales but that makes it even cooler. How punk rock is that?

Now maybe you’ve heard of the Gizmos, maybe you haven’t. But here’s what you need to know: They were over the top, they rocked it out, and they were the first punk rock band to put out a record in Indiana.

It’s been almost four decades since they left their mark — or at least a stain — on the musical world but on Thursday, June 12th, at the Bishop the original Gizmos will reunite. Or perhaps more accurately, a reasonable facsimile will assemble — after all, the Gizmos made their first record with an eight person line up and naturally not everyone can make it.

But the mainstays of the group will be there, starting with the duo front men of Ken Highland and Ted Niemac, and the spiritual mentor Eddie Flowers, along with whiz-kid guitarist Ken Coffee, all four playing together for the first time since their infamous recording session way back in May, 1976. As for the elusive, reclusive others lurking in the background, who knows? But a Bloomington All Star music crew has been recruited for the rhythm section, consisting of local legends Ian Brewer and the Mad Monk known as JT, along with newbie Max Demata (more on him later).

The nitty gritty details are all in their CD liner notes about how a motley crew of fanzine writers (kids, it was kind of like writing a blog but using Xerox machines; ask your grandparents) converged on Bloomington in the mid-seventies, united in their love of rock’n’roll. This would be Ken and future Gulcher label owner Bob Richert, with occasional visits by Eddie Flowers.

After a few songs were written by aspiring rockers Ken and Eddie, Rich Coffee’s band Cerberus provided the bulk of the instrumentalists, but there was one more piece of the puzzle left to be added. Let Ken Highland fill us in: “Bob Richert worked at WIUS where he had met Ted Niemac, and they had free tickets to the Tubes. After the concert they came over to the apartment and we jammed to Kiss songs. But when Ted opened his mouth and sang, he sounded just like Lou Reed, only singing Deuce! Bob said, “I think you guys just formed a band. Let’s call it the Gizmos!”

A single ten hour recording session was hastily put together at Rich Fish’s aptly named Homegrown Studios, with a smattering of chaotic rehearsals happening beforehand. Guitars were plugged straight into the board instead of miking amps, and a direct live stereo mix was created for the master tapes, mostly because nobody in the band had any studio experience or knew any alternatives.

Kirk Ross (now with the Carolina Mercury Dispatch) was the engineer for that session. “It was a very strange session. We were all packed into a back bedroom of a duplex on Smith Road. I had to sit on the floor to engineer. The session started slowly. I remember John Mellencamp — he was Johnny Cougar then — coming by and showing them a song. The session built as it went on and had some pretty good energy by the end. They got quite goofy at times, mostly sugar highs. I was a pretty wild kid then, but they were a whole different level of wild. They made me feel normal.”

Putting out a fanzine was one thing, but putting out a record in 1976 was another, and it took a determined mind to make it happen. Bob Richert had that mind, starting Gulcher Records for the express purpose of pressing, releasing, and promoting the Gizmos’ recordings. After a lengthy break, it’s going strong today and while it’s a stretch to say it was the start of the DIY punk movement, it was the first example of the DIY punk movement, at least in Indiana, and thus an idea ahead of its time.

Gulcher Flyer

A Long, Long Time Ago….

Recordings are great, but of course it’s the music and the songs that matter, and here the Gizmos had an awful lot of inspiration going for them. The first extended player (or EP — it was the size of a 45 single but with four songs) featured a sensational, smutty pop punk classic Muff Diving (In The Wilkie South), that lyrically was not only entertaining, but educational too, with a whale of a guitar riff to propel it into the stratosphere.

That’s Cool (I Respect You More) has many tough-but-tender fans as well. “I was a pen pal with a girl in Jersey,” Ken explains “and she invited me down for a visit. I’m sixteen, you know how it is. We were listening to Grand Funk Railroad and making out, when I asked if she wanted to go all the way. She said no, and my mom always told me, “Ken, you must respect the ladies,” so I said, “That’s cool, I respect you more,” because I did. Later I wrote the song when I was working at my high school as a janitor. Like Kurt Cobain did.”

Rounding out the vinyl was a nifty tribute to Dick Clark and American Bandstand delivered in Mean Screen delivered by the irrespirable Eddie Flowers. The fourth song, Chicken Queen, is really beyond description. That’s on you to listen to. God help you.

So they pressed a thousand copies of the first “modern,” post-Stooges, Indiana punk rock record, and sent them out, and guess what — it was a hit. An underground sensation, as it were. It got rave reviews, hit #8 on the UK Alternative Chart, the cards and letters poured in, and the original pressing sold out. Another thousand were pressed (only 498,000 to go). “We felt that our music was entertaining and necessary. However we didn’t know that anybody else was ready for it and were a little surprised to see how enthusiastically it was received,” remembers Ted.

