Exquisite Corpse - Issue 3
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Jerkle Cirque
by Frank Tonge


Good news for failed writers! I heard a bit on the radio the other day about Katherine Hepburn. Whoever is taking care of her these days said, "Well you know, her mind is almost gone."  I thought back to her performances in the classic movies she made. The wacky, eccentric, sexy girl in "Bringing Up Baby."  The courageous, passionate woman in "African Queen". God, what a great actress she was! What a mind. And now it's almost gone.  So if such an intelligent, witty, talented and generally on-top-of-it person can, by dint of nothing more exotic than burned out neurons or possibly a diminishing supply of some transmitter chemicals in the brain, get rid of all those pesky memories, then it can happen to any of us. One more thing to look forward to. Not only are we all going to die, but some of us - maybe most of us if we hang on long enough - are heading for a twilight where all the channels of memory will be silted up and our past, the internal record of our lives, will vanish. Now the good news! When your mind is gone, your lack of fame and fortune won't bother you any more. You'll no longer have those nagging doubts - "If I just hadn't gotten married and had the kids, I could have lived in a shithole and spent all my time writing."
      Who knows, maybe when the real memories fade from the mind, they're replaced with the dotty certainty that all your dreams have come true, just like Jiminy Cricket said they would. Maybe as the reality fades, the fantasy shines brighter. The downside is that we'll all be in Depends and have underpaid high school dropout health care workers spooning applesauce into us and mopping the droppings off our quivering chins. But who cares? We'll  all  be sitting there basking in the phantom adulation of having won the National Book Award, the Booker and - what the hell, why not? - the big N itself. While at the same time enjoying unreal memories of having been pursued and caught by film actresses, young and lithe, with too much makeup and expensive underwear. Our sleepy little weenies will stir and we'll utter a toothless giggle.
      Except I also hear that medical science has made another stride. Somebody's come up with a drug that supposedly improves memory dramatically, if only temporarily. They have tested this wonderful new drug and it allows old people to score higher than young people on a test involving the memorization of nonsense syllables that sound something like words but aren't.
      Picture this. A young woman is seated on one side of a table. On the other side is a male college student with an assortment of metal pins and rings corkscrewed decoratively through various facial features. Sitting next to him, a geezer. Both of them have eaten a capsule, the contents of which they don't know.
      The young woman speaks. "Now I'm going to repeat some words and I want you to try to remember them. In five minutes I'll ask you to tell me as many words as you can remember. I'll repeat each word twice. Ready? Let's begin."  She looks at them in turn. She is serious, no smiles, no cracking up.  "Porge. Porge. Sliphinish. Sliphinish."  Slowly, with a pause between. "Plactrate. Plactrate. Illtillifant. Illtillifant. Slabbatt. Slabbatt."
      The kid's eyes are closed in concentration. He's trying to do well. He's a psychology student and is here in the hopes of improving his grade. The geezer is a little worried. A bead of sweat forms and runs down the side of his face. He's thinking, "Why has my mind chosen just this moment to turn to mush?   I can't understand a thing she's saying! Maybe it's my ears, not my mind. What the hell is she saying? Surge? Elephant?"
      "Predloe. Predloe. Sleech. Sleech."
      He's thinking, "She has a speech impediment. Or I've just had a  stroke."
      The science woman stops and leaves the room. The kid, eyes still closed, keeps repeating what he thought he heard over and over to himself. Silently of course, don't want to help the old guy out, maybe this is a competition. The geezer, worried and distracted, can't even concentrate. So when the woman comes back five minutes later, the kid blabs out what he heard. Of course the syllables have all morphed into something else and he only gets two words. The old man repeats what he thought he heard, which were normal English words only with a strange accent, and he gets ten words. The developers of the drug are very happy and the pharmaceutical company cranks up the marketing department.
      Maybe I'm just a cynic. Roshi, my five hundred year old Buddhist monk friend, says I'm cynical. "Being cynical no good for you too. Cynicism is like playing with your own shit."
