Unsleep’s Village

unsleeps-village

I worked for The Last Bookstore in Downtown Los Angeles for nearly a year; it served as a bridge for me, between increasingly frustrating days staring blankly into a dead future at the sad and rapidly deteriorating Book Soup and my current position with TASCHEN. I wasn’t there long enough for it to have impacted me personally in any significant way, and it served mostly as a means of solidifying my desire to have nothing more to do with sales-floor-bound retail work. I didn’t spend much time getting to know my co-workers, most of whom seemed like good people—the kind I might’ve enjoyed spending time with in a social setting. But I’d been pretty burned by “work friends” shenanigans at Book Soup, and I think, on some level, I closed myself off to the possibility of forging any real bonds with this new gang of colleagues because of an overwrought sense of self-preservation.

I went out once with the gang—a going away party for woman who’d worked with me in the Arts Annex, and who had ingratiated herself with the larger group better than I had. She liked me, though, and asked me to come along. I was, ostensibly, her “manager” in the Annex, but the hierarchy there was a confused mess, owing primarily to the owner’s lack of desire to stick with any particular plan of action, driven as he was by day-to-day whims. It was a nice gathering, and I felt comfortable among the people there in a way I wouldn’t have expected, given that it was held at a bar, and I had given up the demon alcohol several years before.

I was, at the time, somewhat infatuated by one of my co-workers, though I had made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t approach her, stunning as I found her, because of lingering scars from previous, awkward workplace romances, or attempts at such. Gorgeous and tall, with dark, penetrating eyes and one of the best laughs I’d ever heard, Jessalyn Wakefield, I’m certain, had a number of admirers on staff, and that was another reason for my reticence—I had no intention of adding to what, in my mind, had become a bombardment of clumsy advances. Better that I remain quiet, somewhat aloof, yes?, that I stick to brief engagements, hoping that quick bursts or witty repartee might ignite some spark.

Didn’t happen. We exchanged a few words, a couple of laughs, and even shared a touch of personal information during that going-away party, but eventually she tired of Los Angeles life—I assume, anyway—and went back whence she came, to the lush trees of Northern California. On her last night she gave me a cursory goodbye hug, and that was that. I sighed for what might have been, and moved on.

Months later, I discovered that she’d written a novel.

Unsleep’s Village is a bizarre and exciting piece of fiction, and I’ve read it twice, the first time without thinking I liked it that much, the second with a great deal more admiration. It’s unabashedly experimental in form and in scope, a mix of dreams, images, and perceptions slathered upon page after page in a confessional stream of consciousness, broken into three parts: “The House of Saul,” “The House of Teeth,” and “The 8th House.” The book is a rumination on yearning, loss of power, and realities of womanhood that are generally perceived as filthy and untoward. It is a knife with serrated edges, but a particularly sharp one; you don’t realize how deeply it’s gouged you until you’ve finished and the images really begin to spill out.

A book so deeply entrenched in the psyche of its author is not one to be pulled out of some digital bargain pile; the means by which I came across it involved the dusty remains of a decaying bookstore at the south end of Hollywood.

For a few months, a friend of mine and I thought we would run bookstore of our own. We are both bookselling veterans, with ideas about how we would go about running an indie shop honed by years of experience in the trenches. She’d gotten the idea during a trip to the late, lamented Cosmopolitan Books on Melrose and La Brea; the clerk at the time had mentioned to her that the owner, aging as he was in a market that was unfriendly to independent book shops, was planning on closing the store down, leaving a wide literary gap between Book Soup in West Hollywood and Skylight in Los Feliz. She had what she’d initially dismissed as a crazy notion—take over the lease from the owner; overhaul the shop; and reopen with a new name, a streamlined selection of books, and an event space. She pitched the idea to me, I assured her that the idea wasn’t lunacy, and we set about doing what we needed to do to make it happen.

Unfortunately, the primary thing that we needed to do—raise a great deal of money—did not happen. Neither of us had direct access to the kind of capital that was necessary, and the people we approached were either skittish about dedicating the money to an independent bookstore or intrigued by the notion, but never so intrigued that they wanted to do more than have a cursory meeting every few months. We had a great idea and a detailed business plan, but it was all vapor. Eventually, Cosmopolitan shut down, and the space remains empty to this day. The area surrounding it, despite impressive population growth, remains a cultural dead zone—a wasteland of furniture outlets, nail salons, and a steady stream of short-lived restaurants. There was an attempt by the art world to move in and create another gallery district, but everyone that tried eventually ran screaming downtown.

