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Insomnia Island


Then it was August and I was tired. It was the heat, or it was the ghosts. I sleep with the ghosts. This is a kind of insomnia. What is it about ghosts that threaten the sleep? I think I know the answer – they live in no time, measure no intervals, and live in a continual present. — postcard from home

Martha was insomniac and did her best thinking while neither asleep nor awake. She said sometimes to Maria that it would have been better if she’d invited lepers into the house, more socially acceptable.

“I brought a leper into my house,” she said to Maria one morning, after she’d been not sleeping for a week or more and the ghosts had been having an especially exuberant period. Her skin was bright white, and her eyes shining – she was in one of the interludes of calm brilliance that prolonged sleeping or not with ghosts seems to bring on.

“Belladonna makes the eyes bright, doesn’t it?” said Maria, looking at Martha and wondering again how to make her sleep.

“Belladonna means beautiful lady – does that make the eyes bright?” Martha said in response, and she smiled again with that sharp, shattered look, and the two of them decided silently, together, to go somewhere else, to leave the ghosts behind for a week or two, or until Martha slept an entire night through. They packed their gear and their soft camping clothes and they went to her happy island, where ghosts may not enter, and there they stayed for almost one month.

Now it is September, and I’ve been sleeping for one week. There are no ghosts, there are no mosquitos, there are no questions in my sleeping mind. Sometimes I see shadows in the corner, but when I turn and look, these are usually animals, the ordinary, evasive animals of island life. A gecko, a gull, a small mammal with little feet like hands that looks at me curiously and leaves if I stare too long. Maria has brought me pineapple and mango and fish, and we’ve cooked and slept and dreamed, and there are no ghosts, no lepers, no forbidden spirits to enter our resting place on this bright white beach. This morning I walked into the shallow blue water farther and farther away from the shore, and I could see every shell, every bit of sand, and my ankles are warm in the water. I turned around and looked behind me, and there she is, waiting for me like I’m a sailor coming home from the sea. — postcard from Insomnia Island

At the end of the month, they went back home. Martha got brave, taking a few risks every day, reading and talking and watching whatever she wanted, and the ghosts did not come back, and the lepers stayed away from the door, and the sun when it shone through the bedroom window found them both sleeping, each with one leg hanging out of the sheets in the cool early morning air.

Ozzy Mandias

wanderer-above-the-mist-casper-david-friedrichThe pregnant feminist reminisced on the hegemony of gesture, rubbing her hand on her belly, big and round as a full moon. She rinsed her dry mouth with cool water and put her head under the faucet. My hair streams down my neck like snakes, like little rivers running as the snows melt in an early spring, she thinks and she pulls her head away from the sink and shakes it like a dog, water spraying around the kitchen. She thinks also I am not ready in spite of the evidence of her eyes, her belly and her ankles that she is beyond ready.

Truth be told, there are no accidental pregnancies among radical lesbian separatists, which is what Mardi Gras is, here with her big belly, pending baby and theories full and pressing against her, bladder and brain both distended past all previous reckoning. Mardi Gras is the child of sanctimony, matzo on one side, communion wafer on the other, and a little trickle of southern baptist that comes out once in awhile to sing big old hymns when noone is listening.

We here all know about the conversos of New Mexico, what, 16th 17th century Jews running to the new world from that old world wringing their hands in sacred mud for lost children, and then centuries later worshipping in that same wet Chimayo dirt with prayers and candles lit on a menorah but who knows quien sabe really, is what the grandmother said to the pregnant feminist.

The feminist and the rabbi walked into a bar – this is an actual joke that Mardi Gras heard from her own sister, who then inhaled a pretzel and asphyxiated like some nasty republican, like some old pop star, like some damn fool who can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.

Truthfully, when your ancestors came over from Spain and Morocco and Italy during the inquisition and they’ve all been steeped in the mythology of survival, then survive is what they do, what they do is survive past all expectation.

Mardi’s mother tells the story of the archbishop who played grabass with every choir boy in Española for twenty years and eventually got promoted up and out far enough where whispers could not touch, like dust in a sealed tomb, like the settling of old debts, and was silenced at last.

