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The Salt

By Tod Goldberg

Short Story

Beneath the water, beneath time, beneath yesterday, is the salt.

The paper says that another body has washed up on the north shore of the Salton Sea, its age the provenance of anthropologists. “Washed up” is a misnomer, of course, because nothing is flowing out of the Salton Sea, this winter of interminable heat: it’s January 10th and the temperature hovers near one hundred degrees. The Salton Sea is receding back into memory, revealing with each inch another year, another foundation, another hand that pulls from the sand and grasps at the dead air. Maybe the bodies are from the old Indian cemetery first swallowed by the sea in 1971, or perhaps they are from Tom Sanderson’s family plot, or maybe it is my sweet Katherine, delivered back to me in rusted bone.

Do You Fear Me?

By Ellyn Maybe

Poem

Do you fear me cause I wear
          a purple friendship bracelet?
Do you fear having me as a friend?
Are you afraid to introduce me
          to your grandparents?
The only perfect thing about me
          is my perfect lack of confidence.
Does that freak you out?
I’m fat.
How does that sit with you?
I wear political pins.
Does that bother you?
I’m a bookworm.
Does that depress you?
Are you terrified
          cause I’ve been bas mitzvahed?
Are you scared
          cause I think spiders are sacred?
I’m left handed.  ooooooooooooo  No comment.
Do you worry about me cause I’m a virgin
Cause I’m loud and sometimes embarrassing,
          are you wary of spending time with me?
I know where the feminist bookstores are
          in a whole bunch of states.
Does that make you tremble?
People think I’m younger
          and older than I am.
Does that reflect badly on you somehow?
I don’t always comb my hair.
Can you hear it coming?
Is it my ugliness or beauty that
          frightens you the most?
Are you afraid of me cause I’m human?

 

When Tim announced he wanted to “chuck it all” and travel around the country in a converted bus for a year, I gave this profound and potentially life-altering notion all the thoughtful consideration it deserved.

“Why can’t you be like a normal husband with a midlife crisis and have an affair or buy a Corvette?” I demanded, adding, “I will never, ever, EVER, not in a million years, live on a bus.”

We’re both psychiatrists, but he’s obviously the better shrink, for we soon set forth with our two querulous cats, sixty-pound dog—and no agenda—in a 340-square-foot bus.

The trip was truly life-changing in many ways: We learned how not to put off our dreams, and the importance of living our best lives now. We also learned to pare down our lifestyle, so that we could spend more time with the people we love – instead of the things we love. Finally, I hadn’t realized how comfortable—too comfortable—my life had become. That’s why I didn’t want to take the trip in the first place. I had become content, but “the bus thing” taught me that content was not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. I hadn’t understood how important it is to continue to challenge and stretch myself.

Although we had our share of disasters on the trip (fire, flood, armed robbery and my developing a bus phobia, just to name a few), the adventures and misadventures helped us grow, shake things up and add back a certain “spark” that we didn’t even realize was missing. Perhaps nothing taught us the importance of getting outside our comfort zones more than our visit to the nudist RV park, Olive Dell Ranch, in Colton California.

Although as a psychiatrist Tim is very much in tune with unconscious drives, hidden meanings, and deep-seated motivations, he is also a typical guy. And typical guys want to go to nudist resorts. Not being any type of a guy myself, I had always informed him I would never, ever, EVER, not in a million . . .   Oh, what’s the use? By now I had clearly lost any semblance of free will. I was, after all, living in a bus for a year. I didn’t stand a chance. Not that I was nonchalant about this, mind you; I’d started Atkins in anticipation—just in case—months before. I need not have bothered, for as I discovered, nudists are incredibly low-key. Unless, that is, you’re trying to get into one of their parks. Then they can be just as big a pain in the ass as any prudes.

As we neared California, I checked around on the Internet. One place seemed particularly promising, so I called and asked if they were, indeed, clothing optional.

“No,” the lady unequivocally answered.

“Oh. I’m sorry. I must have the wrong information,” I apologized, hoping she didn’t think me some weirdo.  But something in her voice made me query further.

“So . . .  people don’t walk around naked?” I tried to confirm.

“Oh, yes, they do,” she answered. Is this place English optional, or what?

“Okay . . .  but you’re not clothing optional.” I offered slowly, with impeccable pronunciation.

“No, we’re nudist,” she snapped. Well, excuuuuse, me.

“I’m not sure I know the difference,” I conceded. She explained that when inside the park, one is required to be naked. Now I got it. It was the optional, not the clothing, that was the problem with the whole clothing optional thing. Who knew? I proceeded with what I thought was a perfectly reasonable follow-up question.

