November 28, 2007

Matlacha



The town of Matlacha (pronounced Matt LaShay) is a small island, perforated with inlets and canals, shaped like a bird in flight, the eastern gateway to Pine Island on the Florida gulf coast. Its name is a Caloosa Indian word for "water up to the chin."

A funky little fishing village, it grew into an artsy town with a population of about 800, consisting mostly of fishermen, restaurateurs, bikers, assorted artists, musicians, misfits, and quite a few of what my friend Bobby calls "leftover hippies." (Where the non-leftover hippies are isn't clear, a parallel universe perhaps.) Matlacha is full of galleries, restaurants, bars, walkable from east to west, and an easy getaway. We go there to look and eat, or just sip cappuccinos and do what John Lennon said is people's favorite thing to do: sit around and talk.





November 24, 2007

The Age Of Grace

Here's one I wrote some time ago (apologies to Gerard Manley Hopkins). It's been on my mind of late...


Glory to God for coffee beans!
For neon lights and faded jeans.
Let angels and guitars alike,
let chariots and motorbikes
and high and low by every means
sing his awesome grace.

Praise be to God for jungle drums!
For wedding feasts, for wine, for Tums.
Let parliaments, let golden pond,
let Mother T. and Elton John
and monks and movie stars and bums
dance his dazzling grace.

Avid scribes in lairs outworn
conjure canon, blame, and warn:
“Don’t eat! Don’t kiss! Don’t fart! Don’t grin!
Let uncouth humans, dust, and sin
and all subject to sacred scorn
seek out a hiding place.”

Glory to God for rockin’ bands!
For tacky praises, wounded hands.
Let golden pheasants, canyons, flutes,
Let Amy, Zeppo, sandals, boots,
all reconciled creation dance
and sing his awesome grace.



November 22, 2007

Pilgrim's progress

Of all the holidays, Thanksgiving stirs for me the most ambivalence, and perhaps the least excitement, affection, nostalgia. These attachments are formed in childhood of course, and Thanksgiving, apart from my beloved Macy's Parade (I'd sit in front of the TV, spellbound), had little appeal to me. I grew up in a family that ate dinner together almost every day. The only thing different about turkey day was its lavish dimensions - and a menu that had none of my favorites. Roast turkey was overrated. Mashed potatoes, ho hum. Sweet potatoes made me gag. Cranberry sauce - ech. At least dessert was reliable.

Thanksgiving's icons left me unmoved. I didn't like the pilgrims. They struck me as geeky and puritanical. Probably humorless. I wouldn't have wanted to meet one. The purported spiritual underpinnings, to express gratitude by kissing up to the ugly turkey god and being expected to gorge on that punishing meal, simply did not register, or if it did, it was as just one more nonsensical adult conceit that children penetrate with unerring, if inarticulate, wisdom. As I grew older, my skepticism only deepened. I, for one, was always glad when dinner was over and we could get on to either piling in the car, or waiting for the doorbell to ring. For the cousin fest to start. Thanksgiving's intimations of the real magic to come - Christmas - was its one saving grace.

Of course that cousin fest, and it's many variations in the ensuing years, whether gathered elegantly with friends around cornish hens stuffed with millet, or volunteering with my best friend to serve the homeless at the soup kitchen is the real occasion, I eventually learned, for gratitude. And yes, for that gut-busting annual repast which, at the end of the day, was a sacrament of every other meal, large and small, provided by hard-working hands and thoughtful hearts.

Perhaps my most memorable Thanksgivings was in New York the year I was between apartments, out of work, out of relationship, out of sorts and alone. I was staying at the West Side Y (It's fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A!, and it did have its moments). I had a room facing Central Park West. I opened my eyes that November morning to see Snoopy, a very, very big Snoopy, silently floating by outside the window. He was followed by Big Bird, Popeye, Cinderella, and the rest of the colorful and colossally inflated characters. Seems the big balloons were herded unceremoniously down Central Park West on their way to Broadway. From my pillow I watched, spellbound, as they floated by... visitors from my childhood come colossally to life, and was thrilled. I don't remember if it occurred to me to be thankful. It does now.





November 19, 2007

On a clear day



I'm afraid of heights. During the climactic scenes in King Kong I was scrunched so far down in my seat at the movie theater that I could barely see the screen between the heads of the couple in front of me. Put me on a high-rise terrace and I'm seized with the giddy fear that I'll irrationally and compulsively fling myself off. I'm not suicidal in the least - but that peculiar siren song has a strange and terrifying allure. Seems our primal fear breaks, for most of us, in one of two directions - heights or enclosures. Treetops or caves. Too much air, or not enough.

"Are you afraid of heights?"

"Not really."

You don't say no to a major client. So Friday night I was handed the key to the crane, after being shown how to operate it, and insisting that I could handle it, no problem. I was on my own.



I spent most of the day Saturday watching the flag outside the condo for signs of a break in the prevailing winds. When it finally sagged against the flagpole, I headed out. The last place I wanted to find myself was in a bucket nine stories in the air in a stiff breeze.

The crane's controls were pretty basic. One key position operated the boom from the ground, another from the bucket. Three joysticks on the control panel got me where I needed to go: one moved the boom from horizontal to vertical, another rotated it, the third extended it to its maximum, and rather reed-like extension, which was, of course, where I had to be to get the shot: a view that will be displayed in the condominium development sales center as a back-lit panorama. Other controls actually drove the crane, on its massive tires, but those I would not be needing. It was already positioned for the shoot, in a driveway next to a curb, at the development site.

