Narrated by Bob Eccles
There was a song about the houses, the little boxes made of ticky tacky… you know the song perhaps? Maybe you heard it first sung by an Indian gentleman on a short plane trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles or in endless variations on a late-night television program or on an old recorder long ago dumped in the trash. Perhaps you know the song about the houses.
If you have never seen them, the houses of blue, green, red and yellow, you might think that it was only a song, a silly song, a symbolic song highlighting the rote and under-whelming achievements of modern man. You might think that they were not literally boxes if you had not seen them as I, Earl Winters, have seen them.
They line up as neatly as boxcars on rails of track along the faces of those low, verdant, mist shrouded hills, traversing from the fringes of San Francisco into the deep dank moors of fog-covered Daly City. If you know anything about moors then you know that they conceal mystery and hide their phantoms. You know that hidden in that ever-present gray are the deadly secrets of the transmutation of matter and their link to moon cycles. To see these little boxes, however, dispels any fear of the unknown, blots out any possibility for variance, and suggests infinite uniformity, for though there’ s a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one, they’re all just the same.
See the all-American family seated together in the dining room, hands clasped, heads bowed in prayer, meatloaf garnished with a sprightly sprig of parsley grown in the victory garden out back. After dinner father reads the paper, mother washes the dishes, little Sally and Tom play with the silky terrier, and the baby plays on the rug in the living room.
If you wish to enter this century, well then, mother throws out the designer paper plates before heading for the bath and father examines the world news on his iPad while Sally texts her boyfriend while baby snuggles in her lap and Tom plays a graphic and gory first-person shooter game designed by the US Army recruiting agency on the Xbox.
Pick a year, 1956 or 2011, if you peek into the little boxes and peel away the curtains, if you can somehow manage a glimpse into their tightly sealed world, you’ll find the inhabitants doing the same things at approximately the same time from one box to the next. You can depend on it. Most of the time.
I have suggested that this century is the 21st and that I, Earl Winters, am familiar with the box houses and what goes on inside of them. I know what goes on in much of the world in fact. It is my job to know. If you have ever listened to Half Moon Bay Radio KWMA, my name may have seemed familiar to you. I am radio journalist, Earl Winters, former host of Important Points, your daily investigative news journal. There is nothing about the workings of the world that I haven’t learned either as a kid on the streets of New York or in some press conference or news room or even on a battlefield or two. That is to say that I knew quite a bit before I ever visited 119 Santa Clara Avenue in San Francisco, right on the cusp of the moors.
I have told you that I am a journalist, but have I mentioned that it was terrible soul bruising work that turned my eyes into bleeding wounds and the only balm I found to sooth them was poetry? To smooth the broken glass and barbed wire of guerilla warfare from my voice I went twice a week to a café on Shattuck Ave. near the radio station where I worked, Café Nouveau Paris. I went to read things I had scribbled down in tiny notebooks to a room full of self-proclaimed poets and orange walls and glazed croissants.
That is where I first saw Theodora, sitting at a tiny round table, smiling, golden strands of hair falling over her gray-blue eyes, nervously shuffling sheets of paper with long bent fingers. I came in from the streets and noticed her immediately. The rest of the night I tried to be near enough to speak to her. I looked for an open seat or table; I thought of trite scenes I had seen in movies, dropping my napkin or spilling my tea, whatever I could do to prick her effervescent bubble.
I stood, mostly paralyzed, by the wall until the opportunity came. She was standing under a lamp and reading a small hand-written sign that asked for donations in a roundabout way. Poetry is all about the roundabout. Here, even a sign was indirect, diffuse in meaning, forsaking meaning for ambiguity.
I told her I liked her poems even though I could not remember them. I said that I had felt something kindred in them even though they were entirely incomprehensible, possibly only gibberish as far as I could tell. The poetry of her was in her smile, her posture, her tousled hair.