“Can I wear shoes?” She guffawed, muzzled the phone, and called out to some other nuditity-requiring linguiphile, “She wants to know if she can wear shoes!” For those as clueless as I, the answer is yes. I decided she could keep her shod-optional accommodations and found a different park.

When we pulled into Olive Dell Ranch Nudist Resort near San Bernadino, I faced yet another dilemma: Usually, I headed to the office to check in while Tim stayed with the bus. Should I take my clothes off now? What if, in a variation on the universal nightmare, this was some God-awful joke and everyone was clothed but me? I was wearing earrings. Do I take them off, too? A valid question, methinks, even after the shoe debacle. I could have called on my cell phone and asked, but it seemed a mite like the shoes question and I didn’t feel like being laughed at again just yet, especially as I was anticipating that reaction as soon as I stepped off the bus, anyway.

I kept my clothes on. The woman in her home office had not. (Note to self: This could very well be my dream job, for not only can one work at home, but not even have to get dressed.) She told us where to park and that the owner would come by to show us around.

The campground itself is at the end of a long, winding road set on 140 acres up against a tree-studded hill with views of the surrounding countryside and valley. There are about two hundred members, half of whom are permanent residents, the rest weekenders with about another fifty to a hundred visitors like us, just passing through at various points in the summer to stay in the handful of cabins and RV spaces. After we parked, we saw the owner approach. He was in his forties and nude, but wore an open work shirt against the sun (and sneakers, I was pleased to note). We quickly donned (or rather, undonned) similar gear and met him outside.

I soon discovered that none of my concerns mattered. In a nudist park, everything is stripped down, so to speak. As Tim observed, there’s no macho, no pretense, no posturing. Your balls (and whether or not you have any) are out there for everyone to see. (Especially, as we would later discover, when partaking of naked karaoke.)

Our first night, Tim started closing all the curtains in the bus. I wondered why – we’d been nude all day, anyway. He explained that he was about to start cooking and for his own safety needed to put on clothes and didn’t want to offend anybody.

Throughout the bus thing, we met so many diverse, interesting people, and the nudist RV park had plenty of its own. But our favorite there had to be the maintenance guy who walks around naked – except for his tool belt. An interesting effect, for every time he turned around, I nearly exclaimed, “Hey! You dropped your . . .” Oops.

Since we’ve returned from our year-long trip, our lives have dramatically changed. It seems Tim got not only a converted bus, but a converted wife as well: I was the one who suggested that instead of selling the bus, we sell our house, to live on the bus full time. And, that’s what we’re in the process of doing.

What other adventures are in store for us? Unfortunately, I’ve caught Tim on the internet surfing for sailboat sites. Neither of us knows anything about boats.

Why can’t I have a normal husband who just surfs for porn?

If you’d like to see my video of the nudist RV park (now, I have your attention), please visit my website, www.QueenOfTheRoadTheBook.com and click on the travelogue link.


When I thought of having Neil Gaiman visit LitPark, I wondered, What of Neil hasn’t already been covered? I could say something about his storytelling, naturally, or how he’s the one author who lives on both my bookshelf and Mr. Henderson’s. I could say something about the characters he writes, like Dearly and The Runt, who sort of crawl into my brain and live there even after their stories end. But people write these things about Neil Gaiman all the time.

So I thought, When I talk to other people about Neil Gaiman, where does the conversation tend to go? Easy. In the end, I don’t tend to tell people the very private and permanent ways his writing takes hold of me. I tend to talk about his hair.

Neil was such a good sport about this. Ready?

*

A Photo History of Neil Gaiman’s Hair:

In Sussex, aged about 22 months. Waiting for my sister to be born. Such a neat child (although I’ve probably been dressed by my grandmother). You pushed the roundabout around until it went fast and then you jumped on. Or you tripped and were pulled around, face-down, skinning your knees.

About three? Down at the bottom of the garden in Purbrook, in Hampshire, on the swing.

Mr. Punch territory. My paternal grandfather, me and my cousin Sara, on the seafront in Southsea. July 1963.

My sister, my mother, her mother and me. September 1963.

When about 4 or 5, my hair was bothering me, so I took matters into my own hands. I found a pair of scissors, climbed into bed, got under the sheets, to hide, I suspect, and gave myself a haircut. It was the sort of haircut you give yourself in the dark under your sheets at the age of 5. This was after the attempt to repair it by my father.

