The Shape of Language

Funeral orgies….Muddy rubbers…More holes versus less holes…Reefer tugging…Heaters and hog legs…Where is your placenta buried?…and other phrases from the pages of respected literature that might give the wrong impression…

“So,” I said to her casually, “where is your placenta buried?”

“Freak,” she hissed. “What’s wrong with you?”

Before I had asked her the question, this anonymous woman sitting across from me in the library, I had weighed the consequences. I had not weighed them seriously, however, but in a sloppy and unconcerned manner, as is my usual method. Go ahead and ask her, I told myself. What’s the worst that can happen?

My immediate thought was that death would be the worst that could happen. But is it? At least death, on some level, gets you out of the situation that caused you to ask the question in the first place. It was suddenly possible, I realized as the woman continued to glare at me, that to stew uncomfortably in a situation for an interminable amount of time might be the worst thing that could happen, which was what was happening at that moment. The woman did not seem to fear me or my comment. She made no attempt to leave the table we were both seated at. But her face dropped like a rubber see-saw with two fat men on either end. She worked herself up with a series of throaty rumbles and began to threaten all sorts of things, vague things.

“I don’t know what gauntlet you think you’re running here, Mr. Placenta, but I can assure you that a formal statement from me to a man who joined the police force specifically to thrash a greasy little felon like yourself might be bad for your health and once you are in the system you are there and DNA don’t lie.”

Wow, I thought, that was a far stranger thing to say than the placenta question.

“Let me explain,” I said.

I’ll explain.

The placenta question was a frivolous bit of fun for me from a National Geographic article I had been reading some time ago. The article was about vanishing languages. In this case the Seri tribe of Northwest Mexico posed the ‘Where is your placenta buried?’ question when they wanted to know where you were from, since in that culture the afterbirth was buried in the ground at the site where you were born. The question, at that point, made perfect sense and seemed a harmless, interesting and unique way to begin a conversation. It sounded odd, but odd in a fun way, and now I found myself crawling from the soft dirt of the language hole I had buried myself in. The woman seemed to accept my explanation, but her tone was cautionary.

“That is all fine,” she said, “but language is a funny business. You must watch how you say things to a girl. I don’t know if you know this but as it turns out the placenta sits, for about nine months at least, in that part of a woman’s body where all men would like to enter. Most men, at least. Those who don’t know how to decorate.”

We agreed to be friends after that. To be honest she was a bit androgynous and I wasn’t sure at first if I had posed the question to a man or a woman, which, thanks to the Seri tribe of Northwest Mexico, I had found the answer to without having to ask in the usual way, and my thanks to anyone from the Seri tribe who happen to be reading this.

I was hanging around the library for the morning because my neighbor Valerie had begged me for a ride to the county courthouse because she had jury duty. Or at least that was what she said. There was a good chance she was on trial for something, and would be carted off in shackles and I would be stuck at the library, which was just down the street, not knowing whether to file an appeal, or just go home, or feed her dog, or adopt her son. Anyway, Valerie needed a ride because she couldn’t remember where she had left her car, and taxi drivers kidnap people all the time, she said, and I never had anything to do anyway and I might just be useful to somebody for once. I gave her a ride to the courthouse and told her to be as bigoted and close-minded as she possibly could without being held in contempt of court and she would be booted from the jury pool in due time.

At the library I had plucked “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” out of a random pile of books stacked around me. I started reading from somewhere in the middle, trying to jog my memory since I hadn’t read it since high school. I was a bit shocked to find a strange and startling phrase that jumped out of the page at me.

Funeral Orgies.


I thought at first I had picked up a William S. Burroughs book. In this instance the word orgy simply meant a party of sorts (the character in Huckleberry Finn amends it to ‘obsequies’) and I was reminded of Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” when he goes to visit his wife’s family in Texas and they have a Thanksgiving orgy, which, in Steinbeck’s travel log is just quail shooting and parlor games. There is something just so strange about the word, though. Orgy. Even when you say it it’s like having a bunch of anonymous, hairy men and women copulating in your mouth. You almost have to scratch your tongue to remove remnants of the word. I pointed this out to my new friend across the table from me who happened to be flipping through Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street”. I handed her the Huck Finn book and pointed to where she should pick up the thread. She read the page about the funeral orgies and said she didn’t realize that the book had dealt with necrophilia. She thought it was just about racial morality. There was a river involved, she said. That she was sure of. She handed the book back to me.

At the very least Mark Twain had given me some credence. If the greatest American writer had used such strange language, I was off the hook for my comments. She continued reading her book. I let her get into it a little bit, then warned her about the ‘muddy rubbers’ she would be encountering.