There was a clamor to see this strange and naughty group of guys, who actually had never played a live show, and they obliged, doing a set at the Monroe County Municipal Library in 1977 that was many years later released on the Gulcher label. Ken Highland had to endure the nascent punk rock explosion while wearing a US Marine uniform (“A big mistake,” is how he calls his enlistment today), but made it back to Bloomington for the show and a quick return to the recording studio for the second EP.

A young Johnny Cougar Mellencamp introduced them that night, and in a slightly bizarre turn of events, had even written a song for them called Boring Part 1. The Gizmos recorded it, with the Coug sitting in on guitar and singing background vocals, but they didn’t release it until many, many moons later. Ted says, “The track would’ve come out better, if we had spent more time going through it before the record button was pressed.”

Two more records were pressed, but sales didn’t match the first one, although there was strong material in those grooves. By 1978 the band would start to morph into the uber-talented Dale Lawrence era, which highlighted a more efficient and less chaotic approach to making this punk rock thing happen.

Gulcher Records expanded as well, releasing a chockful of records and samplers by local bands. But by 1982 it was all over. The Gizmos left for New York and changed their name. Gulcher Records moved on as well.

But they cast a long shadow that has allowed much marvelous original, hardcore, and experimental music to flourish right here in our hometown. This writer first saw them in that evolutionary year of 1978, which provided quite the adrenaline rush, and started my own band within the year. I quickly bought, or at least obtained, copies of all four eps and enthusiastically studied their self-referential lyrical style (Ballad of the Gizmos) and their muscular guitar riffing, and even dug their tongue-in-cheek advertising.

Their initiative in writing, recording and releasing their own material set a powerful example that many followed throughout the eighties and today’s local music scene owes much, both directly and indirectly, to those eight musical nabobs and the record label that grew in their wake.

And so the Gizmo’s legacy never really died. The interest continued through the years, and the first Gizmos EP remained a strong collector’s item. And lo and behold the internet mushroom clouded into existence. Collector interest surged, eBay sales were impressive, phone calls and emails were made, and in 2000 Gulcher Records revived, debuting with (what else?) a Gizmos compilation, 1976/1977: The Studio Recordings, which featured the first three EPs, unreleased tracks, and alternate takes. This is the material that the group will play at the Bishop.

Album Cover

Several Gulcher releases were licensed to an obscure Italian punk rock label that had a name that rhymed — Vulture Records. And an Italian luminary named Max Demata, who is good friends with the owner of Vulture Records, ended up at IU in Bloomington this year. It is through his efforts, his coercion, and his bass playing, that the Gizmos have been cajoled into doing the Bishop gig, which you can rest assured will be an out and out blast and, to quote the godfather of punk rock, Iggy Pop, a real cool time.

And 38 years later, when all the vinyl, discs and downloads are counted, the first Gizmos release is an official gold record and recognition for their music is due. “It fills a unique spot. Maybe a G-spot. That’s G for Gizmo!” is how Ted sums it up. “It’s the first time I’ve gone on tour!” adds Ken. So congratulations are in order. And I know just the time and place to give them.

[Longtime Bloomington resident John Barge is a musician with the Panics and Walking Ruins. He proudly wears his original “Gizmos Need Publicity” T shirt.]

The Ryder ◆ June 2014

The Sound Opinions of Jim Jarmusch

Only Lovers Left Alive

Photos – use only one featuring Tom Waits (probably the Coffee and Cigarettes but its your call)

◆ by Craig J. Clark

A needle is dropped onto a 45. As Wanda Jackson’s recording of Funnel of Love plays, we cut back and forth between spinning overhead views of Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as two vampires half a world away from each other. Hiddleston, a former classical music composer living off the grid in a blighted Detroit neighborhood, is surrounded by his vintage musical instruments and analog recording equipment. Meanwhile, Swinton lies amongst her vast collection of books in her apartment in Tangier. Even if they’re not in direct contact, this sequence — which opens Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive — links them together and, along with their shared affinity for classic Motown and Stax records, connects them to many of Jarmusch’s other music-loving protagonists.

[Image at the top of this post from Only Lovers Left Alive.]

That trend dates back to his 1980 debut, Permanent Vacation, in which the main character is a drifter played by Chris Parker who’s driven by his fixation on his namesake, jazz man Charlie Parker, and little else. The proverbial stranger in a strange land, Parker spends much of the film walking through neighborhoods that look bombed-out, as many areas of New York City did at the time. (Jarmusch felt compelled to invent a war with the Chinese to explain the destruction.) The moment that stands out, though, comes early on when Parker puts on a record (of Up There in Orbit by Earl Bostic) and enthusiastically dances to it in a single, unbroken take. Sure, civilization may be on the brink of breaking down, but one must still take time out for music appreciation.

