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Serpent Blog - Back East

Serpent Blog

Back East 



“[1] I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”


There was a lake nearby where we took the canoe early that first morning about two hours after the passing of a storm in the night. The water was flat and clear as resin and we were the only anglers upon it, just my brother and myself, as we had done countless times in our boyhood, only then in our father’s old canoe. The air about the lake was muggy and bore a weight I had not felt in many a year. An Eastern summer. We paddled the canoe in a silence broken only by the sound of the oars as they rose and dripped and I could feel inside myself a certain shift. Something was happening, triggered perhaps by the closeness of heavy air and fecund lakefront and insect-sound and heat.



We skirted the shoreline with our poles rigged, watching for fish-sign, and flushing out the hunting waterfowl in our silent passing. There were herons of green and blue and white, and mallard duck and Canada goose and Belted Kingfishers and low-skimming swallows that nested in mud-holes beneath a low bridge we ducked under as we made for the shallows beyond to acres of lily-pads in bloom. The air alive with bullfrog calls and cicada drone. That’s what it was, the cicadas. A neural switch thrown in the circuitry of memory and heart. Sound and smell and scene. The willows bending low over the lake, their leafy tresses dipping, trailing. Maples and Chestnut oaks filled with the sound of cicadas calling to each from a thousand hidden places, sometimes with their slow clicks, sometimes in a consistent alien buzz. The sound-scape was as omnipotent as the heat.

For all the glory of the East in summer resides in the annual return of these primeval things. Coal-black with emerald trim. As big as a man’s thumb. Their caviar eyes alien and aglow, a trilobite with wings. Their sound is a summer song as sweet as birdcall, and to my mind sweeter. A distant ticking. A staccato hum. You hear it everywhere at once. A surreal warble that seems to rise and fall, rise and fade, it is a sound that permeates my heart. It sends me back to a time of mystery. The days of smallness and wonder. I cannot think upon my youth and not hear them, aloft in the Sycamores. Cicada. The rhythm of the heat.

*


Here’s what I knew. I had three readings in four days and one book club appearance. I spent the first night in New Jersey, the second in Brooklyn the final two in Staten Island. I foolishly rented a car. After getting lost the first day and stuck in midtown Manhattan traffic for three hours I cursed the machine and the terrible roads it traveled. Driving in New York is a bad-crazy dream.

I spent that first morning on the lake with my brother, as recounted above, and it set the tone for what became a spiritual journey akin to a pilgrimage. As I said, something inside me shifted. Something inside me awoke on the lake. Old clusters of neurons. A network of images and emotions triggered by sense – my skin, my sight, my ears, my nose. The human brain is endlessly marvelous. Nothing that enters is ever lost.

My subsequent trip to Manhattan all but sapped the joy out of me. I got lost. I became flustered. I missed a very important meeting with my editor, whom I had never met. I became angry and I could feel the all the venom return that I had left behind twenty years before when I forsook New York for California. The poisonous dread of manic energy and callousness. The fear. There is something about New York that is anathema to my soul. Yet, there also something there that has the power to heal me.

I missed the meeting with my editor, but I did make it to my very first book club appearance; which convened at a lounge on 96th and Broadway called Unwined. The club’s organizer is a friend of a friend named Jordana, and upon meeting her all the bad mojo of the previous three hours ebbed away. Warm, welcoming, sweet, Jordana exuded a brightness that melted the thin crust that had begun to harden again around my old New York heart.

The book club has no name that I’m aware of, but since most of the women involved know each other from working for Sesame Street (the very program that taught me to read) I am dubbing them the Sesame Street Readers. And they were wonderful to me. They didn’t just read Serpent Box, they absorbed it, they lived it. They knew more about Serpent Box than I did and saw more in it than I had ever conceived. They understood the characters and they understood its themes. These women were students of books. Their questions were thought-provoking. Their kindness humbling, and their praises a blessing.

We spent over two hours together. I answered their questions and I read to them – something I was told they’d not asked a guest author to do before. We shared the story together as lovers of story, as lovers of words. For the very first time I understood that I was not the one for which Serpent Box was written. The book no longer belongs to me.

[16] I resist anything better than my own diversity,
And breathe the air and leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up and am in my place.

I slept that night in Brooklyn at the home of the person who started me on my path to writing, Jonny Belt, who was the spark for Serpent Box. Something about spending an evening with him, and his one-year-old son Grady, was grounding and necessary. Jonny was the first person to see me as a writer and as we wandered the quiet streets of Carroll Gardens early that Thursday morning with little Grady in his stroller, the trees filled with cicada-din, I felt the visceral pull of return, of resurrection. I said to Jonny, This is unreal. The sound of the cicadas. You are so lucky to have them. Jonny looked up at the trees above us. He listened. You know, he said, I don’t even notice it.

