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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Journey We Take Alone -- Part Seven



By Alexander "Sandy" Prisant

"It's all normal," they say, they being the doctors.

Is this what normal is like? No big deal—not like stroke symptoms or a cancer diagnosis—just a seemingly innocuous composite of symptoms, pseudo-smiling specialists, new pills, old tests.

Nobody’s saying anything dramatic, but in the back of your mind—even in the mind of a man who’s lived with this since FDR, for God’s sake, you can't help wondering:

Is this it? Am I on the conveyor belt that isn’t going anywhere good? Is this what it’s like? You just wear down, piece by piece by ultrasound?

And now I can only sit here in the dog park and watch my two sweet bitches run without me? While the wife of my life, who seems more heroic daily, hits tennis balls to the girls we call “the Schnauzer Sisters” for short. While I sit over here on a bench, on the sidelines. My new pacemaker is still bandaged. There are scabs across my chest from the sticky residue of monitoring leads applied over and over again in recent weeks (talk about duplication in the health system!); and my left arm remains grotesquely swollen after the pacemaker procedure. I’m wondering: am I starting to look like the disabled, the crippled, the halt and lame? Like the people we all furtively gawk at in the street? Am I starting to look like those people??

But the doctors remain as stone-faced as something out of a Pyramid. “It’s all normal,” they say.

Now they have me peeing into a bag strapped to my leg. “It’s just your prostate,”they say. “It’s temporary.” No emotion—inferring: nothing to worry about.

Meanwhile, my feet and lower legs are so swollen they could serve as the foundation for a two-story shopping mall. Or a 24-screen multiplex. As a good renal patient, one of the first lessons in life was to briefly check my feet for edema (fluid build-up) every morning. I’ve been doing it by rote for a lifetime. Never any edema. For twenty-thousand days straight.

Now, I’m suddenly looking at The Feet That Ate The Bronx. So is this it? Or just another detour?

“It’s all normal,” they say.

Sandy Prisant lives in Florida with his wife Susan. In March, he embarked on an incredible writing project, one that he suggested might be his last. Part One appeared March 13, 2011. Part Two appeared March 16, 2011, Part Three appeared on March 27th, Part Four on May 1st, Part Five on May 5th and Part Six on May 25th. Please keep writing Sandy, you are an incredible inspiration, reminding us that life is as fragile as flowers in a garden -- and it passes as quickly as a hummingbird's wings!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

More Adventures in the Amazon -- On the Trail of the Petroglyphs

Note to readers: this is the second in a series of three excerpts from award-winning author Eugene K. Garber's new novel, "O Amazonas Oscuro." Part one of this chapter, called "Freeplay," appeared May 20, 2011.

By Eugene K. Garber

In the last moments before K awakens, Ellie Manuta lies beside him in the gray light of dawn. She seems to be contemplating her cigarette smoke, which passes through a distinct plane of window light and disappears into the dark above the bed. Her hand is on his thigh, but there is no caress, not even much warmth. The hand seems only to be checking casually on whether or not K is there, his presence, once confirmed, inconsequential. K awakens to the smell of Guaynacha’s fire. The woman is stooping beside it turning small gobbets of meat on a stick in the hot updraft, but she is not looking at the meat, she is looking at something beyond K, higher up on the bank. Aloo, down by the water, stops laving his face and looks in the same direction.

K gets to his feet and follows the eyes of his companions. There above him stands a young spearman. He is statuesque, princely in fact, the butt of his spear resting easily on the ground. K recognizes him—Gyantúa, the most renown warrior of the Mureka-peo. For some moments the four of them are silent. Then Gyantúa speaks to K. “Tell the non-human I could have killed him. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, I understand you.” K turns to Aloo, who has quickly finished his washing and now stands up. “The warrior says that he could have killed you.”

Aloo says nothing to that.

Gyantúa says, “Only a stupid non-human wears the skin of Xo Moxo. It will not stop me from killing him.”

K relays this to Aloo, who says, “Tell the noble warrior that I lost my way in the forest. I thank him for not killing a stranger.”

To K’s report of that Gyantúa says, “Tell him if he comes again to our garden I will kill him.” Gyantúa lifts his spear, turns and walks away.

K says to Aloo, “You went to the Mureka-peo garden this morning?”

Aloo shakes water out of his hair. “Just a little reconnaissance, K.”

“You’re lucky to be alive.”

Aloo laughs abruptly. “Right, K. This time and how many times before? It’s a knack I have, staying alive. I told you.”

“What were you doing at the Mureka-peo garden?”

“Just checking to see if they had any specimens like your guy.”

“What do you mean specimens like our guy?”

Aloo motions the question off with a wave of his hand. “We’re coming to that later. But first you get the story. That’s the deal, right?”

For a while the three are silent eating the monkey meat that Guaynacha has cooked. K has never learned to like it. The bosky odor of the animal’s hair has invaded the flesh. After a while Aloo turns and speaks to Guaynacha, who goes down to the canoe and brings back to Aloo a leather folder. Before he opens it Aloo runs his finger over the tooled exterior. “See all them scrolls and fluty-dooties? You think they’re symbols? Nothing but doodledy shit. Some asshole in Belem making like he was a genuine tribal artist. But the leather itself ain’t bad.” Aloo unlaces the folder with great care, revealing an interior pouch of softer leather. Aloo lifts the flap, takes out a slip of worn yellowing paper and hands it to K. It bears a faded hand script.

This very fact of phonetic writing is ineluctable; it commands our entire culture and our entire science. Nevertheless it does not respond to any necessity of an absolute and universal essence.

K reads. When he looks up, Aloo takes the slip from him and hands him another.

The system of language based on phonetic-alphabetic writing underwrites logocentric metaphysics, which determines the sense of being as presence. This logocentrism has always suppressed all free reflection on the origin and status of writing.

“Are you following it, K?”

K nods. “I think so.” Aloo hands him another slip.

The very idea of the arbitrariness of the sign is unthinkable before the possibility of writing. The idea is outside of the world as space of inscription.

K is aware that certain kinds of postmodern cant have invaded contemporary disciplines, even anthropology, but he finds these slips disturbing.

“You get it, K? We are forced to know the whole fucking world as a writing tablet. So I was reading all those goddam books, but every one of them had pages with edges. What was outside the edges? How the fuck could I have known? I was in irons, inside them fucking words. Shit!” Aloo hands him another slip.

“Where did you get these?”

“Old dude on the Tapajós upstream from Santarem. But keep reading, K, or the story you been waiting to hear won’t make sense.”

“OK, but this is very complex stuff the old man wrote.”

“It wasn’t his. It was left him.”

“By whom?”

“Keep reading.” Aloo hands K another slip.

