Tuesday, 1 June 2004

I think the solution I’ve happened on is a happy one: this way I won’t feel like I’m pestering you when you have to finish your papers, and I won’t feel I’m neglecting the three or four people who look forward to reading something here.

I haven’t told you much about work recently. The Lawn & Garden section of Walmart is its own little walled-off kingdom, with bare, untiled cement floors, without the views down half the store that the other areas have. That makes it attractive to shoplifters – I usually find at least one empty package of something a night, and often it’s soda bottles or cookies – they bring them from grocery, hide out in my zone, and eat them. One guy I won’t forget for a long time, he came in around three a.m., walked past me without seeing me, wearing a black jean vest, a black safari hat, black jeans and silver belt and boots, and with tatoos on his arms and a well-trimmed silver beard and long white hair, looking fit, and when I gave my usual Hi there how are you tonight anything in particular you’re looking for? he stopped short and looked at me in astonishment and said No, I don’t know what I want yet, turning his shopping cart halfway around as he said it. I said my usual, Well okay, just give me a holler if you need anything, but he was already headed out, saying, I don’t know what I’m looking for yet, I don’t know, in a real defensive tone.

Fun stuff – if at that age you can still get spooked out of shoplifting by a friendly overnight stocker. If I wore all black and had tattoos, I’d consider it an obligation to myself never to show fear, at least not until physically threatened. Later, I saw him in hardware, squatting in the aisle behind a pile of boxes, fiddling with something in his hands, but he was just too cute for me to spoil his fun twice.

We get mainly farmers, so far as I can tell, coming in to Lawn & Garden overnight, at least I think they’re farmers, looking like my old crayola burnt sienna color, wearing mesh caps, old clothes, friendly attitudes, but you get the feeling they’re not in the habit of holding conversations, not that they’re quiet, usually, just, you know, not quite keeping their balance in the old give-and-take. There’s one couple, who don’t farm, I think, but keep a garden, who’ve come in several times and who I’m always happy to see. He’s got a moustache and a serious mullet, down to his shoulders, and arms that I’d call woman’s arms, because of their flattish cylinder shape, lack of definition, and pinkish color, only he ports them masculinely, and I’ve seen women’s arms with topographical detail, so there goes the comparison. His face is lined deeply on the cheeks and finely around the eyes and on the forehead, and I feel there’s some secret there, since he never makes the least change in his facial expression any time I’ve been looking at him. What faces does he make in private? His eyes are bright blue, to make you squint. His wife has dull brown eyes, with large, flat pupils that seem to take you in no matter where she looks. I am fascinated by her, she’s blonde and has a manner like someone who knows themselves to be mentally unstable, and she speaks to me with wide eyes of times agone when she worked at this Walmart. She probably thinks I’m just a flirt, but I’m always genuinely glad to see the two of them, and if it helps her speak to me and put me in her stare along with everything five feet to either side of me, well, let it be. The two of them wanted to buy bags of cement once, but a Walmart superstore being what it is, the cement had been left outdoors, and the only bag out of five that wasn’t ripped open and half-empty was hard as a rock from being rained on.

I generally work at Subway/Exxon/Family Convenience/Laundromat alone with the owner, but over the holiday weekend we doubled up to cover the extra traffic through, so I got to work with Mildred, a seventy-six year old. She had retired, but got bored, and came back to work. She can’t mop, since she’s got two replacement knees, a replacement hip, and two replacement vertabrae, but she’s spry enough to square dance, and as soon as we share a night off we’ve planned to go together to a bluegrass concert. She makes her own pants out of denim, and says her twin brother, still in Kansas, can make me a custom suit of clothes that won’t fit anybody else, only me. She sometimes makes me pause a little, for example, today she told me I had a real smart co-worker, and I was puzzled for a few seconds, until she followed it up with Yep, she’s very intelligent, and I knew to reply What did you do? Then later she asked, Why you got your watch on your right wrist, and I couldn’t think of a reason then, apart from I think my grandfather wore his that way. It occurs to me now I keep trifles – watches, keys, money, trinkets, passports, in my right pockets, and important things, books, good luck charms, walkmen and discmen and tapes and cds in my left ones.

Thinking of Mildred reminds me of Darya Alexeevna – that’s not her real patronymic, but it’ll do, since no amount of beating my brains brings the right one to mind. I met her in the winter of 2002, when I brought her two grandchildren from Aginsk to Ulan-Ude to visit her. She seemed to be in her early seventies, and I think she said she was, but the ages of her children made me wonder. She worked as a nurse in a kindergarten, and probably still does, leaving the house at seven in the morning every day during the colder seven months of the year to load and light the stove so the school is warm when the children arrive, and, while I was there, she made kasha out every morning before she left and put it out for her grandchildren and came home at two to make them soup, and was home in the evening to make them dinner, enviably healthy and strong and happy.

