1-the email from karla pepp and how to parse it
“The heart of the mechanism of effective writing is the same, in essence, as that of the pithy, lethal, hilariously precise put-down… as executed in a heated argument between queens of a ripe old age. There is something “queer” about the intensity of observation required to shape a living description, or craft a lingering metaphor, so vividly apt that it can wound. Experienced Queens “bitch” well because they zero in on the weak spot, which is also where the chink in the armour is, aka Living Flesh exposed aka The Truth! This zeroing-in is what effective writing is all about!!!! John Updike was the best at this and he always struck me as the queerest of non-queer writers, much better and more sly and queer than Mailer, who’d probably been blown by many more men than Updike, in his time, but suffered from a slapdash masculine oafishness when it came to his descriptive apparatus. Squinty, squamous, asthmatic Updike would’ve sliced Oscar Wilde to ribbons in a cat fight!!!!”
Thom stopped reading and re-folded the printout of the email from Karla Pepp. He put it in his jacket pocket. Strutting crows were making a racket. Some of the crows were on the sunny side of the tracks. Ingenious toys, they looked to have been patented in the 19th century. Like braggarts with a twist, crows in a crowd of crows announced loudly what they intended to do and proceeded to do it. Thom could only aspire to that. And have you ever seen an old crow…? thought Thom.
He said fuck fuck fuck like a crow would and made himself chuckle.
He visualized the word Lenore.
He was afraid to go home.
He liked it when it was cool enough outside to wear his jacket. He needed the pockets. His jacket was a filing cabinet. Moleskin in his zippered breast pocket. Karla Pepp’s letters in the bottom right pocket and Amy T. Grath’s Post-Its in the bottom left. Thom patted Karla’s pocket.
No wait they don’t call them crows here.
This is what they mean by The End of the World.
He extracted the moleskin and scribbled in it. The trains are still running and the pizza is still warm but meaning has lost its something. Its weight. Meaning is a mouthful of somebody else’s air. Is it coming in or going out? Look over there.
He looked over there: porn on a billboard over the station.
Who would want to watch porn? I don’t want to watch porn, I want to do it.
He put the moleskin back in its pocket and turned away from the porn and waited for the train.
The train is a zipper; the city a filthy pair of pants. Not good enough to pull out the old moleskin for, Thom.
What’s the matter? You don’t look happy.
Thom thinks of all the times he thought that if only he had a nickel for every time someone said he didn’t look happy.
No, I’m fine, it’s just that I’m half-German.
He paced the platform with his hands clasped behind his back like an usher.
Well Thom has all those nickels now, thought Thom.
Not quite as many as you’d have thought, though. He could see it so clearly: Thom’s estranged mother slumped over the cushioned bench on the fourth landing. As described in broken fancy English by the caretaker. Now it was Thom’s landing, Thom’s bench. In a man’s hunting cap, of all things. They say the stairs steps were the killing of her, as it were. As if Thom couldn’t speak German. The caretaker had known Thom as a child. Herr Kran.
Viva the stairs.
He looked at a little non-German woman mounting the arduous stairs to the train station with two half-German children swinging their short arms behind her.
Thom spoke to himself in a conversational speaking voice and said I would be willing to pay a small fortune to ride a train that took me all the way to my inherited building and up the many flights of stairs to my inherited flat and into my inherited bed. He was tired and stated this clearly. His spine tingled to realize he now had a right to use the phrase small fortune. The woman with the children looked up at Thom in fleeting surprise as they passed him on the platform. Phrase or term? He had opted not to renovate or even have the traces of his mother’s prior occupancy removed by professional cleaners. Her bright red hairs were still all over the off-white sheets like paper cuts.
Nothing seemed longer or more arduous to Thom than that walk out of the suburban station and across the road and down the stairs beside the little playground across the street from the station. From there another very long block to his inherited building and then those vertigo-inducing stairs to the fifth floor and the tenants peeping through peepholes as Thom climbed. Envy, arrogance, stinginess, xenophobia and pedantry each in its corresponding peephole but very little gluttony. He’d left the gluttony back in The States.
Arduous and ardor. Ardor and Lenore.