      I asked him to clarify that remark but he wouldn't. He's not much for explaining what he says. I'm getting sick of Roshi. For one thing, I never know when he's lying to me. He says he's five hundred years old, that he's a Bodhisattva, that he was head of a monastery in Japan in 1600, that ever since then he's traveled around the world as a spiritual guide. Or actually, he doesn't say any of that. But he doesn't deny it either. His story comes out in dribs and drabs and when I press him on some particularly improbable point, he just winks and laughs at me. Last month he came to my apartment and pretended to be meditating for five days straight. He sat in the corner staring at my goldfish bowl the whole time. There's no fish in it because my cat Garbo ate them but I keep the bowl and tell people it's my pet clam. See, there's sand in the bottom and there could be a clam down there but it would be invisible anyway. So it's my little joke and people always laugh. Of course there aren't many people who come to my apartment but those who do think I'm intelligent, witty, talented and generally on-top-of-it.. A writer, you know. They like me.
      Not Roshi though. Oh, maybe he likes me. He comes around more than anybody else. He sat there staring at my fishbowl for five days. Actually he must have got up and moved around, ate and gone to the bathroom. It's not possible to sit still in one place for five days. He must have moved and stretched while I was asleep or at work. But he's cagey. He was always there in the same spot for five entire days, even if I came home early or got up in the night. Garbo slept on him and used him as a perch and he never moved. It was weird. Then after five days of complete immobility he chuckles and says, "Let's go get a beer."  I nearly jumped out of my skin. He'd become a piece of furniture and now he's talking to me. So we went out and drank a bunch of beer, I got trashed and Roshi carried me home. See how irritating he is?
      I think he lies just to see my reaction. It shouldn't bother me since I can't really know for sure if he's lying or not. How do I know whether he actually lived in a hut made of rocks and snow near the top of Nanga Parbat? Or whether he worked in the fun house at Coney Island in 1930, operating the air jet that blew the women's dresses up? Or... Oh right, listen to this! This was the most incredible.
      I was talking to him about the situation in Arkansas where they recently executed three people on the same night. Did it to save on paying the guards overtime, they said. I am completely opposed to capital punishment. Not that I don't think there are criminals who deserve to die. I just don't think anybody deserves to have to kill them. It brutalizes the whole society. I can't help thinking of the parties people throw outside prisons when some one is being executed. Tail gate parties like at a football game and they have count downs. That can't be good for people. And all this apart from the way the penalty is applied, which is completely dependent on your money, your friends, and your skin color. The whole concept is entirely creepy. Sometimes I have dreams in which I'm about to be executed. It's a terrible feeling.
      I'm telling all this to Roshi, when suddenly he blurts out, "You know, I was once executioner."
      I was stunned. I sat forward in my chair and just stared at him. "What did you say?"
      "I was a executioner."  He took a sip of tea and stroked the cat on his lap. "Chop chop."
      "You're joking!"
      "No. No joke, being a executioner."
      "You mean you killed people?"
      "Sometimes. Sometimes hit em with a stick until they cry. Pinch they toes with a big tweezer. Big crowds come to watch. They bring lunch, sit on the grass. Just like a concert."
      "You're joking!"
      Roshi looked at me steadily. His lips creased up at the corners as if moving toward a smile but I swear his eyes were cold. I almost believed him for a second. "You're kidding. You're bullshitting."
      "No. Big crowds of people come to watch. They love it when the peoples holler, love to see the blood."
      "When was this?"
      "Long time ago. Was in, let's see, I think it was, maybe, I forget what year. In Germany."
      "How could you do that? You're always talking about compassion."
      "I never say a word about compassion."
      "But all the books I read about Buddhism talk about compassion. You're a Buddhist, a monk, a bonze, a bishop or whatever it is, for Christ's sake! How could you...?"
      "For you, books talk louder than people."
      "Forget about books. You are telling me you actually tortured and killed people?"
      "Hard lesson but it teach em what it means to be made of meat."
      "What do you mean, made of meat?"
      "Made of meat. That's what you made of. That's what everybody made of. Most people when they die, they think back about life, they think of good stuff. Way down deep, what they really thinking about is orgasms. You think about coming, seems like not too bad a deal, being made of meat. But if you die while somebody setting you on fire, cut you open and pull you insides out, break you bones and leave you on a wheel? That give you a different opinion. That show you what it really means to be made of meat. Teach a valuable lesson. Last a long time too."