I’m not sure that hair particularly made much of an impression on me until I was in my teens. From age 9 to 13 it was something that the school barber cut once a month or so (except in school holidays), and that teachers grabbed by the place the sideburns would one day be in order to make a point. Like Newt in Good Omens, the best I could hope for from a haircut was shorter hair. I had my fair share of ears snipped by scissors and clippers, to the point where I’d be wary of hair cuts.My father bought a “home hair cutting” kit once. It was an evil plastic device that looked like a comb with razor blades in it, which he would use to cut our hair. The idea was that he’d drag the comb through your hair and you’d magically get a great haircut. In reality the razor blades hurt as they dragged and scraped across the hair, and you wound up looking like your dad had given you a haircut with something advertised on TV.

Graham, Geoff, Neil, AlI was sixteen. Shortly after this photograph was taken Geoff (then a drummer, now a meteor hunter) and I bleached our hair. We wanted to look like Billy Idol. His hair went sort of blonde. Mine went ginger. Following a disagreement with my father, in which phrases like “you are not staying here with hair that colour” may have been used, I borrowed a tub of raven black from my cousin and was delighted, the following morning, to discover that I now had black hair with purple highlights, which was, I decided, the best of all worlds.

Douglas Adams and me in 1983. I’m 22, still smoking and wearing colours. Douglas is playing guitar while we wait for the photographer, John Copthorne, to finish setting up. (Douglas is playing Marvin’s “How I Hate the Night” song.)

I think this was taken the day before Maddy was born in August 1994. I’d decided I wasn’t going to get a haircut or shave until she turned up. Or something like that. I’d grown some pumpkins for practically the first time.

I got to England to work on Neverwhere and found everyone had shorter hair than I did. So I walked into a barber’s on the corner and asked them to cut my hair. They did. 1995, per the postmark.

Me and Clive Barker circa 1996. Two very scary people in leather jackets. Look! We are so scary! Photo by Beth Gwinn. Tee-shirt by Jenny Holzer.

Gaiman, Gaiman, 1998.

*

Neil, with his busy schedule, did not need to take the time to search for and scan in photos for me, but he did. And if there’s anything you should know about Neil Gaiman it’s this: Though he has the most glorious head of hair, he could lose all of it tomorrow and really lose nothing at all.

 

I was now transfixed on the snow pack up on the roof of that big red barn. Out of the blue.

Milomartin1a_5_1


Something told me it was gonna fall. It was all gonna come down. All eleven tons of it. All at the same time. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind.

“How do you know?” Boner asked.

“I dunno,” I said, “I just know. I can feel it.”

“Come on,” Boner said.

“No man, it’s gonna happen. It’s all gonna come sliding off. In one fell swoop. I’m tellin’ ya. You’ll see.”

“You’re fuckin’ high, Milo.”

“I may be high,” I said, “but somethin’ told me when we got out of the Carlo,


Milomartin2a_2_1


that all that snow is gonna come sliding off that roof.”

“How can you tell? Did you see it move?”

“No, not exactly. It’s more of a premonition. Sorta like a déjà vu that hasn’t materialized yet.”

Milo, that same pack of snow has been up there for months. Like four or five months. What makes you think it’s gonna come down right now, while we’re watching?”

“Like I said, I don’t know exactly how I know, but I know. Sometimes you just know stuff. Just keep watching that roof Boner and we are going to see it come down.”

“Well, I doubt it’s gonna come down right now but if it does come down, those cows milling around underneath are gonna get sacked.”


Milomartin3a_1_1


“You’re right. Good point. Maybe we should try to scare them off or lead them into the barn or alert the farmer or…”

“How do we even know it’s gonna happen right now? Or in the next twenty minutes? Or in the middle of the night? Or three days from now? We don’t. That’s the point, Milo, we don’t know. Shit, man.”

“It is gonna happen. Just hang tight.”

“Ah man, we could be watchin’ Hogan’s Heroes right now. It’s after 3:30.”

“You don’t believe me? You think I’m jivin’ you?”

“I don’t know, man. You get freaky sometimes when you get stoned. And you make all these big cosmic proclamations. And you expect me to go along with them. And you know for the most part, it’s just the hooch talkin’.” It’s just the hooch talkin’. It’s just the hooch talkin’.

I remained glued to the roof of the massive barn, my lids at half-mast, knowing the descent of that snow was inevitable.

“Sometimes Boner, the hooch knows what it’s talkin’ about. The hooch helps us to see dimensions of things we wouldn’t ordinarily see, you know, a hyper-sensitivity. A super-reality. There’s like, a central receptacle within all of us that holds everything. Knows everything.”

“I think that’s what they call the Scrotum, bro.” Boner slapped his leg.