Turns out I had to go up three times over Saturday and Sunday to get the right lighting, and the shot, that I wanted. Steeling my nerves once was a challenge. By the third outing I was a basket case.

On the first try I managed to get up high enough to clear the towering australian pines to get a reasonable view of the river. 'That's high enough' I told myself as I remembered the warning You don't want to go up without side braces if there's any wind. I thought of the massive side braces that companies anchored their cranes with before attempting to deliver an air conditioner to the roof of my puny four-story condo building. This crane had no side braces, and would be ascending nine. Now here I was at the end of a chopstick high above mother earth trembling in a breeze that seemed to be gathering momentum. I looked down, and adrenaline surged in a wave as I gazed at the ground that I was trying unsuccessfully to turn into an abstraction far, far below.



Eventually I got up the nerve to let go of the bucket's guard rail and bring the camera to my eye. Thank heaven (which could have read my thoughts at that height) that the camera was set for 1/1000 of a second. I needed to get a 360 degree panoramic series of shots, which meant I had to line up landmarks in the viewfinder, never taking the camera down from my eye, while turning my body completely around, in stages, on a platform with the footprint of a large dishwasher, suspended in the ether, while a freshening wind, and the adrenaline leaking out of my pores, was beginning to make my hair stand on end. The ride down was lovely. With each milimeter of planet earth reacquired my spirits rose.

The second shoot was iffy from the get go. The local weather channel clocked the wind at 14mph, which was nibbling at the edge of go-ahead. But the sky was magnificent and I decided to launch. The entire ascent, including the final, hair-raising extension, was maddeningly slow, as the gears and chains churned away with their grim determination. Halfway up the buffeting started. Nothing catastrophic, but enough to put my nerves on edge. Then as I was nearing what felt like a safe reach above the treeline, the stabilization alarm started beeping. The car was shaking. I cut the motor and the alarm stopped. I grabbed a few quick shots and headed quickly back to earth.

The third and last go was the most promising. Beautiful, cloud-strewn skies and a light breeze. It produced the images you see here. This time I decided to go for broke and push the crane to the max. I had been warned to be prepared for the jolt when it topped out. I wasn't. It hit with a jar that caused my knees to buckle. Holy Mother of Mercy! When the basket stopped shuddering, I slowly regained enough wherewithall to rise out of the crouch I was in and, holding on with one white-knuckled hand, slowly brought the camera to my eye with the other. I seemed to be miles above my previous climbs. I began shooting. Not daring to let go, I had to awkwardly twist halfway around to get the first arc of shots, feeling for the guardrail while changing my hand position, with desperate blind grabs, as I went. Rationality was fled. I somehow managed to ignore the swimming landscape below long enough to get a fix on the quivering horizon in the viewfinder. When I finished shooting, I brought the camera down with a dreadful breathless stealth and managed to slowly, carefully, untwist my legs so that I could face the controls...

Operating the crane required coordinating one's foot on the pedal that cranked up the motor, while moving the joysticks that retracted and pivoted the boom. At this point, and still suspended high in the sky, I looked down at the joysticks and found that their arrows and illustrations were now completely indecipherable. I stared. I puzzled. I almost laughed. Would I ever get down? Would I have to reach into my pocket for my cell phone and dial 911? No I wouldn't. I didn't have the will power to let go of the railing long enough to dig into my pocket. I shoved the joystick in what looked like a likely direction. With an appalling lurch the crane began inching forward. I looked down and its massive tires were slowly crawling toward a curb. Oops. Wrong move. I took my foot off the pedal and everything stopped. While the boom swayed, the motor wound down. The australian pines rustled below. Boats in the far blue river left trails of white. It was odd. The peaceful scene was suspended in a bubble of woozy terror. I looked at the control panel again and this time the elixir of rational thought washed over me like a powerful drug. I pedaled the motor up again, moved the joystick in the "retract" direction and the slow, blessed descent began.



The agency was wowed by the photographs. I was told client would be pleased. Good. Perhaps word will get around that I took the pictures. I'm seriously considering denying it.




November 15, 2007

Once upon a time in the sand

Kevin regarded the beach, the shore, as one of a handful of elemental environments: the desert was another. As were the woods, the mountain, the metropolis.

He gazed out at the Gulf from the lanai, and it occurred to him that on this, their third vacation together, he and Mitch had seen four of the five. They had skied outside Aspen, at the mountainside cabin of Kevin’s uncle, a retreat rarely used, and as pristine and spare as the distant peaks of Mount Elbert at dawn. The following year, it was the rain forest, the Brazilian Amazon, where they had seen butterflies, flashing blue neon, as large as coupons, flitting amidst steaming tree ferns. Now they were on the Gulf, the cozy beach on Sanibel Island, stretching mile after minimally-developed mile. Of course Lake Michigan, in their own Chicago, was itself oceanic: the Great Lake had the sea’s vacant horizon. But Kevin could sense that the Gulf, and the ocean beyond, was another presence altogether. He had read somewhere that two-thirds of the planet’s population lived along these edges, be they the village riverbanks, or the vast coastal beaches, of the world. The bulk of humanity, it seemed, had not strayed far from the nurturing fringe, the nexus of the earth’s two great domains.

“I’m famished,” said Mitch, with a yawn, padding out to the lanai and hugging Kevin from behind. “I never wake up famished at home.”

“It’s the air.” said Kevin.

