Thursday, May 19, 2016

Murfin Juvenilia II—The Small g in God

A Smith Corona Sterling portable typewriter exactly like this one was my prized possession in 1967.  I pounded those keys with a furious passion sure that I was creating timeless literature.

Note:  Last week I shared a short-short story from the 1967 edition of Apotheosis, the annual literary magazine of Niles West High School in Skokie, Illinois.  It was my senior year.  The world around me was roiling with unrest over Civil Rights, urban blight and poverty, and increasing resistance to a faraway war in Asia.  All of that had grabbed my attention and led to the stirring of activism.  I ventured into Chicago for the big anti-war demonstrations and to march with Dr. King for Open Housing.  The local group I belonged to, The Liberal Youth of Niles Township quaintly known as LYNT and pronounced like the stuff you had to clear off a drier filter organized a program called Uptight About the Draft? which I certainly was.  I even edited and produced on a primitive chemical bath Photostat machine an “underground newspaper” for the three Niles Township high schools called grandiosely The Promethian.  In its densely typed columns I pontificated on all of these maters with deadly earnestness.
That year I took the Skokie Swift and the L to join the March 25th march against the Vietnam War, by far the largest yet held in Chicago.  I was far back from the head of the parade which marched behind a Vets for Peace honor guard..  Dr. Benjamin Spock and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were in the front ranks and spoke at the culminating rally at the Coliseum.

But in the school newspaper where I had an alleged humor column called The Wind from the West I produced frothy commentary on student life.  That is until my 18th Birthday when I had to register for the draft and wrote a blistering and bitter screed on facing war.  That aroused the ire of West Principal Nicholas T. Manos who stripped me of some small scholarships I had been awarded from Thespians (drama), Forensics (speech) and for my creative writing in Apotheosis.
But my several contributions to the magazine that spring did not contain one overtly political entry  Each one was a reflection of my personal obsession that year—to become a genuine blue ribbon, award winning, critically fawned over Great American Writer.  I spent more hours fantasizing about that than I did at the typewriter actually writing.  I knew, or thought I did, that the way to become a literary star was to write deeply about serious shit.  And what could me more serious than death?  Of course what could an 18 year old really know about death?  Nothing that he hadn’t learned second had in books and movies.  Not that I let it stop me.  Two of my short stories in the magazine had death themes.  So did one poem, maybe two.  In retrospect I now remind myself of that girl in Huckleberry Finn who Mark Twain mocked for her saccharine, Romantic poems about tragic death.  You get the picture.
Here is one of the stories which also reflected my fantasies about being a starving writer and living la vie Boheme.
How I imagined my writer's room.  I had seen one too many film noir. 

The Small “g” in God
I lay in bed running my hand over the cool brass of the bedstead and watching the flashing shadows of three different neon signs fight for a place on my wall. I  could  hear  a  guitar  being played badly down the hall, a toilet flushing and  rattling  and  klerking,  and  the  traffic  moving outside my window. But most clearly  I  could  hear  the  Sleeping Beauty  ballet  playing  on  Tanner's  phonograph  and   floating  through  the  thin wall.

Those thin walls  were  a  symbol  to  us.  We  had  made  the  slum  apartment  building a kind of  artist’s  colony,  and  the  unnecessary  poverty  of  our  existence  was  proof  to  us  of  our  own purity and dedication. We felt that  by  the  very  act  of  rejecting  middle-class  comfort  we were purging our creative works of the contamination of complacency.  So no one  ever  complained about  the  thin  walls.

I lay in my bed and listened to Tanner’s music—which I loved almost as much as he. 

Tanner was our painter and my best friend. He had shown up in May with an  Army  duffle bag and a half dozen finished canvases under his arm. The paintings were mostly in cool blues and greens with half-shadows of searching lost souls. All of them had the big bold signature—Tanner.   Since then we had known  him  by  no other  name  than  Tanner.

He painted alone in his room or out on the stoop, or on the fire escape, or on the roof, but always alone. He painted from  the  sound  of  music, using  only  his  own  mind  for  a  model. And most of time he used those same sad cool colors we had first seen him with. But each of the paintings was different—one caught a different mood or time of day or smell.  We others could only begin to detect what was in  them.  And  his  paintings  got  better  and  better  while  the  signature  got  smaller  and smaller.

Tanner had never sold anything-he had never tried to.  He had given a picture to each of us in the building. He called them paintings pictures of our souls. Each was different and painted in the color and style of our souls. He finished mine last.  It was in blue—bright and catching but deep and dark. The brush strokes were high and sweeping,  jerking  down  just  a hit at the top as if to rush down on the kneeling player of my soul. The signature was very tiny. Tanner said it was the best thing he had ever done.

I was pleased, not just because it was  good,  but  because  it  seemed  to  say  that  Tanner  thought I was good.  So I  got a  frame and  hung my  soul  on  my  wall.  I  listened  to  the  music and I looked at it  as  I  lay  in  my  bed  and  it  was  distorted  by  the  flashing  electric  fire  of  the city  at  night.  And  I  wrote a  poem  in  my  mind  that  would  never  find  paper.

Tanner took the ballet off before it was finished. I had never heard him do this before and I was angry because  I  liked  the  music. Then I heard—or maybe felt—electronic  music.  It  pierced  and  swayed  and  rattled  then  pierced,  pierced,  pierced  and  shuttered   and pierced again. It swelled and  rolled  and  tit,  tit,  tit.  It engulfed, shattered, retreated,  and  engulfed  again.   And  I  did  not  understand  it  or   Tanner.
Even through the distortion of the wall, the power of the music was irresistible.  It thickened the air until I could not walk through the room, but had to swim in it. And it went   on and on and on.   I heard the record repeat itself—once, twice, three times.  The third time I decided to go  to  Tanner’s room.
I knocked on the door and waited  a  moment—not  for  Tanner  to  come  to  the  door,  but  to  hear  if  he  called  not  to  come  in.   We always afforded each other that much  privacy.  When he did not say anything, I opened the  door.

Tanner’ s  room  was  much  the  same  as  mine,  except  the  light  was  on  and  the  music  was   playing. In the center of the room on an easel was a painting I had never seen before. It swirled with fiery orange and red.  I  could   see  it  and  feel  its  heat  and  the  cutting  roughness of  its  texture.  In the center   black   exploded   with   a violence   that   was sudden   and   gripping.  The   painting had no   signature at  all.    It was Tanner’s own soul.
Tanner was in the corner already cold.  The note was simple—“I saw myself.  There is no more—”
—Pat Murfin ‘67

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