Monday, January 16, 2017


 Horns at High Altitudes  

He was a scholar and a lecturer and one lecture he gave once a year always motivated [him] to teach another year.  He had traveled extensively and studied abroad as a young man.  He met a woman when doing so and she had told him a story, among many. She was older but not too much.  They were not romantically involved if that is what you are thinking, no.  The relationship was more of mentor and student for lack of a better term. 

She had seen several studies of the shamanic culture and in her travels there were many stories that she did not include in her books or articles.  This one was told to her by a shaman that concerned fire.  It went, “A bird shaped gorge found in the human skull has its entrance in one of the veins leading up to the central nervous system.  It was swallowed at birth by the young woman.  Her birth was in a cave so the shaman believed she had a vision emanating from the ocular nerve.  When the young child began having what looked like something crawling around in her throat the shaman was called.  He lit a branch and waved it in front of the child’s head.  He had the mother open the child’s mouth but he didn’t see anything there.  When he waved the limb to the child’s eyes he saw her eyes bulge then go back to normal.” 

He would stop here in his lecture to let this part sink in.  Usually, there would be many questions.  Was this true?  He had spent ten minutes at the outset explaining what a shaman was but still there were questions.  He would continue after a short while. 

“The eyes had bulged out then gone back to their normal setting.  Shocked, the shaman waved the limb again before her eyes and the eyes bulged quicker then reset again but this time the child’s cheeks began to bulge down to her mouth.  The shaman stepped back and asked the mother to open her mouth who by this time had begun to cry uncontrollably and started chanting.  What had been inside the young child was indeed a small bird.” 

When the classroom heard this, they began to shift in their chairs and began to chuckle. He admonished them and informed them of the many documented instances where shamans have performed rites unproducible by western medicine.  At this time, he would usually release a small bird into the classroom from a cage he had inside of his lectern. 

Chris Mansel
Top of Form


Down with The Ship While Enjoying the View

Silence, like the earth he thought. He had been reading Samuel Beckett the last few days on the train. The brief lines, the constant steadiness of the eyes going back and forth to the left margin was a good metaphor for travel, especially for the train. His life felt incidental. The kind of dialogue you read before those lines that merged together; where your eye grazed down the page before you realized it. A paragraph here and there and a few years are gone without you realizing it. His first marriage was a bit like Robinson Crusoe. He made his way as best he could on the island. He found isolation suited him until she found that isolation didn’t suit her at all. He was in isolation again on the train, sitting quietly. He had no one on the island unlike Crusoe but he [did] have the feeling of being washed ashore.

The train arrived at its destination and he began the six-block walk into work. This was another opportunity to think. There are so many times like this he thought. Sometimes he would count his steps but usually he counted everything else as well. The letters on signs, [the number of letters or] anything [else] as he was OCD. It wasn’t crippling but it was a major distraction. Not like crippling depression as he had heard it categorized before. He could interact with someone but he had to balance counting the syllables of what someone said with listening and paying attention and responding. It was not unlike the prisoner’s dilemma. The two sides of his existence had to come to a decision separately or together how to exist or fail. Each day was like a game of hang man.

Balancing: this was the hardest. Six years to the day he had been divorced from his wife, who had died from an infection in her arm. That day was coming up soon. As he arrived back home to the apartment he had rented not long after the divorce he noticed the room for the first time in quite a while. The chair and couch, the two prints by Hammershoi on the wall, the computer, the bookshelves that he couldn’t live without, he thought. He opened the two windows and aired out the room. As he counted the folders and icons on the computer screen then the outlying features he re-counted them to be sure. Then he tried desperately not to count other items in the room. He tried to distract himself by turning on the radio in the kitchen. A song came on from his past. It always reminded him of being free of everything around him. He went to the window and held his hands out into the air. Sometimes freedom is limited to what you can reach out to. A few moments later he brought his hands back in. He sat down in his chair and thought of his trip to Nepal with Doctors Without Borders. He had volunteered to help but really, he had hoped to disappear. He had not confided in anyone on the way there or while in the country. One day he went for a walk into the mountains where they were operating and came across a horse that had wandered away. Instead of him going up to the horse, the horse came up to him. Before he knew it, a guerrilla came up behind him and held a gun to his head. Here he was thousands of miles from home, alone with a wish to disappear and here was a man who could make him do so in an instant.

Suddenly and without notice he sat down on the ground surprising the guerrilla. The guerrilla, not knowing what to do, having only met a few westerners, suddenly sat down as well. He held out his hand to the guerrilla, in his own wordless way asking for the gun. The guerrilla studied the look on his face and looked at his gun and back to his face. The guerilla left him with the horse and walked away. He returned home a month later, opened the window in his apartment and left it that way.

Chris Mansel

ABYSS AND ASCEND by Chris Mansel

“Fear makes the wolf seem bigger than he really is."
~ German Proverb

Abyss and Ascend

The last thing he remembered hearing his professor saying clear was that Dostoyevsky liked to write about paranoia. Paranoia about being found out. This was after reading his latest essay and looking up to him. They were seated across from one another and after that comment his mind seemed abandoned for the next few moments. The professor was still speaking but it was a like a cinematic moment where he could see his face, blank and wondering. When he came back to the conversation the professor was staring back at him and silent.

