Damien Miles-Paulson teaches slow dancing, writes and doesn’t worry about his online presence*. He is a founding member of the now disbanded experimental German noise band, Flu Shot. He lives and walks in Seattle. His stories, poems and sounds can be found at The Whole Beast Rag, The Washington Square Review, theNewerYork, Alice Blue Review, Marco Polo Arts Mag, Everyday Genius and Axolotl. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @DMilesPaulson…
“Stories from a Broken Pact,” The Washington Square Review #32
“On Drones,” Whole Beast Rag: Idol
“The Contributors” and “Places to Shit During AWP Seattle” and “An Excerpt From Although I Haven’t Seen Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage,” theNewerYork
“La Mancha,” Alice Blue #23
“A Year on the Beach in Afghanistan,” Marco Polo Arts Mag
“May First in Mae Sot,” Everyday Genius
“The Art Dealer At His Home In Seminyak,” Axolotl
“The North Korean Poet At The Literary Conference,” Axolotl
3. Sounds and Sights
Adentro Karen State EP
theNewerYork Literary Madhouse Short Film
4. Stories from a Broken Pact
(since The Washington Square Review has decided to make it impossible to obtain copies, even for those who go knocking on their door, or who send them checks in the mail, here is the story of mine they published in issue 32.)
A woman who looks like the wife from Los Lunes Al Sol at the end of the bar. Her’s is a sad beauty, a Cossack beauty, expressionless, she will look the same in ten years, in fifteen, even in her youth she has the touch of wild age. A man who thought her beautiful once described her as uncomfortably sexy.
A man tells me about a dead friend named Manolo. Manolo had three sons, never made much money, and was, in the end, defined by the vices that would kill him. He is often missed. Cigarettes, booze and a tendency to live like a rich man had killed him, but no one would say so, no one could denounce his vices because they made Manolo the generous and vital man he was.
Manolo wraps his heavy arm around a stranger, a friend for a night at a wooden Madrid bar. The stranger knows nothing of Manolo except that it is his birthday. From Manolo’s well-cut tweed jacket, his somehow appropriate ascot, and from the generous way he holds court, the stranger assumes Manolo is a wealthy writer, local celebrity, or possibly a washed up matador. The stranger, who can inexplicably think of nothing else to say, asks if Manolo has any daughters. “Of course not!” Manolo dismisses the question, and then he looks down at his crotch as if to say, “These loins, these juevos de oro, produce a woman, impossible.”
Later the stranger will ask Manolo what he does, and Manolo will answer, “I sell textbooks.” He will hand the stranger a crisp business card. Scholastic Iberia. Regional Head. Madrid. Manolo Ortegez. Etc. The stranger looks around at the company: a Picador whose sequined jacket hangs from a hook beneath the bar; a table of Anarcho-Syndicalist Students wearing Rosa Luxembourg t-shirts in block-print red; a blue collar American Philanthropist who just finished telling the stranger about his two years in Rangoon; a pack of middle-aged fashionistas hard at work on the hair of the dog; and two quiet hard-drinking Basques who acknowledge no one but Manolo and the wife of the bartender. The stranger is certain the business card is a joke. Unable to get the question from his mind, he asks the American (a compatriot, someone he can trust, a man about Manolo’s age, a youthful mid sixties, with salubrious New England accent and honest, happy face): “What does this Manolo do, anyway?”
“He sells textbooks or something like that.” The American is with a lovely mature Taiwanese woman who moves her hands like a cellist when she speaks. It is late at night, which is early in the morning, and Manolo produces pictures of his granddaughters. He says to the stranger, “You don’t really know love until these little ones come into your life.”
A house from 1765, a fireplace in each room, in the dining room a hearth where all the cooking was done, the house built for a sailor’s family. He spent most of his time bouncing between the three points on the triangle trade, but at some point he could not distinguish the north-Atlantic from the mid-Atlantic. The sailor lost his internal compass, was prone to forgetting where he was, and the only thing he could do to gain his bearings was check the cargo below deck: if his nose was hit by the thick sweet brown smell of molasses, then he knew he was traveling north along the eastern seaboard of the colonies. If his nose detected acrid, drunken crew, then he was headed East to the Monarch’s Seat. Or else South along the western seaboard of Europe. Or else to Africa, perhaps. And if the smell below was of fresh and lonely shit, then the sailor knew that yes, he was traveling West: toward that treacherous blue Caribbean.