“Famished and sleepy. That’s what vacation does to me. I just want to eat and sleep.”

They ate at The Conch. Eggs, ham, home fries, bagels. . . when the waiter removed the ruins of the breakfast, Mitch noticed a blurb in the newspaper:

“Did you see this? There’s a sand castle contest at Barton Beach. Today and tomorrow.”

“And we forgot our shovels and pails.”

“No this is some serious castle building. The winner gets two tickets to Maui.”

Sure enough, when they reached the outskirts of Barton Beach they saw the contestants, in their official marked-out sites stretching for a mile up the beach, already at work, surrounded by clusters of onlookers. Kevin was amazed at the variety, in both subject and style, that the sculptors drew from the sand. Romance, architecture, whimsy. . . the simplicity of the medium only exposed the artist’s styles more clearly. “I can’t believe you can do that with sand,” said Mitch.

The first piece they saw was a fitting emblem: a large circle of fish, each slightly bigger than the last, devouring the tail-end of the next. Competition at its grimmest, thought Kevin, stripped of artifice. The sculpture had a medallion-like simplicity, declaring its theme in a single take. Mitch, of course, zeroed in on its erotic possibilities.

“None of the fish look that upset,” he said. “Looks like they’re enjoying it.”

The expressions on the creature’s faces did belie their predicament. With their huge eyes and thick smiling lips, they were imbued with cartoony glee.

“It’s a game of tag,” said the sculptor, a portly Richard Dreyfus in granny glasses who was kneeling inside the hoop of fish.

“Reminds me of Matisse’s dancers,” said Kevin. “Where they’re all holding hands in a circle.”

“It’s the aquatic version,” said Kevin.

“The Synchronized Tuna team.”

The beach had a festive, carny atmosphere, like a street fair. Vendors had set up stands here and there along the shore. Beach-goers, in scattered, trailing bunches, paraded gym-tuned bodies and well-oiled flab. Waddling tikes chased fleeing gulls. Teens taunted. Top-40 FM came and went. Groups shifted, in small amorphous schools, from site to site, watching the artists work.

There was a scale model of Mount Rushmore. A pair of chimpanzees sitting on a tree stump. An expertly rendered frieze of a randy Neptune, wielding a trident and riding a bucking dolphin. And endless variations on the classic castle, from medieval fortress to midtown tower. One young woman had created a massive cow skull, a la Georgia O’keefe, that had an uncanny bleached realism. She was using modeler’s tools.

“There must be a sand sculpture circuit,” said Kevin. “Some of this stuff is amazing.” Mitch found an official program in a trash basket, listing all the contestants and sponsors. The judging was to take place that day.

The largest crowd was gathered around a site right off the Mango Club. The handsome young man, sun-burnished and incisively gestured, was constructing an entire Medieval ruin, presently shaving a wall smooth with an old plastic ruler. There was a draftsman’s precision to the work. Palaces, courtyards, towers, etched with hieroglyphics, precisely scaled and carefully decayed— it all had the exhilarating mien of a movie set. It was detailed and fake, artificial and eye-popping. And he was working the audience. An acquaintance had brought him a drink from the bar and set it down on the sand. “It’s from Gil and Joanne,”

“Oh, no you don’t,” he barked. “I’m not touching that. There’s probably a sleeping pill in it.” His friend laughed. “No way, Ho - zay. I know the Hutchinson’s all too well.” He quipped for the crowd, while smiling directly at Kevin. The smile didn’t linger. It was a hustler’s kiss, on target and deftly deserted.

Mitch elbowed Kevin conspiratorially. “We’ve got plenty of coffee back at the hotel, don’t we?” he said far from inaudibly.

“Well, maybe I should have lunch at your place,” the guy retorted.

Kevin looked at Mitch. The gathering had gone quiet. “You ready for lunch?” he said.

“I’m always hungry,” said Mitch, blatantly riding the come-on, and the hush it had invoked. What the hay. They were out-of-towners.

Kevin turned back to the young man. “You’re call, man. Care to join us?”

He immediately stood up, dropped the ruler, and walked away from the site as if it were so much cardboard. “Say no more,” he said. It was a silly, but effective star-turn. They walked off to the restaurant. There was one bald chuckle from the crowd, quickly swallowed up by the crowd’s own swift collusion to recover.

“Guard the kingdom,” he called back, to no one in particular.

They didn’t get past the bar. Ray (that was his name) ran into friends, they ordered drinks, and decided to eat there. The pick-up exhilaration abated somewhat in the cool of the restaurant, but lurked shimmering in the shadows. The company was mixed: a girl named Brenda, a sullen and pretty blond. And a guy named Owen from Sanibel, a hunk in a tank top who held Mitch’s chair when they sat down at the table. The room was half-open to the beach and the gulf breeze; it smelled of beer and mangoes. Kevin inhaled and was elated. The place thudded and twanged with Parrothead Country.

There was, as Kevin had suspected, a regular sand-sculpture elite, traveling from beach to beach in a contest circuit more established than one would have guessed. It had its own celebrities, past and present, its fans and folklore.

“Five thousand is about average for top prize,” said Ray, setting his drink down on a table littered with Tex-Mex munchies. His voice had an aristocratic, if sultry, transparency; it couldn’t be bothered to lie.

“Amazing,” said Mitch. “You could actually make a living at it. If you were good enough.”

“Oh, Ray’s good enough,” said Brenda.

“That’s the problem,” said Owen.

