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Good Wood Leaves Little Ash

Sonntag, 11. November 2007


This is a story about lighting a fire. Not the Jack London kind of a fire, a fire of necessity, but a fire of comfort and consolation.

When you've got a tiled stove in your living room, there's an extra door to perception available when you need it. It was a damp October night when I first lit the stove. At first, little flames dancing around some twigs and sticks, and eventually a roar and glowing coals around a stout log. Every half hour or so, I'd look into the firebox to be sure it was burning right, then settle back to my book, working my way through the complexities of the European Union's political systems. The sound of the fire pulled me a little further from my concentration every few pages, until I was eventually in a state of meditation that was very much like no-mind. For the first time in years, there were no words in my mind, only the sound of the fire and my breathing.

We Call Them Mountains

Sonntag, 11. November 2007


On Saturday mornings, he would sit in the diner drinking coffee with the rest of the town, unless it was hunting season, or a particularly good day to catch trout.  They would talk about the football teams or the news.  Sometimes world news would interest them, but most often, it was local.  Who died was most interesting, or who was arrested, divorced, being sued.  These were the things that got into the newspapers.   The interesting things that weren't about punching in at 7:30 and out at 3:30 with nothing in between except for lunch and work.  All of this happened in the valley between the twin mountain ranges that ran from the Susquehanna to the Delaware.  They were old mountains, older than the Alps or the Rockies, and so, no longer as high, no more breathtaking.  No more impediments to travel or commerce. They're 300 million years old, and first showed up with the birth of the supercontinent Pangaea, but they don't talk about that at the diner.

It was one of the things he thought about, but never talked about, like so many of his thoughts and dreams, they'd be looked on with that same cynical look that came with anything other than the ordinary.  Most of the time, he could suppress them, sometimes they just fell out of his mouth, reinforcing the image of "the professor" or "the asshole", depending on the point-of-view of the person on the next stool.  He didn't like being either.  Today was one of those days when his mouth was faster than his brain and he knew, after the first cup of coffee, he was going to piss somebody off.

The conversation had gotten around to Karnitski's grandmother, and how, at 98, she walked to church every morning, even when the snow was deeper than she was tall and knelt in the back praying alone, regardless of what the rest of the congregation was up to.   He was in one of his anti-establishment mindsets again, because he woke at 3:00 am to the dream about the rabbi and the russian orthodox priest bursting into the house of mazes giving him hell for trying to find his way out.  It was never a catholic priest or a methodist or lutheran, always jewish and russian, russian and jewish.  The rabbi was particularly interesting with his twillim and big hat.  He always woke up before they managed to get him back in the little room where the dream started.  For some reason, he didn't like it there, but the meandering from there to where the holy insanities found him was always interesting.  Each of the doors he opened while looking for the exit had a different scenario lodged behind it.  Some of them were carnal, some spiritual, some purely linguistic (if you can imagine a solid form of words not formed with letters or pictographs, but with objects of art) and some were empty.  He was always so shocked by the rabbi and the priest that he couldn't remember the details when he woke.  Little by little, over the years, he had managed to piece together a rudimentary description of the house and a few of the rooms.

Karnitski's grandmother was an unwitting representation of one of the archetypes that lived in one of his dream rooms.   The old woman herself was a sweet old thing, always quick to greet him as professor (which he had been, for awhile) and ask after his family.  That which she reflected in his unconscious mind was something else.  He really didn't understand it fully, but knew that it was something that couldn't be rationalized and consequently, couldn't be changed.  Things that couldn't be changed bothered him.

He was trying to ignore the conversation thread, pretending to have found something interesting on the sports page, but the Roto-Rooter man couldn't let him out of it.  He was the prime instigator.  Maybe even the primeval instigator.  "Ain't she something, professor, huh, Karnitski's Babka?  You couldn't get her to miss church if there was a war on over on the east side!"  He knew where this was going.  He'd try to be nice and give praise to the old woman faith and the lord of the cesspools would keep pushing until he finally blurted out his true feelings on blind faith.  Oh, well, it was Saturday, and he didn't have anything more else do, it was raining and he didn't feel much like sitting in the cellar carving angels today.  So he took the bait and ran with it.  "You know, Hutch, I don't mind you thinking people with faith are something wonderful.  I just wish you weren't such a hypocrite.  Driving your mama to Church every Sunday then sneaking out to have a couple of morning beers before the communion isn't exactly a religious awakening."  He knew that would turn the tide of the conversation, but he also knew it would be more of a Tsunami than a tide once it was turned.  What the hell.  It was expected of him.  Hutch did his best imitation of a man of faith being falsely accused by the Grand Inquisitor and countered with his best argument (one of the same best arguments he'd been using since they were in high school thirty five years ago), his back went straight and he fired: "Yeah, and what'd you know about church, asshole, you ain't set foot in one since you buried your father and that was twenty years ago."  And it was twenty years ago, twenty years ago, when he was actually a professor and deep into the orthodox church's "Mystical Theology", deep into hesychastic prayer and thinking about moving to Mount Athos.  And Saturdays were the same then, as they are now.

