Serpent Blog

U-Boat : A Story 
I am posting, for the first time here, a story in progress. The story is called U-Boat, and it was written (as so many of my stories are) in response to a photograph. I thank David Fox, a fine writer, for providing me with this inspiration and for continuing to challenge me with sparks and fuel.

U-Boat is an oral story. It was written as if it was spoken. Soon I will post an MP3 of me reading it.

If you read it, and have an emotional response to it, please convey that to me. Here is the photo I began with:

And here is U-Boat.


The sky was bright and clear the morning the old captain disappeared, but the water was mysteriously black, and it was smooth as a mill pond after a night with no moon. The tide was dead bottom low. He was up before dawn, as was his custom, and he was seen at Fultonís for bait. He bartered for a box of sandworms with Dewey Fulton and bought a quarterís worth of Bunker chum he scooped into a Maxwell House can with a tin dipper that hung from a rope on a hook. When he left the chandlery about ten past six it was already warm enough to melt the creosote on the dock pilings and the glass was rising ahead of a squall that never did come. He was seen out near the Lost Banks around seven and the skipper of the Cornada spotted him at anchor at Torpedo Rock at eight. Beyond that there were no further sightings. Nobody paid much attention to him those days - though I always watched for him, to ask what might be running, and Iíd often query him on weather sign and the draw of certain bait. But when I saw that old bicycle of his there against the dock-shed on past midnight I just had the feeling Iíd never see him again.

I remember. When I was a boy, weíd see him dive the sunken wrecks to hunt conger eels with a three-pronged spear. And one time I watched him swim through a rough chop in a storm, with the bowline of that little Whaler he had in his teeth, pulling that boat against a swift current in the dark with the strength of the damned. We called him the captain. He was a man who spoke few words but those words he did speak carried with them the weight of one who knew the sea and all her means of betrayal. He would fish in the Narrows at slack-water or out at Bird Island when the tide pulled too fast, for he was old by this time and his hands were not quite as strong. He was a captain in name only, as there were many who claimed he skippered a submarine in the war, true or not he was a German sure enough. He had the mad blue eyes of an Aryan prince.

He lived in that gray shack at the end of the estuary, the one with the crooked stove-pipe and the raked tin roof and he kept more cats than he could feed with the guts of his daily catch. He had the tanned and leathered skin of an old waterman, his face was deeply lined and he had a great head of silver hair. But what I remember most about him were his hands. His hands were things of true ugliness and strength and they appeared to have been forged with hammers of ice. His skin was all red on his swollen knuckles and scarred up good and he lacked nails on some of his fingers and lacked a finger entire on his left hand where he also bore a smudged black tattoo that could have been an eagle or an anchor or some Teutonic creature from the walls of Wotanís crypt. As boys we all called it the hand of death.

I set out that next morning and searched all the hidden coves of the island and all his favorite haunts but it was like he fell off the edge of the world. We never did find a body nor was he ever seen again on the waters of Maine. But later on that night I found his boat swamped and adrift in the reeds. The engine was an old Merc 30 and it was in good working order, with plenty of gas left in the tank. The oars were lashed tight to the gunwale as was all of his gear - his rods, his nets, the sandworms and the chum. The only strange thing was that the anchor was gone, its line trailing a good twenty feet in the water but still wrapped tight around a cleat. The bitter end looked like it was cut clean with a knife.

He was a skilled mechanic, the captain was, and he could perform marvels with old outboards and diesels alike. If he so desired he could have surely restored some old truck or a car. But he rode this red bicycle that he salvaged from the bay with a grappling hook and he refused to drive, nor would he ride in anything with wheels and an engine, even when offered a lift. He fished with poles and he fished with nets and like I told you thereíd be times heíd dive the wrecks off the shoals with nothing to aid such endeavors but a harpoon he fashioned from a number eight treble hook and narrow shaft of ornately carved teak. He rode that old bicycle with all that gear lashed to a pair of hand-sewn goat-hide panniers and there was a time heíd ride fast, and in a crouch, with his elbows akimbo and his face down near the bars like some renegade boy on a dare.