“I am going back - you’ll see,” Ray seemed to protest. “Next term. I promise.” He turned to Kevin and Mitch.

“Ever been to Maui?”

“It’s on our short list,” said Kevin.

“Mine too,” said Brenda. “Of top ten places to avoid.”

“I’m avoiding jalapenos,” said Ray, scooping up a fajita. “They singe my sinuses.”

Mitch sipped his beer. “And other places,” he said. That produced a rush of mirth and a nice little thaw.

“That’s what beer is for,” said Owen. “We won’t let you run dry.”

“Beer and jalapenos,” said Kevin. “Just what the doctor ordered.”

“Yeah,” said Mitch. “Nothing helps you to relive yesterday’s jalapenos like a good hangover.”

Amid more laughter, a couple appeared—tan, bead-strewn, colorfully crumpled, in their own force field of good spirits.

“Hello, Ray,” the man said, nudging Ray playfully. “Planning on racking up another blue ribbon?”

“Ha! Gilgamesh! If you don’t swipe it. You didn’t think I was gonna fall for the Valium-laced margarita, did you?”

“Hey, we’re desperate. We’ll try anything.”

“Kevin, Mitch. . . this is Gil and Joanne Hutchinson. My arch-rivals from Cal Tech. They’re mission, which they’ve decided to accept, is to follow me to the ends of the earth and steal my prize money.”

“Yeah,” said Joanne, “the crumbs left in your wake.” She extended a hand to Mitch across the table. A fine sprinkling of sand fell on the nachos.

“As if anybody else had a chance, huh?” Gil said to Brenda, giving her a friendly little jostle.

“As if.” Brenda said.

Chairs were dragged over and the Hutchinsons scooched in. “I’m famished!” Joanne exclaimed, and a waiter appeared. Kevin watched Owen fill Mitch’s glass, and watched Mitch’s skittish indifference. A little hunk himself, Mitch wasn’t very impressed with pumped-up people, even thoughtful ones, but he was easily swept into the charismatic orbit of someone like Ray, who struck Kevin as someone who could stir infatuation by just showing up. But he’d never stop there. He ran with it. Effort, in more than one lexicon, is love. And the effort that a handsome guy like Ray expended on winning affection was, if not love, a beguiling first-cousin of love. Was it narcissism? Not exactly. But he had a narcissist’s generosity; he shared himself instinctively. A man like that would leave the wrong kind of partner feeling marginalized and bitter, and Brenda’s disapproval hung in the air like bitter smoke. Are they married? thought Kevin. Her obvious displeasure, its proprietary vibe, suggested as much. But Ray’s come-on at the beach had seemed more than just friendly…

The Hutchinson’s drinks arrived, and a dozen tacos.

“I heard Billy wants to retire,” Gil was saying, as he reached for the Tobasco sauce.

“Oh he’s crying because he couldn’t get a site by the boardwalk,” said Ray. “As if it really mattered.”

“He’s a sculptor?” Kevin asked.

“Neptune and Flipper,” said Joanne. “It’s famous.”

“We saw that!” said Mitch.

“He spent the winter in St. Lucia on that piece,” said Gil.

“Billy is a phenomenal artist,” said Ray. “Everybody knows it. It’s just that Boticelli on steroids is not every judge’s idea of a good time.”

“But he acts like a siamese cat on Sudafed.” said Owen.

“We know this. He’s more volatile than—”

“Yes?” said Gil, after a tactical pause.

“More volatile than—”

“We’re waiting, Ray,” teased Mitch.

“You think of something, Kevin,” said Ray.

“Than crepes flambé‚ in a sauna.” The quality of Mitch’s laugh told Kevin why Mitch had been swept into his orbit.

“Does Julia Child know about that dish?” said Mitch.

“Presentation is everything,” said Ray.

Brenda got up from the table. “Excusé moi,” she said, begged out unmemorably, and left. Yes, well. Ahem. Fidgets and coughs.

But Brenda’s departure didn’t leave much of a dent, except in Ray’s mood. They bantered on a while longer but a transparent, if distant, disquiet was upon him. Finally he leaned back in his chair and stretched, raising neat creamy biceps. “Well. . . back to the sand mines.” He got up from the table.

“Oh, rats,” said Joanne. “We were hoping we could lull you into distraction.”

“And nearly succeeded. . .” He dropped a twenty on the table. Kevin tried to give it back.

“We invited you,” he said.

“Now you’ll have to come back tonight.” Ray gently pawed Kevin’s arm. “There’s a party for the sculptors, and I know I’m going to be thirsty.”

“Yeah, it starts at, what, seven?” said Owen.

“When is the judging?”

“Six?”

In the buoyant disorder of departures, the gathering quickly dissolved. Owen followed Mitch and Kevin to the door.

“Don’t forget to call,” Owen called after them.


On the way back to their hotel, they passed Ray’s site, but stayed well on the periphery. He wasn’t bantering with the crowd this time. He was seriously engaged in the work, while the audience stood mesmerized. The fantasy ruin was acquiring a deep grandeur in the afternoon light. Its convincingly rendered architecture unhinged one’s critical perception. It looked like the real thing, glimpsed from afar. As he carved the loaves and cylinders of sand, Ray, hallucinatorily outsized, knelt deftly coaxing a fable into being.

Back at the hotel, Kevin and Mitch played backgammon on Mitch’s pocket set, inlaid with ivory and teak, a gift from his grandmother. Kevin was the better player; he was at home in the game’s abstract landscape. But the dice often rolled in Mitch’s favor and in backgammon the luck of the roll is half the game. Later, they lay entwined, in simple warm-blooded contentment, and stared out the window at the crows that came to take sips of the pool and then fly away.

