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.”

 

A Word on “Creative Nonfiction”

“Creative Nonfiction” is a bullshit phrase invented by MFA professors to sell gullible students on unnecessary writing courses. There is already a term for what “Creative Nonfiction” accomplishes: Fiction. For centuries, writers have taken true-to-life occurrences and exaggerated them and mixed them with flights of fancy to create a narrative—this is called fiction.

And there’s nothing wrong with it! Fiction is wonderful, and should be celebrated, and its practitioners should be proud. “Creative Nonfiction” is a phrase borne of an inferiority complex—the realm of people cowed by the idea that fiction is somehow less-than; it is the refuge of people who wish to call themselves journalists, but who are too lazy to do research. It is a phrase that should be shot into the sun.

Write fiction, my friends; enjoy the process! It is one of our great gifts as a species. But please, do not try to convince me that it is something else.

Walt Disney of the Amphetamine Age

I had reached a point in my fame at which party attendance was no longer mandatory to sustain my mystique. It was a strange position. After years of cocktails and small, empty talk with would-be artists about the maddening circular logic of the world, all that was left for me was to sit in the dusty corners of my studio, dreaming of projects that would never be.

Once, I picked up a newspaper, and I read that there would be a party at the Statue of Liberty. Intrigued, I began to dress, but midway through my preparations, I received word from the gossip sites that I was already there. My presence already confirmed, there was nothing to do but get back to work, and so my evening jacket slid from my shoulders and before it hit the ground I was sitting in front of a canvas that would remain blank for the rest of my days.

Sometime later, I was alerted to an exhibition of my work at one of the small, hip galleries that had begun to dot the downtown landscape: sad, white spaces filled with cardboard boxes painted lavender and repurposed sewer grates and rain gutters sprayed chrome silver that glinted in harsh fluorescent light. It seemed odd that my simple paintings would be of interest to the half-mad proprietors of these over-hyped storage spaces, but what was even more perplexing was that the work on display was advertised as brand new, when, in fact, every last bit of it had been completed and shown a decade before. As I stood before the open door and scratched my head at the “ooh”s and “aah”s of the growing crowd, someone tapped my shoulder. I turned and faced an art critic who’d interviewed me a number of times over the years.

“Isn’t it wonderful,” he asked, “that this work would debut here? That after all his success, he’s still willing to work with small galleries? The man is a treasure.”

I smiled and nodded, and as the critic pushed his way into the tiny space, I looked over my right shoulder at a sandwich board next to the door, which prominently featured my face.

I returned to my studio, to find a message left for me — a note thanking me for my contribution to a charity auction, and declaring that surely a new piece by someone of my stature would bring in a great deal of money for the foundation. Enclosed with the note was a photograph of the man who’d sent it, standing next to the first piece I’d ever sold, a piece that I’d long thought lost, hung as it had been on the walls of an old Tudor destroyed in a terrible storm. I called the number at the top of the letterhead, confused, and I asked to speak to the gentleman.

When I identified myself, I was told that it was quite impossible for me to be me, as I was already there, in the office, speaking to the man I wished to speak to. The voice at the other end of the line wished me a good day and hung up.

Quite impossible though it may have been, I made my way down to the foundation to confront myself. The foundation in my sights, I squared my shoulders and marched to the door. As I entered, I glanced, casually, at one of the television screens in the lobby, which was turned to a cable news station. Breaking News was announced in large, red letters. It seems I had died, the victim of a sudden cardiac event. I felt sweat along my brow; I couldn’t remember the last time I’d experienced that sensation, and my knees felt weak, and suddenly the light through the glass panes that lined the office was very bright. I sat in one of the lobby chairs, sank into the cushion, and wiped my brow.

A man in shirtsleeves and a red vest noticed me from his position behind the information desk, and came to check on me.

“Are you all right, sir?”

I looked at the television screen, and then I looked at him and said, “To tell you the truth, I’m not certain.”

He looked at the television screen, too, and then returned his attention to me. “Yes, it’s a shame when a man like that dies. It’s difficult to process that even someone so influential is ultimately just a person.”

A recently photo of me flashed across the screen. The man in the vest asked, “Did you know him? Or were you a fan?”

“A little of both,” I said.

I undid the top button of my shirt. “I’m feeling a bit peckish. Can you bring me a glass of water?”

“I already have, sir,” he replied. “It’s on the table next to you.”

I looked at the table. The glass was there, but it was nearly empty. I lifted my fingers to my lips. They were moist, though I didn’t recall licking them. The news announced a memorial service in my honor.

Bad-Dream Bogarts on the Far Ledge of Existence

Six thick shots ran through the trunk of the man, and Harlan fell over like he’d stumbled, toppled and spilled his guts all over the linoleum, his mouth leaking his last words—”Johnny, it was Johnny”—before the light went out in his pale blue eyes, not blue anymore, but gray, gray as the metal along the edge of his scuffed revolver. The gun lay unused at the corner of small poker table to the side of the room.

