|Jan/Feb 2007 Fiction|
1. On the Origin of Certain Holy Articles
I don't mind bragging that I could make a rosary out of a lost thought, of which I have had all too many during my time of confinement—lost thoughts, that is. But I read a book one time about a brother in the box who kept birds and even became something of an authority on them. I believe his name was Robert Stroud, though some referred to him as "the bird man of Alcatraz."
He had them in cages, and of course he knew a lot about cages, being in one himself. He could see the desire in their eyes not to be in a cage, but he knew he couldn't let them out because the only world he could offer them had questionable people in it and no place to go. Not even a bird can escape this place, and there are those who would crush you in their hands for the pleasure of free blood, who would swallow you whole because there is no greater power than in the devouring of another living thing, who would stick you up their ass in the hope you would find their heart and tear it into shreds.
I bet he had a lot of thoughts like that, although I just made those up.
Personally, I just couldn't see filling this box with bird poop and feathers, so I filled out a warrant (request form: ILC-5544) for equipment needed in the manufacture of certain holy articles. I thought holy articles sounded pretty good since such requests are always screened thoroughly so that supplies don't include a half-pound of snorts delivered weekly or lethal implements that might shorten the sentence of someone due to biological insufficiencies.
I made rosaries out of bread formed into little balls and hardened in a process I ought not to divulge since I'm hoping this piece will be read by families gathered around the dinner table and sharing their values.
2. At Home with a Blind Journeyman
I am home now, such as it is: an old house where I care for a man in his eighties. The man is blind and incontinent but otherwise something of a whip—still alert, still able to curse the nuts out of his peanut butter because he only likes creamy. He spent his life as a journeyman, and I am able to use his shop. What it is—my unique idea formed during my association with criminals while not being much of a criminal myself—is I secure from morgues and mortuaries the lead bullets and fragments of bullets removed from corpses killed by gunshots. There is a fee to the technicians, but it is not much.
I then melt and remold the lead into beads (thus sterilizing them, should any squeamish thoughts be unfolding). They are heavy rosaries, borne in the heat of sad circumstance, which seems to be a comfort to some people. Sadness and prayer often go well together. The weight of the rosaries, too, I am told, inspires a concomitant heft to the prayer ritual.
I sell them for $1500 apiece and cannot keep up with the demand. I call my fledgling company The Fancypants Rosary Company.
3. Holy Articles Linked to Sexual Passions
One of my rosaries is made of half-inch diameter beads and weighs around twelve pounds. I have heard that its occasional use as a sexual device provides a memorable experience. Although the beads are painted with a hard enamel, I have no idea where bits of lead might migrate during such use. I cannot, thus, consider said practice as a marketing niche.
That may be just as well since I've found that sadness sells much better than scandal in the long term, and anyone selling "sex rosaries" would have to be prepared for scandal. My own understanding, though, is that there are few items, natural or man-made, that have not been indulged during moments of sexual passion. Vacuum cleaners come to mind, as do garden gnomes, shelled seed corn, cooked spaghetti, and Vicks VapoRub.
4. Why I'm Truly Not Much of a Criminal
Yes, you're curious.
During a routine traffic stop, a quite friendly if busty civil soldier found one ounce of prime dooberty and a packet of Sudafed in my glove compartment. The cannabiscuit was for my own use, as was the Sudafed. I had a cold. My sentence came out to three to five years in one of our state prisons, but due to some hefty pro bono legal work, I only spent a year in our county jail. A year is the maximum you can spend in that venue, but at least I could feel I was close to home.
One night my cellmate, a boy named Clint, said softly, "I require you and will have your ass or your eyes." I chose the former, and while I didn't find it at all pleasurable, it did help pass the time.
During my first night of freedom, I ran into my old high school English teacher who was tending bar downtown. She looked used, maybe only tired, her soft sea of golden hair (as I remembered it) gone frizzy and stiff. She'd worn no makeup during my school years, but now seemed too hard-daubed with ointments, paints, and a bright red lipstick. Still, she remembered me along with the term paper I'd written on the devil and Daniel Webster, and even said, "So you decided to check out the devil's point of view?"