Like I said we called him the captain but the name on his mailbox was Wilhelm Schmidt and he was hated by some for what he might have been. This is a small island remember, and many served in that war. We donít forget those who go down to the sea in ships. There are mothers here still whose boys went down with the Hermione. There was one woman, spat right in his face. She had two sons aboard that ship. Darling was her name. Henrietta Darling. The boys were named David and Skip. Walked straight up to him and spat in his face. Middle of Mulhoonís this was, and she had an arm-full of groceries and the captain he came in for a bottle of milk. He wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve but she spit again and hit him right in the eye, and that time he let it stay. Just stood there like she shot him dead. He left a quarter on the counter-top and never was seen in there again. Mulhoon threw that quarter out in the street and later on I went and picked it up. I keep that old coin in my wallet for reasons I still donít understand and I have it there still.

Well, after that heíd take company with no man and he began drinking alone at The Scupper, talking to himself in that old language of fairy tales and myth, just talking and talking, as if some phantom might answer back. Many a time heíd pound on the bar with his fist and storm off in a rage. But that was the only occasion weíd ever see him that way. Mostly he was quiet and he was always kind to the children. I remember that. Carved us little animals out of wood. Made us bamboo fishing poles and taught us the secrets of current and wind. On Sundays heíd fix our bicycles for us and heíd make us boys these kites out of newspapers that could fly higher than anything you could buy in a store. As the years passed, and we got older we saw him less and less. He became like a ghost, wandering out there on the water searching for something he lost long ago.

One night, I remember I was filling in for the barman at the Scupper when old Billy, as I came to call him, was in there alone on a bender. Told me it was his birthday and he got me good and drunk. He was singing to himself some old song that pleased him greatly when he leaned too far backwards and fell off the stool on his ass, and he took with him a shelf full of glasses that broke all over his head and face. They cut him up pretty good. I brought him back into the kitchen to pick the glass out and I made him some coffee too. He was stinking drunk and started talking in German with bits of English mixed in and then he suddenly seemed sober and he looked at me with those crazy blue eyes of his and told me I had always been a good little boy.

You were always a good lad Steven, he said. And I told him told him to shut up and hold still. But he kept talking.

You were always good to me, he said. Always polite.

Well, I had a pair of tweezers in my hand and I was holding his chin, trying to turn his face to the light so I could get the last of it. He was bleeding and there were small shards of glass, which I could see the glitter of, in the light of a single hanging bulb.

Thereís gold down there Steven, he said and I paid that no mind. I told him to stop jabbering.

I need you to hold still, I said and I picked all the glass out of his face and he kept quiet long enough for me to get the job done. I cleaned him with alcohol and dabbed iodine on his cheek and tried to send him home but he couldnít walk by himself so I carried him, with his arm around my neck like some wounded chum. All the way down to the docks where he lived alone those many years.

It was late by this time, and the stars were out in all their glory and he saw them too, and maybe itís the effect of such a sky that gets a man to thinking about the time heís spent in this world and the time he has left. Maybe thereís some message in those far off lights that we can somehow understand that reminds us how small we really are and how foolish and how we just canít hide from our God. Whatever it might have been was in him now and he trembled and he began to cry like a boy. He fell to his knees on the dock there at my feet.

We were to set a man ashore, he said. An SS man.

I didnít know what he was saying.

Youíre drunk Billy, I said.

But his voice had changed. His voice took on that death-bed quality when your mind suddenly becomes clear and you realize youíre finally free from all your lies. He held my arm just above my wrist. He held me in the death hand. So strong was his grip, I can feel it now. And he looked at me.

This was October, he said. 1942. And there was a beautiful yellow moon on that night. We surfaced. We came up to launch the boat. Close enough to see the lights of Chahanatuck.

And he stared out at the lights of our village across the harbor as if he had just discovered some new land.

The manís name was Oldong, he said. Karl Oldong. He spoke perfect English. Hands like a woman he had and a briefcase full of Kugerants. I know this because I saw it Steven, and because I would also operate the wireless. I knew what he was.

And then he let go of my arm, and he let out a small cry, a sound came out of his throat that might have been a word not fully formed. He looked me square in the eye.

I was the only one Steven, he said. I was the only one who survived that night.

And I remembered.

The U-Boat. So many of our merchantmen sunk that dread summer. And thatís how it was with the Hermione, a trawler bound for Nova Scotia who took two dud torpedoes astern that didnít explode and one amidships that did, breaking her neatly in half so that her bow rose straight up out of the water tombstone black and burning like a Roman candle, like some torch from the netherland in the hand that swallows ships, and we saw it all, we gathered on the beaches and we gathered on the cliffs and we watched her out there till dawn, spewing great arcs of fire, and refusing to go down, her survivors coming ashore in ones and twos and drenched in oil so black youíd hardly know them as men, so badly burned we thought it seaweed hanging from their limbs, wading up on Danger Beach in a night so quiet we could hear the flames out there and those great sheets of Pennsylvania iron, buckling, tearing, this terrible groan, the leviathan itself I imagined, Iíll never forget that sound as long as I live, the collective sigh of all manís demons, the pride of his generations unwrought by the curse of Prometheus himself, sinking, just slipping away with a final hiss of smoke and bubbles into the very bosom of our creation.

