‘Bo Bruns, Unit 70 Studios’ founder/owner, started making latex monsters in his parents’ basement at the age of 14. A few of these early first molds are still in use in our studio today. He is a graduate of the Columbus College of Art and Design and began his career as a professional monster maker at age 20. Today he is honored to lead an amazing core group of artists and dedicated seasonal employees.
‘We are a team of hardworking and passionate artists and technicians. Our goal is to continually improve our products by listening to our clients and experimenting with new components and styles. Over the years our staff has developed many unique and innovative processes, and have been early pioneers in the use of many materials and techniques that are now considered industry-standard for professional haunted attraction props. The core group of artists at Unit 70 have been working together for many years, and use that experience and talent everyday to create the most realistic and reliable props in the haunted attraction business.
‘Working together with two different chemical labs, we were able to develop a new fire retardant foam that has proven to be superior to all foams we have used in the past. We are very excited and intend to use it exclusively starting March 2016. We feel that this change would not only advance the safety of our products and potentially save lives, but also alleviate some of our clients’ stress involving annual fire safety inspections. Our new FR foam meets flammability standard requirements cal bulletin 117 and fmvss 302.’ — Unity 70 Studios
‘Ever since he was a kid, Coldwater, Ohio native Bo Bruns loved making weird monsters and sculptures. It started when his parents took him to see “Star Wars” when he was four years old. The movie “blew my mind,” he said, and he became obsessed with how people made the monsters and aliens seen in films and in theater. Decades later, Bruns has been lucky enough to become a “monster maker” in his own right.
‘After graduating from the Columbus School of Art and Design in 1998, he worked for a few years for a company that designed horror and monster props. In 2003, Bruns founded Unit 70 Studios in Columbus, and since then his company has become one of the most highly regarded producers of animatronic monsters, Halloween horror props and haunted house creatures in the world. “It was a childhood dream, and I got really lucky to be able to do it,” Bruns said.
‘Growing up in Coldwater, Bruns admitted that at times his creepy doodles and creations would freak out his teachers. His then-art teacher, Nick Wenning, however, figured out early on that he was “mostly harmless” and allowed him the creative freedom to make the most of what Bruns could imagine. When he first started making props, it was to play pranks on the local mailman. Bruns would craft crude cut-off arms and hands and leave them on the ground, watching from his bedroom to see what reaction he got. “Thank God he never called the police,” Bruns laughed.
‘Though the mailman may not have entirely appreciated his props, Bruns, who graduated from Coldwater High School in 1994, now has people all over the world putting in orders.
‘Unit 70 Studios has clients in the “haunt” industry in several states, from Ohio to New England. If you’ve ever visited King’s Island during Halloween Haunt season or gone to Cedar Point’s HalloWeekends, chances are you’ve seen some of Bruns’ creations. The business also serves international haunted houses and amusement parks in places like Canada, Columbia, Mexico, Spain and China. “It’s kind of like Halloween year round here,” Bruns said.
‘October, the spookiest time of the year, is actually the quietest time for the studio. By then most clients have their props. As soon as November 1 rolls around, though, the calls start coming in from people planning for next year, he said. Some of their clients from overseas don’t necessarily celebrate Halloween, so they may place orders year round. Bruns explained that as the haunt industry has grown, so too have the budgets and planning that go into the haunted houses. Orders can come in for Halloweens years down the road.
‘Every year, Bruns and his employees get together to plan out 15 or 20 new designs, but it can be hard to predict what people will want. Pop culture can have a big influence on what will be a hit – zombies have been consistently popular, for example, but when the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise was popular, Bruns and his team found themselves making tons of zombie pirates to meet demand.
‘Making monsters involves different procedures. For something more human, like a zombie, the artists at Unit 70 might start out making a body cast of a real person to create a mold, Bruns said. For something like a dinosaur, the design starts off as a clay sculpture, built up piece by piece. From there, the artists can change the facial expressions or carve out areas for gore. The final props are created from latex rubber or foam. Body details such as hair are usually some of the last add-ons.
‘Bruns majored in computer animation, which he says helps him when making some of the animatronic props. The animation software he learned to use is somewhat similar to what is now used for engineering the robotic parts in his monsters. When setting up a character in computer animation, he thinks about how the character is going to move and how it will look, which translates well into programming his creations, Bruns said.
