Todd Easton Mills
Todd Easton Mills
Todd Easton Mills is a writer of poetry and short stories. For many years he defined himself as a traveler, working his way around the world as a cook's offsider, laborer, and teacher. He co-wrote and produced the documentary Timothy Leary's Dead. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Jet Fuel Review, The Legendary, ONTHEBUS, The Coe Review, Yellow Silk, The Alembic, Sage Trails, RiverSedge, Griffin, Forge, Voices, Crack the Spine, Antiocracy, Rougarou, and the anthology Poets on 9-11. He is a graduate of Antioch University and lives with his Zimbabwean wife in Ojai California.
Timothy, who for months had been homeless, painted for a gallery on 5th Avenue and 32nd Street, two blocks from the Empire State Building. His work resembled that of Franz Kline, black and red geometrics on large canvases, Expressionist slashes with the fluidity of a child. Fred, the gallery owner, had discovered Timothy chalking portraits in Central Park. He looked through Timothy's designs on neatly clipped newspaper and cardboard. "You're good," he said. "If you need a job, I've got work."
The studio for the artists was in the basement below the gallery. Fred provided paint, brushes, canvases, and a chemical accelerant to mix with the oil paint to make it dry faster. It was 1999, and the cognoscenti wanted modern. In this case the cognoscenti were tourists walking down 5th who "saw the sign" and were looking for "something creative for over the sofa."
Jara, a Polish Surrealist, worked with Timothy in the musty studio. She dressed like a Bohemian in a painter's smock and flop hat and wore horn-rim glasses, but it was no secret that she was a beauty hiding in rags.
Jara was Timothy's accelerant. She was slender with sandy hair parted down the middle and she slept in a white T-shirt with holes that exposed her lovely parts. They spent weekends in her small apartment, where together they read The Little Prince in French and poems of Gertrude Stein—the latter of which she described as Cubism. They had been lovers for three months when she told him she had decided to move in with the man who had been her sponsor.
She lit a cigarette. "Yes, he helped me when I first came to the city. He's a psychiatrist. Fifty years old and very strong. He can do giant swings on the horizontal bar. He reads Zukofsky."
"But—I love you," Timothy said, his voice trembling.
"I know you do—and I love you," she said. "You are the part of me I like best, the one who understands the adventure."
His hands suddenly felt cold. "But if you love me—"
She stroked his long hair. "You are a beautiful boy, Timothy. But I'm an artist. I need a studio. I can't work in that basement anymore. What is more important, love or art?"
"Love," he said, "love, of course!"
"'If a horse could but sing Bach. Mother, remember how I wished it once.'" She handed him a heavy, hardback volume. "It's Zukofsky."
"Who is Zukofsky?"
# # #
It was a warm day in April. To forget about Jara, Timothy had quit his job and bought a one-way ticket to Paris. He had been exploring the city by bicycle for five days, and he had rented a lightweight model from an odd man who insisted he also rent a basket for picnics in the park. On the Left Bank Timothy found Shakespeare and Company, where he asked an English girl about a book by Gertrude Stein. She was helpful. "By the way, do you know Louis Zukofsky?"
The clerk said: "I know Stein, of course, but who is Zukofsky?"
He showed the clerk his book.
"It looks beautifully turgid," she said.
Beautiful and turgid, he thought, that's Jara.
An hour later, Timothy sat at a café near the Seine, under a red umbrella. He opened the cover of Zukofsky's long poem, "A," and, thumbing through its twenty-four movements, found something that drilled him like ice:
"River that must turn full after I stop dying."
He transcribed the words into his notebook, pressing firmly on the lined paper. "River that must turn full after I stop dying." He thought about it and changed from pencil to pen. He wanted to make it indelible; as the ink flowed new thoughts came.
On a bicycle you pedal and then you glide. It always makes me feel better, and every day I ride further. In a utopian world, bicycle trails, not concrete lanes, would connect all parts of the city. I like to explore by crossing bridges—these are her ribs, and you can follow her long legs on either side of the Seine. "What angel waken me from my flowery bed?" That's easy, mister Zukofsky: my Jara.