*



My first reading was at Barnes and Noble in Manhasset. But that was not until 7 o’clock, so I had the day to myself and the question I faced was, what do I do? Spend it in Manhattan? The mere thought of driving back into that city filled me with dread. So, on a whim I decide to drive to the Long Island town of Port Washington to visit my boyhood home. As it turned out, this was a momentous decision.



It had been more than twenty years since I stood before the shabby little house. The same mustard siding. The same stunted shrubs. And as I gazed upon it on that humid Thursday morning, with the cicadas clacking away lazily in the old sycamores, I shrank. I became a boy. I was struck with a profound sense of time and place, and overcome with both melancholy and joy. I traveled back in emotional time. I felt I could just walk up the driveway and enter with my hidden key and go to my old room and lay down to bed.

I wandered around the house and took some photographs and then I walked the block itself to see the homes of my old friends and those secret places where we had gathered to smoke our first cigarettes and spin the bottle and hunt out toads and snakes. I got back into my rental car and drove the neighborhood. A map of my old living, my first life. I went back to by elementary school and walked through its halls until I found room 20 where spent the sixth grade with the one teacher who had somehow reached me, a man named Walter Chaskel. I could see the ghost of him framed in the doorway. Inside, the same light, the same smell – book glue and floor polish.



I spent the morning in the car I had cursed, following the trails of my heart’s creation. I drove to places where I was beaten in fights and where I had fished and sailed boats and I ran my old paper-route exact, noting who had tipped me and who had not, and I sat the Toyota at the curbsides where the homes of my old friends still stood bearing their exact impressions and all wrapped in the quiet of a still summer day as if sealed in amber, bewildered at my return.

I turned the car toward the Long Island Expressway. I had known that Walt Whitman was born in the town of Huntington, where his first home was preserved, and that there was an exit for this place, so there I headed and ran headlong into the most intense thunderstorm of my existence. The traffic on the L.I.E. ground to halt as a charcoal tail began to form at the base of an enormous thunderhead twelve o’clock high not five miles before me. First the rain fell, and it was blinding. I counted fifty air-to-ground lightning strikes before the hail flew. The sound of the hail on the roof, on the hood. A storm of gravel, a storm of Bird’s Eye peas, like some broken snare drum beaten by a madman. Cars pulled off to the shoulder and other stalled but I pressed the Toyota on and found the exit and found the tiny road-side signs that directed me to the house. I pulled into the empty parking lot as the rain began its slackening. I was alone.



The old docent was stunned at my appearance in such a storm but he showed me the small museum and played for me the only known recording of Walt’s voice, faint and crackling, and transferred from a wax Edison cylinder so that it sounded ghostly, a line or two from Captain O’Captain. The old docent whose name was Harold bade me to sit and watch a short film until the rain stopped. I did this. Whitman’s own voice. Good God I can still hear it. When the rain did stop Harold escorted me to the house. We stood in the colonial kitchen where he took his meals, and in the room where he had slept and I asked to be alone for a moment in the room where he was born. Again, there was transference. Planets were aligning. Had aligned. Walt was in me. As I emerged into the sunlight beside the old well, the cicadas began to click.



Later that evening I read for a small gathering of friends and loved ones at the Barnes & Noble in Manhasset; the town where I was born. I read from my own novel, my creation, yet I was struck by a passage that was clearly inspired by Song of Myself, and I stopped at that moment and looked up at my little audience and made sure they knew it too. Right there, I said, that’s Whitman. And my voice cracked, because I knew that what I had written was not my story, but all stories, and that in order to write it I had stood upon the shoulders of Walt and Ernest and Dylan and Tom Waits and Cormac McCarthy and Rumi. So many more.



If my journey had ended that very night I could well count it as a great blessing, if not catharsis. But I had two more readings to go. The next was at the Port Washington Public Library – the place where I basically learned to read as a boy. The reading was at noon on Friday – 8/8/08. What I thought was that a small group of old friends would show up and I’d read for them in a tiny corner someplace. I did not expect sixty plus total strangers in a large auditorium and a college English professor as an emcee. I was stunned. The room was packed. The gentleman who met me onstage not only introduced me, he interviewed me. He had read the book and was well-prepared. He even read passages himself. It was incredible. The discussion was lively and fascinating. Why did you write this book? Did you go to Tennessee? Are you religious? Why was Jacob deformed? Why introduce Hosea so late? How do you learn dialect? Why did you decide not to use quotation marks? And then a hand went up and a man stood. He was elderly but familiar. I knew that face. He said, “Vincent, I don’t have a question, I have a comment. I am proud of you.” My God, it was Walter Chaskel, my sixth grade teacher.