When Jarmusch came to make his follow-up, 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise, he not only gave the lead role to saxophonist John Lurie (who had briefly appeared as a street musician in Permanent Vacation), but also allowed him to compose the spare score. In fact, if one could only use a single adjective to describe Stranger Than Paradise, “spare” would be a good choice. The film’s minimal plot is set in motion when Lurie’s Hungarian cousin, Eszter Balint, who is fixated on the song I Put a Spell on You by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, arrives in New York and has to stay with him for ten days before moving on to Cleveland to live with their elderly aunt. When the ten days are up Balint leaves, but not before she makes an impression on Lurie’s best friend, Richard Edson (and on Lurie himself). One year later the two of them spontaneously decide to drive to Cleveland to check up on her and, flush with money, the trio makes for the warmer climes of Florida, but thanks to the black-and-white photography it looks just as bleak as anywhere else they’ve been.

Stranger Than Paradise

Scene From Stranger Than Paradise

Jarmusch went way out of his comfort zone to make his third feature, 1986’s Down by Law. Sure, he may have sent a few of his characters to Cleveland and Florida in Stranger Than Paradise, but New York City was still their home base. Down by Law, on the other hand, was shot entirely on location in Louisiana, even venturing out into the swamps, which is about as far away from city streets as you can get. It was also his first time working with director of photography Robby Müller, who would go on to shoot three more features for Jarmusch, plus one of his Coffee and Cigarettes shorts, so it’s a fair bet they got on well together. That’s not always a given, but filmmaking is hard enough as it is without throwing your lot in with people you don’t get along with.

That applies to the film as well since Down by Law is a stark, funny portrait of three men thrown together by pure chance who have to band together to overcome the lousy hand life has dealt them. Singer Tom Waits stars as a radio DJ whose girlfriend (Ellen Barkin) tearfully throws him — and most of his possessions — out after he loses yet another gig. John Lurie (who also scored the film) returns from Stranger Than Paradise as a pimp who gets dressed down by one of his girls and falls for a set-up that lands him in jail. The same thing happens to Waits and they wind up sharing a cell in Orleans Parish Prison, where they’re joined by outgoing Italian tourist Roberto Benigni. At first Benigni’s little more than an irritant to Waits and Lurie, who spend most of their time together being openly hostile to each other, but then he figures out how they can escape, which raises his stock with them significantly.

Down By Law

Tom Waits (r) In Down By Law

John Lurie doesn’t appear onscreen in Jarmusch’s next film, 1989’s Mystery Train, but he did compose its score (his last for Jarmusch to date). The same goes for Tom Waits, who is the voice of a late-night DJ whose between-record patter is heard by all three sets of protagonists in the three-part omnibus film set in Memphis, Tennessee. Each story winds up at the same moderately seedy hotel, the Arcade, which is staffed by sharp-dressed desk clerk Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and bellboy Cinqué Lee. The first, “Far from Yokohama,” is about a young Japanese couple (Masatoshi Nagase and Yûki Kudô) on a rock ‘n’ roll pilgrimage — she’s an Elvis girl, he’s into Carl Perkins — who couldn’t be more of a study in contrasts if they tried. In addition to their differing musical tastes — he wants Sun Studios to be their first priority, she’s intent on seeing Graceland — she’s outwardly thrilled by everything, while he’s much more blasé. He also takes pictures of their hotel room (which comes complete with a framed picture of Elvis) since it’s precisely the sort of thing he’ll forget about their trip.

Elvis also factors into the Mystery Train‘s other two stories. In “A Ghost,” Nicoletta Braschi plays an Italian widow traveling to Rome with her husband’s body who has an unplanned stopover in Memphis. She winds up sharing her room at the Arcade with motormouthed Jersey girl Elizabeth Bracco, who has just broken up with her man, but that’s not the reason why she doesn’t get much sleep. Rather, it’s because Elvis’s ghost appears to her, which would go down as the strangest occurrence of the night if not for the events of “Lost in Space,” in which we meet Bracco’s ex, a British expatriate played by rocker Joe Strummer, who’s weary of the nickname his black co-workers have given him (“Elvis,” naturally) and is drowning his sorrows in cheap bourbon. That would be all well and good, but when he starts waving a loaded gun around, his friend (Rick Aviles) and brother-in-law (Steve Buscemi) are summoned to retrieve him, leading to a long night for all of them. Since the previous segments both ended with the characters hearing a gunshot (“Was that a gun?” Kudô asks. “Probably. This is America,” Nagase laconically replies), we know it’s only a matter of time before Strummer shoots off something other than his mouth, and after he wings a liquor store clerk the three of them spend half the night driving around before holing up at the Arcade, where the mystery of the gunshot is solved. Suffice it to say, by the time they’re ready to check out, everybody is more than happy to be on their way.

