"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Henry Slough Chapter I

 

Henry Slough (pronounced Sluff) never realized he had a difficult-to-pronounce name until he left the small Southern Minnesota town where he grew up.  He knew that his father always had to spell it out when he ordered tools– “Sluff”, he said, slowly. “S-L-O-U-G-H”; and that he had to repeat the drill two or three times until the synapses of the operator fired and made the connection between the name and the spelling; but he never thought this was unusual because he knew that many of his friends’ fathers also spelled out far simpler names to the same operators, distinguishing among plosives (“D, for David….”) for clarity.

His grandparents were from County Slough in Ireland where Slough posed no more problems in pronunciation than Galway or Cork; but when they arrived in the United States they were called every name in the book – “Sloff” which quickly morphed into Sloth.  “Welcome, Mr. Sloth, said the manager of the First National Bank of Olmstead. “It’s a pleasure to see you again”; “Slug”, which the intellectuals in town used with a guttural throat-clearing or a glottal stop. And the rest – Slew, Slog, Sloof…the perversions of the name were endless.

Henry’s parents fared no better, but Gough Street in San Francisco helped out somewhat, although that thoroughfare is pronounced Goff, not Guff. 

None of this bothered Henry in the least.  His teachers simply learned at the beginning of school how to pronounce it and then so did his classmates.  He only realized its uniqueness and potential when he went to college on the East Coast (“Above your station”, said the priest at St. Vincent’s when he told him where he was going, hoping to persuade him to go to the seminary in Prairieville; and the priest was right in a way. When he told his classmates he was from southern Minnesota, they replied, “Bullshit.  There is only a northern Minnesota). 

His classmates jokingly punned: “Where’s Henry?”

“Oh, he’s sloughing off in his room”

He never took off his coat but sloughed it off.  He sloughed off idle remarks.  He never got a haircut, but a Neapolitan sloughing.  “Get stuffed” by his English mates became “Get sloughed”, etc.

Henry bought his uncle’s ‘57 Ford convertible a car he had always wanted ever since watching PULP FICTION, the part where John Travolta and Uma Thurman eat hamburgers in a chopped out ‘58 Caddy; and catching THE GRADUATE on TCM, the part about doing it with Elaine Robinson in the back seat of a ‘57 Ford.   His uncle’s Ford had been on blocks in Tucson since 1970.  He had driven it down to Arizona from Minnesota after he retired; but shortly after he got there he had a stroke,  and the only thing he could drive was his motorized wheelchair around the condo parking lot and at that, only in circles, because he only had the use of his left hand.

The car was in mint condition – only 20,000 miles, two-tone robin’s egg blue and white, light blue upholstery, great bus-size light blue steering wheel, dual chrome exhausts, and those fins!  Henry flew to Tucson, bought wheels and a new battery, filled it up with fluids and gas, and hit the road back to Minnesota.  Few people looked twice at the car in Prairieville, but it was in his college town back East where heads really turned.  Most of the girls he dated had seen PULP FICTION as well, loved the faux-cachet of a retro ride, and it wasn’t hard to convince them to drive out to the golf course, park, and make love in the back seat.  When they finished screwing, he took off his condom, told the girl he was sloughing it off like a rattlesnake does its skin, and drove back to town under the stars.

With the exception of his fascination with his surname and his love for the ‘57 Ford, Henry Slough was perfectly normal and perfectly middle.  He always was exactly in the middle of his class in grades, was liked but not loved, never envied or admired; but never disliked or avoided.  He didn’t try to be this way – if he did, then he would not be middle.  He would be unique.  Someone who perfected ordinariness would be worth knowing, very theatrical, able to invent someone he was not.   He would have to have an agenda, some plot to gain access to something, to acquire it. 

Henry was just middle.  His father was an accountant in Prairieville – a perfectly normal and ordinary profession – but his passion was tools.  He never fixed anything, never needed the elaborate 100-piece set of Craftsman’s; nor the 200-piece hand-tooled Solingen steel set from Hanover; but thought of his tools as works of art.  He framed the socket wrenches and put them on the wall of his den.  He displayed mitre boxes, monkey wrenches, nut drivers, ratchets, scratch awls, and spike mauls in glass cases.  He had one of the most complete sets of drill bits, dating back to the 17th century; and his collection of saws, hacksaws, and rasps resembled Torquemada’s torture chamber. He illuminated each display and had rigged a sequential light show, programmed to show off each exhibit as each spectator passed.

His mother was a homemaker, with a little Mary Kay and Tupperware on the side.  Henry liked it when the Tupperware women came over to the house.  He got excited by the smell of perfume and cigarette smoke, the high laughter, and girly hijinks.  He peered over the railing and watched the women drink highballs and listened when they talked about men.

So there was no reason for Henry to be so ordinary.  His father had a passion, and his mother – now that he thought about it – must have had her share of affairs with husbands in Prairieville.  He was not envious of their lives or interests; nor resentful of his mother, or his father for spending so much time sorting through tools in the basement.  He just carried on.  Went to school, did his homework, mowed lawns, washed cars, walked dogs, and eventually went to college “above his station”. 

Once again, Henry’s college application process was nothing out of the ordinary.  He did not crank out essays at midnight, shine at local interviews when college representatives came to Minneapolis, or deluge admissions offices with original photographs, art work, or short stories.  Colleges did not see his ordinariness as indifference, but as a refreshing Midwestern honesty and simplicity.  They thought that not only would he be a singular addition to the student body, he would be an antidote to the pretention, ambition, and overreaching that had become all too common.

Four years of college passed uneventfully.  He had the ‘57 Ford and the many conquests in it.  He played intramural sports; did his share of drinking and innocent carousing and graduated in the middle of his class.

During Spring Term of his Senior Year, when most of his classmates who were not going to graduate school were firing off resumes to advertising agencies, publishing houses, pharmaceutical companies, and the Peace Corps, Henry looked for trade schools, especially carpentry.  He knew that he did not have the intellectual firepower for anything more than a trade, and he had the common sense to see that plumbers, electricians, and carpenters were rarely out of work.  The US was moving away from a technical education, and therefore thousands of kids from Prairieville, Grand Junction, and points beyond went deep in debt for majors in “Communications” and ended up as cashiers at Walmart. 

Henry got accepted at a good trade school in Minnesota, graduated with a diploma in carpentry, and soon was an apprentice to a master carpenter in Badger, Minnesota, a small town on the Canadian border.  It was –50F cold up there in winter, so the building season was short, but the pay was good, and joining the union meant teachers’ contracts – you got paid by the year, no matter how many days were frozen more solid than McMurdo Bay.  Henry loved carpentry – the smell of the pine lumber, fresh from the sawmill; hammering nails in the clear Northern sunlight; eating lunch-pail sandwiches on the roof, overlooking the lake and the fir forests beyond.  He loved the smell of tar shingles, warming in the sun, the blat-blat of the staple gun, the smell of newly-mixed cement.

He did miss getting laid in the back of his ‘57 Ford, and there were very few eligible women in Badger.  There were Ojibwe and Chippewa Indian women from the reservations who came into the local bars to get drunk.  Some days, Henry picked up these squaws and fucked them in his trailer, paid them off, and returned to the construction site the next day less horny, but still a bit disgusted that all he could get was retread Indian pussy.  

The days, months, and years scrolled along.  Henry was happy enough, but thought there might be something more to life than power-stapling dry wall.  He wasn’t after foreign adventure, physical risk or danger; but felt that it at least was time to move out of the North woods, rancid Indian women, and trailer drunks.  So, he moved back to Boston, and through his college connections got a job at a Braintree construction company.  The Deloria Building Company was Italian at the top, Irish in the middle, and wetback, Portagee, and black on the bottom.  As a carpenter he was – again – in the middle, and worked alongside the plumbers and electricians from South Boston.  He missed the smell of Northern pine, tarpaper roofs, and camaraderie overlooking Minnesota lakes, but got used to riveting aluminum siding, putting up drywall, and installing pre-fab staircases. 

His life changed when he met Dina DiMarco, a girl whose family still lived in the North End of Boston.  Her grandfather still drank espresso on Hanover Street, a little anisette tossed in matched with a stogie.  with his cronies on Hanover Street.  Dina’s father was retired from the Government, and her mother, to keep busy, worked at Filenes three days a week. 

“Guinea cunt”, said Mickey Fannon.

“Wiry hair on her poontang”, said Riley.

In fact, Henry was not sure why he was so attracted to Dina.  She really was a throwback to the Sicilians he saw in The Godfather – dark, with a little mustache – but she had big tits, and loved to have them licked and sucked off.  She could come with just the sucking.  The Indians he screwed just wanted to get it over with, and the college girls in the back seat of the Ford worked too hard on multiple orgasms to worry about their tits. In fact, Dina Demarco was the first girl who really liked making love.  She moaned and sighed, arched her back, rubbed her come on her tits and asked him to suck it off.  Henry was in deep after two months. She had released all the sexual energy that had been pent up since he was a teenager.  Once again, dick rules.  The mustache was forgotten, she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

What she saw in him was another question. She had a sense – almost a pride - in her own sexual energy, and maybe turning guys on was the value added to her own volcanic orgasms.  Maybe after ten years of working at Fabric Man at the Mall in Taunton, the increasing grimness of her life with her parents and her disgusting grandfather, all nose hairs and stained wife-beaters, was getting to her. Henry had a nice apartment in Somerville, earned well, and clearly loved her.

Most of all she wanted to get away from her brothers adopted Pima Indians two years younger whom her parents adopted after her mother had a religious epiphany.  Born-again conversions and revelations don’t usually happen to Catholics – too egotistical, said the priest at St. Ann’s when his mother told him of her suffering, and of her mission to save poor, orphaned children.  “But Margaret”, the priest went on.  "You are still young enough to have children of your own.  That is God’s way”.  His father wanted no part of it, neither the adoption nor especially the meddling,buggering priests at St. Ann’s.