And that was that. Later on that same night the U-Boat was sunk by a depth-charge from a coast guard cutter. And thatís all the captain ever said about it. I put him to bed that night in tears and never spoke of it again. We were drunk, the two of us, and this was years ago and of course I went off to Korea and learned a thing or two about what it means to be the only one who comes back from something so terrible and wrong. I gained what you might call perspective on this art of killing men that we call war. The things you see and the things you do. To live. To survive. But you donít think about that. You canít. You only think about living in that moment, not living with yourself later on, or you wonít make it, you just wonít, and only after does the feeling hit you, that maybe it wouldíve been better to not have lived at all. Only later, when you see a child like the one you saw lying in the road at No Gun Ri, or when you smell apple blossoms, or cordite in the air, or that other smell that will never leave your hands or leave your clothes. The dead. The dead. You see them in every elbow now, every knee, the Adamís apples, all the teeth, itís in every face and every body and enough to drive you mad like it must have driven him mad, living among us as he did, all those years, and do you know what he was doing? All that time? Diving the wreck of his U-boat. No air supply. No tanks or nothing. Going out there, night after night and bringing things back that were better left alone.

Well, after I found it that night I towed his boat back into the harbor and I pumped it out and tied it up in one of my empty slips. I brought his bicycle down to the dock shed, where it stands to this day, and that night I jimmied the lock on the door of his shack and went in with a lantern to see what clues I might find there. Everywhere I looked there were things covered in barnacles that seemed vaguely to resemble the handiwork of men and all around me were things living in the shadows and slinking back into the darkness whenever I raised the light. They ran between my legs and brushed up against my shoulders and I could see them perched all over and up in the rafters, their eye-shine red as the spectral lights of chaos. His collection of feral cats. And the sound they made together was horrible amidst the grisly exhibition of things he pulled from the wreck. They wailed like babies and darted about so fast that I fell among them and the heavier objects he must have raised with a winch - hatch-covers and wheels and iron gears and a torpedo entire. It must have taken him years to gather what I saw there laid out before me like some museum of the Paukenschlag - all the plates and cups he had, the spoons and sliver forks, the rotten uniforms and tarnished buttons, their caps and shoes, and their skulls. Yes he brought them up too. God lord I had stepped into a tomb.

Now I know what youíre thinking and I know what youíre going to ask so Iíll just cut right to the chase. I never did find that German gold, though I searched the shack through and I dug up around it and I even found the U-boat. Sunk in less than forty feet of water, past the shoals about two-hundred yards off Danger Beach. I found his charts and I found the map he made of the wreck and I read his log through and through. I never said a word to nobody and I brought it all back to where it belonged. Every last relic. I dropped them all back into the wreck. And I bought his little shack. I had to or heíd have been discovered. I cleaned it out and kept the cats and sometimes I go in there and sit on his bunk and read what he wrote. I got a hold of German dictionary and pretty much translated all his journals and his letters too. Believe me, thereís a whole other story there I could tell you, the things heís seen and the things heís done. We misjudged him we did. All of us. If they could only know what I know theyíd build a statue of him in the square.

Ask yourself this. How did that cutter find them so quick? How did Billy survive when none of the others did? Something to ponder on nights like this. And one day Iíll tell you what I think. But not now my boy, not now. Now is a time for bed. Now is a time for dreams. But Iíll tell something. Sometimes I just sit there in his shack, in the quiet. Sometimes I go out in his boat and just drift there above the wreck. And every once in a blue moon Iíll hop on that old red bicycle of his and I will ride like the ever-loving wind.


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The Road: Litquake, LoveFest and Tiny Purple Fishes 

The thing is, you never do know where the road is going to take you. Our intended destinations rarely turn out to be our destinyís true intent. What we need most to see, to hear, to feel in our hearts, is given to us. It is laid out at our feet, if you look for it. If you trust the road.