Music and musicians aren’t as integral to Jarmusch’s next feature, 1991’s Night on Earth (there’s no scene in it like the one in Mystery Train where the Japanese tourists plays Rock Paper Scissors to determine who gets to pick the next tape to put in their Walkman), but Tom Waits did provide its soundtrack. He also acted in Jarmusch’s third Coffee and Cigarettes short in 1995 alongside Iggy Pop, with both of them as themselves having an awkward first encounter. Pop also appeared in a supporting role (as a cross-dressing frontier “wife”) in the same year’s Dead Man, which for our purposes is most notable for being scored by Neil Young. (Jarmusch even slips in a contemporary musical reference by naming one of the characters Benmont Tench after the keyboard player for Tom Petty’s band, the Heartbreakers.) That led to Jarmusch making the 1997 Neil Young and Crazy Horse tour film Year of the Horse, which to date is his only completed documentary (his untitled Stooges doc is currently in post-production).

For 1999’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jarmusch entrusted the music to Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, who also gets a cameo as a samurai in camouflage. This paved the way for RZA to act alongside his cousin (and fellow Wu-Tanger) The GZA in the feature version of Coffee and Cigarettes, which was released in 2003 and augmented the first three standalone shorts (which were made over a ten-year period) with eight more. In “Delirium,” the segment featuring RZA and The GZA, the two of them can’t believe their eyes when they find Bill Murray working in a greasy spoon. And in “Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil,” Jack White shows his partner in The White Stripes, Meg White, his Tesla coil. (I guess that one’s pretty self-explanatory, actually.) In addition to bringing more musicians into the acting fold, Coffee and Cigarettes found Jim Jarmusch incorporating classic rock and roll sides into the soundtrack once again, with two versions of Louie Louie (one by composer Richard Berry and his group The Pharoahs, the other by Iggy Pop) and Crimson and Clover by Tommy James and Shondells.

Active music listening returns to the fore in Jarmusch’s 2005 film Broken Flowers, in which a reclusive bachelor played by Bill Murray is compelled to visit his old flames when he received an anonymous letter telling him he has fathered a child by one of them. This involves hitting the road with an itinerary planned out by his helpful next-door neighbor (Jeffrey Wright), who also gives him a mix tape to listen to that is heavy on the works of Ethiopian composer/performer Mulatu Astatke. Murray’s character may resist it at first, but the more he listens to it, the more he wants to listen to it.

Four years after Broken Flowers, Jarmusch came out with 2009’s The Limits of Control, in which a laconic man with no name (Isaach De Bankolé, who has been a mainstay of his films since Night on Earth) is sent to Spain to complete a mysterious mission. He meets his contacts in various cafés where they exchange matchboxes — his contain instructions for where he should go next – and have mostly one-sided conversations. (De Bankolé isn’t much for small talk — or talk of any size, really.) One of them is with a curious character played by John Hurt (previously seen in 1995’s Dead Man) who delivers a guitar to him and bends his ear about bohemians. As it turns out, this prefigures an early scene in Only Lovers Left Alive where Tom Hiddleston receives delivery of a number of guitars from dealer Anton Yelchin, who would be his Renfield if only he knew his rock-star client was a vampire.

Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch

In addition to listening to his well-curated vinyl collection, Hiddleston has taken up recording brooding instrumental rock and has even started releasing it. When he grows despondent enough about his lot in unlife to order a .38 caliber wooden bullet from Yelchin, though, Swinton books a night flight from Tangier (where she gets to hang out with Christopher Marlowe, played by John Hurt) to Detroit in the hopes of keeping him from doing anything drastic. The two of them share some pleasant night drives (including a visit to the house where Jack White grew up), but alas, their happy reunion is spoiled when they’re joined by Swinton’s reckless “sister” Mia Wasikowska, who drops in unannounced (save for some portentous dreams) and, as far as Hiddleston is concerned, unwelcome. With Wasikowska stirring the pot, the question isn’t if things are going to go south, but when.