He sipped his double espresso slowly. The coffee was strong, but with double sugar he thought it tasted like a melted Heath Bar. I like vibrating on cobbled streets and, when I find a smooth stretch, I like to glide with my feet on the handlebars. I have been to Notre Dame twice today, wheeling like a hawk around the cathedral, "enthralled by thy shape." When I looked up I saw the eroded ears and beaks of gargoyles.
"I'll have a toasted sandwich, ham and cheese, and another double espresso."
Timothy wrote left-handed, wrist straight up; his long body was hunched over. His hand had cramped. Why am I so excited? Zukofsky's poetry is so difficult to understand. Is that the mystery? Did Jara want me to submerge and never emerge? She knows how I get lost in ideas. Did she want me to discover a new obsession?
He left a tip, contrary to French custom, and headed for the Louvre. He felt like going fast, so he stood up for leverage and pumped hard, building momentum before gliding. On Pont des Art he yelled: "Zoo-zoo-kaw-kaw-of-the-sky!" What happy notes! It was a beautiful, sunny day, and he was riding a bike in Paris. This is how you free the mind. You open up and let in the air. You let Zukofsky in!
At the Louvre, as he passed an urn on a double pedestal, another line popped into his head: "When you are phosphates—" he couldn't remember the rest. He skidded to a stop, uprooting the grass. He found a park bench and pulled out "A." Where is that stanza? "When you are phosphates . . ." Timothy said aloud. Yes, when I'm phosphates. When I'm dead. Dead, dead, dead! This isn't good for me. I need to clear my head.
The following day, which was warm with a blue sky, he went again to the café with red umbrellas. There was a budding chestnut electrified by the morning sunlight. Men in blue coveralls worked with picks and shovels, digging out a section of sidewalk. He left his copy of "A" in the hotel room but brought a book of poetry and photographs by Gertrude Stein. He had taken the Zukofsky pill to forget Jara, now he would take another pill. He opened Gertrude Stein, In Words and Pictures and studied the photograph of Gertrude's apartment, where the mother of Modernism sat under Picasso's Naked Boy and White Horse. He thought about that world and how Gertrude's rhythm infected those around her, even Hemingway, like a virus. He wrote down a line of Gertrude's poetry.
"So you see I am because my little dog knows me."
The smell of gas leaking from a pipe made him look up. He saw a man across the street smiling at him. He quietly repeated the line, his lips barely moving. "So you see I am because my little dog knows me."
Hello, Jara. Now you come back as Gertrude. I am going to get lost in her strange sentences today. "So you see I am because my little dog knows me." I will let this new line be my refrain. It feels good to repeat. I repeat in my mind and repeat with my body. Pedaling is repeating. Jara would read to me and then we would make love. That's how I was trained.
He stood up to stretch. Timothy noticed a beetle on the edge of a potted plant. Gertrude is my new bug. She has crawled into my ear. "So you see I am because my little dog knows me."
He was ready to leave when the man across the street—a bookseller—came into focus. He was waving Timothy to come over.
"Me?" Timothy pointed to himself.
Yes, yes! the bookseller gestured.
The bookseller's tables were in front of a boarded-up shop. There were signs advertising 50% off.
"Are you writing a book?" he asked Timothy, dusting the jackets with a rag. He was bald and missing two front teeth but smiling broadly.
"An essay of sorts," Timothy replied. "Are you a writer?"
The bookseller laughed. "Sometimes, but there're better things to do."
Timothy thought about that.
"Will you join me for a drink?"
"Sit here, young man."
The bookseller, Henry, was an attractive man. He had large blue eyes and a nicely shaped head that was bronzed from the sun. On the window of the boarded shop was a sign that said: I SPEAK ENGLISH, FRENCH, AND SWEDISH.
