Photographs by Danny Lyon
My First Published Story (1991)
Originally titled “Like the Wind, until They Shoot You” when it appeared in the Detroit MetroTimes (Aug. 7-13, 1991) as part of their fiction issue, which was judged by Elizabeth Hand. The new title comes from watching the relevant clip on YouTube, which didn’t exist then, thus correcting my mistaken recollection of the last scene from Peter Weir’s “Gallipoli” (1981).
Fast as a Leopard
It was a garish volume filled with self-portraits of agonized, triumphant Frida Kahlo, brow black and forceful, mouth shut. Frida Kahlo, who had been skewered by a metal rail in a streetcar accident. Frida Kahlo, who had scooped the heart out of Diego Rivera’s fat chest.
Breaks were only twenty minutes, and then it was back behind the register of the snack stand of the Jasmine Breeze Cinema, at the other end of the mall from Walden Books.
—I ordered a large, and this is a medium.
—Did you pay for a large or a medium?
—How much is a large?
—Well then I paid for a large. Look at all this change.
—Yes, ma’am. Was that a diet?
—Do I look like I need to go on a diet?
Not two days after she’d begun the job, her favorite part, the popcorn smell, disappeared like taillights.
—Are you working Friday, Antonia?
—Not this Friday.
—Me neither, we should go out.
—Go out where?
—How about a movie?
—Jesus Christ, Nelson.
—We could still go out.
—That’s sweet of you, but I’m married.
—But Andre said.
—Manager Andre or ticket Andre?
—And you believed him?
In a balled-up Detroit Lions T-shirt on the shelf below the imitation butter was an emerald bottle of Siberian gingko tablets, her plump vessels of health. When the supply ran low, she would return to the Good As Nutrition to examine the shelves, consulting the three-ring binder that was chained to the front counter and studying the oriental lettering on the labels to divine the therapeutic properties stored within. She had tried bee pollen and black walnut oil pills, too, and a tube of coriander salve that you were supposed to massage into your face, chest, and feet in order to ease tension and boost confidence. The coriander was grown in Hunza, a district northwest of Kashmir, where a sect of monks pressed the herbs into oil, enacting a painstaking ritual only once every five and a half years. It smelled like microwave burritos.
—Is this about Nelson?
—What’s the matter with him? And be careful, he’s my best friend in the world. At least in this country.
—Nelson’s Nelson. He doesn’t seem like a best friend. How did that happen?
—You don’t know Nelson. His heart is a highway, his soul a flower.
—Is that a Cuban saying?
—There was a song once. It doesn’t sound right in English.
She timed it, and she knew when to leave her post and enter number 4. The beautiful Australian boy on the screen, the track star, lean as a the wind. He was a soldier now, fighting the Turks at Gallipoli. It was his turn to charge out of the trench and storm the enemy. Suicide mission, the fucking English.
“How fast can you run?” he whispers to himself, recalling his trophy days. His answer—“Fast as a leopard.” “How fast will you run…. Fast as a leopard.” And then he makes his charge, outpacing all the other lemmings for twenty, thirty paces until the inevitable bullets cut him down. Each and every time of the 29 times she’d seen it.
—If you don’t mind my asking, how is your husband?
—No, that’s nice. He’s really fine. You know, one day at a time. As a matter of fact, he’s doing great ever since they started letting them smoke again. The patients just about staged a revolution.
—¡Viva la Revolución!
The note said, If this phone rings and its mrs Childe, tell her Norine got a ride from Rod. It had been written in ballpoint on a Burger King napkin and stuck to the receiver of the lobby payphone with bubble gum. Antonia stared at it, growing angry at this Norine’s irresponsibility, worried about her like a real mother. Boys named Rod driving sports cars and sipping warm Stoli from a flask, making girls pregnant and then making them cry.
It didn’t surprise her when the phone rang.
—Am I calling the library? Is there a Norine Childe there?
—No Mrs. Childe, but there is a message for you.
—Who is this?
—I can tell you what it says.
—She was supposed to be at the library.
—Do you want to know where she is, or not? She left a note on the phone.
—What kind of joke are you trying to pull? Put my daughter on.
—There’s nothing to worry about, Mrs. Childe. She went with Rod.
—What do you know about Rod? Is this that whore, Betsy? You whore, Betsy. If I were there I’d kill you. I swear I’d shoot you.”
Antonia let the phone drop and walked out to the parking lot. No stars, no planets, only the parking lot lights lined up in rows. It was a different universe, a universe with its own past, its own future and from this vantage point an incredible loneliness.
