Riley Michael Parker – Featured Author, September
2011/09/14 § 1 Comment
Unshod Quills features Portlander Riley Michael Parker, musing on the themes of America, somewhere never travelled, gladly beyond and fire.
Five Killers –
on the theme of America
One of the most interesting American cases, Rodney was a contestant on The Dating Game in the midst of his career as a rapist and murderer. Had he been a known serial killer, I’m sure it would have been the television event of the year. The footage, available online, is difficult to watch. In the context in which he is now known, his actions are very creepy and his words telling, but he actually won the game, was selected that evening as the bachelor worth dating. Seeing him laugh, obviously having fun, is the most discomforting. We like to think that killers are nothing like us, but in truth they are, just like us, because they are all just people. Broken, wicked people, yes, but people first, people who crave fame, and try and get onto game shows, and laugh, and flirt, and make art, and have friends, and help build their communities, and believe wholeheartedly in the right to pursue happiness, if not so much the life and liberty bit. People. Always people. Often white. Often men.
The chameleon. Ted was so good at killing people that it seems as if it happened by grand design. He was handsome, charismatic, and intelligent, all in an incredibly average way that witnesses could never seem to describe with any clarity. He had no sense of guilt. The man was arrested for or suspected of several of the murders that he eventually admitted to, but was so good at covering up his tracks, and, eventually, at physically escaping, that it seemed at one point that he would never be brought to justice. He eventually died in the electric chair, but didn’t understand how he ended up there. The concept of this man is so frightening and so unfathomable that he has inspired just as much comedy in the art world as he has horror, with several of the works based on him described by reviewers as “hilarious”.
Having only killed three people, Gein is possibly the most famous American killer of all time. Gein was obsessed with his mother, and after she died he decided that he wanted to be a female; that he wanted to be like her. His main approach to fulfilling this need was the creation of a suit made from women’s skin, skin that he stole from bodies he dug up in the middle of the night. Gein made masks, a lampshade, even seat covers out of human skin, and kept several preserved body parts. The man had several heads in his home, including the heads of two of his victims, both middle-aged women, and a skull on every post of his bed. He has been the inspiration for so many Americans, including writers, filmmakers, visual artists, americana pop musicians, and quite a few murderers. There’s a good chance that you have at least one piece of art in your house, whether it be film, or literature, or a picture in a magazine, that would not exist if Ed Gein hadn’t murdered women and desecrated human remains. As awful as it is, I would bet money.
Known as the “Werewolf of Wysteria” and “The Brooklyn Vampire,” Hamilton “Albert” Fish was a child murderer and a masochist of epic proportions. The man would stick needles into his groin and leave them there, and he swallowed objects to cause himself discomfort. Most notably, he was a cannibal. After being apprehended, Fish proudly described his cooking methods to anyone who would listen. You can google them. They are grizzly.
JOHN WAYNE GACY
Gacy strangled and drowned young men and teenage boys, thirty-three in total. Most of these boys were hidden in the crawl space of his house, with a few more buried in his garden. He was a charitable man, a friendly figure, well-liked, and he was known to perform as a clown, a character named “Pogo”. Once in prison, Gacy made a small fortune selling clown paintings, and even painted a portrait of punk rock icon GG Allin (born Jesus Christ Allin), which later became the cover of one of his albums.
Riley, on “fire.”
IN THE HOUSE WE BUILT FROM COFFINS
In the darkness there is a woman in black panties, topless, sockless, with a pipe in her mouth that has never been smoked, her hair unkempt, unruly, but long and beautiful.
In the darkness there is a woman with three sons living inside her, not infants but full-grown men, dressed in pinstripe suits and black overcoats with buttons made of ivory.
In the darkness there is a woman hanging, strung up for talking back to her mother, her dress with unlit candles fashioned at the bottom, turning her from a woman into a chandelier.
In the darkness we are miserable, and so we bring the fire.
We light the candles.
We take up smoking.
We burn the things that remind us of the darkness.
In the light of the fire we see things that frighten and amaze us.
A brother once thought missing walks among us, the boy now mute, a blade stuck in his mouth and out through his neck. We ask him what has happened and he tells us, with ink and paper, that he had taken up sword swallowing to impress a woman, but in the dark someone mistook him for choking and attempted the Heimlich Maneuver.