For months she looked for the ideal child.  She didn’t know what she wanted, as long as it wasn’t black, and then saw an ad on late-night TV for adoption Native Americans.  “Charity begins at home”, said the announcement.  “Don’t look in China or Russia for your little one.  Come to Arizona and adopted one of these little darlings”.  On the screen was the most adorable, cherubic, rosy- and chubby-cheeked Indian girl, looking right at the camera and smiling.  His mother called the 800 number on the screen and got the process started.  Not only would she and her husband take one little Pima, they would take two.

It took about two years for the adoption process to be completed, and by that time Dina was seven and the Pima twins (fraternal) were five.  They were indeed cute, but as they got older they got rambunctious, then mischievous, then started getting into trouble.  And they got fat.  Pima Indians are the fattest people in the United States, something about good fat genes which gave them natural energy stores for long antelope hunts, but which just produced blubber and lots of it in an urban, sedentary life. They could easily have been taken for Mexican or some kind of Latino or Portagee, because they were so fat, everyone in the neighborhood knew that they were the DiMarco Pimas. By the time they were teenagers they were doing glue, boosting cars, and running copper pipe from foreclosed houses.  For years they never got caught, but just when Dina was starting her Taunton Fabric Man job, they got busted.  First offense, parole, and the cops were looking to bust these two fat redskins for nothing. 

The family was a mess.  Dina’s father walked out three times on her mother.  “You wanted those fucking savages, you deal with them”.   She tried to get them straight jobs, like construction workers.  She had heard about Indians who were naturally built for riding girders 30 stories up, but they were Navajos, not Pimas.  Before she learned this she had her own doubts about how her two fat sons could possibly be agile enough to work on high buildings.  They were always tripping over the door stoop of the house and thundered their way up the two flights of steps of the duplex.  “So much for silent Indian tracking”, thought Dina who hated the twins, hated her mother for adopting them, and ran away with her father on one of his fugues.

Henry took a lot of shit from his co-workers.  These were Southies, tough working-class Irish, not a jot of lace-curtain gentility among them.  They were caricatures of the caricatures in movies like Gone Baby Gone and The Departed; and even worse, exaggerated versions of the Mickey Finn Irish of years ago – beer drunk, brawling, quick-trigger temper, and sweet contrition the next morning.  They were good guys, good to work with, and fun to hang out with.  Half were married to Southie girls, the others were single, horny, and ready to take anything.  They used to go slumming in Cambridge to goof on the Harvard faggots, get drunk in the bars on the Square, and always missed their stops on the T on the way home.

“So, whaddya doin’ with that guinea cunt?.  I’ll fix you up with my cousin Eileen”; or Peggy, or Maureen, or Faith.  He tried that a few times in the early days with Dina, but the Irish eyes never turned him on like Dina’s coal black, deep black, shining ones.  The Irish girls were too big, too.  They had too much meat, solid, thick, broad, wild hair, steamfitters arms.  Nothing like Dina who was petite (except for the tits) and who fit just perfectly together with him when they made love.

The shit came down heavier when they figured out that the Pima twins were related to Henry’s girlfriend.  They came around to the site one day wit Dina’s mother who was still living the fantasy of her boys as Indian high-wire specialists.  “There must be some military use for those fat fucks”, Fannon said when the boys had left.  “Stop a thousand Al-Qaedas comin’ t’rough the perimeter of the Green Zone”.

The thing was, his buddies on the construction site were all turned on by Dina.  She was sexy.  Dark, slight, mustachioed though she was, she had that walk – confident, breasts out, striding so her ass moved.  It was a fuck me walk and no straight man could miss it.  Her bus stop from work was near the site, so she often came by.  There was nothing demure about her, nor self-conscious, so she always gave Henry a big kiss – not a warm hug and a peck, but a deep tongue wet one.  Oh, how he loved her.

If he hadn’t finished a roof or dry wall, Dina hung out with the guys until he came down.  He liked it that his friends had changed their minds and liked her.  She came more and more often, changing bus stops as he changed construction sites.

She became more and more comfortable, joking and forming an easy, casual intimacy with them. She did her burlesque strut poses and actress shit; stuck her tits out, and made them laugh. “That’s the way he is”, he said to himself, and loved her even more for it – her confidence, her sexiness, her ease with men and herself.  At night, when she rolled on top of him, laughed and moaned and told him she loved him, all doubts were erased, figments of his imagination, shadows that meant nothing, shadows that came and disappeared just as quickly.

All was great in Henry’s life; or until the Pima twins went to Minnesota.

TO BE CONTINUED…..

Peter Brook’s King Lear

Peter Brook’s King Lear is a stunning, memorable cinematic vision – so different from any other Shakespeare film interpretations that I have seen.  Just for comparison, and interest, I watched a more traditional version with Ian McKellen in a staged and histrionic – but complete rendition of the play.  To really understand Shakespeare, and to miss nothing in the complex text, I like to read along with the play; and I only watch the abbreviated, abridged versions after I have seen more complete versions.  For example, Olivier’s Hamlet is much better Richard Burton’s; but it has been reworked and abridged; so I watched Burton’s first, then Olivier’s.  Coincidentally, the versions of both plays have a lot in common.  Burton is very theatrical (booming, sonorous voice, perfect diction), but at the end I was left with little else; while Olivier focusses on a few issues – such as the love/hate between Hamlet and his mother, and I felt I understood more than ever the Freudian interpretation of the play.

The same is true of McKellen and Paul Scofield who played Lear in the Brook play.  McKellen plays it “traditionally” – lots of histrionic madness; while Scofield under Brook’s spare direction, plays the madness more internally, and believably.  Remember, there is a willing suspension of disbelief at the beginning of the play when Lear gives away all his kingdom, to divide it equally among his three daughters; shuns the one who loves him most; and gives the two halves to the scheming, evil Goneril and Regan.

As you will see in the review I have quoted below, the Brook film is set in Denmark, on the wild sandy and snowy wastes of Jutland.  It is all on site, and in most scenes, you can see the actors’ breath, even inside.  The long shots of the kings caravans driving across the wasteland are stunning; and the heath is transformed from what one imagines as the English heath of  Thomas Hardy to a cold, desolate Northern wasteland.  The histrionic McKellen is constantly drenched with pouring rain, where for Brook the blowing wind and snow of the Jutland steppes is enough.

Brook’s direction reminds me of Werner Herzog, for nature in Herzog’s movies is a character, not a background.  Other versions of Lear have shown the heath as a physical image of Lear’s madness, but something familiar; but Brook’s is a heath of cold desolation.  Herzog also chooses his landscapes for their inherent power.  The image of Lear’s caravan coming across the snow wastes reminds me of the pack-line of Peruvian Indians slowly descending the Andes in the opening shot of Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

It is not fair to compare an on location version of a film, and a staged one.  Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V on location; but to do so the director had to cut a lot of text to accommodate the field shots.  Roman Polanski’s Macbeth also relied on many external shots, and among other faults, left the text unattended.  Ian McKellen’s Richard III had external scenes, but is even more compelling than Olivier’s masterpiece which was staged.

Also, I have had to get over the abridging of Shakespeare’s plays.  As I said, I like to read the play while watching the movie, and get lost when the movie is abridged.  However, Hamlet and Richard III are so long that they are almost always abridged.

Which leads me to King Lear  - I very much prefer the Peter Brook version, although it focuses far more on the Lear-Goneril-Regan portion of the diptych than the McKellen version which presents both it and its parallel Gloucester-Edgar-Edmund (in fact both parts are inter-linked which makes the final denouement of Brook’s version less faithful to Shakespeare).  It is better to have a powerful cinematic version of a portion of the play, than a more traditional and theatrical version. 

Following is a Vincent Canby (NYT) review in 1971:

“Having missed the King Lear that was staged here seven years ago by Peter Brook with the Royal Shakespeare Company, I'm unable to compare it with Mr. Brook's film version, which also stars Paul Scofield and Irene Worth and opened yesterday at the Paris Theater.

Thus happily unburdened of the need to make comparisons, I can simply state that this is a King Lear of splendor and shock. Mr. Brook's screen adaptation, filmed in a kind of primeval black-and-white, mostly in the wintery dune country of Denmark's Jutland Peninsula, is set in a time and place where the sun seems to be receding not because of any seasonal course but because the entire universe is moving toward an exhausted end.

... King Lear is, I think, Brook at his manic best. It triumphantly ignores both romantic and naturalistic traditions to achieve something akin to the so-called new theater in film terms.

… It has the relentless single-minded purpose of a prophet of doom. It also, from time to time, goes quite mad itself with cinematic effects, but it is so magnificently acted and so bravely conceived that I, for one, am willing to forgive these trespasses.

Mr. Brook's production is, I'm told, largely prompted by an essay, "King Lear or Endgame" by the Polish critic Jan Kott, who sees Lear as a Shakespearean tragedy of the grotesque, "an ironic, clownish morality play" that "makes a mockery of all eschatologies: of the heaven promised on earth, and the heaven promised after death."

In this conception, there is no need to worry about psychological truths. It doesn't concern itself with why a king, even one approaching senility, would arbitrarily carve up his kingdom and parcel it out among his three daughters on the basis of their love for him, nor why he could so arbitrarily disinherit the one daughter who loves him best for speaking sanely. These are simply the fateful mechanics by which Lear is set free in a universe that is quite as cold and terrifying as that in which Beckett's characters find themselves trapped in ash cans. (Interesting, because a very old but still active Peter Brook directed a Beckett-based play here in Washington – a short collection of Beckett’s scenes)

The people in Brook's Lear inhabit a kind of visual wasteland and live in places that look like frontier forts, and, except for the opening sequences, they have no subjects, only attending soldiers and servants. There is no music in this land, only crude sound effects, like those of the wheels of the rough wooden carts that serve as royal carriages.