‘Of course, the haunt industry has a dark side. Unit 70 Studios is rather well-known and widely respected in the industry, said Bruns, in part because they’ve survived for so long. As fun as it can be, Bruns said he’s found the competition can also be cutthroat. When Unit 70 was just starting out, a larger prop supply company was trying to make life difficult for the start-up, which became public knowledge in the haunt industry, according to Bruns. Aside from the quality of their products, Bruns thinks a lot of the respect has come from making it through that early rough patch. Persistence is key, he noted.
‘”Don’t let anyone say you can’t,” Bruns said. “I always wanted to do this stuff for a living, be a monster maker, and it seemed like a really weird or exotic thing to do, like wanting to be a rock star or astronaut, but somebody’s got to do it. Somebody’s got to have that job.” And for any kid out there who might have an unlikely passion or an obscure interest they want to turn into a career, Bruns offered this advise: “Just do it, and don’t be afraid to dream big.”‘ — Sydney Albert
The Exorcist Animated $2,999.00
Female Parasite $899.00
Head Splitter NFS
Haz Matt $949.00
Silicone Face Impaled Animated $2,899.00
Lurking Parasite $899.00
Baby Flytrap $599.00
Biker Chic 2 $849.00
Silicone Face Piked Zombie Animated $2,799.00
Clown Burster $1,299.00
Evil Seated Nun and Child $1,349.00
Giant Pumpkin Monster and Child Animated $8,500.00
Bitin’ Brady $1,099.00
Burnt Naked Male $899.00
Spider and Pod Animated $1,299.00
Cold Feet $1,499.00
Silicone Face Little Michael $799.00
You’re Too Late NFS
Howling Wolf Animated $3,899.00
Psycho Killer 1 $1,499.00
Feasting Walker 2 $849.00
Dead Bathtub Girl $719.00
Evil Santa $989.00
Bad Porcelain Doll 1 $849.00
Tomb Mummy Scare Animated $14,050.00
Lobotomized Nurse $599.00
Prancer and Dasher Custom Reindeers NFS
Krampus and Caged Child Animated $1,949.00
Frozen Child 1 $729.00
Child Chain Gang $2,899.00
3 Maniacs Animated $2,699.00
Stitched Couples $899.00
Suicide Doctor $849.00
El Diablo Animated $8,499.00
Dirty Warden 1 $849.00
Drill Table Animated $2,199.00
Demon Birth Animated $2,375.00
Silicone Face Little TJ $799.00
Possessed Bed Thrasher Animated $2,399.00
p.s. Hey. ** David, Hi. I don’t know grouse chocolates. Name intrigues. Oh, I missed your masks. I’ll hunt backwards. Glad you liked the post. What’s your Thursday? Mine is, uh, work, coffee with my friend Andrew, hang with my friend Cornelia, work. And eat, smoke. ** Misanthrope, That’s why I like watching blockbusters on planes’ crappy little screens. I don’t want to go to their churches, I want them to live or die. The Willy Wonka thing is complete idiocy. Chalamet is in danger of becoming the hetero (albeit more initially successful) Ezra Miller. I might watch a ‘Dune’ blooper reel if that ever leaks, but that’s it. ** Dominik, Hiiiii, D! Von Trier seems to be a love or hate proposition. That’s interesting: I’m the opposite. I’m only interested in films’ direction and how they’re made. I never care about who’s in them. I’m not very interesting in acting. Or in the characters in fiction I read either. I don’t know why. Strange. Thank you for saving me from homelessness. I don’t think I could do homelessness very well, even in a dream town. France is pretty strict about vax pass scanning, although I’ve noticed that cafes are starting to get kind of lax. A lot of the time now they ask for your vax pass, and then when you start to reach for your phone, they just say okay and take your order. Ha ha, nice love. Caught me unawares, that one. Love sneaking into your apartment when you’re out shopping and replacing all of your lighting fixtures with strobe lights and all of heating vents with fog machines and all of your furniture with Unit70 props, G. ** Steve Erickson, Amazing you saw ‘Labyrinth of Cinema’. I’m dying to. Mm, well, you’re overthinking, and that’s blocking your intent with stress, and that’s a tough one. I would just let yourself start writing randomly in the chosen area and let yourself write crap for a while but keep going until you relax due to the concentration and find an idea that’s exciting and keep going from there. That’s what I’d do, I guess. I’m gonna miss the VU doc tonight because I can only see a visiting friend this evening, but the Wes Anderson opens next week here, so, as soon as this consuming Haunt event is over, … ! ** David Ehrenstein, I just read somewhere that Kevin Spacey has a small part in some biggish movie that’s being filmed right now, so I guess he’s backish? ** Okay. Every year come Halloween time I always use a post to celebrate the works of the world’s greatest scary prop making enterprise Unit 70, and here’s this year’s, full of new things and a few golden oldies. Please enjoy and buy me as many of them as you can. Thank you. See you tomorrow.
