Thursday, March 29, 2012

Truth Be Told


At a book club, some years ago, the discussion circled around the best short story ever written, Peed Onk, by Lorrie Moore (that's not the full title, but it'll get you there). If you've not read it, hurry up, because death by love can't come soon enough. If you have read it, well, let's all just read it again and meet back here. 

I'm not going to summarize it, because to do so will turn people off, the way summary so adeptly does. But, suffice it to say, it's about a woman experiencing things no one ever should. And the way she experiences them is so crystalline, profound and discerning that it will be hard for you to believe it's fiction. Because how could a person write so well, with an incandescence to cause a kind of literary snow-blindness, having not actually experienced such things?

I've read interviews with Lorrie Moore where she wearily tries to address this. Yes, she's had some experience with the subject matter. No, it isn't memoir. Things are the same, things are different. If you read the interview closely enough, you can hear her eyelids closing as she doses off.

My book club came to the conclusion, without my consent, that of course it was a true story disguised as fiction.

A true story, disguised as fiction.  I think I just came up with the title of my new book. (tm)

As a person who writes mostly in the first person, present tense, my writing is delivered in an envelope marked TRUTH. But it's a stamp put on there crookedly, in the mail room, by some exhausted pimply-faced intern who has only two stamps, Truth and Lies. On any given day, he could pick up the Lies stamp, and that would be fine too. Because writing is story telling. And story telling is about the area between truth and lies, where the heart resides.

What we writers, and by 'writers' I am including all of us, everyone, who has ever had an experience and synthesized it, so that it might be externalized - if you do that at a bar, or at a computer, on strings, woods or brass, by cell phone, status update or semaphore - I'm talking to you. What we writers do is live a life, and share it with others so that we might connect with the rest of humanity, our own, and others'.

Content is one thing.  I envy a lot of people's content for the stories it allows them to tell, even if it's awful, painful stuff, sometimes especially so. People do brave things, or even better, cowardly things. They poop on the family's towels, or hike the Pacific Coast Trail while they grieve, or survive the oncology ward with their child - content is the life lived, and we all have some. But the part that makes that content transcend the ward, or the potty, the decent to madness, or the purple toes, is the part of that content that is mashed through the sieve of the story-teller's perception. It's the stuff that has been boiled in the stew of its author's resentment and bile, their patience and grace, their hilarity, stupidity, depression, bigotry and love. The story told is the humble occupation of time and space filtered through a medium, which is then further distilled by the receiver. There are far too many layers of truth and lies through which one little story must trickle, on its journey from the dark into light. To label it one way or the other definitively, is to stop it short on a passage, to call it out, when it has not yet reached what is, largely, an unreachable destination, a final resting place of certainty. 

I believe in truth. I try to live in truth the best way I can. But I also believe in the punch line. The old chestnut: It's funny because it's true, is really a misstatement. It's funny because it could be true. Do I believe that kids have dogs lick peanut butter of their balls? Ok, that is true.  Let me think of something more truth-ish. 

Consider this statement: I, Jessica Schickel, live in the conservative, hick suburbs of Cleveland.  Compared to what? Parkman, twenty miles east of here, has a convenience store, a shooting range and a church. Compared to that, Chagrin is a confection of liberal urban delights. But the original statement is true when, like me,  you've lived in a city where the men have better make-up technique than you will ever know. When you come from cities where you can order Cuban food in the middle of the night and have it delivered with an eighth of pot.  You see, even there, just then. I don't know of any place where I could order Cuban and an eighth. But I have ordered by phone, and been delivered of, both Cuban food, and pot, though the events were separated by time and zip code.  Both things are true, but they were smashed though my literary potato ricer. I like imagining both things coming through the door at once (more than you know). And I'm gambling that you do too. You've read this far, so I'm making an assumption that you are riding happily alongside, that you're comfortable with my driving, and that you're game for the place I'm taking you to.