What is most remarkable to me is that the director has been able to get so much of the beautiful text on the screen, so purely, through techniques that usually either overwhelm the language or make it preposterously theatrical. He uses lots of giant close-ups, individual zoom shots that separate the lines of a soliloquy and even a handheld camera that at times can barely keep up with the tumultuous action…

Of course, Brook has an extraordinary cast. This is no  all-star assembly but an ensemble. No one, perhaps, but Scofield could withstand the camera's close scrutiny so effectively. His Lear, who looks like a Michelangelo God somehow fallen to earth, is a life force at the end of his rope. Most importantly, he speaks the lines as if they'd just been created—with intelligence and surprise…

Toward the close of the film, as Lear's world collapses into piles of corpses (Cordelia, the Fool, Goneril, Regan, Gloucester, almost everyone), the images become more and more pale, until, as Lear himself sinks slowly into death, the screen goes completely white. It is truly an end. Lear dies grotesquely, but unhumiliated, which, according to Brook, is as much of a victory as can ever be achieved by a magnificent clown.”

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Olivier’s Othello

 

I watched the film version of Olivier’s 1965 Othello.  He played the Moor in blackface, and affected a deep African voice.  This was disconcerting because today either Othello would be played by a black man or a white man for that matter.  Our view these days is either that there are many black actors (Laurence Fishburne, for example, in a 1985 movie with Kenneth Branagh as Iago, more later) who could play the role; or that in this era of multi-culturalism, we can easily suspend our disbelief at seeing a white man playing Othello.

This feeling of unease I had with Olivier’s blackface was made worse by his interpretation of the role.  Othello is made out to be a hysterical fool, easily led and manipulated by Iago.  The later scenes with Othello and Iago together are like bear-baiting – the gullible, unthinking animal is provoked, prodded, and tormented.  Othello’s reactions to Iago, and in scenes with Desdemona are of the fool gone mad – full of histrionics and melodrama.

I do not believe Shakespeare intended the Iago-Othello relationship to be that one-sided – that Othello could be so easily demented.  He is, after all, a respected general, welcome at court, and admired by the Doge of Venice and his nobles.  It is true that the jealousy that infects him is corrosive, insistent, and unquenchable; but not so completely, so soon, and in so wildly manifest a manner.

To compare, I watched parts of the Fishburne-Branagh film.  Fishburne plays Othello in a more believable and moderate way.  He exudes power and force, but has the same weakness that many if not most men have – suspicion of their wives – and this weakness festers until it kills him, and in this he is tragic.  Iago is Machiavellian, but not cruel – and again, I think this is much closer to Shakespeare, for in many of his plays there are Machiavellian characters (Richard III, Edmund), and the thinking of Machiavelli was beginning to gain currency when Shakespeare wrote. 

I do not recommend the Branagh-Fishburne film, since it is seriously abridged, hard to follow, and not really Shakespeare (if you take the view, as I do, that the playwright intended for every piece of his plays to have a meaning germane to the whole); but it does show very starkly how different actors and directors can interpret the same play in different ways.

In this vein, the director of the Olivier version chose to take out one of the most critical, although small scenes of the play – when Desdemona and Emilia (IV.iii) are talking “girl talk”.  Did Desdemona ever think of taking a lover? Didn’t she find some of the nobles of the court handsome? “Would’st thou do such a deed for all the world?”, Desdemona asks Emilia.  “The world is a huge thing.  It is a great price for a small vice…Why, the wrong is but a wrong in the world; and having the world for your labor, ‘tis a wrong in your own world and you might quickly make it right.”

Emilia is a strong character in this scene and others.  Here she goes on to say “Let husbands know their wives have sense like them…” And in another scene she says that men have a gluttonous appetite – they devour women and when they are sated, belch them out.  Desdemona is tempted by what Emilia says, and admits she has a roving eye.  So, although Desdemona may not have actually committed adultery, she certainly could have and might indeed have if circumstances had not evolved so quickly.  This is an important omission.

Pasta Seafood and Cream Recipes

 

Here are some more pasta recipes which are a bit easier to make, but all good. Most are with cream, which gives a richer sauce with more consistency and a creamy texture. As in all my recipes, the quantities are approximate, so you will have to use your judgment and taste frequently.  The proportions are correct, so you have a good recipe to start with.  I add salt to taste in all recipes, because you can never tell about the sodium content of canned salmon, tomato paste, etc.  I have suggested penne for all the recipes – they seem to be the best for cream sauces; but you can also use tagliatelle, although they require more sauce.  Rigatoni are also good, but a little to much air for the sauce.  I like penne rigati (thin ridges on the pasta), but plain penne are fine too.

Penne with Salmon, Mint, and Cream

This has always been one of my favorites.  It is simple, elegant, and delicious.  First it tastes good – the combination of salmon, tomato, and fresh mint is unusual; but all of the ingredients work well together.  Second, it looks great – the dark red of the tomato sauce gets a more amber tone with the salmon; the mint and black olives give contrast; and the sprinkling of grated parmesan brings it all together.

* 1/4 can Red Sockeye salmon

* 1/2 cup cream (or Half-and-Half)

* 1/2 cup whole milk yoghurt (you can use low fat yoghurt, but the whole milk is creamier and you avoid the chance of separation during cooking)

* 1/2 can tomato paste (low salt)

* handful of fresh mint

* 1 Tbsp. dried mint flakes)

* 2 tsps. dried oregano

* 3 Tbsp. olive oil

* 5-6 lg. pitted olives, quartered (or chopped)

* 1 lg. clove garlic, chopped

* 1/2 lb. penne

* 2-3 Tbsp. freshly grated parmesan

- Sautee the garlic in the olive oil for about 3 minutes.  Do not brown. 

- Add the mint and oregano leaves, sautee for about 30 seconds, or until well mixed

- Add the salmon, stir, and mix well, cook for about 2 minutes

- Add the cream, yoghurt, tomato paste and chopped olives

- Cook over low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  The color of the sauce should be even

- Serve over the tagliatelle; sprinkle chopped fresh mint leaves and grated parmesan; and finish with ground pepper.

Penne with Crab and Red Pepper

There are not too many recipes that call for red pepper, and I am not sure why.  It gives a very high flavor to the sauce, and when cooked with cream, gives a pink/red sauce that is appealing.  The addition of paprika gives additional color and taste.  The fresh basil complements the red pepper. All the above combine nicely with the crab.  This is a simple and delicious dish.

* 1 1/2 cups crab meat (I recommend buying fresh, local crabmeat.  While the canned, pasteurized variety from Indonesia or Thailand is fine, local crabmeat (we are lucky to be near the Chesapeake in DC) has a real, distinct crab flavor and fragrance).

* 1/2 lg. red pepper, cut into 1/2” pieces

* 1 medium bunch fresh basil, chopped

* 3 lg. cloves garlic, chopped

* 3 Tbsp. olive oil

* 1/2 cup sherry (Amontillado is best.  You don’t want anything sweeter)

* 1/2 cup cream or half-and-half

* 1/2 cup sour cream

* 1 tsp. paprika

* 2 Tbsp. freshly grated parmesan

* 4-5 sprigs parsley, stems removed

* 1/2 lb. penne

- Sautee the garlic in olive oil for about 3 minutes moderate heat, then add the red peppers and basil, sautee for another 3-4 minutes until peppers are getting soft

- Add 1 cup of the crab to the mix and sautee for an additional 5 minutes, moderate heat

- Add paprika, and sherry and continue cooking and stirring for 2-3 minutes

- Add the cream, sour cream, and stir. If the mix is too thick, then thin slightly with whole milk.  It is important to stir constantly because the sour cream can cause separation.  If you are concerned, leave out the sour cream.

- Cook over low heat for about 5-8 minutes.  The sauce should be well mixed with an even color, with all the ingredients well blended.

- Serve over the penne, and sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup of crab meat over the top

- Sprinkle with grated parmesan, ground pepper, and garnish with parsley

Penne with Red Pepper

This is a variation of the above recipe, but without the crab and the basil.  It results in a sauce with much more of a red pepper taste.

* 1 lg. red pepper, cut into 1/2” pieces

* 3-4 Tbsp. olive oil

* 1 lg. clove garlic, chopped

* 1 tsp. paprika

* 1/2 cup half-and-half

* 1/2 cup sour cream

* 2-3 Tbsp. sherry (add more to taste)

* 2-3 Tbsp. grated parmesan cheese

* 1/2 lb. penne rigati

- Sautee the garlic and red pepper in the olive oil until the pepper is soft

- Add the sherry and cook for a few minutes until the alcohol has evaporated

- Lower the heat to a minimum, then add the cream and sour cream and stir well.  It is important to stir constantly and over very low heat to avoid separation.  The sour cream adds a very nice taste, but it can cause separation.  If you are concerned, leave the sour cream out

- Cook over moderate heat for about 5 minutes or until the cream has a pink/rose color

- Add the parmesan and stir constantly until the cheese is completely blended into the sauce, and immediately turn off the heat.  Again, the low heat and constant stirring is important to prevent separation

- Serve with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese and freshly-ground pepper

Penne with Shrimp and Cream

This is one of my favorites of all the seafood cream sauces.  It is a variation on the crab recipe above, but the intense shrimp flavor comes from the reduction of the wine steaming liquid into which shrimp shells have cooked rather than from the shrimp themselves.  The shrimp need to be steamed only slightly and reserved, then added at the last minute.  Delicious!!

* 1/2 lb. medium-large uncooked shrimp, shells on

* 2 cups white wine for steaming the shrimp (can be ordinary wine, but not chardonnay)

* 1 cup water

* 1/2 cup cream or half and half

* 1/2 cup sour cream

* 2 tsp. dried basil

* 1 lg. clove garlic, chopped

* 2 Tbsp. olive oil

* 2 Tbsp. grated parmesan cheese

* 4-5 sprigs parsley, stems removed

- Place the shrimp in a steamer, over which you have poured the wine, water, and basil

- Steam the shrimp until done (the shells have turned pink – do not overcook). Remove the shrimp and leave the liquid in the steaming pot

- Remove the shells from the shrimp and toss back into the steaming liquid.

