Amazing Stories and Girl Genius came from Kickstarter campaigns, and I have a years-old subscription to The Paris Review
I wrote this scene at the Lost Lake Writer’s Retreat in early October of 2017. I forget the writing prompt. Maybe “Where were you?”
I was standing in line at the cafe with foggy glasses and a too-warm coat. The air was humid and thick with the smell of coffee and hair product, and Torani syrup so potent that I could taste the drinks as people walked past me out the door.
From the corner, over the top of the low conversations came a loud “Where the hell have you been?” I looked around but couldn’t see anything. Everyone in line hunched their shoulders and focused more intently on their phones.
Behind me I heard a low “…shit.” The line moved forward and another cloud of Torani walked out the door.
“I’ve been here for half an hour. Waiting! We said three thirty!”
I took off my glasses so I could see. The dude behind me was a pale, sweaty blur. He shrugged, “The roads were…”
“I don‘t care about the roads! You’re late!”
All around us shoulder hunched and heads ducked and phones were fiddled with, fiercely. I squinted into the corner.
I could feel fierce attention land on me. “What the hell are you looking at?”
“I’m, uh, nothing!” I made a show of putting on my still-foggy glasses, and shrugged.
The line moved forward slowly. When I got my coffee I debated staying to watch the show, or leaving and enjoying the slush and salt spray of Lake Drive. The dude walked past me to the corner, a cup in each hand.
She started again. “Were you seeing Her?”
“I was working.”
“Work is five minutes from here. You’re half an hour late!”
“I don’t care about the goddamn roads!”
All around us the vicarious dread had turned into morbid curiosity and everyone was staring into the corner.
He tried again. “I’m not seeing…”
“Half an hour! Where…”
“Hey! Indoor voice!” This was the barista. She was a singer in a local ska band and her voice could cut glass.
The dude shrugged helplessly, “We were just…”
“Pack it in, or take it outside!”
The woman snarled, “Fine!”
My glasses had finally cleared. I recognized the dude. He lived at the end of my street. I had seen his girlfriend around sometimes, and heard her more often, usually yelling at him. To be fair, she wasn’t the only woman I had seen at his house lately. I’d called the cops on them once after a particularly energetic argument. That was when I started spending time in the cafe.
I called across the room, “Hey Sean, is she talking about the blonde with the purple highlights or the one with the black mohawk? Or the one that’s still in high school?”
He flinched and glared at me. “What the hell dude? Mind your own business!”
“I came here to get away from you idiots. Keep your drama to yourself.”
His girlfriend blinked at me, then at him, and stood up. She brushed past him hard enough to spill his coffee and walked out the front door of the cafe. He glared at me for another moment, then followed her out the door.
Now everyone was looking at me. The barista smirked and gestured toward the door with her head.
I pulled a twenty from my wallet and dropped it in the tip jar. “Sorry about that.”
Outside the air was cold and clean and smelled like snow.
Recently I did a thing which I have planned for a long time, but never quite found the confluence of time, money and motivation to complete: I got a tattoo.
It’s a quote in a cursive Cyrillic typeface, reading “Рукописи не горят” (“Manuscripts don’t burn”) from the book The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. Nick, one of the artists at Mos Eisleys Tattoo Studio, did the inking.
“But John,” I can hear you say, “Why?”
Why, indeed. Here are my thoughts on the subject, framed as a conversation with an imaginary me, a technique which I steal, with attribution, from one of my favorite writers, John Scalzi:
Why get a tattoo?
Short answer: ‘cause.
Full answer: I’ve been meaning to get a tattoo for a long time, probably a decade. Of the many ideas and impulses, few felt right for more than a few months or a year, which is not a great basis for getting inked.
Earlier this summer my girlfriend Zyra got her first tattoo, a traditional Filipino pattern done in the traditional style by Lane Wilcken, one of the very few practicing traditional artists in the world. Lane and Zyra invited me to participate in the tattoo ceremony, and I help stretch Z’s skin while Lane inked her leg. This experience tipped me over from “might” to “will,” and now I have a tattoo.
Why in Russian?
I was a Russian Studies major in college, and spent a semester studying in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. In that time and since I have read many book by many Russian authors. For a time in the early 1990s, I was nearly fluent. I have in my house dozens of books of Russian literature, poetry, plays, philosophy and artwork. Russia, or at least the literary parts of Russia, have been quite influential in my life for decades.
I don’t remember if I first read The Master and Margarita when I was in college, or after I graduated. I do know that I was not at all ready to be in the real world when I did graduate, so I immediately went to work at a local bookstore. There I had my fill of Russian literature. So it was sometime in the early to mid- 1990s.
In early 1994 my former Russian Studies professor, Christine Rydel, hunted me down and
coerced convinced me to rejoin the RST program for a semester in Russia. During that trip I learned a great deal of Russian, drank an ungodly amount of vodka, and visited the studio of artist Andrei Kharshak (Андрей Александрович Харшак, see also), who had created a series of illustrations for an edition of The Master and Margarita published in Russia in 1994. I came home with two prints – one of Golgotha and one a sort of collage which includes a scattering of pages around a stove, echoing the scene where Satan, in the guise of Woland, tells the despondent Master “Manuscripts don’t burn.”