I'm not a journalist and I'm not pretending to be one. I am, however, a reporter. And my reportage is un-fact-checkable. That would, by the way, be the saddest job ever, fact-checking this blog. Good luck to those who would try. If you find my library card, let me know.

I'm reporting on truths that are fleeting, unreliable, squirmy things. The truth that is three people, combined into one. Truths that happened to other people, out of my view. Truths that I want to be true because they make me feel better about all the fucking lies with which I, and all of us, must daily cope. Truths that take shape in my telling of them, spinning them as I do, out of details which come to me from a memory that is riddled with mold, THC, anti-depressants, and the decay of age. Truths that morph and metastasize even as I tinge them with dye for closer examination.

Truth is often impermanent. There are moments when my truth might include the desire to punch an unknown second-grader in the teeth or  pee in the pool.  I am neither a pool-urinator nor child-puncher. But I could be. And that place of possibility, the one that lies just out of reach of fact, is where I live. You can find me there anytime, if you need, really need, to check the facts.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Dialing Up The Past



The summer I was indirectly struck by lightning, was the same summer I returned to the summer camp of my youth.

It was late May, my Junior year in high school.  I needed a job, or more accurately, a plan, for the summer. My parents needed the minimal assurances that I was going to be somewhere, doing something.  When the newsletter came from New Mexico, and in it the printed call for a Minor Maintenance person to do chores around the camp,  I made some fast calls and was hired over the phone. I was a known quantity, having spent four blissful summers there in the late 70's.

My summers there, high in the mountains above Santa Fe, freed from the heat of New York City, were things of beauty.  As opposed to my New York City pastimes, advanced courses in divorce, latch key and TV watching;  at The Ranch horseback riding was my thing, as were fencing, and, I shit you not even one tiny bit, water ballet. They taught synchronized swimming in their landlocked swimming pool, and to this day I can skull and do dolphins.

I packed my dorm room up into boxes, threw a summer's worth of t-shirts and sneakers into a duffel bag, and headed for the desert. I imagined a summer filled with hard work, maybe, sure, ok, but really, in the embrace of the camp that had loved me, and who had shown me such pleasure in my youth, how hard could it be? On paper it certainly beat a summer scooping ice cream in a mall in Watertown, Massachusetts. A summer in the fresh air, with people I loved, who would welcome me back into the fold - it would be a handmade quilt of a summer, a patchwork of nostalgia and friendship that I could wrap around me.  I'd have paid them for such a blanket. But they insisted on paying me. Fifty bucks a week. Cha-ching!

I was met at the airport by the same man on whom I'd had a puppy love crush years before. There wasn't a girl-child at The Ranch who had not loved him with the white hot brilliance of their pre-sexual desire.  He was a  combination in looks of a young Kevin Kline, with the best goofy parts of Robin Williams thrown fetchingly in . When I was nine, ten and eleven he was the most intriguingly delightful man I'd ever encountered. He was sexy before I knew what sexy meant and funny - I most definitely knew what that meant.  When I saw him again, after a few years at boarding school, and after my fields had been summarily ploughed and seeded by boys my own age, the tables shifted, uncomfortably I think for him.  For me, what was once a charming flush, became a sordid possibility. I used all the moxie that lovely teenage girls possess, which is to say I employed my complete idiocy, and ample young rack, to make him as uncomfortable as I possibly could.  I thought I knew everything. Which is to say, I knew nothing.

Anyway, he drove the passenger van that carried me and the four dudes who were to be the balance of the minor maintenance crew, up, up, up, the mountain. We laughed about old times. I put my feet up on the dash.  It was the first, and the only, good thing that happened that summer.

As Minor Maintenance we were in charge of some fairly major maintenance. Without so much as a word of training or introduction, we were thrown into a rigorous schedule of schlepping, scrubbing, lifting, cleaning, mucking, dish-washing, grass cutting, watering, picking, feeding, general scullery and barn work that took us from our beds at 5:30AM to feed horses, and kept us at it until well past
10 o'clock at night when we would stir up a fifty-gallon drum of hot chocolate and shuffle-step it down to the campers who were enjoying their moonlight swim.