“OK. You can goof all you want Boner, but I’m actually pretty serious right now. I’m talking about the Omniscient Wisdom Container.”

“The om-fucking what kind of container?”

“The Omniscient Wisdom Container. The…the…the…the eternal bloom holder. A…a…a crystal saline water vase that holds eleven oceans. The like, sordid history within our cellular patterns. The cumulative knowledge in the fat of our earlobes. The trillions of souls in the calves of our legs.”

“OK Mr. Spaceman. If you’re talking about the DNA strip, I can almost dig that. And the human instinct thing too. And if you’re figuring that it’s March and it’s Spring and like, the sun has been out for the past two days, melting and loosening that base of ice up there, I can go with that. But this bloom holder of eternity stuff, you know, I don’t know, man. I mean, that snow could be up there for another week or two. I mean, fuck…”

“Yeah but the thing is, I know and I don’t know how I know, but I just know. C’mon Boner, you gotta be with me on this. It’s ready to go. It’s gonna drop. All of it. All that snow. All like, eleven tons of it. Soon. You’ll see, man.”

“OK Mister Chicken Little-the sky-is-falling saying it again and again. You’re fuckin’ looped, dude.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

I could feel Boner surveying me, wrinkling that Pizon schnoz of his and pushing his glasses up, blinking like an owl, wondering if I was just fucking with him, which I was prone to do. He was looking for conviction. Knowing that this very second was crucial, I didn’t flinch, laser beaming the crest of that snow-covered roof with all of my supernatural resolve. He was either gonna leave me standing there in the driveway like a foolish dope or he was going to hang out and commit to the mystical trip.

“Do you wanna smoke, man?”

“Yes,” I said. “I would like a cigarette.”

***

I had Nicole up just the way she liked it. Squeezed and kneaded her flanks like wet clay, making her move it. I held it good and still, helping every fifth or sixth time. The Tahoe National Forest was positively incandescent natural heaven on this late vernal morning and I was wrapped up and drawn out the window into the bright greens of the Jack pines against the super-white shining of the diamonds in the snow.

Milomartin4a_4_1_2


My endorphin machine synthesized the natural elements into a sacred sweaty swirl where the aereolic clouds pillowed the loins and cotton was the rooster and everything turned into either hill or valley or river or bush and at the exact moment I put it all over her back, a bird flew into the glass of the window with a sickening little pt-ink-fup, leading with its beak. Our bodies jumped, jerked out of our insular plane. It might as well have been a gunshot.

“What was that?” she asked breathing.

“A bird I think. I think a bird just ran into the window. I’m gonna go see.”

“Stay,” she purred. “It’s just a dead bird.”

“It might not be dead,” I said. “ I’m gonna go check.”

“Milo, c’mon…”

I gathered over to the window and there, bounced three feet back from the house on the hardened snow, lay a Mountain Chickadee,

Milomartin5a_1_1


twitching in the confusing throes of a rude collision.

“It’s still alive. I’m gonna go check it out.”

“C’mon Milo. What’s the big deal? You gonna go out like that? In just your wife-beater?”

I threw my robe on and left my boots untied. The snow by the side of the house had a springtime crust from the run-off and I found myself breaking through six inches down with each step, squinting against the sun. What the hell was I really doing out here anyway?

Coming up on the bird, it appeared now to be silent. Upon closer inspection, it was palpitating slightly, its neck turned unnaturally, its beak partially opened, its eye film half-drawn and a tiny sparkle of light visible in the onyx eye.

“Is it dead?” she asked from the window.

“Nope,” I said. “But she’s in shock all right.”

“Probably more in shock from what she saw through the bedroom window,” she quipped.

“Yeah, damn,” I said, sort of smiling. “That must be it.”

I cupped my hand over her shoulder trying to take her and she sprung, alarmed by my touch. It was most likely the first time she had been touched by anything other than feather, wood, weather or sky.

“Well at least she’s conscious,” I said.

There was no response. I looked up to the window. Nicole had moved on to do something else. I got that weird foolish feeling that you get when you’re talking to someone whom you thought was your captive audience, listening behind you, and they leave the room without saying a word and you jabber on about something important before you find that you’re alone, talking to yourself. Oi.

