Venice In The Moment

By Dan Klefstad

Imagine painting a portrait of a uniquely beautiful person. Your model is nude, hiding nothing, displaying supple skin and curls of hair that absorb the light. As you sketch and fill in, the sun and shadows keep moving – revealing new details. Now you add tiny lines you didn’t notice around the eyes and mouth. As the sun begins descending, you become aware that the hair is two shades darker and seems to be uncurling. Now the flesh appears a little looser, and you realize: What you tried to capture at the start of this encounter no longer exists, and what existed five minutes ago also is gone. Your subject is still pleasing to look at, still distinctive, but when did this person begin… showing their age? Anxiety sets in as you imagine finishing your painting, not as a portrait, but a still life of ashes.

This is what it’s like looking everywhere in Venice, Italy. Sure, craftsmen constantly repair and replace the Byzantine facades and triumphal monuments. The bell tower of St. Mark’s Basilica still looks like it did in 1514, even though it collapsed in 1902. The stone walls and walkways lack any sign of occupation by Napoleon’s and Hitler’s armies. But increasing floods from climate change scoff at all this restoration. As I write this, I’m looking at a day-old photo of people wading through knee-deep water near the Vallaresso Vaporetto stop. It looks bad, but other cities recover from floods, right? Well, yes, if they’re not sitting on saltwater. The moment the brine started seeping into her brick and timber bones, the Queen of the Adriatic was doomed.

That is, unless you count all the other times doom came, and stayed — all the way back to the Roman refugee who, fleeing barbarians, drove that first timber into the muddy lagoon a thousand years ago. Venezia has been dying longer than perhaps any other city.

This must be why artists and those who chase beauty obsess over her canals, bridges, and cathedrals. The main attractions, such as the Bridge of Sighs and Doges Palace, reveal some if you’re not hurried along by the crowd. But those who sit, and listen, might hear the walls whisper what I thought I heard two years ago:

Go ahead, gawk as I slowly sink, and my population shrinks. I’m aware the cost of preserving my 14th Century glory keeps going up. And, yes, the day will come when I won’t be worth saving anymore. Until then, watch, record each moment, and understand that beauty breaks the flow of time, compelling you to look now, and now, and now again – bearing witness to that fleeting space between what was and is.

If you hear this, and your heart breaks, you’ll be more than just a traveler. You’ll suffer the eternal disquiet of a conoscitore. Hopefully, I’ll be in a nearby café, ordering grappa for you and me to mourn in silence.


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(Dan Klefstad is the author of the short story, “The Dead of Venice,” and the forthcoming novel Fiona’s Guardians. He writes in DeKalb, Illinois, and Williams Bay, Wisconsin).

 

 

Windows

     About two and a half months ago, I was abruptly told via voicemail that my mother was going to have emergency brain surgery. Wednesday night’s social work class—the first one of the semester—had just wrapped-up and after the last of my students exited the building, I headed to my office to grab my satchel, lock-up, and head home.  Per usual, I checked my phone and saw my favorite niece Lauren had called.  “Tio,” she said, “I don’t know if you know this but grandma is having brain surgery in the morning.  Has a couple of blood clots.  Call mom. OK?  I miss you.  Bye, tio.”  

     I chuckled—a bit—at the irony of the situation, as I had ended the class with an exercise that a colleague suggested I try that involved exploring personally held attitudes about specific stages of human development, ranging from birth to old age.  I had students stand against the whiteboard in front of the classroom and share their thoughts, thinking this would be a nice way bond as a cohort.  Things went along smoothly for about five minutes, until all the crying started.  They cried about their childhoodsfathers that left thembullyings in high schooldivorces, and empty nests.  I wanted to strangle Cynthia, my colleague.  One of my older students (probably in her 50s) got up next.  She started to share but then completely broke down.  We were all stunned into death-like silence.  Apart from her crying, it was so quiet in there that you could have heard a blotter of acid being dropped back in the 1960s.  Eventually, she composed herselfapologized, and informed the class that she had just lost her mother a few days prior; her announcement did little to shatter the awkwardness in the room. She talked about how difficult it was to have the tables turned on her and have to watch the people that took care of her all her life deteriorate, requiring her to take care of them, now.  Embarrassed, she wiped her eyes and promptly sat down, surrounded by her very empathetic peers.  As I watched, I remembered the picture of my mother and that I have on my refrigerator door that I see every morning when I grab some rice milk for my cereal: she is on a hideous 1970s couch with perfect hair and makeup with me—shirtless in pajama bottoms, holding a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  We both looked happy.  Overcome with guilt, I threw myself upon the pyre and decided to suffer along with everyone else.  Plus, I knew they would remember this night, during instructor evaluation time.  I took a deep breath, dove right in, and did well until I got to old age, but got through it, somehow.  