‘Going Native, published in 1994, was Stephen Wright’s third novel. Meditations in Green (1983) was inspired by his experiences in Vietnam during the war. M31: A Family Romance (1988) is set among UFO cultists, who rely on an autistic child to communicate with aliens. Going Native is—more or less—a picaresque novel that follows a sociopath who abandons his Chicago family to travel to Los Angeles. It is not an easy trip. It is not an easy book. But it is a fascinating one, and, as I hope to show, one that says important things about modern American life.
‘The book’s structure is a series of independent chapters, each in a different place, each with different characters, all threaded together by one character and the green Ford Galaxie he steals.
‘Chapter One is a backyard barbecue in suburban Chicago. Rho prepares the meal; greets her guests, Tom and Gerri; sends the children off to bed with the baby sitter; her husband, Wylie, returns home; he and the other husband go to the local Feed ’n’ Fuel for charcoal where a robber has just been killed leaving the store, which becomes a story for the women when they return home. Here is Rho’s response to a question late in the chapter for a sense of Wright’s style:
“If Rho is expected to comment, she misses her cue. The diverse demands and unforeseen surges of the day, in tandem with tonight’s elevated blood alcohol levels, have driven her circuitry into a sputtering staticy condition near blown-out or worse, she’s phasing eccentrically in an out, her attention temporarily and fiercely magnetized by the oddest fragments of isolated fact, so while Gerri natters on, from bats and sex and reincarnation to—nothing hard now to amuse her audience—stale crowd-pleasers of lust and gaucherie among her wealthy clientele, Rho is pleasantly tuned to the resonant sound of hissing meat.”
‘At the end of the chapter, the end of the evening, Rho’s husband has vanished and taken Tom’s identity.
‘Chapter Two, in the same suburban Chicago neighborhood, two middle-class crack heads smoke dope, have sex, come down, score more crack, get high, get violent, discover their green Ford Galaxie stolen. Such a précis cannot, unfortunately, convey the texture of Wright’s images of the filthy house, the couple’s drug-logic, their random memories, and the pleasure, despite all, of losing oneself in the drug.
‘Chapter Three takes place on the road west of Chicago as a hitchhiking drifter is picked up and dropped off and ultimately murders a long-haul trucker good enough to give him a ride but foolish enough to ignore his taste in music. At the chapter’s end, one psychopath rides with another—and neither harms the other. It is almost as if Wright is saying that the only way to be safe in this society is to be as murderous as the killers.
‘Chapter Four is set in a tatty motel in Colorado. The owner/manager has dreams of being a screenwriter, and we read at length about this misbegotten project. His wife is having sex with one of the local police in the motel parking lot. His teen-age daughter Aeryl—the two younger daughters are Beryl and Cheryl—dreams of running away with Laszlo to Las Vegas. At the end of the chapter, Aeryl and Laszlo take off with Wiley/Tom in the green Ford Galaxie. On the road, Laszlo has sex with Aeryl in the back seat and offers their host the sight of her naked breasts. Tom says he’s seen breasts before. Laszlo says not like hers.
“Their eyes met in the intimacy of mirror space. Laszlo’s angry blues glittering with the message direct and unmistakable: I, a man younger, stronger, braver than you have this minute, under your quivering old nose hairs, fucked a woman younger, sexier, more desirable than any you can ever hope to win, ergo, you must acknowledge the superiority of my force, the potency of my prick, so said stone eyes from a clearing in the wood.”
‘Tom and Aeryl abandon Laszlo at a service plaza.