Originally published in Sgraffito, fall 1996/Winter 1997
This product is not a toy. This product comprises well over a thousand (1,000) hazards physical and chemical. (The Lawyers have drawn up a partial list of these, which you may obtain by dialing our toll-free number.) Just because one piece of it slides down your little girl’s esophagus as smoothly as a gelcap with no result or even an apparent improvement in her health or temperament, that doesn’t mean that another won’t lodge in your wife’s windpipe and stay there for years, accumulating grit and engendering numerous infections, accelerating the aging process, turning her into a shadow of her former self, and damn near ruining your marriage, until, with a gigantic sneeze in a popular Thai restaurant, it shoots out of her nostril.
This product is not a toy for you, your child, or your cat; never mind that that resourceful kitty makes a toy out of everything—egg shells, cockroach husks, her own tail. She never gets out from under your feet, does she? Not that she likes you; she hisses and scratches when you try to pick her up. You don’t know why you agreed to adopt her in the first place since you have always considered yourself a dog person. The next step is yours. Drown the cat and find yourself a pup if you’d like, so long as you know this product is not a dog toy.
FACT: This product will not increase your sex appeal by one chest hair. That’s one fact I could keep to myself, since The Lawyers inform me that this complaint can never be grounds for a successful suit, and the one fact I should keep to myself, since why else would you spend $99.99? The mutual silence on this subject is more sacred to some of us than Rousseau’s Contract. The time has come to shatter the silence.
My intention is to break with a number of conventions of the Warning! label genre. I realize that it sounds ludicrous to claim that I share a thing with the revolutionaries of the past. In all likelihood I will never achieve with the Warning! label what Samuel Richardson did with the etiquette manual or what Bob Dylan did with the rock and roll song. Nevertheless, I maintain that if the Warning! label has any hope of bettering itself—currently it places ahead of Kick Me! signs and behind the While You Were Away slip on the scale of literary merit—it had better borrow conventions from other genres. A partial list of these conventions might include confession, profanity, polemic, allusion, and stream-of-consciousness.
You do not want this or any product to bring you sex appeal. If any such property should happen to overcome you, if you suddenly could swagger like De Niro and seduce girls with impunity—even the skinny girl at the bakery who always looks like she’s about to run around the counter and slap your face—you are going to want to take all the credit for yourself, because if the appeal did not come from within, you would become a slave to the product. Your faith in even your previous level of sex appeal would probably fade.
We all want our commodities to behave like the Wizard of Oz, to endow us with qualities and confide in us that we’ve had them all along.
This product is not a toy. This product is not an old army buddy. This product is not a father figure or even a maternal uncle. This product is not a good night’s sleep, a nonstop thriller with enough twists and turns to leave you exhausted, or a moment bathed in the glow from the presence that inhabits and devours all matter. This product is not endorsed by any athlete, supermodel, or rapper, and this is not the official product of any Olympic event, political affiliation, or religious persuasion. This product does not appear prominently on the set of any current movie to contribute to its realism. This product came close but did not win the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. I’m told there were extenuating circumstances.
If mishandled, this product can cause memory loss, male pattern baldness, and intermittent sexual dysfunction. This product accepts no responsibility for these or any of three hundred forty (340) other eventualities; the list of eventualities is considered to be work-in-progress and can be obtained by dialing our toll-free number.
This is not the product that I want my prose to grace. I would rather see it on the pages of a handsome paperback novel bound in that new frosty stock, with my name across the front in caps superimposed over a galloping horse rendered in ochre and nightmare-blue watercolor, and praise from Milan Kundera, Michiko Kakutani, and The Cleveland Plain-Dealer on the back. This product is not a novel that serious young men and women might carry in their backpacks for months without getting past the impressionistic, nonlinear first chapter, but I am trying to make the best of it.
This product is not a toy. This product was designed with strictly utilitarian purposes in mind. Look closely at it and admire its efficient design, but do not view it with an exclusively aesthetic eye. Hold it in your hands and reflect on the millennia of technological developments that brought it forth. Caress it, blow on it, touch your tongue to it as you would a nine-volt battery, but do not strike the product, draw a bow across it, or hold a microphone to it, because it is not a musical instrument. I have asked The Lawyers, and they tell me that, a young composer influenced by John Cage could compose an entire symphony featuring nothing but various instructions for making sounds with this product without altering the truth of the statement: this product is not a musical instrument.
Initially, The Lawyers told me that I had some leeway as to whether this product qualifies as language. In asking this question, I was referring not to the plans for creating the product, the brand name, or the presentation—which includes the logo, the packaging, or any text accompanying the product, such as the present one—but to the very product, the physical entity. “Every sign by itself seems dead. What gives it life? In use it is alive.” If Wittgenstein is right, and this product can be used in any kind of game or puzzle, then this product might be a toy after all. Hearing this, The Lawyers notified me that this product does not qualify as language.