Cosmopolitan had technically consisted of two storefronts, with the wall separating them knocked out. You might think that given this amount of space and the sheer number of books on their shelves that this would make for a browser’s paradise, but instead it was more like a hoarder’s den. One of the storefronts served as the bookstore portion; the shelves were crammed full of dusty, yellowing volumes, and the floors were lined with even more, so that walking among the stacks was a perilous journey, fraught with the danger of book avalanches; shelves leaned, precarious; what few ladders there were, were not tall enough to reach the highest levels, and spotting a gem on those upper echelons was generally a precursor to complicated logistics and the kind of physical exertion usually reserved for mountaineers.

The second half of the space—accessible by squeezing between two shelves used as a barrier—served as a storage space… though “storage” might not be the proper term, as “storage” tends to imply a certain level of organization, and beyond those shelves lay only chaos.

I stepped into that space, and my foot landed on a discarded 3×5 floppy disc, and as I made my way around shelving units that had fallen into disrepair and could serve no other purpose beyond bearing weight, I could see rows of sagging Bankers Boxes loaded with self-help titles, water-damaged pulp novels, ’60s era-Life magazines extolling the virtues of the Kennedy administration, and spiral-bound presentation manuals that seemed as though they’d been rescued from a dumpster after a corporate retreat. There were some hardcover books, too, lining the far wall, beneath a sheet of fallen plaster. They were mostly mediocre mystery titles, bearing obvious pseudonyms—an alphabet soup of initials and small towns: A.J. Whitehaven, Grantlyn R. Butler, Emblin H. Harris… the names embossed with gold foil beneath shadowy images of ominous old houses, or atop fading paintings of drawing rooms.

At the back of the space, just visible above the line of shelves and boxes, was a door, but one that had clearly been blocked by the rising tide of history. To the right of that door, punched into the drywall in what seemed a clear attempt to circumvent the door and avoid upsetting the carefully curated disaster zone, was a large, ovular hole. Within the hole, there was only darkness; sunlight from the window near the top of the wall opposite—though filtered through the clutter—shone directly upon it, but I could still see nothing beyond the rim. The play of shadows upon the surrounding drywall produced a disorienting affect; the wall seemed to pulse underneath it. And while the passage of cars along the road outside made careful listening difficult, every so often I could hear a faint wheezing coming from the other side.

Deep as I’d gotten into that senseless labyrinth, the hole was not too far from me, and given that my friend and I were nearing a deadline in terms of finding funding (if we were unable to prove some sort of real intent soon, the building owners, sympathetic though they were to our aims, were going to begin advertising more broadly), I decided it would be best to see the rest of the building now. I pushed some boxes aside, stepped over a fallen lamp, and climbed along a shelving unit to get around what appeared to be a tarped couch. Jumping again to the floor, I found myself directly in front of the hole. I climbed inside

It was damp. It was the height of summer, and hot all over the bookstore, but it was downright humid within the hole, as though I’d entered a jungle. The air was thick and oppressive. The beads of sweat that had gathered at my brow became a torrent. And still there was no light. Oh, I could look behind me, see back out through the hole, but within there was only darkness. My attempts to explore were limited to exaggerated zombie movements, arms out before me, shuffling slowly so as not to trip. I moved forward, in as straight a line as I could. I wanted to reach the very back wall. I said, “Hello?”—not because I thought I would get an answer, but because I felt that I could use the sound to tell how much farther I had to go. No echo. And eventually, I did trip.