Sinclair Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. He was big on the stifling effects of middle class hypocrisy, rigidity, and the general fatalism that sets into the bones of his doomed heroes once their dreams are smashed to pieces. Yet, of all the things I’ve read from him, (except Elmer Gantry, which was just damn good through and through) the only thing that really stuck in my mind from the entire corpus of his writing was a phrase about a woman coming in from the rain and her ‘muddy rubbers’. It sounded entirely decrepit, like the title of some German snuff film. Needless to say I was a little put off by the phrase, even though I knew he meant galoshes.

I ran across the ‘rubbers’ thing though, sometime later, in Salinger’s “To Esme, with love and squalor”. Again, the rubbers are mentioned, in church no less, where people have them in their laps. (Apparently it was customary in Europe to put one’s galoshes in one’s lap, which made no sense. You couldn’t get your feet wet but you could soak your crotch?) Having been inoculated with the rubbers thing, I then had to contend, in the Salinger story, with the hero (if you consider sitting around a cafe drinking tea heroic) noting a little boy around five years old, Esme’s brother, tugging on his reefer. God in heaven, what a progressive society that lets a five-year-old sit around a European cafe smoking a joint. (Reefer, in this case, referred to the boy’s pea coat.)

As I thought about it, the noir prose of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett played loose and fast with slang. Gats, heaters and hog legs were guns. A fireplug was a hydrant. Jack was money. Woof meant weft and weft meant weave, as in a story by a lying bastard. The Big Sleep was death.

What a lovely living thing, I thought, the shape of language, of words, of the ability not just to mean what they are but to sound how they sound, to provoke a sensation by the click of the consonant and the purr of the vowel. The stertorous ‘G’, the vibratto of ‘V’ the smack-the-side-of-your-head stomp of the ‘K’. The words and phrases themselves. The dread or euphoria felt when the phrase falls. The evolution of enunciation. Ravel and unravel, flammable and inflammable. They mean the same thing. You (h)ear with your ear and your kin are of the same (s)kin, and a (t)ouch can result in an ouch. split the two e’s in see, drop the s, posit why and you’ve got an eye. (T)aste enough and you can sate with a flip of a few letters. Breathe deep. There is a whole factory of olfactory.

Suddenly I was reminded of “Americana” by Don Delillo and “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace. On pages 96, and 146, respectively (in my editions, at least) the observation is made about the disparity of holes in the old standard telephone receiver. There are six for listening and something like forty for talking. For some reason it struck me to mind this one fact as it had been revealed separately in two great books. I noticed, throughout the course of the weeks that followed that people tended to do more talking than listening, and maybe the phone design was partly responsible. They just allotted a few meager openings for listening, but a huge cluster of empty holes were just waiting to be filled with the wisdom of the caller, for the language to run rampant from one side of the world to the other. It occurred to me that phones don’t work if everybody is just listening. It wasn’t just the technology but the design itself that hastened the evolving shape of the language.

I decided to leave the library. The day was bright and I could see people on the sidewalk talking nonstop, and I wanted to be a part of it. The woman across from me that I had momentarily offended didn’t take notice. She was sunk deep into Main Street, and I let her stay there. On the way out I stopped at the librarian’s desk and for some reason spit out a line from James Joyce.

“Lipsyg dooley krieging the funk from the hinnessy,” I said with a smile.

The librarian called me a vicious pig and slapped me in the side of my head with a big copy of Finnegan’s Wake. I should’ve asked her where her placenta was buried.

More alembics to come.

The Apathy of Squirrels, The Wisdom of Owls, The Power Of The JuJu Fetish

From April 14th, 2013

“The puzzling behavior of squirrels…The coffee and the unknown world of Los Angeles…The old woman, the juju fetish and the owl…” 

My neighborhood is overrun with squirrels. They are everywhere. There are also a lot of cars. Not a lot, but enough. There are enough cars to pose a direct threat to a reckless squirrel. It’s not the cars so much as the tires. There are four times the amount of tires than there are cars, which, if I were a squirrel, is a statistic that would give me cause for alarm. Inevitably then, as I go for my morning dog walk around the neighborhood, I will pass some poor smashed squirrel on the tree-lined street, crushed to aspic right in the middle of the road. From the position of the body and various states of compression it is easy to see that some had almost made it while others look like they had accidentally ingested a lit M-80 bomb. I find myself affected, sympathetic, overcome with feelings of powerlessness in a brutal universe. I’m surrounded by the reality of senseless demise. Then one day I noticed something really disturbing in the face of such holocaust. A squirrel was lying in the street, gone from the world of the living, and another squirrel running across the street just jumped right over him and continued on without a second glance. It was a little spooky. Heartless little buggers. Not even a concerned gesture. No regard for a fellow critter. No enlightened, self-interest-based curiosity that maybe something extremely dangerous is rolling around the vicinity and should be considered in order to prevent this from ever happening again, whatever it was? I continued walking, absorbed with the flutter of my dog’s ears as she trotted along, and found myself beginning to construct a self-absorbed monologue for apathetic squirrel number two.

