Thursday, September 4, 2008
At Fall's End, Part II (Part I Under Jan 2008)
It was five am and the alarm started off loudly though I had already been upright, speed-thinking with the reading light on. I went to reach for it and every visibility of the past day disappeared as I knocked a stack of books to the floor. They had been parted center story like seagulls in gliding flight but tumbled to the floor like rabbits down the hole.
In the mirror my skin looked transparent. Together the thin-clouded veins of my forearms drew a road map that was layered and unforgiving. These were the very roads of all my travels, interminably taking back to the very same beginning. A reincarnation, I thought, none the better and yet nonetheless.
I stood lean in the cool air imagining infallible intuition would take me to the unknown. My descent was endless as I fumbled through the small heatless rooms of the house, each room a velvety darkness and each room more uncertain than the next. Which did not usually feel bad. But that morning a hasty need pitted the depths of me. I really didn’t know what it was except that after I clicked on the hallway light the weak ambient bulbs hardly drew anything into focus. The lampshades midriff, the slender hips of the caned backed chair, the rocking hallway bureau with its carved inward slippers and then the turned spindles of the front stairs akimbo like adolescent legs of a hundred children waiting in line, I could not think about them nor was I about to ponder the sleepless dreams I wasn’t able to remember anyway. What I did need was to meticulously organize myself into one single unit:
One Oxford; plain white button down. As this shirt was less than brilliant, in relation to the earth tones of Uniform its humble cotton was dingy but passable. Many times it had occurred to me that a few drops of Clorox might stand us up a little but that wasn’t what a portrait photographer needed.
One Necktie; bluish with diagonal stripes of green-blue. Each stripe led a definitive downward graze to my left side, my feeling side, where there was one small clear grease stain. The oval stain was mostly unnoticeable and only really peeked out every once in a while due to my sometimes nervous tucking.
One Pair of Pants; tan straight fronts. They had good short pockets so nothing bundled down my legs and thus they made for better squatting. They fit a little longish in the heels, which allowed them to fray ever so slightly, melding me into the ground and swept up dust like sadness from the dull linoleum of school floors.
One Pair of Shoes; brown leather Timberlines. They were well worn and with three-years continual use, they flattened as they sat over night. Filling them each morning was a comfort however; their formfitting to my feet was simply the memory of warm milk.
One Sports Jacket; Humble and warm I dubbed it simply as “Uniform.” It was brown the color of the sparrow and its corduroy was in such fine ribs that from afar looked as soft as feathers. The encouragement I got from Uniform, besides its luck charm residing at the very bottom of its breast pocket, was that it had been a perfect fit. Uniform actually looked tailored, an earthen wrap snug around my shoulders with just the suggestion of peaking bones.
And last there was my Coffee Cup. Coffee Cup was a handmade ceramic coffee cup from my childhood. Though I don’t know where it had come from I knew it had been handcrafted. It was delicate and its thin index finger loop was a lady trigger. It’s artful chipping brim did not stop its travels with me during my every morning drives. And although the formaldehyde of coffee soured even after being scrubbed every morning its presence reassured me. Its warmth in my hand minded my survival as sometimes the only human touch. Its tinge of olive matched Uniform. Together our pallet noted harvest though provided a less formidable sense of expiration.
I was dressed and tunneled into the kitchen with a wedge of hallway light lead my own lurching shadow. I was following myself, allowing my shadow to take me somewhere and the leading movement drew me but nowhere. Where was I to go except to grab the kettle from the stove, run the tapwater on and snap the burner all the way up? In a moment there was the scissoring hiss from the swirl of heating element, my own cyclical routine I was reminded, my interminable everyday, I said out loud. The hundreds of dark and bitter coffee grains I scooped into the French press clouded my mind as the hot water muddied the glass into a storm river but filled the room with such surprising sweetness.
My eyes adjusted to the dim rooms, I opened the pocket doors to the front room, train-rumbling them into the old plaster walls. Their parting sifted a sandy light across the photographic equipment. It made me think that possibly these dusty discoveries were what brought them to life. The thought made me feel outside myself then and my stomach passed an apprehensive moment. I understood the stewing darkness that lay inside those boxes just as I knew the very hardwood they were constructed from and the tough lacquer paint of steel buff muffled that insecurity further still. Now they appeared hollow, held together by the silver corner jewels that made them resemble musical instrument cases. But neither woodwind nor brass would come to mind. Their dimensions were off, their shapes too obtuse. Instrumentation of this sort would be condescending, a too-stout sounding pit. But however wrong, I believed their sound would not be cacophonous but rather saccharine and sorrowful, a feral call. Animalia showed itself in their scuffs and gouges. Some marks like lashing grass illustrated a better light, they could have easily passed for having been placed in a windy meadow, energized by a predawn eminent glow. The cases also did not resemble luggage. They were too hulking, too over-built and physically too heavy. Nothing of real distance, nothing of any considerable length of stay save for that grassy appearance.