Thom could picture precisely what he dare not picture at the top of the climb in his inherited property. Its eyes and nose.
The non-German woman with two children, Thom suddenly realized, retracting his face and holding his breath, was asking him a question in some kind of English that featured semaphore and for the first time in three or four years Thom responded in German, pretending to know fuckall English, though she’d overheard him talking to himself in the very language not a minute before. This kind of thing… being caught out in a hardhearted social faux pas… would have bothered Thom a lot more before his inheritance.
The train came and they all boarded it, Thom first.
Three or four days ago Thom had gotten off this same train at his intended destination and comically crossed the platform and then had taken another train right back in the direction from which he’d come. Straight back to “The Center” of town. Rather than face those stairs and the peephole people and you-know-who. Why isn’t tooken a word. Well at least nobody knew he’d done such a peculiar thing. Thom preferred to be thought of as a dickhead rather than silly or nuts. He had longed to be called a dickhead as a teen. No longer quite young enough to pass off his weird shit as the endearingly random behavior of the young. The word Ecumenical suddenly popped into his head, a word the picture for which he now conjured as being a hand full of thumbs. Is that synesthesia? Straight back to “The Center” of town. Rather than face those stairs and the peephole people and you-know-who. He’d gotten off the train with a fatalistic shrug and walked a few blocks right back to the very park he’d left an hour before. He laid himself unselfconsciously beside the silver platter of a duck pond ringed with couples in the softening twilight and watched what looked like a pink pterodactyl circle the pond a few times and land in a tree.
2-macho dickhead kabuki
He stared into the hall mirror and challenged himself to a duel in a French accent. His American half could be quite funny.
Sixty five paces from the WC-Fields-quoting doormat to the guest WC.
Thom’s American-half once bought a collection of thirty exotic spices at a garage sale in Portland and when he got them home his German-half alphabetized them and a month later his American-half had a conniption trying to find the lemon salt in the middle-back of the fucking antiquarian cabinet. Das Conniption.
Thom thought of the years of his childhood he’d been forced to watch re-runs of Hogan’s Heroes in German without a laugh-track, strapped into that steel and leather Clockwork Orange smelly headgear rig, those clamps that lock your eyelids open. Should he grow an Edgarian mustache?
He was trying to nurture a healthy obsession with a possibly-available girl while doing his best to crab-walk around the diametrically-opposed pulsar at the center of his libido. The brand new pulsar at the center of his libido. Thom was always inordinately proud of himself when he beat an American native at Scrabble but he had never beaten the possibly-available Karla Pepp at Scrabble. The instant he’d stepped again on German soil he’d forgotten how to play Scrabble and how to slow dance. He could feel the knowledge draining from his thighs to his calves and into the concrete shell of the German Earth as he left the airport. Leave it to Thom, Thom thought, to suddenly start thinking about a conceivably-available woman he hadn’t seen in three years. Thom was horny as a brass band at a rodeo. Two or three years. Then just email her out of the blue?
Thom, taking a shit, wondered what Karla Pepp’s intentions were. Maybe she’d come to town for a visit and blog about his recycling obsessions. Maybe they’d marry. They’d cuddle after bad sex and he’d sigh Oh Karla.
They’d argue passionately about Jonathan Franzen and she’d hurl her open hand to slap him and he’d catch her wrist and pull her into a rapey kiss instead.
You’d have to have a mustache to get away with that, chuckled Thom. Who would take your macho dickhead kabuki seriously with the upper lip of a eunuch trembling at them, glazed in the sweat of the inappropriate?
As always Thom wiped 36 times, a wipe for every year (or tree-ring).
Obsessively recycled thoughts about Karla helped Thom avoid obsessively recycling thoughts regarding the other thing.
Karla Pepp was a dominating American type with big boobs, a very pretty face that was rather gooey with makeup, fat legs, thin brown hair and dandruff, said Thom in his most American radio voice. Karla was no Ligeia. They had been in a beginner’s German class together in America.
