Monday, December 17, 2007

Answering Machine II

ANSWERING MACHINE, Pt. II - I call your answering machine just to hear your voice. Sometimes I call nine or ten times a day. Most of the time I can’t force myself to hang up before the beep so I know you see the number of calls. 10, 11, 12. You’ll come home and push play and there won’t be anything. There are times when I leave you a message after I’ve hung up. I go on and on. Maybe I should feel embarrassed at myself or humiliated, but I’m so far beyond that now. Have you ever loved someone so much you…what? Cried? Stayed in bed all day? Told yourself you’d never be with anyone else again? Have you ever loved someone so much that all you longed for became nothing? Nothing might feel right, but you can’t make it happen, no matter how hard you will it.

I find that I hate myself just as much as I love you, so I call your answering machine. If you pick up I wait a moment and then hang up. You know it’s me, but you don’t ever call me and tell me to stop. You just erase the messages and it makes me love you more. I want you to do something to make me hate you. I want to hate you and I want you to do something to make me hate you. I want to hate you. I want you to hurt me the way I hurt myself each time I hear the beep and hang up. All day, every day, all of the time.

In the autumn, it was as if
I’d learned a new language.
One spoken not with words
Or gestures
Or a look.
But with nothing
Except desire and delusion.

In the winter, at last
I had perfected a new language.
But I found that not a person
I knew
Or met
Or me
Could understand what I said.

In the spring, alas
I tried to re-learn their language.
But found that every single word
Was wrong
Or misunderstood
Or just something that could not help anyone anymore.

What the hell? More first-person narrative drama and then a fucking prose poem? I feel like I'm getting close to some kind of saturation point here, so hopefully I'll have a nice short story or something to post soon. But I kinda wanted to do the "Answering Machine" thing to death and then I threw in a bit more about communication (or the lack thereof) to beat the horse more completely. Yeah, a theme. Anyway, thanks to everyone that has sent in nice comments lately. It means a lot, really. Really. I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas. I'll be back soon. And this is nice: My Heart is an Idiot.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Answering Machine

Well, I guess you can't accuse me of overdoing it with posts these days. But it's quality not quantity, right? Or something like that. Here are two odes to the days before cell phones, when people had to use these things called answering machines. They kinda sucked, didn't they? One of these bits I wrote, one I only wish I did. The photos are from Erwin, Tennessee, where they once hung an elephant for murder. Only they botched the first attempt and had to try a second time. Hey, it ain't easy to build a gallows for a pachyderm.

ANSWERING MACHINE - I hadn’t spoken to her in two years; hadn’t seen her in more than that. But I found an old answering machine tape in a box of junk and put it in the player. I knew it was a bad idea, that I should just toss it in the trash with the outdated magazines and credit card receipts, but instead I pushed “PLAY” and sat on the floor to listen. It was toward the end of things and there were dozens of calls. Her dad. My mother. Calls where the concern was palpable underneath the usual greetings. Those who didn’t know left invitations for us both to come by. The others were already splitting into her friends and mine, some addressing her, some me. Some seemed unsure who to address. Toward the very end were calls from the landlord asking about moving dates and forwarding addresses. The last call was from me. I said only her name and then the tape ran out. I got up off the floor, took the tape out of the player and weighed it in my hand for a few moments. Then I broke it in half against the corner of the dining room table. A spool rolled across the floor, a tiny streamer of tape unfurling on the carpeting. It won’t matter. Some messages can never be erased.


Try and breathe some life into a letter; I’m losing hope, we’ll never be together; My courage is at its peak, do you know what I mean?; How do say you're O.K. to an answering machine?; How do you say good night to an answering machine?

Big town’s got its losers, small town’s got its vices; I’ve got a handful of friends, one needs a match and one needs some ice; Call away on the phone, another time zone; How do you say I miss you to an answering machine?; How do say good night to an answering machine?

”If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and dial again. If you need help, please dial your operator.”

I get enough of that.

Try to free a slave of ignorance; Try and teach a whore about romance.

How do you say I miss you to an answering machine?; How do you say good night to an answering machine?; How do you say I'm lonely to an answering machine?; The message is very plain; Oh, I hate your answering machine; I hate your answering machine;
I hate your answering machine.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Knox County, Summer 2007

Yeah, posts are few and far between. Not much I can do about that except stop making promises and further alienate the three people that used to pay attention. Sorry. Anyway, rather than a tale from the Cumberland Plateau here's a true story from Cumberland Avenue, the city, Knoxville, Tennessee, not too long ago.