My friend Barry needed to borrow a ladder to hang some pictures, and when he came over, I invited him in for a beer. Barry once dated a girl that I grew up with, and while we’ve never been close, he is as near as I’ve ever come to having a Black friend. I have decades of ignorance and misinformation to overcome in this regard, but I try to be sensitive without being unnatural around him. Probably none of this interests you, but I needed it to paint some background in order to make a final point that I think is pertinent to this Warning!—because it goes right to the heart of the relationship I am attempting to explore with you, reader. Barry was wearing a football jersey with the number twelve (12) on it. I asked him if there was any significance to it, and he said, “Yeah, I’m Roger Staubach,” and he picked up the nearest object to him, a prototype of this product that I had taken home with me in order to inspire my writing, and he drew his arm back.
How ashamed and niggling I felt—but what choice did I have?—as I spoke the words: “This product is not a toy.”
Magpie Bridge. A recent book project I worked on with Mark Swartz and Dandan Luo. Mark rewrote an old Chinese fairy tale, Dandan made collage illustrations, and I did the page layout and construction, shown here.
— Vacuum Fried Lotus Seed jar label
40. John Mellencamp, “Cherry Bomb.” Not my favorite artist by a long shot, but a perfectly crafted work of pop nostalgia—the fiddle, the female vocal—that makes me feel like I’ve lived a different life.
39. The Rolling Stones, “Miss You.” I’m not much of a a Stones fan, either. Mick is an embarrassment (classic rockwise, I prefer Roger Daltrey and Robert Plant), but this song evokes a vague but enduring memory for me. I’m in a parked Greyhound, sitting behind the driver, while a homeless man hums it and boogies in the rain.
38. Teenage Fanclub, “The Concept.” Shoegazer ear candy, defiantly prioritizing music over love. He hangs out with this chick because she owns the right albums and digs his band.
37. The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, “I’m a Rolling.” First heard on a Vee-Jay CD sampler, this song had me delving into gospel vocal groups of the 1950s for months, but nothing compares to its propulsive force.
36. Fleetwood Mac, “Tusk.” First heard on Casey Kasem’s Top 40 in 1979. In 1992 I entered it in a Mojo magazine contest for a jukebox where you had a defend your choice of the best single of the last 25 years. The interiority of its words (“why don’t you tell me / who is on the phone?”) and the exteriority of its music (outside, in the Rose Bowl, with the USC marching band) make for an alarming contrast. and the one-syllable-word title/chorus is an utter mystery.
35. Maria Bethânia & Nina Simone, “Pronta Pra Cantar (Ready to Sing).” Written by Caetano Veloso, Bethânia’s brother. I just love the line, “The tape is spinning round.” It’s the singer thinking aloud in the studio, preparing herself to sing the song she is singing. Past her prime but more self-assured than ever, Nina is like late Picasso painting artists and models. (Runner-up Nina Simone track: “Love Me or Leave Me”)
34. Michael Jackson, “Ain’t No Sunshine.” What pipes that kid had. The 13-year-old MJ slightly alters Bill Withers’s lyric, changing “I know I ought to leave young thing alone” to “I know I ought to leave her alone.”
33. The Replacements, “Within Your Reach.” “Never seen no mountain / never swam no sea”—it’s the opposite of my least favorite soul song, “River Deep Mountain High,” just as the Mats’ “I Will Dare” is the opposite of U2’s “I Will Follow.” In an iTunes interview, Liz Phair points out that Paul Westerberg is so fucked up he thinks the sun rises in the west.
32. The Beach Boys, “Don’t Worry Baby.” “She makes me come alive / And makes me wanna drive.” You just know he’s going to go too fast and isn’t going to survive. She knows it too, even tough she tells him otherwise.
31. The Sixths (featuring Momus), “As You Turn to Go.” Stephin Merritt knows how to break a heart in two minutes.
30. Los Lobos, “Our Last Night.” Who knows how many mix tapes I’ve put this song on, but somehow I’ve never convinced anybody else of its greatness. The second of four songs on this list where someone tells someone it’ll be all right when it won’t.
29. Dan Zanes (featuring Cynthia Hopkins), “Lonesome Road.” Not the more popular tune (with the second line “Before you travel on”) sung by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sam Cooke, Madeleine Peyroux, and so many others, but the Doc Watson “Lonesome Road” (with the second line “Hang down your head and sigh”). Zanes included this tale of utter misery on Parades & Panoramas, a children’s album.
28. Lyrics Born (featuring Joyo Velerde), “Balcony Beach.” From a 2001 CMJ compilation. This is the most recent recording in my top 40, so yeah, I have middle-age taste. (“All the Wine” by the National  and “Blank Maps” by Cold Specks  almost made it.)
27. Elvis Costello, “Next Time Round.” Not that I’m going anywhere, but if this is my funeral playlist, here’s the perfect love song. The bouncy, optimistic melody grows despairing and morbid without a detectable shift in tone.
26. The Bunch, “When Will I Be Loved.” An Everly Bros. classic prettied up by Sandy Denny and Linda Peters (soon to be Mrs. Richard Thompson).