‘The penultimate chapter is a tour de force as we accompany a moderately successful, 30-something-year-old couple, Amanda and Drake, travel into deepest Borneo with two native guides looking for something authentic, unspoiled, native. They therefore skip the longhouse they could visit upriver, which their guide books point out is nothing but a tourist attraction. They hike into the mountain to find a village where the natives still live in longhouses—filthy, stinking, buggy, uncomfortable, and the chief has an autographed photo of Jack Nicholson (an earlier visitor) in the place of honor between pictures of President Suharto and Jesus.
‘Virtually all of Wright’s characters are looking for something: excitement, fame, peace, money, adventure, sex, status. They are not satisfied, not content. He seems to be making the case that America has promised all this—fame, money, sex, and more—but hasn’t come through. His characters know that more is out there, other people seem to have it (whatever “it” is), but they don’t know how to get it. Wiley, fed up with his white-bread suburban life, wife, and two children, steals a car and heads west. Amanda and Drake, who seem to represent upper middle class life (they are successful enough to afford their trek), crave unique experiences and are willing to suffer to obtain them. But they are still tourists and still at the mercy of American insanity.’ — Dactyl Review
David Kushner: Why did you title the new book Going Native?
Stephen Wright: Well, it’s real complicated. I suppose it’s one reason I was pleased with the title when I finally settled on that, because it has so many levels of meaning really.
Of course there’s the traditional one which comes from the British Colonial experience of someone just being out there in the bush. That’s probably explored most thoroughly in the Borneo chapter.
For the rest of the book, maybe the bulk of it, the meaning is kind of a grim joke. The main character in there goes native in an American sense and he turns into a psychopath. (Laughs)
The other thing as I get into it – and I get fascinated with these questions, because it’s a book about exploring the nature of violence and the nature of what we’re made of really. I think the longer you brood on these questions the more fascinating they become, the more that whole area seems to open up, whole realms of speculation.
It just strikes me that in this culture, in this highly civilized culture, I basically feel that we’re all the same creatures people were thousands of years ago, thousands and thousands of years ago. I don’t think there’s much evidence that human beings have changed in any dramatic way. Technology has changed in kind of attracting culture to change, but I think the actual human beast itself is pretty much similar as it’s always been.
So I think that under this kind of vast superstructure of civilization is all this other stuff. And I suppose looking at it biologically there is that reptilian brain that the whole cortex sits on top of. It’s just there. And it’s part of our heritage and its inescapable and the fact that it is inescapable leads to some disturbing conclusions about what it is we’re made of. I think that question is what the book’s about. In that sense I think that Going Native means having these more primal desires and impulses just rise up and seize hold of you.
I suspect this really happens. It happens, I think, when your sense of self becomes more and more fragile and more and more tenuated and there’s less control then. What lies in the wake is a life of just sheer impulse and living for the moment, etcetera. This is where a lot of people going up to prison live. That’s why they have problems. They don’t know how to channel all this or even how to successfully repress it. This is what learning to be civilized is all about, learning how to deal with your anger, your rage, that everyone has. I think everyone’s capable of killing. I don’t have any doubt about it. Everybody. I guess people don’t want to be told this. (Laughs) But, frankly, I believe it’s the truth.
DK: You have one character in Going Native who says this expression of the primal self only happens through “sex, art, and murder.”
SW: Well, that’s just one way of looking at it. And when you look at that character he’s a pretentious asshole. I think it’s a viewpoint, but not the final viewpoint.
The so-called creative act, no matter which of the arts it’s in, is also a highly destructive act. Something is being broken down in order to make something new. That’s just the way it works. Art is sublimation. We’re talking about mental forms other than actual lives in bodies. A lot of art is murderous, not in a literal sense, but art that we regard as great art is always like that.
Did you ever read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee? In the introduction he talks about what art really is and he proposes this test: Put on Beethoven, turn up the speakers as loud as you can stand and put your head right on the ground next to it. What you’re hearing, is this at all comforting? Is this at all nice?
It kind of attacks that whole notion of art being some kind of coddling sedative for people. This is about as outrageous and murderous an act a person can do short of really doing one physically. All art, especially the greater it is, the more subversive it is, the more murderous it is of preconceived notions, of preconceived patterns of thinking. I mean, this is violence in a way.