I suggested getting together to share more poetry. I gave her my card and as she read it, waited several long seconds for her to recognize my name. The recognition never came. In fact, studying the card she had to ask:
“Important Points, that’s…a radio show, or internet based thing?”
She liked that it was radio, I could see it in her smile. And that smile filled me up with a mint-scented air that I could sense cleansing the deepest part of me, moving through me as incense drifts though a room. She told me eagerly, as if this now assured me that we were friends, that she created music with a group that called themselves Pleroma. I said I’d love to hear their music, and she eagerly gave me a card which contained the internet addresses in which to find their sounds.
That night I went home and found the place in space-time where Theodora’s voice existed, her screams and deep guttural tones came through my speakers and filled me with a light I had not seen before.
Four months passed in which I sat at that round table next to Theodora reading her my poems, listening to hers, telling the stories of my life to her round blue eyes and trying desperately to wring some from hers. I endeavored to create other meetings with her, suggested a visit to the rose garden, expounded upon my desire to collaborate, prayed for a rainstorm so that I could offer her a ride home.
For all my effort, I saw her once a week in the same place at the same time, in the Café Nouveau Paris for the open mic session on Thursdays. Each week I asked for something and got a basket of smiles and an invitation to come improvise and record something with Pleroma in the house at 119 Santa Clara Avenue in San Francisco, right on the cusp of the moor.
Four months passed and I thought she must love me. Four months passed and I knew that I loved her. Four months passed and she gave me so little, but it was something. At last when she stopped coming to the Café Nouveau Paris I felt it was time to be bold.
There was a song about the houses, the little boxes made of ticky tacky… you know the song perhaps. The house at 119 Santa Clara was one of these little boxes on the hillside, an orange one with a sage bush out front and a white car in the driveway. It was into one of these boxes that I, Earl Winters, set foot on a summer evening in the 21st century.
Yes, Theodora was there to hug me at the door and invite me inside, to offer me tea and introduce me to Leigha and Ferdinand and the others that had come to call that evening. Leigha was petite with dark curly hair and heavily shadowed eyes. I thought she was quite lovely, the complete inverse of Theodora, brooding where the other woman was flippant, unhurried where the other was fleet, dark where the other was light.
Unlike Theodora, Leigha was aware of my radio show and comfortable with bringing up politics and the things of the world to which I was accustomed. Ferdinand joined in our chatter. We stood in the bright living room and yes, I smelled the faded sweetness of amber incense, saw the chalice on the mantle, the flickering candles and a bowl full of silvery leaves, but I thought little of it.
They took me downstairs to the studio that Theodora had often times referred to as the underworld in her invitations. Poetry is all about the roundabout. Every sign is indirect, diffuse in meaning, forsaking meaning for ambiguity. The underworld was filled with electronic gear, guitar and microphone cables were spread over the floor like the thick dark chords of an enormous spider’s web. Lines from Theodora to Ferdinand, from Ferdinand to Leigha, Leigha to the Russian fellow that had arranged some of their live shows (Theadora had introduced him as their priest)…electronic lines to a guitarist, lines to me, to a microphone placed inches from my mouth.
I turned on my small laptop to find the poems within. In the walls of this unfamiliar lair, surrounded by large pieces of artwork and installations within the confines of open cabinets, I grasped at the known, the familiar. I held onto my computer and tried to smile though I was aware that the tiny, scared boy of fifty years ago was slipping through my eyes.
After Leigha lit small white candles and turned off the lights Ferdinand took a seat at the twelve o’clock position of the circle. It was then that I noticed the shadow cast on the wall behind him, the silhouette of Ferdinand with horns rising from his temples.
In the other boxes on the hillside there were cars and washing machines and children’s bicycles in the same spot where we sat entangled. All-American families were seated together in their dining rooms above their garages, hands clasped, heads bowed in prayer, meatloaf garnished with a sprightly sprig of parsley. Where there should have been a garage at 119 Santa Clara there was instead an underworld in which I had unwittingly descended pursuing a poem.
