A friend was reading last night at Powell’s, so Starling McMorning and I met up there, early, to surf the timber shelves and find some wooden book of words that said what we needed it to say, but did not know, yet. I climbed up to the top of a mountain and found a Susan Sontag book, on recommendation, both Starling’s and the silver stamp on the cover, and I picked up a Tom Spanbauer novel, put it down, picked up another, and put that one down too. Tom and I are not meant to meet, yet. I’d tried to force fate the other day by going to an open-mic called Qliterati where he was featured, but he was reading at the end and I had to sit through all the horrible open-mic writers who came only to hog the captive audience and assault them with their stilted reading and nonsensical ramblings, and the facilitator refused to put a time cap on the readers, and it is a time cap who makes the terrible stories bearable, and it is of course the worst ones who go on the longest, and the facilitator only sat, listening, saying nothing, although she did take her teenaged son out of the room when we were half-way through a twenty minute narrative of hetero-normative non-consensual BDSM porn, in which a bright and talented young psychology student is forced to either become her dumpy, middle-aged professor’s sex slave or fail the course, and she gives in because she has no other options and is terrified of losing her credits. And she does not, in the end, slit his throat and free his other slaves- she just gives up, and he is ugly and old, and that is supposed to be hot.
I left in the middle of that one, as did other audience members, and missed Tom Spanbauer, although I did see him standing at the mic, clean-cut and grey-haired, as I was pushing my bike away outside the plate-glass windows, furious.
And so at Powell’s last night I didn’t pick his book, but I gathered a few others, and Starling and I sat in the café, where I read to her the Tobias Wolff story Bullet in the Brain, from his collection The Night in Question, and the story is one of my very favorites. I’d first heard it when I was working as a cook in the woods last summer, hurriedly kneading pizza dough in the sunlit wooden kitchen, with the linoleum that looked like the small-stoned floor of a medieval castle, and that I liked to pretend was real. I was in the habit of downloading free podcasts of stories off the internet, and one day I was listening to Bullet in the Brain, just because it happened to exist and was free. And the story was so good that it rang through me like a bell, all the rest of the day and for days after that, lessening a little each day. I read it again months later, sitting on the clean-swept concrete floor of Powells, and then yesterday I read it aloud to Starling in the café, and found it to be so intense to read aloud that I had to swallow tears and could barely get the sentences out, again and again.
The story is only five pages long.
Starling loved it too, and after it was finished we marveled at its perfect balance, the way one half sits like a rock on the lip of a teeter-totter, and the second half rides like a glowing grapefruit on the opposite end. And the teeter-totter swings you, like a pendulum, through the very arc of human existence itself, and then sets you down, out of breath.
In five pages!
I also love the story because I am a writer, and the story is about the beauty of language.
We then went upstairs to the folding chairs and saw friends and strangers read about drug use and vegan cupcakes and waiting in line at the foodstamps office, and the cadence of spoken language and watching their mouths move put me into a sort of trance and I couldn’t follow anything they were saying, could only ride on the rhythms of sentence structure, the solid, sea-going ship of sentence structure, no matter what the words are, it’s like a spring running through some tall grass or poetry written just for the sound. Afterward I had them all sign a two-dollar copy of The Indian in the Cupboard that Starling McMorning had found on the shelf, and we met up with two other friends and I took apart my bike and put it in the back of one friend’s magic car machine, my home was a distant land and I was folding up my sails, surrendering to this superior beast. The magic car machine took us, warm and encapsulated, to the E-room, which is the third-dimensional manifestation of the craigslist W4W board, in all its beauty and bad haircuts so old they don’t even know they’ve become hip again, like an archive of lesbianism, all the decades superimposed one on top of the other, like a queer historical nature preserve. At the E-room we ate magic tatertots that tasted more delicious than any other tatertots that have ever existed before, they were so good we had to order another basketful of tatertots, until we were dehydrated and Starling and I were pounding anxiously at the limes in the bottom of our tonic-water glasses. And the bar was smoke-free because as of a few weeks ago you can no longer smoke in bars in Oregon, and although I was thankful for the sake of my sinuses the bar seemed weird without the smoke, the air was too clear and sound was too harsh, and the pool players no longer bent over in rings of fog and there was no haze to dim the light. And the smell of smoke was still there, the ghost of smoke, and I wondered if the smoke was maybe necessary, to preserve the historical lesbians for perpetuity, I wondered if they were meant to last longest suspended in a thick soup of cigarette smoke, and if now they would yellow, and dry out, and break apart, and we would forget about the fact that they had ever been there at all, making everything up like this is a bright new day and we have just cut down all the trees and built an ugly house, and there would be no-one that I could point to and say, That woman has my new haircut, but know that she has had it since the early nineties, like we are reaching back through time and touching the tips of our fingers.
And since we are lesbians we sat in the smokeless bar eating tatertots and talked about astrology, which I have only recently become interested in. I have always been a virgo but I have never identified with it, and then the other day I learned that my moon is in aries and I looked up what that meant and balanced with the virgo it actually, for the first time, seemed to fit me. And Starling’s friend who was there just happened to be a virgo with an aries moon, too, as was another friend I’d run into the other day, while eating from the bulk bins. So now I am a Real Lesbian, because I talk about astrology.
It got so late I wanted to fall asleep at the bar, and then we all got rides home in the magic car machine, and I went to bed and dreamed I lived at a christian commune where an old friend was carding wool, and young girls were forced to learn to ride bulls in the rodeo. And I hated it, but felt trapped. And I woke to an empty house and sunlight beating at my window, and an empty blue sky, swept with invisible wind.
And here I sit.
If you’re interested, you can read Bullet in the Brain here, or you can watch the visual adaptation below, which adds a little extra at the beginning but then follows the story fairly decently.