I think this is a healthy use of these impulses and emotions. We’ve got to do this, it’s absolutely necessary. I don’t see art as a luxury at all, as some little appendage to a society. It’s an absolute necessity.
DK: The book also seems to be an indictment of America’s reliance on popular culture.
SW: Okay, that brings in the rest of it. It just seems that a lot of what we see in other cultures and would label as primal instincts is, in our culture, all being done for us by pop culture. This is what pop culture is all about, it’s the display of our pagan interests – especially in rock music and contemporary film. Those are probably the two strongest most overriding of the arts in present culture. They sort of sum up pop culture.
That is the final meaning of Going Native, being immersed in all of this. Obviously you can write a book like this without loving all these creepy movies and I love them as much as anyone else. But I also feel that they’re just emotionally brutalizing. I like McDonald’s too, but I don’t want to eat it everyday. It’s the same thing. It’s that constant diet of stereotypes, of black and white thinking and it’s emotionally brutalizing for all of us.
Why should we allow certain topics, say murder for example, to be so inprovenced of pop culture and a kind of beat level of making? So what I set out to do, and I don’t know how well I succeeded, but to try to bring to bearings as much armament as I could muster in dealing with the same themes in a literary way. Then you see that words can go in places that all this other stuff can’t begin to go.
DK: Why do words have that power?
SW: It’s all the subtlety and nuance. That’s what I mean by emotionally brutalizing. It’s just all so blunt and heavy handed. My sense of life and of all these problems is much more complicated than what I get out of a movie like True Romance, for example. Much more complicated than this. So I think a lot of my impulse in doing this was to address this in several levels at once.
DK: How does the inverted structure of your novel come into play?
SW: What I’m doing is denying readers a quick and easy identification with Wylie, because that’s how that type of story is always being told. That to me is too easy and too simple and finally that story’s too boring that way. Because when this happens in real life, it has real consequences. And they’re not pretty and it’s not entertainment and it’s not something you get a voyeuristic thrill out of. When real blood is spilled, it’s a whole different matter. That’s what I was trying to get at. So why not show the people who a person like this touches and how it really means. That’s one big reason for constructing it like this, for turning it inside out. I don’t want to have a kind of voyeuristic thrill ride of a pleasure seeker.
DK: What happens is that the reader sees Wylie’s victims as real people, like in the end of the Borneo chapter.
SW: It’s an alternate point of view. There is nothing from his point of view. That whole last scene, which a lot of people find very disturbing, my reaction is “good, it better be.” I don’t want it to be anything less than disturbing. In a way, though, it’s all a trick. It kind of reminds me of that scene in Psycho. The way Hitchcock’s done it is that you don’t even see anything. It’s a joke, it’s all in your head. He’s put together little bits of film that give you this horrific impression of this awful murder, but it’s all completely impressionistic. You never see the knife go in. It’s all done with sound and quick cuts. It’s a masterful piece of film making.
In my little scene, you don’t see anything. It’s all in your head. You never see him do anything. All it is is dialogue and it’s all very simple prose, if I remember right.
DK: What challenges did you find by writing the novel inside out?
SW: (Laughs) Imagining new chapters. In a way, I’m glad I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started, because it became a horrific compositional problem. Even though I realized that for the subject matter and thematically it had to be structured that way, it was a big risk. That built-in reader frustration that stops and starts, stops and starts.
With any other book, you get your characters, you get your location, you get the people invented, and you start a motion. What will happen, if you’re really lucky, you get a nice little momentum and it certainly helps the reader and it certainly helps the writer because you get a little steam going.
But, this book, every time I got a little steam going it stops. Then I have to start over. Every chapter.
DK: Is that why you don’t like writing short stories?
SW: Maybe. I don’t think I think well in short stories. It just seems more natural to me to take a longer breath, I suppose.
What I realized after I’d done a few of these things was that I was burning down a novel per chapter. I started thinking that any one of these chapters could be expanded into a novel. So you’re using up a lot of material. And to do what I wanted to do it meant that I invent these people with as much care as I possibly could, because they’re going to have to be interesting themselves if there’s no over-arcing narrative.
That’s why as I got into it I had to keep raising that ante with every chapter. You get into trying to top yourself. So all these things are going on and I was glad I didn’t know what I was getting into.