“It’s obvious you went away for a few minutes there, what do you remember?”

He struggled to get the words out, “Paranoia.” The professor smiled, “Have you read any Dostoyevsky before?”

He said that he had and followed the expression that it received. The Professor mentioned Moliere. “I am sure in literature you were asked to read him. But delve a bit deeper. Follow the thought.” The professor shook his hand and he left the office. As he climbed down the three flights of stairs he was lost in thought. He had written his essay about his own struggle with disintegration. He had long suffered with a mental state that bordered on a more fragile state and in its own way it was an argumentative essay, which he had been asked to write. He got the idea to do the essay when he saw the drawing by Frank Auerbach entitled, “Portrait of Julia.”

His presence in the essay had been written rather unexpectedly as he followed the first thoughts in his mind. In short, he didn’t come out well. If he had been asked to defend it he would have no leg to stand on. As he exited the building, he wondered if it was possible to hold on to your humanity while your mind disintegrates. These were questions he had never considered. He sat down on the steps and placed his notebook beside him. 

He had written countless essays in his head, as he lay in bed at night unable to sleep. Then they would disappear from wherever they came. Eventually he would fall asleep. The words didn’t stop coming even when he suffered from his disintegration. He believed if there was a train coming through the tunnel that first it would be good to know the train.

Chris Mansel

Monday, June 6, 2011

THE NAKED ABYSS: A Song of Sojourn

By Jack Random

Vera! Vera! What has become of you?
Does anybody else in here feel the way I do?

She was a simple girl with a simple point of view.
Wanted to find a marrying man and raise a child or two.
Then the bombs came and the world slipped away with the life that she once knew.

Flames spread out like napalm dreams and the terror took root and grew.
I still remember her quivering voice as into the night she flew.

Vera! Vera! What has become of you?
Does anybody else in here feel the way I do?

Pity the poor man who dies without a name on some forgotten street corner. He was some mother’s son. He was the hope, the dream and the smile in his father’s eyes.

There was a time in life as in art and literature when civilization thrived on heroes. They were individuals ordinary and extraordinary that overcame hardship to do great good in the world. Through the tradition of story telling we lived their lives vicariously. We sought to be like them. We borrowed their strength and fortitude. We became better than ourselves by reaching beyond our self-defined limits.

Today we idolize so many people for so many reasons that we have reduced the concept of heroism to celebrity. The legacy of heroism gave way to Andy Warhol’s theory of fifteen-minute fame.

When he was only three he had bright eyes and great ambitions. He was going to make his parents proud. When he was five, he was going to show them all. They were wrong. He was going to be somebody. He was going to save lives. He was going to be a hero. He was going to be a star. When he was seven, he was going to start a band. When he was nine, he was going to join a gang. When he was thirteen he chased his dreams in the land of liquid horizons. When he was seventeen he was going to set the world on fire. When he was twenty-three he did. When he was twenty-seven he shot a man for twenty bucks. When he was thirty he looked fifty. When he was thirty-six he was lying in a pool of blood, his dreams fading, his hopes gone, his view of the world a gutter and his future over the rainbow.

We let him down.

He let himself down. He fell for it. He bought into a system that counted him out before he could discover a larger universe. We will not mourn for him. We will let him pass into the endless night, the naked abyss that awaits us all. We will not reach for him for he would pull us down with a smile of sarcasm. In his dying breath, he only wants revenge.

Vera! Vera! What has become of you?

She became a topless dancer in a jazz club on lower ninth until the inevitable day when her appeal no longer paid the bills. A spiral downward to a trailer park with overgrown weeds and a black market economy. She gasped her last breath faking orgasm with a bald man when a homegrown meth lab kissed the heavens goodbye.

He was driving down Highway 66 heading west from a pilgrimage to the sacred Chiricahua Mountains, where the face of Cochise gazes at the heavens, when he chanced upon an offshoot reading Route 666. He turned around and went back the way he came. There are odds no gambler should take.

He ended up at a dreary motel with a bar across the street. He asked for number nine but it was in repair. He asked for thirteen and she tossed him the key. He stayed for two weeks, drinking, eating salted snacks and waiting for something to happen.

She opened the door and asked him if he wanted a job. He already had one but how could he turn her down? She had dark eyes that sucked him in. They spent three days having hot, trailer park sex, doggie style, down and dirty, drug induced; he never saw it coming.

She drew a map and googled it just to make sure. She told him to meet her at the mark, seven o’clock sharp. Sure he said and drove to the next town.

These kinds of things never happened to him so he was sure it was happening to someone else, someone he could not trust. He picked up a hitchhiker outside of Tucson and began peppering her with questions.

She was on the run. A broken family, an old story, a brutal relationship and a bagful of pills: She asked if he wanted to try something and he said why not, he was going nowhere. They grabbed a six-pack at a local market and drove deep into the desert on a gallon of gas. He made his move but she showed no interest so they popped a few pills and let the barren earth swallow them.

Time cranked to a quivering halt, insects swirling, heat coming in waves, night riding in on a yellow moon and a blue-bellied lizard settled on his nose. The lizard gave him knowledge as they wandered the moonlit night, picking flowers and collecting the seeds of perception.