One thing Only Lovers Left Alive does exceedingly well is evoke the creeping boredom that is the bane of undying beings that have an eternity to fill. And since neck-biting is considered passé, something as basic as the acquisition of blood has taken on the air of routine, although Hiddleston does vary his schedule to keep his supplier (a doctor played by Jeffrey Wright) on his toes. Wright, incidentally, is the source of some of the film’s wryer humor, which is most welcome considering how dour Hiddleston can be sometimes. To (mis-)quote the Rolling Stones, what a drag it is not getting old.

[Only Lovers Left Alive will be screening at the IU Cinema as part of its International Arthouse Series,Thursday-Saturday, June 26-28.]

The Ryder ◆ June 2014

Thinking with Kisses: Hannah Arendt

Arendt

◆ by Thomas Prasch

In Hannah Arendt, Margarethe von Trotta’s film about the crisis and controversy provoked by Hannah Arendt’s New Yorker articles in 1961 on the Adolph Eichmann trial, in which Arendt notoriously framed her argument about the “banality of evil,” two framed photographs stand on her desk: one of Martin Heidegger, the existentialist philosopher who mentored her in Germany, and one of Heinrich Blücher, her husband. They stand as the two poles in her engaged involvement with the world, of mind and heart, of Arendt’s passionate commitment to the realm of thought, which Arendt fashions as the central bulwark by which mankind can avoid the grip of totalitarian conditions, and of equally passionate (with lots of hugs and kisses) commitment to social engagement, lovers and friends, on whom Arendt depends to maintain her philosophical work (as when, later in the film, Heinrich tries to leave the house without kissing her goodbye and excuses the action by saying “Never disturb a great philosopher when they’re thinking,” Arendt insists: “But they can’t think without kisses”). Both traits define our humanity, and it is above all else the abandonment of that humanity, Arendt argues in her analysis of Eichmann, that totalitarianism triumphs.

[Image at the top of this post: Hannah Arendt.]

The film’s nearly-opening two scenes (after the brief initial scene in which Eichmann is seized by Israeli forces) reinforce the message of the two framed portraits. In the first, we see Hannah Arendt thinking. It is a striking start to a film above all else for its sheer duration: she paces, smokes a cigarette, lies down on a couch, but above all thinks, silently, no speaking, no voiceover, for a long time, over a minute and a half of screen time, something unimaginable in, say, Hollywood cinema. Immediately following, von Trotta catches a discussion between Arendt and her close friend, novelist Mary McCarthy. The conversation, picked up in medes res, opens with an interesting bit of misdirection: “But Hannah, how can you defend him?” McCarthy is asking, however, not about Eichmann, but about McCarthy’s straying husband, and in the course of a discussion about whether you can trust men, Arendt draws two key conclusions: first, that “I do not throw my friends away so easily” (so the husband’s affair will not lead to a shunning), and second: “Either you are willing to take men as they are or you must live alone.” That lonely alternative to human engagement will become a leitmotif in the film.

The dichotomy is, of course, imperfect; as Arendt’s response to Heinrich suggests, no person can be all thought, or presumably all kisses. In Germany, Heidegger had been Arendt’s lover as well as teacher: the movie, in one of several flashbacks to her student years, imagines the beginning of the affair precisely in the breakdown of the dichotomy, when Hannah, in Heidegger’s office, tells him: “We are so used to thinking of reason and passion as opposites that the idea of passionate thinking, where thinking and being alive are one and the same, is terrifying to me.” And, on the other side, Heinrich is not just a kisser (although an aside by McCarthy during that party scene notes: “They are the happiest married couple in the world”); he is also a passionate participant in the debates among the German expatriate community in New York that explode in Hannah and Heinrich’s living room (and tend, especially for the stray English speakers in the crowd, rather to ruin her parties) immediately after Eichmann’s arrest and removal to Jerusalem. Heinrich ferociously contends, for example, that the arrest and trial have no basis in international law, against those who equally angrily contend that any court would do for such a man. And, of course, the dichotomy is muddled somewhat by Heidegger’s own trajectory: his embrace of the Nazi party as rector of the university in Freiburg. Indeed, Hans Jonas, identified in that early party scene as Arendt’s “oldest friend,” going back to when they were both (Jewish) students of Heidegger, cannot bear to hear the philosopher’s name mentioned (although here, too, the dichotomy also tends to collapse: Heinrich late in the film suggests to Hannah that Hans “hates Heidegger more for stealing your heart than for joining the [Nazi] Party”). In another flashback, the only postwar one, Arendt confronts her old tutor on his abandonment of the principles of independent thought in his adherence to Nazism, to which charge he has in the film, as he had in life, no answer but awkward, evasive silence.