     “Class dismissed.” 

     The hospital my mother was in was about an hour away from campus.  It was already after 9:30 PM and I was tired from a long, monotonous day of grading papers and advising students for the upcoming Spring semester; moreover, the evening’s hysterics didn’t help. It’s hard enough holding a space for three hours, lecturing non-stop and engaging students, but when you have twelve grown people crumbling apart before your very eyes it becomes damn near impossible.  I was exhausted. Reinforcements were necessary: I needed caffeine and many, many cigarettes. 

     I stopped by a convenience store on my way to Edinburg to get supplies.  I parked the car and turned off the ignition, preparing to get out when the reality of the situation hit me like a flu: my 85-year-old mother was having brain surgery and there was a very real chance she may not make it.  This wasn’t like one of her falls, which I had already gotten accustomed to by that point, or one of her patented melt-downs that left her husband and anyone within calling distance flustered and unsure of what to do to calm her.  She had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for two or three years, already, and it seemed to be advancing at an exponential rate, especially this past year. She lost her words more than not.  Her short-term memory was unpredictable at best. There were even times when she would attempt to speak but couldn’t; she would just sit there with a look of frustration on her face—still, as a statue—then let out a, “Damn!” and then focus on whatever happened to be on TV at the time, as if nothing had happened.  Things hadn’t been easy and didn’t seem to be letting up any. No, this was very different. 

     I made it to the hospital in record time, hauling-ass at around 85 miles per hour after procuring my fixes.  After driving around parking lots for about fifteen minutes, I finally was able to find a spot and made my way to the Neuro ICU. When I got to her room, I saw frail frame curled up in her hospital-bed, disheveled and confused, surrounded by a concerto of blinking lights and rhythmic beeps that came from the various monitors she was connected to by tubes and multi-colored wires.  Her gown—a yellow so ugly she would have left against medical advice if she were more lucid—was off one shoulder, exposing more skin than I was comfortable with (though her sitter, a squat, older lady of about 60, didn’t seem to be phased in the slightest).  I looked over at the woman—I believe her name was Thelma–who had been there ten hours, already, due to my mother having tried to get out of bed multiple times that day.  “Son,” I quickly blurted in her general direction, attempting to get formalities out of the wayMy mother kept trying to pull her gown from her legs, unaware of how scantily clad she already was.  I pulled it back over her knees and grabbed her hands to try and calm her along with a serenade of rhythmic shooshing. 

     “I thought you said you didn’t have a son, Alda,” the sitter said. 

     Foggy, my mother answered, annoyed, “I don’t.”  She looked at me blankly.  “I have Lisa, my daughter.  I have Katie, her daughter”  She started at her gown, again.  “NoI don’t have a son.” 

     had prepared myself for pretty much anything on the drive up to the hospital, but it still stung. “Wishful thinking, old woman,” I said, looking into her eyes, smiling and rubbing the top  

top of her crepe-papery hand.  

     She laughed, apparently remembering some things about us.  After scanning my face more, a light turned on. My baby! Anthony!  Where were you? I’ve been waiting! 

     “Teaching, mom. It’s Wednesday.  I just found out about this an hour ago.”  I squeezed her hands, noticing how pale she was.  I didn’t remember her skin being so white.  “You OK?”  My eyes began to sting and water. 

     Seeing the tears start to well up in my eyes, she said, “You love me” with a pitying look upon her face.  “No…you don’t love me.  You like me, but you don’t love me.” She turned her head away, perhaps distracted by a fly or a moving figure on the TV screen—maybe one of those crazy hallucinations she has from time to time. 