The rest of the afternoon was a cozy domestic outing, touched with love’s delicate grief. Kevin made coffee while Mitch stood in the shower, immobile, his arms crossed over his chest and his hands on his shoulders, in a near-fetal soak-out, until the water turned tepid. A cup of coffee was waiting for him on the lanai.

Kevin stood massaging Mitch’s shoulders and smelling his damp hair.

“What do you want to do about tonight?” he said.

“You mean go to that party?”

“Um-hm.”

“I don’t know now. I was hot to go before. Now I like it here.”

“Yeah,” said Kevin. “Me too.”

They went down to the shuffleboard court. It lay somewhat secluded behind the bathhouse, shaded by palms and surrounded by a hedge of some waxy-leafed shrub with fragrant white blossoms. Kevin liked the colors: the dark green alleys, the worn benches painted red, the yellow scoreboard. It had a British clubby feel, rich and broken-in. An indolent game, shuffleboard facilitated, like pool, a level of conversation near free-association. Mitch had a feel for the game’s dynamics, the physics of the moving objects, their paths, velocity, and interaction. But he didn’t always win. Kevin’s bumbling sallies, while often wildly ineffective, seemed frequently to pay off, a source of irritation to his partner.

Whooshing down the alley, Mitch’s puck struck with a clack, the cluster came briefly alive, clattered, then stood reconfigured.

“He was coming on to you,” said Mitch.

“Well. . .so it seemed.”

“Seemed! C’mon, chooch. Who do you think you’re kidding?”

“He was using me to get to you.”

“Give me a break.”

“Who are you ticked at, him or me?”

“Both.”

Kevin’s shot nicked Mitch’s disk, nudging it into the OFF space. He noticed that a well-dressed couple several alleys over had settled in for some quiet eavesdropping.

“I can’t believe that shot. You weren’t even looking,” said Mitch.

“That guy Owen had you surrounded like a linebacker.”

“Don’t change the subject.”

“I thought he was going to carry you off bodily to his lair in the Melaluca trees. I’m not sure there was anything I could have done to stop him.” Mitch cracked up, and the well-dressed couple looked covertly fascinated. “I’ll bet he’s got a pet cougar in his room. ‘Oh, don’t worry, he’s friendly,’ he’d say as he starts unbuttoning your shirt. . .”

This time Mitch’s puck went wide, but bumped another one of his onto the line. They disputed over the scoring.

“It’s right there on the rules,” said Kevin, referring to the scoreboard. Mitch went to see for himself.

“I don’t agree with your interpretation,” he said, and turned to the couple for a second opinion. “Is that my point or not?”

“I believe your piece is out of play,” the man said, with kindly authority.

Mitch accepted the ruling cheerfully enough, but Kevin was a bit stung by having been subjected to verification. He felt, in fact, a little more betrayed than he knew was warranted.

They rented bikes and drifted into town. They went to the Hook and Ladder Gallery, an old converted firehouse, where art was displayed on every square inch of the multi-leveled space. The place was encrusted with art. The owner, a towering old queen tanned into lizardhood and bejeweled with turquoise, escorted them around, reminiscing about his decorating career in Murray Hill and Madrid.

Once outside in the looming sunset, they were pierced with hunger. The Fin ‘n Claw was having a shrimp festival and that sounded good, so that’s where they went. Soon their fingers were sodden with shrimp butter. The shells, translucent shards, were piled high.

“What about that girl?” said Mitch.

“Yeah, I know,” said Kevin.

“She didn’t seem real thrilled.”

“Like she’s seen it all before. And once too often.”

“Is he ‘bi’?”

“I don’t believe in ‘bi’.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“I think there’re a few ‘omni’s’ out there, true. But they’re very rare. Like Ray. It’s not an orientation thing.”

“Meaning?”

“Don’t ask me. I don’t know what I’m talking about. Ray’s a star and an artist and some kind of hero. It’s an aroma; you can smell it. Anything can happen.”

“Oh, I see.”

They wandered out into the courtyard of the little mall, all weathered cedar and densely planted. A winding exterior stairway enclosed a two-story atrium, a deep jungle plantscape, traced with sunset and hung with caged tropical birds, dangling from branches almost within reach. Sated and entranced, they drifted along, gaping at the birds. Macaws, cockatoos, conures. . . They stopped in front of a toucan, awed. The creature was immaculate, scarcely real.

“He’s absolutely gorgeous,” said Mitch. No sooner had he spoken than the bird hopped around on his perch and showed them his other side. A black velour tuxedo, with an ascot of persimmon. The big rainbow beak, comic and artful, gestured along jocosely with the bird’s appraising glances. He peered at them with an azure eye, encircled with lavender kid.

“Shit!” said Kevin.

“Unbelievable,” said Mitch.

Kevin held out his hand, and the bird tapped the cage with its beak, flew down to pick up a grape, then came back up to its perch, and looking directly at them, dropped the grape.

They locked up their bikes and went down to the beach to catch the remains of the flambéd sky. But as they poked along the shore, they knew where they were headed, had been headed since they left the hotel.

Some of the refreshment stands had packed up and gone, but there were fresh crowds, fewer seniors and more adults—party people. The sculpture sites, torch-lit now, had become gathering spots, the sculptures serving as emblem and decor. They watched the Synchronized Tuna dance in the firelight amid bare feet and sunburned faces.