Over the intervening years Russian literature as an influence in my life has waxed and waned. With my (relatively) recent and (apparently) ongoing interest in literature in translation, Russian Lit is now ascendant. And with Russia influencing American politics, and thus the American zeitgeist, getting the tattoo in Russian just felt right.
Why that particular quote?
The quote, in context, appears at the beginning of the tenth line in the above photograph.
“Manuscripts don’t burn,” in the context of the book, carries the connotation that a work of art, once created, lasts forever. The Master’s book is censored by Soviet bureaucrats and he burns the manuscript. Later on, Woland and his entourage produce via sleight of hand the unharmed manuscript, stating “Manuscripts don’t burn.” The physical artifact may be destroyed, the artist may disown and disavow its existence, but for good or bad, a thing created cannot ever be un-created.
I find in this sentiment echoes of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, in these lines:
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
Once an act is performed, the universe is now one in which the act was performed. Or as Buddhists would put it, only our actions are permanent.
In a larger sense, Bulgakov wrote his book at a time when official government censorship (and censureship) prevented the publication of many works of art and literature. The Master and Margarita, written between 1928 and 1940, wasn’t published in full until 1967, and even then first in France. Yet Bulgakov persisted, and now The Master and Margarita is counted among the most important works of Russian literature.
Aren’t you kind of overthinking this whole tattoo thing?
Well maybe, but it’s a tattoo. It’s kind of permanent.
In the context of my corporeal existence, or at least that of my left arm.
Are you going to get another tattoo?
I think so. This was a great experience. Assuming time, money, health, etc., I will probably get at least one more before the end of the year. I have a few more ideas, and I have thought about them long enough that having more words on my skin will be neither impulsive nor disruptive. At least one will be on more visible skin.
Thank you for sharing.
Thank you for listening!
Last week was light on new reading material arriving at the house, in no small part because I’m taking a break from buying books because I’ve spent so much money recently on new books. These are all from subscription. From the top: Apex Magazine #111, McSweeney’s #53 and the September/October issue of Poets & Writers.
McSweeney’s has a waterproof vinyl cover and arrived in a plastic Ziploc bag similar to one which might be found in a department store, containing an assortment of underwear of t-shirts. The bag also contained a number of balloons, each of which has printed upon it a paragraph of text which may or may not be part of a short story if the balloons were all inflated and arranged in the proper order. Oh, McSweeney’s. Never stop being wonderful.
Another fine week for reading. From top to bottom, they are: Fence, Patio, Blessed Virgin by Kristin Brace, The Cooking Gene by Michael W. Twitty, Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, Narrator by Bragi Olaffson, Salvage issue #5, and Jacobin issue #30.
Kristin announced Fence, Patio, Blessed Virgin at a reading back in, I think, late April. This is her first book, and it is wonderful!
I picked up The Cooking Gene and Kitchen Confidential at the We Are Lit popup bookstore, which was set up in the Downtown Market in Grand Rapids. They are run entirely online, with occasional popups, and have an excellently curated selection of books.
Narrator came in as the most recent volume from my subscription to Open Letter Books.
Salvage is an interesting journal based in England, to which I subscribed on a whim. I discovered it during an afternoon of reading leftist fiction and researching different -punk subgenres. I came across a reference to “salvagepunk” and, upon further inquiry, this was one of the top results, with China Mieville’s name displayed prominently. I honestly never expected to receive any issues of this, but here it is, and it is a thing of beauty.
Receiving a new issue of Jacobin is always a pleasure. The writing is top-notch, the content important and interesting (particularly in the current pre-apocalyptic political climate), and the physical artifact is a thing of beauty.
This was a good week for books. From top to bottom: Selected Poems of Sergei Yesenin, Voronezh Notebooks by Osip Mandelstam, First Love and Other Stories by Ivan Turgenev, Selected Poems of Vladimir Mayakovsky, The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts, Celadon by Ian Haight, Granta issue #144, Apex Magazine Issue 110, and Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse.
For links to these authors, books and publishers, please see their listings on my 2018 Reading List page.
Thanks to a small gift card from work, I was able to pick up the four Russian authors from Amazon.com. They are unusual-enough titles that I didn’t want to burden the local bookstores with hunting them down. The Watts and Roanhorse books I ordered from Books and Mortar here in Grand Rapids, and I have ongoing subscriptions to the two journals. I picked up Ian Haight’s book at a small signing in Lowell this past Monday. It was great to finally meet Ian, after publishing him in Issue 1.3 of The 3288 Review, back in early 2016.
Since I just finished reading At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell and Paternus by Dyrk Ashton, Trail of Lightning is currently at the top of the to-read pile, and I can’t wait to dive in.