“Hey look, there’s Jim. He looks a little down today. Not his usual playful self. Usually he’s insatiable, chasing the girlie squirrels, stealing acorns, running along the electrical wires like he owns the world. None of that today. Kind of quiet. Kind of still. Flat head and such. Wonder what that’s all about? Limbs stiffly pointing in the air and his new head-style and some nasty stuff spilling out of old Jim’s anus. Maybe I should ask but I don’t want to create an awkward situation between me and Jim. Jim’s obviously doing Jim’s thing. Oh I get it, he’s too good for us squirrels, now he just hangs out with flies and bugs, I guess. Seems a bit rude, is all. I thought we were friends. Fuck him, really. I’ve got plenty of other stuff going on. Not like I’m waiting on him to show me a good time. I’ve been ignored by bigger, better and smarter.  I’ll just ignore the son of a bitch back and see how he likes it. I can be friends with flies and bugs too but I choose not to. It’s a choice. It’s a life choice. Now, where’s that goddamn bird feeder again?”

“Take counsel when appropriate,” my mother never used to say, but probably would’ve if she had thought of it. There is the possibility of a grander cross-reference to the squirrel’s ignorance that I would do well to heed. I sat around the house for a little while trying to piece it together, the thing that would be so obvious to a higher life form that I’m scampering right by. Then it dawned on me. I knew just what to do. I had to go get a cup of coffee from the local coffee shop, part of this huge shopping plaza about five minutes from my house. I drove cautiously, beeping to the few squirrels that looked ready to break for the other side of the road as I approached. I got to the shopping plaza without a hitch, parked and walked around the bend to the coffee shop. A few tables are scattered outside of the place, most filled with people reading, tinkering on the computer or engaged in serious “steeple-fingered” conversations, as David Foster Wallace used to say. All had one thing in common. Nobody even bothered to look at me. In general I am easily ignored. I am fairly nondescript, my energy is tucked and I walk fast. As I zoomed by one table, though, I felt a weighty gaze upon me. An old, or at least extremely wrinkled woman from somewhere south where the sun burns bright in the sky all year round hooked me with her eyes and gave me a smile that sent my stomach into a free fall. I walked into the safety of the coffee shop wondering what the hell that was all about? Mentally I went over the split second interaction I had with her. She was going to say something to me, but had stopped. Her eyes suggested she knew more about me than I knew about myself. She had a bunch of necklaces and tchochkes on the table in front of her. She was the car and I was the squirrel, or she was me, I was the squirrel, and she had clarity of the “car” I needed to avoid. That I was sure of.

The line was long, thus I had time for the harsh exposure of a 24-hour news channel from a television mounted above my head. I’ve expressed my displeasure for constant television news in prior “Alembics” and the experience of watching it while waiting for my coffee did nothing to lessen my irritation. A representative of the Stepford Wives was suggesting I “enjoy more and stress less” while the chyron, the heading underneath, boldly declared, “Breaking News: Police Still Unable To Find Vital Clues.” The chyron ran three times in about a minute and a half, which supported my theory that these shows are meant for people in the process of walking away from them. The warm, deep coffee aroma kept me in line, however. Commercial time. There was an advertisement for a show called “Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain, Chef and World Traveller.” Apparently Mr. Bourdain was going to… Los Angeles. Parts unknown? What the fuck? Parts unknown except to five million people, give or take. The show may be a fine one, I don’t know. I don’t watch television and I definitely tend to avoid watching other people eat. I’m not what you call a ‘foodie’. But I’m sure it’s a fine show. It just seemed like a strange title, though, particularly since the episode was descending on one of the largest cities in the U.S.. With a title like that I expected a narrator to overdub his mischievous, whispering voice like in those Folgers’ Crystals commercials from years ago.

“We’ve taken Mr. Bourdain to Mauna Loa and thrown him into the expectorating volcano. He’s got a parachute, a helmet with a camera on it, a two-way radio and a three day food ration. The Gods are pleased.

“We’ve shrunk  Mr. Bourdain to the size of a raisin and placed him in a small capsule and washed him down the gullet of a silverback gorilla to investigate the chronic “borborygmi” or growling stomach that seems to be constantly distressing the beast. By the time he gets done with this he’ll be pooped.