In other circumstances K would refuse to read any more of this garbled rambling. But it is obvious that Aloo has internalized these texts, so if he is to understand Aloo and his story he must try to understand them.

I have identified logocentrism and the metaphysics of presence as the exigent, powerful, systematic, and irrepressible desire for a transcendental signified.

Irrepressible desire for a transcendental signified. Fleetingly but with surprising clarity Dr. Seddun’s voice sounds in K’s memory. If one follows the tribe’s cultural chain from the most mundane object through its symbolic value on up to the level of ontology you vill find the ruling Geist, because tribal man cannot put away the desire for the ultimate essence of all. Even then, as a student, K was convinced that this ultimate essence was nothing more than emic yearning tricked out in philosophical language. As such it had no place in accurate ethnography. Nevertheless, the idea that the desire for transcendence is inescapable disturbs K greatly. “Do you know who wrote these things?”

“An Algerian maybe.”

“What makes you think an Algerian?”

“Maybe the old man said it. Anyway, it wouldn’t be a surprise, would it? Had to been somebody who got his ass kicked around by the hegemonics. Hegemonics. How you like them apples?” Aloo hands K another slip. “The last one, K.”

Après la mort de Divine, les obsèques sont donc réglées par l’abbé qui concentre sur lui tous les désirs. C’est un travesti qui s’y connaît en effractions et en éventrations. Tous les mots suivent en silence jusqu’á la dispersion complète de la théorie et du dit séminaire. Effritement, défroque, fards et fleurs.

K reads. Aloo laughs an acid laugh. “Fucking French. If I had learned French in Nam I could have gotten high class whores when I went on R and R to Saigon, but who knew? Here’s what I get out of the fucker. See if I’m on track. ‘After the death of God the funeral is arranged by the Abbey who concentrates on himself all desires. A transvestite versed in burglary and breaking and entering. All the words slip into silence even to the complete dispersion of theory and what you call school. Trash, disguises, and flowers.’ That’s about it, ain’t it?”

“I think you got it basically right.”

Aloo shakes his head in wonderment. “Any asshole could of told you God has been hiding out since the end of the Book of Job, when a bunch of Jew prophets started beating the drum for him to come back. Shit, even Jesus couldn’t get a rise out of the Father. But the idea that God is dead and buried by a fag priest who has now got all the action. That’s original, you got to admit.” Aloo looks sharply at K. “Bunch of priests working this territory right now, as you know. Selling the Indians a dead God.”

K is disturbed. He has allowed himself to get entangled in the irrational logic of these scraps. He wants out. “Does your mission here have to do with priests?”

“Forget the fucking priests, K. What we have to do is get out of the phonetic writing bag. See? I was reading all those fucking books. Phonetic writing. I was sub-vocalizing the fuckers, tittying around with my lips and glottis and tongue without knowing that I was trapped in the logocentricism bag, thinking I was going to follow the words to the transcendental Big Daddy in the sky. Logo phonetic bullshit, K. Scraps of history and lit and anthro bullshit and science for the common man crapola. You could figure how an ignorant fucker like me with all that print in front of him thought he was onto something big. Arbitrary signs. Bullshit. But you don’t believe that yet, K. You gotta learn it. That all that high-powered ethno shit you’re writing down about these doomed Indians is arbitrary.”

K is surprised to hear himself say, “Well, then, what should I do?”

“As they say, K, every man his own foxhole. But I can tell you what I’m going to do. That’s what you wanted to hear, wasn’t it?”

K nods.

“I’m going to tell you the story of what I’m doing here like I promised. Then you’re going to do me that little favor. OK? But don’t interrupt and ask questions because the story can get away from me. It’s inside this shit-ass phonetic language, zipped up like body bags. But not much longer. So listen up, ethno man.”

K nods.

“And don’t turn that fucking machine on. The whirring gets on my nerves. OK. The story. Landed in Belem, tramped around Marajo a few days, went upstream on a steamer slung in a hammock like a cocoon. Aloo the pupa, Aloo the chrysalis, Aloo the butterfly. Forget it. By the time we got to Santarem all I was was a stumble bum with a back ache and the squirts from the rotten chow. Fucked a moose in Santarem to make sure I exposed myself to all the local diseases, power up my antibodies. Also I had popped a million daily-dailies in Nam so malaria was out of the question. So was dengue and yellow fever. My sweat wasn’t even fucking human any more. Pills, shots, fear, hatred. Mosquitoes couldn’t stand to be near me. One sip of my nigger Indian blood and they would drop dead. They could smell it. What was left? Leptospirosis. Do I look stupid enough to swim or shower in animal piss? Flu? That’s what we kill the savages with, not them us. Right? Scourge of the earth, us Euros with our eons of infections and diseases, fucking walking death factories of viruses and bacteria and with antibodies to zap the whole soup. Macrophages, lymphocytes, antigens. All that shit. Armed to the balls. Killers. That’s us.”

Aloo lies back and looks at the underbellies of the leaves for a while, then sits back up. “The next thing to do was find the best dope in the Amazon. Shit. I had done every trip there was in Nam. How was the Nam substance, you wonder? Either you went into some black hole and forgot about dying for six minutes or the sun grew teeth and ate your ass, which was still better than the Cong. But I read they had the real thing here in the Amazon, ayauasca. Not escapist tripping but spiritual, right? Aloo the seeker after ultimate truth. Visitor to the Underworld.” Aloo pauses. “Now that was one book I really got into, K. The Odyssey. Not the high-powered sailor-boy shit but visiting the dead, all flitting around like mosquitoes. Fucker’s poor mother. Meanwhile back at the ranch all those fucking Jodies buzzing around his wife knitting her butt off and unraveling it at night. Hip broad. I wouldn’t mind visiting the dead myself, talking to my mother and father if they’re down there, whoever they are. But in Santarem I had something else in mind even if I didn’t know yet what the shit it was. So I drank ayauasca and managed to hold it down. Fruit of the vine they call it. Some joke.

“Anyway I took two trips. On one I saw the universe’s first woman get fucked in the eye by Father Sun and give birth to the vine, which turned into a pretty kid named Caapi, who kept pouring ayauasca in every hole in my bod—eyes, ears, nose, mouth, dick, ass—very hot stuff, cum it turned out. Ejaculatio somnium. Dreamfuck.

“On the other trip I saw a lady all in white. Veils, crown, tear dropping from one eye. Then I caught on. It was some kind of nutty-assed syncretic religion the drug was feeding me. Christianity and Amazon hocus-pocus. Later I found out I had stumbled into a fucking religion. Uniao do Vegetal. You ever been tricked into worshipping vegetables, K? It don’t make you feel good about yourself. Anyway, drugs was a dead end. I wasn’t too stupid to see that.