- Boil over medium heat until the liquid has reduced to 1/2 cup. This should take about 20 minutes or so.  You don’t want more than a half-cup, because it will make the cream sauce watery.

- Sautee the garlic in the olive oil until done, not browned.

- Add the cream and sour cream, and stir in the parmesan cheese very slowly and gradually to avoid separation

- Add the reduced shrimp stock even more slowly, almost like making hollandaise sauce, a think drizzle into the cream sauce, stirring continuously.

- Cut the shrimp into 1” pieces and place in the sauce.  Do not cook, just warm them to the temperature of the sauce

- Serve over the penne, sprinkle parmesan cheese, ground pepper. Garnish with parsley.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Taj Hotel

 

The Taj was always one of my favorite hotels, an elegant grande dame of the British Raj, tall, ornate, overlooking the Gateway of India in Bombay and perfect in service, rooms, lobbies, and appointments.  Staying at the Taj was a trip back to the Raj with liveried coachmen, white-jacketed waiters, pukka afternoon tea and gin-and-tonics, polished brass fixtures (the nasty smell of Brasso soon became associated with old British hotels), teak and mahogany, planters, and flowers.   The rooms were spacious (although nothing like the deluxe suites of the Five Star hotels of Jakarta and Singapore which were more like the ground floors of Potomac McMansions than hotel rooms), light, and airy, with many overlooking the Arabian Sea.  Breakfasts and dinners were formal with white linen tablecloths, silver, and crystal.  My kind of place; and one of many in South Asia that I visited.

I landed in Bombay in December, 1968, my first trip out of the United States; and when I walked along the promenade at India Gate, the Arabian Sea in front of me, the grand Taj behind, and the mass of India everywhere surrounding, I thought how lucky I was, and what a great decision I made.  I couldn’t believe my good fortune….India!!  Alone, 26, adventure, romance, fakirs, elephants, ganja, and coffee-cream-colored, sari-ed women for the asking.

From the very beginning my aerograms were filled with the wonder of India – the kaleidoscopic markets, the smells of spices, cow dung, jasmine, low tide; rickshaws, Ambassador taxis, Tata trucks, B.E.S.T busses, cows, cyclists, dhots, saris, naked sadhus…I repeated to everyone: “I can’t believe I am here!”

My first contact with India was in a rooming house in Pittsburgh where one of the roomers was a graduate student from Calcutta.  She was from the Black Hole of Calcutta, had those dark rings around her eyes that to me meant Indian women, ate vegetarian food cooked on a hotplate in her room.   That and a greasy Pakistani meal at the 1964 World’s Fair, eaten just to be different.  When I joined CARE, I was initially slated to go to Algeria, a place I had always wanted to visit ever since I saw L’Etranger.  The scene where friends are eating a civilized lunch on a pier on the Mediterranean, under umbrellas in the brilliant sunshine was North Africa.  I wanted to eat civilized lunches, live in a Mediterranean climate, eat oranges and fresh fish.  At the last minute, CARE said that I was to go to India.  Thinking of the greasy puris and the raccoon eyes of Miss Tripathi, I hesitated, but went.

I did not stay at the Taj in those first few weeks in Bombay, but in a much more modest hotel not far from Breach Candy and the water where the office was.  I was so excited about being in India that I remember nothing about the hotel except the sound of the crows (kites) that for me then and now are the sound of Bombay.  In all the movies of Merchant Ivory set in Bombay, you can hear the crows, and I am back.  I recently watched THE HOUSEHOLDER and BOMBAY TALKIES, films set in Bombay at the time when I was there; and the crows were cawing.

Behind the Taj was the Rex hotel where I went with a Goan friend I met in the first week I was in Bombay.  This was a depressing hotel.  It was dark, dirty, and climbing the steps to the door, rats scurried across my sandaled feet.  They would squeak and scatter if I stepped into them with my toes.  The Rex was a hotel for heroin addicts.  I had never seen this scene in my time in New York driving a taxi.  Each room was lit with one ceiling bare bulb, and hat a cot and a chair.  Addicts were nodding in chairs, asleep on the grey sheets of the cots, or stumbling in the room and in the halls. 

Two years after I had moved to Delhi, I returned to Bombay to brief a new American Administrator who had come to take my place.  I stayed at the Taj.  After so many months having tea in the lobby, drinks in the Permit Room (all foreigners had to register as “Certified Alcoholics” to get served liquor in Bombay), and dinner in the restaurants, I got to stay in the hotel, and the rooms were all that I had expected.  They had not lost their lustre, their well-kept elegance, and old period-piece furniture. 

At that time the New Taj was being constructed next door.  It would look nothing like the old, historic, colonial hotel, but would be a multi-story tower – the new India.  What amazed me was the silence at the construction site: the hotel was being built by hand! Up and down bamboo scaffolding went Rajasthani women with headloads; and the only sound was the clink-clink of hammers finishing the concrete walls.  It was the New India, but was most definitely being built by the Old.

The other hotels in Maharashtra where I stayed while “on tour” were non-descript.  I loved taking the train up the ghats, a climb of about 2000 feet which made all the difference in the world.  The clinging, oppressive humidity disappeared about half way up – I remember the spot because there were cascades of water falling down the mountains (I tried to travel in the rainy season when it was cool enough for a sweater in Poona.  It is hard to imagine a life in the torrid heat with no air conditioning and how a trip up the ghats was anticipated for weeks).  The Shreyas hotel in Poona was a simple, concrete and glass hotel with no frills – hard wood beds with thin mattresses and a single cotton covering; toilet and sink, and one tiny tea towel for bathing.  But each room had a balcony overlooking the courtyard where breakfast was prepared.  Dirty pots and pans were scrubbed with water and ash, scraps were given to the goats, and dishes rinsed in a bucket of greyish water.  So the view from the balcony was good – you got to see an Indian “kitchen”; and bad because you saw what was coming up to your room.

I tried to go to Nagpur, the geographical center of India in Maharashtra, and one of the hottest places on the subcontinent in summer, but delightfully cool, fresh, and brilliant in the winter.  Its main crop was oranges, and in winter the smell of oranges blossoms was intoxicating.  In summer, however, there was only incessant, brutal, forge-like heat and dust.  The hotels had no air conditioning and the only way to get relief was to soak a sheet in water, cover yourself with it, and turn the ceiling fan on full blast.  The rapidly evaporating water chilled the sheet, and for a few blessed minutes you could feel cool and comfortable.  However, in the desert dryness of Nagpur, and in the 100F heat of the room which never cooled because it faced West, the brief moments of relief passed quickly. 

I never complained, however.  This was the adventure I had been looking for ever since the moment in graduate school when I met returnees from Peace Corps 1 and 2.  I was in India!!!

Othello–Many Questions Make a Compelling Play

I am re-reading Shakespeare.  I was an English major at Yale in the mid-Sixties, suffered through Shakespeare, Marlowe, Thomas Kid, Clarissa, the Epistolary Novel, Blake and the Romantics parsed and analyzed to death by Harold Bloom….and now I can’t get enough of Shakespeare, and Harold Bloom.  A good education was wasted on the young, or at least me; but I am only thankful that I discovered Shakespeare for the first time about six months ago.  I was interested in Tudor history, decided to read and see Henry VIII (a good presentation at the Folger), and then moved on to all the Histories, then to the Tragedies.  I have read King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, and now Othello. 

As I have mentioned before, I wish Shakespeare had been taught the way I am reading him now – 1) short synopsis of the play for orientation, historical context; 2) reading the play carefully, with references to history; 3) criticism, at least three takes on the play; and 4) movies or theatre of the plays.  It has been an education (which it should have been back at Yale), and a delight.  I have the patience now to read every line; the sense to realize that Bloom and the Shakespeare critics do, in fact, know more than I do; but the confidence after forty years of literature to know that I do have a point of view.

Which leads me to Othello, my favorite play of those that I have read.  Why?  I thought Hamlet was the most philosophical, and I have contrasted the play with those of Chekhov whose early existentialism mirrored Hamlet’s “indecision” but from a modern perspective.  I liked Hamlet because of the questioned relationship between Hamlet and his mother, and concluded that Gertrude married the King to get ahead and protect herself from the insecurity of the English court – like Lady Anne in Richard III; but when I saw Olivier’s film version of the play, I saw what critics had written about the sexual and Oedipal relationship between Hamlet and his mother.

I thought that Macbeth was fascinating because of the depiction of blind ambition, but tempered by guilt or at least reflection which Edmund, Richard III, or Iago never did.  I liked Lear for the same depiction of ambition, and for the classic greed and avarice of all families. I never felt, as Bloom did, that Edmund was the villain that Richard or Iago were, and focussed more on the predatory evil of Goneril and Regan.  I was not taken with the hidden identities, the metaphor of the heath, and the quick transition from good to questionable (Lear’s sudden rejection of Cordelia), but they all had echoes in the other plays, and thus were important for understanding Shakespeare.

Othello is fascinating because of its ambiguity: was Desdemona a virgin or not?  Did Othello ever consummate the marriage? for if he had, he would know whether or not his jealousy was grounded in fact – or at least the presumption of fact.  If he did not consummate the marriage, why did he not have intimate relations with his wife, to at least find out half of the issue (i.e. if she was a virgin, then he had nothing to be jealous about, would have known the duplicity of Iago and the honesty of Cassio; if she was not then he would not have been wracked with doubt but could have then found out who was sleeping in his bed)?  What was behind Iago’s evil?  It couldn’t have been because he was passed over, but was it really some sexual inadequacy – he hated the potent Moor because of the Moor’s potency (legend had it that Africans were promiscuous, and therefore potent)?  He had homosexual and unrequited longings for Othello, and thus turned his feelings to hatred?  We saw this in Hamlet, where he turns violently against his mother for having quickly jumped in bed with the new King who had killed his father.