"I was only marginally guilty," I said. "Sometimes mistakes are made."
"I understand," she said, "about mistakes."
She also likes to take full credit for getting me admitted to the University of Chicago. I, however, take full credit for the degree in classics I earned.
After discussing lives diverging from predictable paths, I told her I needed some reassurance, so we met in the park after she closed the bar. She said she'd done this once before with a boy who'd built a plywood mock-up of a car and put it on the Union Pacific tracks (he got ninety days). "It's always good sex when a man reasserts his manhood," she said, though she found it surprising that such needs arose during time spent in the county jail.
"Nothing long-term there," she said. "Can't you guys find love with your hand while a few months roll off the clock?"
"What makes you think we don't?" I said.
Her name was Karen Parsley.
5. Not Every Nude Is an Artist's Model
Equipped, now, with a larger shop, I explore rosaries made of human bone and molded human hair, supplies readily available. My assistant, Caroline CashBrand (twenty-six with a degree in ceramics), has offered to model for me in the nude even though I have patiently explained that I neither draw nor paint. I may have confused her with an earlier discussion of this "art" I am developing. She seemed satisfied when I finally told her she could work in the nude. Now and then I draw some blood from her for use in the process of molding the hair beads. Caroline is an earth-tones person in Caucasian beige and prosperously built. Her sexual values differ from mine, but we seem to get along. I'm not sure about this business of having lips and nipples stuffed with collagen compounds, but she is and they are, after all, her lips and her nipples. She caught me looking thoughtfully at those puffy dugs one time and said with great firmness, "Don't even think about it, sir. We might sell our hair, even our bones, but we're terribly fond of our nipples."
I am now shipping to over a hundred and fifty religious goods stores here in the midwest. Caroline and I still manage the production ourselves, but the workload is becoming fierce.
6. Rumsfeld, Nighties, and the TV Dinner
The letter was signed (not by machine) by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. I can still remember his years as a congressman from here—seemed a bit nerdy, something like the Rob Petrie character from the old Dick Van Dyke television show. What I really liked about that show was its twin portrayal of the artist's life (he wrote for a comedy show), and the most mundane of family lives out in suburbia (New Rochelle, New York, north of New York City). I think I saw myself as trying to find that unique blend of the Kerouac-ish abandoned lifestyle (rebellious, drunken, drugged, hugely creative—a total gush of unique art) and the stability of regularly fucking something in a nightie and enjoying those marvelous (then) new (then) things called TV Dinners. Those dinners were easy to love if you discounted the hugely labor-intensive industry it took to put them together. I suppose that industry provided lots of jobs, though. We do tend to forgive almost anything if it provides jobs. Which reminds me of the Pentagon and Donald Rumsfeld.
7. Holy Rosaries as Weapons of Mass Destruction
Compliments gushed forth from that letter signed by the Secretary of Defense, enough so that I had to wonder about the executive assistant sub-adjutant who'd written it. A Catholic? A prayerful subaltern serving our need to inspire political, social, or economic terror within anything that passed under our government's paranoid gaze? I did not, of course, recall any product being shipped in the direction of Washington D.C., so I had no idea how the Pentagon became aware of my work. On the other hand, many of the stores I ship to have internet sites and sell all over the world. Anyway, the Pentagon wanted fifty-thousand of my rosaries—the lead ones, not the hairy ones. They were going to mail them to known insurgents in Iraq to try to disrupt or discredit some of those faith-based fanatics. I suppose the theory would have been something like sending a gross of yarmulkes to the Nazi officer corps all those years ago. I don't know. Maybe somebody tried that.
Anyway, that subaltern was also well aware of the unique materials in my product and said they were prepared to augment my supply of raw materials with expended ordnance removed from heroic personnel.
I don't suppose that sentence needs any further clarification.
8. The Pentagon Gives Us Both a Sexual Urge
They will pay market rate plus a five percent wartime bonus.