“Then I got word of this old dude up the Tapajós supposed to know Xo Moxo the Black Panther first hand. You got whispers about this fabulous fucker down in Belem and Macapa. Xo Moxo, Xo Moxo like some fucking password to another world. But all they could tell you was he was way up in the jungle. I figured it was just more hophead Amazon bullshit, but goddamit it sounded different. So I bought a ticket on the local motor launch and went up the Tapajós. Interesting stream. Pink dolphins, ex-mermaids and mermen of course. Devolution, K. Don’t ever believe that Darwinian shit about mutation, natural selection, and adaptation. Fucking animals of the Amazon don’t adapt to nothing. They do what the hell ever they want. Four million parrots, horniest bird in creation. Anteaters swimming the river in hordes. You tell me why the goddam hell an anteater would swim the river. There ain’t two square inches of the Amazon basin that ain’t infested with ants, big mothers that can bite your ass off. A couple of these critters would make a meal for any anteater.” Aloo laughs. “Naw. The fuckers swim the river exactly because it ain’t got no survival value. Fuck Darwin.

“OK, up the Tapajós to Itaituba, which is as far as you can go, rapids just upstream. Itaituba. One sick backwater burg, K. Gold all dug out. Fucking idiotic Transamazon highway running by, potholes, brush. So you got this burnt-out burg, mercury vapors poisoning the air and nothing much to do but get drunk and fuck somebody else’s woman and shoot somebody or get shot. Not a real good town for a Indio-quadroon like me. I took a few insults, spread a few cruzeiros around and got what I needed, the whereabouts of the old dude, name of Nuno Dioguo de Mata. Some monicker. Hired an Indian kid with a canoe had a motor looked like he took it out of a lawnmower. But this Indian was a beaut, K. Like your boy. Bowl-cut black hair shiny as high grade coal. Skin perfect as polished teak. Big muscles, little chocolate tits, hairless bod. Noble savage. About two miles upstream we put in at a little ramshackle dock with steps leading up the bank. Fall, low water. Made it clear to the Indian that if he wasn’t there when I got back he wouldn’t get paid.

“Just up the trail the old dude was sitting on the porch of his shack, which looked like he had built it himself. Had a tree growing up the middle like some fucking Frank Lloyd Wright pad. He looked like he was expecting me. Senhor de Mata? I said in my best Portuguese, which ain’t shit.

“Welcome, stranger, he said in English. French accent. Swallowed rs, snooty-assed vowels. So I figured his Portuguese name was a fake. So what? In the Amazon nobody but the Indians are who they say they are. I told him how thankful I was to be welcomed because I heard he was a private person. Shit, K. I can talk refined if I want to. I didn’t read all them books for nothing.

“Do you bring me news from the outside? he wanted to know.

“I laughed that off. Nossir, I told him. I lost contact with the outside several years ago pretty much on purpose.

“Why is that, Mister . . . ? May I know your name?

“Now it goes against me, K, to lie to a distinguished old dude, but I always hated my name, Roosevelt Thorp. My mother pulled it out of her ass and disappeared. You remember ol’ Franklin Delano, K, with his nigger-loving wife and Thorpe the great Injun runner. That’s me. What the name gets you is a few thousand fist fights in your life so you ain’t called Rosie. Sir, I told him, I have taken an Indian name, Aloo.

“Well then, Aloo, why have you denied the outside?

“I was in a war on the outside, sir. It seemed to me like a good place to get out of.

“Your leaders foolishly inherited the war from us. We have fought very foolish wars in my time, Algeria and Egypt and Indochina, which we managed to leave to you Americans.

“I nodded. I wish I could say I’m grateful to you, sir, I said. But I didn’t want to fiddle fuck around with history, K, so I cut to the chase. I’m surprised to find you here, sir. I understand you know Xo Moxo and I would think you would want to be in his land.

“For a long time he didn’t say nothing. It was hard to see into his face because he had a big shadowy straw hat and a full white beard. But delicate, K, neatly trimmed as a rich man’s lawn. Nails manicured, light-colored linen breeches and a Madras shirt and Gucci-looking sandals.

“OK I figured maybe I had to come at Xo Moxo roundabout. I said, I was wondering, sir, if you got in on the gold rush in the early days when there was still plenty.

“Yes, I did, Aloo, for which I took this absurd Portuguese name you use.

“Then we are even, sir. Neither of us has a real name, I said. Just then a stray breeze came up and lifted his beard and waved it around like some fucking Hollywood trick. I’m telling you, K, this dude was delicate. Well, I asked, was Xo Moxo here for the gold rush too?

“De Mata or whoever he was laughed a gentle laugh like he could tolerate any asshole question I asked. Xo Moxo was far beyond gold the first time I encountered him.

“What was he into, I mean interested in?

“He was interested in signs. He was following the trail of the petroglyphs west and north. De Mata must of seen I was fugazi. He said, there are stones in the Amazon basin high above flood stage that bear inscriptions.

“What do they say?

“De Mata gave me his gentle laugh again. They are not of a spoken alphabet. Yet they are not ideograms or hieroglyphs or pictographs.

“Sounds like they are just doodles.

“Only the super-civilized, like us westerners, doodle, Aloo. Everybody else tries to make meaning.

“I decided to take a plunge, K. Sir, I would like to follow Xo Moxo to the place where the meaning of the petroglyphs comes clear.

“De Mata lifted his head thoughtfully.

“Look, Senhor De Mata, I said, you would not guess it by looking at me because I’m a half breed, but here is the truth. I came home from the war, which we agree was très mal. Back home I educated myself. I read hundreds of books. But there has to be something beyond slaughter and words. If Xo Moxo has found it, I want to find him.

“De Mata looked hard at me. I must tell you, Aloo, that we French are strange. We have to have a theory before we can grasp any individual thing. De Mata held his hand out toward me. It was small and delicate but talon-like.

“I said, is that why you didn’t go with him? You didn’t have the theory?

“No, I have his theory. He got up from his chair real slow. Sick. Unbalanced. MS, cancer? Whatever it was, he was busted, doomed. He was gone a while. When he came back he handed me a leather case. You may open it, Aloo, he said. Inside was the little pouch with the slips like you saw. I read a couple of the slips. I said I would have to study these. If you have some paper and a pen I could copy them.

“No. Take them.

“When do you want them back?

“I will not need them.

“That was a true statement, K, because you can’t pay off the keepers of the Underworld with faded papers.

“I said, this is good of you, Senhor de Mata, too good. But tell me. Will these slips get me on the trail of the petroglyphs that lead to Xo Moxo?

“Maybe. But perhaps you will never find him.

“If you hear the Indians talk about him, he is always alive, way up in the jungle.