Why did Othello marry Desdemona in the first place?  He didn’t appear to love her, despite what he said; wasn’t in a hurry to consummate the marriage.  It was not a political marriage, so what was behind it?  And Desdemona, was she truly smitten by Othello as it seems, and she becomes an innocent like Juliet or Cordelia (less so, since Cordelia also had an iron fist of revenge)?

Why did Othello believe Iago and not Desdemona?  Was it because he trusted men and his military brothers?  Or deeply mistrusted and hated women (there are many lines of vitriol against women)?

Was Othello really out of his depth in Venice?  Despite his military victories and the nation’s honors, putting aside convictions of about Africans, in the end he is not smart, tactical, or wise, and given to irrationality and witchcraft (the handkerchief, blood of virgins etc.)?

Iago is the main character in the play, but is he?  Bloom loves him (and Richard III and Edmund) because of his Nietzsche-esque rejection of common mores and his freedom), but Othello with all his internal grief and torment is really more like the rest of us than the pure and unexplained evil of Iago.  His torment is more real than that of Hamlet or Macbeth.

I like Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca who are independent women, and especially the scene with Desdemona and Emilia when Emilia asks if Desdemona has ever thought of sleeping with another man.  And her lines about men taking women to satiate their hunger, then belching them out are great.  So what about Desdemona, then?  She didn’t sleep with Cassio or the Venetian noblemen, but she did think about it.

On to the movie versions of the play…..!!!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ronnie Rigoletto’s Pasta with Shrimp, Basil, and Cream; and Cajun Boiled Shrimp

 

Cajun Boiled Shrimp

The combination of fresh shrimp and fresh basil is unbeatable, and I am including a recipe for it below.  It is very hard to get fresh, never-frozen shrimp, and the first time I even had it was in Houma, LA, down on the bayous.  We asked our innkeeper where to eat in this small town, and he told us a local place where they only served boiled shrimp.   Hmmmm…boiled potatoes, boiled Irish dinner, boiled carrots.  Boiling anything seemed designed to leach all flavor from any ingredient.  However, boiled shrimp were fresh, pulled from the Gulf by the shrimp boats we could see moored in the slips behind the restaurant; and they were boiled in this spicy liquid. This is a pasta post, and I will get to my Shrimp with Basil recipe, below, but for now, the boiled shrimp:

* 4-5 cups water

* 2 crushed cloves garlic

* 1 lg. celery stalled, chopped

* 1 lg. onion, chopped

* 1 medium lemon, whole, quartered

* 1 Tbsp. ground fresh ginger

* 2 tsp. mustard seeds

* 2 tsp. celery seeds

* 15 peppercorns

* 5 shakes hot pepper flakes

* 2 tsp. oregano

* 4 bay leaves

* 1 1/2 Tbsp. Cajun seafood spice

* 1 1/2 Tbsp. Bay Spice

* 1 Tbsp. salt;

* 2 Tsp. sugar

- Boil liquid with all ingredients for 30 minutes

- Remove solids, toss

- Add shrimp, cook for now more than 3 minutes

- Serve (individual diners will remove shells)

 

Pasta with Fresh Basil and Shrimp

The key to this recipe is the shrimp stock that is made by steaming the shrimp in white wine and spices, then removing the shells, tossing them back in the liquid, and cooking until the liquid has been reduced down to 1/2 cup.  This intense shrimp flavor will give this dish the shrimp taste required to balance the fragrance of the basil.

* 1 lb. uncooked shrimp, shells on

* 4-5 Tbsp. olive oil

* 2 lg. cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

* 1 Tbsp. dry basil

* 2 lg. handfuls fresh basil, chopped coarsely

* 1/2 cup white wine

* 1 cup water

*1/4 cup half-and-half cream

* grated parmesan

* 1/2 lb. penne rigati

- Steam the shrimp for about 5 minutes or until the shells are pink in a steaming liquid of white wine and water with dried basil.

- Remove the shells; and reserve the steaming liquid.

- Place the shells back into the liquid, and cook until the liquid has been reduced to about 1/2 cup; remove shells and discard

- Sautee the garlic and the fresh basil in the olive oil until the leaves are wilted, garlic is cooked but not browned.

- Add the reduced shrimp liquid and the cream, stirring gently until fully combined

- Cook for an additional 5 minutes or so, adding the shrimp, cut into 1” pieces; add salt to taste

- Plate, pouring sauce and shrimp over each portion, sprinkling with cheese and grindings of black pepper

Ronnie Rigoletto’s Pasta

Spaghetti with Clams

This is a delicious clam dish, for you use fresh clams.  Their juice is briny, slightly bitter, and very clammy, and with browned garlic and reduced white wine, the result is a dish of perfect balance:

* 2 dozen “pasta neck” or little neck clams.  Be sure to check to be sure that they are all closed when you buy them.
* 1/4 cup olive oil (as in all my recipes, enough to liberally cover the bottom of a large pot, or about 5-6 Tbsp.)
* 5-6 extra large cloves of garlic, chopped coarsely
* 3-4 shakes hot red pepper
* 1 lg. bunch parsley, coarsely chopped
* freshly ground black pepper
* juice of 1/2 lemon
* 1/2 cup white wine (can be inexpensive wine)
* 1/2 cup water
* 1/2 lb. spaghetti or spaghettini
- Lightly brown the garlic in the olive oil in a large pan – the same pan in which the clams will be steamed.  The trick is to get the garlic lightly browned – not undercooked nor burned.  Undercooking and you get an overpowering garlic taste; burned, well, bitter and nasty.  But browned gives a sweet caramel flavor. One thing to remember – the garlic will continue to brown after you have turned the heat off, so try to anticipate. 

- Add the hot pepper just before the garlic is finished browning

- Add the clams which have been well scubbed; the wine, water, and parsley

- Cook the clams over medium high heat until they open.  Give the pan a few shakes during the process

- When the clams are all open (throw out all clams which have not opened…give them a chance, first, leaving them in for another minute or so), add the lemon juice, and serve over spaghetti.  First ladle on the sauce/juice, then apportion the clams, garnish with parsley.  DELICIOUS!

Crab Spaghetti

This is one of my very favorites.  The first time I had it was at a restaurant, called Vincenzo’s on Dupont Circle.  The restaurant was a real Italian restaurant – the food was perfectly-prepared and –served.  The waiters were attentive and helpful.  The décor was simple – one came to eat.  

Only once did I ever eat at an Italian restaurant with pictures of gondolas, Mt. Vesuvius, and plastic grapes dangling from indoor trellises) that actually was good. I remember the escarole soup in particular.  It was prepared with fresh escarole, and the egg had been dropped in at just the right time. However, New Haven was not a place to get good Italian food.  The old Italian area, Wooster Square (near where my grandmother lived), had been converted to the new Wooster Square; and the food was disgusting – great portions of spaghetti and meatballs falling off the plate because you were expected to take them home; garlicky stuffed mushrooms; “grilled” fish which really meant old frozen fish broiled in butter…..yecccchh; and my own sister who grew up in the same Italian house brought me there.  What was she thinking?

In any case, Vincenzo’s was the real thing.  We had already begun our 5-week summer vacations to Tuscany, and appreciated the fresh, saltless, crusty bread; ordering one course a time (‘How could you possibly know what you wanted for your second course until you had had your first?”); light, fresh, white wine, trays of cheese and dessert, grappa and biscotti. 

I remember having white wine from the recent harvest in Tuscany out of a barrel and from a gas pump nozzle.  It was just a bit frizzante and so refreshing on hot day, sitting outside eating figs plucked from the neighbor’s trees and prosciutto from his cellar. 

One of the first dishes I had at Vincenzo's was Spaghetti with Crab, and here it is, changed over the years a bit, but basically the same:
  * 1/2 container crab meat.  The best option is to have fresh local crabmeat - I get mine from the Dupont Circle Farmers's Market or at Whole Foods.  The pasteurized variety from Indonesia is quite acceptable, but you will notice the difference
  * 1 can low-salt San Marzano Italian tomatoes.  There are some good brands now at Whole Foods; 1/2 can tomato paste
          * 1 lg. bunch fresh basil, chopped coarsely

          * 1 Tbsp. dried basil

          * 4 cloves garlic, chopped

          * 3 Tbsp. olive oil

          * 1/2 cup red wine

          * 3-4 shakes hot pepper flakes

          * 1/2 lb. rigatoni

- Sautee the garlic in the olive oil for a few minutes; then add basil and hot pepper

- Add tomatoes, tomato paste, wine, and half of the crab

- Cook 3 hours, more or less over low heat - should simmer, and consistency should be thick and not watery

- Plate the pasta, add sauce, sprinkle with additional crab meat, garnish with parsely, ground black pepper

- Serve

‘Of Gods and Men’, ‘Into Great Silence’, ‘Russian Ark’ Film Reviews

 

Of Gods and Men is a good film, set in a monastery in the Atlas mountains of Algeria at the beginning of the recent civil war.  Eight older men, all of whom have been in the monastery for years and until the time of the film have known nothing but a peaceful, idyllic existence of prayer, solitude, growing, and helping and friendly interaction with the residents of the villages around.  The civil war begins, and they get caught up in it.  They debate their reaction to the violence around them.  Should they care for everyone, regardless of their complicity in murder?  Should they leave, or stay as a sign of solidarity with the villagers among whom they have lived for so long?  They stay, and are executed.

The scenes of the monastery are the most compelling for their depiction of a removed life of contemplation and brotherhood.   While Into Great Silence does not feature brotherhood, it is a remarkable look into monastic life.  For the two hours of the film there is but a few minutes of talking, and yet the film is never boring.  There is an eloquence and poetry in the sound of the leaves of a prayer book being turned; the creaking of a wooden pew, an echoed cough.  There is a beauty in the preparation of meals with the simplest of implements, and a reverence for the silence at meals.  The shots of the monks tending garden, those of the outlines of snow-covered roofs, stunning.

