Thomm Quackenbush, author

When the Masks Are Off | 2010 | Beside Still Water

08.15.10 3:11 p.m.

Follow your inner moonlight; don't hide the madness.  

-Allen Ginsberg

 


The Center of Madness

Jinx  
Jinx

Over tea on her parents' back porch, we ask Jinx whether she had any romances in Deutschland, where she spent a semester studying. She admits that there was one, though it hardly ranked as torrid. He was in his early thirties and found on the dating site we all visit. He was a seven minute walk from her flat and she figured that she might as well try a foreign fling, if just for the novelty of having done it. She ended it when she realized their relationship consisted of watching movies and episodes of The Family Guy in English, something she could easily get stateside (and would not want). I am not even certain that they spoke German together, which would at least earn the cuddling a single star from the Cannes Film Festival. Still, she did better at the foreign fling concept than her Chinese classmate, who lived by the mantra (and up to the stereotype of) "no boyfriends!"

Beside this, Jinx was not wholly satisfied with the experience of Germany, though she was grateful to have it under her belt. In retrospect, she wished she had practiced her German more and spoke with the English speakers less (though she expresses some consolation that she at least spoke English with a French girl and the aforementioned Chinese girl). She spent money she didn't have to visit other countries in Europe, because she was there and knew she'd best take advantage while she could.

Melanie behaves more exuberantly in Jinx's presence. She rarely keeps her own accent for long, verbally venturing across the whole of the British Empire, taking side trips to France and Russia, all in the space of a minute. I wonder whether this is how Melanie always is in Jinx's presence, the absurdity spraying in a torrent. It had been building up urgent pressure and cannot be released slowly.
Kestrel  
Kestrel

I am delighted to see Jinx, of course, but less loquaciously. She ranks among my favorite people and I fantasize about our one day living with her and her sister. However, my excitement is dampened not only by my disinclination toward silly voices (I am a recovering addict), but because I am horrifically allergic to her three cats and no pill proves remedy. They do, however, make me spacey enough that I have to fight my way out of my skull in order to contribute meaningfully.

The night is getting late without dinner. I had forgotten that meals in Jinx's household tend to be piecemeal, that one simply eats when one wishes and what one wishes. I press the issue and am told our surest bet for food is Kestrel.

We drive half an hour in the dark. Melanie has Jinx sit in the front seat, ostensibly to navigate, but mostly because she misses having Jinx at her side after the intolerable time apart. I am not one to fuss, at this allows me to scribble notes in the backseat with impunity.

We drive to where Kestrel is house-sitting for a gay couple. There is mention of sheep (at least, I think there is - the allergy pills have rendered it such that I see odd visions when I close my eyes), but I don't see any when we arrive and are ushered into Kestrel's waiting arms.

Though we had grabbed a bagful of various ingredients from Jinx's home, there is little coherence. In theory, a meal could be made by combining these properly, but it would not be a meal that made sense. Melanie appoints herself the head chef and, in the process, makes some catty remark to me.
Melanie  
A darling wrapped in allergens.

I raise an eyebrow and remind her, "Jinx is on the list of people you don't have to act tough around. Keep that in mind."

"It's a force of habit."

It is ten before there is something like a meal, cous cous and what I will call improvisational curry (tomatoes, mushrooms, and curry powder). At this point, I would eat most anything, but am grateful that Melanie's culinary experiment bore tasty fruit.

Jinx mentions that Kestrel will be studying abroad in India in the fall. Though I have never been to India and (unless I am scheduled on a book tour in Mumbai) am unlikely to be going there in the foreseeable future, I try to never let such silly things as a "lack of practical knowledge" interfere with my advice-giving, especially given her keenness on Buddhism.

"If you are going all the way to India, you absolutely have to go to Dharamsala," I insist. "It is the seat of the Dalai Lama's government in exile, since they were booted from Tibet."

Kestrel pulls up a map on her computer, pointing where she will be studying. It is fairly central. I could not find Dharamsala on a map, aside from assuming it was somewhere near China and, were this a more detailed map, near the smidge of land that I will assume to be Tibet, from which His Holiness and entourage fled in the midst of a sandstorm decades ago. Nevertheless, I have made my proclamation and - though my intimacy with the subcontinent begins and ends with an ex's embroidered stories, the novel Shantaram, and the movie Slumdog Millionaire - I can't go back on it. We spend a good ten minutes plotting out train travel that will take her close enough for a visit with His Holiness.
Kestrel  
Well, I didn't touch it, did I?

When Kestrel gets up to share her findings with Jinx, I note the white paper cover of a book hand-titled "The Artist's Way by K. S. Montague", one of Kestrel's pseudonyms. I instinctively know better than to touch it without permission, but instead say the title and author aloud.

Kestrel materializes and warns me away, that it isn't for anyone else's eyes, concerning some inner work a paperback suggests she do by its steps. She does not actually remove her book from the table, which I appreciate, as it suggests she knows I can survive the vast temptation it presents to me.

Over the remains of dinner, we listen to Kestrel and Jinx improvise on a piano. I know Jinx's singing voice, as she distributes her songs online. I am not accustomed to Kestrel's, which has the smoky twang of Zooey Dechanel from She and Him.