Wash your hands well, Thom. He couldn’t remember the hand-washing mnemonic he’d been taught as a young half-German. Grey-haired Nate T. made the incredibly astute observation to Thom once, as they coolly observed the Freudian hijinks of the brontosauri thronging the Food Court: the second-healthiest feeling you can have for your mother is hatred. Periodt. It’s the colder shit further down on the scale that will doom a motherfucker.
During this beginner’s German class, Karla had revealed to Thom her pseudonymous double-life as a blogger before rapturously oversharing on the topic of her yeast infection. First food then books then travel. Blog phylogeny. Thom had revealed nothing of his double-life or medical status or social media journey to Karla in return. How could he have possibly explained to Karla Pepp why he was taking a beginning German class in Bloomington, Minnesota, when he had been born and raised in Berlin? He couldn’t even explain that to himself. Even Thom waved Thom off with a disgusted facial expression when Thom so much as tried.
He longed for someone to physically attack him so he could have the life-affirming experience of adequately defending himself. But not too big. What was Thom’s Life but longer or shorter cycles of moving from A to B and back again? People are so fucking mysterious, most of all to themselves, says Thom, quite often, so ruefully.
Thom hadn’t seen Pepper Mune (Karla Pepp) for two or three years, though he’d read her blog regularly during that time, but he could feel himself working up some version of a longing for her sweet embrace. He wanted to cum all over her bumptious titties like pump-frosting an innertube in a misguided attempt to plug the leak. He hadn’t cared terribly much for Karla’s book blog on modernist humbug though Thom often found himself nodding emphatically while reading Karla’s shapely travel prose. That’s so Crete and so forth. He wondered if Karla’s legs were thinner but also if her boobs were still as big. Why hadn’t Thom ever made a play for Karla when she was mere inches away, the beer on her breath a friendly biosphere, all those two or three years ago?
Thom emailed Karla Pepp to see what might happen.
In this exploratory email Thom casually mentioned Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (which he was almost done reading when he sent the mail) and he casually included some home-grown literary theory to remind Pepper that she had considered him smart (two or three years ago), never guessing he was half-German; never guessing he had successfully bamboozled her; never guessing he owned some property like a marriageable burgher now. He had done a brilliant acting job of mispronouncing German sentences with Karla, whose awful German was innocently real. The next morning he found this perky jeremiad in his in-box:
Notes/ Thoughts/ Enthusiasms…
Before we look at the particulars of American Pastoral, we have to remember that Literary Modernism, as Philip Roth performed it, was a Sex-mad Existentialism (maybe that’s redundant: The Existentialists were an extremely horny bunch) that was very cool, very nonchalant, in its embrace of the concept of the Non-Existence of God: Roth’s Modernism* took a Godless Universe as a shruggably obvious, sophomore-reading-assignment given. The bulk of the history of the Western Novel, as we usually think of it (an extension of the KJV in its didactic moral purpose) wouldn’t have known what to do with the freedom that Modernism gave Philip Roth to punish his characters without recourse to God/ Karma/ Providence or any of that. Roth was doing Greek Theater without the Gods; Hubris in Roth is always punished but not because some Deity’s System requires balance or jealous justice. Roth seems always fascinated with the A) meaninglessness of it All and B) the Uncontrollability of Real Things (aka the Gang Aft Aglay principle).
[sidebar: It’s interesting that the very-Catholic Flannery O’Connor was obsessed with Hubris, too. They probably shared some guilt about being among the first college-educated kids in their lower-middle-class households…? Because in Flannery’s stuff, the snotty college kids run neck and neck with house-proud biddies when it comes to the cruelly-satisfying comeuppance…!!!! But I digress…]
So Roth knows his Greek drama but he doesn’t believe in God/ The Gods or the Fates… though you’d probably have to forgive his characters for feeling otherwise. Coleman Silk, the character in The Human Stain, a classics professor, gets punished for his Hubris in spades (no pun intended): he spends his adult life “passing” as an Octoroon pretending to be Jewish, destroys his birth-family, alienates his kids…the eldest of whom somehow picks up on the vibe of the racial duplicity and “inexplicably” hates his father Coleman… his beloved wife dies… he has an affair with much-younger “white trash” and dies, with her, at the hands of her estranged white-trash ex. JHVH, KRSNA or ZEUS could not do a better job of bringing Roth’s sinners to grief!!!!!!!!!”