Russian Ark is a unique and beautiful film.  Shot at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, it is both a recreation of 200 years of Russian history and a look into one of the greatest museums in the world.  It, like Of Gods and Men but particularly Into Great Silence the movie takes the view through each of the rooms of the museum in which actors are playing out scenes from Russian history.  So at once it is the Czars’ winter palace and a museum.  There are quiet scenes of just one or two of the royal family rustling through a room, or pageantry when the King of Persia makes a state visit.  There is nothing like it.

In all three, the silence itself (or the silence interrupted only by the quiet sounds of living) is an actor in the film.

I have been told that the mime production of King Lear in Washington was remarkable.  At first I, like most people, said “What? Shakespeare without words?”, but why not? A physically evocative mime ballet interpretation of his works.  I am sorry I missed it.

Nostalgia for the Light Review–Werner Herzog

 

I saw Nostalgia for the Light yesterday – a film about astronomy, memory, the ‘disappeared’ in Chile, and the Atacama desert. While some of the connections seemed a bit contrived (the desert was the place where the bodies of the disappeared were buried and where the 30 year search for remains was continuing; where giant radio telescopes were located because of the transparent air; and where archeologists were searching for their own remains of the past), each of the pieces was extraordinary in their own right.

The astronomical color images, recreated from the digital imagery of the radio telescopes were fantastic; the images of the vast and completely dry Atacama desert (it is the only place on earth when seen from space that it completely brown because it has not even 1 degree of humidity) were stunning; and the interviews with the Women of the Disappeared were moving.  The women who have been combing the desert – this vast, empty, and featureless place – with sand pail and shovel, picking up shards of bone, told their story of commitment, memory, and longing with great empathy.  All in all, it was an excellent movie.

I was struck by similarities to the films of Werner Herzog.  His Lessons of Darkness has the same reverence for man-made objects, without regard to meaning.  The opening shot in Nostalgia is of an old German 19th Century telescope, the first placed in the desert.  It takes many minutes before you can know what the object is as the camera slowly pans over dollies, wheels, gears, and finally the long, black shaft pointing out to the open sky.  Subsequent shots of the modern radio telescopes opening and closing are similar.  Herzog in Lessons does the same thing.  He flies slowly over the Iraqi desert just after the first Gulf War filming the wrecks of tanks, armaments, and vehicles, seeing them as works of art – the twisted and scorched metal, chemical pools of brilliant green and blue, detritus of armed columns, littered in the vast desert was a respectful of history and of the beauty of the objects themselves.   Herzog’s shots of the oil wells still spewing oil or on fire, were unforgettable, especially those of men working to control them – a ballet within a hellish scene.

Herzog and Director Patricio Guzman (Nostalgia) both have an appreciation of the importance of nature as an integral part of the story – any story.  Nature is never just background or setting for Herzog; but an actor or character in the films. Encounters at the End of the World is probably the closest example, for his shots of Antarctic ice and water are very much like Guzman’s shots of the desert.   Another film where nature is even more an active character is Nosferatu.  The brooding scenes of the Transylvanian forests and mountains as Harter makes his way up to Dracula’s castle have a frightening life to them, and a dark beauty.  Herzog lingers for far more time on a scene of nature than any director – in interviews he talks about this idiosyncracy.  There are other scenes from Nosferatu where this is noted, especially the scene where Harter is walking with Isabelle Adjani on the beach before he leaves for the Castle.  Perhaps the best example are the opening shots of Heart of Glass where the rolling fog in off the mountains are supposed to have a hypnotic effect on the viewer and a theme for the entire movie (he hypnotized all but one actor in the movie – the visionary).

Another similarity between Nostalgia and the work of Herzog is both directors’ use of prolonged close-ups of people.  Herzog made it a point of staying with a close-up longer than any other directors (especially in his documentaries), but Guzman more.  In the shot of one young Chilean survivor’s grandparents, the camera stays on them for at least two full minutes where the narration goes on.

Another similarity between the two directors is their interest in eccentric people.  Herzog in White Diamond and Grizzly Man shows to obsessive, eccentric, but attractive people.  The first is about an inventor who wants to build lighter-than-air ships, and to fly them over Iguassu Falls.  The second, more well known, is about a man who wants to live with grizzlies.  Guzman in Nostalgia shows Chilean women who after almost forty years have not given up their search for the remains of the disappeared.  The way they do this – sifting with beach pail, shovel, and rake makes in the vastness of the desert – and the impossibility of finding remains, shows their obsession; but also shows something noble about them, and the director captures this.

In any case, Nostalgia is worth seeing, and even more is anything by Werner Herzog (with the last five years excepted.  He has a new film out which I will see, but I no longer go with great anticipation  His film with Christian Bale as a POW was derivative and predictable).  At least in his early films, I  don’t know of a director who puts more of himself in his work.  His visions and obsession with completion of it are legendary.  He actually hauled a steamer over the mountain in Fitzcarraldo.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

More Tales from Crackerland–‘Lyle Bondage’

 

Lyle Bondage

I heard once that you could tell when a pig was going to shit by the direction he twisted his tail – corkscrew to the left, shit; corkscrew to the right, nothing… or pig fart. Now why anyone would care to know that totally useless fact is beyond me, but every time I was out in the pen shoveling, I kept looking at these pigs tails to see if the theory was right. There were so many pigs in the pen that there was always one shitting behind me instead of in front of me, and when I turned around to look, the one in front of me shat, so I ended up missing both of them. When I finally did get a look, most often I was too far away or my glasses were too flecked up and gritty to see, so all I could make out was the tail quivering and no chance to see the direction.

I made the mistake of asking my wife what she thought, and she told me it was bad enough that I shoveled Mr. Richmond’s pig shit for a living and now that I was going senile I soon wouldn’t be able to do even that. She always twists what I say and finds some way to turn it back towards me and I’m always getting skewered with my own words; but sometimes when you’ve got something stupid in your head that just won’t leave, you’ve just got to talk about it with somebody.

My wife makes it sound like shoveling pig shit is all I do, which is not true. I am Mr. Richmond’s assistant which means I do tend to the pigs; but I also repair the machinery, bang up the sides of the barn when they come loose, fix the fence line, unclog the chicken feeder, basically keep things running. I don’t mean to take anything away from the farm manager or the accountant; but hell, without me the place would fall apart.

My name is Lyle Bondage and I’ve been here for fifty years, ever since Mr. Richmond’s daddy owned the place. It was a big cotton plantation in those days but nothing like the acreage before the War or after for that matter. Other than the cotton gin, life had not changed much from sharecropping. It still took 100 niggers to get the cotton into wagons and over to the gin, tenant farmers worked the land, and the Richmonds and the company store still owned all of them. Mr. Richmond sold off most of the land when his father died, kept about half in cotton and turned the rest into grazing land for beef. His friends told him he was crazy, but he said that he was only going to graze the land up towards the hills which never produced much cotton anyway; and besides, if they could breed cattle in those scrappy lands around Nachitoches he most certainly could here. Now that he’s getting older, he sold off most everything, kept the pig and chicken business going, and turned his house into a B&B – the Rosswood Plantation.

I could understand the cattle business – Mr. Richmond was right about the range land up towards the hills. I could even understand the pig business, particularly because other farmers were getting into it and a slaughterhouse opened up in Leland; but I could never understand why he agreed to let his wife run a B&B. I know she pushed him hard. All their kids were grown, and he was always dipping his wick up in Jackson or losing his money down in Vicksburg on the riverboats. She tried to take her pound of flesh every time she had the chance, bitching and moaning at him, but he just flicked it all away like summer flies. I always had the sense that one day she would move out, but he kept a tight hand on the money and probably had it all sealed up in trusts or Swiss bank accounts where she couldn’t get her hand on it. So running the B&B was her way of planning her escape, although she never did figure out until too late that that no one makes money on those damn things

B&B Edited

 
B&B

My name is Richard Holt and my wife Cindy and I own The Brook B&B in Natchez, Mississippi. To the questions why I bought a B&B, and more importantly why on earth in Mississippi, no answer was ever good enough. “Why would you do that?”, my friends said. “There’s nothing there”.

On the other hand Yoknapatawpha County, Belle Rive, Tara, Simon Legree, Selma, and Vicksburg are not exactly value-free and neutral places. The Mississippi Delta, said one writer, was the most Southern place on earth, and I wanted to go.

The great Southern plantations had all the stage settings of grand melodrama – 300 year-old live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, ladies’ parlors, Georgian pillars, double verandahs, and long drives, and I liked staying there. I just had no interest in the minutiae. The trip, far from being the voyage of reconciliation and rediscovery that my wife had hoped, was just the opposite. Melodrama and old furniture are not the usual reasons for divorce, nor particularly good ones. While final reasons are never the reasons for divorce, they are always remembered most clearly.

The house I bought was built in 1834 by Thomas Seagrove, a wealthy banker and cotton wholesaler with a financial investment in Mississippi River shipping. Mississippi was booming after the War of 1812. The country was at peace, the Indians had been resettled in the Oklahoma Territory, and once the cypress swamps and forests had been cleared, the rich Delta bottom land produced tons of the highest quality long-staple cotton. Plantation owners of Delta land – both in Mississippi and Louisiana – moved to the high ground of Natchez to avoid the periodic flooding of the River and built the great mansions of the city; and financiers and merchants like the owner of The Brook served their interests.

People who had no good reason to leave the good life on their tobacco plantations in Virginia and North Carolina got scalped by Indians, died from malaria, dengue, and yellow fever; got toes and fingers chopped off clearing the land; lost wives and children to alligators and snakes – just to make money. They were not latter day immigrants in search of a better life. They were rich planters who wanted to become even richer.
The Brook was built on five acres of land of which three remain.  The original gardens of the house take up most of the property. The front lawn was reduced by about half as the demand for more modest housing in the early 20th century encouraged owners of large estates to sell off much of their land. It still has four of the live oaks that were on the property when it was built – trees that predate the house by at least 200 years.

By Washington standards, however, the neighborhood is sketchy. It is white and upper middle class, but it is two blocks from a poor area, and black people crisscross the neighborhood day and night. “This is the South”, my white neighbor advised me. “They’re harmless”.