"I'm going to the market for a bottle. What do you drink?" Henry asked.
"Absinthe," joked Timothy.
"Absinthe makes you crazy," Henry said.
"Crazy is good," Timothy laughed.
That reminded Henry of Marie from Cameroon, who had a beautiful body "but was greedy." After he gave her a Gucci handbag for her birthday, she accused him of giving her a fake.
"She was stupid. I stole it from the Gucci store myself!"
"You stole it?"
"I steal because people steal from me. For twenty years they robbed my bookstore. When I go into a shop, no one suspects someone like me would steal. I'm a moth-there-fuck-care. I don't care if I get cut. I don't care. Maybe if I get cut and go to prison, my daughter will speak to me again."
"This is for the drinks." Timothy handed Henry a note.
"I don't need money."
"Neither do I!" Timothy laughed.
Inside the boarded-up store, Timothy could see men in Arab dress cooking over an open fire. Fifteen minutes later, Henry returned with a baguette, two bottles of Perrier, a wheel of cheese, and a bottle of 40 proof Pastis.
"How many books did you sell while I was gone?"
"One. Goethe, eight Euro."
"Excellent, my young friend. You like books, don't you, Timothy?"
"I think I have been reading too much."
"That's easy to do. I read too much as a young man."
"What did you read?"
"I read everything. I liked modern writers. James Joyce was my favorite. I thought I understood him, until I realized that I was rewriting the parts I didn't understand in my mind. He is completely unreadable, but beautiful."
"That's how Zukofsky is. I've been reading 'A.' Do you know it?"
"I know about 'A' but haven't read it. Wasn't Zukofsky a friend of Pound?"
"They were rivals."
Timothy cut a small piece of cheese from the thick wheel.
"Not like that, Timothy. You don't cut cheese like that. Let me show you."
He cut from the center point to remove Timothy's offensive gouge.
"Timothy, what kind of women do you like?"
"All kinds," Timothy said happily.
Henry poured more Pastis, adding drops of water that spiraled into the yellowish spirit.
"How often do you steal, Henry?"
"Every day. I steal things I don't need. I shove everything down my pants. I get away because I don't care. I am completely immoral. But let me tell you about Marie. She wants to kill me."
"I told her a rich American was staying at the Ritz and wanted to meet her. I told her he was crazy for red and that he would pay 400 Euro for an hour."
"She dressed up in a red dress, red shoes, and a little red hat. She waited for two hours, then called me, screaming. Do you want to meet Marie?" He dialed. "Talk to her. She wants to kill me."
"Let me talk to her," Timothy said, a little drunk.
"Tell her you are the American who waited at the bar."
Timothy laughed. "Hello, Marie. Bonjour. I am a friend of Henry. Yes, the American. I'm the one who waited at the Ritz. What do I look like? I'm older than Henry. Not tall. But a big man. I saw several women I thought might be you, but no one in a purple dress. What's that? A red dress? No, my favorite color is purple."
Henry roared. He laughed so hard that he choked on a piece of bread, and Timothy had to pound him on the back.
Henry's laugh made Timothy laugh. "You're crazy, Henry."
"Timothy, there is someone I would like you to meet. Her name is Laura. I'm going to call her and ask her to stop by. She likes Americans. This is the key to my apartment. You'll like the way her mind works. She reads too much, like you." Henry laughed.
"You trust me like that?"
"Yes, like that. You paid for the drinks. You gave me 50 Euro and let me walk away."
"I gave you 20."
"It doesn't matter." Henry stood up and groped inside his pants. "I almost forgot the rest of our aperitif." He produced a sausage. "I stole the sausage and the cheese. Laura speaks good English. My apartment is three blocks from here."
Henry's two-room apartment was stacked with books: philosophy, history, fiction, and art. On a worktable were his books with French cartoons. One was opened to a page that showed a gangly man hanging from the blade of a poorly patched windmill. Timothy was enjoying the cartoons when Laura walked in.