I won her love in a pool game. It was the only way I was going to get it, although I wasn't really sure what I’d do with it once I had it. I was still happy to make the bet though, against $5 and a couple bottles of beer.

“I guess your love isn’t worth much,” I laughed, setting up the nine.

“That’s a terrible thing to say to a girl,” she replied, frowning as the ball rolled into the side pocket.

I kissed her and it was good, charged like it could sometimes be. The bar was cool and dark, a smoky cave away from the Tennessee heat. The jukebox played an old Johnny Thunders tune, “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.” I liked this place. I liked her. I was more than in the mood for trouble, but maybe not quite like the kind we’d both just found.

I lined up the eleven for the corner pocket as she lit a cigarette and leaned against me. She bit my ear, trying to distract me, to make me miss. I felt her breath against my cheek and the ball hit the pocket dead-on.

“There’s just no way I’m going to lose this game,” I grinned. I picked up her beer and had a long drink. I don’t even like beer. I missed the fifteen.

She took her cue and knelt down beside the table, looking to bank the three into a side pocket. I never understood why she did this—kneeling to put the table at eye level, sometimes using her stick to gauge an angle—but it seemed to work a lot of the time. Only this time it didn’t and the three bounced harmlessly to the center of the table.

I walked over and held her to me. It felt right, my arm around her waist and her hand pressed against my chest. I let her go and sunk the fifteen. I had two balls left on the table; she had four.

“I don’t really want to play for my love anymore,” she said, looking over the balls that remained.

“Too bad,” I replied. “You should have thought of that earlier.”

“I did. And it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“It usually does.” I sunk the eleven. We just looked at each other.

The twelve was easy and the eight was lined up nicely along the rail for the corner pocket. She looked genuinely concerned and I felt suddenly uneasy. For a moment I considered missing, scratching, blowing the game, but I caught her brown eyes for an instant then followed the curve of her neck to her shoulder and on down to her hips. Nope, I decided, I wanted it. Then I sunk the eight. She shook her head and grabbed her pack of cigarettes off the table. I had another pull of the beer I didn’t like.

“So, I’ve got your love,” I said, finally.

She lit her cigarette. “Not yet you don’t." She blew a cloud of smoke over her head. "And I want a chance to get it back. I’ll put up another round and dinner against it for the next game.”

But I wouldn’t put it up. We made a lot of bets after that, but somehow there was always one thing I wouldn’t wager, just in case I needed it one day. After all, you can never be sure about something like that and I’d won it fair and square. Love rarely comes so easily.

"This place is hell to me, With the Devil in my bed, And the Devil in this bottle, And the Devil in my head, I'll meet you in Heaven again, If you wear that dress again, (I'll have one more drink, my friend), Where my heart is kept on ice, And prayers burst into flames, PRAYERS ON FIRE," Nick Cave 1981

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sequatchie County, May 2007

We step out of the dusty S-10 at the end of an old logging road in Sequatchie County, Tennessee. The surrounding landscape is blasted, just piles of dirt and debris, shorn of trees or shelter from the relentless sun, but we’re used to this. A vulture wheels overhead as we check the GPS. “This is as good as we can do,” Jason says. “But we’re about 2 kilometers northeast of where we really want to be.” I take out my compass and look across the clearcut to a patch of trees, trees that quickly disappear below the horizon. A steep descent. Cliffs. Bluffs. Rocks. We’re used to this, too. Yet just because you’re used to something doesn’t mean you like it. We start off northwestward.

While walking through the coves and gulfs of the Cumberland Plateau you want to stay alert. There’s loose boulders and dead trees that can fall over in a stout gust. Copperheads and timber rattlesnakes might coil near every handhold. Stick your foot between the wrong two rocks and you’ve just snapped your ankle with no easy way back up the slope. But it can be hard to concentrate on the terrain when the hours and the heat stretch out before you and all your body does is walk while all your mind does is consider things as they should be. Or as they could be. Or mostly as they never are. Ghosts. Ghosts are dead things, of the past. Often terrible. But there are other ghosts. Worse ones. Ghosts of the present. The living dead. The shape of things to come falling apart. Then there are ghosts of the future, the worst kind. Dreams that will never come true. Just keep walking.