What worry could they have at the growing of Mardi’s belly, so intentional, so abolute in faith and love? All children should be wanted. All of Mardi’s are, starting with this one, the first. Ozzy Mandias, king of kings, son of women, singer of songs from every corner of this little earth.

Penelope’s dagger

“Parlez-vous Arabic?” Peter Heffalump asks a sailor staggering by in the broken port town where he’d washed up after some serious blackout binging. Padre Heffalump, he’d been until recently, but defrocked now, stained and desperate. Peter Heffalump is disgraced, and in keeping with tradition had gone off the deep end with someone’s credit card, perhaps even his own priestly Mastercard. Way over the limit. Too far to fix it with prayer, and how is it that confession and forgiveness is not the same thing as keeping your job, Peter wonders. He is stained and greasy with the remains of his deconversion. He is not a priest anymore, just some schlub in a foreign country without papers and very much in need of a desk job in which to hide his shame.

Oh shame, Peter said to himself in English, Arabic, French and Lakota. Shame, the smoke that follows the burning bush, the revelation of sin. Sin is smoking, sin is a shakin’ groove thing forbidden to the hierophant and the Igors who serve him. “I kiss your ring, excellency,” says Peter. He imagines the ring sliding on and tightening ever so slightly and then kicks himself – stop it. Like water off a duck’s back, he tells himself, just let it go, but the image of the ring stays with him through one sermon after another.

Peter Heffalump is a poor sad overachiever, a hypochondriac and a toady. His best friend, Penelope Resin, came with him to seminary disguised as a boy and that was maybe an omen, amen. She didn’t stay long and sent him a dagger with her name engraved on the handle, and he had that dagger still, for just in case, just in case. Peter and Penelope ran with the fast crowd in soda shops after school in a mythical fifties that they saw at the drive-in and then in movies of the drive-in and the mythical fifties and then on sitcoms of the travails of teenagers at drive-ins in the mythical fifties until the broken record of pop culture created I like Ike Ike Ike Ike Ike and eventually they believed in it, so much like organized religion, like the blind faith of supply side economics. Peter believed everything he read, heard or saw. He was the most gullible of cultural consumers. Making Peter into a priest was like taking candy from a baby, easy, sweet, and him just looking up innocent and warm, apple pie and caramel, with ice cream melting at just the right moment.

Guilt is a fine thing, and shapely. From genuflection to pop-n-lock to shuck-n-jive to the gyrating pelvis of Elvis and the soul train of priesthood, Peter had a secret that he kept from himself, tightly wrapped in unbleached muslin and pressed against his chondriac. Once in a while he felt it as a pain near his solar plexis, which made him pause, words like plexis, words like solar, words like soap on a rope, slippery in the shower. Peter was prone to absent-minded reflections on sin, which seemed harmless enough until the day that the genie was released and then Peter lost his job, his calling, his address and some of his working vocabulary in several languages.

What would you do? Meditate? Pray? Call your mother? Peter had been a pastoral counselor and tried to give himself advice, but the language of guidance had gone missing along with the guide book and the page he so wanted to be on. A page we can all agree on, he said to himself, sitting in the noisy African port where the smells were so heavy, so spicy and dirty and raw. Back to dry land, must get back to dry land, he muttered, picturing himself as Peter O’Toole, dry-lipped and romantic. So he called Penelope, she of the secret priesthood and the dagger and asked her for airfare home and a couch to sleep on.

And now he is in Oakland, with the window open in her second floor apartment, and outside the air is damp and cool and he hears the sounds of neighborhood. This is a regular city neighborhood, American style. There is barking, a TV sound, the beeping of a truck backing up, an unknown bird trilling somewhere nearby. His heart is a sound too, a rolling, repetitive diadochochinetic sound that is uncertain, murmuring and warm, contrasting with the chill air washing over his forehead. Penelope is gone, gone to her desk job, gone to make some phone calls to help Peter get his first job without a collar, without an order, without an oughta. He does not know the rules of secular engagement, a battle he has not fought since childhood, when bigger boys with names like Bob and Doug and Al held his head in the water and baptized him in fear. Peter left them behind then and now he must interview with them, for jobs like selling lawnmowers, or managing a small print shop, or teaching English, or painting apartments. He fingers Penelope’s dagger, safe inside its small velvet box, and considers his options.

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