She placed them in a leather bag tied round her waist. She was building a new life, seed by seed, and he was her appointed guide. A dozen more and they could start their own cult. A dozen years and they could found their own religion.

How can you start a religion he wondered without sex? She folded him in her sprawling limbs and collected the seeds of creation.

He awakened on a broad flat rock, his clothes neatly folded, the sun bearing down on his reddened body. The woman was gone. The car was nowhere. He pulled on his jeans, his shirt, tied his undershirt around his head and began walking. An hour later he found her sleeping in his car: out of gas.

He told her to find another ride and walked ten miles with a gas can. She waited at the car. He came back in a pickup with a kid in his twenties, bucktooth and smiling. She was down to accessories: black panties and a maroon bra. She asked for a ride and the kid with a nod from our hero said hop in.

Later he would wonder: What ever became of his desert queen?

He was sitting in a bar in Sedona, Arizona, when a limo arrived with an entourage of security. Out stepped everybody’s hero John McCain. For a lingering moment he allowed his intellectual curiosity to roam. The old question: If you could stop the monster before he became the monster, would you do it? In the age of cell phone television you could alter history with an awkward moment. Cause him to lose balance. A moment of rage.

He quietly asked no one in particularly: What was so wrong with Ho Chi Minh anyway?

The muscles in the broad round neck of America’s hero tightened, his veins bulged as he visibly struggled not to look in our hero’s direction. He looked around to see if anyone had a cell phone. Maybe. You can never tell. He might have altered history. Then again America’s hero looked like he was down for the count. America’s hero had loser written all over him.

He finished his latte, crawled in his car and drove.

A million thoughts zigzagged through his head and he discovered the calming comfort in random chaos. Windows down and the desert heat permeating a cool breeze, he wondered why the random accelerator particle collider was considered random. If it was truly random the results would be meaningless and anything, including an all-consuming black hole, would be possible. Just a thought he thought while driving nowhere fast.

He noticed them in a flashing image bounced off the rearview mirror: Two men in dark shades and dark suits, sitting side by side in a nondescript gray Chrysler, not the kind to be driving a barren road into the Nevada desert. Something was up.

Was this the good Senator’s work? Was that stodgy old fart so uptight that he would summon the feds for a crack in the local Starbuck’s?

He noticed the cell phone embedded in the dash of his 64 Dodge van (they don’t make ‘em like that any more) and rang up the boys.

“Got some smoke in my mirror, boys, need some roadside assistance.”

Like magic he watched the scene unfold a few miles down the road. An accident, people laid out on the pavement, red lights flashing, people in uniforms. They let him pass but stopped the intruders at the gate.

“Somebody up there likes me,” he thought.

The highway was free and clear for a hundred miles. The scent of sage and melting landscape conjuring images of ancient lands uninhabited by man. He pulled into a roadside café, wondering how they made a living in such a forsaken place. Must be a front. Had to be a front. Something was going on under the hood.

The waitress was thin and oddly attractive with her painted eyes and ratted blonde hair. She asked him what was up with a wink that seemed incongruous. She was emitting some aroma that made him think of the late sixties, free love and plentiful picnics.

He ordered a cheeseburger without the beef. She laughed and gave him a grilled cheese sandwich and an order of fries on the house. There was no cook in the kitchen, no dishwasher, no one but the woman with ratted hair.

She sat down across the counter while he ate, pouring coffee, batting her eyes, waiting for some sign of interest. He asked her how she managed and she replied not well, pointing to a picture on the wall of a large man in front of a big rig named the Silver Bullet.

He went on a run six months ago and never came back. She was minding the store and biding her time, waiting for an opportunity to adventure.

“Where you headed, stranger?”

He told her he was on the road to nowhere, apologizing for the cliché, looking to discover the undercurrents of native life.

The grilled cheese was delicious. She undid the top button of her white cotton blouse. The fries were excellent for the frozen variety. She poured some catsup and joined him. Leaning over the counter his eyes traced the outline of her finely tuned breasts. She locked the door, turned over the closed sign and poured a couple of beers.

“No license,” she explained.

They drank and told stories about life, husbands, wives, families and twists of fate. He did not believe in fate but she did. It was fate that brought them together in this isolated place on the outskirts of nowhere. She opened her legs and he took her then and there on a revolving counter stool with the scent of fries and the rattle of dishes hovering about them.

She asked him if he wanted to stay and he asked her if she wanted to go. A six pack and an hour later they hit the road, headed for Las Vegas, the city of neon, games of chance, random adventures, strippers and hustlers, cheap thrills and costly addictions. The drove through the barren sage littered landscape smelling of half-baked reptilian remains looking like the dream of a cracker without a clue, talking in seamless cycles on parallel plains that never touch.

Periodically, he would take a moment, look at her and nod. She would do the same. It was not the reality of connection that mattered but the formality, the courtesy, the habit that gave mythology its teeth.

If he had been listening he would not have understood even a fraction of what she said but the rhythm of her voice was somehow pleasing. If he had been able to decode the message beneath a stream of sounds he would have understood that she was a gentle compassionate woman stuck in the particle collider of a troubled past. She rewound the dialogues that she perceived as keys to the mystery. She dissected decisions that led to the wrong choices and guided her on the wrong paths. She wondered what she could have done to deserve so little joy and so much sorrow.