A poem composed of more than words and letters. A poem of soft white flesh and laughter that could lift me from the sadness of my afternoons. Poems that multiplied, mirroring each other in their glory, just as the sun is more beautiful followed by the cool light of the moon. I basked in both lights at once, amazed that such a thing was possible.
Whatever else I saw that night, whatever transformations occurred, I wrote them off the following day as tricks of the night, as the side-effects of recently prescribed medication.
In the light of day I thought of the slow, moon-shrouded poetry of Leigha, who I felt was more receptive to my attention than Theodora had ever been. Her eyes were ink pools waiting for entrance. Poetry is about the roundabout. Every sign is indirect, diffuse in meaning, forsaking meaning for ambiguity. She had looked into me, found me waiting there, had welled up with emotion as we created music together.
Leigha, petite with dark curly hair and heavily shadowed eyes, I sent her an email and told her how I loved her, just as much as I loved Theodora. In my carefully thought out verse I confessed my desire to know her, to be with her alone just as I had been alone for many months with Theodora. I suggested a picnic and drive to Bolinas. I described watching the colors of the sunset and sharing dreams. I imagined sitting beside the soft poetry of her body, touching the warmth of her hands.
The response I received turned my chest immediately into stone, leaving me more than cold, as I read the words the poems in me crumbled into nothingness. It read as follows:
“Thank you for your email and working with us today. We read your email carefully. We understand what you are perceiving and feeling, but there are just some things that cannot happen. We are trying to do something unusual. This means there are some things we do not do. We would like you to be part of our creative projects, but the kind of thing you described in your email would be outside of the possibilities. We hope you understand. We like you very much and would like to keep doing creative projects with you. We know that the kind of contact we have had is rare, and we would like to maintain that kind of rare contact with you. It will just have to stay within certain limits. Love, Theodora, Ferdinand and Leigha.”
It was the impossibility that the three of them had read my email together and responded in concert that led me to uncomfortable conclusions. Whatever I had seen, whatever had happened, it was the email that guided my regard of the happenings at 119 Santa Clara.
I responded to the email saying that I was hurt with Leigha’s disclosure of my message to the others. She responded that it had not been their intention to hurt me, it had simply been their intention to tell the truth. A week later I wrote Thedora;
“It is not possible that I was understood by the collective mentality of your exalted group, as exalted as you may be. I poured my heart out to you, and then you and your intensely felt colleague and house mate. So now, the three of you know the heart of my heart of my heart, based on a trusted and risky effort at sharing, and I know almost zero about one of you, and a little more about the others. When I asked to get to know one of your better, I got a group speak response, that felt very cultish in style. May this life, Theodora, bring you endless joy and creativity along with the suffering and struggle…EW”
Her response was an obscure:
“No problem EW, farewell.” Concluded with a smiley face.
I looked up from the short message, unable to focus on any shape around me. The familiar colors and furnishings of my living room were dirty and old in the bright afternoon light. With those final words I felt the last bit of mint drift out of me. The poem had faded, taking my stories with it.
Perhaps you know the song about the houses. If you have never seen them, the houses of blue, green, red and yellow, you might think that it was only a song, a silly song, a symbolic song highlighting the rote and under-whelming achievements of modern man. You might think that they were not literally boxes if you had not seen them as I, Earl Winters, have seen them.
Poetry is about the roundabout. Every sign is indirect, diffuse in meaning, forsaking meaning for ambiguity. And yet all these houses, all these familiar little boxes, they are all the same, they must all remain the same.
AUTHOR BIO: Radio Free Clear Light strives for the seamless integration of words, images and sound through artistic and collaborative work.
In 2010, RFCL founded Fourth Way Comics, an experimental collaboration which serves as a creative outlet for both writing and illustration work. RFCL currently manages Black Note Music, a small electronic music label close to San Francisco. You can learn more about them at their website Radio Free Clear Light..
The writing and art of RFCL has appeared numerous places including Infinity’s Kitchen, Brink Magazine and Straylight Literary Arts Magazine.