If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Being my mini-memoir for readings at which everyone
but my two friends is younger than 32.
[for Raymond Federman]
On the road
She’s pushing 50 plus, don’t ask. No more Southern Comfort orgies, existential funhouse trips, Kundalini embraces in grottos, poetry benders, and slightly protected sex, she’s busy trying to be the heroine of the story, a third person.
But I wasn’t sold on third person, so I asked you, Mickey, should I speak in the first person, tell the story as if I had lived it? You’d just finished an MFA program in creative writing. You knew everything. The glass over your displayed stamped degree was fresh. Already, you were teaching Oates and Boyle wannabes about arcs and resolutions. I asked you, novel or something vaguely biographical? You said: Write a memoir. Put your life in the first person. Make it up if you can’t remember it make it shocking or pathetic but don’t tell anyone and above all, make people laugh hard and weep easily. Look in the display windows at Barnes and Nobles. It’s all about memoir, displays of courage amidst adversity. It’s about people overcoming, surviving all sorts of shit. I know you can do it, you said, I know an agent. You were licking your lips when you said that. You and your 20 and 30 something MFA friends were drinking Michelob. You’re still drinking. I see you in the audience, little bro. I should learn from you, selling your first novel to Random House.
She was pulling more than 50 years after her. Distillization, even on a modest scale, seemed daunting. Heaps of shit to recount and re-invent. Yes it’s overwhelming, I said to you, but one must try, I understand, I am told. Your wan, bulimic girlfriend with the belly button ring was in the kitchen fixing something like Vegan tofutti with soy cheese; her skin was blinking like strobe lights. Must’ve been glitter. My skin is dry with furrows like clay from the Paleolithic Age. I was trying a new skin cream from Aveda at the time, I think. Now it’s “facial sculpting” cream by some company owned by a dermatologist in New York. Your girlfriend Zappa drinks bottled water, 12 Evians per day. She’ll never run dry until the mother of all tsunamis comes along to get all of us who are still alive. The Greenland icebergs are sagging, falling flat into the ocean up there, like dead breasts. Time to leave coastal areas.
So as I was saying to all of you dear young things, she the older woman was somewhere I forget. Already I’ve misplaced her, losing my memory and hers in tandem. At least, I should give her a name. I was considerate enough to give you and your girlfriend names. How about Melanoma? Okay okay, I’m kidding, nothing to joke about, stop jumping up and down and screaming. You’ve been trying to make me see this or that ever since you could formulate sentences. You with the cherub cheeks, Kirk Douglas dent in your chin, from the maternal grandfather, always wearing your hair so short nobody like me would ever want to run her fingers through it. Good idea. Keep me at a distance.
This is getting complicated psychologically and I only have so much time, she thought. I can’t possibly go everywhere in one story. I’ll look for somewhere to start. Which reminds me of a chicken.
Why did the chicken refuse to cross the road? Take those i-pods off, please please, birdbrains. Focus your eyes and take something to clear your sinuses. The traffic is belching like a behemoth with botulism, choking on fumes from a caravan of SUV’s, slouching toward Orlando and Miami, palm trees and parking lots under a navel orange smiley face. Would you cross a road under these circumstances? Look at the drivers with their cellular pacifiers. They are everywhere but here, you know. The solipsists would run you down and scamper off with their lawyers. Mommy, mommy — — I want to see Poopoo the Penguin! Didn’t you cry when Mickey Mouse died? Oh, you didn’t know?
So Melanoma okay Melody sat on the curb of a road that winds like a tapeworm from west to east or east to west, depending on who’s telling the story. So maybe she’s in Missouri, where I’ve never been. I need to consult my friend Alla in St. Louis. Hang on. Okay, I can dance the Google too! Seems the road starts down there somewhere, but it’s hard to follow and I can’t get in touch with Alla who’s in Orlando with the boys I just recalled.
Melody was bereft, tuneless. Bereft of what? And what’s her song? you ask. Too many facocta questions for nothing, no reason. Why questions? Knock it off, I say, I’ve always been bereft of my senses, according to many. Stop being hyperbolic, you said dramatically. I think it’s a love song by that Hebrew hater Wagner…. Liebe strom-unt-drung something whatever. Au secours! Courage, mes enfants! Awesome! Wunderbar! Chocolat! She also likes that Nancy Sinatra song about walking boots.
So where was I? On the curb, the stingy, gritty curb of existence, hard on the ass, as usual on the rim of it all, the ledge of success, well to tell the truth far from the ledge but about to fall off, floating on the circumference of meaning, riding a cycle around my self, skirting it in my pink pantaloons with white satin ribbons. Huh? pantaloons? Where did you get them? You asked. You said: too many images confuse me and when you add abstractions, you totally lose it, you know you lose us. You’re like a planet in another solar system called Chaos. You don’t follow the rules and you’re much too self-indulgent to get anywhere, you said. You were emulating the minimalists, as you’d been taught to do. You accused me of swimming unconsciously in streams of consciousness, told me I’m passé with an accent. May a tsunami weep over you, I didn’t say, being somewhat mature. I realized you were upset with me. You usually never simile! But I digress of necessity, as necessity invents digression and digression is the mother of invention.