Before he could answer, the door of the diner opened, (you could smell the rain, feel it's depressing aura reaching into the depressive centers of the brain) and the day was saved.  It was Russell the mailman, getting ready to take his sixty minutes worth of his fifteen minute break.  Russell always had a new joke to tell.  It would change the mood immediately.  Hutch would forget about Karnitski's saintly grandmother and his heretical friend and laugh up a storm and order his second helping of bacon and eggs.

"So, did you guys hear the one about the Polak, the Irishman, and the 'talian?"  The door opened again.  The joke stopped and everybody turned to look at the new arrival because he was, and this was rare, new.  None of us knew him.  He didn't look out of place.  Jeans, a red plaid shirt, barn jacket.  He could have been one of them.  They stared.  At the diner, it wasn't impolite to stare.  It was impolite to do anything except fart without making a joke about it.  If you farted and pretended you didn't, you were immediately tried and judged a cultural criminal and subjected to the basest insults on your manhood.  So they stared.  The guy sat down at the booth in the corner to the left of the door and you could stare at him real good from the counter.  So they stared.  He didn't seem to mind.  Amanda, the weekend waitress, went over to take his order.  They saw him read her nametag and were waiting to see if he'd make the joke about the other one, but he didn't.  He just ordered scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee.  Not very interesting.  They turned back to their conversation and Russell tried again, "So, d'ya hear the one about the Polak, the Irishman, and the Kraut?" Hutch picked it up first, "thought it was a 'talian, not a kraut?"  Russell smiled, "This here's a special version for our new friend here (he jerked his head over his shoulder in the direction of the new arrival), got a package yesterday from the fatherland."  Of course Russell would know.  The Postal Service is always the first to know.  The question now, was how were they going to ask about the stranger without letting him know they were curious about him.

They didn't have to  He'd heard Russell's comments and came over to the counter.  "Mind if I join you, gentlemen?  Russell, it's not the fatherland, I just have friends there."  Russell thought for a moment.  "Yeah, but your name's Kruger, ain't it?  That's German.  I know that."  "Well, yes, my name's Kruger, but it's not German.  It's Norwegian, which is a Germanic language, and so, the name exists in both, as well as Swedish, Dutch, and English."  They were all looking a little confused, except for the professor.  His attention was full on.  A person sitting at the counter of the diner with no thought of turning the conversation to sports, obituaries, or weather, but actually giving a mini-course in historical linguistics.  He was going to like this guy.  Russell, it seemed, wasn't going to like him  "Looka here, buddy, I don't need no goddam lecture.  I been a mailman for twent-two goddam years and I know names.  Krauts is krauts and you're one of them, so shut the hell up."  Kruger wasn't deterred.  He was actually smiling.  "Well, I didn't mean to preach, Mr. O'neill, but it does come naturally.  Sorry.  I'll try to think before I open my mouth the next time."  Russell soften.  Then he hardened again.  "Wait a minute.  How the hell do you know my name?  I didn't say nothin' yesterday when I delivered your package."  Kruger was still smiling.  "It's part of the job to know the names of all of your parishioners.  I'm the new assistant at Holy Mother."  Once again, the counter fell silent.  Heads were angled sharply in the direction of coffee cups.  It was another awkward moment at the diner waiting for another deus ex machina to bail them out.  This time, it wasn't the door, but the waitress.  Amanda said "Sorry Father, I should have told them who you were, but they're such a bunch of idiots, I just wanted to see what would happen."  The priest laughed.  "They're not such a bad bunch, Amanda.  I've heard worse in my travels."  This spurred Hutch back into action.  Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was locked on the idea of the professor and the babka and the difference between the two but didn't have the slightest idea why.  So he asked the priest.  "Hey, Fodder, the professor here ain't been in a church in twenty years and he gets mad whenever we talk about Karnitski's grandmother goin' to church everyday even when she's sick and stuff.  What do you make of that?"

The priest didn't even blink an eye.  "One of the Church Father's said that not all men worship before the same altar.  I take that to mean that it's okay to practice your faith in whatever you believe in the way you feel you're supposed to.  Anyway, does anybody know how the Phillies did last night?  I didn't get a newspaper this morning and the cable's not hooked up in my room at the rectory yet."  It was Saturday at the diner and the gods were in their heaven.

Donnerstag, 15. November 2007


They called him old Jack, which amused him.  His name wasn't Jack, and he was ten years younger than the youngest of the drunks he drank with everyday.  Even though he didn't like to think of himself as one of them (he was just visiting) he knew he was and it made him angry to think about it.  He liked to stay on the wagon at least until noon.  It made him fell a little superior to himself.  It didn't always work that way, of course.  Some days it was nine, others ten, and some days, waiting until half past twelve made him feel even more like a drunk than he'd like to think.  The physical discomfort wasn't so bad.  Sweating it out was almost like taking a sauna, but the mind was not a friend in these times.  It knew.  And it let him know it knew.  "You're not just a rummy, Jack, you're a drunk, a hopeless, never going to get sober drunk, without a job, or a friend.  You're going to die alone, either in this stinking bed or at a bar somewhere, among strangers who pretend to be your friends in case you get in your generous mood and decide to buy the bar a drink."  Yes, that's what his mind said.  And he always believed his mind.