Her three children make a picture together in my mind, but of what I can’t quite articulate. The eldest lives on the island of Olkhon near the west side of Lake Baikal. It’s considered a sacred place to the Buryat, and it’s in the sacred sea, though I remember thinking often that that and similar words were used without any clear idea of what they meant among Buryat speaking with interested foreigners. She painted, she told me, laughing, I recall she would show her throat when she laughed, and look up at the ceiling, and lean back, but the laugh itself didn’t seem to fill the space she gave it. She spent a lot of time alone, that was obvious, and was content to sit in silence. I only met her after banging out “Heart and Soul” for the grandchildren on an out-of-tune piano in Darya’s apartment; she stepped up after I stood, and, standing, rattled off one of those Chopin fingertwisters, then she sat down and gave me a giant Bach thingamabob, and then something I didn’t recognize, and then something else, all without a hesitation or a and then said she hadn’t touched a piano for ten years. She has no phone, she lives alone with her cow and chickens, and her electricity, like everywhere on Olkhon, is only on for a couple hours each day. She’s fifteen years older than me.

Her younger brother, five years or so older than me, I’ve told you about, he and his wife were my closest friends in Aginsk, he is an actor and a director and plays the guitar, writes his own songs and plays, and she paints and makes souvenirs. The children, his mother’s grandchildren, aren’t his, they’re from his wife’s previous marriage, but he cares for them as if they were his own, and takes special interest in his daughter, a budding poet and fairy-tale writer. He feels stranded in Aginsk – they moved there from Ulan-Ude because the local government promised to support them, if they would help to encourage local arts and cultural activities. But Aginsk, for someone of his talents and interests, can feel very small and provincial, and he misses the cultural and intellectual interchange he enjoyed in Ulan-Ude, and now that I’ve gone, I think he feels entirely isolated, since his wife dislikes abstractions and discussions of taste. He came into adolescence when the Russian underground music scene was just beginning, and still feels strongly he belongs with the groups that were part of that scene.

And his younger sister is five years or so younger than I am. She wears false eyelashes, dreams of emigrating to America, likes to dance in clubs and listens to Russian techno-pop. She’s not like her older sister, she needs companionship and, you can tell, gets lonely easy, but on the other hand, she’s never quite comfortable speaking with you, unlike her brother, who is a master conversationalist, especially when he’s interested in his interlocutor and the topic. This girl, she doesn’t seem to get in deep, either, very unlike her two older siblings. The youth, say older Russians, are very different from us, something new. Who knows what goes on in their heads, they say, and I had more difficulty relating to people my own age, with a couple exceptions, than with people in their thirties and forties.

Darya Alexeevna began to model for me, as I came to know her, a certain admirable character trait. She only brings enough of herself to light as is called for at a time. She’s lived a long time, she’s seen much. Kulak is Russian for fist, and in post-revolutionary time it was used to name rich peasants – the idea being that they kept their fists closed and did not share with an open hand. Her father was called a kulak and shot in the thirties, and she remembers seeing it happen. She lost much of her family in the war, but managed to find her way to Ulan-Ude from a tiny village in Ust-Orda, a Buryat autonomous area to the west of Lake Baikal. She never spoke of anything but my needs, or the needs of her grandchildren, or practical matters, until I mentioned I’d been reading the Akhmatova on her shelf, and I was struck by how clearly you could hear Pushkin in her, which drew out her astonishing knowledge of both poets, and later, of Akhmatova’s son, Lev Gumilev, the historian of Central Asia, and although his books don’t seem to be well-respected in the west, because of his tendency to play fast and loose with the facts and his theory of Ethnogenesis, I was extremely happy to meet, for his contagious excitement and vivid style and storytelling ability.

Speaking of Central Asia, Nathan at the Argus linked to this fantastic collection of photographs from Afghanistan, and gave me foot itch that-a-way. Here’s one picture, with his caption below:

Concerning this picture I am often asked: “Did it really look like that?” No, of course not. The human eye can see a range of light which is far greater than the contrast range to which films are sensitive, and films can record a greater range than that delivered by any work of art on paper. The eye can see 3.6 log or twelve stops on a camera, twelve doublings of light, while a painting or a photograph can only carry 2.1 log or seven stops. The real scene was much brighter and more vivid than this picture, and I can only hope to remind the viewer of the sparkle of creation. As I stood there composing the picture, clouds rolled over, rapidly mottling the scene with changing patterns of light and shadow. There were smells and bells, wind, dust, and donkeys singing in the distance. How could a simple print on paper or an image on a screen be just like that?

Reminded me of lines from the poem “The Hanging Gardens” by Les Murray.

No one here
believes in green deeply enough. In greens
so blue, so malachite.

I had just read it a few moments before, following a link from dumbfoundry.

And thinking of those hills reminds me of driving in the valley today. The rain had cleared, Massanutten the divider of the river was ahead of me as I went north, and to the side giant steel set far away in the mountainside read “Endless Caverns” in fifty-foot letters, and the clouds scattered discrete above the ridge to the right made pied beauty with their shadows on its sloping side, turning the green to a color almost like the purple and brown of a bruise on fair skin.