I just hosted a most remarkable weekend event (if I do say so myself.) Taking a cue from Gertrude Stein who, in her Paris apartment, often gathered about herself a "palette" of artists, I invited a few dear friends from my creative glory days to visit me in my home, a converted oak barn. I called the event Lady Aston's BarnStone Salon.
And they came!
From Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and Riverdale, MD they came, and brought with them to share, their most pressing creative endeavors.
The next several blogs will be my lame attempts at sharing with you the projects each of the seven attending artists brought to the salon. But first, a brief backstory:
We have history. We all went to school together in the early 80s, and together, studied some specific aspect of the performance arts. Today, some of us are professional actors, others have advanced degrees and plumb the halls of academe. One is a graphic designer, another is a voice and diction coach, and one is a celebrant (she marries people.) All of us remain devoted to personal growth via artistic exploration, and I thought a salon would be the perfect way to frame a reunion.
For the uninitiated, a salon is "a gathering of like-minded people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase their knowledge of the participants' endeavors through conversation."
When my friend Michael Bailey, who is working on a one-man show, feared he would not be able to sell this adventure to the "home office," Dame Cindy Meier offered this "brochure" definition: "A salon is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, in order to encourage one another in their creative enterprises, and provide an opportunity to get significant and focused work done on projects, such as one-man shows, which may expand the options of meaningful work for such a person, who may soon be experiencing empty-nest syndrome and may be reaching the end of his/her teaching career. Such salons definitely guarantee the person's increased happiness, which will result in increased joy in his/her marriage. (This particular point may be especially pertinent for the home office.) Such salons may, in fact, improve the marriage of said person by increasing the blood-flow to the brain and expanding memory of said spouse's birthdays and anniversaries."
It was nice try, but Michael was still unable to attend. Nor did Cindy make it, as she was rehearsing and directing two shows at the Rogue Theatre in Tuscon, which she founded. Ric didn't make it either, nor Dennis, in spite of lots of peer pressure and thinly veiled insults aimed at their dreary domestic and professional priorities.
Friday, Feb. 4
As the country dug out from under a major snow storm, the artists arrived at BarnStone. We ate, drank and made merry. As we caught up with one another, scream laughing ensued.
That evening, I opened the ceremonies by sharing the first chapter of my new book, the third in a trilogy, tentatively titled, The Face of the Deep. Before a roaring fireplace, I read aloud...
1Alcohol-hopped, they could not nail the lid to the barrel. Errant nails split the soft wood and sank into his shoulder, or tore his scalp. He was done cursing them and begging for mercy. They did not hear, or care. The barrel filled with blood stench mixed with the high reek of panic. He could no longer feel his legs, or where arms hugged knees. He tried to fill his lungs, but they would not expand. If he didn’t calm himself, he would suffocate. The thought made his heart hammer; his body jerked involuntarily, raking flesh across rough wood and protruding nails. His cry was high-pitched and animal strange.“He’s buckin! Sit on this thing, Carlyle, so’s I can get it.”The hammering re-commenced. This time, the nail must have sunk into the barrel’s edge, for he felt nothing dig into flesh, and found himself thankful, even as it meant he was not long for this world. He thought of Ida, who would be too scared to tell the police how they had been dragged from their bed by five men in white, how they butted his forehead with a rifle, blinding him with blood and pain, how they tore downward the neck of Ida’s nightgown, exposing breasts swollen with milk. His head pounded with her shrieks as they bound him, threw him truckward, and drove to this place atop Chimney Hill. He screamed and begged as they beat him, ribs snapping, into a rain barrel too small for any grown man.He trained one eye on a crack in the slats. The big one named Carlyle moved off, stumbling, no longer wearing the white hood that had scared Ida so. In the distance, a train wailed, and he saw Carlyle’s head jerk in its direction.“Let up a minute. Check if it’s on good.”“How you doin’ in there, nigger?”But he had never been close with God and doubted he would be heard. Ida was the one who belonged to God; she had exhorted Him over and over, until one of the men stuffed her mouth with the hem of her nightgown and threatened to ungate her legs. That he did not was due not to mercy, but time.The train sounded again, closer; a coal train from Richmond, he knew, and this time of night cruised at eighty miles an hour. Before they were married, he and Ida sat atop Chimney Hill and through the trees, watched the coal cars approach. He got good at calculating the train’s distance by separating engine churn from whistle bounce. Once he heard the tracks squeak, the train was only moments away, and he pulled Ida close, kissed her for good luck. As the train rushed past, the earth beneath them trembled.Through the barrel crack he saw a hammer hit the damp grass. One of them said something about a nickel; the others laughed. They made wet, obscene noises as they took turns pulling from a bottle until it too hit the grass, killed.