The floor (ground?) was damp beneath me, and soft. I lifted my hand and held it in front of my face. I couldn’t see it, of course, but I could feel it and smell it; it was covered in a sort of musky residue. I reached down to feel what I had tripped over. It was a box. The cardboard had weakened, but it hadn’t begun to disintegrate quite yet. Inside the box I could feel still more books—just a few, and they were also damp, but they seemed intact, though the covers felt soggy and worn. I took hold of the box in one hand and crawled back toward the hole. Once I’d gotten back to it, I lifted the box and pushed it out before me. It hit the floor and exploded. The books inside tumbled out and sprawled; spines broke and pages crumpled, and I had been right about the covers—moisture had eaten them away and left them anonymous at a glance. All except for one, that is. I could see it peering out from beneath the small pile, and once I’d pulled myself from the hole, I picked it up. The cover was a defaced map. The title and author were printed in small cursive font at the upper right hand corner. It was Unsleep’s Village.

unsleep

Unsleep’s Village, Jessalyn Wakefield, 2010.

I recognized the author’s name and flipped the book over. From the back cover she squinted at me, teeth exposed, her mouth dripping blood. I didn’t see mockery on her face, or scorn, but revelation. Perhaps it had been best that I didn’t pursue anything with her. Maybe knowledge isn’t power, but the death of mystery. Maybe a present without mystery has no teeth. But in this photo, and through this book, Jessalyn Wakefield has teeth forever.

“What happened to you?” my friend said once I’d left the storage area. She was standing at the front counter with the clerk. I looked down, and my hands and knees were covered in a rust-colored grime.

“There’s a hole in the wall in the very back. I went in to check it out,” I said.

“What was in there?”

I held up the copy of Unsleep’s Village. “Books. More books.” Then I said to the clerk: “This one has no price. How much?” I handed it to him.

He flipped through the pages and weighed it in his hand. “Just take it,” he said, and smirked. “A keepsake.”

 

Acolytes

Sad drunk and weeping behind
Sheer black shields.
Ass flat and chafed and screaming,
Bowels churn under another threat,
A bombardment of liquid courage:
Less courage, though, than retreat.
Floodgates open—not that they’d be capable,
Anyway.

Young or old, smooth or scarred—
Forlorn,
And staring into the bottom of a glass
That sheds its own weak tears.

The drink is gone;
His beard sags heavy.
Always, the question is the same:

Why?

Why has god—
Or destiny, or whichever force it is that drives the human condition—
Dealt me this hand?
Where has she gone?
And why is it all blue tomorrows?

And despite the fact that every bar
Comes fully equipped with a mirror,
Not a one of them—
Wrapped in denim, eyes shaded from the sunlight—
Ever looks long enough to see the answer.

Nomadic Homes

During the daylight hours I spend my time in the Sales Department at TASCHEN, working out of the offices on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood. We are currently in Sales Conference, where many of the books for the coming season are presented to the reps that they might begin pre-selling. Most of the prominent and important titles are presented by their editors, but the ones that aren’t quite as major are presented by the reps.

This time around, I drew Nomadic Homes, which is a compilation of photos and essays and information about mobile homes, from early wagons, to revamped airstream trailers, to luxury yachts for the eccentric rich. It is actually a rather nice-looking book, and interesting, though it is destined to serve primarily as chum for fauxhemians to purchase at twee boutiques where the idle upper middle class peddle snake oil and fetishize an idea of spirituality that doesn’t jibe with the actual definition.

My friend Erin challenged me to offer up my presentation in the form of a haiku, so I did. I include it here for posterity:

Nomadic Homes, or
Apocalypse real estate:
on your lawn, quite soon.

Sunday Service

Holy man in the subway, fingers stretched to breaking across a pearl keymap
(Well, maybe not pearl
But close enough in the Universal Scheme)

Seeks a new sound—
One to break the deadlock of evolution
And unite the world as one.
But the world is already one:

All gods are the same god,
Of the same spark fanned
And bred;
Lonesome walks the traveler who
Understands
This great truth.

But the Holy Man is not lonely,
For he sits among the rest.
They pass him by without a thought,
But the squawk of his horn is
The pouring forth
Of the same confusion.

Saturday, 3:30am

Down in the graveyard,
Behind my grandpa’s stone,
I saw a glint in the eye of a demon.
His teeth white under the moon,
He tuned a fiddle of bleached bone
Strung with fresh sinew

And I asked the demon
“Did you know my grandpa?
When you think of him, does your fiddle whine?”

And he said, “No, I didn’t know the man.
I didn’t know his smile,
Or the sour notes that rode his breath as he praised you.
I know only that this headstone
—reaching as it does for falling stars—
Casts the deepest shadows over the rest.”

