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As many of you know the trivium derives from the introductory curriculum in many medieval universities, where it involved the study of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The word is Latin in derivation, perhaps obviously, and literally means the place where three (tri-) roads (via) meet. Our modern word trivia is loosely, and I think unfairly, connected by blood relation to trivium, by way of the altogether vulgar (in its literal sense) trivialis. Compare this with the quadrivium, similarly medieval, and comprising the four “mathematical” arts: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. An example of someone who would have excelled at the quadrivium is Brian May, the guitarist from Queen.

By way of illustration, I present the following story, or proselet, which is not a word I expect to catch on. It incorporates two quotations that one might find in any trivium worthy of the name, but places them in a setting of cheap jewelry that I hope makes some kind of emotional sense.

The Man Called Marriage

Two bursts of light, in rapid succession, woke him from a dreadful dream. A car turning around in the driveway, most likely. He shifted from his side onto his back, flinging a sleep-deadened arm across his chest. He enjoyed the way feeling would slowly creep back into the lifeless arm and hand.

He raised his head and looked at the pillow next to his on the bed. He knew she wasn’t there, knew that she had not been there for months, knew that barring some unforeseeable fold in the fabric of time she would never be there again. But he couldn’t help checking.

No sound but a few weary crickets, whether inside or out he could not tell. Dark of night had swallowed the room. Only blurred and mobile shapes. Shadows and deeper shadows.

Darkness has no lines, only depth, he thought. His eyes, adjusting to the murk, recovered what might be a chair, what might be a lamp, what might be a network of twigs on the ash tree outside his window, laying odds on how long till the sun comes up.

The sun is impossible to catch, he thought. Many things are thought impossible, but later turn out possible all along. It’s possible, he thought, that all things are possible, or will turn out to be possible. Two robins settled on the hickory tree outside his kitchen window. He was standing in the kitchen making coffee. Light from the morning sun, filtered by the greasy dirt on his unwashed windows, lay wan and shapeless on the counter and the dull tiles of the floor.

“Our separated dust, after so many pilgrimages and transformations into the parts of minerals, plants, animals, elements, shall at the voice of God return into their primitive shapes, and join again to make up their primary and predestinate forms.” He remembered the quote clearly but could not remember who said or wrote these words that he once believed.

He stood in the room where his books were lined against the wall. He held a long, serrated kitchen knife in his right hand, methodically scarring the spines of his books. He slashed diagonally, from top to bottom, left to right, in the same direction in which he used to read, it occurred to him, as he slashed the first volume of The Alexandria Quartet, without understanding why, without self-examination or emotion.

In the zoo, sidling up to the aviary, he saw parakeets varicolored like the desert sun setting on a cloudless night. A small snow-owl, half-blind from daylight, peered through slitted eyes at the end of all diseases of the flesh. The snow-owl, he thought, is a curious bird. He keeps most of what he knows to himself. But not all, he thought, and chuckled.

You could set the snow-owl free right now, but the snow owl would always be in prison. Once you injure something it stays injured. Fetters cannot be removed by any human hand.

One time he dreamed that he was walking along the red clay bank of a warbling creek, and saw an injured sparrow. He was overwhelmed with pity at the sight of the poor bird, and fell to his knees, cupping the sparrow in his hands and blowing gently on its feathers, thinking that somehow the blowing would reassure the tiny creature. The next part of the dream he couldn’t remember exactly, whether the bird simply died or immediately healed and flew away. Either way, he knew he had lost the sparrow for good, and knew, too, as one knows things in dreams that one could never guess in waking life, that the bird was her, and that she was gone.

Inner duration, perceived by consciousness, is nothing else but the melting of states of consciousness into one another, and the gradual growth of ego. Another useless quote, but why, he wondered, did this fragment of knowledge reduce him to helpless tears?

Wind snapped a branch outside and he woke. Tears streamed down his cheeks; his pillowcase was soaked.

“I am unbelievably happy,” he whispered to the empty room. And thought: I am unbelievably happy.

The new issue (number 32) of SmokeLong Quarterly is up. I have a story in it called “Elephants.” My story was chosen by guest editor Ben Loory, and to accompany the story he interviewed me here.

Aside from the me part, the issue is stuffed with excellent writing by lots of excellent writers. You need to check it out right away, or risk angering the literary gods. Who are ruthless. Ruthless.