And so on.
This authoritative intellectual carpet-bombing of a response from Karla sparked a competitive rage in Thom very quickly tempered by the thought of her naked boobs coated with beads of inappropriate’s perspiration on his inherited balcony this summer. Every bead a tiny world. Karla Pepp was this rare thing, Thom felt. Maybe Karla was a female dickhead.
Thom had been pretending to be not half-German for so long that he often forgot he was pretending. Now that he was back in Berlin he could feel his German half as a desiccated physical presence with weight and volume, dangling from a hook in the darker half of his skull like a pig’s carcass a boxer might use as a punching bag. Is that any good?
Thom was still young. It must have been about midnight in his haunted apartment. The TV went on and then off again of its own accord. Floorboards creaked and the shower in the other WC ran a full two or three minutes and shut itself off again without a fraction of a foot-pound of Thom’s attention. The hairs on the back of Thom’s neck remained on standby.
He tended to feel the desiccated internal presence of his German half when he hadn’t been laid for too long. No one had fucked him in his two years in America as a man manning an Information desk at the Mall of America. White males manning Information desks at the Mall of American weren’t a turn-on in America, these days, Thom had learned, if they ever had been. But now he had some money. This inheritance had changed everything but perhaps too subtly, Thom felt, like a time lapse film of an opening rose you are only allowed to view at the original speed of the filming. He got an embarrassing erection in the kitchen chanting blog phylogeny with his eyelids squeezed shut, hoping to be shoved from behind.
Sexual desperation brought out his German genes. He was a Werewolf who needed to fuck in order to stay human. Any minute he would be rending flesh and correcting native English speakers on their enunciation of English vocabulary words.
Thom felt reinvigorated by the sheer transparency of his harrowing solitude. He quietly tip-toed around a bit and pulled new pink Post-Its off of things and decided to write a story whose main hook or philosophical theme was its offensiveness. He wanted to write the most offensive story he could imagine writing. He wanted to feel that freedom. Perhaps he would make a name for himself. He used his mother’s surprisingly current PC. Thom opened the digital spigot and spirit filled the PC’s organs.
Thom kept toasting and buttering whole wheat toast and sprinkling sugar on it ( “the poor man’s French toast,” he muttered, out loud, in English) and tip toeing down the hall with the toast on a plate he rinsed off between subsequent trips. He stayed up very late polishing 83 paragraphs that had seemed so good in the dead of night. 83 paragraphs that would knock Karla’s bulging socks off.
Ach, he thought, reading the 83 paragraphs gingerly, first thing the next morning, which was crushingly overcast, This is nothing but the horny bullshit that old men write. And Thom was still young. Power button off. Explosively horny dickhead young Thom. He tip toed back down the uncarpeted hall and climbed back into the warm spot he’d left in the bed, Gandhi refusing temptation. He slotted effortlessly into the cozy declivity of disappointment. He tried to ignore the other presence in the bed.
Sun streamed a synesthetic bullhorn through the high-and-dirty windows.
Good one. He palpated his jacket on the bed beside his pillow for the moleskin.
Sol illuminated archaeological meringues of Cold War dust on the glass in the frames around the vintage photographs that stared unemotionally at Thom from the walls around his mother’s bed. Many of the photographs were inscribed. He’d known those photographs for all of his childhood but had never thought to ask his mother if the people in the photographs were family. There was a grey metal lever mechanism, beside each of the four windows, for cranking open the upper third of the window, which could angle inwards admitting fresh air and horseflies capable of five-storied flight. There were several busted black mechanisms of dead horseflies on the sunny sill.
“A cautionary syllogism,” said Thom, feeling better.
He saw his mother with an ashtray, curlers and a fur coat, chary of heating expenses, knee-socks in the bed. Tapping a very long and fine and fire-carved coral of ash into the Jamaican ashtray. Moleskin?
“Beg your pardon?” mumbled Amy T. Grath from the wall-side of that bed.