The first prize-winner they saw was the Hutchinson’s piece. It had taken Third Place. It was a plaque-like replica of the Sergeant Pepper album cover. There they all were Marilyn, Brando, Dylan, the Fab Four, the whole motley crew, ranked and scrunched together in the weirdest class picture that ever was. Three-dimensional and drained of color, it had a monumental serenity that seemed after-the-fact and fitting. Several Beatles fans were here; two guys in cutoffs and T-shirts were arguing, intensely engaged, while the girls shrieked with laughter.

“Him and Paul were becoming enemies because… it wasn’t Yoko’s fault, but he was always staying with Yoko, and not with Paul, and they weren’t writing songs together.”

“Yeah, I know, so John wrote ‘Glass Onion,’ and he helped Paul along with that ‘Paul is dead’ scheme to give Paul some due credit that he couldn’t give him since he was always hanging out with Yoko.”

“Yeah, at the end of ‘Strawberry Fields,’ he says he said ‘cranberry sauce.’ I listened to it on a fifteen thousand dollar Harmon Kardon stereo this dude had in Japan and we turned it on at two hundred watts and it says ‘I buried Paul,’ I don’t care—he tried to hide the fact, and said it was a joke, but no way. . .”

“I know, I know, I’m just saying why? Why did they put that in?”

“We heard it blasting at two hundred and fifty watts, that last part, over and over and over again and you could just… you could pick it out to the max.”

“Lennon was an elf,” said Kevin. “You can’t blame Yoko for that.”

As they neared the Mango Club, the crowds grew lush. “There’s Owen,” said Mitch. He was threading his way through the bar, in a fishnet tanktop, drinks clutched in a clump high over his head. “But there’s booze in the blender, and soon it will render…” The club was throbbing, flanked by torchlight. On either side of the entrance were two sculpture sites, one of which was Ray’s. The torches sent ropes of black smoke skyward, and the air smelled like the Fourth of July: sweet, barbecued and salty. They moved up close.

There in the flickering light, the desert metropolis rose from the sand like a reverie. Pyramids, abbeys, towers and courts, architecturally exquisite; it was a composite of dreamscapes from the deepest reaches of folklore. Again, it gave Kevin the woozy impression that he was viewing an actual ruin from a distant perch. “Realm Zone,” read the marker, “by Ray Shelton.” And stuck to that was a blue ribbon.

“Shit.” said Mitch.

“Realm Zone,” said Kevin.

“Unbelievable.”

Kevin felt an arm around his waist.

“Don’t hold back, guys.” Ray had appeared between them, his other arm drawing Mitch close. He smelled spicy and sharp, like a wine cooler.

“Ray!” Mitch piped up. “Fantastic!”

“A mere Fig Newton of the imagination, I assure you.” he said, and kissed Mitch on the cheek. He was radiating poised heat. “Hey! I’m looking forward to those drinks you promised—Kev.”

“I don’t remember promising anything,” Kevin kidded, trying to catch his breath. “Mitch, did I promise anything?”

Ray slipped a folded piece of paper into Kevin’s shirt pocket.

“I want you to notice what I’m doing, Mitch,” he said, patting Kevin’s breast pocket. “In case we get separated. Don’t lose it.”

“Where you going?” said Mitch. “We just got here. Your sculpture is awesome!”

That friendly thump on the chest lingered, reverberating into the somatic roots of Kevin’s body. He wanted to chase it, tackle it. Haul it back home.

“It’s nothing but sand, Mitch,” Ray said. “Nothing but sand.”

Then Owen was there, and things were moving. Carried along on the revelry that was trailing Owen, they were towed into the bar, into the middle of the music and were suddenly having a nice time. It wasn’t a gay bar, but “art” was the prevailing presence that night, and in the wake of all the gypsy artists all was loose. Crowded, splashy, gay. The opening grungy guitar of a popular song surged out and huge whoop went up from the crowd. Dancing erupted.

“Wanna dance?” Owen shouted to Mitch, over the din.

“I thought you’d never ask,” Mitch said. As they headed for the dance floor, Kevin did a little Tarzan mime, and took Mitch’s barstool. Mitch rolled his eyes.

“He’s a big sweet goofball,” said Ray, as they disappeared into the throng. “You don’t have anything to worry about.” He turned away from the dance floor, into the bar, and pensively studied his margarita. His tiny jade earring matched the lime in the glass.

“It’s not Mitch I’m worried about. He’s a little heartbreaker.”

“Owen does seem slightly out to lunch over him. Have you and Mitch been together a long time?

“A few years.” said Kevin. He swallowed. “And you and Owen?” he asked, a tricky gambit. It took a second for Ray to tune in.

“Owen! Oh. . . we’re just friends. He’s one of the sculptors— just for fun. He lives down here on Captiva. He’s the chef at Tony’s. We met a few years ago at the first Sanibel competition.” From the far edge of the crowd the Hutchinsons, and the little bunch they were with—fans—had spotted Ray. “Ray!” they called out over the hubbub. Ray, reluctantly it seemed, waved back. They began threading their way through the crowd.

“Yeah, that was then,” Ray mused, tossing down the last of his margarita. “The sand castles were really something that year.”

“Thank you, Burt Lancaster,” said Kevin. Ray smirked. “Gotcha!” Kevin said, point a gun-finger at him.