“De Mata made a wiping motion with his hands. I said nothing about death, Monsieur Aloo. I mean he may have entered a condition inaccessible to you. Read, he said, pointing to the leather case.

“I nodded. I will read. But just one last thing, Senhor De Mata. The trail of the petroglyphs. How do I get on it?

Writer Eugene K. Garber, a Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus of English at the University at Albany, SUNY, is the recipient of numerous awards for his fiction. His 1981 collection, Metaphysical Tales received the Associated Writing Programs Award for Short Fiction. His collection, The Historian(1995), received the William Goyen Prize of the national literary magazine,TriQuarterly. Garber’s fiction has been anthologized in the Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction, Best American Short Stories, and the Paris Review Anthology, among other compilations. On June 15, 2011, at 7 p.m. at the Arts Center for the Capital Region in Troy, New York, Garber will be reading from his new book, O Amazona Escuro, from which this excerpt is taken. Stay tuned for part three of this chapter.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Reader Responds to Sandy Prisant's Story


Note to readers: In March, Sandy Prisant embarked on an incredible writing project, one that he suggested might be his last. Part One appeared March 13, 2011. Part Two appeared March 16, 2011, Part Three on March 27th and Part Four on May 1st, Part Five ran on May 5th. Below is a letter from a reader to Part Six, which ran May 25th.

Dear Sandy Prisant:

You confide in us, the invisible readers of your story, that no one has ever told you, “You’re cured.”

As I’ve said [in earlier comments] before, “you were the miracle-child and now, you’re a marathon survivor against all odds in need of a heart and kidney transplant. It’s your time again to confront death, as you did in the beginning.”

Looking from the outside into your personal universe, it seems you’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have triumphed over death so many times. Gifted, creative, and innovative surgeons have performed feats of magic, blessing you with life for decades. And yet, you were never cured. And I feel compelled to ask why. Why you? Why did you and your family have to suffer? What is the meaning of such incomprehensible suffering? I do not know you, and yet, I do.

From a distance, I see you as a righteous and decent man. Like Job, you did nothing to warrant such suffering. You’re a fellow human being born with certain life-threatening medical problems. So it goes. But where do you go from here? And what can I and other readers do to help you on your personal journey?

You must face these challenges, as you’ve done in the past, for you’re at the crossroads of your life. And historically, you’ve proven yourself to be a courageous man. Thus, I believe in you. You’re a source of inspiration to me and, I imagine, to others. This is your existential struggle but I will share my thoughts, emotions, dreams, and hopes with you.

Although you say this writing project may be your last, I suggest we don’t know. It’s too soon to say. You need both a heart and kidney transplant. I don’t know what will happen. Yet you’ve moved me and out there -- in the benevolent universe-- others will read your words and will be moved too.

We need you right here with us -- writing words that inspire and motivate and help us transcend our mundane lives. So keep fighting. And tonight, listen to the oceanic flow of the heavens. I’m sending you a silent prayer, waves of health and joy. It’s for you, Sandy. Just for you.

Dr. Mel Waldman

Dr. Mel Waldman, a contributor to MyStoryLives from Brooklyn, New York, is a psycholgist, poet, singer and songwriters. His stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Journey We Take Alone -- Part Six

By Alexander "Sandy" Prisant

In my lifetime, no one has ever said to me, "You're cured."

From what they tell me, the experimental set of operations performed on me when I was a small child was worth a six-part series on Nova.

After literally slicing me open — front, back and sides -- the gutsy surgeon, Dr. Moses Swick, actually had to take parts of the renal system out of my body in sequence and lay them, still attached, on the table alongside me, as he worked to create detours and bypasses around the obstructions. This was surgery as creative art, more than it was conventional science. Had he planned all the steps beforehand? Or did he figure it out on the fly? Another question that will never be answered. And doesn’t matter.

Because, in the end, it worked. Against all the terrifying odds. I survived. I was nearly three when the process was complete. For the first time, I had viable kidneys, bladder and the tubes to link them—the plumbing my life depended upon started to work. It all amounted to the world’s first successful surgery on blocked ureters. But it would be months before most of those around me could stop crossing their fingers and breathe. As with other medical challenges I’ve faced, there has never been closure; never a guarantee that the problem was fixed. Or resolved. Or eliminated.

I’ve always been left to ponder questions that I knew no specialist would dare answer: Would I be normal? What kind of normal? Would the ureter grafts hold and would my body accept them? Did my kidneys, permanently damaged from birth, still have enough left to work? And did I? We’re each a little bit different physically. But my case seemed to be a quantum leap. There were no case histories, nor clinical studies to look to. I was the clinical study.

Much of it was “seat of the pants” medicine—trying to save a life anyway one could. And not so different from how they’re trying to save me now. It meant the doctors were making up day-to-day solutions as they went along. The surgeon, expressing less than sublime confidence after the fact, proposed I be confined to a wheel chair. For life. By some unknown miracle, that never happened.

I was too young to know about this in real time. The one memory from my infancy was a recurring nightmare in those first years: I was being wheeled on a gurney into a shadowy, darkened room. It seemed to have shelves, floor to ceiling, lined with empty Coca Cola bottles. And then the dream’s end always came abruptly—a heavy black rubber mask was pulled down over my nose and mouth. That’s all I have from the life-defying trips to the operating room.

But by age six or seven, I knew a little. It all somehow made me “special”—what more could any kid want? I was alive and felt okay. (Kidney disease is insidious because it rarely offers a warning until it is too late.) The condition could be lethal, but was without obvious symptoms. Yet it was the condition that defined me.

Dr. Swick became fast friends with my parents and remained so for the rest of their lives. There were never any wheelchairs, but many snap examinations. It was I who always answered the doorbell. The doctor would occasionally come to our home for dinner, bounding into the foyer and reaching out to pinch random parts of me—seeking signs of edema (excess fluid that belied declining kidney function). Miraculously, he never found any.

Ultimately Moses Swick was remembered more for his work in creating the first safe, effective systems for kidney and bladder radiology, using chemical contrast. But in the late 1940s, his ingenious ideas for the first bilateral nephrostomy were news in the medical community. Swick approached my parents and convinced them to bring me to a subcommittee meeting of the American Medical Association in Chicago. It was a dramatic way to show off the procedure and what it had done to the first patient. It turned me into the ultimate “exhibit.”

Eventually, my case and care were handed over from the surgeon to Dr. Ira Greifer, the reigning Chief of Pediatric Nephrology at the National Kidney Foundation—a major player at Albert Einstein Medical College in New York. It was a relationship that lasted into my 20s and started a run of prominent kidney specialists who have watched over me through the decades.

From almost the beginning, it was apparent that the medical community was invested in keeping me going with cutting-edge care for as long as possible. None would dare say how long that could be.

And today, they are still not saying.