Jason and I get beyond the clearcut to the treeline and look across the valley. Typical. The valley is so steep and covered in laurel and bramble we can’t even see what’s below us. The opposite slope actually rises above where we’re standing. Typical. We pick a route that appears reasonable, yet might end abruptly in a bluff and a sheer drop to the rocky creek below us. It wouldn’t be the first time we’d be forced to crawl back up a hill and look for an alternative way down. But eventually the bramble and laurel yields to a landscape of 50-100 pound boulders that appear to have been literally thrown across every slope. A rockslide waiting to happen. Jason and I keep a good distance apart so that we don’t inadvertently bury each other. The going is not easy, but we reach our first transects and begin walking south to nowhere in particular.

Alright, so that's a pretty melodramatic way to return, eh? Before everyone starts sending me bottles of Xanax, let me just say that I was TRYING to be melodramatic. Something about walking around out in the woods this summer didn't feel quite right and it was hard to convey the sense of burn-out. On the other hand, no one pulled a gun on us, no one almost died, not much of interest happened at all, for better or worse. With that in mind, I'll try to pick up the remaining threads of last year's harrowing mess in subsequent posts that hopefully won't take 6 months to put up.

Interestingly, I can end this post the same way I ended my last one, over 180 days ago: "By the way, anyone wanna give me a job?"

P.S. These photos are from the flat land of far-western Tennessee, not anywhere near the Plateau, geographically or spiritually.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Hamilton County, September 2006 (Part IV)

It’s hard to remain focused on blogging when one is busy making a mess out of one’s life. Or maybe I’m just letting it become a mess. Sometimes the mess is quite glorious and other times kinda scary. In any case, despite my best stated intentions, postings will be sporadic and probably weird for awhile. With that in mind, I’m going to switch to some real-time entries from the Cumberland Plateau. This first one took place at the same Hamilton County location as the previous entry, but a couple months later. It’s dated September 5, 2006, to be exact:

“The most bizarre and, in some ways, harrowing field day of the season. About 3:30 PM we were finishing surveying a vegetation plot and preparing to move onto the next when I distinctly heard a voice. At first it did not sink in as those things which are utterly improbable may not immediately pierce our perception. A second later I realized that I did hear a voice (or voices) and that such a thing could not be good. I began to consider the potential ramifications of this just as the voice became a scream. My initial reaction was that someone was being murdered. Carl and I looked at each other as these things flashed through my mind: Was there anything we could use as a weapon? (Soil corer.) Should I try my phone? (How would I describe our location/situation?) Could this person be armed? (We certainly did not have a gun.) If there was a murder in progress we both felt we would have no option except to get involved. But no sooner had we begun to discuss what to do next when the voice began to repeat a phrase. The phrase, however, did not sound like any language I’ve ever heard. Over and over the strange "words" were yelled in a tone of what could’ve been anger or fear but was so chilling as to be nothing less than genuine emotional disturbance. Not knowing whether to pack up our gear and get out or go and see what was going on we did nothing. The screaming lasted for several minutes and then began to fade. Whoever it was was leaving. The incantation died away.

We decided it would be futile/useless/dangerous to continue working, so we hid our equipment and started back slowly down the bluff. I had the soil corer in my hand and Carl had a hammer and rock. Not the best weapons for a fight if the other side has a firearm. As we started, Carl said, “If I have to kill someone with this hammer, I’m quitting.” After that we didn’t speak but crept carefully along as fog rolled in. We saw no evidence of anyone except for details that I had already noticed earlier in the day: Someone had been using the path up the second set of bluffs and there was a new path beside the waterfall. Someone had been going up regularly.

On the way in we came across an abandoned camp on the trail. There were pillows strewn in the dirt, a hat, a cooler, and a chair thrown down the hill. On the way out we looked much closer. Who had been here? These items had to have been brought in from the parking lot, but why, then, were they left behind? The fire pit had been cold for at least a couple of days.

I called our contact in the field and left a message telling him what we had heard. Perhaps he will call and tell us not to go back. There could be drugs. There could be insanity. We wouldn’t fight him to return.

Then, this evening, while watching TV, I felt something on my arm. I turned in time to see that a spider was on my shirt. I got up slowly, but removed my shirt as carefully as I could. The spider looked like a brown recluse. We’ve taken pictures and will try to verify. I don’t even know what to say about that or this day altogether. Ridiculous.”