The very first day, fresh off the van, after a day of travel, we were put into service transporting the campers' foot-lockers, sent ahead by parents, to their respective cabins.  Each weighed easily fifty pounds. We were not allowed, nor would we ever be allowed, to use the truck allocated to the Heavy Maintenance guys, or Heavys as they were called; they, who possessed actual tools and power. In fact there was a hazing of us Minors that involved making our jobs just a little cunting bit harder. Yes, I'm using cunt as an adverb. Walk with me, people.

They liked to give us the hardest jobs, make us perform them faster and at greater personal expense, using our own inexperience to humble and humiliate us. They'd encourage us to hustle fifteen-gallon coolers of water out to the tennis courts, half a mile away, never telling us there was a nearby spigot we could have used. They'd lean against the truck and smoke, watching as we sloshed our way out there, losing half the contents on the way.

The directors of the camp, a married couple, two of the most uptight white people in matching white polo shirts you'd ever want to meet, instructed me one morning to put down my cooler and within earshot of the sneering Heavys  asked if I might, "Slip on a bra, honey, wonchya?" I felt, in that moment, like it might be possible to sprout an embarrassment goiter from my neck. I will never forgive them for it.

One day, as I cleaned the tables of the staff dining room with hot bleach and a rag, a folding chair whistled past my head, smashing the window in the door that swung between me and the kitchen. It was Kevin Kline Williams creatively expressing his rage. My love for him deflated like a whoopee cushion of lost dreams.  Apparently, we loser Minors hadn't gotten the tennis water out to the courts early enough and one of the campers had gotten some degree of thirsty. In the retelling, the camper's thirst became dehydration, which became heat stroke, and our carelessness became life threatening. Shit had rolled downhill from Polo Shirt to Kevin Kline Williams and landed squarely above my head.

I shook shards of glass from my hair.  I was sixteen and very, very sad.

Minor Maintenance got one day off a week.  The third week in, I bummed a ride from one of the super kind lesbian cooks, into the little mountain town of Pecos, so that I could suds my duds in the laundromat. We shared a burger while my jeans spun, and went to the post office to mail postcards. 

Driving back up the "hill" to The Ranch required navigation of the perilous switchbacks and hairpin turns that mountain ascents in motor vehicles demand.  One drove this route with a seriousness of purpose, a tight clamp on one's sphincter, and a reverie for human life.

Which is why, when we saw the Volvo wagon, belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Polo Shirt, tearing around a turn towards us, narrowly missing us in a sideswipe, I knew that my summer was going to change irrevocably.

The Volvo screamed past us and Cook and I craned around to see what-the-fuck. The image I have of  my Minor Maintenance brothers waving good-bye to me in terror as they torpedoed toward sea level, was the most pathetic tableau of my young life. The still-image in my memory is of them wide-eyed, frantically signing their desperate farewell.

The young men, it seemed, had lingered too long by the cabin of the eldest camper girls, only two-years their junior. They'd flirted with them as the girls had swanned and preened from the cabin porch in their two-piece suits. The crew was summarily fired, and deposited at the airport by an enraged Polo Shirt, with more than half the summer remaining. This drama had unfolded in the three hours it had taken me to launder my panties.

The job that had been too hard for five people, now became my responsibility entirely. I was neither debriefed by a responsible adult as to what the balance of the summer held in store, nor comforted in my shock and despair.  I was simply instructed to "step up and shut up" by the Heavys, who now, truth told, felt a little sorry for me.

I labored for another week with fairly good humor. I could take a joke, and certainly the situation had the makings of one. One comfort, the lesbians had my back. They slipped me nourishing snacks when I was about to keel over and the Heavys, for the most part, backed off, even giving me a ride here and there in the sacred truck. It couldn't have been much fun for them to watch anymore. It was too pathetic, me in my sagging ponytail sprinting everywhere, dragging things that should have been lifted, lifting that which should have been left put.  I did the work of five people fairly badly. I skimmed my tasks, covering a lot of ground with a very thin coat of human energy. My days were longer than ever. My hands blistered, healed, tore open, scabbed, then calloused over. I was sleep deprived, limp with exhaustion and sore.