Caroline gasps when she sees the letter. I have not heard anyone gasp in a long time. For myself, I had the strange experience of an instant erection. This led Caroline and I to make love on the floor of the studio—the first and only time we've coupled. When we were through, Caroline said, "I doubt if I will ever have a seventy-five million dollar fuck again."
I could think of nothing to add to that.
We are now wealthy, and I tell Caroline she will be able to have her breasts stuffed with collagen, Froot Loops, or Chips Ahoy all the way up to a 55FFF, which causes her to frown deeply and to tell me that she'd only been complaining (earlier) about how expensive the new sandals were that she wanted to buy. She smiled then and caught the joke, especially after I said, "Either that or a new Mercedes."
Still, when it's the Pentagon that makes you rich, it's a sure thing that complications are on the horizon.
9. Safeguarding the Health of Mexican Women
I go down to La Vida Communidad and hire ten Mexican women using the papers forwarded to me from the Pentagon via Homeland Security. No requests need be made as far as status or citizenship are concerned. I am given a reference number from Homeland Security, but it isn't until much later that I realize the entirety of the lives and futures of those ten Mexican women rests within that number. I'm sure it refers to a file somewhere, a computer folder—free lunch until we're through with you. Until I stop her because it's embarrassing, Caroline asks several of them if they would be willing to work naked. Caroline is neither lesbian nor bisexual. She tells me she simply finds people to be more honest without clothes.
"It's almost impossible to lie when you're naked," she said, "and of course employee pilferage is almost nonexistent when the labor force is unclothed."
"What would they pilfer?" I said. "Lead ingots?"
"You know what I mean, sir," she said.
Sometimes I think Caroline's just a showoff.
We select only women over forty so that their exposure to all that lead will have only a minimal impact on their reproductive needs. Already I am developing a consciousness as an ecological employer, although my most recurring thought is of Clint back in the county jail refusing to fuck me on those days when he wasn't able to bargain for a condom. He said he didn't know my history and didn't want to spread anything I might have around to some of his other "friends." Thoughtful, I suppose.
I tell Caroline I'm having an extra shower put into the old man's upstairs bathroom to encourage the women to clean themselves thoroughly at the end of the day. I'm also having some workmen come in to cut holes into the mahogany wainscoting in our work area for the installation of exhaust fans.
Caroline wants to know if she should put some clothes on while those workmen are working. I tell her it's a good idea.
By the way, so that I might be truly frank and forthright in this telling, I have decided not to submit these pages to any family-oriented outlet. At first I thought it might all be pretty churchy with room for some holy drawings, but neither this accounting nor, in fact, the business, has turned out that way.
Anyway, when I tell the Mexican women they will be making "combat rosaries," all but one of them gets tears in her eyes. I find out later the tearless one was deaf.
10. I Taught Ethics Until I Became a Minor Criminal
Under other circumstances I might have become an ethical thinker of some renown since I taught the subject to university kids and did a great deal of research (including the writing of a textbook) on theories of ethics. I made the subject interesting, which none of my mentors had been able to do. Through long careers they'd tried to teach their students to think, when all their students wanted to know was what to do. I told my students what to do, and they appreciated it.
When I went to jail, however, a rumor started on campus that I'd been calling female students and talking dirty to them, calling one of them a "cuntface" and the other "dicklips"—all the expected assailings from a group of college kids. Naturally, trying to refute such things by saying that I'd only been (falsely) accused of a pharmaceutical crime got me little mileage and certainly didn't get my teaching job back.
I feel sorry for my students, though, since they're back to being taught how to think and I know that pisses them off. Sometimes we forget that not everyone feels comfortable thinking.
11. I Am Protein with the Ability to Talk
Following my release from the county jail, I descended for a time to a different world. I went to a racetrack and sold a blowjob (using a condom) for enough money to bet on a horse, with the horse winning me enough money to buy an old car. That blowjob I liked to think of not as representing any change in my pre-jail sexuality, but simply the use of a skill I'd learned. County jails, I discovered, don't really have any educational programs.