He was stuck in the moment or rather a conglomeration of moments surrounding his present circumstance. His memory could only reach back so far and the incident at the Sedona Starbuck’s was as far as it reached. He kept coming back to the incredible arrogance and petty mindedness of the man who wanted to lead the world in war.

On their way to the desk at the Bellagio he plugged a silver dollar into a glittering machine, cashed out and handed it to his companion. They checked in to a room on the thirteenth floor and enjoyed an evening of varied entertainment, replete with gambling, music, fine food and sensual exploration. In the morning he got up early, kissed her gently and let her sleep. He left her cash, a credit card, keys to the van and a house in Malibu, and a message of affection. He had pressing business.

He picked up a copy of the Times, booked a flight to the nation’s capitol and caught a cab to the airport. On the ride over he felt a seizing of his heart and wondered if he would ever see her again. Hers was a giving spirit, a generous heart, and the feel of her limbs rubbing against his eased his yearning. He gazed out the window at a passing ambulance as it turned into the entryway of a local hospital. He hated hospitals. He had nothing against doctors and nurses. There were good and bad in every profession. But he felt in his gut that hospitals were cesspools of greed and disease.

He breathed in and out, a slow and measured pattern, until he sensed strength returning to his life and limbs, and contemplated the road ahead.


Joe the orderly reported to work every day with his bag lunch and green uniform checking in at the front desk flirting with the nurses and taking the elevator ride to the twenty-seventh floor. That was where they kept the hard cases, the hopeless, the unfortunate ones whose lives were sustained by machines, breathing machines, blood machines and monitoring devices around the clock until the insurance money ran out.

Despite the downturn in the economy (or perhaps because of it) there was no shortage of customers. It was not difficult for doctors and hospital administrators to convince loved ones, husbands and wives, parents and caretakers, that there was still a glimmer of hope when in fact it was a shot in the dark, one in a billion, the odds of finding a diamond in a trash bin.

Joe did the dirty work, moving from room to room, avoiding the rare and occasional visitor, changing sheets and bedpans, making sure the tubes were in place and the machines were operating. As he worked it was his habit to change the channels of the overhead televisions, which were invariably set to late night movies, heavy on the soft porn, by the overnight staff. He made an effort to judge what the patient might enjoy in the event that any of it seeped in to the subconscious mind, usually settling on cable news or generic music stations.

As he made his rounds he caught the nurse in room 2736 making some adjustments to the patient’s medications and cleaning his body with a wet towel. Her name was Bonnie and she was dangerously cute. The patient, an older man and a recent addition to the ward, had an obvious erection beneath his hospital gown. It was not uncommon for unconscious men and Joe wondered if it meant something really was going on in the minds of these patients.

“Why not ease his suffering?” he asked the nurse.

“Why don’t you?” she countered.

She told him about the patient. He was some kind of businessman. He choked on a giant shrimp while watching a sporting event in his apartment. He was alone and managed to call 911 but the ambulance arrived too late. He had a living will but left no instructions on what to do in the event of incapacity. His wife and family had no clue so after six months in a coma he was transferred to the twenty-seventh floor.

He changed the channel to MSNBC and sat waiting for her to finish up.

“What do you make of that?” he asked pointing to the patient’s still engorged member.

She said the common view was that it was nothing more than an autonomic response. Conscious men think of sex around the clock because their unconscious minds are wired to procreation and leaving a mark on the gene pool. Unconscious men still have the instinct even if their minds are not intact.

“Is that what you think?” he wondered.

She shrugged. She had noticed that some men responded to the sounds of sex on television and some responded to a woman’s touch differently than to a man’s – unless of course they were attracted to the same sex. The talk was making her a little uncomfortable but she let her gaze linger on the patient’s erection before she left with a wink at Joe who was concealing the beginning stages of his own arousal.

Later at break time, they worked the conversation around to the same subject. Nurse Bonnie finally admitted that if it was entirely up to her she would consider it therapeutic to relieve the patient of his pent up sexual frustration but it was not. She could lose her job and anyway no one really knew what if anything was going on inside the patient’s head.

Joe smiled at her with genuine good will and told her that if he ended up unconscious in a hospital bed, he would be pleased to be cared for by a nurse as compassionate as she was. That seemed to please her – enough so that later that evening they would make a date for the weekend. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship in which Joe the orderly’s pent up frustration was regularly relieved by the tender attentions of Nurse Bonnie.

They met every night in room 2736 and sometimes their relationship went beyond the bounds of their profession. One night with a full moon shining through an open window, Nurse Bonnie asked Joe to wait outside and let her know if anyone was approaching.

She leaned over and whispered in her patient’s ear: I don’t know if you can hear me or if you can whether you understand but if you can I want to help you. If you’re suffering, I want to ease your suffering. I want to comfort you. If I do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s up to you to stop me.

The patient did not respond in any recognizable way but it seemed to Nurse Bonnie that his erection was even more pronounced than usual. She wondered if her words, the touch of her breath or the sound of her voice aroused him.