Under the Rooftop, Across the Street

Donnerstag, 15. November 2007


I suppose I could ask someone.  It is the usual way of gathering information about things of interest which can only be found through interpersonal communications, but the last time I did so, the answer was, "Ja, das Haus hat viel behinderte Leute."  Meaning the house is full of handicapped people.  If being a Russian Gypsy who is capable of metamorphosis is a handicap, then so be it.  It still frightens me.


Samstag, 17. November 2007


Love, Death, Hatred, and Fried Herring

War, Anti-War, Pasto, Anti-Pasto

(and why is it that antebellum ain't right in this context? ((Or is ante velum better?))

Candide, Candood, Candwould've

Hush, You Muskies

This Could Have Been a Good Idea

Fish Don't Kiss and Tell

A Cold and Lonely Bar

Wellsprings of Something Akin to Creativity if not for Procrastination

Somewhere, a Jesuit

Under his Shirt


The Gulf of Mexico, How it Works, and Where You Can Buy One

Aardvarks, Aardwolves, and an Abalone Named Aaron

Rings and Place to Wear Them



A History of Costume Jewelry and People Who Sell It

The Smell of a Wet Goat

A Really Big Lake

Conversations with a Dead Fish

Wrongful Accusations and How to Believe Them

The Sincerity of Sine Waves (A Sinusoidal Paradox)

Bacteria in a Wet, Dark Cavity


A Deep Hatred of Raisins

Are You Well Known?

Dienstag, 20. November 2007


He sat at his usual table, deliberating with great solemnity whether it would be beer or coffee today.  He did not feel in the least depressed which weighted the decision heavily in favor of beer.  Thanks to the slow service, he was free to think about his choices.  It was something he was thankful for, like all of the other idiosyncrasies of this small city, it made him smile. When the waiter came, he had already finished a new paragraph, the dark blue ink flowing smoothly across the cream colored pages of the leather bound daybook also made his smile.  It would be a good afternoon.

Two hours later, he looked closely at the coaster under his glass.  He had drunken only three beers.  At half a liter each, he was still under his self imposed limit of two and a half liters.  He could drink one more and then go for a walk.  Sitting under the old trees in the sunlight was pleasant and he had been prolific today.  Over eight sides of the notebook were covered with his small, precise script.  He had learned that it was better to write small when he was drinking beer, the slow effect it showed on his hand was minimal with the smaller script.  When he wrote large, the pages began to resemble his sketches of the universe, convoluted, replete with spirals and geometric impossibilities.  Today, the page was neat, legible.  He decided it would be better to walk than to let the words begin to whither as his associates began to broaden with the slow effect of the beer.

An hour later, he was sitting on the shore of the lake, another café, another waiter.  This time, he would drink coffee and has a bit of cake to tide him over to the evening meal.  No one expected him to be on time, no one waited for him.  He lived alone and was grateful for it.  He had lived long enough under the onus of time and expectations.  For the next few years, he would come and go as he pleased until the final appointment, the one he was not looking forward too.  A small bird landed on the table opposite his seat and stared at him in expectation.  He picked up a few crumbs between his thumb and forefinger and dropped them on the table between his plate and the bird.  It moved forward, gobbled down the crumbs, whistled a few notes of thanks and was off.  It was a good diversion.  He had been caught in a reverie over the implications of shuffling space and time randomly in the storyline.  It made an interesting story, and good experience for the reader, but was difficult for him, because it was too easy to remove himself from the need to have cohesion, regardless of space and time in the story.  It became a reflection of his own mind's inner life which he was not ready to share with any reader.  Not yet.  That was another daybook, one bound in red leather.  It was only taken out of the rucksack on days of exceptional clarity and then, sparingly.  It required an intense concentration and a prolonged excision of memory from dream and dream from reality which did not fit his stream of sub consciousness style which he preferred in cafes.  It was normal for the red book to be used on weekends, when he was in the mountains.  It did not seem to fit in with the city and it's constant stimulation of character sketches for stories not yet imagined.  It was a chronicle.  A terse, and yet poetic, description of his lives and times.  Not even the few who knew him intimately (or so they thought) knew of all of his lives and all of his times.  That was why he came here, where no one knew him for more than three years.  There were never any visitors from other existences and no one here knew any of the characters from those other stories.  Here, he was only the foreigner with the rucksack and the notebooks.  He liked it that way and did his best to ensure that his conversations always stopped at the customs desk on his way into the country three years ago.  There were the occasional stories of childhood and dead relatives and there was now.  Like the great philosopher Jesus, there was childhood, adulthood, and death.  Nothing in between.  No one needed to know.

A cloud drifted in front of the sun and interrupted his thought.  He read it again and realized it was time to close the notebook for a bit and take another walk.

Sometimes, You say things you really do mean.....

copyright 2007: john zavacki (the elder)
the learning laboratory at the end of the universe