Authors: Michael Allen Zell
Table of Contents
Michael Allen Zell
Between what I see and what I say.
Every fragment is the autobiography of a theory.
We wander in the night and are consumed by fire.
As the monk, so the socialite. As the vintner, so the barfly. As isolation, so conviviality. We spring back and forth between two seeming poles, or at least eavesdrop on the one while basking in the other. It’s unwise to consider either anything but a rearranged version of the other, neither one more pure than the other, for what matters is how one mingles or isolates oneself. Neither exists without the other. I’m not unique in this regard, just a mostly anti-social blot with an occasional appetite to ink bleed toward narrow sociability, trying to balance the in between. I crave calming veins of vicarious titillation, the caricature of civilization kept viciously certain by every scanner burst, its randomness cutting through this vexing cloister. Rather that than a pounding sea of transient silence. The police scanner’s unpredictably steady nature soothes like the language of song with matter-of-fact call and response murmurings that seem only a neighborly step away, not extending my isolation but hastening instincts to enter the fray, and assuring that the place hasn’t been discovered. So calm, so violent. Seeing voices as community. Voices as neighbors to the letters that loop and lacerate. Five letters, beginning letters.
Call the burial, dirt rest. C, t, b, d, r. C. Cuba, crocodile, constellations, confidence man. T. Tarot, 22, two-faced, taboo, The Pelican, the place. B. Books, bricks, beard, buried. D. Death, dirt. R. Rub. Call the burial, dirt rest. See, Tee, Bee, Dee, Arr. C, t, b, d, r is how I’ll tell the story around the story.
Although the author taxonomist, calm and violent in his own way, claimed most assuredly that only a tender murderer is deliberately vicious enough to embody the literary flourish, you shouldn’t be biased by that assertion. It’s accurate to compare the strand formed by written language to a looping tightening garrote, but also as a less overt line of goods craftily hustled by a petty thief, shifty on each new page, the universality of the street corner man dealing hot diction. As for me, like the taxonomist author, my thoughts are generally expressed more effectively by writing than speaking, so I’ll do the best I can, given the circumstances of my state of mind and that I’m attempting to begin a notebook of fragments. I might make a dog of it but will keep my head up, my tail down, the liquids flowing, and we’ll see if it’s lucid enough to justify your crawl in a cellar door of dirt. As above, so below. At least three feet down. Buried.
One mild mid-October night at the end of summer, a few months into the cabbie swing, I was meandering through Faubourg Marigny, looking for fares, when I came upon a small red glow up ahead in the middle of the narrow one-way street, barely past Franklin Avenue. The nicotine beacon led to a kinetically distressed young woman who waved me down. My quick follow-up thought after being startled was that it was all a set-up, she was a decoy for the gunman about to rob me. She quickly spoke, What’s your sign? No, there was no one other than the long-haired roadblock who was wearing a snug black dress, holding a military-style backpack, and hopping around to the side of the stopped car to intently clutch the three-quarters-down passenger side front window. What’s your sign? I’m sorry, I don’t, what you, my sign? Oh, the cab company, it’s Cab King, the family business. See, I’m… I don’t care about any of that. Don’t you know what your sign is, you know, your astrology sign? Oh, you flagged me down to find that out? What am I missing here? I was about to speed off when the enigma leaned in resignedly and enunciated through her hanging hair with matter-of-factness as if sounding out a perfectly intelligible request for an adult with the cognition of an uncomprehending five year old, It makes a difference, okay, otherwise I can’t get in your cab. I always tell United to send me compatible signs, only Pisces, Taurus, Aries, Cancer, or even Scorpio cabbies, but the guy shows up and he’s an Aquarius, so I couldn’t get in. His sign wouldn’t do, but then you came around the corner, so please, mister, tell me what your damn sign is, okay, I gotta get to work. And so I comprehended and a foretaste of the evening commenced. It wasn’t all limited to astrological queries, and I’d give anything to repeat it.
A couple of minutes later (a quick trip to Bienville and Bourbon Streets since she was tolerant for only an exact route, in fact, told me precisely which route I was to take), my just-earlier eventual answer turned out to be the approved one, far more than I initially thought it was when she got into my cab. I dropped my heavily made-up fare off, collected a handful of perfumed dollar bills, and then barely edged between the crowds to nose across Bourbon, when the barely-former passenger quickly inserted herself back into the vehicle, wholly charged. Drive, go, go, go! By the time we passed the three blocks to Rampart Street, her breathing was more relaxed, though her speech wasn’t. Sorry about that, but there was a raid going down at the club I dance at, and I can’t get picked up. There’s something that…you know what, I’ve been dying to go to the World’s Fair. I’m a Scorpio, you’re a Scorpio, so why not? Wanna park your cab here and we’ll walk to the fair? Park your cab and let’s take Canal Street to the fair. It’s so peculiar that New Orleans is a major Scorpio city, but I almost never get a Scorpio cabbie. My name’s Hannah, what’s yours? Again rendered speechless, I formally met Miss Hannah Spire, and an unhurried moment allowed her face to sink in, a welcome diversion from my quiet tidy life. Of all the customers that I, Raymond Russell, could’ve gotten, it was this one with an ornamental likeness to Eve.
The past tends to reappear like this, not announcing itself in advance but dressed up in an almost perverse suddenness. Other than resemblance, there was a sharp contrast between the two of them, Eve and Hannah, Hannah and Eve, but so be it. I was about to feel on top of the world for more reason than taking a gondola ride a couple hundred feet above the Mississippi River. On top of the world was anything other than ruinous at the time, but it was ruinous at a later time. It remained an illusion until then.