“We’ve catapulted Mr. Bourdain into the Hang Ken cave in Vietnam during the Monsoon season. Guano, and see-o, what you can find-o.”

The news channel, as it always does, left me feeling a little fatigued and somewhat beaten, so I got my coffee and headed out the door. This time the woman sitting at the small table outside was not about to let me by. I had forgotten all about her in the whipsaw of coffee and sensationalism. She said something about a handsome man in trouble, ostensibly me. Flattery and mystery, the woman was a born salesperson. She held up one of her necklaces and said I needed a juju fetish.

“No, I don’t… what?”

I was vaguely familiar with both terms, when used separately. Fetish as related to an inanimate object with magical powers and not deviant sexual stuff like trying to eat someone’s rubber boot. A juju has a similar meaning. I had never heard them used in conjunction, but I liked the sound of it. The woman seemed to know I would.  She held up the necklace. I asked if it had tannis root in it? Having recently sat through another screening of Rosemary’s Baby for lack of anything better to do it was still fresh on my mind.  She waved off my stupid question. She used the word energumen, as in someone possessed by an evil spirit. I asked her if she had ever seen Tom Jones dance. She said nothing, but I could tell she understood. Suddenly, with the clarity of a drunk sorority girl who pops full blast out of her haze to realize she’s in dangerous surroundings, I stepped back from the woman’s mesmerism.

“I’ll buy your juju fetish,” I said. “But I’ve only got a credit card on me. I do have some money in my car, though. I’m just going to go get it and I’ll be right back.”

She nodded. I walked briskly to give off the appearance of my zeal to retrieve my money and get back to her to purchase the necklace before she sold it to another individual. Really I was just going to get in my car, drive off fast and find a new place to get coffee from then on. I got to my car and that sinking feeling took hold, that feeling when you’re stuck in a glue trap of your own creation and the only way out is to gnaw your legs off.

I had left my car keys on the counter of the coffee shop. I considered for a moment that maybe the counter girl might see them and run out and try to give them back to me but this was all folly. The counter girl was filled with such a precision strain of ill temper that I would be lucky that she hadn’t just tossed them in the garbage or given them to a homeless fellow so he could clean the cottage cheese out of his toenails. Could I go around the other way? A quick calculation proved that this would be the circuitous equivalent of walking to Alabama. It meant scaling fences and avoiding delivery trucks. Maybe I could just walk home and walk back in the dead of night, throw a garbage can through the front window of the coffee shop, climb in and get my keys then. Buck up, I said to myself. You’re now the proud owner of a juju fetish.

I walked back around. The woman looked like she had not only known what had happened but had read everything in my mind since I had last departed. Fumbling an explanation that in retrospect made no sense, I got my keys out of the shop, came out and paid her for the necklace, brought the damn thing home and hung it on my back porch, feeling a little uneasy about taking it into my house.

I’ve yet to mention I have an owl that lives somewhere in the vicinity of my backyard. I’ve seen him perched on my fence, on a naked branch, and on my roof, at the top of the pitch. He’s a magical thing. He only comes out on nights with a bright moon, or I guess he’s only visible on nights when the moon is like a slightly softer reflection of the sun. He paces, and the way his feathers run down his back it looks like his hands are clasped behind him (if he had them, of course) and his profile looks exactly like Alfred Hitchcock’s. It’s a marvelous thing to see at four in the morning, half-asleep, the effects of the alcohol slowly wearing off, and this enormous fat-feathered bird with a big round head and all the wisdom afforded to his species walking out to survey what the night has to offer. Rodents, a dog barking somewhere in the distance, featherless human gawker. He likes me. We’ve exchanged communication. I slur. He answers. He doesn’t coo or whistle. He warbles low like he’s got a smoking habit.

The next morning I came out to the porch and the juju fetish was gone. So be it. It made me a little nervous anyway. But the following night, as I happened to be up late enjoying the inspirational effects of a fine cab franc, I walked out into the cool air and heard my friend warble from above. I grabbed my magnum flashlight and put him in the spotlight. The owl stood there at the tip of my roof with his big eyes and something flashing beneath his chin. The little son of a bitch was wearing the juju fetish. Not only that he seemed to have had the chain fitted to a comfortable, fashionable length for his little neck and cambered chest. He took off, big and beautiful against the indigo sky. I felt like I had been used, nothing but a pawn, a messenger between two forces beyond my comprehension. But feeling I had succeeded in the small part of the ineffable task, I sensed for the moment that the hazards were at bay and I felt the satisfaction of a job well done.