For years I searched for him. Every so often I’d Google his name in hopes of finding him, reconnecting with him. He was the best teacher I ever had and I simply wanted to tell him that he mattered, that he reached me, that he had an impact on my life. He was the kind of teacher that placed life-experience above academics. He introduced me to great places and great books, and he read to us, every day, in a voice that would lull me into a sleepy bliss. And suddenly there he was, sitting right in front of me in the audience.

About two months ago one of my Google searches turned up a hit. I found his name in an article in the New York Times and tracked him down through it and we had exchanged several emails leading up to my trip to New York. Having him there at this of all readings was about as fulfilling a feeling I have ever had. The student reading his own book back to the teacher who opened his eyes to the power of stories.

[20] And I know that I am solid and sound,
To me the converging objects of the universe
perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing
means.

Serpent Box has become for me (and perhaps it always was) a bridge. Not back to a former self, but to a self that was always there. Hidden. I am everything I ever was. I am the moment and the memory. Carlos Castaneda, in the Eagle’s Gift, describes the essence of the self as a luminous egg-like light with an infinite number of tendrils that connect us to all things. I felt that light in Port Washington. Serpent Box has helped me to glow.

My final reading on this mini book tour was not set in a house of books or a house of learning but in a house. My mother wanted to do something for me in recognition of the Serpent Box’s release and she graciously set up and event at her own home on Staten Island. It was a catered affair that took place in her lovely backyard, and included relatives and old friends and most of the people that mattered to her, so I felt more anxiety than I normally would before a reading. When I read at a bookstore I am standing in front of book-lovers. An avid reader is always prepared for a journey of the heart and imagination and I am confident enough now in Serpent Box. I know I can hook you. I know I can suck you into its world and make you see what I see and believe what I believe. But in my mother’s backyard were not the typical readers I encounter. Many (as they confessed to me later) never read at all. So I was more nervous than usual when I was introduced to this rather raucous crowd who had been drinking, and reconnecting with each other that afternoon by telling their own stories in their high-volume, high-energy New York manner. New Yorkers are story-tellers and good ones. The oral tradition is alive and well in the East. Could I enthrall them? Could I capture these tough New York hearts with a story of a boy set in the South? I didn’t know for sure, but I had an idea. I would read an excerpt designed to convert unbelievers.

Chapter 15 of Serpent Box is called Slaughter Mountain, and it recounts a tent revival where identical twin preachers attempt to handle a wild African Cobra before a large congregation of the faithful. It is a fire and brimstone affair designed to arrest the attention of the faithless and bolster the hearts of believers. It is one of my favorite chapters to read aloud. I read it that afternoon with the fervor of a prophet, and when I stopped reading the crowd sat in stunned silence. I had moved them. I could see this by the looks on their faces. My fictional sermon broke through. I brought them to me through a story I wrote in the weakest moment of my life. How could I not be humbled by this?

Later on that evening after the guests had departed and as we were cleaning the deck I was on my hands and knees with a dust pan and broom trying to sweep up behind a potted plant when I found something I had not seen in many years. I recognized it immediately. It was the husk of an insect. An amber, translucent shell about the size of a peanut with two bulbous eyes, six jagged legs and a slit up the middle where the adult had cracked itself out of its larval form. A cicada. You find these on the trunks of trees and on fence posts. I used to collect them when I was a boy. They’re quite fragile and a little frightening, like something H.R. Geiger might conjure from a dream. I carefully stowed the husk in my luggage and brought it home.



[31] I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars.

On the lake that morning we hardly spoke. There is no need to speak between us, for everything that could be said has been spoken. The language of brothers is in the eyes and in the heart. There is a stillness in this. A quiet joy. Try the reed bed over there, I might have said. Let’s see what we can find beneath that fallen willow. Those were the hours I traveled for. Alone on the lake with the one who knows me as I know myself.

If you spend any time at all on the water you know the feeling of fish. You can sense them. You become attuned to the conditions under which they rise and feed. The lake that morning was pregnant with living. We saw the fish. We saw them dart and we saw them jump and we felt them hit our spinners and our jigs. Moments after the rain, as insects fall from the trees, as worms and grubs wash in with the runoff, the time is ripe for fish. But alas, we caught nothing. And it was no matter, that. For fishing is not about catching. Fishing is being close to home. Fishing is listening, and watching, and absorbing that which we have lost – a certain union with the mystery. We are of the water, we are of the grass.

[52] I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love.
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.

*


All quotes are from Song of Myself, Walt Whitman

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