25. Dion, “My Girl the Month of May.” I first heard this song done by the Bunch (see above). The nearly identical original allows me not to have two songs from the same album.
24. Bob Dylan, “If You See Her Say Hello.” A nonchalant title and opening line gives way gradually to an existential crisis. Back in college this song made me think of a girl I knew who might have been in Tangier. She ended up in Italy, a sort-of echo of “Idiot Wind,” another song from Blood on the Tracks. (Dylan songs that didn’t quite make the list: “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” and the Joan Baez duet “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind.”)
23. Iggy Pop & Kate Pierson, “Candy.” In grad school I left some candy in my girlfriend’s mailbox with a note that said simply, “Life is crazy.” What a romantic dude I was.
22. Macy Gray, “I Try.” Ironically, Macy never managed to achieve this effortlessly perfect pop alchemy again.
21. PM Dawn, “The Beautiful.” One of only two hip-hop songs on the list, chosen mostly for its gorgeous Beatles quotation, but it also has a terrific guitar solo at the end.
20. The Pretenders, “Hymn to Her.” Written by someone named Meg Keene. Awful title, beautiful lyrics.
19. Funkadelic, “Can You Get to That.” In the years after college when I was in and around Detroit, it was de rigueur to be into Funkadelic. I never got too far beyond this one song, which I first heard done by a Simon & Garfunkelish band called the Balancing Act.
18. Crowded House, “Italian Plastic.” Written not by Neil Finn but by the drummer Paul Hester, who later committed suicide. I used to listen to the song in the car on the way to work with a roommate and coworker who never felt about me the way I felt about her.
17. The Blasters, “Little Honey.” Pathological jealousy disguised as a tender country love song.
16. Marianne Faithfull, “Don’t Forget Me.” Written by Harry Nilsson—the first pop song to mention cancer? Neko Case’s version almost made the list instead.
15. Abbey Lincoln, “Lost in the Stars.” Written by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, from Weill’s final musical. My favorite version of my favorite song from the American songbook.
14. Willie Nelson, “You Show Me Yours (and I’ll Show You Mine).” Written by Kris Kristofferson. Stupid-smart lyrics that I can almost imagine writing.
13. Trio, “Lover’s Return.” Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris singing a Carter Family song. Even better than their cover of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.”
12. The Chenille Sisters, “Bring It on Home to Me.” Outdoes Sam Cooke’s original by not even trying to be soulful.
11. Big Star, “Motel Blues.” A most unlikely Loudon Wainwright III cover. Foolish but lacerating.
10. Everything but the Girl, “Me and Bobby D.” Maybe it’s about Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac, but I don’t think so.
9. Tom Waits, “Train Song.” An imperfect echo of “Amazing Grace,” which should be on this list, but I couldn’t decide on a version.
8. The Thompson Twins, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” An otherwise forgettable band doing Cole Porter from an otherwise forgettable tribute album.
7. Richard and Linda Thompson, “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.” This probably shouldn’t be on the list, if I’m keeping to a one-song-per-artist rule, because “When Will I Be Loved” is almost the same lineup. But it’s my list.
6. Patsy Cline, “Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You).” A last-minute substitution because I wanted to be done with this list already, but a completely defensible choice no matter how you look at it.
5. Stevie Wonder, “We Can Work It Out.” I don’t know, because he’s a genius.
4. Joe Strummer, “Before I Grow Too Old.” A Fats Domino cover sung in Joe’s “Jimmy Jazz” voice. Perfect for a funeral.
3. The Beatles, “Revolution.” Is it an anti-hippy song or an anti-anti-hippy song? Regardless, it’s not gonna be all right.
2. Sam Cooke, “Win Your Love for Me.” Almost entirely for the achingly beautiful whoa-o-o-o’s.
1. Rickie Lee Jones, “The Moon Is Made of Gold.” Written by the singer’s father, this song is about hope, but does it give you any? The moon being gold might not be such a great thing. The moon is distant and unattainable, and I’m as broke—and as heartbroken—as ever. Everything will not be all right.
Half an Apple, 1953
Emily Severance, Travels, originally published in Drunken Boat #14.
In this 1997 exhibition review, I spoke to Emily about her mother’s love of travel.
Vera Klement: Blunt Edge, an award-winning short film about the Chicago painter.
“I like overheated passion,” she says in a profile I wrote of her back in 1999.
Divorce without a lover? Why it’s—it’s as unnatural as getting drunk on lemonade.
Two things which she believed should subsist together in any well-ordered life: amusement and respectability.
It is comparatively easy to behave beautifully when one is getting what one wants.
Mr. Spragg sat down, with the effect of immersing his spinal column in the depths of the armchair he selected.
It’s mighty wholesome for a man to have a round now and then with a few facts. Shall I go on?