She turned to face Thom. The sun laid a harsh strip of trajectory down the middle of her wide-set eyes and between her bee-sting breasts and scattered in the bunchy sheets like an isinglass bullet. Her Malcolm McDowell nose was incandescent in the sun. The interiors of her nostrils were back-lit nacre. Good one. Moleskin.
“Good morning Amy T. Grath,” said Thom as he finished scribbling. “Hey.”
She retracted her face and held her breath. “Your father is still my father, Thommy. No matter how horny you get.”
Thom climbed out of the bed and stood beside the bed in his tent-poled boxers and turned his profile to Amy T. Grath and stretched.
“Yes Thommy,” said Amy, “We can all see how proud you are.”
Staring at her face remained an uncanny experience. The eyes, the cheekbones, the nose, the nose, the nose, the dimple in our chin.
She finger-combed her long hair and shook it out and snapped her head forward and back again, the torrent settling in a voluminous caramel-blonde raiment of stunning artificiality around her shoulders. Her knees were up and she hugged them to cover her grandly superfluous tits. She yawned. Thom could smell Amy T. Grath’s intoxicating scalp from wherever he stood in the bedroom.
Thom talk-yawned saying “You did that on purpose.”
“A purpose,” specified Amy T. Grath. “Not the purpose. Over it you must get. Stop calling me ‘Amy T. Grath’ and get used to calling me little Sis, Thommy. For both our sakes. Got it? Incest… ick.”
Amy T. Grath, massage therapist, formerly of San Diego.
Thom hadn’t known anything about Amy T. Grath, massage therapist, formerly of San Diego, until the day he’d returned to a mother-free Berlin and found Amy T. Grath living in the baronial flat Thom’s mother had solely occupied as the widowed landlord of the grand old Usher-like building. Amy T. Grath had been there already for a week before Thom arrived. Before doing anything else she’d taped an unframed Dali poster in the kitchen over the old electric stove which stood beside the new one and she had written “Amy T. Grath ” on dozens of teal Post-It stickers, sticking these stickers on half of everything they would stick to. The too-dusty things they fell straight off of, stuck instead to perfectly uniform velvet rectangles of dust. That’s either a metaphor for Amy or for Thom, thought Thom.
For reasons Thom still couldn’t figure, Thom’s mother had provided for her late handsome cheating husband’s illegitimate daughter in her will. Was it a noble, or a fiendish, gesture? Was Thom being punished from beyond the grave or offered arduous love from the same subterranean sniper’s nest? Was this the aberrant psychology of East German Communism elevated to the level of a goblet-shattering nutso aria from the grave? Was it Kismet? A Pinter Play? What?
People are fucking…
“Which is a pity,” Amy T. Grath added, climbing out of bed and heading for the WC. She patted Thom’s naked back in transit. Down the hall she went, eggy buttocks seesawing, singsonging “Because mercy fucks are excellent kaaaaaarmaaaa.”
Amy T. Grath entered the lavender WC and yanked the light-chain then closed the WC door and opened it again, just a crack, calling through that crack, over the sizzle of unrestrained piss, “Hey, Thom, will you accept my sisterly offer of scrambled eggs instead?”
Nate T., father figure, twice-fired recidivist security guard and renowned janitor’s-closet-raconteur, at the Mall of America, had many times referred to a certain kind of skinny white girl, in Thom’s presence, as a chicken wing.
Come Sunday, Thom casually offered to do everyone’s, his and Amy T. Grath’s, laundry in the basement machines. He kissed the dirty panties, one by one, as he tossed them in the front-loader like naughty Easter bonnets, the dirty panties of the girl who was the dead ringer for Thom’s dead father as a boy. Naked, Thom placed the white (ironically dirtiest) pair experimentally in his mouth, stuffing it all the way in, standing there blinking under the nocturnal aluminum gleam of low-hanging heating ducts, his cheeks bunny-big. Thom wageringly aimed the business end of his pregnant dick at the dollop of crunchy peanut butter, on the mercy-seat of the mousetrap, on the knee-high hatbox, that his mother had very possibly baited as her last truly calculated act on Earth. Thom’s bulging dickhead and the hair-trigger mechanism of the trap had worked out an understanding of sorts.
What else did Thom really need?