Anyway, I needed a car to get around in so that I could find work, a condition of my probation. Sometimes things work out.
Laboring came next, small jobs that tested my muscles and gave me beer money, the beer bought in bars furbished from neighborhood garages and old woodsheds (liquor laws very loose around here). My bosses tended to be evil men willing to dock you a day's pay for an unauthorized piss. All of them knew about my penal record, and all of them took advantage of it. One of them put me inside a cement truck one day and told me to hose it down. Once I was inside, he engaged the gears that make the big cylinder turn and tumbled me around for a good ten minutes. My laboring colleagues were laughing as I crawled out of the truck, but I could feel the mandatory nature of their levity.
For someone like me, of course, with no company bonds, no union bonds, not even an address, no protest was possible. I was protein with the ability to talk but needed to restrain that quality altogether. If I was bruised, cut, bleeding by the end of the day—the symbols of honest work—I had a good chance of being called back for the next. I lifted cinderblocks, carried bags of cement, got lowered into cesspools to clear leach field blockages, cleaned asphalt out of a dump truck, and walked highways picking up litter and roadkill. I dug ditches for men too cheap to hire a backhoe, and blistered my hands so badly I could see finger bone.
12. I Am No Stranger to Heterosexual Activity
Such a man as I was always attracts a certain kind of woman. If Karen Parsley took pity on me, there were others who simply saw me as a next step following two burgers and a dozen beers. I once laid a woman down naked on a dirty, greasy alleyway, her body naked because she said she didn't want to get her skirt and blouse dirty. I've fucked in the back seat of cars with a woman's two kids sitting in the front seat, and I ended a day of cleaning a college president's garage by doing his wife in their library—the college president alternating his role with either a still camera or a videocamera. I later found out I got the woman pregnant, but they weren't exactly going to come after me for child support. That child is out there somewhere, but it has no need of me. I did, however, mail the couple a copy of my health history from my army records when I heard about the baby. I thought it was a pretty thoughtful thing to do, but they didn't respond.
13. An Old Lesson on Dealing with the Elderly
Caroline and I moved the old man out of his house and into the attic of the garage because we needed more room for the Pentagon contract. He didn't much like our doing that, and I'm not sure he believed our story about ghosts filling the house as they escaped from our new computer, but he's in his eighties and we're not, so that pretty much explains it. He's cared for, fed, bathed, and has his hair and nails trimmed regularly. He also uses the toilet I built for him in the garage attic, which is more than he was doing in his house. Dog or cat piss is nothing compared to... well, you get the idea.
We converted the two living rooms and dining room into a shop and left the kitchen intact for eats. The Mexican women shared the five bedrooms upstairs, and that worked out well for them since none of them had homes or regular places to stay. Ironically, they'd been shut out of the places where illegals normally stay because they now had papers (of a sort—I don't know how well the Department of Defense communicates with the Immigration Service), so they would have been in a pickle had we not been able to put them up.
14. On the Future of Mexican Women
We shipped 500 of the rosaries a day—the twelve-pounders because the Pentagon said they were after impact, heavy impact—and that seemed good. We, of course, had no idea just how they were going to plant those prayer tools on the various insurgents, radicals, and rascals they dealt with—I mean, a person just knows when someone has slipped twelve pounds of anything into their pocket, purse, satchel, or backpack—but we assumed they had a plan.
With things going so well, I decided to inquire one time as to the status of my Mexican women and what would happen to them once the contract was complete.
"You have no Mexican women," the woman on the phone said.
"I think I do," I said. "Ten of them with papers signed by Donald Rumsfeld."
"Who?" she asked.
Later, she confessed she had no record of any contract for ten Mexican women; thus, she said, if I wanted, I could turn them into a call center for a Mexican telemarketing company.
"Are you being funny?" I asked.
"I hope so," she said.
When Caroline found out about this, she said she might want one or two of them to take care of cooking, pedicures, ironing—things that could free her up for when we started the nude modeling. She'd heard such work could be arduous, even exhausting, particularly if it involved wrought iron, fossilized artifacts, or the eighty-year old man above the garage who kept shouting through his one sealed window, "Amusements! I need amusements!"