Sandy Prisant lives in Florida with his wife Susan. In March, he embarked on an incredible writing project, one that he suggested might be his last. Part One appeared March 13, 2011. Part Two appeared March 16, 2011, Part Three appeared on March 27th and Part Four appeared here May 1st, and Part Five ran on May 5th.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

How I Learned to Eat A Raisin, and How it's Helping Me Learn to Do NO Thing

By Claudia Ricci

Not to sound too dramatic or anything, but this is a rather dangerous time of year for me. The middle of May -- when the school year comes to a screeching halt -- is usually a time when life turns into a slick wet deck and I go skating over the edge. I land in a deep dark pool and thrash around in the murky black water feeling like I'm drowning.

Nothing too dramatic about that.

It's been 13 years that I've been working as a college teacher, and for many of those years, after classes ended, I have been so depressed that I haven't known where to turn.

I am not particularly proud of this situation. People who are lucky enough to have jobs these days (and I regularly count my blessings in that regard) are generally lucky enough only to get two weeks off in the summer. Most of these people count the days until summer vacation arrives, and then they savor each of their days off, hour by hour. Most of them would kill to have a long summer vacation.

So what kind of a loser am I that I can't seem to enjoy my extended summer break? Why can't I just kick back and have fun? Why is it that the prospect of four "empty" months makes me so anxious that I often need to turn to one or more prescription drugs?

The answer to that question is complex, but simple too: I have a very very hard time doing nothing. (I can hear people screaming at their screens right about now, HEY LADY JUST GO GET A SUMMER JOB AND STOP WHINING. To all of you who are sitting at a desk at work, screaming at me, ready to smack your computer, I want to apologize and say, yes, I do realize that getting a second job is an option!)

But the issue here really is why can't I just enjoy doing nothing in particular? Why I have such difficulty with summer break is itself a long story, having to do with deep dark childhood neuroses that I won't bore you with here (never fear, though, there is always another post.)

In the past, after my May Nosedive, I've usually managed to cobble something together. I have volunteered for worthy causes, and once I ran a really cool program for a couple dozen kids down in DC. I absolutely loved that job but I haven't been able to get another program up and running here.

Generally, I busy myself with this and that in the summer: gardening and guitar, writing and painting. And of course, preparing for the upcoming fall semester. Through much of these summer weeks, I have struggled to stay ... happy. I have struggled with boredom. I have felt lost and low and hopeless. It's just rotten feeling that way.

OK, so it's that time of year again. But this year is different.

This year, I taught the happiness class and I found myself learning some amazing lessons. I think I learned as much as the students (hopefully) did.

Many of the readings for that class were life-changing. So too was the mindfulness workshop that I took, along with the students, with a wonderful teacher named Lenore Flynn. These experiences have given me enormous insight into something very basic:

how to live, each day, moment by moment, staying present and aware.

For those of you who already know what mindfulness is all about, and how it can really turn your head in a wonderful new direction-- you understand. And for those of you who are skeptical, I want to say that I truly do understand your skepticism. How can something as simple as paying attention to your breathing, and to the mundane minutia of everyday activities, possibly turn you into a very happy camper?

If I hadn't also seen it happen to many of the students, I too might be skeptical. But the fact is, paying very very close attention to the seemingly minor and unimportant matters of life is a rather revolutionary activity.

It is not an exaggeration to say that mindfulness teaches you to SEE and FEEL life and your role in it in a whole new way.

In the first mindfulness class, for example, Lenore led us in a meditation exercise as she frequently did during the workshop. But she also handed to each of us a couple of raisins. It was our challenge to NOT eat those raisins, at least right away. The task we were given was simply to appreciate those wrinkled little dried grapes in a way that we had never done before. Holding them in our hands, we had to stare at all their whitish folds. We had to study very carefully their appearance: their plump, or not so plump shapes, their size, color and fullness. We had to roll them around, feeling the squishy way they felt on our fingertips. We had to inhale the sweet fragrance of those raisins.

In short, it was our job to consider the "raisin-ness" of raisins, the very essence and nature of them. Sitting in the palm of our hand, those raisins were very tempting. But more importantly, they turned into rather profound little teachers, or at least I found that they did for me. Instead of just popping them into our mouths, we had to anticipate the pleasure that those raisins would give us. (Of course there were a few students who hate raisins, but that's another matter.)

When we were finally, after several long and drawn out minutes, allowed to place the raisins in our mouth, we still were not allowed to eat them. Instead, we had to TASTE them. We let them roll around our tongues. We savored the way those little withered grapes felt up against our cheeks. We salivated all over those raisins.

And finally, FINALLY, Lenore gave us the go-ahead and let us eat them.

You bet we tasted those raisins. You bet we enjoyed them more than we'd ever enjoyed a raisin before. I mean how many times has it taken five whole minutes to eat a raisin?

The point is, most of us rarely taste any of our food. We don't eat mindfully. We don't slow down enough to really pay attention to the look of our food. To the texture of it. To the smell of it. We don't think about the fact that many many people worked many many hours to grow that food, and to harvest it. We don't think about what it takes to prepare the meal.

Most of the time, we gobble down our meals faster than it takes for someone to boil a pot of water. I know I do, or at least, I used to.

Now, I have begun to eat more mindfully. I try to remember to say a small prayer before I eat each meal (my husband has joined me in this ritual.) I try to take a few moments to stare at the food in an appreciative way, giving thanks for the fact that I am fortunate enough to have food.

Mindful eating was just one lesson. Mindful walking was another. All 15 of us spent most of one class walking very very slowly back and forth across the classroom, thinking about walking. Paying attention to the micro movements of our leg muscles, our foot muscles. We paid attention to the way we lifted our legs, and how we set our feet down on the floor. We paid attention to the way that the floor supported us.

Mindfulness is all about paying very very close attention: paying attention when you breathe. When you eat, when you see, when you walk, when you talk, whenever you do anything. It involves taking time out to be grateful for every one of our blessings, the things we normally take for granted. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that each morning we wake up without a toothache is a day we should be grateful. How many of us say thanks for things like:

Having a bed to sleep in each night.
Having a roof over our heads.
Having clean water to drink.
Having a brain to think whatever we want to think.
Being able to walk.
Being able to chew and digest food.
Being able to hear birds singing.
Being able to hear lovely music.
Being able to see a gorgeous flower, or a stunning rainbow or a special sunset.

Even the so-called dirty chores of our life are, if we alter our perspective, something we can enjoy doing. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is responsible for inventing the incredibly effective Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program at the UMass Medical Center in 1979 in order to help people deal with chronic illness and pain (stress is a big factor in most chronic disease) writes very poignantly about how to clean a stove in a mindful way. Thich Nhat Hanh describes the joy of washing dishes, enjoying the warm soapy water on our hands.