“Boom,” Larpoll mouthed. The plosive bounced lightly from the back wall. The hallway was dark and cavernous, and Larpoll sighed, relieved that there was, inevitably, an end.

The day had been long, and it stank of final exertions. Larpoll had watched the final, desperate actions of four separate men; each one had reached for him at the last moment, each one further from him than the previous one until he might as well have been killing them via remote.

Every bloated, wheezing corpse had fallen across his path like a soft, fetid brick, aging Chinese take-out and the huff of poor circulation choking life’s cool, clean breeze. Larpoll stepped around Harlan and walked further into the guts of the dusty house, empty but for the rustle and skitter of beetles along the cellar floor. And underneath them? Maybe the real prize.

He hadn’t been in the seeking game long; just a few days before, he’d been content to work odd jobs and eke out an existence prize-free. But then the dame was on him, and his mouth was dry and the sweat slithered down his back and he had no other choice.

“She’s gonna turn on me,” he thought, and not without cause; the first thing she’d said to him when they lay beaded and still was “I left Billy by the side of the road,” and while Larpoll was hooked on the adrenaline, he for damn sure wasn’t dumb. She talked about that basement long and descriptive enough for him to build the scene in his mind: he was crouched over a trap door with an ornate latch decorated with the devil’s grin, and he lifted it, and whatever was inside glowed bright, bright enough to illuminate the cellar, the walls hung with memories—diplomas, awards, photos of lighter times—, and then behind him he heard a pistol cock, and “I’m sorry it has to be this way, Stu,” and she looked him hard in the eyes and even though he was convinced there was some love there, the money was hers, and he braced himself for the exit wound.

Instead, she’d taken one right between the eyes and the back of her head disappeared, and so there was only Larpoll, moving inexorably forward, playing out the beats of a story that had no end, each killing preordained and strangely colorless, the grue faded under the dim light of obligation.

But Larpoll had come to the house armed with more than just his sidearm; he’d also brought along hope—the hope that there rested, just out of the reach of the Reaper’s fingers, the salvation of wealth; that ultimately, once he’d bagged her forgotten prize, he’d be free of this mess and be able to move on, to the next town, to the next dame, to the next score—to a proper ending.

The cellar was too dim for him to be certain it was as he’d pictured it, but the walls were not bare—he could tell that much, though whether they were decorated with glory or shame was anyone’s guess. The air was stale, and sound didn’t carry. The further he traveled, the deeper the black became, until he was on his hands and knees, groping at the floorboards, sweeping scores of insects aside with his hands.

At the back of the room, Larpoll saw a single shard of light, and he dragged himself toward it. The latch sparkled, and it lifted much more easily than he’d anticipated. The real struggle had been hers, and with her gone, all that remained was to lift the trap door. A smirk hanged his mouth; he was ready for his prize.

There was no glow, and no promise. It was just another deep, black hole.

Forrest’s Last Call

Forrest’s motorcycle roared to attention with the same force it did every morning, 5am, on the nose. He kept his machine in top shape, spent every evening tweaking it, oiling it, finding any little thing that was out of place and making it right. The motorcycle was his pride, sure and powerful—the one thing in his life that remained dependable.

He patted the deep red casing and winced; his neck was stiff, and pain shot up his legs, legs he’d tried so often and for so long to build into the mighty trunks he’d envisioned as a younger man. He’d finally given up. He forced the corners of his lips—wince to smile.

“The Lord ain’t gave me the raw material to be a strong-legged man,” he’d say. And he moved faster on that bike of his than he ever could on thicker legs, that’s for damn sure.

He worked himself onto the seat, slowly. He had trouble lifting his legs as high as he needed to, the joints of his hips rusty, neglected, without a full range of comfortable motion. His back groaned something unholy as he settled his ass into the new upholstery. He pulled a red handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped the chill morning dew from the side-views.

Forrest’s bones lay unsettled, rattled beneath the bike’s strong breath. He’d been pushing himself to adapt to this new sensation—jes’ gettin’ old, get used to it like anything else—but a couple weeks had passed, and it felt just as jarring as it had the first day.

Forrest had called up Doc Snyder, refused to give his name, but asked about the next available appointment.

“Dr. Snyder won’t be back in the office until next Tuesday. I can get you in to see Dr. Reginald tomorrow morning, if you’d like.”

“Shitfire and hellstones,” Forrest muttered. “No, that ain’t necessary. I’ll wait for Snyder next week I guess…”

“Is this Mr. Forrest?” the receptionist asked. “Mr. Forrest, do—“

Forrest hung up. Reginald was an officious little shit with no bedside manner. Forrest refused to see him. And every goddamned time he called in for Snyder, which wasn’t that often, mind—I’m gettin’ damn old but I ain’t infirm—, the man was on vacation. “I got ten fuckin’ years on Snyder, maybe more, and I don’t take vacation but once in three years, if that.”

