Jack : a Portrait

(This is an excerpt from my collection Better Handshakes.)

Jack is a statue of Y-chromosome Australia. I’ve known him for thirty-seven minutes give or take a few long breaths of controlled silence.  The untrue fact is I’ve known Jack since I was knee high to a grasshopper—him blowing smoke rings for us kids to jump through because tobacco still cured cancer then. Our meeting was a fluke and his handshake was as sincere as nails.

I was helping a nice Japanese couple move into his home around the corner.  They spoke under twenty words of English and Jack much less of Japanese.  I was the translator.  I wasn’t there to ease the heavy lifting (two backpacks, five groceries bags, and a case of beer) but rather to explain how to use the toilet, lights and oven.  Once my duties were finished I struck up a conversation with Jack and we wasted no time being old friends.

Yeah, it’s a real nice thing you are doing helping travelers like ourselves settle into your home, your country, hell, your backyard, I said.

He offered a smile then lost no time looking about the house beginning a tour of his ongoing renovations.

What commenced was a ten minute expedition through a huge house with new cement, fresh pipes, cleaned floors, waiting lumber and cinder, seven surf boards, a finished bathroom, two unfinished bathrooms, a few ship wheels and an endless array of ship debris and beach artifacts. When we finally made it to the backyard I was taken aback by the huge palm trees, tepid rainforest growth, spiders bigger than my hand and a hundred tropical birds straight out of National Geographic.  Every square inch, inside and out, had a story.

Jack’s been pouring his own cement and plumbing new bathrooms into his home for just under five years, and like most Australian men, he’s in no rush.

Yeah, I take my time, he said. The house will be here tomorrow. The surf, my friends, my youth… they    may not.

He’s the kind of man that wears a shirt only if he absolutely needs to and heads to the ocean whenever there are waves.  He’s fit because he never sits down, smart because he listens and unworldly cheerful because he grew up five minutes from the beach and helped others build their lives for a living.

Our conversation didn’t last long and didn’t need to. Tomorrow he is stopping over at 8AM to take a good look at my broken radiator. It’s on my way to the beach, he said.

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Jelly Fish and Coffee

When the first blue bottle jellyfish lacerated my arm I dealt with nothing more than ten minutes of panic and a minor rash.  Don’t get me wrong, when its meter long stinger wrapped around my arm like Indiana Jones’ snake whip, each of the 10,000 microscopic blades slicing my skin, I was definitely terrified.  ‘Well,’ I thought to myself ‘this is a shitty way to go…’ Then nothing. Panic yes, thought I might die, yes, but I could breathe fine, I could walk, and I didn’t lose my vision or start vomiting. This put me in the 95 percentile range of people not allergic to blue bottle jellyfish. The other 5% tend to die in the first ten minutes.

This percentile is consistent across the board regarding venomous marine life in Australia—of which there are too many. In the ocean alone there are blue bottles, box jelly fish, five types of sea snakes, stonefish, river toads, the blue ringed octopus, and cone snails. Yes, snails. Cardiac arrest and a trip to the ER are just some of the consequences of picking up pretty sea shells on the beach.  And that’s only the venomous creatures… There are also the three types of shark that attack surfers regularly (mostly in Western Australia in a place called Shark Bay where idiots actually surf atop of hundreds of sharks daily), saltwater crocodiles larger than most mobile homes, and rip currents that aid in the disappearance of 174 people a year.

Needless to say, the beach where I live is full of elements trying to kill me. None have to date and it wasn’t until last night that I woke up in a hospital bed.

Prior to making a phone call to 000 (911) I was surfing for four hours in a beautiful spot called tea tree bay.* Returning home to soak in the feeling of emptiness tiring myself to peace with a permagrin stretching for days, I thought it best to boil a double size cup of coffee for the shower. I put the fresh boiling joe on the ledge next to the soaps that was also a window that was also full of too many empty shampoos to have enough space for a double coffee cup.

The true story goes like this: I washed my fingers and hands first, in between my toes, behind my ears and washed my face and armpits, and I smelt my armpits and they smelt good, and I was happy and soapy and couldn’t really see then to my surprise I knocked one of the too-many bottles of shampoo onto the coffee that started to shake and instead of jumping back I lunged forward to save the coffee only to aid its projection onto my bare skin, nipples to genitals. And the worst part is I caught the damn cup, empty. Expectedly, I instantly threw the mug against the opposing wall shattering it to pieces.

Jumping out of the shower to cringe and ache and tense and shake my every muscle I jumped quickly back into the cold shower to ease the pain. That didn’t work—it felt like a million needles and razors were scratching my skin—so I ran for ice out of the fridge and made an ice bucket to soak a towel in to then cool my boiling skin. That didn’t work so I tried drinking beer but could hardly hold the bottle without shaking so I went to find some pain relievers. None in the house and now the cupboards were a mess and I went back to the ice bucket, splashing water everywhere, because at least the towel gave ten seconds of heavenly relief before the unbearable pain came back. It came back not ten seconds after removing the towel. For 45 minutes I continued this ritual spending ten seconds of terrible pain then ten seconds of amazing relief back and forth for nearly an hour and nearly lost my mind.