Polo Shirt took a menacing interest in my performance. He was everywhere, commenting with derision when I missed something or let a chore slide.  If something wasn't done to his liking, he was sure to point it out to me and anyone in earshot. He mocked me, he chided and patronized me. I quickly came to detest the smug prick. Polo Shirt was the one person who hated me, even as a child camper. He was loathsome back then, teasing me unkindly about my "east coast" parents and my "Hollywood" dad. When, at age eleven, I pointed out to him that it was intrinsically impossible for my dad to be both Hollywood and East Coast at the same time, he turned purple and walked away. He watched me as a child with what I would later recognize as repressed jealousy and possible sexual desire. As an "adult" and an employee, I was fair game. His antipathy/longing for me was rancid and he punished me with derision and rancor.

I was required to participate in the staff show, which was to occur in hour thirteen of my Friday work day.  I was to play a "punker", which to these cloistered mountain people meant I was to dye my hair blue with food coloring. I acquiesced and it was an unholy mess. Dye ran down my neck in blue, skin-tinting rivulets. It stained everything it touched, and I was asked to touch everything - every prop, every costume, every participant in the show.  I could not lean back, exhausted in my chair, without turning the wall into a blue crime scene.

During the show, which involved a weather report in which the "weather" was variously thrown on stage at Kevin Kline Williams in the form of say,  water misted from a squirt bottle for "light rain" and papers thrown from offstage for an oncoming tornedo - it was classic 1950's Poconos humor, but played to a south-western audience. The act was to culminate in a snow storm, flour blown from a counselor's palm into the blades of a portable fan, which would blow across Kevin's unsuspecting weatherman's face.  When prep for the show had run behind schedule, someone, possibly Polo Shirt, had handed the prop-master a handful of laundry soap, instead of the more benign semolina flour which they obliviously blew into our beloved weatherman's eyes, causing immediate and acute burning. He clawed his way off stage to the horror of the adults, while the kids tried to figure out if it was all just part of the act.

My love for Kevin Kline Williams bloomed anew in the moment I saw him in blinding pain. Staff flocked to him offstage, administering to him feebly. His eye sockets ballooned, inflammation  wrapping his eyeballs in a cocoon of pus and flesh, sealing them off to the perceived threat of more cheap comedy.  I stood helplessly off to the side weeping blue tears.

The hall cleared. Campers were ushered back to their cabins, Kevin K. Williams was taken away in an ambulance, and I made my way up the trail to my room above the kitchen to wash away the indigo of the evening. Steps from the sanctity of a hot shower, I was stopped, bodily, by Polo Shirt who insisted I return to the hall to sweep the 1500 square feet of parquet. I said, resignedly, "Sure, OK, let me just grab a quick rinse."

"You'll go now."

I laugh-snorted. I thought he was kidding. He was not.

"Well, I've got to get this blue out of my hair, Polo, then I'll go right down." It was 10:30.

"I repeat. You'll go now. You wont shirk any more of your duties."

I heard something growl in the deep woods of my subconscious, but I let his comment go. He's under duress, I thought, the prospect of one of his most loyal employees, blinded by the staff comedy show, must weigh heavily on his mind. I dragged ass back to the deserted hall, and channeled my best Zamboni, pushing the broom back and forth across the half acre of gleaming wood.

An hour later, I got my shower and went to the main house to relax with the cooks, the head of the girls' camp, and one of the Heavys, who were hanging out in the common staff area. I slid onto the couch between my friends, bones heavy.