Sloe-eyed through the sun-loved streets, winding her hair around one winding finger, walks and walks on sandaled feet a small thin girl. Pastel houses pass in succession, peopled by darkly gazing men with small thin mustaches and almond-shaped eyes. She feels their eyes on her but does not respond. Heat rises in slow layers from the cream-colored street, admires itself in a series of wavering windows, stretches towards the glassy sky.

Her head, its slender brown chin thrust forward in defiance of the heat, does not waver. She moves without obvious effort, the motion of her limbs supple and fluid, each movement discrete, contained, yet inseparably connected to every muscle and thought she wills to stir.

The small thin girl passes by without looking a cafe with three sidewalk tables. Two are empty; at the third, in the inadequate shade of an awkwardly poised umbrella anchored to the ground by a battered tin base, sit two men drinking coffee.

The first is a young man with a deep tan wearing a shortsleeved white shirt and tan pants. He has crossed his legs so that the ankle of one rests on the knee of the other. The second is older, with sparse graying hair and sunburned jowls. He wears a green wool jacket despite the heat, and dabs at his face constantly with a wrinkled handkerchief.

“I’m not sure she has it in her to be faithful,” says the slender dark man, poking idly at his coffee with a small silver spoon. He taps the spoon on the rim of the cup before returning it to the saucer.

“Better, perhaps, to say she has it in her not to be faithful,” replies his companion. “As we all do. Fidelity is not a naturally-occurring condition in man or woman. It requires, I think, an exercise of the will.”

“You think. A pretty thought. So I should wonder instead if her will is strong?”

“She is a woman. Her will is strong. Better, perhaps, to ask the question of yourself.”

The younger man falls silent and his silence is like a parody of thought. At one point he closes his eyes. His lashes are long and curl upwards, and when his eyes are closed look like a collection of tiny question marks.

The small thin girl reaches the end of the street, which deadends on a narrow stretch of beach. A stone balustrade lines the entrance to the gentle slope down to the water’s edge. She leans over the balustrade, into the wind, her eyes closed; she wills the waves to the shore and they come, endlessly. She wills the sun to set and, with great reluctance, the sun describes a slow downward arc in the sky.

My feet are ankle-deep in surf. I watch the girl as she turns and walks back through the town, her sandals flapping on the soles of her feet, on the cream-colored street; she stops in front of the cafe and sits at the table where the two men have just left. Their coffee cups and a few torn and empty packets of sugar are cleared by a waiter with almond-shaped eyes and a thin mustache.

I trace a mark in the wet sand with my toe. A line drawn in the sand is like a dream of impermanence, no less evocative for its overuse. I draw a line, I say “Thus far and no farther,” the ocean takes a foamy finger and playfully erases my hasty sketch.

“The purpose of longing is to teach humility,” says the older man, his jacket now slung over his shoulder as he steps carefully down to the beach, his shoes hanging from two fingers of one hand.

The younger man is three paces in front, and looks back. “But what’s the purpose of humility?” he asks.

The older man chooses not to answer: his eyes have a faraway look, he stops walking and stares out at the sea. His gaze remains fixed for some minutes on the horizon. “Time doesn’t fly, it sinks or swims,” he eventually murmurs, smiling. “No wonder I’m so tired.”

The waters recede, and I draw another line.

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I dug up part of an abandoned novel about a guy who drives from New York to San Francisco with the corpse of his girlfriend (he accidentally kills her in the first chapter)  in the front seat. If you’re squeamish, don’t worry. I cut out all the gross necrophilia stuff. If you’re not squeamish, sorry, I cut out all the cool necrophilia stuff. The novel was orginally called Boola’s Trip. Maybe someday it still will.

Boola’s Trip

“Wyoming—a great land outdoors,” reads the state line greeting. I suppose what they’re saying is: don’t go indoors. Stay outside and play. Here, we have nothing for you indoors.

The road surface had changed in color from Nebraska’s abraded black vinyl to a lighter, reddish material, some sort of sandstone-based asphalt. Snow swirled in menacing flurries from the green and brown mesas and plateaus surrounding me down across the hood of my speeding Utero.

The mesas were dotted with scrub pine. We passed a graveyard for old railroad cars, stacked in lopsided piles beside a stretch of rusty, unused track. The first part of Wyoming is as flat as my pitch when I sing along to the radio; I could see all the way to the looming mountains, miles and miles in the leaden distance. We were about 45 miles from Cheyenne. It was approximately two-thirty in the afternoon. Mountain Time.