Still, the dichotomy — of hand and heart — is a useful frame for understanding the ways in which von Trotta constructs Arendt’s course through the controversy (a constant alternation, echoing those first scenes, between life of mind and social life). The film’s insistence on Hannah’s need for others as much as her need for thought provides a defense against some of Arendt’s most aggressive contemporary critics (like the New School foe who, in the midst of trying to remove her from the school’s classrooms, harumphs: “That’s Hannah Arendt, all arrogance and no feeling”). The dichotomy will simultaneously provide Arendt herself with an understanding of the operation of totalitarian systems, which begins with the abandonment of thought, which, Arendt asserts, undermines the very humanity of the Nazi—“In refusing to be a person,” by not thinking of his actions, by making himself nothing but a bureaucratic cog, “Eichmann surrendered that single most defining human quality, that of being able to think,” which produces the bureaucratic process made manifest in the operation of the Final Solution, which in turn dehumanizes the victims. As she explains to her students, “the camp is a place where every activity and human impulse is senseless,” and where, it follows, there is no humanity, which makes it that much easier to kill). And, finally, the dichotomy will provide the complex dialectic of triumphant and tragic outcomes that define the film’s conclusion. Thus, on the one hand, at the level of thought, the film gives Arendt her intellectual triumph: she gets the last word, in the extended lecture she presents at the New School at the height of the controversy, in which she will take on and effectively demolish the attacks of her fiercest critics. At the same time, the tragic dimension is that her intellectual triumph coincides with her increasing social isolation: Heinrich dies (no cause-effect here, just coincident timing); Hans, that “oldest friend,” abandons her; so does Kurt Blumenfeld, her old Zionist friend in Jerusalem. When they had argued during the Eichmann trial — as, indeed, Arendt used their arguments to begin to flesh out her ideas about the “banality of evil” — Hannah and Kurt reassured his listening daughter: Hannah telling her “But after finishing our bloody duels,” and Kurt finishing her sentence: “We always find a way to make up.” But, on his deathbed, he turns his back on her. Earlier in the film, in one of the flashbacks, a line of Heidegger’s anticipates this tragic dimension: “Thinking is a lonely business.” Arendt’s thinking will make her lonelier.
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Arendt’s book unleashed a firestorm of criticism. The movie about that firestorm has, in striking ways, reignited it. The new attacks have been remarkable perhaps most of all in the level to which they have misrepresented both Arendt and von Trotta’s film. In The New Republic, Saul Austerlitz denounced the film because it “perpetuates the pernicious myth” of “Arendt as fearless truth-teller” by dismissing her critics as “bullies, shrill ideologues” and ignoring their “valid criticisms” of her “shoddy history,” while proffering much shoddy history himself (that Arendt thought Eichmann was “unaware” of the atrocities, for instance, a claim Arendt never made). Similarly, in the New York Times, Fred Kaplan insisted that newer evidence undermines Arendt’s : “Her ‘banality of evil’ thesis rests on the premise that Eichmann committed his deeds with no awareness of their evil, not even with virulent anti-Semitism,” but this misunderstands Arendt’s premise and misstates the evidence she had at hand. Stanley Kauffman in The New Republic insists: “Today at least we can see that there is small point in separating emotions from facts, as Arendt did,” when in fact she did not such thing.

At this level, the new attacks largely reprise the debates Arendt’s original publication provoked. They have also gone significantly further, however, in terms of mischaracterizations of Arendt, personalized attacks on von Trotta, and false claims about the film. Kauffman, for example, falsely claims that Arendt’s love affair with Heidegger was renewed after the war, “presumably more a matter of Venus than politics,” and that the controversy over her book led to her “discharge from her teaching position.” Wrong on both counts. David Rieff, writing in The Nation, says of the Americans in the film: “those roles as written are a little too close for comfort to seeming like a road show for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the classic anti-Semitic screed, a charge that is both hyperbolically overloaded and absurdly unfitted to the film. Mark Lilla, in the New York Review of Books, both dismissively derides von Trotta, as someone whose “specialty is didactic feminist buddy movies,” and misrepresents the film. He writes, for example: “In one shot we are watching Eichmannn testify … in the next her husband is patting her behind as they cook dinner.” Although both moments occur in Hannah Arendt, they are separated by over half an hour of screen time. Lilla also insists, of Arendt’s arrival at her conclusions, that “we are left with the impression that she … had a vision,” ignoring the role of thinking, of discussing and debating and writing and revising, that are central to the movie. Lilla needs the visionary angle, however, to stake his own conclusion, that this is “a stilted, and very German, morality play about conformism and independence” which exposes Germans’ “unwillingness … to think for themselves,” a bizarre claim to make about a philosopher committed to the priority of thought and a film that makes thinking so central.