Back home he spent days on end in bed, his head filled with olfactory fever dreams. All the smells of the sea closed in on him, the triangle tightened, deep in the cargo hold at the bottom of a mountain of rum, naked bodies, sweat, semen, and sugar, his pores, mouth, nose, ears, hands all gasped and gorged themselves on the strange syrup that oozed down on him, hallucinations within the dream, he is sown into a burlap sack woven of his wife’s amber hair, he is shipped to the furthest reach of the Empire, carried over his father’s shoulder for weeks. At first he hears the round incomprehensible language of Burmans, then nothing but his father’s steps and the corresponding suck of rainy season mud, each day he shrinks by half until he is so small he falls through the weave of the sack, mid-air he desperately grasps a stray strand of hair and knots it around his swollen belly button, his diminished body dangles from the sack, he is rocked to sleep, the hair loosens, he wakes falling towards the ground, and when he lands he can only watch his father walk away with an empty sack, the jungle smells of teak and lowland fires, he is marooned, a colonial netsuke lost in Burmah, waiting to be found by a Wa Shaman who brakes the sailor’s nose with a flick of his finger and whispers in his ear, a hint of Scotch in his voice, “Haptic,” the spell of the dream broken like his nose, the sailor blinks awake in a strange bed in his home in Newburyport, an old ghost, his family home now the residence of a globetrotting trauma therapist. She rushes down the narrow stairs, soaking wet in a bathrobe, her legs younger than her face, the doorbell and the phone ring, her dog barking up a storm, his tail wags, she opens the door with a laugh, “I bet you never thought you’d meet me like this.”
A man who looks like my grandfather sits down at the bar. I know that he is a ghost on a grand tour of the bars of the world, searching out his own fathers ghost, who even in death continues to drink himself to death. My grandfather was a Navy Man; he smelled of diesel and breakfast, he was a mechanical intellectual. I’ve somehow lost the few things he left me when he died, a small ceramic statue of a greyhound, a life sized teddy bear dubbed the Hump Bear by my friends, a black-and-white photo he took of the sun rising over Bagan, one of his Navy shirts, a shirt I took with me on every trip, as a good luck charm, I lost it years ago and I wonder if it has affected my luck. My grandfather was orphaned by immigration; his parents did not survive for long after their arrival on these shores. My father is now older than his father. I am already ten years older than my great-grandmother.
A woman from Israel tells me that each day they (the Palestinians) lob rockets over the walls, shit rockets, horribly constructed, often made of deconstructed sewer pipes. They rarely do any damage and even less often kill or injure anyone, they are nothing more than adult stones. But what if they were real rockets, we would all be dead, thank god they are not real rockets, she says. She tells me about the two-thousand-year- old wine press in her parent’s backyard. Her husband speaks of the burning of the Temple as if it was yesterday, it seems as if holy words are meant to pick at that ancient wound, to keep it bleeding, the eternal sacrifice. They speak of the falseness of the Synagogue and the written tradition of diaspora, they tell me that when the Temple burned and their people were forced back into the world it was like cutting out the tongue of their God. He speaks of the literariness of their faith with remorse. She looks around the room while her husband tells me the story of Kosher food, of wrestling Angels and Men, of some ancestor shanked in the hip by an Angel. She tells me that they were once nomads. I ask her if the Roma are the lost tribe of Israel. She doubts it, they’re from Rajasthan, we’re from Ur.
A man sits in an unmarked news van parked opposite my apartment building. The van idles, a black plastic tube attached to the muffler leads exhaust away from the driver, whose fingers pinch and slide around his phone, the telescoping antennae reaches up, an empty tripod positioned on the corner of 25th and E Cherry, it is between 3:00 and 3:30 pm on Thursday, May 24th 2012, and I am home early from work, and there is absolutely nothing happening.
I park next to the van. I want to ask the driver why he is sitting there but I decide to spare him what I assume to be the most banal question possible. My curiosity…I linger and then go inside my apartment.
An hour later I hear a ruckus outside, possible gunshots, then police car after police car speeds past, sirens and all, just down the street. I continue reading and writing.
I try to write about an interview I heard on the radio during my commute home. The subject was the future of libraries, of physical books. At the mention of the massive projects underway to digitize the whole of humanities literary output I cringed and felt sick. My head filled with the smoke of burning books, with images of the well-documented and accepted history of censorship, of the gradual abridging of texts, of the spectacle of a burned book versus the quiet atrophy of the digital.
