I was awoken by bright sunlight on my face and a pressing need to urinate. I stumbled to the bathroom, knocking over bottles with each step, the noise like rubber mallets on my skull.
It was sunny outside; flowers were starting to bloom in the yard outside my cottage. Flowers? Wasn’t everything covered in snow just a few days ago? What month is this? It wasn’t important, at least right then: I needed food, water, aspirin, maybe a small glass of wine…
The quarter-gallon of milk in the refrigerator was a solid, and the bread on the counter was moldy. Breakfast was eggs and bacon—things that never go bad, right? While I was cooking, I reached for a bottle of wine—just a little, to tide me over until I could make coffee——there was no wine in the bottle, but there was a piece of paper. Paper? How the fuck did that get in there?
I scanned the kitchen: bottles everywhere, all of them with scraps of paper inside. I finally spotted an unopened bottle—a cheap, vile red, but it was better than nothing—poured a glass, drank it with my breakfast, and tried to reconstruct the last few months.
It was a blank.
I was sitting back in my chair after breakfast, drinking a third glass of wine, casting my eyes contemplatively around the cottage—most of which was one large room—when it finally occurred to me that, perhaps, the pieces of paper in the bottles might be messages from my excessively-drunk self to my mostly-sober self.
I grabbed the nearest bottle—and then realized that I was going to have to break the bottle to get the paper out. All of the bottles: dozens, maybe hundreds of bottles, all with scraps of paper in them. What to do with all that glass?
I grabbed an armful and carried them outside, to the fire-pit. I found a few logs, threw them into the pit, and broke the first bottle on one of them. The writing on the paper—well, it wasn’t really “writing,” it was indecipherable squiggling. I tried a second, a third, a fourth: all the same. A word was decipherable on the fifth scrap: “cold.” On the sixth was something that looked like “found corkscrew.”
I went in for more bottles.
Several dozen broken bottles later, all I had was a small handful of words: “wine,” “bread,” “piss,” “snow”—and a lot of squiggles. I was ready to give up, to throw the rest of the bottles in the pile and burn the lot of them—to consign the rest of the scraps to destruction, unread.
I couldn’t do it, though: surely the messages from the early days of the lost months would be readable, at least mostly? I had to keep breaking bottles. And so I did.
There were, I think, a dozen dozens. I’m amazed that I didn’t cut my hands more than I did, breaking all that glass. It wasn’t worth it: the squiggles got harder to read, not easier—some were just lines across the paper, like small children make.
On the last scrap—although who knows when I drew it, because I didn’t date any of them—as if I would have known what the date was——I didn’t know then, mostly-sober and smashing bottles…
…on the last scrap was a drawing of male genitalia. A hairy cock and balls.
I burned the cottage down, walked down the mountain back into civilization, and never drank again.
Originally scheduled for Friday, July 15.
I actually did this, sort of, on the day it was scheduled.
Friday was the last day of our seminar, and we needed to unwind. So five of us — myself, Bethany, Julianne, Kristina, and Charles (minus the dux clamores) — the Team of the White Moose of the People —— the five of us drove down to Santa Fe.
We went to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which is usually full of O’Keeffes (paintings, not relatives), but which currently has instead a fascinating exhibit on American Modernist painting and photography, and specifically the relationship between the two, and the use of photographs as sketches. I have a new respect for Norman Rockwell, having seen what went in to The Soda Jerk.
We wandered around the plaza, downtown Santa Fe. We walked the labyrinth in front of the Cathedral Basilica of St Francis (we couldn’t go inside the church, unfortunately, because it was being used for a marathon of wedding rehearsals). We went to Rooftop Pizza — we had a pizza with smoked duck on it — to eat and drink and be merry. It was a good day.
Anyway, on the drive into Santa Fe, Bethany asked me what the day’s task was. I told her, and then my colleagues started identifying my mannerisms. The big one is the sigh — a sort of exasperated sigh preceded by a short pause, which is my response to anyone asking me anything. My wife knows the sigh well, and it has sparked more than one argument between us. Apparently there’s also a sigh/grunt variation, but I can’t reproduce that one on demand like I can the original. I also make a specific hand gesture — not this one — when I’m talking, especially when I’m trying to explain or talk my way through something. The gesture is the one you’d make when saying “it’s about three inches long” — and I’ll leave it to your imagination what is about three inches long.
Those were the only of my mannerisms that were enumerated, either because those are the only ones I have, or (much more probably) because my friends got bored pointing them out and started talking about something else. Because I do have a few others: I stroke my beard; I rub the place on my finger where my wedding ring used to be, before I lost it, because I constantly took it off to fiddle with it; I scowl — but maybe that’s not a mannerism? —; I speak in incomplete sentences.
My mannerisms aren’t interesting — obviously, because less than half of this post was about them. Sorry. I’m just not an interesting guy.
I tried, really I did. And it was sunny in the early afternoon, and I was outside, at least some — but then it got cloudy and rained all day.
Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time there was a lizard. Lizard loved the sun — this is as nature intended, as Lizard, being a lizard, was an ectotherm, and Sun gave Lizard warmth. Sun gave warmth to many things, and Lizard especially loved large rocks, which held the warmth Sun had given them long into the cool of twilight.
One day, as Lizard was basking in the afternoon sun, the sky filled with clouds. Lizard was troubled; clouds blocked the warmth of the sun, and Lizard relied on that warmth. As a cool rain began to fall, Lizard retreated to his nest under the ground. It was warm enough in Lizard’s nest, but the warmth of the dirt was far inferior — in Lizard’s opinion, anyway — to the vibrant and powerful warmth that Sun provided.
It rained all evening, and into the night. Lizard slept fitfully, and awoke at dawn, to find the sky still filled with clouds and the rain still falling.
The rain fell without ceasing for six days, and Lizard seldom stirred from his nest, and then not for long. Lizard began to fear that Sun would never again appear, that the rain had quenched its fire, and that all warmth would soon be gone from the world — and then what would Lizard do?
But the rain did stop, in the small hours of the sixth night, and the next day dawned bright and clear. Lizard went out, and rejoiced, and spent the day in the sun. When the afternoon was waning, he sought out his favorite rock, and basked in the warmth that came down from Sun and the warmth that came up from the rock. He drifted between sleeping and waking, and stayed basking on the rock longer than he ought —
— and Owl swooped down on him, and devoured him, and Lizard was no more.
Imagine yourself in early 18th century London. You’re a domestic servant in some inn or other, and one of your duties is emptying the chamberpots. Where are you going to empty them? Into the streets, down the centers of which ran open gutters.
In 1710, Jonathan Swift published a poem — titled “A Description of a City Shower” — which describes the “Filth of all Hues and Odours” that rainwater running down a gutter carries with it: “Dung, Guts, and Blood, / Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud, / Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood.”
As filthy as all this is — and it’s definitely filthy, and a paradise for infectious diseases of all sorts — it’s preferable to littering.
Shit, piss, vomit, blood, guts, kitchen scraps, dead animals: all of this is organic, part of the enormous and perpetual process of decay and growth that we call life. Shit in the open sewer is going to be eaten by whatever it is that eats shit, and eventually that shit is going to end up in some sort of plant, which will be eaten by some sort of animal, and at least some of it will — after a long and transformative journey — end up eaten by a human being.
(As an aside: anytime you smile while eating, you have a shit-eating grin on your face.)
Think about the litter you’ve seen recently: what was it? Piles of excrement, dead animals, discarded entrails? Probably not. Rather: beer cans, glass bottles, wrappers of various food-shaped substances, styrofoam, cigarette butts. Diapers. Pieces of tire on the highway. Plastic. Rusted metal. Things that aren’t food for anything.
The fact that we throw away so much that isn’t edible — so much that, being inedible, just accumulates — is only part of the problem with littering. I’m not sure I can go in to the rest of the problem, though, because — at least as I look at it — littering is a synecdoche for everything (or most things, anyway) that are wrong with this country.
Laziness. Apathy. Disrespect. Self-centeredness. Vapidity. Stupidity. Cupidity. A total lack of concern for one’s fellow humans, and — worse — a complete and fundamental failure to realize that there are things on this planet other than human beings that have as much right to live and thrive as we do. People who litter are the same people that kick puppies. People who litter urinate on babies. People who litter are like Stalin or Pol Pot, except worse. People who litter should be forced to eat the shit they throw on the ground, and then they should be forced to eat actual shit.
In all seriousness: I don’t like people who litter. I especially don’t like people who litter deliberately. They are bad people.
And, for the record, I did actually pick up some litter today, in addition to writing this tirade.
In the spring of 1963, Mr Brian Smith went to work at Hyam’s Sunshine Farms Fruit Processing, Packing, and Distribution Plant in Topeka, Kansas.
Mr Smith was a man without a past. That sounds more mysterious than it actually is: he had a past, an ordinary and uneventful one, uneventful enough that it had withered, died, and blown away, leaving nothing behind. He lived alone, he had no friends, he had no family. He was a regular at a local grocery, a local diner, a local bar, but in each of these places he was more a piece of furniture than a person: he spoke as little as possible, was as forgettable as possible, was taken for granted.
Hyam’s Sunshine Farms Fruit Processing, Packing, and Distribution Plant — or just Hyam’s, as the locals called it, the full name being too cumbersome for everyday conversation — bought in bulk bananas, oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and other such fruits as do not grow in Kansas, repackaged them, and then sold them to grocers across Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri. In late 1961, Mr Hyam began negotiating with a chain of grocery stores in Oklahoma, but that deal was still “in progress” when Mr Smith went to work for Mr Hyam.