     “Well, not right now I don’t.”  Again, she laughed. “I love you, mom…I do,” I assured, using the tank-top under my maroon dress shirt, as a tissue, to mop up a burgeoning flood of tears and snot.  In an attempt to cut through the pall in the room, tried to lighten things up by telling her about the picture on my refrigerator that I had looked at that morning—not really knowing what else to say—but it didn’t seem to register. 

     The next hour or so was spent keeping her calmkeeping her covered, dodging heart-breaking pleas to take her home.  To make things worse, she would, intermittently, talk in word salad: random words strung together in nonsensical sentences.  For a stretch that seemed to go on forever, she talked nonstop and said absolutely nothing. Other times she would snap out it and speak only Spanish, talking to her father, who had died thirty-five years prior, repeating over and over, again, “Ayudamepapi! Ayudame!  (Help me, Daddy! Help me!).” I just stood there, crying, wishing he would and feeling bad that I didn’t feel bad about thinking it. 

     At some point, her lucidity seemed to return some, so I took advantage of the moment and asked if she was scared about going into surgery in the morning, but she was oblivious to all that business.  “They’re doing a procedure, mom.  In and out.  Easy.”  I smiled, hopinwhat might be the last conversation I had with her wouldn’t be a lie.   

     “Not with my hair looking like this, I’m not!”  (If you knew my mother, you would know this was a really good sign).  

     “It looks fine, I laughed, but as soon as things started to look more optimistic, the pleading and agitation returnedAll I could do was stand there with tears, staining my cheeks, and think about everything that could possibly go wrong in the next few hours. When she finally calmed down, she turned to me and looked at me with a suspicious look I hadn’t seen since my early 20s. 

     “What do you want?” she demanded. 

     “Cocaine,” I said.  She didn’t laugh, but—honestly—it didn’t necessarily sound like a bad idea at the time. 

     “No, you want something.  What is it?” She turned away from me with a stare that peeled off my skin like duct-tape, leaving me feel—for a moment—utterly raw. I thought about my phone and how much I hated it. 

     Midnight had come and gone, and she showed no signs of tiring.  I was physically and mentally spent.  I thought about her. The surgery.  The “what ifs.”  I fought back tears—when I could–holding her hands the whole time, never letting go.  Then, suddenly, her restlessness subsided, as quickly as it came. She turned to me, again, and just looked at me.  That frustrated look I knew so well had resurfaced. She wanted to talk but couldn’t.  Our eyes locked and in that moment, I saw her, the mother on the couch with perfect hair and make-up, and—through all my artifice and bullshit—she saw me, shirtless little boy in pajama bottoms, holding a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and for a few seconds we were both happy, again.

# # #


From Indelible Fingerprints [Alien Buddha Press]; originally published by Down in the Dirt.


 

Towards A Program of Great Works: The US-Mexican Border Wall

Pertinent First Questions.

Much has been said about the current US President’s proposed border wall, with opposition commentary generally running along the lines of, “A border wall is inherently racist!” Let us, from the start, dispense with such foolishness. Walls, no more than doors, columns or cornices, are in any cogently definable way classically “racist” meaning, presumably, bigoted (not that I think much of the term – it means little enough these days, a symptom of Prog Boy-Who-Cried-Wolfism). Furthermore, there are several very good reasons to wish to tighten border security, the opioid epidemic (covered in my previous article, American Deathscape: The Drug Scourge & It’s Sources) being pushed by the Mexican drug cartels that is currently ravishing the nation being just one prime example among many. Others include the prevention of sex trafficking and contraband smuggling operations and the countless injuries, mutilations, thefts, rapes and murders that come along for the ride, and, perhaps most importantly, the future cultural impact which massive Hispanic immigration will undeniably bring; indeed, it has already brought it (consider the curious case of the NCLR, or, The National Council of La Raza; which, literally translated, means, The Race).

Either a nation is sovereign or it is not; it is axiomatically impossible, given a long enough period of time, for any nation to maintain its sovereignty if it does not secure its selfsame borders. Thus, if the United States secures its borders it is taking a potent step in protecting its sovereignty. Yet, some crucial questions here must be asked, such as:

  • Would a wall really greatly aid in securing the border? That is to say, do fences work?
  • How much would such a construct cost, how long will it take to construct?
  • Would imminent domain be invoked or private property need be governmentally purchased?
  • Who is going to pay for it?
  • How would Mexicans and Americans respond to it during its construction and after its erection?