Critics of Arendt’s position, then and now, have focused above all on two points, and have misunderstood Arendt’s position on both. First, they have argued that her case for the “banality of evil” amounts to an excusing of Eichmann for his crimes, as if Arendt was asserting his functional innocence. But Arendt did no such thing. He had no “motive,” his crimes were “without intention,” he “only obeyed orders.” But that does not excuse his actions (it does not even make them less evil, in fact; “banal,” note, but still “evil”); indeed, it makes them worse. By abandoning thought, Eichmann and Nazis like him abandoned their very humanity, and this made them capable of crimes which, Arendt repeatedly insists, could not be imagined in earlier history.

Second, and most controversially, Arendt focused for a dozen pages of her account on the complicity of Jewish leaders in the mechanics of the Holocaust. As she wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem, “To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.” For her critics this was utter heresy; as one of them puts it here, “You blame the Jewish people for their own destruction.” But this was not Arendt’s point. As she responds to that critic: “I never blamed the Jewish people. Resistance was impossible. But perhaps there is something between resistance and cooperation, and only in that sense do I say that maybe some of the Jewish leaders might have behaved differently.” In this, Arendt drew heavily on the work of Raul Hilfberg, whose then-recent Destruction of the European Jews (1961) fully documented the involvement of Judenrat in the mechanics of the extermination process: in the selection of victims, in the control of information, in the mechanics of ghettoization (bottom line here: Hilfberg’s ample documentation demonstrates that Arendt was right). But beyond that, accusing her of blaming the Jews, as Arendt notes, misses the point. Jewish complicity is for her part of the bigger picture of Nazi totalitarianism’s dehumanization, part of what she calls in the film “the totality of the moral collapse that the Nazis caused.” In no way does she ever suggest, as her critics claimed and claim, that Eichmann could be exonerated and the Jewish leadership held guilty in the process.

In the course of the film, the priority of thought (or its reverse, the abandonment of thought) is a recurrent trope. The thought scene at the outset gets reinforced by a lecture by Heidegger in one of the early flashbacks: “Thinking does not bring knowledge, as do the sciences. Thinking does not produce usable, practical wisdom. Thinking does not solve the riddles of the universe. Thinking does not endow us with the power to act. We live because we are alive. And we think because we are thinking beings.”  And Arendt at work — in discussion, while lecturing, while writing—is always Arendt in thought.

And then, her thought focuses on the inverse, the unthinking totalitarian mind. This figures first of all in Eichmann’s own testimony, provided in the film by archival clips of his actual court testimony, where he speaks the bureaucratese that is the enemy of thought: “I received the matter for its continued processing and dealt with it in an intermediate capacity. As I was ordered to do, I had to follow orders…. Whether people were killed or not, orders had to be executed. In line with administrative procedures.” From that unthinking leadership follows the enforcement of unthought throughout the system, as at the camps (as she explains to her students, recalling her own camp experience in Gurs, where the logic of the system had “nothing to do with selfishness or any such understandable … motives. Instead it is based on the following phenomenon: making human beings superfluous as human beings,” who are, recall from Heidegger, thinking beings), or with the Jewish councils, or anywhere else within the system. As she articulates it in her final lecture: “The trouble with a Nazi criminal like Eichmann was that he insisted on renouncing all personal qualities, as if there was nobody left to be punished or forgiven. He protested time and again … that he had done nothing out of his own initiative. That he had no intentions, good or bad. That he had only obeyed orders. This typical Nazi claim makes it clear that the greatest evil in the world is the evil committed by nobodies, evil committed by men without motive, without convictions… by human beings who refuse to be persons. And it is this phenomenon that I have called the banality of evil.” Depersonalization here coincides with thoughtlessness (although, of course, heartlessness accompanies it as well).

Arendt concludes her final lecture with a reaffirmation of the role of thought as a counterforce to the darkness, in terms that interestingly (and ironically, given his trajectory) echo Heidegger’s: “Since Socrates and Plato, we usually call thinking being engaged in that intent dialogue between me and myself. In refusing to be a person, Eichmann utterly surrendered that single most defining human quality, that of being able to think. And consequently he was no longer capable of making moral judgments. This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale the likes of which one had never seen before. It is true I have considered these questions in a philosophical way. The manifestation of … thought is not knowledge, but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in those moments when the chips are down.” Her project — and von Trotta’s affirmation of that project — is less about eliminating the category of evil or exonerating its practitioners, but in demystifying it (“He is not Mephistopheles,” Arendt insists to Kurt), and to accomplish this by subjecting totalitarianism, as the enemy of thought, to the process of thinking.