An uncle who we thought was shrinking has grown to twice his original size, his body now bent over, the man walking like a horse, beatle boots on his feet and hands, wearing a pinstripe suit like any other worthy gentleman. We all ask him for a ride, and he takes us, two at a time, around the estate, kicking and bucking for the sake of excitement, proud to finally have a place in our hearts.
A son has become seven sons, the men huddled together, all immaculately dressed, their hair, black as night, all parted in the same place, their eyes, unblinking, identical wells of eternal depth. We ask them how long this has been going on, and together, the seven shrug.
Sisters in pointed hoods and nothing else.
Cousins naked, holding knives.
Snakes and shotguns and men like bats, antlers, mustaches, fingerless gloves.
An uncle who has become a room.
A mother who is down to fuck.
A father who is now a demon, his head that of a goat and a wolf mixed together, with wings of dark feathers spanning several feet, his black jean pants torn at the bottom from when his feet turned into hooves, and as he hovers a few inches off of the ground he spits leeches from his jaws, and maggots, and mice, and he looks us in the eyes, somehow he is able to focus his attention on all of us at once, and he invites us to be like him.
In the light of the fire we see, finally, the purpose of darkness.
On the theme “Somewhere Never Traveled, Gladly Beyond.”
We were lost in Noble, a town too small to be lost in, looking for her mother’s house. She hadn’t been to Oklahoma in eight years, maybe nine, it was hard for her to say for certain, and since then her mother had moved twice.
I said, “It doesn’t matter how many times she’s moved, we just need to find her now,” but she was upset that the woman had moved at all, that the town had moved on without her, that the place where she grew up practically didn’t exist anymore.
She said, “None of this looks familiar.”
I said, “Should it?”
“Of course it should. I grew up in this goddamned town.”
We took our time driving through the neighborhoods, me looking for her mother’s house and her looking for herself as a child, trying to place memories with the streets that she had done her best to forget. She would almost speak every so often, just a soft little yelp as she would start to share something that had happened to her, or something she had done, but then she would stop herself, unwilling to validate the memory by acknowledging it out loud.
I said, “Is there anyone besides your mother that you want to try and see?”
She said, “I think I’m the only one I know anymore without a baby or a meth problem.”
I put my hand on her knee.
“Well it’s never too late to catch up.”
She said, “Yep,” but kept looking out the passenger side window, uninterested in sharing a smile with me.
We stopped at a local burger shop to get a soft serve and to ask directions, but when we got to the counter she wouldn’t let me give them the address.
“I spent my whole life here,” she said. “We’ll find the damn house.”
With ice creams in hand we got back in the car and I rolled down the windows. We were burning too much gas as it was and I didn’t want to run the AC anymore. It was a wet heat, not what I expected from Oklahoma, and our ice creams went faster than the station wagon, her eyes looking at each and every house as if it held everything she was looking for, but we couldn’t even find her mother’s street.
“There,” she said. “Let’s stop at that yard sale.”
If she hadn’t of told me it was a yard sale I would never have guessed it on my own. I didn’t grow up in Oklahoma, lived in Connecticut my whole life, but the lawn was how I had pictured all of the south to look like — parts from old cars, dishes and clothes in haphazard piles, two grizzled women sitting in a lawn chairs, smoking cigarettes and drinking sweet tea. We got out of the car and began to look through the women’s wares as they talked to one another.
“…the boy didn’t even stop to help her up, just kept on drivin’.”
One of the women, the younger-looking of the two, the one with strips of dark color in her white/yellow hair, was telling the other a story, smoking for dramatic effect.
“Christ… How did they catch him?”
“Well, that’s the thing, they didn’t.”
This other woman, the older-looking one, dressed in a pink sequined sweater and stretch pants, just glared at her friend, practically begging with her eyes for the lady to finish the story, but the stroyteller, the younger one, was relishing this control she had over the conversation, obviously practiced in keeping other old women in suspense. I tried to ignore the women, took to looking at a box of old VHS, just a couple of comedies from the era of Chevy Chase and Steve Martin, a Looney Tunes tape and the first half of Lonesome Dove, but I kept an ear turned to the conversation. My girlfriend just stood and stared at them, uninterested in subtlety.
“Damn it Betty,” the older of the two women said, “are you gonna tell me what happened or ain’t ya?”