I stood between the Camera Box and Light Box and squat-lifted them both, stumbling to retrieve balance. I t was like lifting night and day, one in each hand. The left was my lighting equipment box. It was the longer box, two-feet by two-feet by four-feet and contained all of the lamps—the fill light, spot light, hair light and background light. To me it was funny to think that so much light could be generated from inside that dark old box. There was also other gaffing equipment tucked away inside, such as the thin aluminum stands for each light and the wires coiled up like snakes who guarded the two extra lamp bulbs I lovingly kept wrapped in blue tissue paper.
On my right was night, a solid square, two-feet by two-feet by two-feet and encased the solid black Z-2 medium-format camera with single barrel, one-hundred-and-eighty-millimeter lens. The Z-2 came complete with internal electronic winder and reels capable enough to withhold one hundred-feet of color bulk film. Although Camera Box was smaller, it was the heavier of the two by several pounds. That heaviness perhaps was due to its dull velvet appearance, a finish dryly absorbing all daylight.
I set the two boxes near the front stair landing, rattling of the bare-wood banister and went back for Army. Army was an actual United States Army duffle bag, circa WWII. Its worn-to-soft canvas of green-gray was stuffed to capacity but not to say seam-ripping, though one more item and I was certain it would explode into a million little pieces.
Army brought to mind the wealth-belly of a doctor’s house-call bag. A perfect sense of useful items it carried and its pregnant shape demanded patience. In volatile situations its equipment required a careful hand. Army held my collapsed heavy-duty metal tripod with locking casters and oil-filled head. There were various wires hurried inside were like the guts of a hindered man; the very thin and sinuous shutter release cable and the extra-long orange extension cord. A small box containing, “One Hundred Unbreakable Black Combs,” was stuffed inside and when opened looked a horrifying million of caterpillars, sliding over one another without care. It was my duty to tame one Unbreakable Black Comb across any bed-head or post-gym-class-head and then discard it due to head lice. I was not allowed to give them away to students anymore and they scattered on the floor near my worktable until I could collect them into the waste.
There were other things in Army that were essential like my ballpoint pens, slate tablets and self-inking numbering stamper. These items had no particular place and so they roamed free and I often lost the pens. I was constantly replenishing my pen stock. One extra canister containing the eternal ribbon of four-hundred speed bulk film was always somewhere near the bottom, sinisterly sealed with black electrical tape. But nothing was of such consequence as my trusted Minolta light meter, which resided always cupped to the nose of Army. My trusty Minolta light meter. To measure light. To collect infinity. An abundant dilemma depending so desperately on where the studio was to be erected. I was really sure where set-up would be. It would often be the same year to year like on a stage floor and suddenly change to say the janitors closet that very morning. So measuring the light was essential. An ethereal involvement where you had to think inside the camera and in that darkness, by way of glass and speed of the sliding shutter, the sour smelling film waited for its quick burn, a solution of curt popping flash and slanting sunlight through a narrow school hallway and the complacent faces of the children connected in a steady stream.
I stood a second and curled up a tiny hole with my thumb and index finger. I brought that opening close to my eye, closed it down as far as possible—a very small opening in the world to let light in. Any smaller of a hole and it would be utter darkness. Which brought me to “Houdini.” Houdini was the neatly folded into itself, magic-black film changing bag. Houdini would make its appearance in the worst possible situations. Those disastrous days of running out of film would produce the snapping out of Houdini flat on the dusty stage floor. Into a dark and stout footprint of a cathedral with its apse, nave and transcripts, its unfurling always released the crunching confusion that mounted a row of concerned brows. In that moment my arms would vanish inside the elastic light-safe armholes and a harrowing wrestle of Jacob and the angel would ensue. And despite my always assuring composure the catastrophe showed itself as awfully desperate and so all costs I avoided this dilemma. I kept a keen eye on the counter at the back of the camera and made sure to change stock at the beginning or at the end of the shooting day if it was low.
Outside in the dewy yard I set Army on top of all of the boxes inside the trunk and went back inside for Bazooka, my background screen. Bazooka was a single dart of white PVC tube, five-inches in diameter, four-feet in length with a screw-top. This tube encapsulated the noncommittal backdrop I had engineered from a high-school sixteen-millimeter movie projection screen I had found at a surplus store. But it was when I leaned around the doorframe to grab it from its usual place that something happened. When I placed my hand on the leather handle there suddenly arced a solid white in my tired eyes and, electrified, the passing froze me quite solidly. I looked up again and it was gone. I then realized it came from a framed photograph hanging on the wall, a reflection of the kitchen light. When I leaned back and made the flash charge again the silver tablet of my mind was refracted and I recalled the day that photograph was taken in vivid detail.
The school portrait season had just begun then. I remembered because I had just gotten a haircut and the roar of the wind was clear around my ears, open and metallic. There was an overwhelming scent of disturbed tomato vine. The thought of it then produced a breath so deep it was the wanting of an easy drink of rainwater. The photograph was of this very backyard, a mowing cleared away from the house and hedged by tall field of corn. The raw form against the tidy keepsake produced a sunken intrigue to the landscape. I was squinting at it and then pulled it off its tiny nail, turned it into the charging lamp blindness.