We leave after a few hours, but don't get much farther than the lawn before looking heavenward to the thrall of the Perseids meteor shower. As we are in a rural section of the country, there is little light pollution to corrupt our view (especially once we shout for Kestrel to turn off all the lights in the house).
Jinx and Kestrel  
They don't actually need hands to play, just unity

We lay on a blanket outside and I want to say something profound, like that I feel infinite in this moment. And I do feel this, but it seems trite to announce it. These moments are given to silence or jokes to fend off the minuteness one feels if one understands the slightest thing about universal distances, as we all do.

Jinx says, "I used to worry that I would look up and see a star from a constellation I knew would zip away. I get that it doesn't work that way, but..." After a moment, I ask, "How much money would I need to see this sky every night?"

No one has an answer, though Melanie suggests that the sky is yet another accessory the absent couple has accumulated and that it is only affordable without children.

The next day, we pile into the car for another trip though I am surprised that the destination is little more than a cramped ethnic store little bigger than my apartment, where the girls snatch up ingredients, saying we will have the best tea ever.

On our way home, we stop and pick blueberries. I am not certain as to the legality of our toil, whether some owner is going to accost us for our presumption and demand payment. We pick for forty minutes, though the clear air does little to abate the symptoms of my allergies. It is odd to see Jinx picking berries in a rock t-shirt and shiny black tights, an outfit better suited for clubbing. Melanie, as always, has a perfect berry picking hat at the ready.

In a short while, we have a bag full of our plunder. Only then does the suggestion of payment arise. Jinx walks into an unmanned shed and makes change for a twenty from the open and overflowing register. "You know you are in the country when the till doesn't even shut."
Jinx and Melanie  
Manual labor

Melanie and Jinx fly about in the kitchen, summoning forth powders and zests from the larder and stewing berries. Quickly, a dessert arises from the ether and they both reiterate that the berries have curiously high anti-oxidant properties, meaning that seconds are not only possible but suggested. I neglect my general aversion to hot fruit, knowing I will earn their scorn otherwise. Gaining a purple tongue is hardly the worst punishment.

Jinx finishes her seconds (and half of my firsts) and then announces that she needs to practice with her family band, The And. As we are fans of Jinx, adding Nym on the piano and Kestrel on the drums and joint vocals could only improve our collective esteem. They practice the same song over and over, hearing flaws that I do not. However, they are recording a CD soon and need to be perfect beyond doubt.

The topic of religion comes up over our tea/dinner and, when Melanie is dismissive of my spirituality, Kestrel asks where Melanie stands on the issue of God. It isn't that Kestrel has anything vested in Melanie believing in God, that she thinks Melanie won't get past the velvet rope in Heaven. Kestrel does not, herself, believe in God (or, likely, gods) as it is conventionally understood.

Melanie's answer comes down to not needing the divine to think the world an incomprehensible miracle, but one she is delighted to spend the rest of her life trying to comprehend. "When I am out in the muck of the Hudson, I feel like a pastor in my cathedral."

I add to this my axiom, "Science is the language God speaks. The better we know how things really work, the closer we are to the divine."
Jinx and Xen  
We ate Smurfs

"You sound awfully Pagan," Jinx says to me.

"That might be because I am a Pagan."

"I thought you were Discordian? ...Though I guess that makes sense, doesn't it?"

The moment that brings things into focus for me is something so banal. Kestrel asks us to name as many countries as we can in three minutes in order to appease some online quiz. I jokingly surf to the Nations of the World song, which they rule as cheating. After we succeed in naming over 100 together, they ask to see the video and I realize that they don't recognize Yako Warner.

"We didn't watch TV growing up," Jinx says, very slightly put out. This is something she has had to admit before in less understanding circumstances. Even now, there is no television in their home, leaving the fireplace to assume its position as focus. "Oh, I know," I reply, "I am just surprised at the difference in our cultural contexts." I can and have enumerated the rogues' gallery from Darkwing Duck and am aware that this is hardly a merit badge, however much I now have the urge to make them watch a few episodes of Animaniacs so our referents will match up.

Jinx and kestrel are something exquisitely different from others and I think, in part, this is because they did not while away their formative years staring at a box, being passively indoctrinated. Instead, I gather they entertained themselves with reading, music, and outdoor play.
Melanie  
As did she.

While I got more than my share of play, owing to my mother babysitting through my formative years, I rarely recall feeling anything like the bond jinx and kestrel share with my own siblings. I never contemplated a family band, let alone follow through with making one and recording a CD, for which they have been rehearsing since Jinx returned home. I won't remotely minimize the influence that a childhood of being homeschooled by Nym and Daphne must have had, but the lack of a television further forced their imaginations to provide their entertainment.

Melanie tells me that she is sorry, but that she will have to marry Jinx instead of me so she can legitimately be a part of this family. She amends that I am welcome to marry Kestrel.

"Do I have to... consummate... the union?" I ask.

"No, no, we can all live in communal polygamy," she assures me.

Quickly, a square is made with intersecting lines of each of us. At the center is an arrow labeled "madness", which is right where I would like to be.

Soon in Xenology: Lake George, maybe a job, publication.

last watched: American Zombie
reading: The Selfish Gene
listening: Kate Nash

When the Masks Are Off | 2010 | Beside Still Water

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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Works by Thomm Quackenbush

The Night's Dream Series

We Shadows by Thomm Quackenbush

Danse Macabre by Thomm Quackenbush

Artificial Gods by Thomm Quackenbush