Mindfulness isn't very complicated. It's just hard to do. It's hard to stay present. It's hard to stay grateful. It takes energy and sometimes, it takes work. A lot of work.

And so, this summer I do have a job. I have to learn to do nothing. A few days ago, I started to find myself on the edge of that very slippery deck. I started to see the way I could, without much difficulty, go slipping and sliding off the deck into that deep dark pool.

But now I've got a new set of tools, including a book (I didn't use in class) that Lenore Flynn loaned me. It's called Radical Acceptance, by psychologist Tara Brach.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who has, like me, trouble slowing down and doing NO THING.

Brach describes in great detail the value of what she calls the Sacred Pause. Stopping, whether for a moment to check in with how we are feeling, or for a day, to contemplate life, or for a season, to take a sabbatical -- all of these are profoundly important activities.

Pausing is, after all, an edict of God's: the Sabbath is a day of rest, a day to stop DOING, and celebrate BEING. That's why, in the old days, stores would close on Sundays, so people everywhere could just sit and enjoy a big family meal.

Brach also preaches, as the book's title suggests, radical acceptance, that is, she suggests that we accept everything about ourselves, be it our unattractive noses, our straight (or curly) hair, our hips, our aging bodies, all of our shortcomings. That's not to say that we settle for all of our faults. But we have to start by accepting who we are, and embracing everything about ourselves, all the "shadow" parts of our personalities that we would just as soon tuck into the closet. It isn't until we embrace ourselves fully that we can begin to make the transformations that we need to make.

She isn't the first writer to discuss the shadow self. Carl Jung coined the term many years ago. Many have written about it (Deepak Chopra has a great book, The Shadow Effect, on the topic, one of my students did her class presentation on it.)

Brach's approach to the shadow is wonderful and compelling. She suggests that sll of us want so much to be loved and accepted that we try to bury our dark impulses. We try to "ignore our anger until it becomes knots of tension in our body; cover our fears with endless self-judgement and blame." (54)

"Our shadow," Brach writes, "is rooted in shame, bound by our sense of being basically defective."

The solution? Stop running away from the dark side. Brach tells a wonderful tale to illustrate her point: "A traditional folktale tells the story of a man who becomes so frightened by his own shadow that he tries to run away from it. He believes that if only he could leave it behind, he would then be happy. The man grows increasingly distressed as he sees that no matter how fast he runs, his shadow never once falls behind. Not about to give up, he runs faster and faster until he finally drops dead of exhaustion. If only he had stepped into the shade and sat down to rest, his shadow would have vanished."

It is with some shame that I admit to my shadow: I admit that I have a desire to be incessantly busy, staying so fully (and sometimes frantically) occupied that I cannot stop and sit and do NO THING. I keep busy so that I remain distracted from what my husband calls the "existential dilemmas" posed by life.

A big part of my "job" this summer is to step into the shade, and rest in the shadow. And use the mindfulness techniques to embrace the moment and contemplate why the shadow has had such a fierce grip on my life.

Mostly, I am hoping that I can learn to do NO THING and have that be OK. It's not that I won't do stuff. Of course I will (and I'll inevitably write about it, because I can't help myself.)

It's just that I want it to be acceptable, and sufficient, to do nothing at all, and simply enjoy the many beauties of summer.

This post appeared on May 22, 2011 on the Huffington Post.

Monday, May 23, 2011

All You've Got to Do Is Pay Attention to the GREEN DOTS

By Judi England

Staying focused on what’s in front of me can be a real challenge sometimes.

Don’t know about you but there’s times when so much has been clamoring for my attention that by day’s end I can barely remember what I ate for lunch, or if, in fact I ever ate lunch. And how about it, did you ever get so wrapped up in thought while driving that you weren’t sure if you missed your exit or not? There’s times when the pictures in my head are so absorbing that I can’t see what’s right in front of me.

All of this is the antithesis of mindfulness as defined by a favorite teacher and author, Jon Kabat-Zinn:

“Mindfulness =Paying attention in a particular way: On purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”

And, I’ve got a meditation practice. Imagine that…

But I’ve got a little technique I’d like to share with you. It’s simple, quick to learn and you don’t have to be a yogi or a meditator to have it work for you. A quick trip to the office supply store, a few instructions, and you’re good to go.

It’s called “Little Green Dots”, and for years now I’ve been sharing it’s magic with my students and clients.

So here’s what you do:

  1. Decide if you could benefit from a booster dose of Mindfulness.
  2. Take that intention to the local office supply or stationary store and pick up a package of very small, self-stick dots. Here’s a picture of what mine look like. As you can see, they’re not all green – doesn’t matter – blue, red, or yellow work equally well.

  1. You’re going to wind up with lots and lots of dots in a package so you will want to share some dots with your friend and family, paperboy or toll taker – anyone who’d like to be more mindful.
  2. Place a dot in about 6-8 places where you’ll see them during your day. This, in itself, is an exercise in mindfulness. Usually when we do this exercise as part of a meditation class I hand out the dots and directions one week and give no suggestions about where to place the dots. Getting back together the following week, people share their experiences, including their choice of dot locations. Sometimes it’s pretty predictable: phone, computer screen, car dashboard, refrigerator, wrist watch. Other times it’s hilarious. One woman put one on her 2 year-old’s forehead!
  3. Here’s the directions, verbatum, as I give them along with the dots:

“ LITTLE GREEN DOTS”

Each time you see a DOT – Take a breath – Ask

yourself what you are feeling, thinking and

experiencing in this very moment. Take another

breath – return to what you were doing in a more

Mindful way.

Don’t worry, it doesn’t take very long to do this “check in” with yourself. Like all self-discovery experiments, the results can be quite powerful. There much to learn about how we can miss the life that’s happening right here, right now.

If you care to try “Little Green Dots”, I’d love to hear about your experience. If nothing else, it will make everyone around you wonder what you’re up to. Wouldn’t it be funny if so many readers did this that we started seeing other people’s dots? I guess stranger things have happened.

Writer Judi England, RN, is a massage therapist and yoga instructor. This piece appeared first in the blog she keeps for the Albany Times Union, called Holistic Health.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Tulips After the Rain




One thing I love
about photography
is that it reminds me
that the only reality
we have is this
one moment.

So much rain this week.
And then, the sun peeked
out yesterday afternoon
and light danced through
beads of water.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Strange Adventures in the Amazon



Note to readers: In this, the first of three excerpts from Eugene Garber's new novel, "O Amazona Escuro", you will meet "K," an anthropologist working in the Amazon, trying his best to remain purely scientific in studying the people known as the Roirúa-peo. You will also meet Aloo -- an ex-Vietnam vet with a colorful mouth and a mission of his own. The name Aloo means, simply, "stranger."