Keeping her head by his, her ear tuned to his voice, she reached down and slowly, gently took hold of his erection. She thought she heard him moan. She could not be sure; it was so soft it was beyond normal perception. She slowly, gently moved her hand up and down, up and down, and she heard his breathing grow slightly stronger.

She ran her fingers through his hair, kissed him on his forehead and stroked his erection until he came. She could not sure but she thought he sighed. She thought he thanked her in the only way he could.

She cleaned his body with a wet towel and called Joe in to help change the sheets. Joe nodded his approval, gave her a hug and a kiss, and then pointed to the patient. He seemed to be smiling.

From that day forward, at least once a week, with Joe standing guard at the door, Nurse Bonnie would ease his suffering and celebrate the healing power of her touch.


He took a cab from the airport, picked up a copy of the Post, booked a suite at the Four Seasons and started running up a tab with room service. He bought six executive box tickets to the Redskins game and traded them straight up for two tickets to a production of modern dance at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. He ate at the finest restaurants, attended the most elite clubs and hired an escort everywhere he went.

On the third day he approached the maitre d with an unusual request: Could he arrange a meeting with someone from the McCain campaign? He folded a couple of crisp one hundred dollar bills in her hand as she indicated that she would see what she could do.

Twenty minutes later he received her call in his room. The McCain people were sending a couple of representatives within the hour. She would notify him when they arrived. He thanked her and promised a generous gratuity on his departure.

He had been doing his homework. McCain’s main argument against his younger opponent was experience. He knew that the candidate was notoriously prone to rash decisions based on a gut feeling. He wanted to plant a seed in McCain’s mind and give him a reason to be rash. A survey of the Republican political landscape yielded one name that would appeal to McCain’s vanity and gut instinct and at the same time torpedo his claim of experience: Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska.

She was perfect. She was on the far right, a Christian fundamentalist, and McCain was desperate to please the traditional Republican base. If she had ever expressed an opinion on any issue of national or international importance beyond the sound bites of a political campaign, it was not apparent. She was attractive, confident, ambitious and completely lacking in intellectual curiosity. She was in short George Bush in a pretty package – only Bush was better prepared.

The fact that she is a woman would fill McCain with irrational joy, believing that he could steal Hillary Clinton voters on that basis alone. But as the novelty wore off and voters saw her for what she is (a political opportunist) and what she is not (prepared to lead the nation) they would hold McCain responsible for incredibly poor judgment.

When three men in suits showed up at his door, he asked two of them to remain outside. They looked at each other and deferred to the oldest of the three, a man who looked a lot like G. Gordon Liddy of Watergate fame in the Nixon era. Maybe it was Liddy. Who knows? He was here to do the dirty work. No burglary this time, no stealing confidential records for political bribery and extortion, just a little “pay for play.”

Before he sat down, he pulled out a small device and swept the room for bugs. It was a clear signal he was prepared for nefarious business. He folded his hands, leaned forward and gazed into our hero’s eyes.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“If you don’t know that already, you’re not doing your job and I’m wasting my time.”

“Fair enough,” replied Liddy. “What have you got?”

Not what do you want but what have you got. Interesting. He laid it on the table clear and unmistakable. This was a negotiation, a deal, an exchange of interests like pork bellies for shares in a coal mine. McCain’s interest was a pressing need for political contributions. What was he willing to give in return?

“I’m prepared to give six figures on one condition.”

He handed Liddy a business card with a name scribbled on the back: Palin.

“The governor of Alaska?”

“That’s right. I don’t know who’s on your list for VP but if it’s another old white guy the deal’s off. We used to be a party with balls. What have we got now? A washed up warrior, a cross dresser, a Mormon demagogue and a preacher from Arkansas, get serious! Win or lose, the party needs new blood.”

Liddy studied the card as if it held the key that would decode a secret message. There was none. It was a straight-up deal. He liked that.

“So you think Governor Palin would give the party balls.”

“That’s right.”

Liddy stood up and shook hands with a tired grin wrinkling his lips.

“I think the old man just might go for it. If he does I’ll be in contact.”

The man left and our hero contemplated what transpired. It was patently illegal to give a contribution of that size and McCain was supposed to be at the forefront of campaign finance reform. He must be desperate. Even the old money must be tired of Republican policies. They took their profits. Now it was time to restore some balance in the economy before the whole scam broke down. No one wins if the bank goes broke.

He wondered if it was even necessary to pull off this little charade. The McCain campaign was running scared. They would have to win with smoke and mirrors, the same old Republican smear tactics, down and dirty.

Well, he reflected, it worked before. No use taking any chances. He was sure McCain would take the bait. He had played his part. The rest would take care of itself.

He checked out of the hotel, fulfilling his obligation to the maitre d, booked a flight to Lisbon and flagged a cab to the airport. He felt a desire for Fado, that centuries old song of mourning and longing from Portugal and the torch singers who embodied it. He wanted to purge his soul. He wanted to be cleansed. He wanted to swim in the sorrows of ancient grief and generations lost and crumbling dreams. He wanted to be reborn in the hope that comes only from shedding his skin.