The neighbor is an ex-homicide detective who spent twenty-five years with the Miami-Dade police department. “I have seen everything”, he said. He retired two years ago, bought a “second tier” historic house to renovate – not of the class of Melrose, Monmouth, or Rosalie, but one with land and potential – and became a realtor to supplement his pension. Despite what he said about “harmless”, he still hung his gun on the hatrack by the front door.

“Lose the chintz curtains in the Magnolia Room”, Cindy said. “They shout cheap weddings and saggy anniversaries”. After a few months she had changed the look of The Brook from “Victorian-cum-Walmart” to something I could live with – true to its 1834 origins but with a more comfortable and relaxed feel. She got rid of the plastic placemats and butter dishes, the bandaged-foot patio chairs and faux wrought-iron tables, and removed all the throw pillows and knick-knacks from the bedrooms. With not much investment The Brook had been transformed from a so-so, cheaply “romantic” getaway into a destination B&B.

“And change the website while you’re at it”, she said. I purged all the “modern amenities in a historic setting” and “sit in the shade of live oaks and sip mint juleps” that the previous owner had copied from the lower-end travel magazines; and presented The Brook with crafted ads that suggested that only the most discerning and experienced visitors stayed here. I even hinted that not all people who requested a room would get one. The Brook was to be more like an exclusive club, and the criteria for admission were very strict.

Simplicity appeals to the high end of the market and we trimmed the inn accordingly. All the WASP houses in the New England town where I grew up looked like Presbyterian churches while the Italian, Polish, and Irish ones had sconces, cheap china, Florentine wallpaper, and scolloped valences. I discontinued the contract with Southern Living and Southern Cooking, and placed ads in the Yale and Harvard alumni magazines, Sotheby-type antiques websites, and glossy art publications. I focussed on history, architecture, and landscaping.

Basically I was selling Natchez like everyone else – old houses, antique furniture, and ornate gardens – just pitched it differently to prospective clients who would never consider themselves to be just tourists.

“What did you do?”, said Imelda, Bert’s Dominican-born wife when she saw the house after our redecoration. “Where are the pillows and the little figurines? The house is so empty”. Imelda Figgins made dolls from scratch. She made her own heads from plaster molds, bought standard plastic bodies, and made all the doll clothes. She had made dolls of Clark Gable (as Rhett Butler), George W. Bush, Jefferson Davis, and Jose Marti; copies of Barbie and the Cabbage Patch kids; and her own variations of religious figures – Jesus as a cowboy and Peter as a bass fisherman with a miniature flyrod and bass boat. Her main interest, however, was portrait dolls – people would sit for her, and she would make little replicas of them. She would cast the head, paint the eyes, give the cheeks color, and tailor the clothes.

Despite all the attention and care she put into the dolls, few people actually bought them. She never got the proportions right and there was always something deformed and gnome-like about the bodies. While the faces were recognizable, they all came out with creepy vacant stares. They were more like totems or voodoo dolls than kind resemblances, and when people saw them, the found some excuse not to take them. Imelda didn’t need the money, so she never objected, and displayed the dolls throughout the house. There were creepy dolls on the bannister, sitting in the Victorian chairs in the parlor, and even propped up on chairs in the breakfast nook.

So when Imelda said that The Brook looked empty, I took it as a compliment.

The Auburn Garden Club is the organization in charge of the Fall and Spring Pilgrimages, historic house tours which generate much of the city’s revenue. Shortly after I had moved in, the Chairwoman, Mrs. Corning paid me a visit. She said that she had seen contractor trucks in the driveway, and knowing that we finally were settled, felt that it was time to say hello. I soon found out that on behalf of the Club, she had come to stop any renovation of The Brook – alterations which would “destroy the integrity of the house and interrupt the unspoiled history of the city”.

I had seen pictures of Mrs. Corning in picture books – not the Mrs. Corning, but a hundred ladies of a certain age in floral hats and long gloves seated in the ornate gardens of Natchez homes. I had thought that these ladies had long left Natchez and turned over ownership to buyers from New Orleans and the New York; but she and her family had never left. Strayer, one of the premier houses of the city, was hers – all fifteen bedrooms, vast formal dining room, a parlor and two living rooms; sunroom, conservatory, library, two kitchens, portico, and thirty-two feet Ionic columns. Having the house on the Historic Registry and on the Pilgrimage meant that the house had not changed since 1854 and never would.

The Brook was on the Historic Registry, but not on the Pilgrimage Tour, and for Mrs. Corning that was all the difference in the world. It might not have mattered so much if her grand uncle had not owned the property in 1880. An important part of her lineage had passed through the house, and her family would not be complete until The Brook became a true part of the Natchez community. I soon found out that every white-gloved, floral-hatted matron in Natchez is related to Mrs. Corning one way or another and that The Brook was not just any historic Natchez home.

The Brook simply had to be on the Pilgrimage Tour, and to do that it had to conform to Auburn’s code. While no one at the Garden Club would object to an odd Victorian piece here or there, the house had to be appointed with the furnishings of the period, and as importantly painted the colors that had been prominent and popular at that time. The previous owner had refused to change the bright yellow of the kitchen to a ferny green and her rejection had become a cause celebre. The fact that the minimum standards for a house on the Historic Registry were far more lenient than those of Auburn made no difference at all. A non-conforming house was like a loose board on a porch: you had to fix it.

When Mrs. Corning heard that not only was I going to keep the color scheme of the kitchen, but I was going to bang out the back wall and extend it ten feet into the garden, she stammered and spluttered, “Why, you can’t….I mean you shouldn’t… the house has always been….” Painting the kitchen yellow was nothing compared to this…desecration.

“All these dried out, blue-haired old Natchez crones should go shrivel up in a corner”, said Cindy.
“Most of them do”, I said and told her about Dorothea Wentworth who had lived in her mansion, Rosewood, for ninety-four years. She had been wet-nursed and brought up by a black mammy, went to a girls finishing school in Natchez, and married the son of one of the best families of the city. She rarely travelled outside Natchez and never out of Mississippi. She was an active member of the Auburn Garden Club and a proud member of the Daughters of the Confederacy..

She survived her husband and three children, lived alone, and had long ago closed off all ten bedrooms, the formal dining room, men’s and women’s parlor, conservatory, library, sitting room, and study. She lived in what had been the maid’s quarters. That and the kitchen were the only functioning parts of the house. A woman from Social Welfare came in once a week to buy provisions - TV dinners, milk, sugar, and tea. Mrs. Wentworth was worth a fortune, but she parcelled out her money like a pauper, refused to consider a live-in companion or nurse’s aide, and kept to her routine of knitting, daytime television, and microwaving turkey tetrazini, the dinner she had every night. It was easier for the lady from Social Welfare to pull out a frosty load of them from the back of the freezer case at Safeway than to vary the menu. When she saw that stocks were running low, she asked the supermarket to reorder. When the supplier was late and she had to substitute chicken a la king, Mrs. Wentworth didn’t seem to notice. The tetrazini was finally restocked, but Clea decided to stick with the chicken because she didn’t have to stick her hands so far back in the freezer chest.

“Clea treats me so well”, said Mrs. Wentworth. “She makes me something different every night”.
Despite the fact that Mrs. Wentworth was a recluse and was becoming dottier by the day, and that Rosewood had been a musty crypt for decades, Dorothea Corning insisted that it be opened for the Pilgimage tours. Every year she propped Mrs. Wentworth up behind her tea service, gave a brief history of the house, and led the guests on a tour of the rooms. Because the windows of the house were never opened, and nothing stirred within, there was surprisingly little dust in the closed rooms; but the house had a funereal air, and visitors never raised their voices above a whisper.

Cindy went on one of these house tours to size up Pilgrimage and the competition. “Weird”, she said. “Weird and sick”. 

Before Bert had turned over a new leaf and went back to real estate and restoration – that is, in the days of his frustration – he and his wife made a very peculiar couple. Bert was 6’5’ at least 275 lbs. and as blocky as a refrigerator. He rolled like an old salt when he walked, and because of a problem with his larynx his neck swelled up like a bullfrog when he tried to speak. Imelda barely cleared 5 ft. and was as wispy and sylph-like as a fairy. She made fluttery movements with her hands when she talked and blinked her eyes. When Bert got home from a particularly maddening no sale, he reddened and puffed up, croaked obscenities, knocked over Imelda’s dolls, and sagged into a parlor armchair. Imelda fluttered over him like a ministering angel, brought him a cool drink, and put her head on his shoulder.


One night during a particularly scratchy period Bert shot an intruder – or rather shot at him. Like most gun owners he said, “If I had meant to hit him, he would be lying dead under the oak tree right now”. He went on to say that he had spotted a man in my garden at 3AM when his security lights went on. Despite his comments about the neighborhood being safe, he had installed heat and motion sensors around the perimeter of his property. They were calibrated so finely that even the smallest racoons and cats set it off. He must have had terrible insomnia, because whenever I was up at night so was he. Lights went on and off as he moved through the basement, living room, upstairs, and the attic until he finally settled on a resting place. After three years of selling real estate and dealing with tearing up and rebuilding his house, I was not surprised that he had an itchy trigger finger.


“Do you miss police work?”, I asked him. For the first couple of years he was quick to say no. Restoration and real estate suited him fine. He repeated “I’ve seen it all”, and then talked enthusiastically about his mahogany banisters, oak flooring, cast mouldings, and new listings; but as time passed, he spoke with less conviction. Occasionally I went with him on lock-box visits. It was a good way to tell prospective buyers about The Brook and to let them know they had a place to stay while they waited for a closing or renovations. At the beginning he was patient, even with the couples who bickered about each house.