"Freeplay"

By Eugene K. Garber

Just before dusk a large canoe with a man and a woman aboard comes into the slack water below the woshana. The cry of the watchman goes up immediately. “Alooyo! Alooyo!” Strangers!

Quickly the bank is lined with spearmen and bowmen. K is there. The warriors will not fire their missiles unless the strangers try to come ashore.

“Speak to them,” Bowakawo says to K.

K steps forward. “Do you speak English?”

“Yo, buddy!” calls the man in the front of the canoe.

“What do you want?”

“Just a place to crash for me and my woman.”

“They don’t want you in the woshana.”

“Wouldn’t think of it. The bank is fine.”

K reports the request to Bowakawo and gets the conditions. “I have to stay here with you.”

“Hate to put you to it, friend, but a little rest would sure be nice.”

K assures Bowakawo that he will stay with the stranger, but asks that Domatoa be sent out with his tape recorder, his blanket and a gourd of manioc soup. Bowakawo leads the warriors back to the woshana.

The stranger comes ashore and pulls the bow of the canoe up onto the muddy bank. He is wearing a tank top of ragged fabric and a loin cloth of jaguar skin. The crisp sheen of his curly black hair appears impervious to the tropical heat and moisture.

“Thanks,” he says smiling, his teeth making a mild glister in the gathering gloom. “My woman and me will not murder you. It’s a promise. Just one request.”

“What’s that?”

“If you had in mind to film us, don’t. Makes me think of a movie some asshole made about a cracked-up officer killing natives and reading mythology up the Mekong, a place I don’t like to remember.”

“You were there in the war?”

“Yep. Marines. Hunkered down behind brush or a berm like the one you’re standing on now, trying to keep my ass from getting shot off.”

K can’t place the stranger exactly. American, of course, speech tinged with a southern accent. But he seems to K essentially deracinated. And dangerous, though K couldn’t say why.

“Yep, me and a bunch of doomed grunts, and the VC, also doomed. Question came up, which I can see is on your mind right now, was I a honky or a bro? You an anthropologist. What do you think?”

“How do you know I’m an anthropologist?”

“Everybody on the river from here down to Belem knows the famous ethno man of the Negro. So, in your expert opinion what am I in the great spectrum of homo sapiens?”

K takes a few steps down the bank and looks into the face of the stranger. “Negroid maybe a third, Caucasian another third, Amerindian the rest maybe. No Asian.”

The man nods. “You’re as good as they say.”

At this point the woman comes forward in the canoe and steps out onto the bank, on her back a large duffle. She is slightly darker than the Roirúa-peo, age forty to fifty. She wears a short skirt made of hairless gray monkey skins, neatly stitched together and supple. She is wiry and muscular, her bare breasts smaller and firmer than K is accustomed to seeing on Amazonian women of comparable age. He thinks she has never borne children.

“Meet Guaynacha.”

K nods to the woman. “And your name?”

“Just call me Aloo, a stranger. And you are Kuykendahl of course.”
“The people here call me K.”

“OK. K it is.” Aloo says something to the woman in a language unfamiliar to K.

The woman begins to unpack, laying out on the ground a rough skin coverlet and some bowls. She then disappears into the brush.

K says, “She might run into a scout from the Mureka-peo, a hostile people who live nearby.”

“They’ll never see her. We don’t go diddy-bopping around. Mines and pits in Nam taught me. The jungle taught her.”

“So what brought you from Vietnam to the Amazon?”

“Good question, K, to which there ain’t no short answer. But I will tell you the whole magilla for a small return.”

“A bad bargain for you. If it’s my story you want, it’s hardly worth listening to.”

“It ain’t your story I want, though I know it’s bound to be a corker.”

“What then?”

“Just a simple introduction to a personage you know. Deal?”

K hesitates. An insistence in Aloo’s voice makes him uneasy.

“Deal, K?”

“All right.”

“Then ask me the question again.”

“What brought you to the Amazon?”

“First, a lot of reading. Thanks for not looking shocked, K. Fact is for more than a year I read all night or else I would dream.
And most of the day too. Because out on the streets were the liberal put-downs. Let’s sit.”

K and Aloo sit on the skin coverlet. Beneath it the damp soil cushions them. “I read some of your guys’ things. Levi-Strauss playing everything out here on the orchestra of his fine Frenchie imagination, the whole world one big set of classical music numbers. Bullshit of course, but high-end bullshit. But you know what I dug most in your anthro stuff?”

“What?”

“Malinowski and them loveable Polynesians. Remember the ghosts of the mila-mila that helped themselves to the taters? And the stinking witch that nobody would fuck but she got pregnant every year? And the magic of making outriggers. I thought of an outrigger for my canoe, but there’s too many deadheads in this river. And anacondas.”

“Anything else in the literature of anthropology?”

“Yeah. Kinship charts. All those circles and triangles and your matrilinears and patrilinears and wacko filiations and prescriptive cousin marriages and all that shit. Real scientific. Humans all lined up in formulas and symbols. We could’ve used you guys in Nam to chart it all out because to us grunts it was nothing but ape-shit mayhem.”

Guaynacha returns with sticks and larger pieces of wood, quickly makes a small pyramid with a bird’s nest of lint-like material at the bottom and starts a fire striking steel with flint. “Good, ain’t she?”

Domatoa now appears with K’s blanket, his tape recorder and a gourd of soup. He looks coldly at the stranger and Guaynacha. K thanks Domatoa and immediately excuses him.

“I should have introduced you but . . .”

Aloo laughs. “Don’t worry, K, he ain’t my type. Howsomever, women, boys. What’s the fucking difference? To each his own. Nam was no problem, long as you had a few bucks and some cigarettes and didn’t mind the smell of the local mooses, which was a combo of cheap perfume and BO.” Aloo looks at K setting up the tape recorder and laughs. “I ain’t exactly your typical field study, K.”

“If it’s not useful, I’ll erase it.”

“Yeah, but you’ll burn up your batteries recording my bullshit.”

“They’re rechargeable. I’ve got a hand crank generator.”

“Kiss my butt. You fucking ethnos got it all figured out.”

“Right. Now, about coming to the Amazon. I’m recording.”

“OK, say you was a half-breed mongrel drifter, so you signed up for Nam. Why the fuck not? You went off to war and then you came back home, hero to a grateful nation, right? Wrong. You were nothing but a lowlife grunt suckered into fighting a no-win war. I thought of wearing my medals like earrings and nose danglies, but what good would it have done? Anyway, I was busy having nightmares. And I didn’t know nothing, about nightmares or anything else. Nothing but a few four-letter words and some Nam lingo—spider holes and claymores and arc lights, the biggies that knocked the air out of you ten miles away. I knew the alphabet—alpha, bravo, charlie.” Aloo goes silent and looks out at the river.