Mr Smith’s primary responsibility was placing the Hyam’s label on the fruit, after it was uncrated, before it was re-crated. Sometimes Mr Smith had to place the Hyam’s label over some other label: the label of the farm that grew the fruit, or the label of the distributor that sold it to Hyam’s, or sometimes, with fruit imported from South America, a label affixed as the fruit went through customs, coming into the United States.
Mr Smith worked quietly and diligently for Mr Hyam for ten years, clocking in and out at the same time every day, drinking one cup of black coffee on his morning break, eating a sandwich and a pickle for lunch, smoking two Lucky Strike cigarettes on his afternoon break. He did his job well, but not exceptionally: he was, as his supervisors remarked to one another, thoroughly and merely adequate.
In the summer of 1968, when Mr Smith was well assured that his work was not closely monitored — the regularity and adequacy of his labeling having been unvarying for five years — Mr Smith began affixing altered labels to the fruit moving through Hyam’s Sunshine Farms Fruit Processing, Packing, and Distribution Plant. The alterations were minor, at first, and accountable for as printing errors: “Toepeka” or “Ham’s” or a PLU with the central numbers transposed. Mr Smith went no further than this for another two years, watchful for any sign that his alterations had been noticed.
They were not.
Mr Smith’s altered labels became progressively transgressive, incorporating profanity, communist slogans, anti-war sentiments — and still, nobody took enough notice to contact the public relations department at Hyam’s.
There is no indication of why Mr Smith embarked on this venture, or whether he took the job at the fruit-packing plant only to put this odd plan into action. The early, misprinted stickers were procured by altering the plant’s standing order with the local printer, Donnelley and Sons. Mr Smith seems to have special-ordered the later stickers from a printer’s shop in Tulsa, under a false name, and paid cash: this is only guesswork, though probably as close to the truth as anyone is likely to come.
In the last weeks of 1972, Mr Smith took his altered labels a step further, a step too far: all the labels featured was a crude drawing of uncircumcised male genitalia, white on red. These, at last, attracted the attention of the management at Hyam’s, and Mr Smith was soon identified as the culprit. He was summarily fired on a Tuesday afternoon, March the sixth, 1973.
He was seen later that evening, driving westward out of town, and never heard from again.
I can’t talk for an hour under any circumstances without notes and a fair amount of preparation, and then I can only talk for about twenty-five before the “space madness” kicks in. Talking off-the-cuff to a fucking plant for a fucking hour was out of the question.
I did talk to a plant today, though; several plants, actually: nine tomato plants, four basil plants, a pepper plant of some sort, and a half-dozen squash plants — my garden, which is small, and so far not particularly fruitful, although we came home from our trip to Baltimore to find lots of little green tomatoes and little yellow squashlets, so we might be eating things from it soon.
I don’t have a green thumb. It’s not that I kill any plant life I interact with — although I do kill some of it, usually on purpose, and with a chainsaw when possible — I’m just supremely indifferent to most of it.
I’ve never really been clear on the distinction between good grass and bad grass, or between bad grass and weeds, and why it matters. I have no idea what the grass in my yard is, or whether its “grass” or “weeds” – it’s all green, and it all looks about the same when I mow it (which is not as often as my neighbors would like, probably). I certainly don’t ever water my yard: I’m not going to coddle groundcover that can’t handle heat and drought when there are groundcovers that can, and that will do the job without my having to do anything about it. It all does the same thing — covers the ground — and I want the job done with as little help from me as possible.
The problem is that I take the same approach to my garden; I shouldn’t, because I actually want something from these plants (I don’t want to hurt them, I just want to eat them), but I mostly ignore them anyway. Sure, I’ll water them, probably not as often as I should, and pull up the weeds occasionally, but I don’t love them, and so I get fairly meager fruit from them.
Several of the squash plants in my garden are transplants from my friend Caleb’s garden — he plants from seed, like a real man, and so had more plants than he needed, and brought some to me — and his plants, the ones in his garden, produced large-enough-to-be-edible squash a week ago, while the plants I adopted from him are only now starting to think about making squash.
He talks to his plants, though.
That’s not all he does, of course: he’s a better and more knowledgeable gardener in general, but one of the things that makes him better is that he talks to his plants. When I was planting the squash he brought me, he told them to be good and not embarrass him. It was the last thing anyone said to them.
Until today, that is. I spent twenty or thirty minutes this morning weeding the garden, checking the plants, adjusting how they were growing in the cages, watering — and I talked to the plants the whole time. I told them a little about our trip, but mostly we talked about the weather, because weather is important to plants. I asked how they’d been, but didn’t get an answer, or at least not one I could understand as an answer. I’m going to talk to them on a regular basis, I think — twice a day would probably be good, but once a day is probably more likely to be the case. I might also actually remember to water them regularly, if I’m talking to them — although it’s not like I’ll notice if they tell me they’re thirsty, because I don’t speak plant.
They’re probably all going to die on me anyway. Damned plants.