We shucked and jived, the five of us, giving each other a little merry shit, teasing playfully, talking about the day, our worry for Kevin K. Williams, the week ahead.  Polo Shirt came in then,  reaking of a man looking for a fight. It's a vibe that's hard to describe, but easy to recognize. It's the vibe that makes the abused wife corral her children toward bed. It's the atmospheric shift of an unseen storm that makes the fish hide, the birds go quiet, and horses dance in their stall.

"I assume you're done with your work." He said to no one in particular.  Nods all around. "Because no one should be sitting in here who hasn't done their job."

I weakly replied, "I'm pretty sure we've all done our jobs here, it's 11:30, we're almost done with tomorrow's work, and the day after that too." I meant it as an acknowledgment of the weirdness of the night, how wrecked we all were, the late hour.

My friend's gave a muffled, collective Amen to that. But Polo turned to face me.  "You know, Jess, when people heard that I was paying you fifty dollars a week, they thought I was taking you for a ride. But when they saw the work you were doing, they realized you were taking me for a ride."

My mind raced. What? Was he talking to me? Did he have me confused with someone else? "Polo, I think we're treading on thin ice here."  This was my cautious reply.  To which he idiotic retort, 

"Let me show you how thin I can tread."

Again, I heard the growl from the dark woods, but this time I went in to find it.

"Nope. Er, I mean, No.  No! I don't think I will skate with you on this one, Polo. I've never been so tired in my life. I've never eaten so much shit, or smiled so hard while chewing. I think you owe me about seventeen thousand dollars in back pay, not to mention the return of this summer, which has been nothing but a steaming pile of puke."

A pile of puke? I don't think I was even talking out of my mouth at that point. I think my larynx was the only thing that wasn't broken by exhaustion, and it was simply vibrating out the chords of my desperation and fear. But it didn't stop. Once my voice was working, it couldn't be shushed by thought. "You're a bad man, Polo, a mean, small little shit.  Everyone knows it and what must be worse, I think you know it too."

"Pack your bags," he said, "I'll drive you down the hill in the morning."

"I've seen the way you drive, Polo, and if you think I'm getting in a car with you, you're out of your fucking mind."

And with that I turned and walked away from the main house. Polo shrieked after me into the dark night, "I WANT YOU OUT OF HERE YOU SLUT!" Counselors on cabin porches heard him screeching after me like an owl, "Whore! Whore!"

I can only think now that he called me those things because that was what he hoped, in the dark, under his cold sheet, with his stiff wife lying next to him, I was.

I walked quickly and quietly to the pay phone by the road. Lightening turned night to day in incremental blinding flashes. Crazily, the phone was ringing. Not beyond the realm; boyfriends called their girls back to reverse charges - whatever, the pay phone was ringing. I ran toward it. Somehow in the adrenaline rush of telling off my first adult, of getting fired, of being crazy tired  - in my daze I thought it was for me. My mom, my boyfriend back home, somehow I imagined they knew I'd just blown my summer wide open and they were calling me. I ran for it, wanting to catch it before the last ring.

I caught it alright. It was God calling and he left me a message: Don't answer a ringing pay phone in an electrical storm! I heard later that lightning had struck the phone line miles up the road and had set pay phones ringing up and down the mountain. I don't know if that's true, or even possible, but I do know that the call I answered slammed me, hard, onto my ass in the middle the road, which at that time of night was dead quiet, no cars anywhere.

I picked myself up and headed painfully back to my room. Mostly it was my bruised butt that hurt. And my left hand, that had touched the receiver. I was uninjured, but inexplicably flooded with embarrassment. Had someone seen me? Was it a prank? Was I being punished? Was I a whore? Was it my fault? I wanted to get away from there as quickly as possible. The phone, The Ranch, the past, I was running, running for my bed, running for safety, running for home.

Back in Massachusetts, with half a summer to go, I got that job at the Watertown Mall, the one that seemed like the worst of all options. I weighed out bulk candy at a place called Joanne's Nut House. All things considered, Joanne's house was a lot less nutty than the one I'd come from, and the desserts I doled out were far sweeter and more just.