 

The Efficacy of Walls.

To answer the first question: Yes.

Yes, walls greatly secure whatever areas they are built upon from unwanted intrusion; that is their sole purpose. For thousands upon thousands of years civilizations have been using walls to deter unwanted migrants, undesirable criminals and warring invaders (ect. Great Wall of China, the walled keeps of the Scottish Lords, Hadrians Wall, The Berlin Wall, The Israeli West Bank Barrier as well as the twisting fences of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, all spring instantly to mind). Clearly they work. This doesn’t mean that they work everywhere, however, as some portions of the US-Mexican border are simply too hilly and uneven for a proper wall to be erected – but where walls can be built and utilized effectively they most certainly should be.

Financing the Project.

Now, unto a trickier topic – the cost. Estimates for the total cost of the wall to be constructed, were initially placed somewhere in the ballpark of the 15-25 billion dollar range (Mitch McConnell, in 2015 placed, the estimate far lower at around 12-15 billion). More recently, the estimated average price has moved to 21.6 billion dollars which is somewhere in between these extremes – still, it isn’t chump-change. Current estimates place threshold for completion at around 3 years. Mexico won’t pay, that is clear. Not directly anyways. Trump’s strong-man approach has utterly failed; Nieto made that clear when he spurned the President’s invitation to meet in January in the White House after Trump said he should only come if he was prepared to pay for the wall. With talks about the US pulling out of NAFTA (The North American Free Trade Agreement) the relationship between Mexico and America have only disintegrated further which has left many wondering if US taxpayers will end up drawing the short straw and footing the majority, if not the entirety, of the bill. Not good, but hardly hopeless.

Prospective Solutions.

While Mexico may not pay for the wall directly that does not, however, mean that they can’t be tapped to furnish it. Such a statement might sound both strange and more than a little ominous but such worries are easily remedied by taking a clear-eyed look at the sheer amount of money which the United States of America lavishes upon Mexico. Currently Mexico receives around $ 320 million a year from the US in foreign aid. A hefty sum by any measure. It would therefore be highly advantageous to the security of the American people to cease funding, in some portion or in sum total, to the arid federal republic. While some may cry that this would only grant further power to the various Mexican drug cartels – of which the Sinaloa Cartel is easily the most influential and hence, the most dangerous – this argument falls relatively flat by its very admission. If Mexico, since the la Década Perdida of the 80s, has been unable to crush the cartels, even with massive foreign aid from the United States, one can scarcely be expected to believe they will solve the problem in the immediate future. Funding Mexico IS funding the cartels. Thus one is left with a rather cut-and-dry binary decision: fund a failing state and its attendant criminal shadow-lords or fund the defense and further prosperity of one’s own nation. The proper choice here is clear.

Retracted foreign aid alone, however, will not cover the wall in its entirety as currently proposed so what other avenues of action could the government take that would circumnavigate the US taxpayer footing the bill? Remittances, of course! This is a highly promising area of inquiry for our purposes as Mexican Remittances alone make up around 2% of the countries total GDP, such payments by Mexicans living abroad generated $ 24.8 billion for Mexico in 2015 alone (which is more than the country generates in sum total from all of their oil reserves). If the President where to place a sufficient tax on this revenue source in conjunction with the surplus funds to be had after retracting foreign aid, the wall would be well on its way. This is to say nothing of the billions which our government could potentially utilize from the seized assets of Mexican drug lords such as the infamous Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Whether or not there is the political will for such a arduous undertaking is, of course, another matter entirely. But as the old adage goes, where there is the political will, there is a way.

It is now lies with us generate that will and foster a return to an era of great public works that, for generations, will reverberate throughout the world. This newest prospective monument should be a codification of our nations strength and pride, of our indelible spirit of industry and order. A signal to noise.

Kaiter Enless is a novelist and a contributing writer for New Media Central & Thermidor Magazine. He is also the founder & chief-editor of The Logos Club. Follow him here.