In the yard that day I pulled open the screen and sailed its glitter white across the corner of the vegetable garden. I recalled watching it shake and lock in the wind. The old house, set back deep in the picture plane is luminous with the long exposure. Dancing slightly the neatly trimmed lilacs darken a frame of the photograph but the screen in the lower third holds the composition. Its fervor is a blurred motion, a white burn I could feel as a ghost encapsulated in the thin emulsion. My quick jaunt to the house was as fleeting as the late summer poppies I could just barely see peeking out of the front lawn near the very upper left of the photograph. My young ideal misconceptions as I twisted my thirty-five-millimeter camera onto a tripod and a continuation of that desire as I firmed its legs into the tomatoes red-ripe and rot. My own legs dug deep and sure. It was then near dusk but the though of the shortening days were not encumbering. The light was still good and I took just one exposure.
Afterwards I sunk into the damp basement and found three old cans of house paint. With a three-inch sash brush, set in a soup can of turpentine, I spread a brooding gray of blues mixed with sea-storm green, much like the sky was that day. I remember the satisfaction of the finished painting and watching autumn shake that backdrop as it was engulfed within the mantis the very tail end of summer waned. There was a pining in my stomach. Everything was an easy and brilliant creation. Just expression it seemed, there was no thinking there was nothing else.
In the front room, after a time, I set the photograph back on its thin brad. I rumpled the doors closed and they shut like gates taking in my long exposure. I realized it was the last photograph I had printed and that was several years ago. I thought hard and lifted Bazooka onto my shoulder. I would not forget.
I thought about that portrait all the way to the Edgewater School. Wanting for some bark, some guttural yearning from a deep inside me, but the slippery movement was just a pinhole I could not seem to siphon anything through.
Seventy-miles of silence wavering between the lucid to the formidable as the banking roads loosened up to the rich blues and dark cool grays that slowly constituted a morning soon to be sun-filled. Chisel woods crossed the rolling hills and took on a remarkable phrasing of Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool. I whistled through my front teeth arranging as closely as I could to this pass of emerging landscape, conducted in pitch to the high drone of Red Jetta’s engine, the slit of an unclosed rear window and the clicking time of a front bushing in need of repair. My throttled notes addressed a blue stonewall shattering passed as I imagined the trumpeter’s breath my own, eschewing a harmonic and rhythmic complexity. The cool tonal pallet easily worked its way into the farmland that preyed close to the window and then departed like the sea. In my forward velocity I sometimes stumbled my solo but imagined in languid lines and purposeful, as a tribute to the maestro. The soundtrack was linked to the luminous screen in the photograph I had forgotten. Somehow it was also connected to the starkly painted fence that, built too close to the road, whittled before a whitewashed farmhouse like a lath.
I skirted that farmhouse and its neatly trimmed lawn brought me to the tenor lines of Gerry Mulligan. Because this is where movement and visual composition took an abrupt depth as the farm broke away to the far mark of outbuildings. From muddling darkness the buildings were glowing alabaster headstones making my ensemble darkly paused as well. Here a remarkably large sugar maple interrupted the sky. The field, having just been harvested, gave its shadow a soft embrace. And tethered to the heavy ballast of angled armed branches were a gaggle of sheet-tied ghosts. The wind shifted the gregarious crowd towards each other like a shake of salt. All were harnessed by their stuffed suffering heads and their crude painted-on smiles gave them menace. Yet their fraternizing was such an enticing situation; their wild swinging suggested a cocktail party that had gone through the night.
The sun was just rising then and when I looked ahead the road teed-off in front of me at an old stone wall. I slowed down quickly and the Miles score faded from my teeth. It was in that abrupt winding down into silence that I encountered the most surprising illusion. A vivid box of yellow lit up above the stone wall. It appeared to hover there in the rich dried blackberry buttresses the stone wall held back. The surfaces of pollen-bright leaves and the stiff dried arches within the box were so buttery I sat mesmerized for a moment. It was hard to take my eyes from it but when I turned around I found the sun was rising directly through an old rotting grain barn. The building’s grey boards were so concave it was to the point of pure abstracted sculpture. It’s natural slumping made a perfect valley where I imagined handfuls of barn swallows dipped to its center, followed the curve of dilapidation sharply up to leap from the high-head window where the sunlight beamed through.
As if it could not get any more sensational I turned back and looked at the hovering box. In the slight wind the dried leaves shook with an explosive energy and then wiped their brilliant hue into cream. Then an old yellow school bus crossed through this blissful illusion and the floating box laid its fiery patch directly, if not precisely, into each halved bus window. And every child looked down at me in Red Jetta as if projected from the lens of the collapsed grain barn. The angelic filmstrip hovered as autumn squeezed into bullion of not only the brilliant dying leaves and the stiff blackberry thistle but also the listing young faces, clear-eyed, intrinsic and in utter silence.
When there was an abrupt grinding of the gearbox followed by a sighing hiss the bus was gone but left in its hulking wake the sweet butter of feverous levitation and an intangible sense of change. It said something gracious and earthy was to come and linger.
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