"You'd be willing to pose with him?" I asked Caroline.
"I thought you said you didn't need any models," she said.
"Maybe when he's sleeping."
15. Sometimes Even Misery Can't Be Trusted
I began to have my suspicions over the source of my raw lead. Not one to be too calculating, I nevertheless decided that the 600,000 pounds of spent lead I needed translated into far more dead people than the Pentagon's known wars were producing. Were they fighting a war we didn't know about? Could that possibly be happening? Was I simply being sent bogus product, my rosaries not, after all, offering hope by being born in misery?
Sometimes you think about things too much, and I was in danger of thinking myself into a box by forgetting that the Pentagon didn't give three squats over providing hope for the enemies of this great nation. They wanted their targets filled with embarrassment and battered by false accusations.
Nor did they care about my values or the integrity of my product. All they cared about was a bizarre scheme hatched by someone in a cubicle who was probably a Scientologist or a Mormon.
Sometimes I thought that seventy-five million dollars should have made me happier.
16. Finishing with the Pentagon Is Not Like Finishing with the Mafia
It occurred to me that rosary beads produced from the tires of cars involved in fatal car crashes offered another approach.
One morning I sent Caroline out to look into the available supply of such an item. She seemed grumpy because she'd have to put some clothes on in order to do it, but she always does what she's told. I could tell from some of the comments of the Mexican women (my Spanish is limited but functional) that they were glad to see her dressed for a change.
I believe I'm falling in love with Caroline. The Mexican women have picked up on that, too, but they're quite comfortable with love. Most of them have husbands or boyfriends they like to talk about as they work.
Caroline reported back to me that the supply of my required tires is virtually endless. I decide to explore this option, though we are not quite finished with the Pentagon contract.
17. Gabriela Agrees to Comfort the Old Man
When the old man used his toilet seat to break out the window in the garage attic, I worried that his shouts could be heard down to the street even though his yard is large and filled with trees, shrubs, and hedges. Truthfully, it had never occurred to me that someone his age could be bored into insanity. My own experience with people that age was that they could amuse themselves for hours studying the laces on their shoes. Actually, that was my mother, so I decided maybe I didn't know enough. Neither Caroline nor I wanted the old man miserable, but we also didn't want to alert the neighborhood to the existence of a small factory right in their midst.
I asked the Mexican women if one of them would be willing to go to him and try to comfort him and was surprised when they all volunteered. Many of them had burns and blisters on their finger tips from working around the hot lead, so they saw even a short time away from work as a relief. Gabriela, very granddaughterly-looking even at forty-three, seemed a good choice, so I sent her over. She asked (this took awhile) if I had any condoms, but I said the man was old, very old. I didn't think it would be that kind of visit. I didn't, certainly, think he would kill her.
18. Good to See Jesus without a Beard for a Change
Great fun! My de-vulcanizing process with the tires turns out to be easy. We were able to shape beads as small as a pea and as large as a hula hoop. Our first project, actually, involved a living rosary for the Good Friday Parade that's held every year (this, a very Catholic town). The rosary beads were about a foot in diameter and strung with a small truck chain. I built a crucifix out of plywood, and we fastened Caroline to it (clothed in a modest shroud). Four of the Mexican women carried Caroline on her cross, while the remainder held the rosary. It was effective. There were tears all along the parade route. Someone even said to me that it was so good to see Jesus without a beard for a change.
19. Absent Gabriela
Caroline told me today that it has been three days since we've seen Gabriela. I find that old man so distasteful that the thought of entering his quarters to do more than give him food and remove his slops gives me hot bumps. If Gabriela's happy, I say to Caroline, let her be happy. The old man's interruptions had cost us much in work and production. Without them, the remaining nine women more than made up for Gabriela's absence.