Ray grabbed his finger. “Who’s got you?” Kevin looked away. He was hoping to spot Mitch, but saw the Hutchinsons, bobbing nearer.

Ray stood up. “Forgive me? I’m, uh… I don’t want to see anybody else, the Hutchinsons and all. Today’s been, y’ know, a little weird.”

“Yeah Okay. I can imagine.”

“I feel awful.”

“Ray, c’mon. Don’t apologize.”

Suddenly Ray misted over. Just a brief shiny wobble, but there it was. An ache that gleamed across his face from jaw to eyebrow. He got a grip on it and it went straight to his eyes. “That’s the way love is,” he said.

After Kevin lost sight of him, he watched the Hutchinsons, stranded in the middle of the room, watch him leave.

“All I wanna do, is have some fun,” Mitch came back singing... “Where’s Ray?”

“He had to leave,” said Kevin. Owen gave a wise little laugh.

“Is something wrong?”

“Girlfriend trouble,” said Owen.

“Oh.” Mitch flashed Kevin his droll skeptic look, lips crumpled, eyes raised. “She didn’t look all that thrilled at lunch. Are Ray and Brenda married?”

Owen laughed. “Brenda’s his sister. She’s just down for the weekend. It’s Billy. Billy’s his lover.”

Ray, Billy, lovers. . . Kevin felt the words, their images, expand and multiply like shots in a movie.

“Billy!” Mitch gasped. “That you were talking about? That crazy artist?”

Kevin sat there appalled and delighted.

“Um-hm. They met right here two years ago. It’s been a roller coaster ever since, I guess. From what I’ve seen of Billy, anybody’d have their hands full.”

“Shit!”

“Yeah. I guess he took off after the judging. Got an honorable mention, but he was bummed out all day. Wasn’t all that into it.”

“We saw that piece— the Neptune. We thought it was fabulous.”

“Yeah. . . so you can imagine.”

Everything stuttered and slowly wound down after that. Something must have happened earlier on the dance floor, a definitive statement, to cool Owen off. He hung out with them for a while, was gracious, but left without apparent regrets.

“What’d you do to Owen out there?”

“Told him I was a happily married mermaid. Gets ‘em every time.”

They danced a slow dance, hardly moving, just shifting laggardly around in a little circle, holding on tight.


He was a mutt, but a local big-shot kind of mutt. And no one begrudged him the status, although there was no one around at this early morning hour, and no sound but the surf, and his paws scuffing sand. His dawn patrol. He trotted down to the shore to put the Gulf of Mexico in its place. He charged at the waves, barking. He snapped at the bright water. He even bit it. A warning nip. Then, after shaking off the water with a vigor that made him almost levitate, he was off to check out the neighborhood. He loped past the marina, past the dunes, past the Lido Hotel, which stood silent and washed in golden morning peace. The remains of the sand castles drew his interest. He poked among the remnants, pawed the strange sodden fish, trampled turrets, sniffed the crusty broken faces. He found a plastic cup, and excitedly licked out its residue of sweet stale beer, chasing and nosing it through the streets and courts and crumbling splendor of a fallen city.

Then with a yelp he ran down to the shore, to the man in the water. Keeping his distance, he barked a greeting. When that didn’t work, he lurched back and crouched down on his forepaws, a playful menace. He barked some more. He stood up and stared. He whimpered. He circled away and came back. He trotted down to the water. He sniffed the toes. He sniffed the hand. He sniffed the little jade earring, the color of limes. Then he sat down in the sand and howled and howled until the people came.


When Kevin opened his eyes, he saw a crow, perched on a lounge chair outside. Iridescent purple, like an oil spill, in the morning sun. ‘What a strange thing, like a fish-scale or a butterfly wing,’ he quoted aloud.

“Huh?” said Mitch, groggily.

“Edna St. Vincent Millay, pooch,” Kevin said. Then he flung the covers off, and before Mitch could react, he fastened his lips on Mitch’s backside, and blew hard, making a loud flapping buzz. Mitch struggled free, squawking and flailing. “I hate that,” he protested, loving it.

Kevin hopped out of bed. “Did I ever tell you how beautiful you are when you’re angry?” he said.

“All the time.”

They bought coffee and corn muffins at the Seven-Eleven and ate under an umbrella at the pool. The sky, at mid-morning, was already deeply terraced; clouds mounted up in tropical grandeur, heavy, humid, sumptuously colored. They ate a while in silence. A little coterie of rain danced by, drummed the umbrella, ruffled the water in the pool, and was gone.

“Realm Zone,” said Kevin. Mitch looked up from his thoughts. “Yeah,” he said, smiling. “Realm Zone.”

“It’s odd. I like it. It means the same thing. Realm. Zone.”

“But not.”

“No, because the ‘realm’ refers to something else. . . a fantasy state. But ‘zone’ is concrete and precise.”

“Exactly. A precise place of fantasy.”

They watched the sky in the pool.

“I wonder what he called it.”

“What?” said Mitch.

“The Neptune piece—Billy.”

“It’d be in the program. . .”

“Yeah, I guess it would.”

“Can I see it?”

“See what?”

“Can I see the program?”

“I don’t have the program.”

“In your pocket!”

Kevin’s hand darted to his breast pocket. He looked down in surprise.

“What the—” He pulled the folded paper out. “What the hay! I thought---“

“You thought it was Ray’s phone number?”

Kevin stared at Mitch. “Yeah.”