“Awright, we ready?”“Move off it, Ed. I won the toss.”“I know that. Christ awmighty, I was just gonna help tip it.”“I got it.”“Careful he don’t go until ready.”“You still alive in there, nigger?”His cheek raked an exposed nail as the barrel side-tipped. The new position freed his chest somewhat, and a roar burst from his core.“Yep, he’s still alive.”Panic surged as he divined their plan. He made himself large, pushed his trapezium against the lid. In spite of their sloppy work, it was nailed thoroughly. Each exertion stabbed his ribcage, and he whimpered. One of them mocked his anguish, causing others to laugh. He was amusement, lower than a bleeding dog after a lost fight, scrabbling beneath a stream of human urine.Strangely, the thought calmed him. If he was sport, then he would survive this game. They would release the barrel, probably several times, and he would roll down the hill until he hit a tree or a bush. The errant nails would make a pincushion of him, but if he could stay conscious, the men would tire eventually, go in search of more liquor. He would gather the strength he needed to extricate himself, make his way back to Ida. Heartened, he concentrated on breathing.They rolled him a short distance, squabbling for dibs like children. His body went with the movement, and he thought it might not be so bad. As a boy, he had folded himself inside an old tire, and instructed his brother to release him from the top of a gentle slope. He had liked the adrenaline rush, the sense of not being in control. This was no tire, however, and the men out there most certainly were not his kin. Another coin toss determined Shelton would give the signal, and he readied.“When I say peanut butter, you let ‘er rip.”“Why do you have to say peanut butter? Just say go.”“I’m the signal man—I get to say peanut butter if I want to say peanut butter.”“Whyn’t you say ‘my ass?’”“Shut up, you two. Here it comes.”The train cried as it hammered near. When his ears could no longer separate the sound of whistle and engine, he saw in his mind’s eye the lights come into view. He felt Ed square himself behind the barrel and lay hands. He tore an ear getting an eye to the crack, saw only darkness from this angle, and the unthinkable occurred to him. Tracks squealed as the train bore down. He fought the panic rupturing upward through the trembling earth.“On your mark, get set…”Oh, Ida, he thought, I will miss your kisses. I will miss your hands on my face and the smudged outline of your hair. I will miss our unborn child. I will miss loving you when we are old. I regret, dear Ida, the blue and white dish I broke in anger, the one that belonged to your mother. You are the only one I ever loved, or ever wanted to love me back. You showed me your heart, and I die a better person for having seen it.“Peanut butter!”Instead of rolling, the barrel turtled end over end. He had not been prepared for the thumping, and he worked to realign his expectations. Even braced, his head cracked with each bounce. He thought he knew this spot, a steep slope leading to where the run-off drain parted the woods. Soon the barrel settled into a true roll, gaining speed as it careened down the hill. He kept waiting for the barrel to hit something, but it rolled, faster and faster, until he became a part of it. When the barrel arrived at the run-off drain, concrete beneath the brush and leaf mold, it bounced off broken slabs and brick, clattering like a marble within the grooved path. At the end of the drain was a drop, at the end of the drop was a gravel bank, and upon the gravel bank were the tracks upon which the 3:07 raced. The barrel did not break apart, veer off course, or sprout wings as it carried him, true as fate, toward his destination. With his last breath he sang Ida’s name, then gave himself to the high, long wail that was God calling him home.
When I finished, I told the "story behind the story" which I can't share here, as I would like to live long enough to meet my grandchildren, should I be so lucky. Suffice it say, such an event may have actually taken place, and this book will a fictionalized creation of its aftermath.
My guest artists shared their comments. They liked the chapter, but wanted to know more about the man in the barrel, more details of his life with Ida, his relationship to these men and what he had done to provoke their violence. I had planned to fill in these details as the story unfolded, but will look more closely at expanding the victim's backstory. They also wanted more reason to hope that the incident would end some other way, even if evident it would not.
After that, we sat around the fire with our libations and talked about the state of publishing, the experience of promoting one's own work (I had a few things to say about that, as you might imagine), the role of social media, and the wisdom or folly of self-publishing.
Later (much later) we all went to bed. Lady Aston supplied slippers and chocolate for all her guests (yes, I am referring to myself in the third person now), and warned them not to slam into posts should they wander to bathroom in the middle of the night, a genuine concern.