The first photo is out the back of our check-in station home. Not a bad view, eh? The second shot is a mysterious tire garden in the middle of nowhere. No idea how they got trucks back here, although we found some rusted hulks next to what was probably an old still. The final shot is…the spider.

By the way, anyone wanna give me a job?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Hamilton County, May 2006 (Part III)

After losing one crew member to Lyme disease, the two of us are moving farther north through Hamilton County, to our third location. But we’re continually optimistic, believing that each location will be somehow easier, offering better access, less rugged terrain or fewer wild dogs. After all, how can things get worse? At some point we’ll stop bothering to ask. However, at our previous location we’d actually encountered one of the plants we were searching for, mountain skullcap, albeit mostly in an area of tattered bramble beside a clearcut adjacent to a rutted logging road, pretty far from its described habitat of undisturbed mid- to –late successional forests. Still, we did find a couple plants actually lurking in the woods.

Right of the bat we find ourselves unsure of how to even approach the new location. A small dirt pull-off to the east puts us at least a mile from our first transect and the south and west are too rugged and remote to even consider. So, we drive north, into the small neighborhoods tucked high on the edge of Walden’s Ridge, hoping that some dead end street somewhere will turn out to be a logging road. As we turn off the main road a few people working outside immediately stop what they’re doing and watch us pass. We wave to a man and his son. Neither wave back. At the end of the most promising street is a 6-foot fence, gated and locked, with a sign that says, “No Tresspassing! Turn Around Now!” So, we turn around, the logging right-of-way either long gone or not worth fighting to find. Standing in a yard are five old men, each watching us suspiciously as we get the truck headed back toward the main road. We wave and all five wave back in unison, the same suspicious frown remaining on every face. Sometimes being in a government vehicle is a liability, even one with a Dale Earnhardt sticker in the rear window.

We drive back down the steep and winding road to the pull-off we stopped at earlier. Checking the distance on our GPS machines we mutter some oaths, stare forlornly out the window, then shrug and start walking. As it happens, we soon find ourselves walking on a bonafide nature trail, well-used and even signed. We continue on as the distance on the GPS unit keeps dropping. A few mountain skullcap are even growing alongside the trail. For once, things look promising. But it’s not long before we realize that there’s a problem. While the distance to our first transect keeps dropping, the bluff to our right keeps rising. And rising. It’s a serious bluff, too, entirely unclimbable to anyone without rappelling experience.

After awhile we check our GPS map and see that, indeed, we’re standing about 70 feet below where we want to be. Thinking that maybe the bluff will start to descend at some point, we keep walking. But the bluff does the opposite of descend. We walk the entire length of our location, unable to get to a single transect, some of which are only 30 feet away from us in horizontal distance, but over 100 feet away in vertical distance. The expedition has now taken hours and we’re soaked with sweat. We turn around and start back as the afternoon slips away. We figure this is one place that’s not getting surveyed.

We’re about halfway back when I notice a waterfall. I go to have a look, mostly out of curiosity, and realize that just to the side of the waterfall, in an area hidden behind a rock outcropping, are some natural stone steps and, at the top, some trees to hold onto to help us the rest of the way up. It’s steep and falling would kill you—or at least make you wish it had—but it is a way up.

It’s too late in the day to bother, so we decide to come back the next day and give it a shot. In fact, climbing up the waterfall does work, however, at the top of the ascent, we find ourselves staring dumbly at the base of a second bluff. Our transects are actually up on the top of this second bluff. We get lucky and quickly find the only way up the second bluff, following a rocky creek bed that tumbles down from out of the trees above. We are now, at points, over 100 feet above the trail, working in an area with only one way up and the same way down. In an emergency there will simply be no way to get out quickly or get anyone in. We’ll spend many days wondering if we’d have been better off never having found the way up.

The top shot is a toad's-eye view of our attempt to find a way up the bluff. The second shot shows what frustration can do to a man. The third photo is of the above-mentioned waterfall, although it's getting a little dry. That last photograph is from the base of the second bluff, so we still had some clibming to do. Just don't look down.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Hamilton County, May 2006 (Part II)

We’d been staying in a Ramada Inn off I-24. The help was surly and they fought loudly with each other in the hallway. All we wanted was air-conditioning, thick curtains and cable TV, a reprieve from the relentless heat and sun. But now we lose even that as, after exactly one month, our travel budget can no longer cover a hotel or meal per diems. As we move from the Chattanooga area farther north, Allison, Jason and I track down the cheapest hotel in Dayton, TN while I try to find us somewhere to stay for free. Jason drinks a Bud Light he found in the mini-fridge while he and I watch Deadliest Catch for the last time and tell ourselves that it could be worse: we could be hunting for crab in the Bering Sea in the middle of winter.