With a sigh, the demon ran his bow across taut flesh
And it hissed,
And sent ravens into the sky.

A Forest

Vines grow fierce along the edge of every whim
Each notion pulls with it twelve other seedlings
That ripen and bulge and invite
The neighbors into your kitchen

You may believe that islands stand individual
Warriors of solitary purpose projected toward the sun
But each base gloms onto the earth
Thirsty, without the benefit
Of advocacy

We live in sagging huts
Blankets between you and us and
Songs that slip across the great expanse
Harsh whispers to the untrained ear

Myths stand under the stars, not thee
Lips pursed in quiet judgment as gods titter
Come home to roost among queer birds
On branches beaten from the finest
Silver

Maps will not illuminate you
As unfathomable as the ebb of the cosmos
Ever collapsing onto one point of light, screaming
The bleat of midnight, the call of darkness unbidden

Tragedy Queens

About five months ago or so, I received a notification that Leza Cantoral—an engaging fellow writer I’d met in passing at 2016’s AWP show—was editing an anthology called Tragedy Queens: Stories Inspired by Lana Del Rey and Sylvia Plath for Clash Books. While I am familiar with the work of both artists, I am not what you might call a super-fan; however, submitting a story under those parameters seemed like an interesting challenge. Additionally, an earworm of a song called “Dayglo Reflection”—featured on Bobby Womack’s 2012 release Bravest Man in the Universe, but co-written by Del Rey, who handles most of the vocals—had worked its way into my brain, and it had been percolating there, waiting to spring into inspirational action. I worked hard on my story, sent it along, and went back about my business.

Well, my hard work bore fruit: my story was selected for publication in the anthology. I’m proud of it, and excited, and honored, and I hope those of you out there who are privy to this online whisper will seek out the book and give it a look. In addition to my own scribblings, it will feature a formidable collection of oddball authors who deserve your attention. Release date is TBD, but as I am helpless before the promise of a good plug, you can be sure that I’ll post that info here when I have it.

Thank you all for reading. Without you, I’d just be telling stories to myself in the dark.

Microsoft Rewards – Your Story Matters

If you use Bing as a search engine, you accrue what are called “Microsoft Points” — get enough, and you can redeem them for gift cards, things like that. Recently, I got a prompt from Microsoft:

“Your story matters to us. We love getting to know our fans! Just click in the section that’s most relevant to your favorite Microsoft story, and tell us all about it. To thank you for sharing, we’ll award you 500 bonus points!”

Never one to turn down an opportunity, I decided to take part. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a good Microsoft story, so I wrote this one instead:

Once I went down to the dog pound to find a dog to bring home with me as a gift to my young son, who wanted nothing more in the world than a dog of his own to cuddle and play with. I found the right dog on the second floor of what can only be called an enormous doggie prison, where so many poor animals were crammed together in tiny cages, the weakest shivering in the back corners while the strongest and proudest rattled the bars and nuzzled small, dented metal cups ahead of them, waiting for the smallest charity.

I saw my son’s future friend in the last cage I visited, huddled with two doggie friends and communicating in hurried and desperate doggie whispers. “Woof,” they whispered. “Woof woof woof…” Their eyes flitted to and fro, and I knew that this was no normal doggie whispering, that I had, in fact, stumbled upon a doggie prison break.

Well, my own father had been a corrections officer, and he’d been stabbed to death during an attempted prison break, and I never forgot the look in my mother’s eyes when she heard the terrible news. “No…” she mouthed, as tears ran down her porcelain cheeks.

Cruel memory causing me the deepest pain, I dropped to my knees, shouted “NO! NEVER AGAIN!” and pointed right at the ringleader. “THIS IS THE DOG! THIS ONE! I SHALL ADOPT THIS ONE!” That dog turned toward me, horrified, then looked back at his fellows. They all froze, caught. My sneer pulled up into a smile of triumph. One of the guards came over, opened the door, and wrestled that treacherous pooch out of the cage. His friends were too weak to put up much of a struggle, and I was assured that they would both be put down within the week, leaving them no real time to pull together a new plan, particularly without the smart one to help them along.