“Richard, it’s painful to see nice people argue”, he said. Later, after many months of no sales, his patience waned. “Did you see that? The bitch was taking every bad fuck of her marriage out of his ass”; and finally, “Cocksuckers. Buy the fucking house, will you?”. He was clearly veering off the rails, frustrated at a string of no sales. No technique he had learned in Miami could force his clients to buy. At night I heard him whacking away at the floorboards of his front porch long after the rest of the neighborhood had gone to bed.
So the shooting didn’t surprise me, nor his elated reaction. There was never much action reported on the police blotter before the shooting, and there was even less afterwards. “He’s one crazy muthafucka”, said the neighbors who walked past his house on their way to work.

The shooting was somehow cathartic, and my neighbor returned to his patient realtor self. “Well”, he said to an indecisive couple, “if you don’t like this house, there’s plenty more where that came from”. The all-night banging next door stopped. Bert Figgins was a new man.

The ladies of the Auburn Garden Club, however, were mortified. There was simply no room in Natchez for a maniac. He had never belonged in the first place, and the sooner he left the better. His talks at the Rotary Club and his presentations at the high schools about personal security, far from demonstrating the civic responsibility they honored, revealed his crass preferences. The ladies of the Auburn Club knew how to deal with their colored - with whom they had gotten along for 200 years - and shooting them was simply not done. I invited him to meet the Auburn Club ladies when they next met at The Brook, hoping to mend fences, but they both refused. The ladies said they would never lower themselves to meet a policeman, let alone a would-be murderer; and my neighbor said the ladies should stick with potting geraniums and mind their own fucking business.

Bert Figgins never had any patience for either the Natchez blue-haired ladies or the Northerners who came down here to relive the antebellum experience. “The Other”, said Bert. “That says it all”.

“Take your case”, he continued. “People are going to think you’re a faggot with all these ladies teas and Pilgrimage tours. How did you ever get into this business anyway? The Other, Richard. The Other.”
However, the Natchez ladies had staying power and the tourists paid my rent I had my Pilgrimage guests, and our decision to redecorate The Brook was a good one. We had more and more history professors, serious antique dealers, and Southern scholars. One such couple was from New York – he was a lawyer, she worked for a non-profit foundation, and they were thinking of retiring here. They liked the city and she had just discovered that she had distant relatives who had settled in Natchez. She wondered if I could introduce her to people who might help her track down her great-great grandfather.

I had made peace with Mrs. Corning and arranged a meeting She poured tea and offered cakes, but between the tinkling of the bell for the maid and her final sip of tea, Mrs. Corning had dismissed the distant relative who had landed in Virginia in1693 and disappeared into the American West and supposedly emerged in Natchez, quickly established that my guest was only a generation removed from lace-curtain Philadelphia Irish, and moved on to the weather.

Of course she was far more gracious and genteel than to put the issue that way, but her feelings and intentions were perfectly clear. “Did you say your mother’s family came over during or before the Potato Famine?”, she asked.

Bert’s wife Imelda was turning out dolls that were creepier and creepier. People stopped coming in for sittings, and she began to make her own dolls that were weird replicas of people in the city. She did a very accurate depiction of Mrs. Wentworth. She dressed her in the vaguely Victorian clothes she wore, meticulously reproduced her silvery hairdo; but made her face morbid and frightened as though she had just heard the Angel of Death. She made one of Mrs. Corning that looked like a Francis Bacon painting – scary teeth, and all her other features scrambled up but somehow looking like her. Bert told me that these dolls were keeping people away, especially since she had started making them larger and more lifelike. She had worked out a way to stiffen them up and pose them in various places in the house. She stood the Mayor on the top step of the front stairs and when anyone came in the front door, they could see a ghoulish zombie looking exactly like Henry Creighton taking his first step towards them.

When word got around Natchez that Bert had a strange wife, whatever little local business he had dried up quickly. The Northern buyers still came through, and I gave out Bert’s card to them if they showed any interest; but the new, patient, implacable Bert was beginning to crack, and he was back to grousing and complaining. He was spending more and more time at The Brook, less with Imelda and even less with the clients. I was waiting for him to throw in the towel and head back to Miami.

After a few months the brouhaha died down. Pilgrimage came and went and distracted the ladies; and Bert decided to leave real estate for security work. He had to swallow his pride – working in security at the casino was a big comedown for a police detective from a major metropolitan area - but it was much more satisfying than selling houses. Besides, he said, he had not given up his realtor’s license.

I didn’t think he would last at the Isle of Capri. They let him work in plain clothes and circulate among the patrons but all he did was handle drunks and hookers; but the interesting police work, catching the card counters and the tandem operators was all done by video monitoring. All Bert did was make the collar. In six months he had quit and was back selling real estate.

After Katrina the real estate values of the city went down, at least where Bert was operating. The influx of poor, black refugees from New Orleans overcrowded the neighborhoods surrounding ours and the historic downtown, and fewer retirees wanted to settle here. Bert hadn’t sold a property for months. Imelda had gone totally off the rails and joined a holy roller storefront church that saw Armageddon coming before the end of the decade.

“You’ve got to hear this guy”, said Bert. “He’s fucking nuts”

We drove downtown on Sunday, and stood in back of the church. “This place used to be a laundromat”, Bert said. It was packed, people sat on benches and packing crates. It was hot outside and stifling inside. The airconditioning wall units had been ripped out when the business was sold, and the empty spaces had never been filled in. Birds had nested in them, and bird droppings streaked the walls.

“We have been the victims of a conspiracy”, began Strickland Pusey, the preacher, “and you know who I mean”. The congregation nodded. “As agents of the international Jewish lobby, aided and abetted by the insidious hand of the Trilateral Commission, these……….” Here Pusey paused as he twisted his mouth, curled his lips in disgust as if the word he was working on was spoiled or bitter. His eyes narrowed, and he pouted and stuck out his chin like Mussolini. “…invaders who have raped the South. They have defiled our sacred, hallowed ground. They have invaded our sanctum sanctorum out of which will flower a new generation of humanity - a cleansed, beautiful, illuminated, powerful generation which will repopulate the earth after Armegeddon.”

“Totally fried”, said Bert. “Now all her creepy dolls begin to make sense”.

The Auburn Garden Club had never organized anything more controversial than the auction of Mrs. Wentworth’s risqué Art Deco lamp. Everyone assumed Mrs. Corning was behind the auction because she had tried to pry it from her neighbor for years. The women chirped over the near-naked figures swinging up the base of the lamp, and when the elegant piece was banged sold for over two-thousand dollars to a dealer from New Orleans, they all looked for any sign of disappointment in Mrs. Corning’s face to prove their assumption.

Because of Mrs. Corning’s organizational skills, she decided to mobilize the Auburn Garden Club against the church and said that the first step was to protest at City Hall. She had few takers at first. The older women either couldn’t follow what she was saying or could see their own Armageddon coming; but the relatively younger members were outraged that yet another assault on decorum and tradition.

“If that policeman’s wife belongs”, said Mrs. Harlan, “you can imagine what it must be like. Have you seen her dolls? She did one of Eugenia Mather that made her look skeletal”

“Well, my dear, you know that Eugenia could stand to lose some weight.”

“It’s not funny”, huffed Mrs. Corning. “It’s a matter of principle.”

It wasn’t long before Mrs. Corning’s maid told Imelda’s maid what the old ladies had said. Of course the maid told Imelda, who told Bert because he had always been able to solve her problems. Bert said he was going to oil up his gun because he knew that religion was a social flashpoint.

The Auburn Garden Club did go en masse to the Mayor’s office to protest the cult. Mayor Creighton, looking very much like the zombie doll that Imelda had made and set at the top of her stairs, said the Constitution encouraged lawful assembly and freedom of religion, and while he appreciated their concern, he could do nothing.

None of the ladies had the interest to pursue things further. Spring Pilgrimage was coming up and even though they had done it fifty times before, it always required careful organization and planning. Mrs. Wentworth was being stubborn about the opening of her house as usual, especially since the auction of her lamp, and it took many audiences to convince her to open it “just one more time”. The Brook was another issue that required attention. I had always come close to accreditation and had won the support of the more progressive members of the Club, but the more conservative members still objected to my sun deck which was too “suburban” and to the acrid color of my kitchen.

The only casualty of the church affair was Imelda Figgins. The preacher of the church saw a vision of good and evil in her dolls, and asked her to spread it more widely in the community. She did not completely understand what he meant, but decided that distributing her dolls to other churches, civic organizations, and schools would be a fulfillment of his wishes. These institutions, however, did not appreciate her deformed and ghoulish depictions of well- known figures and the attached notes about hypocricy and whited sepulchres, but rather than confront her directly, told her husband. Bert loved his wife, but felt that she would be better off back in Miami with her family, at least until she regained her footing. He scraped the dolls off the banister, end tables, kitchen chairs, and settees and tried to get on with his life.

Cindy was permanently pissed and unliveable. The black neighborhoods near us were changing from “harmless” to nasty; and according to her were becoming just like the New Orleans districts she had left.
“I can’t believe this shit”, she said. “I leave New Orleans to get away from cornrows and gold teeth, and they follow me up here. What do I have to do, move to Minneapolis?”

Imelda Figgins had been getting on her nerves, creeping in and out of the house in the middle of the night with a Santa Claus sack of twisted dolls on her back. Bert was spending more and more time at the Brook once Imelda left and started hitting on her; and she was beginning to have sick fantasies about the old crones from the Auburn Ladies Club.

The flaws in our relationship showed up a lot more quickly than did those with my former wife. Cindy’s desires to get her pussy tapped were becoming more demanding and sexless. I got tired of hearing about Bert, his spic wife, and the monkeys from Hillwood; and since the casinos were the only thing in Natchez reminiscent of New Orleans, she began spending more and more time there.

It’s all about expectations. Middle-aged men fool themselves more than anyone else, and I was no different. Two years were all it took for the blush to fade on the bloom of my Southern rose. Running a B&B was of course ten times the work that I expected, and whatever sense of community I had imagined in a more traditional South disappeared with Mrs. Corning and the cornrows.

Although Atlanta is far removed from my romantic notions of the South and the Mississippi Delta, it is still South and warm. I am living there happily – alone, retired, and for the moment very unadventurous.