"Who are you?" she asked in French.
"I'm Timothy, Henry's friend." He answered in English.
"He told me he had a surprise for me. This is how my father thinks."
"Henry's your father?"
She walked over to the sink and inspected the dirty dishes. "He's my father, but he's more like a child. I worry about him. He has been bad since he lost the bookstore and my mother left him. He was in the hospital for five months for depression."
"We just met today."
"That's interesting, just today? You know, he used to be quite a famous man. A cartoonist. A wit!"
She was wearing a gray blouse and lightweight gray skirt. She had thick blonde hair up in a braid and looked Swedish. She had intelligent eyes like Henry's and her father's full lower lip.
"He's funny. Everybody on the street loves your father."
"All the whores in Paris."
"What are you writing?" she asked, picking up his notebook.
"A book about a possible future," Timothy said.
"A possible future? What's that?"
"I like to imagine what might be."
"What might be? You never know what might be."
Laura moved the books off the sofa and chairs. Timothy helped, noting the titles of Henry's books: Les Fleurs du Mal, by Baudelaire; In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust; two photography books by Helmut Newton. She didn't touch the dishes but went to Henry's bed and flattened the sheets and pulled up the crumpled bedspread.
"Are you a poet or a lover?" she asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Do you want words or pleasure?
"Are the two mutually exclusive?"
"That's a word answer. I think you think too much."
"What did your father tell you?"
She laughed. "He said you were a nice-looking young man with a sense of humor, but I'm not sure I like your answers." She opened Timothy's notebook and read solemnly. After a long silence, she shook her head.
"You have an interesting voice. But there's nothing here." She produced a gold Dunhill lighter from a drawer and held the flame under his ruled pages.
"Are you a poet or a lover?"
"I'm a painter. I'm a writer. What are you doing?"
"Poet or lover?" She unbuttoned two buttons of her blouse, revealing the swell above her black lace bra. "What are you, Timothy?"
"Lover! Lover, of course!"
"Right choice." She held the flame until the notebook caught fire and dropped it on the kitchen floor.
He was about to run over and stamp it out when she held up her hand.
On a burned page, it read: "I exist because my little dog knows me." I don't want to think about this anymore. I came to Paris to forget about Jara. Now, alone, my mind runs wild. There are easy ways to change the world:
By 2115, bicycles will be the primary source of transportation. Bicycle trails will run through gardens and forested paths, far from the freeways and traffic. There will be a natural abhorrence for the direct route because the path is more beautiful when it rambles. Men will work for the love of the garden or to improve their physical fitness. The strongest will hone stone and build beautiful walls. Incremental workers, those who, a century before, were denied work, will have the option to work as much or as little as they need. They will tend plants, restock food and drinks, and replace supplies in the discrete cabinets hidden in specially grown trees. Incremental pay for incremental work means no man will ever again be without a job.
When Laura stepped out of her skirt, Timothy felt a warm rush and was transported.
In a clearing, the court grass was shaved close. Laura asked if he wanted to play a game of badminton. She opened an invisible door in the tree with a swipe of her graceful hand.
"I like to hit hard," she said, swinging her racket.
"I like to hit it hard too," he said, pushing back his long hair.
As they played, the red rubber nose of the birdie found the sweet spot of their rackets and soared into blue sky. Timothy hit a high shot that skimmed the leaves of a sycamore. Laura returned it straight and close to the net. They played hard until they were sweating and out of breath, and when they were done, they laid out in the sun on the picnic blanket. She was wearing a white T-shirt with a design that looked like Franz Kline, with black and red slashes, faded from too many washings. Under her long neck hung a small necklace of tattooed syllables. "Zu-zu-kaw-kaw-of-the-sky." He thought he understood, and asked: "'If a horse could but sing Bach?'"
"What did you say?"
"What is your best sport, Laura?"
"I like them all," she said. "'I exist because I have a body.'"
"I exist because I have a body too," Timothy said. "My little dog is dead."