On the flight across the dark blue sea he felt the forces of gravity, the weight of responsibility, the betrayals of human dignity, the indifference of the powerful, the terrifying coldness of social institutions, the course of history on a troubled, choking planet pushing him to the edge of despair. He closed his eyes and felt the breath of someone gentle and sweet caressing his neck, whispering in his ear.

He awakened refreshed, renewed and invigorated as the plane descended on the European continent, the birthplace of capitalism and socialism, democracy and fascism, equality and aristocracy, feudalism and the rights of labor, the land of a trillion contradictions in perpetual shades of gray, the shadow hovering over America and much of the modern world.

He checked into a hotel, ordered room service and a hotel computer and wrote for three days. It was the kind of thing he always wanted to do but there was always someone to tell him not to, that the world was waiting, that you could not shut yourself away. It was an indulgence and now he was free to indulge.

He sent it out on the web and forgot about it. The web was the closest thing to a miracle he would ever know. You could send out your words, your thoughts and images, and as long as no one interfered (or even if someone did) they could wander about or sit still for a thousand years only to be discovered at a time and place you could never imagine.

His mind clear and free, he went down to the street and caught a cab to the nearest Fado club. It was a dark place, crowded with men and women of all ages and colors, all yearning and teaming with desire. The crowd hushed, a bright circle of light went up on a small wooden stage, and a singer poured her soul into a story of longing.

She was a beautiful woman, sensuous and strong. She talked in several languages so everyone in her audience understood the story of each song. Then she sang and grown men choked back tears. Women openly cried and returned the singer’s love with praise, a shower of roses and money.

It was an ancient art and it lifted him from time. It relieved him of a multitude of worries, pressures, resentment and regret. He remembered the love, the pain and the sorrow that always lived within his aching heart and then he let them go. He remained in his seat long after most of the patrons had left (all but the most desperate drinkers) when she emerged from backstage and cast a smile in his direction.

“Hello, stranger,” she said. “You look like you could use some company.”

He nodded and she told him of a place where they served fine food and wine at all hours of the night. It was a quiet place where they could talk, drink and feel free to explore the mysteries of existence in a transitory world. He nodded and she guided him there.

They talked to the morning hours and parted as secret lovers only to resume the play of strangers the next evening. On the third night they gave flesh to their affections, swimming in the moonlight of the only love they would ever know.

He felt the pull of tomorrow and she released him with a kiss. When two bodies have intermingled as theirs had done they will always be together. They will always be connected. They will always dance in the shadows of the mind. They will always be one.

He carried her scent with him on a train to Madrid to Paris to Berlin to Prague to Amsterdam, breathing in the sights, absorbing the land, the architecture, the ancient ruins, talking by day to familiar souls (an older woman who spoke longingly of deeds undone and dreams unfulfilled, a man whose one remaining wish was redemption, another who revered the love of friends and family), dancing and drinking by night with soulful women whose mystery was as enchanting as their beauty.

He walked along the Seine with a youthful Parisian who promised to remember. He shared an intimate moment in a dark, dank corner of a Bohemian castle with a woman in the Gothic mode. He sipped wine until dawn gazing out a window where the Third Reich once reined in horror with a companion whose empathy was without bound. He danced in the arms of velvet memories where a young Henry Miller and Anais Nin once christened their tortured love in vain. He loved them all and let them go as they did he. As he moved forward he folded his memories behind him in the dark spaces of his mind reserved for treasures. He was a pilgrim on a journey of discovery and such a man can only gaze into the prism of immediacy. There will be time for reflection at journey’s end.

Somewhere outside of Copenhagen he felt the bond of home. It was if in silence someone was calling his name. It was as if he was living under a spell. He had forgotten who he was and where his seed was sown. It was as if he had bolted from his own life, broke free for as long as he could survive beside himself. He was not lost or disoriented. He knew who he was and he knew where he belonged.

He boarded a plane and flew across the sea, over the top of the world, across the North American continent, and as he flew he dove into the deep waters of unconsciousness for the first time since his journey began. The walls of perception came crashing down. All that he knew was stripped away like flats in an elaborate theatrical production, leaving him naked and alone with his senses.

He was awakened as the plane descended in sweeping spirals to the golden city by the bay. Gazing out his window he grasped the majesty of life on planet earth, the rich textures of land and sea, the smallness of human achievement, the constant flowing motion, wind and rain, roads and traveling souls.

He walked through the bustling airport, people towing luggage and parents towing children, tearful greetings and goodbyes. He walked away from the swarm of activity into the open space outside where he tasted the sweet salt air beneath layers of gasoline, smoke and dust.

He took a cab into the city where he walked the streets crowded with hustling humanity. Men and women minding their business, never stopping to admire the scents of open air cafes, the bite of currents coursing through concrete canyons, never wondering at the generations who built these monuments to human ambition, who sacrificed their lives with the sweat and blood of labor. Couples drinking wine or savoring coffee, heads buried in books, magazines or newspapers, eyes locked to each other, thoughts folded inward while the world rushed by on the other side of a thin veil of glass. They did not hear the orchestra of city life, the purr of motion, the hum of energy, the waves of anxiety and joy carried by the sounds of voices in conversation or decree. They did not see the homeless man on a church’s steps, the bag lady and her cart, the street musician or the hustler with a plan. They did not know the miracles unfolding above, below, within and all around.