My son loved that dog, but the dog never warmed to him. It even bit him once, and while my son hoped that I would have mercy, the truth was that I never trusted that damn dog, anyway. He was bitter in a way that good dogs just aren’t. I drove him up the highway one night, and left him in the woods. As I opened the door to my car and slipped behind the wheel, a flash of lightning illuminated a grizzly bear as it loomed over that dog. I heard a yelp, and I knew that nature had solved the problem for me.

Anyway, I used a Microsoft computer to look up the address of that pound. And my son used a Microsoft computer to post on message boards about his missing dog.

Darling

darling_photo_05

That Friday in July was just one of those nights. I was antsy, and I wanted to go out, but I delayed and delayed until chasing the night was pointless. At about midnight, I decided to watch a movie.

Netflix recommended something called Darling to me; Darling was one of the most well-received horror films of the year. “The Best Horror Film of 2016!!!” screamed multiple outlets.

It started off pretty well, with really stark black and white photography and the presence of Lauren Ashley Carter, a talented and striking actress who’s built a career out of being the horror film analog of, say, NBA player DeMarcus Cousins, a talented big man who puts up great stats on bad teams. Speaking as someone who’s sat through Jug Face and The Woman a couple times apiece, I can attest to her strength and grace as a performer. And like Cousins, who so readily elicits takes predicated on the notion that he’d be better served as the second option on a better team—because despite his immense talent, he’s never proven himself capable of dragging one of his sad collections of basketball misfits to the playoffs the way, say, a LeBron James has—, Carter fails to bring Darling off; she is committed and game, but it doesn’t matter, as the movie surrounding her is content to parrot Repulsion, but with Roman Polanski’s supreme control of atmosphere and tension and his sense of humor replaced by baffling and uncomfortable long takes and a self-seriousness determined to belie Carter’s miraculously effective, wide-eyed performance. I could imagine her in consultation with the director:

“Now, in this scene, you roll around on this small bed, screaming and crying, until I say cut.”

“…why?”

“Because it’s CREEPY.”

<Carter’s return smile is half-wince. She throws herself onto the bed, and begins yelling and weeping, grasping desperately at any small motivation she can, channeling the spirit of Margery Kempe, taking solace in the idea that there is some religious fervor in her pantomime madness. After five minutes of this, without hearing “cut,” she catches a glimpse of the director from the corner of her eye. He has contorted his body remarkably. His face is buried firmly in his crotch, and he is inhaling deeply.>

Midway through the film, I paused it, and I called my friend Lila, a talented writer whose sardonic wit and ability to appreciate my rants as they flit between apoplectic rage at the most minor deficiencies of the world and self-indulgent moaning about the most minor physical ailments has helped carry me through more than one depressing evening at home.

Lila listened—bemused, I’m sure—as I interrupted her assuredly more interesting evening to rattle off an increasingly unhinged list of grievances, ostensibly directed at the movie, but driven perhaps in part by a skin condition I’d developed over the waning summer months, something that seemed like prickly heat, the kind of thing that you scratch, and then don’t scratch, and then someone suggests that you soak your arms in cold water with powdered oatmeal and you listen because Gold Bond and Hydrocortisone haven’t worked, and it’s Friday at midnight, and the irritation is immense. My arms air-dried as I paced to and fro; the oatmeal clung to my skin in off-white streaks.

“Just turn the movie off, Manny. You don’t need to do this to yourself. You can go to bed. You can read. Darling isn’t worth it.”

“No, Lila. I can’t. It makes me too angry. If I stop now, I can’t effectively complain about it. I have to let it run its course. The movie is only 70 minutes long as it is, and I’m more than halfway through. I won’t let it beat me.”

“Boiling this down to some sort of nihilistic competition is insanity. There are no natural laws at work here. There is no course. It is all man’s creation. Just stop.”

“Enough! The rally is downtown, sister, not in this house. Take your bleating elsewhere!”

“The rally is within us all. And it is quieter than you realize.”

After we hung up, I listened carefully to the beating of my heart. It fluttered. Was my inability to shut off this thoroughly mediocre and over-hyped film school experiment a symptom of a larger problem? I sat, and I pressed play. I began to scratch one of the scaly lesions on my right arm. The oatmeal flaked away, and the flesh beneath was red and raw.