I write of Li Zhensheng, who tried to hide his wife’s love letters under the floor boards of his Beijing apartment but even there they were not safe from the prying eyes of the Cultural Revolution. I write of electricity, e-readers, batteries, the libraries of the future moving further and further away, migrating to the last tracts of frozen land, to the only places cold enough to keep the servers running, to keep the books from burning up in the heat of rushing digitalis, the combustive friction of all those words rubbing together kept at bay by the arctic winds of Lapland. I envision the celebration of the triumph of technology, every book ever written accessible with a click, a swipe of the finger, a Glorious New Alexandria, Borges was right, his dream fulfilled as digital librarians navigate infinite libraries. Then, visions of a future after the fall. A dwindling supply of batteries the firelight by which we read and keep the knowledge of history alive. I saw the last book, and I heard myths of a great library under the Norse Glaciers, a solitary figure in search of the lost knowledge of a dead world, the delicate pages of the final book guiding her, comforting her. She reads with her eyes closed in the darkness of late Autumn.
Later that evening my brother calls me and tells me he can’t get near my apartment because Cherry St. is closed at 23rd. We have tickets to the Mariners game. I tell him I will walk. There are news helicopters from every local station circling the Central District, he says. Out my window I see the cameraman from earlier filming. The camera turns towards my window and I swear I see the lens blink, or wink.
Outside and there are cops everywhere. Traffic is at a standstill. As I approach the commotion I am stopped by a police cadet who refuses to tell me anything. I ask the BBQ-guy and he says someone got shot, stand up here, you can see better, you can see the body. From atop the wobbly table, the BBQ-guy smells of cherry smoke, all I can see, isolated at the center of the commotion, is a huddle of five people sobbing. No one dares approach except the cameraman, who circles.
When we take our seats at the Mariners game my brother tells me about the shooting in front of my apartment, he tells me that at around 4:30 a man, a father, caught a random bullet to the head as he inadvertently drove through the shootout. His father, mother and children were in the car. He had just picked up his parents at the airport, as the Grandparents were going to watch the kids for the weekend, while the dead man and his wife took their first vacation since the oldest of their children was born four years ago.
He says that when the bullet hit the dead man held the wheel for a moment, slowed the car to a stop and then died in his father’s arms.
I tell him about the news van that was waiting for something to happen at 3:30.
It was a typical Seattle Spring. The Mariners were horrible as always and from time to time we had perfect weather, like that day, but it was a bloody Spring. A string of shootings wound through the city, including a massacre that spread from a bohemian Ravenna coffee shop, to First Hill, and finally, as I recall, to the slopes of West Seattle.
Instead of watching the game my gaze is drawn across the field, to the dusk lit skyline of downtown Seattle, to a ferry departing for the Olympic Peninsula, to a flock of seagulls who torment a bald eagle. When I turn to look at my brother and his daughter I am reminded how baseball games are for fathers and their children.
A woman at The Panama Hotel cafe says all she wants is love.
Two older Japanese women laugh and play the out of tune piano. I stand, pot of green tea in hand, over a square plexiglass floor panel which affords a dark view of an underground world, like a Mayan temple sight, each layer of Seattle has been built over the entombed remains of the previous epoch. I look up to the plaster ceiling and wonder what future is looking down on me.
Above the soft sound of the piano I hear the woman proclaim again, that all she wants is love. Her friend nods in agreement.
This city is too full of former Scandinavians, weirdos and unattractive men. She mentions weekends in New York and Los Angeles, the pleasantness of crossing the street in the company of mysterious, attractive men who actually make, and hold, eye contact. They would leave Seattle if not for their jobs at the school just up the street.
Are you still dating that grandfather, he was a grandfather, right?
Not really, not anymore. He just turned forty, his daughter is twenty-two. We don’t really see each other anymore. I feel like they’re all nuts.
No, all men in Seattle, they’re fucking nuts.
A whole world. A whole world, it echoes back.
Three minutes of the radio begets three stories.
The first story is about a more bonobo-like Presidential Debate.
I find myself wishing that the spirit animal of the campaign trail was the sensual bonobo, not the violent chimpanzee. At the very least it would be more erotic, carnal, and honest. No more of these two bloodless chimps punching each other in the throat. They only learned to imitate, to walk and talk like people, to perfectly form empty, creepy smiles, vile impersonators, conjurors of suburban sermons. Bonobo politics, drift into the palm of that hand job.