      Garbo stirred on Roshi's lap, rolled over on her back and stretched her paws, exposing her belly for him to scratch. He scratched and she purred. I tried to be cool and realize that Roshi was lying to me to rile me up. But I couldn't help it. I was riled. "You're saying you think torturing people to death is good for them in some warped, pseudo-spiritual fashion?"
      "Not pseudo anything. Very practical. Breaking on wheel is best. Gives them a long time to think about things before they die. One guy, he gets drunk, takes a pee in church. They say, "Heretic," and send him to me.  I take iron bar, break his arms and legs. Shin bone, thigh bone, upper arm two places here and here, down part of arm here. Fold him up like origami, his legs under him with his heels up by his ears, arms in and out in spokes of wheel. Leave him there, he don't die for three hours! How about that? Next lifetime, I betcha he go in monastery when he's five years old and stay there!"
      I'm sure he was lying to me. Pretty sure. I have to keep remembering that he is, or was, a clergyman, a priest. Social control is obviously a big component of organized religion. So he probably thinks lying in the service of, I don't know, moral instruction or whatever is justified. Telling lies with good intentions is probably a technique more than a character defect. When you come to think of it, it's the same thing writers do. What is writing fiction but telling lies with good intention?
      For all us failed writers, it's less of a problem. After all, can you be convicted as a liar when nobody reads your lies? Probably not. And what is a failed writer anyway? Every writer is a failed writer. Except for Margaret Mitchell. She wrote one book - which I haven't read, by the way. But I still think it's crap. Wrote one book, made a pile of money and called it quits. Basked in adulation. Took vacations and drove a nice car. As for all the other writers, some of them, a very damn few, write books that sell thousands of copies and become rich. Since the popular taste is obviously degraded, any book that sells thousands of copies is obviously trash. So those writers are failures, unable or unwilling to produce works of genuine literary merit. Failures. QED.
      Then there's the ones who slave and weep over important books, live in poverty or near it, read and study and sweat and produce beautiful, wonderful stuff. But none of the commercial publishers will have anything to do with them. They publish these books, a few copies are sold, almost nobody reads them. The writer makes no money, or so little that, if considered as an hourly wage for the time it took to write the book, it would amount to a tenth of a cent an hour. Something like that. Does that sound like success to you? No.
      I must admit there are some decent writers who also manage to make a living at it. But if you're a decent writer, you're always chasing that receding horizon. Always trying to get something down on paper that eludes you. So there's one variety of failure. Then there's a worse one, the "great man" fallacy. Some writers get the impression that, having written a great book, they become great men or women. They may try to keep their own high opinion of themselves under wraps a little for the sake of false modesty, or they may just say the hell with it and have "genius" tattooed on their foreheads. Journalism perpetuates, not to say creates, this myth. Even the high toned reviews with all the long words make heroes out of writers. When the fact is, as any decent writer with a shred of honesty will tell you, writers have no idea where the good stuff comes from. They sit at the desk or the table with the notebook or the computer or the typewriter and stare into space. That's about the extent of their contribution. Things come into their heads, they write them down. Where do those things come from? A debate is possible between the "billions of neurons" crowd and the "still small voice of God" crowd, but in either case there's damn little conscious direction from the writer. Oh sure, after the fact you've got to edit and throw out and rethink. But the original source is something mysterious. That's part of the reason why art and the business world seem so far apart. The businessman spends all his time making plans, having meetings, drawing charts, all to obviate the very possibility of getting surprised. If you're surprised, you're unprepared and nobody ever made a nickel being unprepared. That's the last thing businessmen want, surprise. Whereas I not only want surprises, I'd goddam well better get some. Everything I write is a surprise ten seconds before it goes on paper. I rely on surprise. If I don't surprise myself, I'm sitting there doing nothing. If I don't get surprised, I'm a failure. But if I do get repeatedly and delightfully surprised and manage to write a really great book, that still doesn't make me a great man. It doesn't make me an expert, a spokesman or a guru. It just makes me a writer. And if I never get the damn book published, nobody's going to know that either.