Forrest’s weakening legs screamed again, and he tried to massage good intentions back into the flesh with his gnarled, rocky hands. He settled on tying his handkerchief around his thigh—no easy task through waves of arthritis—and hoping the pressure would still the pain by the time he reached the mill.

He sped down the road full tilt, speed limit a distant memory. Forrest had no illusions about the danger; he courted it openly. He held tight to the bars and leaned forward, the pain in his leg a deep throb pushed further down by blazing speed. The years peeled back. In the glint of the side-view, Forrest caught a glimpse of his darkening hair. His wiry eyebrows found self-control.

Faster, he thought, I can move faster, I can move… His legs grew, muscles swelled, his jeans burst; heavier now, his legs couldn’t help but apply speed… he almost floated over the curves that softened the ragged landscape. Forrest’s blood slid through his body, crab’s blood over a pot of organs, and his heart no longer beat, it sprouted wings and fluttered through his chest, hummingbird speed.

A ray of sun peeked through the cluster of trees that loomed over him, twisted like his old bones, no, not his, the bones of an older Forrest, one who ached for heights that he could no longer attain. This Forrest, motorcycle sprouting from his crotch, knew no such limitations. The crack in the trees widened. The sky was bright. Branched shadows raked Forrest’s face, one last grasp before they disappeared into the coming light of day. In the distance, but near enough to rattle his bones one final time, Forrest heard the sound of steel through the trees and watched as broken embers floated ever upward.

Skulls in the Strangest Places

giantsugarskull

Photo copyright Manuel Chavarria, 2016.

 

I took a train up to North Hollywood today to visit my barber, who cuts hair out of her house, because the sheer force of her personality cannot be contained by any mere salon or barber shop. In addition to working as a freelance barber, she works on movie sets, and is very much into horror. The walls of her apartment are covered in horror art and special effects masks, and so when I sit in her barber’s chair, I have trouble keeping my head straight, because what I really want to do is gawk at the weird faces and look at her book shelf. Even the bathroom features a plaque with a prosthetic mouth that has been sewn shut on it.

I’m used to that being my world when I’m in Kelly’s barber chair, but what I’m not used to is that world bleeding out into the area outside of her building, which is primarily quiet and residential and not at all tinged with Kelly’s predilections. Today, however, before I made the turn onto her street, I saw a giant skull lying in a small, fenced-off area.

The area bound by the fence could not have been more than 8ft x 8ft. My questions weren’t limited to the origins of the skull; what purpose could this tiny, fenced-off parcel of land serve? Is it specifically a strange altar for this smiling, jowly pink skull? Or was it to be a small park before it was usurped by the forces of darkness?

I didn’t have much time before my appointment, but I had to know, so I hopped the fence and looked down into the deep purple eyes of the skull. It was probably a leftover from Day of the Dead, but why was it still there?

“Why are you still here?” I asked the skull. A curious dog had wandered to the fence, a schnauzer, and it let out a small bark as I moved closer to the death’s head. Dogs, we’ve all been told, react adversely to the presence of the supernatural, but besides the bark, the schnauzer barely moved, simply tilting its head and watching me as I crouched, and my hand moved across the surprisingly smooth and warm forehead of the skull, and the eyes of the thing held mine, and its jaw seemed to loosen and I knew it was about to reveal its secrets to me. I leaned in, my ear close to the blood-red teeth. A fetid odor rose around me, and the schnauzer was on its hind legs, forelegs up on the fence, black eyes sparkling.

My phone rang. Kelly wanted to know if I’d gotten lost.

“No.” I cleared my throat. “I just stopped to pet a dog.”

I stood up and hopped back over the fence. I scratched the schnauzer behind the ears, and it licked my hand. It barked a cheerful bark, looked at the skull once more, then trotted away.

When Kelly opened her door, she looked paler than usual, and her eyes were sunken and red.

“I didn’t get much sleep,” she said. “It’s been real hot in here some nights. And smelly, sometimes. And one of my masks is missing. But it doesn’t look like anyone broke in.”

An empty plaque stood out on the wall.

“What’s with that skull out there?” I asked. “The one that’s fenced off. I don’t remember seeing that before.”

“It’s new. I just noticed it the other day. City’s been talking about putting one of those ‘take a book, leave a book’ libraries in that space, but it never happens. I have some books I want to get rid of.” She handed me a copy of J.-K. Huysmans’s Là-bas. “Want one?”

I stuck the book in my jacket pocket. “Sure.” Then I took my jacket off and sat down. Kelly coughed, and opened her blinds. Sunlight poured into the room and glinted pink along the edge of her barber’s shears. I could not see her eyes.