But that process of thought must be balanced for Arendt in the other passion, the social connection. This is made clear early in the film, when she recalls for Heinrich her experience of and escape from the camp. As camp life continued, as the women in the camp were dragged down by “the waiting,” Arendt recalls, “More and more women let themselves go, stopped combing their hair, stopped washing themselves. Just lay on straw mats.” Arendt herself reached a point where “I suddenly lost my courage. I was so tired, so tired, that I wanted to leave this world that I so loved. And in that instant I saw you in front of me. [I thought about] how you’d look for me and not find me.” And so she persevered. But note: it is love that saves her, not thought. It is in the balance between the two that Arendt, and von Trotta, rest our hopes.

The Ryder ◆ June 2014

Imprinted Cinema

Sheaffer

IU Grad Student’s Film, Acetate Diary, screened at the Tribeca Film Festival ◆ by Brandon Walsh

Avant-garde cinema is uniquely equipped to engage with unspoken personal realities. Such is the case with Russell Sheaffer’s short experimental film Acetate Diary, an attempt to bridge the gap between individual trauma and a publically displayed medium.

[The image of Sheaffer at the top of this post is a promotional shot from the Tribeca Film Festival.]

The film is an impressionistic scroll of abstract handmade patterns and shapes, indecipherable scrolling text, and broad strokes of color. The film is a visually impulsive exercise, modeling the diary films of Jonas Mekas and Sadie Benning as well as the nonrepresentational films of Stan Brakhage. An abstract expression, it requires the audience to tune their gaze to the film’s own visual logic.

Sheaffer acknowledges that the film is better experienced than discussed with language, which effectively alludes to the thesis of Acetate Diary. He says, “It’s tricky, because you’re articulating something that can’t be articulated.”

Acetate Diary

Selected Frames From Acetate Diary

Sheaffer injured his jaw in a horrific accident involving multiple cars while driving on a San Diego freeway in November of 2012. Though surviving, the accident left him deeply affected. It wasn’t until a year later that he began to emotionally recover. “I just assumed I would get better … trauma happens, and you deal with that for a really long time,” says Sheaffer.

Not long after his recovery, Sheaffer’s world was upended once again. Given a troubling medical diagnosis related to the accident, he reverted to the same state of fear and disembodiment that he experienced following the accident. The night of his diagnosis, he ran into Susanne Schwibs, documentary filmmaker and faculty member of the Communication and Culture department. She says, “When Russell came to me with his idea for a handmade film, I was elated.  It is a time-consuming process and so few people choose that technique.  It is difficult, too, because what you see when you paint is not what you will see and hear when it is projected.” After discussing the leading events, Schwibs gave Sheaffer a spare developed 100-foot roll of 16mm film, which would become Acetate Diary.

While informed by the preceding year, the film itself documents the two week period of its production, manipulated in the analog edit bays in both the Communication and Culture department’s production lab and the lab made in Sheaffer’s basement. Schaeffer treated each day as a chapter in the diary, using different techniques and patterns, though the film was not produced sequentially. One day was devoted to laying his fingerprint on the film, others to sketching phrases and geometric patterns. The optical audio track aside the film was similarly modified. Sheaffer scratched the surface with a pushpin.

Acetate Diary

Still From Acetate Diary

The result is a sculptural representation of cognitive emptying, a personal imprint on a physical medium. Schaeffer cites Orphans Midwest as a spiritual influence, a conference hosted by the IU Cinema consisting of handmade, “orphaned” films, of which he helped curate. Enrolled in Schwibs’ experimental film class, Schaffer was also exposed to the nonrepresentational films of Norman McLaren.

Sheaffer shipped the 16mm print to the FotoKem film lab for 35mm conversion, which screened at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. Jon Vickers, director of the IU Cinema, assisted with the film’s conversion to film, “The long-term plight of digital preservation is still unknown. Russell now has a known, stable archival element that will surely last hundreds of years,” says Vickers. Acetate Diary screened in the festival as part of “Digital Dillema,” a series of 8 short films that explored the both endearing and fleeting qualities of celluloid film. “With so much going to digital, there’s a resurgence of films that are handmade that are one of a kind,” Schwibs says. It was also one of 9 student films shown in the festival.

The story of the film’s making is as equally captivating as the 16mm roll itself, and Schaeffer is aware of how the background will likely inform the experience of viewing the film. In either instance, he feels the message of discomfort comes across. “It should be a threatening encounter. It makes the work alive,” says Schaeffer. In essence, the value taken from Acetate Diary is as much dictated by the viewer’s own projection to the screen as the filmmaker’s.

The Ryder ◆ June 2014

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