I thought it was Litquake. This was Saturday October 4th. I believed I was coming into the City for Litquake. I was reading from Serpent Box at the San Francisco Public Library at an event titled Off The Richter Scale with several other authors and I was prepared for this. I chose my passage well Ė a dream sequence from the novel where a key character confronts his imminent death through six minutes of surreal and disturbing imagery filled with pathos and dread and a demon embodied in a statue made of glass.

Reading this excerpt aloud to the Litquake audience left me with a sad, soul-sick feeling. And in that moment, in that room, I began to understand the true meaning of what I wrote more than five years ago. Our demons are ourselves, twisted by fear and doubt. And we must pay attention to our dreams, all of them. Not just those that come to us in our sleep - dreams, visions and that which unfolds before our eyes as we live and breathe. As I concluded my reading, I could feel the shift of my tectonic self.

What I did not know, what I could not know, was that the scene outside of the library would leave me even sadder and sicker then the scene I recreated with my voice within. What I saw in Larkin street filled me with a different kind of dread, a dread more troubling, more heart-breaking than the fiction I concocted when I wrote that dark dream of fear and confusion just after 9/11.

Outside the library an annual event was beginning to unfold. Civic Center Plaza, City Hall, the courthouse and several adjacent streets were cordoned off and hundreds of young, scantily dressed girls and visibly intoxicated boys were streaming in toward multiple sound stages emitting gut-churning charges of thumping techno beats. LoveFest, is what they call it. A Bacchanal ritual of pot-smoking, X-dropping, booze-swilling hedonism marked by the bastardized fashion motifs of Blade Runner, Brittany Spears and a Burning Man gone awry. ĎLoveFestí is a mash-up of raves, house parties and Mardi Gras that is all fest and no love. And it made me want to weep.

I had little choice but to wade through the crowd in order to get up to Van Ness for the post-reading book signing. And I thought, no big deal. Iím a veteran of sixty Grateful Dead shows and four New Paltz Spring Fests. I can handle this. Iíve done my share of drinking, smoking and tripping. This will be interesting, I thought. So into the sea of humanity I plunged. Nothing could prepare me for what I saw and felt.

LoveFest is bleak and hollow and very sad, a self-indulgent, narcissistic symptom of a culture steeped in wanton excess, in body parts apart from bodies, the abstraction of the female form from the female soul, a shameless culture of mind-altering look-at-meís bent on voyeurism , chemical alteration and physical denial. These youth, these children, some of them clearly no older than twelve, but most between sixteen and twenty - drinking, smoking, tripping, gyrating, puking, humping, vogue-ing, posing -so lost, so numb, so out of touch with the world and themselves.

The vibe was terrifying. The air was suffused with a sort of carnal panic. It was High School Musical meets Lord of the Flies. There was no warmth, no peace and love, none of the playful esprit du corps you feel at other San Francisco gatherings. It felt dead. I stood in the midst of a teenage wasteland where the pierced and the tattooed gathered to gawk and convulse in pink feather boas and g-strings.

Up Polk street I ran, as far as I could go. I got out of that madness searching for somewhere I could use to reset myself, to ground myself again. I stood in an alley watching three junkies shooting up and I saw a sign. It read. Tropical fish. Freshwater only. A tiny little hole in the wall. It beckoned me. And I followed.

Imagine a darkened room, roughly the size of an average two-car garage with a labyrinth of walls constructed entirely of small aquariums, so lush with living iridescent plant-life that each tank glows and emits a soft emerald light so that the whole dark space is lit by ambient pools that cast flickering reflections on a wet concrete floor. The store is empty. I hear the low hum of air pumps and soft bubbling water. I walk through the maze and peer into each little tank, where I see fish of wonderful shape and coloration, many I have never seen before, most of them rare and quite small, guppy-like, schooling, flickering, completely at home in their self-contained little ponds. Hundreds of such tanks. Hand-written signs bearing Latin names. No sound other than bubbles and vibrations. Thousands of little fishes of violet, crimson, indigo, jade, living within these fecund, perfectly miniature worlds, each like some fairy realm, so alive, so marvelous and lovingly cared for, each a tiny slice of Amazonia, some African rift lake, a Mekong tributary. My heart swelled and all that darkness, all that dread, all that alien coldness I had brought in from the street, slipped away from me like some robe of sin. This was what I came for. The road brought me.

Later on I went to the signing at Books Inc. and I stood there waiting for someone to pick up my book, my view of the world, and the road. Some did. I signed the copies there at the table, eight of them, the way I sign all my anonymous dedications. Fear not, I wrote, only believe.