To imagine the pain think about jumping into a Jacuzzi with bad sunburn, multiply that by 100 then understand the pain will never ease up no matter how many deep breaths you take. And because you have no other choice you keep jumping in and out of the Jacuzzi because those ten seconds you are out in the open you can relax but only for so long before you immediately appear in the Jacuzzi again… and then you think you rather roll your towel into a noose and you jump out then you jump back in then out and again and again for an hour and the towel idea is just simply stupid because you are strong enough FUCK you get back out for ten seconds, relax . . . . . . . . . . then jump back into the Jacuzzi… (this for an hour).

So that was the scene, a frantic display of yelling into and biting through a towel and I could hardly walk, but needed to eat. I tried my hand at bacon in small snippets of time when the icy towel wasn’t on my stomach and genitals. The result was rock solid bacon even a dog couldn’t enjoy and not to mention at one point some oil splashed up onto my stomach and without thinking I picked up an empty pan and threw it across the room to join the other chairs and lamps already in a heap.

Yes, of course I was making too much of a raucous but the pain was impossible to cut through. I found out later that I was doing the worst possible thing for the burn which was blasting it with shock and then air repeatedly… if I had stayed in the shower for 20 minutes in the beginning then wrapped it up with plastic wrap I would have subsided the pain in a twenty-five minutes.  But I didn’t know this and when I called 000 for some advice (I was running out of ice for the bucket) they sent an ambulance that they said was free so I said okay but as long as they are packing morphine. Which they did along with an ether whistle (which was absolutely fantastic for the record). After ten minutes in a freezing shower that felt like it was further scolding my skin they finally arrived.

As you might have guessed with an ether whistle and enough morphine I was in no pain after about ten minutes (though I continued to say “Yes, I’m still in pain” long after I felt like I was flying until I eventually mumbled, “Yes, Uhh… where…  my pants     are they?”) and we were off to the hospital where I promptly fell asleep for an hour before waking up naked and confused.

Long story short, my stomach is now a fresh looking  fifty shades of purple, my genitals have progressed much better and I’m no longer afraid of the hundred things that could get me in the ocean on any given day. It has now occurred to me I am more likely to injure myself during a relaxing shower than in the ocean. Since I spend on average five hours in the water for every ten minute in a hot shower, clearly the latter is more threatening.

**Please note tea tree bay is 50 kilometers from Queensland’s number one shark fishing zone and the only thing separating sharks and the arms of surfers is a ‘shark fence’ 100 meters long and six meters deep. Basically the equivalent of putting a garden fence around a lion exhibit and asking the lions to please not eat anyone.

Snakes on a Farm

Good Day Mate (asexual),

I’m officially downunder physically and financially. Which means I’m poor in Australia picking peppers for some cash to keep moving throughout the country and enjoy the local rum. I’m poor for multiple reasons—one being a surfboard (always needed to learn) and because I finally purchased a portable wifi antenna. Meaning I’m back in virtual action to participate and help motivate long-distance community.

In the past few months I’ve had the pleasure to work closely with two incredible poets and their writing with Monkey Puzzle Press. Min Jung Oh and Barbara Henning. With Min Jung’s help and focus we were able to release her chapbook Body in a Hydrophilic Frame last month.  The work is one continuous poem exposing the interior chaos of a shattered body wrapped and obsessed with its own healing. In the words of Bhanu Kapil, author of Schizophrene, “Min Jung Oh is a genius.”  Many thanks to Min Jung’s patience and brilliant writing. Please see the above post for a great review by J/J Hastain.

Also, forthcoming from Monkey Puzzle Press is Barbara Henning’s A Slow Curve. It has been a great opportunity to work with Barbara and her extensive experience with language and chapbook production. Henning is the author of several collections of poems, photography and prose and has a keen eye for connecting photos (usually her own) with language and also for forcing a simple sentence to turn in unexpected ways. Every mark intentional. Every mark reveling something necessary. In this collection we have chosen to feature a good friend and peer of Barbara’s and photos from her recent sculpture collection. Her name is Laurie Price. Fort Monkey Puzzle plans to release A Slow Curve at the beginning of next month.

That’s all for today. I’ll end with a photo I took in the pepper field today as I was picking old plastic to prep for the next planting. It is the fresh skin of a seven foot Australian Brown Snake. Very poisonous and very much living in the pepper patties. Our supervisor, luckily, keeps an antidote in the truck. But either way, a fresh deadily snake skin is the last thing I wanted to see when digging my hands under lumps of dirt and into places I don’t know if are open-ended spaces or snake dens.