He found himself outside the Bay View Hospital, no longer tentative, no longer afraid, knowing he had reached the last stage of his journey. Peace had found him. Comfort held him in her arms. Love was waiting.

He lingered in the emergency room where the drama of life and death, of suffering and struggle was raw, clawing at his senses like vinegar on an open wound. He wondered what it would take to ease the pain, knowing from a place deep within that it was all a part of the parade, the journey, the book of knowledge, the growing, the living, the passing, the life. He walked through the afflicted like a shadow of kindness and for a moment the sorrow lifted and the suffering eased.

He entered the elevator where an orderly preceded him, pressing the number 27. Glancing at the buttons and looking twice at his fellow traveler, they rose to the twenty-seventh floor and continued in silence to room 2736.

The orderly opened the door and they both walked in: The nurse was listening intently to a visitor, an older woman and her patient’s widow. Her face was wet with tears, as she seemed to seek comfort, confirmation or absolution in the decision she had made. The nurse nodded with as much empathy as she could give and nodded again to the orderly who stood back in the corner of the small hospital room, trying to be invisible.

He understood what was happening and why he was here. He recognized the woman he loved and the woman who gave her love to him without jealousy or expectation beyond the norms of common decency.

He reached out to touch her cheek and felt her shiver. He told her he was fine and he knew she understood. He watched her reach out to touch the patient’s cheek and the tears welled in her eyes once more.

He held her shoulders and whispered in her ear: It’s time. Let me go.

She nodded to the nurse who nodded to the orderly and they went about their business of disconnecting life-sustaining devices.

She placed her hand on her husband’s as he placed his hand on hers and together they watched the dying light of a setting sun.

Somewhere in another part of the world someone was singing:

Vera! Vera! What has become of you?
Does anybody else in here feel the way I do?

It was a song of sorrow and of joy. It was a song of sojourn, of yearning and release.

He kissed her three times: One for the past, one for the moment and one for the unknown still ahead.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011




A Seminal Journey

By Jack Random

Copyright Ray Miller 2011

Dedicated to James Wisniewski

And the memory of Beatlick Joe Speer


In the year I turned forty, I took a cross-country journey from Nashville, Tennessee to central California where I was born and raised. I had only recently moved to Nashville to marry a former love, a singer-songwriter who longed for fame and fortune in the city of music.

The marriage was one of convenience, an unintended consequence of a healthcare system that failed to provide for struggling artists. It was in retrospect destined to fail but the journey was a critical juncture in a life that had become too predictable and uninspired.

In Nashville, I became a writer. Given my isolation from family and friends, I began to discover the discipline of writing. Back then I was writing plays. I soon switched to prose and eventually published a short story based on the news of the day: Burning Churches. I then became Jack Random and published several other works of fiction in literary magazines.

That first year in Nashville, I attended a Welcome Back party for a man who was legendary where I came from: the extraordinary singer-songwriter John Prine. At that gathering I also met a man named James Wisniewski, a gifted musician who operated under the name of Wiz. With wide eyes he introduced himself and wondered if I was a jazz musician. I replied that I was a writer and I was thinking about writing a jazz play. I would subsequently write Dark Underground: A Jazz Play in Sixteen Choruses. Under the guidance of the Wiz, we recruited a couple of actors and recorded a production of that work. We took to the Nashville poetry scene with Dark Underground and a series of erotic poems. There we collaborated with such luminaries as the Beatlicks (Joe Speer and Pamela Hirst) and Jake Berry, a brilliant experimental poet-songwriter from Florence, Alabama.

When I decided to journey back to California in my 1965 Mustang that summer, I invited the Wiz to go with me. He accepted.

We had two common interests, jazz poetry and Zen golf, and a desire to visit the Grand Canyon to gather what inspiration we could find. It was a seminal experience.

When I returned to Nashville I wrote it all down. It was my first book-length work. Life would never be the same.

May this life be but a passage in the journey of your soul.



Nashville, city of music, city of dreams, city of heartbreak and ambition, city of sweltering summers, lurid thunder storms and enchanting fireflies, city of suddenly changing seasons, land of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Shawnee and Cherokee, where the Civil War is living history and the rebel cry is still heard on back country roads, city of southern culture and racial strife, city of deafening cicada serenades, red winged birds, ticks and chiggers, city of palatial mansions and southern charm, river city and forest land, city of limestone and rock mountains, city of segregation and homelessness, city that seems to stand still in the eye of the storm, we bid you adieu.

Though we strive to banish you from our thoughts, we will hold you in our hearts, knowing that we will return to you reborn. Like wayward children we will welcome your familiar arms and you, unmoved, will acknowledge our passing. We are but falling leaves in an immense forest, while you are the tree. We are pilgrims in a land of adversity while you are the sanctuary. Whether you remain home to us or become a chapter in the history of our lives, we will think of you often. But for now we must say So Long as we turn our backs and embark once more on the journey to discover ourselves.