I believe the road is my road, and mine alone. When I walk out that door each day I have faith I will see something, just one thing, that I did not expect to see but which was placed in my path expressly for my soul. I went to LitQuake to read what I wrote about that faith to those who would listen. I lost a little of that faith at LoveFest, but I found it again in a magic little room surrounded by miracles.


Playlist for this Blog: Sins of My Father/Tom Waits, Tales of Brave Ulysses/Cream, The Only Living Boy in New York/Simon & Garfunkel, Down to the Waterline/Dire Straits.

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It turns out the Tin Man had a heart all along... 

I donít suppose I have too many readers here, not many at all who might be hanging on waiting for the next installment of the SerpentBlog. But Iíve only got myself to blame. Iíve not written here in awhile and I want to tell you why.

What I have been doing instead of writing blogs is writing stories. As much as I like blogging I like writing stories better, and thatís what I should be doing because Iíve stiffened up lately like the Tin Man and the stories are my oil.

So in the next few days or so Iím going to post the latest little piece of fiction Iíve been working on here Ė right here in the blog itself. Iím going to buck convention and let you see it before anyone else does. Iím going to let you see a rough draft of a tale written to be told by mouth.

I donít have much time to write these days. Unfortunately I have no patron. I have a job. I work now on my fiction about an hour a day and thatís not nearly enough to do the kind of work I really want to be doing. But itís enough time to write small stories of small consequence.

These past few months, every morning, Iíve taken out my oil can to lube my elbows and loosen my knees. And I like what Iíve written. So Iíll let you see that soon if you want.

The working title for this new piece is U-Boat and hereís a preview:

ďÖWe called him the captain. He was a man who spoke few words but those words he did speak carried with them the weight of one who knew the sea and all her means of betrayalÖ He had the tanned and leathered skin of a old waterman. His face was deeply lined and he had a great head of silver hair. But the thing I remember most about him was his hands. His hands were things of true ugliness and strength and they appeared to have been forged with hammers of iceÖĒ

On to business.

On Saturday October 4th Iíll be reading at the San Francisco Public Library as part of Litquake.

Saturdayís event is called ďOff The Richter ScaleĒ and if you live in the Bay Area I would just live to see you there. I have been given six minutes to read so Iíve chosen a passage from Serpent Box that I promise will deliver the goods. If you donít know it already, I love to read aloud and I write all my stories with the spoken word very much in mind.

Oral story-telling is an incredibly important and endangered form of art and expression, especially in these i-Phone, i-Pod, I-M, I-seclude-my-self-behind-a-glass-screen digital times. So please, support reading, story-telling and old fashioned human interaction by attending a Litquake event this coming week. It is a great San Francisco tradition I am honored to be a part of.
Though I realize it is unlikely youíll attend, here is the Litquake website and calendar of events:

Iíll be at the Koret Auditorium at 2pm and later on at Books Inc, Opera Plaza for a signing at 5.

Meanwhile, Iím going to get my oil can out again. My story is calling me, and I need to live. Thanks loyal readers, see you all Saturday at the temple of books Ė The SF Public Library. 100 Larkin St.


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Author of Snake-Handling Yarn Has Hit on his Hands 
From the August 27th issue of the Staten Island Advance. ... amp;coll=1

I won't re-post it here, but if you're interested please check it out.


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Back East 

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

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 fatherís 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. Thatís 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 manís 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.


Hereís 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 Ė 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 clubís 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 Iím 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 didnít 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 Ė something I was told theyíd 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 donít even notice it.


My first reading was at Barnes and Noble in Manhasset. But that was not until 7 oíclock, 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 Ė book glue and floor polish.

I spent the morning in the car I had cursed, following the trails of my heartís 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 oíclock 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 Birdís 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 Waltís voice, faint and crackling, and transferred from a wax Edison cylinder so that it sounded ghostly, a line or two from Captain OíCaptain. The old docent whose name was Harold bade me to sit and watch a short film until the rain stopped. I did this. Whitmanís 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, thatís 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 Ė the place where I basically learned to read as a boy. The reading was at noon on Friday Ė 8/8/08. What I thought was that a small group of old friends would show up and Iíd 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, ďVincent, I donít have a question, I have a comment. I am proud of you.Ē My God, it was Walter Chaskel, my sixth grade teacher.

For years I searched for him. Every so often Iíd 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

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 Eagleís 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 Boxís 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 motherís 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 didnít 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. Theyíre 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. Letís 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 Ė 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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