There were very essential pantaloons in my past, in Melanoma’s history, they suddenly bloom large enough to see hanging on a clothesline in the backyard of a vine-choked stone house in Funafuti, the capitol of the isles of Tuvalu, in which I’ll dwell circa 2019, pantaloons hanging as symbols of the teenage girl’s coming of age in the early 60’s, past the hoola hoop stage, at one of those times (during the last century) when girls who’d teetered over the edge of puberty twittered about wedding nights, wondering what they’d wear to bed and oh wow, what would he feel like, Before i-pods and all that techno stuff kids think they can’t live without. Do girls still do that? Melody wondered, particularly girls with pins in their tongues and tattoos of stars on their breasts?
So pantaloons are important in my mini-memoir I think, Melanoma insisted. The heat was loud that Sunday. Flat, hopeful voices singing dour hymns wafted futilely across the landscape of corn and wheat. No, not both, you boob. Choose. And don’t use all of those adjectives and adverbs! Okay, corn, though this wasn’t Iowa. It was (as understood) uncomfortable on the curb and the donkey was panting. Yes, the donkey, she always shows up (footnote: e.g., see Novack’s “Interview with Self”), the ass drops by. She had an ass, always did, came by it naturally, naturally. It was drooping from the burdens of years of sitting on itself. Asses don’t last. You will learn. Okay, you and Raymond Federman mistrust metaphors. I can’t help it they drop by without even ringing bells. Should I call the cops?
Melody lusted suddenly for King Kong the supermarket of all supermarkets. Henry had insisted she acquire a cell phone so she could consult him while she shopped. Okay, Henry, she would say into the phone. I’m by the carrots. Do you want any? No? Oh please, not okra. You know I loathe okra! . . . . So now I’m by the fish and there are some elegant yet tragic baby octopuses, fresh from Santorini, glistening with Greek salt shine, even. And Henry would reply with incredulity: What the fuck, are you kidding? Yuck!
I was nearing a coma from the heat. I’d left the Bombay gin behind, of necessity, having fled with startling alacrity. The cops. They would find all of us under the beds with our leaflets. I’d had it with Henry anyway. Had IT, if you know what I mean or even if you don’t, this is gritty realism. This memoir is authentic and exciting, full of tragedies. But talking about failed relationships is boring, at my age, at least. Being 20 something, maybe you think I can teach you something. Forget it. You couldn’t take my life, take it and make something of it, like a lesson in perseverance. You wouldn’t know what to do with it. It’s much too messy, you’d say. Knowing you, you’d reduce it drastically, deleting the most succulent bits, like those references to crème brulee, fatty pastrami, pistachio nuts, and long boned loin lamb chops. Now Melody forgets even what Henry looked like though he was everything to her, the sun, the moon, the stars, the big screen television and especially the waterbed, particularly when it leaked, threatening instant death by electric shock. Once they flowed together, bounced in harmony to the beat of some band or other. He was meaningful.
Sitting on the curb with my fat ass. We were both thirsty and there was no grass left. So you want I should suddenly have a realization that will change my life or something dramatic should happen. Well it did. A big white SUV with LALA plates rear-ends my ass and takes off, tires squealing, gas fuming. Dang dang, no fuckin transportation now. That’s silly, you say. But where was Melody going?
Melody was seeking her next song, the one after Henry, who was always the same chords, the same beat outside the bedrooms. She was delirious from the sun, a mass of discordant notes and hair, aimless. Nobody ever listened to her. She would often say: You’re not LISTENING. And she would frequently get no response, frequently because she’d forgotten to open her mouth to utter her questions. I want to make a difference, I would often say. And you would ask suspiciously, a difference in what? To what? How different? Jeez, you gave me headaches, always did, as if you were listening, which you weren’t. You were always too busy. Always. Hang on. That’s someone else’s American father I’m remembering.
But that’s no matter. I see this guy up the road, let’s say a latish 40'ish dish full of sinews, trying to hitch a ride. Nobody picks up hikers you should know, no longer, after Ted Bundy. Nobody refers to a guy as a dish. This guy is waving four signs at the passing vehicles. One of them says: IS ANYONE GOING TO TENNESSEE? Another states: FORMER LINGUISTICS PROFESSOR NEEDS RIDE TO TALLAHASSEE. The third sign reads: ANYWHERE WILL DO. And the fourth sign asks: HOW ABOUT SASKATEWAN?
On this road, everyone’s going east. The former professor imagines that he has a choice. Melody finds that endearing.
You will go anywhere, anywhere but here. Understood. I know that. In that, we are alike. Melody will go anywhere. She wants to overcome everything by walking away, riding donkeys, getting ON with her life, getting unstuck from the same rhythms and notes.
So why a former linguistics professor? You ask.
He’d had enough of the language of uttered and written words. He wanted to carve mountains out of molehills, I reply. That’s the answer, I can’t help it, I add, walking into the closet.
This is an excerpt from a longer work that appears in The Journal of Experimental Fiction
– New Yorker Carol Novack is a former criminal defense and constitutional attorney and recipient of a writer’s award from the Australian government. She’s a frequent collaborator, the author of a poetry chapbook, and publisher of Mad Hatters’ Review. A selection of short writings, “Giraffes in Hiding: The Mythical Memoirs of Carol Novack,” will be published in 2010 by Crossing Chaos. Recent works may or will be found in numerous journals, including 5_trope, ActionYes, American Letters & Commentary, Caketrain, Diagram, Exquisite Corpse, Fiction International, Gargoyle, Journal of Experimental Fiction, La Petite Zine, LIT, and Notre Dame Review, and in many anthologies, including “Online Writings: The Best of the First Ten Years,” “The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets,” and “The &Now Awards: the Best Innovative Writing.” See her blog for further information.