“All right, all right,” she said, pretending to be burdened, “I’ll tell you. So the fella, the Johanson boy for those of you who showed up late,” the woman looked at both me and my girlfriend to let us know that we weren’t eavesdropping, to get it across to us that we were as welcome to her story as we were on her lawn, “was so guilt-ridden from hittin’ the girl, so upset from killin’ a little teenage nobody, and then, worse than that, for speedin’ off like a coward because he was too afraid of going back to jail, well, he got so down on himself that he…” the woman quieted, leaned in, added a quiver to her voice on purpose, “that he went home and strung himself up in his parents’ garage. God’s honest, the boy took his own life to stay out of jail.”
The woman leaned back, trying not to smile, obviously pleased with herself for having this information, pleased with the way that she was telling us the story, how well she was pretending to be broken up about it.
“Yep, killed himself,” she continued. “The mother found him the next morning, swingin’ from the rafters. And here’s the kicker,” she leaned in again, “the child he hit didn’t even die, didn’t even really get hurt, just a little scraped up, and she didn’t tell her parents about it either, worried that she would get in trouble on account of sneakin’ out in the middle of the night. The only reason any of this came to the light of day, the accident and all, was because the boy had a note in his pocket that said the whole thing, even about the girl. He’d recognized the girl he hit and still didn’t stop. I mean, the boy was a coward three times over.”
“Was his name Scott?”
The two women looked up at my girlfriend, their faces twisted in confusion as if she were speaking a foreign language.
“What now, honey?”
“Was the guy’s name Scott? The Johanson boy you mentioned, the one that hung himself, that hit the girl, was his name Scott?”
My girlfriend had told me about Scott before, not a boyfriend of hers but the boyfriend of a close friend all through high school. He was funny, if I remember right, and a bit reckless, the catalyst in a lot of her stories about being young and out for trouble. He was the one who first took her to Oklahoma City, there to see some band he had made friends with, her first concert, I think, held in a country western bar that had been taken over by what would pass for punks in the South, her and her friends having to sneak in the back because the lot of them were five years from the drinking age.
“No,” the older woman said, the one in the pink sequined sweater, “his name was Michael. Michael Johanson, Tom and Marsha’s boy”
“Wrong Johanson’s if you’re lookin’ for Scott,” the other one said. “That would be Bill and Cindy. Their boy hasn’t been around in a while. Last I heard he cleaned out their bank account and went off to Florida with a black girl.”
“Like it matters.”
“I’d bet money that he’s in jail. That damn kid couldn’t seem to stay on the streets for more than two months at a time.”
“And he has at least three kids.”
“From three different women, no less.”
“Never had a job though.”
“Not unless you count stealing from his parents and sleeping half the day.”
“Well,” my girlfriend said, “I guess I haven’t missed much then.”
The two old women stopped their banter and looked at us for the first time with interest, first at my girlfriend, then me, and then our car, then back at the girl.
“You from around here, sugar?”
“No,” she said, trying her best to smile, “I don’t think I am.”
My girlfriend showed the women the address, the younger one gave directions, and I bought a romance novel off the older one just to be polite.
On the theme “America.”
WE LIVE IN IDENTICAL HOUSES
My wife is a brunette, and you can’t quite say for certain, but it’s possible your wife is blonde. In the summers our children are best friends, but only because they can’t drive and we don’t have the time to take them anywhere, but at school they are strangers at best. Your daughter has told you this, and you told me. My daughter never talks about your daughter, even in the summertime. We have boys too, one a piece, both brunette. Your son once beat up my son in the locker room, over what, neither will say, but for two months a year they stare at the same television, throwing grenades, racing cars, jumping on the backs of turtles. Our wives drink themselves silly.
In the summer, we have barbecues. Your wife, now a redhead but possibly a blonde by birth, makes chicken macaroni salad, and my wife, the brunette, can’t cook anything worth a damn so we bring booze and ribs for the grill. We always cook at your house because we have the dog and your daughter is allergic. Your daughter has braces latched onto big teeth, and straight brown hair, and freckles, and no breasts to speak of. She is funny to compensate, but no one in your family ever laughs at her jokes, hoping to discourage her from being anything but pretty. Her straight A’s amount to next to nothing in your eyes, because good grades are not what it takes to find a husband, and you want your daughter to take after your wife (the woman has never even had a job, not as a teenager or anything, and though you sort of hate this you wouldn’t have it any other way).
In the autumn months my wife always returns to the life of a teacher, our last name scrawled on a white board above a page number, a homework assignment, a due date. She failed your son the year she had him, or moreover he failed himself, but your wife talked my wife out of it so that your boy could keep playing football. On paper he got a C+, but still, you hold a grudge against the woman. She is thin with small hips, has bags under her eyes, but she is pretty. She is an angry woman, not at anything in particular, just in general, usually out to pick a fight and always out to win. We get along best when there’s something to distract us, but I hear that’s how it is for everyone anymore. The sex is irregular at best.