20. Naked Caroline Moves on from Bounce-A-Prayer
Caroline left me right after Time Magazine profiled us about the patent we'd received on our Bounce-A-Prayer Rosary. We use beads made from the cleaned, sterilized, aestheticized, and, ultimately, inflated stomachs of excess geese shot by county hunters hired to reduce the population of that flying rodent.
Some have even made a game out of Bounce-A-Prayer whereby, after the prayer is said for a given bead, the rosary is bounced off the floor with the pray-er having to catch the next bead. I think that's kind of stupid, but it has somehow caught on with devout adolescents.
After the Good Friday Parade, Mel Gibson approached Caroline over a possible starring role in a remake he's doing of the rise and fall of Sodom and Gomorrah. Mr. Gibson was in town researching a movie he hoped would star Cindy Crawford, and this is her hometown (though she wasn't here—amazing he hadn't checked on that). Apparently, Caroline saw opportunity in Mr. Gibson's plan, especially since a) she didn't have to know any Arabic languages with the picture being a silent film; and b) she would be naked in the picture the whole time.
21. Gabriela Done in by Disposable Diapers
I had not intended that the rosaries made of an ammonium nitrate and hydrogen peroxide mix (including Play Doh and good Illinois corn starch) be used in this country. Once the prototype was completed, I had planned on approaching the Pentagon to see if they might have a use for such a device. I never used the phrase "exploding prayer beads" as reported in Time; rather, I think that came from one of the SecDef's spin people as they denied the Pentagon would ever be interested in such a thing.
Unfortunately, various confusions began to multiply at about this time. The police found the Mexican women working on the exploding prayer beads when they responded to the old man's 911 call on Gabriela's cellphone. He simply told the people he was lonely and unhappy and, "Oh, could you please get this goddamn body out of my quarters?" Gabriela well advanced by then in both rigor and mortis. Once it became clear that the old man had suffocated her with one of the disposable diapers he'd never done me the courtesy of actually using, they quietly removed him to a place with better supervision. Although the police did search the house, my letter from the SecDef along with the women's mysterious number from Homeland Security got us a rather sincere, if secretive, "Keep up the good work," from local officials.
I found that praise slightly hollow, since only the day before I'd received the final check from the Pentagon for their heavyweights, along with a letter stating that they had decided not to implement the project. They wanted to know if I would like the 50,000 twelve-pounders returned.
22. Bones Do all of the Hard Work of the Body with Very Little Thanks
Legal fees. When I signed that last check, I apparently dissolved the integrity of the secret number. The Mexican women, thus, are in a panic. They cannot understand how this government, for which they have ruined their shoulders and lost their fingerprints, would just dispose of them now that the job is done. Maria Maloney-Gonzalez is handling their case, and I hear she's quite good. They are, of course, lost to me, but they have become quite enamored of this country and have no wish to return to Mexico. Some of this is heart wrenching since, had there been a second contract under that secret number, they would have been able to bring their families here.
I have become, as you might guess, somewhat soured on religious appliances. The ideas, however, keep coming. Just yesterday I toured a slaughterhouse and meat packing plant not far from here, cattle bones perfect for my next project following the surprisingly easy construction of a prototype using chicken bones. I'm going to call the full-size unit a "bonecycle." I think there might also be possibilities for skateboards, scooters, perhaps even surfboards. This may be a time when bones finally come into their own. They've been the unsung and hidden support of nearly all life as we know it for way too long. Bones do nearly all the hard work of the body with very little thanks.
23. Another Complaint about Mel Gibson
Caroline returned somewhat sadder but wiser following her movie experience. She doesn't have a hair on her body and says the chemicals used to denude her might have resulted in permanent hair loss. She complains about the cold all the time and is quite sad that Mr. Gibson decided to switch from using her in his starring role to using a former NFL tackle weighing over three-hundred pounds. "How could I compete with that?" she said. Indeed, the poor woman might hit a hundred pounds but only because she finally had the implants put into her breasts.
I said of course I had a position for her. That I would always have a position for her. I even predicted (correctly) that she would find easy acceptance from the Pakistani women, who seem to have a remarkable dexterity in working with bones.