Next, the radio tells a tale of makeshift, synthetic cells made to breath sulfur. Then a story about a lake exposed after twenty million years away from the sun and its first taste of the modern world is a sip of kerosene. I see each story as a science fiction rehash of movies I saw between 1983 and 1991.
Enter a biologist and an astronomer with dreams of organic machines capable of ingesting pollution and excreting air. They painstakingly reverse-engineer samples taken from a space rock and synthetically produce sulfur-based bacteria. The sulfur bacteria are the ultimate invasive species, a biological black hole threatening to destroy carbon-based life on earth.
Next, a cohort of Russian scientists in Antarctica who, after twelve years of drilling, penetrate the nearly three miles of ice on top of one of the world’s largest lakes. The water below is a time capsule from a few million years ago. Do they find some deadly virus, lifelessly pure water, or tube worms feeding on the simple bacteria that dwell around volcanic vents? Are there ancient ruins at the bottom of the lake?
While asking for more funding the scientists giddily attempt to put their accomplishment into perspective for a beige room of bored Muscovite politicians. It took longer to drill into the lake than it would take to get to Mars, the scientists say. It only takes a few days to get to the moon, yet the politicians cannot fight their drowsiness or the persistent notion that the world is known from top to bottom, that there is nothing exceptional left to see.
At a certain point all these stories merge into a description of what Earth looks like from space, a very long description, at least ten times as long as the space needed for these narratives to unfold. The reader is transported as the description repeats itself, page after page, each repetition faithfully read like a mantra, hypnotically: Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, we think our eyes are broken, the E looks like an incomplete B, Berth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, we intone each Earth aloud, the feel and sound of our tongue forming the T and H with our two front teeth, the air escaping as a lisp, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, the undeniable sensation is one of floating, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, Earth, of the moment just before the realization that we are alone, a few hundred miles into space, as the claustrophobia of the space suit takes hold, the intellectual awareness of the limited supply of air in our lungs, in our suit, in our blood, and there in front of us is the Earth, an unrecognizable portrait of ourselves, five letters and a comma, over and over again.
What we see is more than just a stranger’s likeness, an angle we cannot catch in the mirror. Perhaps we have always been too close, which seems laughable now that we are so far away? We reach out towards our planet with the Michelin Man fingers of our space suit and place one digit over our hometown, over our state, closing one eye, we take aim at our whole country, we open our hand as if saluting an old fascist dictator and cover the entire hemisphere. Can we see the world spin? Or are we spinning as well? Gravity and orbit are no longer concepts. Once we feel the tears we instinctively look around to see if anyone notices, ashamed. Alone. We try to figure out what was the farthest we’d ever been from another human being. A few miles? At most thirty miles. A football field? What was the closest?
We fall asleep and dream about a stolen bag. Some would call it a purse, or a European carry-all, a man-bag. We left it below our seat in a movie theater, the movie was The African Queen, we watched the whole thing in our dream, or so it seemed, we must have invented it because we’ve never seen the film. It was something like Huckleberry Finn, with Hepburn as Huck Finn and Bogart as Jim.
When we awoke we did not know if we were still alive, then we saw our breath gather on the glass separating us from the vacuum, we wept, leaning our head back, the Earth always and forever suspended out there, viewed through the watery slats of our eyelashes. Disbelief!
Staring at the oceans we are reminded of treading water in cold Northwest lakes in the spring. The water black and cold. A girl we didn’t know challenged us to a water-treading contest. Inexhaustible youth.
We almost drowned, our limbs failed us, our lips turned a corpse-like purple as our blood huddled in our center, but that girl kept going, her head held high out of the water, chin rising and falling in rhythm with her swirling strokes. Teachers yelled at us to stop, to get out of the water, they pretended to leave but came back and yelled some more. Classmates looked on in horror or curiosity until it began to rain, and the teachers rounded them up into the bus. From that sheltered redoubt they watched us, sleeves periodically pulled up over their hands to wipe the condensation of their collective breath off the mildew-scented windows. The teachers threatened to get in the water, one even went so far as to take his shoes off, he looked down at us to see if we’d flinch, but we couldn’t flinch, we could only tread water, only repeat the same motions over and over again, we couldn’t talk, our jaws were wired shut by the cold, we couldn’t swim to the dock, just tread water with eyes fixed on the other, thinking: How can we be in the same class, I’ve never seen you before?
We can’t quite recall how it all ended.