A large black crow (is there any other kind?) touches down in the middle of busy highway and takes flight as we approach. It is a sign. Wait a thousand years and you will never see that sight again. The crow has appointed itself our guardian protector and guide. We welcome him and shall look for him wherever our journey shall take us. We are anxious, full of the life force, and wish only to heed the signs and yield to our inner calling. We are brothers by our own choosing and have chosen to share the path of this sacred journey. We do not know if our paths will part. We welcome the test of our friendship.

We have shared the Zen of the ancient and sacred game of golf. We are the jazz poets of the Nashville fringe. He is the wizard of the jazz poetry happening and holder of the sacred flute. I am the writer of dreams. We share the vision of the Grand Canyon and an enchanted shot under a full moon. We share the memories of journeys past. We are road warriors who have roamed the interstates and highways in search of life’s illusive meaning, in search of brotherhood and illumination. We have gathered what wisdom we could from the words embedded in Siddhartha, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Dharma Bums, On the Road, Don Juan and Journey to Ixtlan. We have had peyote dreams. We have seen the desert through the eyes of the coyote. We have ridden the wind of a Pacific sunset. We reserve places in our memories for people and places of distant travels. We hold them like treasures of the heart and wish to breathe into them new and eternal life.

We leave behind our loves and the mystery of how they will receive us on our return. For now we are creatures of the universe, open and free, hungry for adventure and eager to greet our common or separate destinies.

For myself, it is a journey home as well as away from home. It has been only a year since I married and left California. Only a year yet it seems so long ago. My life has changed in more ways than I can know and my heart is divided. I sense the unsettling of my soul has something to do with letting go but how can I let go of the friends and family members that have been so great a part of all that I am and all that I value? How do I let go without letting go? Somehow I must find an answer.

We shoot lie a blast of tequila out of Nashville and into the receding sun. The great forestland of Tennessee, Memphis and the bulging Mississippi, the rolling hills and dales of Arkansas and Oklahoma, blur like a mystery of distorted recollection. Rolling through the Texas panhandle in a sunny blaze, Wiz decides to take action.

The process of Mustang Sally’s preparation for the journey included replacing the gas tank, which had somehow rusted in Tennessee’s tropical air. I didn’t notice the missing spare tire until departure day. Too late. Aside from the time factor, the shop that did the deed had gone out of business. I’m willing to risk it but the Wiz is wary about crossing the desert without one and I know he’s right.

He spots a promising side road that leads us to an unaffiliated gas station. The Wiz connects with the good old boys whose checker game we interrupt. They try on three different tires without success and refer us to a junkyard down the road. Who would have guessed the old Mustang has an unusual number of tire bolts? We locate the junkyard and walk in. There seems to be some confusion about whose job it is to deal with us. It’s a family operation. In the small office space there are three generations of transplanted southerners. Wiz draws on his Alabama upbringing and makes inquiry about the spare. It sits a while until a new man shows up in the cramped office.

“Sixty five Mustang. Right.”

He takes off on the search for a usable replacement and we sit back and wait. One by one members of the family raise their heads from their miscellaneous occupations to give us a look over. The youngest of three children playing in the office, whose name is Bubba or Spunky or something akin, approaches the Wiz and demands: Get out of my chair! The Wiz is dumfounded, throws up his hands and rises to find another place to sit. Accustomed to dealing with troublesome children, I make eye contact with the kid, sitting in his chair, and we share a good laugh. It breaks a spell. We are temporarily accepted into the circle of junkyard society. Smiles all around. All is well.

The change in atmosphere gives us the freedom to look around. The walls are covered with old black and white photographs depicting black people in a curious mixture with white folks. Good old boys. The blacks all seem to have large smiles and are generally the center of focus while the whites linger at the sides or in the background, pleased and proud.

Some time later I come to the realization that the blacks are in servitude, whether enslaved or hired servants I can’t decide. A confirmation comes outside where the Wiz is helping the worker try on a new spare. We get a good deal and bid them goodbye. Wiz then points to a bumper sticker on the rear window of the family pickup: The White Empire. There was a reference to God’s Country.

I understand that this phenomenon has no geographical boundaries. There are white supremacy strongholds in central California and the Great Northwest. Still, my own upbringing does not allow me to feel comfortable in these settings. Maybe it’s the respect I have for the blacks I grew up with. Maybe it’s the memory of Ben May, a friend who stood up for me and a group of white boys back in the day. During the summer of Watts, we were walking through the west side when an angry black mob surrounded us. Ben stepped out of the crowd and vouched for us. They let us pass unharmed and I would always remember.

Maybe it’s the Apache blood that runs through my veins. Maybe it’s the regard I have for the Native American spirit. Whatever it is, I am uncomfortably grateful we did not put it together until after the fact. It is one of my eccentricities that I can’t hide my emotions, despite or perhaps because of years of acting experience.

To the folks at the Texas junkyard, we are good old boys with a keen sense of humor. To us they are rednecks, the racist family that gave us a fair deal on a spare tire somewhere on the Texas panhandle. It is something I will ponder when the time comes. For now there is no time to look back. We’re on the road.

We emerge, as if from a long dark tunnel, on the high desert plains, a land of red rock monuments and the endless highway. We drive on across a horizon of blood red and purple shadows to the oasis city of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Here we will rest to collect our thoughts, breathe deeply the spirit of the desert air, and encounter the first destination of our journey.