Mitch picked it up and opened it. “He probably wrote it inside.” But what was inside wasn’t Ray’s phone number, it was two air tickets to Maui. ‘Have a realm time,’ was all he wrote. ‘Love, Ray.’

Then it was raining for real, jumbo Florida drops, falling hard and splashing big. They gathered up the breakfast stuff, and ran for the hotel. Soon the island was swept with rain, and everything that could be washed, was.

Up in their room, on the lanai, they sat watching the downpour and thinking of lots of things. They thought of stopping by the Mango club to say thanks, but not for long. “Let well enough alone.” said Kevin.

“Yeah, man,” said Mitch. “Let it be.”

November 12, 2007

Sandcastles



The 21st Annual American Sandsculpting Championship rose out of Fort Myers Beach's sugar sand last weekend. The competition was a masters' invitational. I've always loved this festival, celebrating the monumental and momentary, the fantastic and the fleeting...






November 11, 2007

E pluribus unum

The revolving door whooshed closed behind me; the warm air of the street shrank to a slot, fanned the back of my neck, and vanished. Confronting the cool festivity inside the Burger King called up a spasm of joy. A primal response, no doubt, to community, voices, grilled beef. At close to three o’clock, the lunch hour rush was long past, but there was an air of conviviality inside, the merriment of those having escaped the elements into a refuge specifically designed, after all, to stimulate and nurture. A little clutch of what appeared to be hospital volunteers, all three wearing melon-tinted smocks and ordering with gusto and gossip, left with trays laden with drinks and food wrapped in colorful tissue. I could have eyed the panoramic menu, backlit and brightly colored, for eons. A garden of edible delights. Steaming burgers bursting with juicy ground beef; mustard and ketchup, perfectly red and yellow, oozing out from their toasted buns. French fries, oiled and crispened, browned and salted, overflowing their crimson cardboard cups. Rich brown Cokes shimmering with sweet effervescence.

“May I help you?”

“A double Whopper, large fries and a large Coke.”

Click, flutter, beep. “Any dessert with that?” Her fingers were poised over the bank of data keys; her expression, hazel and hopeful, as dilated as my appetite. I scanned the purple dessert panel.

“I’ll have a frozen yogurt. With nut sprinkles.”

Click, flutter, beep. “Anything else?”

“A coffee. Black.”

“Will that be all?”

I smiled. “I hope so,”

“That’s five seventy-two,” she said pleasantly and went to round up my goodies. I pulled out my wallet and watched the tray fill. Hands with glossy red nails placed the double Whopper, in its yellow paper wrap, on the tray. Then came fries. A giant Coke. Frozen yogurt with nut sprinkles. Coffee. Napkins, straw, sugar packets, little tubs of half-and-half, white plastic spoon in a sealed cellophane sleeve.

“That’s five seventy-two,” the girl repeated. Once in a while I see that face again. I studied her, the hazel gaze, the warm soprano timbre, what I remembered, once or twice over the next few days, looking for clues. A chink in the presentation. A trans-dimensional flicker. Or was hers just the ordinary human countenance, unknowingly mediating two worlds; an anonymous player in the cosmic opera thrust for the moment to center stage, the only place, really, there is.

I opened my wallet and clearly saw the bills. Two tens, a five and a one. Just enough to pay for the meal, and still have twenty for the tickets to the concert I had driven to Sarasota to pick up. I handed her, unnecessarily, a ten.

“Out of ten.” Click, flutter, beep. Suddenly I knew, to a moral certainty I knew, that I was about to be short-changed. I also knew, after a moment of hovering over an abyss, that I would accept whatever she handed me, no questions asked. Why this feeling came over me, or how long it was in coming, I don’t know. The parable of the unforgiving servant, who had been forgiven everything, yet forgave nothing, came to mind. It was my turn to pick up the tab. Pay it forward. Finding myself in this sacramental moment now, which would probably cost me the concert tickets, in a Burger King, a hundred and twenty miles from home, gave me an unexpected peace. This, it seemed, was why I had come.

“Four twenty-eight is your change.” She placed what felt like bills and coins in my outstretched hand. I closed my hand around the money and, without counting, dropped it into my empty pants pocket.

“Thank you,” I said, and picked up the tray. She smiled, but was already looking over my shoulder at the next in line.

Not delectable, exactly. But about as good as the genre gets. The double Whopper was piping hot and juicy; the fries both crisp and tender, crackling with what the food industry calls conquerable resistance. The Coke… well, it’s a formula, isn’t it. Coke never fails. I swept the tray aside and with trembling fingers dug deep into my pocket, scooped out the money and laid it on the table. I dug deep again, checking for strays. I turned the pocket inside out.

“Four twenty-eight is your change,” Hazel echoed back, click, flutter, beep. I stared at the money on the table. I looked out the window, watching the melon-swatched nurses meander away down the street. A smile like a large unwieldy egret rose up from my heart. I stared again at the table. Four ones, a quarter, and two pennies. Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, e pluribus unum.




November 9, 2007

November 6, 2007

November 3, 2007

November 1, 2007

Mall


Ok, take away my man card. I like the mall. Maybe "like" isn't strong enough.

Gone are the old enclosed noisy gymnasiums of the market place, the puny strips with their discount shoe stores and title companies. Florida malls are now whole cities, with named streets and their own zip codes. You can live there. Literally. The most recent iteration includes on-site condos. Is this gigantism the ultimate expression of the triumph of the marketplace - or a harbinger of its imminent demise? Who cares. It has a Barnes & Noble and a Starbucks.





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