The bird had leapt toward the house, just under the eaves trough. When I came to her, she lay in a sunspot, huffing. I moved my hands toward her again when a large clear droplet of snow water fell into the ruffles of her neck and she flew off in a start, awkward and wobbly, landing under a juniper bush twenty yards back into the woods. She had summoned enough concentrated strength to fly away into the bushes to either convalesce or to die in peace without the hovering presence of an alien. My grandfather once told me that birds who flew into windows suffered concussions, slipping into temporary comas and as long as their necks weren’t broken and they weren’t attacked by cats in the meantime, they could snap out of their coma on a dime and fly away as if nothing ever happened. Come to think of it, the same phenomena occurred with me when I was tossed over the handlebars of a dirt bike a few years back, landing on the crown of my helmeted head whereupon I popped right back up and got up on the bike, cool as a cucumber. Or so I thought. My friends had seen the accident and told me after the fact, that I had laid motionless for three minutes, appearing very dead, when out of nowhere I popped back up, looking almost possessed. Birds, humans, knockin’ ourselves silly.

I guessed that my work had been done here, not that I really accomplished anything with the bird. And although it was Spring in the mountains and the sun was out, it was still frickin’ cold as a witch’s wrinkled bellybutton and I was still only wearing a robe and boots. I started retracing my tracks, stepping back into the foot-holes toward the house when a low bassey ominous scraping sound jerked my head around to witness the four-foot high pack of snow sliding off of the roof onto the patch of ground where I had been with the bird not forty seconds earlier. A veritable bludgeoning avalanche of a multi-tonnage parcel of frozen water blocks hit the ground with thwomps of muted heaviness certain to flatten or maim any living thing under its deadly cross-hairs. Wow. Fuck. Shit. Goddamn even.

“What was that, Milo?” Nicole asked coming quickly to the window.

I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. She looked down at the pile of thick white tombstones and my footprints leading in. Then she looked over at me, less than ten feet away.

“Holy shit,” she said.

“Holy shit is right,” I said, releasing my breath.

One wouldn’t normally think of falling snow as a leading cause of death but throughout the ages literally thousands of humans, dogs, horses and cattle have been clobbered, paralyzed and killed by snow falling from houses, buildings and mountains, even critically stabbed by falling icicles. Bludgeoned by spring thaw.

And I had been spared. And the bird had been spared. A veritable dual reprieve. Had I saved the bird’s life? Or had the drop of snow water saved the bird’s life, thereby saving my life? And was it possible that the three ounces of bird hitting the window had reverberated through the walls of the house loosening the snow from its moorings? Or had it been the wicked motion within the bedroom? Or had it been the exponential sum of both movements coupled with the spring blast of the sun? Or was it just a coincidence? Or was it a coinciding?

As I attempted to assimilate what had just transpired, I teleported back to Boner and me watching the roof of that barn on that ordinary spring day fifteen years back. I had been so sure and Boner so skeptical and we watched that roof for close to twenty minutes before that snow pack came careening off that 40 x 60 tin roof like the epic frozen ghost of Niagara Falls. I can still see that orange cow, in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time, crumpling under the weight of that snow, its legs buckling and snapping, a dreadful noise mixed with the muffled caterwaul of a guttural moo. I can still see it. In my wisdom container. I can still see it all. That and the expression on Boner’s face.

Black Friday, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is the Friday after Thanksgiving here in the States, and traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year.  Stores have sales on that day only, and people trample each other to get into the Walmart first, to make sure they score a [insert name of this year’s equivalent of Tickle Me Elmo here] before supplies run out.

The name derives from the world of the bookkeepers, who denote losses with red ink and profits with black.  Retail outlets tend to run red all year, and only go into the black — that is, turn a profit — on the day after Thanksgiving.  Hence, Black Friday.  (It has nothing to do with race.  It might have something to do with Stendhal, but it has nothing to do with race).

I’ve been thinking about Black Friday because it’s the day after tomorrow, but also because Our Fearless Leader got this letter from one of our favorite readers:

Hey Brad,

Is there a central list somewhere of all the TNB folks who have books? I like to give books as Christmas gifts, and this year I thought it’d be cool if I could try to give mostly books by TNB’ers or other people I know.

TNB TV 
Claire Bidwell Smith reads at TNB’s Literary Experience in Chicago on 22 September 2009.



TNB Hall of Fame
In part one of this two-part series, Noria Jablonski, author of the acclaimed story collection Human Oddities, takes us on a journey inside the infamous San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California. “I walk out into a courtyard that is surprisingly lovely,” she writes. “There are carefully tended rosebushes, green lawns and topiary, a couple dry fountains, a pair of metal sculptures in the fountains shaped like dandelions or fireworks. There are several chapels and a beautiful old brick building stamped with the word HOSPITAL at the top. Over one doorway it says in hand-painted calligraphic Old English letters: HOBBY SHOP. Another doorway reads in those same letters: ADJUSTMENT CENTER. It sounds like where you’d be sent for punishment in elementary school.” Illustration by Summer Pierre.