My bells have been ringing. I’ve slept poorly for the past few weeks, not getting on nicely in the dark. I keep waking at 3:00 A.M. after going to bed at midnight, then lie there for an hour and attempt to return to sleep, but mostly I fret in the dark before resignedly getting up, alert with frustrating vigilance. A buzzing at my brow, as if I’m either conjuror or insect. Buzzing with one sentence,
Call the burial, dirt rest. C, t, b, d, r.
No deep sleep. Lots of dreams. Too much dreaming. Interestingly, half-sleeping is the most fertile dream period. By my sleep perching a slight step from awake, the potency of the dreams is stronger because they appear more real. This imaginatory expansion is the only benefit, though. The situation is not a mere splinter. It’s a plank in the mind and has affected my health. My nervous system unraveling like a frayed piece of binder twine. Headaches, angina, weak sore wrists. Churning cords of anxiety in my stomach. Lack of focus. I’ve come to dread both waking sides of the night, knowing that despite exhaustion I’ll be so worried about sleeping that I’ll not sleep. I’ve tried inebriation, medication, masturbation, meditation, sublimation, copulation, and my birthday celebration, but nothing works. Nothing satisfies my clamoring for a kindly quarter of quiet mind. Every time I insist that tonight is the night for honest slumber, an array of occurrences prevents it. A passenger plane gets diverted overhead, it’s trash pick-up day, a neighborhood rooster wanders down the street crowing. But mostly I can’t sleep because this chiming rut has become routine.
It’s a strange sensation to be awake and semi-alert at the time in which the late night bar crowd has mostly called it quits and the morning risers won’t be up for a couple of hours. It feels like passing through an undesirable but strangely exalted threshold and then entering a peculiar zone, standing in the kitchen with a glass of water, sitting in the bathroom relieving my bowels, lying back and ruminating, a zone consisting of the time that most people are never aware of or try to avoid, a provocative zone that offers total possibility, but also doesn’t exist other than as negation to leave behind. It’s as if this hour is the 61st second of a minute. The eternal day. The epidemic night. Their in between terrain. The realm Bruno Schulz calls the 13th freak month in
The Street of Crocodiles
. The participatory hour of wisdom or madness. The skip between the tides. Carrying the republic between heaven and earth in my head. The root of this disruption, this insomnia, is not because of feeling guilty from bent virtue, well not totally, but from realizing that I may eventually need to prove my innocence. I’m not so much of a narcissist that I can never accept my own fallibility, but in this situation let’s say that I’m not innocent but neither am I guilty. Correspondingly, I’ve been carrying myself with an air of lagging sanity. Most people encountering me on a daily basis couldn’t guess how disrupted I’ve become, seeing in me only a tinge of ruin, probably thinking my brooding stumpy mood is due to a late night of carousing. A hidden body wouldn’t come to mind. Grotesque affairs may be far too commonplace in New Orleans, but I don’t have the suitable disposition. This isn’t the confession of a wary witless white male, but merely an anticipatory correction in advance of errors of perception to come after you find the body beneath the book. Writing what one cannot publicly reveal is still writing, although its only audience may be the buried body. Today is November 22, 1984, and I’m hoping to be on the other side of this limbo. To sleep in deep again. Return to vanished peace. The end of the bells of the end.
When I’m attempting to sleep, I lie on my right side, legs curled enough to question mark my body. I’ve noticed though, now that remaining acutely awake and thinking for extended periods has become a nightly maze, I naturally prefer to stretch flat on my back, hands clasped across my stomach. Peculiarly enough my left leg, always the left rather than the right, rises up bended back sideways, making my left foot to knee horizontal, foot and ankle tucked under my right leg, waist on down resembling a number four or crudely drawn sail. I never thought anything of this until Hannah showed me her tarot cards, including an image with the figure in a similar position to the one I’ve described, only with the right leg folded back and hands behind the back. Although I’ve never held interest in the tarot, I was taken aback, of course, for this seemed the kind of parallel reversal of my own formation that one arrives at by slicing intricate paper cutouts, which are silhouettes of duality. Since Hannah’s explanation of the card’s meaning, I’ve become far more self-conscious of an unintended portrayal of The Hanged Man, and now straighten my left leg immediately upon recognition of the form, fearful of hastening my own death, hoping to strike out the omen and morbid wish of my own unconscious physicality discerning my gravitational pull, fully aware that I’m in a state of suspension. When it comes down to it, I don’t need the gift of a perfect night, only a night of restful sleep, but the chance of being found out is enough reason to maintain the insomnia. Nowhere to lay my head. Aggravated by the scar beneath my skin.
Once I decided to start using this sleepless time to right the record despite never having done anything writing-wise before, the first hurdle was how to proceed and for what length of time. As much as I’d like to be a man of confidence who can quickly eat the meat, chew the fat, gnaw the bone, dispose of the remnants, and then ideally return to calmness and proper sleep, it’s too difficult for these events to merely flow out by a simple faucet turn of the mind. Granted, the situation does nothing other than consume, but to convey it is the difficulty. My intent isn’t abject deflection, but more in the vein of circling a building several times to gin up confidence before entering. Have you ever been blocked with fear? Deficient in conviction? Have you ever spilled your barren laments and thistley frolics, sweet sports and sore humiliations? All of this a hitch in my cause.