Our new (and very temporary home) does not offer a continental breakfast and we’ve taken to eating at gas stations, the Huddle House and now the Donut Palace. It is not healthy. Allison is rarely very hungry and I realize that she can’t go on feeling this bad for much longer. On Thursday I set up a meeting with the manager of a wildlife refuge in the area and he shows us the deer check-in station and the garage. We go with the check-in station. But we won’t move in until the following week when we’ll have groceries and air mattresses. We put in a day’s work and go home.

The next day is Friday, my day off, but, as usual, I go into the lab. When I get in Allison is preparing to go out and complete some amphibian surveys for an academic project, but she is clearly very ill. She tells me that she has developed a rash on the back of her leg but won’t let me see it. Finally, I insist and in a moment know she has Lyme disease and has had it for nearly three weeks now. Worse, on the advice of a doctor, she has been taking steroids, which will have just served to accelerate the disease. I tell her to get in the truck because we’re going to the ER and she agrees without too much of a fight. The nurse at the desk asks if Lyme disease is serious enough to warrant a trip to the ER. We tell her that the condition has been misdiagnosed and has now gone untreated for far longer than is safe. After we mention the neurological implications of untreated Lyme disease, which include confusion, speech impairment, loss of motor control and death, she admits Allison. A couple hours later I return to find that the new doctor didn’t really know what to do either, but had at least prescribed strong antibiotics. This will be the start of quite an ordeal for Allison and the end of her summer of walking, crawling and climbing through the woods of east Tennessee. Jason and I are suddenly down to a crew of two, at least temporarily. “Temporarily” will soon turn out to be most of the summer.

The top photo is from outside our room in Dayton, TN. The middle shot is the deer check-in station that became our home for four months. The last photo was taken behind our hotel in the still o' the night.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Happy Birthday to Me

Aw, hell. I keep promising tales of blood, violence and near-death experiences--and they're all true--but I can't seem to get the time to sit down and bang 'em out. They're coming, I swear. In the meantime, here's a story from Friday night, Knoxville, TN. It's almost true. The photos are also from Knoxville. They're totally true. More soon. More soon.

THE STRIP: Another night in a bar. One of many. Not the last. Not nearly. She’s drunk, lost. Not as young as she wants to be, never as pretty as she’d hoped. How long now? Hours? Years? A whole life. Lonely. Someone thinks she’s funny, approaches her on a dare. Through the alcoholic mist she understands what’s happening but desire is on its knees. “Please,” it begs. He takes a picture of the two of them with his camera phone and smiles to his friends.

“Are you happy?” she whispers in his ear.

The smile fades, he turns to the bar. “What?”

“Do you like who you’re with?” she says, slurring slightly, hair falling in her eyes.

He almost laughs, then stops. “I’m married,” he replies.

She laughs. “That’s not what I asked.”

She puts a cigarette between her lips and lights it, blows a cloud of smoke above her head. She looks at him until he begins to turn away. She shakes her head. “Your teeth are so white.” He turns back to her. “Like bone,” she continues. “I cut myself once. It was just that color. Clean.”

For a moment they look at each other. There is no one else. She puts a hand on his as it rests on the bar. Her hand is warm and damp. Music pumps from speakers in the ceiling, dull and relentless. “God, I would love to go home with you,” she says.

His friends cannot hear the conversation, but out of the corner of his eye he can see them laughing. One of them, someone he barely knows, raises a mock toast. He ignores his friends and turns to the woman.

“What are you drinking?” he asks her.

“Jack and Coke.”

He motions to the bartender and orders a drink for the woman. He puts his money on the bar. The woman nods but does not say thank you.

“I have to go,” he says.

“I know you do, honey.”

She takes another drag on her cigarette and sways a little on her stool as she watches him walk away. In the mirror behind the bar she sees the laughter and back slaps. But he does not laugh. Not even a smile. Once she sees him look at her, just a glance, and then turn away. “It’s something,” she murmurs. For tonight, it’s enough.

RIP James Brown.