My software needs upgrading. My operating system is outdated. I have a theory about sex. “I have a theory about sex,” I announced to Boola, moonlighting as my girlfriend, well-hung on every pearl of too-truth dropped from my clenched jaws. “My theory, and please note, it’s only a theory–distilled from the honey of daily observation, patiently sifted, sure, but still….”

***

There didn’t look to be an easy way out of this. A dead girl in the front seat is a dead girl in the front seat, no matter how you say it, or don’t say it, or refuse to acknowledge it.

I resolved to check the atlas next time we stopped, though I had grown adept at pinning the book against the steering wheel and checking my location by means of a swift series of glances. Not that I was worried about getting lost. Even before GPS, it wasn’t easy to get lost in America anymore. Hard to believe if you just stay on this road you can travel three thousand miles from one place to another. From one empty feeling to another.

Passion without precision: chaos. Feeling kind of shandy. Kisses all lead to dreaming, and dreaming leads to death. I have a persistent nagging fear that the world of dreams is the one you will inhabit when you die. That the final few seconds of electrical brain activity will last for a seeming infinity—the only real infinity, I suppose, that any human ego can comprehend.

And that would really bum me out, to be honest. I’d prefer nothingness to some creepy oneiric landscape, over which one can exercise only an unpredictable and vague kind of control. I have anxiety about the afterlife. I fear that when plopped into its recondite midst, I will have a panic attack. Here’s my hell: an eternal panic attack, and no red wine.

***

Huge robot transformers, arms raised alertly, shunt the country’s electricity along thick ropes of conductive wire. When you pass near them the AM radio band hisses with static, the sound of blood boiling or my brain on drugs, enveloping in a fizzy rush this week’s Business Roundtable, a discussion I think of a new kind of spreadsheet software, then ebbing quickly, back to the banal chatter that helps keep me from thinking too much.

I’m cruising down Route 80 under a sky like shaved soap, the blue of my Utero’s hood etiolated to a light gray in the fading afternoon light. Not even the ontic perplexities of the twitchy stiff propped next to me could distract from the highway delight I now experienced. Gentle vehicular vibrations transferred from the wheels to the drive shaft to the steering wheel to my arms and on through my body, so that I was trembling with connectivity, with what Mary Baker Eddy called at-one-ment, with sheer driving excitement.

***

I’m not really sure what happened next. I remember the road in front of me sparkling in my headlights. I think we passed the skeleton of a semi in the meridian, buried up to its haunches in luminous powder. I jumped a fast train of thought, and had trouble sorting out the meaning behind the referents. I saw or thought I saw the shimmering carpet in front of me lift up, into the sky, and we rode a carpet of stars over the whole earth, over the storm and the white fields, the ribbon of road, the jutting heliotrope hills. And then just as suddenly as we had taken off we began to plummet, more quickly than I could register. The great white shawl of the ground came rushing towards us but I felt no fear, because this was what I had always wanted: to be embraced. We touched down hard, snow exploding everywhere around us, and we hurtled uncontrollably through the night for uncountable seconds. Eventually we sledded to a halt I knew not where.

I could not move. I could not think. I felt no pain, but could not seem to open my eyes, or, if they were open, to see. I drifted into a state of semi-consciousness.

 

Search for: Peace with self.

Item(s) not found.

 

Search for: Meaning.

Item(s) not found.

 

Search for: Reason to live.

Item(s) not found.

 

Over at Fictionaut, I posted a new story. It’s about the salt-cellar created by Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), pictured above. It’s pretty short. If you want to read it, go here.

I posted another story over at Fictionaut here. It’s about St. Francis. Or something. I don’t know what the hell it’s about. That’s your job. It was originally published in Metazen. Good people.

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For anyone curious about my next novel, I posted a story on Fictionaut here that was originally published in the brilliant and very worthy of your attention literary magazine trnsfr. A radically altered version of this story will be used for the thing-in-progress. Over the next few mothns, bits and pieces of the new novel will be appearing in various lit-mags, and I will keep you posted as to the when-and-where. Because I know you would much rather read experimental fiction than my silly ramblings about Guided By Voices. Right? Hello? Anyone?

You might or might not be interested in a story I wrote and posted at Fictionaut here. I mean, I’m not a mind reader. Yet.

Reminder to Los Angeles residents: I’m reading with a few other SLAKE contributors this evening for GOOD LA’s launch weekend at Atwater Crossing.