“Would you like some manioc soup?” K finds this man and his story engrossing. But barely concealed behind the deliberately coarse and demotic speech is a tautness, a coiled menace.

“No thanks. My woman dried a fish.”

The three eat in silence for a while and then Aloo says with an earnestness almost fierce, “You got a treasure here, K.”

“You mean this wealth of cultural data?”

“That, sure. But you got pictographs here, originary.”

“Pictographs?”

“Right. But lemme go on with my fascinating story. I couldn’t stand my sick head, so I decided to educate myself. Am I repeating myself? Books. Maybe they could keep the fucking death buzzard from breathing in my face every night. Shit. I had piles of books, piles. You would of thought I was back in Nam building a bunker surrounded by books instead of concertina wire. And what do you know. It worked. The dreams faded out. The snotty fucks of the great US of A didn’t bother me any more. OK, what do you think the logic of that was?”

“Displacement maybe. Trading the old bad dreams for new knowledge.”

“Not just trading, ethno man. Putting the old shit under erasure. What do you think of that?”

“It’s an interesting phrase.”

“Anyway, I did not care to reside further in the good ol’ US of A. I heard the Amazon was the biggest river in the world, probably once hooked up with the Congo before the dark continents busted up. I thought I would paddle around on the son of bitch for a while. Go for the biggest. What did I have to lose? Remember, the only thing I was ever good at so far was not getting killed. Which no doubt comes from not being anything definite—nigger, redskin, honky. The enemy can’t see you. Better camouflage than a tiger suit. Even an ethno genius like you can’t figure out exactly what the fuck I am. Just call me stranger.
Alooyo! Alooyo!”

Aloo yodels and laughs, but cuts himself short. “You know what, K? I would like to protect these fucking Indians, but it would be a waste of time. The whites and their ignorant caboclos are going to cut timber and graze cattle in this muck and blast the gold out with mercury and look for oil and shoot anybody that gets in the way, which ain’t me, babe.” Aloo shakes his head forcefully. “You run into any of them fucking pistoleiros and bandeirantes they brought up from the Mato Grasso? Might as well be back in Nam as fuck with those specimens. Worse off than I am—Portuguese, spic, Indian, nigger. They don’t know what the fuck they are. Might as well be back in the days of Fitzcarrald.”

“I’ve heard of them but I haven’t had any run-ins with them fortunately.”

“Good. But speaking of Fitzcarrald, there was a crazy son of a bitch down in Santarem with a big crew to make a film about that fucking slaughterer. I heard he took his company up into the mountains. Tell your tribe buddies to get painted up real nice and practice catching arrows in midair so they’ll do good for their auditions with central casting when he gets here.”

“What makes you think he’ll come here?”

“Because your Indians are still wild, and he’s got you to translate for him.” Aloo goes down to the river, pisses, washes his hands almost daintily, and comes back.

K says, “How long have you been here in the Amazon?”

Aloo ignores K’s question. “So, why do you think this crazy fucking filmmaker wants to make a going-up-the-river movie? Shit, K. I didn’t do all that fucking reading for nothing. Going up the river is a myth. You keep going up until you come to the Mother, like sperm hell-bent on finding an egg. The Mother takes you in and you don’t have to put up with the world’s shit anymore.”

K nods. “That’s the white man’s myth. For the indigenous people the river brings everything—time, space, life.”

Aloo is silent. K turns his attention to Guaynacha, who is scooping up ashes from the spent fire and tossing them out toward the river ceremonially.

“Ash is a big fucking deal here in the Amazon.”

“Right. Life and death rolled up in one substance.” Aloo is silent. K goes on. “Take the manioc garden. It has to be burned to ash to be renewed, a recapitulation of chaos and creation.”

Aloo remains silent, but K senses that Aloo’s silences are only a kind of tense waiting. K lets his gaze wander to Guaynacha.

Aloo looks into K’s face. The moon has risen. “You think Guaynacha is my bed woman?”

“No, but I think she has a lot to do with why you’re in the Amazon. You were going to tell me about that.”

“I told you, to get out of the US of A and paddle around on the world’s greatest river.”

“That’s why you came, not what you’re doing now.”

“You’re a smart son of a bitch, K. Got me talking into your ethno machine. Hey, maybe I should clean up my language for posterity. Nah. Fuck it. I am what I am. Anyway, why don’t you tell me why you think I’m still here, seven years on this monster-assed river.”

“Maybe you want to be a myth. From your garb maybe royal consort of Rayomaka, the Jaguar Goddess.”

Aloo laughs. “Give me a fucking break, K. But this ain’t a fair exchange of goods, is it? You want to draw me out, but I don’t give a shit about drawing you out. What? To hear about mores and gender roles and return of the dead and spirits and cosmology with three, six, eight heavens, who knows? And the anaconda that gave birth to everything or the toucan or whatever. That ain’t where it’s at, K, though one time I thought it was. Folk wisdom, ayauasca tripping, visions, Carlos Castenada crapola.”

K shrugs. “OK, but you said you’d tell me the story of your being here in the Amazon.

“That’s right, then you’re going to introduce me and Guaynacha to a certain somebody. That’s the deal, right?”
K nods, but he is made uneasy again by the intensity of Aloo’s insistence.

Guaynacha goes down to the river, washes the bowls they’ve eaten from, returns, and looks out at the bright image of the moon on the surface of the dark water.

“You were going to tell me about Guaynacha’s role with you here in the Amazon.”

“No, I was going to tell you what her role is not—fire-maker or moose. But right now I’m turning in, K. I’m tired of talking, but we got a deal, so tomorrow I’ll finish the story and you will pay up.”

Aloo’s abrupt ending of the conversation takes K by surprise. “All right,” he says, clicks the machine off and rolls himself up in his blanket. But sleep does not come easily, the resonance of Aloo’s exorbitant talk burring in his ear, bringing with it the man’s restless searching, for what K does not know. Pictographs? K knows of no pictographs in these parts. The ground under him hardens and the air thickens with mist.

Writer Eugene K. Garber, a Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus of English at the University at Albany, SUNY, is the recipient of numerous awards for his fiction. His 1981 collection, Metaphysical Tales received the Associated Writing Programs Award for Short Fiction. His collection, The Historian (1995), received the William Goyen Prize of the national literary magazine, TriQuarterly. Garber’s fiction has been anthologized in the Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction, Best American Short Stories, and the Paris Review Anthology, among other compilations. On June 15, 2011, at 7 p.m. at the Arts Center for the Capital Region in Troy, New York, Garber will be reading from his new book, O Amazona Escuro, from which this excerpt is taken. Stay tuned for parts two and three of this chapter.