One autumn, a few years ago, your wife made a pass at me. It was early afternoon, and I was home due to weather, and your wife was in her bathrobe on the porch, looking at the mailbox as if it were a hundred miles away, obviously afraid of the rain. As a gentleman, I took your mail up to your door.
“Come in,” she said. “Let me make you a cup of coffee.”
In your kitchen she served me a slice of cheesecake and a cup of re-heated coffee, and she smiled at me fiercely, like there was money in it, and when I looked down her robe was open. Your wife has breasts that look to be just over a handful, only a bit soft, hanging fairly low, but her stomach is flat, her thighs decent. Your wife has brown pubic hair, but this proves nothing. Some women are blondes and brunettes all at once.
I said, “Thank you for the coffee,” my eyes still on her chest.
Your wife said, “Maybe I can interest you in some dessert,” as if she had forgotten about the cheesecake.
I smiled and touched her cheek, then let myself out.
In the beginning of winter we put up Christmas lights, always on the same weekend, keeping each other company, yelling from one roof to the other about this and that, complimenting and teasing each other back and forth. We take pride in our display, take pride in appearances. Our wives buy each other presents, our daughters always get roles in the paegent, and we sit together, husband wife husband wife, me next to yours or you next to mine. Our sons stay home, living their shared life of electronic nothingness, but in separate rooms in separate houses.
In the winter we celebrate our children, both of yours born in February, both of mine born in January, their birthdays running in the shadow of Christmas. My son never wants a party anymore, has been against them since he was only six or seven, and both of our daughters have moved from a child’s party to the sleepovers of an adolescent, and so our winters are not what they used to be, but once, long ago, it was all one big party for us, a reason to drink and get together, to laugh, to confide in our friends and neighbors. Now, after the new year, we will nod to one another if we catch each other outside, or wave, or ask a meaningless question that we don’t care to hear the answer to. Once in a while we will mention a beer, but we almost never get one.
Every spring you lease a car, and I buy something new every three or four years, always a truck, not exactly out preference, but more for appearances. I spend my days with men, telling them where to dig, what to build, and you work with women, selling the houses that I bring into being. On the surface we need each other, but the truth is that no one needs either of us. I did not invent the structure, and you did not invent the sale, and both of our wives are the type to remarry if we passed away. They have never said such a thing out loud, but everyone knows it’s true. Sometimes it feels as if my wife is simply waiting.
On spring evenings we watch the same shows in nearly identical living rooms, drink the same beer from different bottles, call our wives the same nicknames. We are so similar, you and I. We never knew each other when we were young, but it feels like I grew up with you the way our kids have grown up together, but we keep to ourselves more and more with each passing year.
Now and then, if we find ourselves in our respective back yards at the same time of night, the two of us will sit at the fence and talk about our day, or sports, or what our children have been up to. Once, on a night like this, you tried to tell me something important.
You said, “It never feels like I’m me anymore. I look in the mirror and I see my face, but it doesn’t mean anything. I feed the kids, I house the wife, but I have nothing, and I used to feel like I had everything. I don’t really have a family anymore, because none of them will even talk to me. Anymore I feel like I am just a means to an end, like I am a necessary nuisance, a side character in my own life. Do you ever feel that way?”
I took a drink of my beer, looked up at the sky.
“Not really,” I said. “It’s not everything I thought it would be, but it gets me through.”
“Yeah,” you said. “I don’t really know what I meant by that anyway,” and then you walked back to your house, went inside, shut off the kitchen light.
Riley on Riley:
Riley Michael Parker is a cat inside a fox inside a wolf inside a cabin in a forest hidden in the pubic hair of a beautiful (if only pale and kind of short) woman with big grey eyes more like switchblades than anything a woman should have, and this woman is in a coffin in a fox inside a wolf disguised as an old man drinking gin and tonics in the bowels of a sinking/burning ship so far from shore that there is no point in even trying to swim.
Also he is a writer, filmmaker, and visual artist living in the Pacific Northwest. His first novel, A PLAGUE OF WOLVES AND WOMEN, is available starting 10/19/2011 from Lazy Fascist Press, and he recently edited the epic story and poem collection NOUNS OF ASSEMBLAGE for his own publishing company, HOUSEFIRE (available now).