      Although nowadays there's a new way for us to inflict our artistry on an uncaring world. The Internet, and my, haven't we heard a lot about that, one way and another. When anything is thrust constantly into your consciousness, you may be sure somebody is trying to make a buck out of it. But among all the ads, chat rooms, games, personal notices, blurbs and locations of obscure information, there are places where the failed writers can put their work on display. For everybody to see! And you don't have to go through convincing somebody else like an agent or publisher that the stuff is any good. You certainly don't have to deal with any picky editor, as a single glance at most of this tripe will reveal. You don't even have to spell check the thing! Call me reactionary but I think it's pretty important to spell things correctly, given how easy it is to accomplish that these days. I mean, if you're not even interested enough in your own work to get the words spelled right, how interested are you in the plot and characterization, let alone the infinite questions and demands that go into making the thing function as a work of art? But there it all is, right out there on the Internet, in all its illiterate glory, ready to be read by - what do the ads say? - millions of people all around the world. Maybe it was billions! Somebody might be sitting in Paris reading my story right now! Having stuff out there is like having it in a virtual library to which millions of people have library cards. And you can experience virtual fame along with fantasy riches and more easily become a legend in your own mind. It's a little like getting into the Katherine Hepburn state without benefit of biological decay.
      The Internet, repository of information and entertainment, as well as, reportedly, a ton of porn. I personally have never seen any of it but I read it's out there. I don't go to those sites because I think there may be a huge database somewhere tracking exactly where people go on the Internet and developing a psychological and moral profile of them, which is then fed back to the FBI, police departments and right wing religious organizations ("Christers in Control", "Buttoned Up for Bhuddha"). I mentioned this to Roshi and he laughed at me, as usual.
      "That is Karma you're talking about. Not a lot of computers and people with glasses looking at reports.  Karma, driving the Wheel of Rebirth. You worried whether police gonna know you looking at a girl's tits. You ought to be worried how many lifetimes you gotta spend before you wake up."
      I don't look at porn on the net but there is some strange stuff out there. There's a site for men who feel they were traumatized by having been circumcised. They were trimmed as infants and now that their lives are in the toilet for some reason or other, they fix on the fact of circumcision as the, ahem, root of all their troubles. They talk to each other on line. And they have a solution. There are contraptions and exercises but the gist of it is you lash some duct tape around your dick, stretch it out so the skin is pulled down over the head and then strap the other end of the tape to your knee. And leave it that way for a year! I'm thinking, ouch. Of course you have to pee and do some hygiene things occasionally. But, according to these guys, you do that and after a year or so, you'll have something like a foreskin again. The site is not solely dedicated to the mechanics of re-engineering your penis. It also serves as a place to exchange confidences, feelings of mutilation, fears, thoughts, aspirations.
      "What do you think, Roshi?" I was saying. "Do you think a foreskin support group could foster spiritual development?"
      Roshi sat in the rocking chair in a patch of sunlight. He creaked himself back and forth with a gentle pressure from one foot, at the same time folding little origami cranes out of the pages of a short story I'd left on the coffee table. I've asked him not to mess with my drafts but he giggles and says, "What, you think I'm messing up progress of great literature?"  And I don't want to get into it with him. It's all in the computer anyway. So I don't care if he folds little paper birds and then encourages Garbo to bite their heads off.
      "Foreskin support group sound like you and your famous writer friends when you get together to read stuff to each other."
      "I never invited you to sit in on my writing group. That was your own idea to crash the meetings. And if you're just going to sit in the corner and fart and laugh at everybody's manuscripts, I'd just as soon you stayed away. You don't like my friends anyway."
      "Oh, I like them people. Nice people. But is all like a foreskin support group."
      "What do you mean?"
      "Trying to think. There's another name for foreskin support group. What was that name?"  Roshi made a great show of scratching his head, pulling his beard. He bent over and whispered in the cat's ear. "Garbo, you remember the name of that word?"
      "I don't know what you're talking..."
      "Oh yeah! Now I remember what you call it. Circle jerk."


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