DK: In Going Native and even M31 you’re critical of America’s TV culture. What do you think about the notion that people are reading less because of television?
SW: I’m skeptical of this whole notion of the golden age of reading. This is the kind of thing that is bannered and waved whenever people want to get on their high horse about the state of culture and how we’ve gone downhill. I’m just real skeptical about it.
There’s some aspects of literary culture that maybe people aren’t aware of. For instance, every book of Faulkner’s, except Sanctuary, was out of print two years before he won the Nobel prize. There weren’t people sitting at home pouring over one of America’s greatest authors. There’s this implicit notion that if we didn’t have TV and we didn’t have movies, everyone would be reading William Gaddis. I don’t think so.
But, saying all that too, I think there is something different and that is this kind of suffocating wealth of the pop cultural over everything. This total conversion of everything into entertainment, I don’t think, is any good for anybody. This is what I think is bad.
It’s just that never before has there been this technology to kind of zap you from every angle almost around the clock. That’s the reason for all this, to sell stuff, to sell products. That’s what I mean about this whole Hollywood stuff. They don’t give a damn. They don’t care if there’s holes in the plot you could drive a truck through, because people will put down their seven or eight bucks anyway. The cynicism that’s behind all this is really incredible. It’s hardly even worth it to make anything of quality. This I find disturbing. Where it’s all going to end, I don’t know.
By the time I finished Going Native, I hadn’t even read the beginning in almost a year, so enough time had passed that I could look at the thing as if someone else had written it when it came time to copy edit. When I got done, I thought to myself, God, I’m really ambivalent about all this stuff. (Laughs). There’s a certain kind of exuberance, too.
DK: There’s an almost religious theme running through your three novels. Your characters are searching for some greater meaning. In Mediations in Green, Griffin escapes from the horrors of Vietnam through organic mediation on nature. In M31, the family is waiting for UFOs to come take them away. Then Going Native has a guy who’s trying to break out of his own identity. What intrigues you about that theme?
SW: I suppose they all do sort of revolve around a certain base idea and that is: we’re not complete. We don’t come into this world complete. There’s something missing. This hole in ourself, in our identity, is what religion is all about. These are all spiritual, religious problems. How do you fill the hole? What is this sense of loss, of something not here? Everyone has got to come to some sort of terms with it. It’s out there nagging at people constantly. It’s the cliche of the person who makes it materially and has all the money and everything and then discovers how empty that feels. That’s pratically a cliche now as it would be in a culture that’s completely devoted to materialism. Of course, there’s truth in cliches.
I’m fascinated with this. How do you live? How do you fill that space in a secular culture? I think I basically see it as all of our problems. The books, I suppose, are just various takes on this. I’m concerned that the failure of doing this leads to violence.
If you don’t find a solution to this problem, this very individual problem that then, of course, becomes a cultural problem also, the rage can erupt in unexpected and very unpleasant ways.
Stephen Wright Going Native Little, Brown and Company
‘A dutiful husband and father walks out of his life and into a road trip from hell in a novel Toni Morrison calls “astonishing” and Don Delillo proclaims “a slasher classic . . . strange, dark, and funny.”
‘Wylie Jones has a happy marriage, beautiful children, and backyard barbecues in his tastefully decorated suburban house. One night he follows a sudden impulse, leaves his wife in bed, and commandeers his neighbor’s emerald-green Ford Galaxy 500, driving away without a second look. He sheds all traces of his old life in favor of a new name and a new life and drives from town to town, following his deepest impulses where they lead.
‘By turns scathing and hilarious, Stephen Wright’s outrageous rollercoaster of sex and violence probes the nihilistic and savage core of the American identity.’ — L,B&Co
500 Mosquitoes an Hour
Rho is at the kitchen sink, peeling furiously away at a carrot when she draws her first blood of the day, and, of course, it’s nonmetaphoric, and her own. A sudden blossoming of color in the drab plot of one ordinary afternoon. So she watches herself spilling out across a trembling forefinger as if in a hurry to be gone, a hollow red staccato in the brushed-steel bucket of her sink. For a time she is simply a wide pair of mesmerized eyes, lost in the facts of the moment and, strangely, no longer present to herself. But the spell breaks, the cut is plunged into the aerated stream of her Puraflo faucet, the finger wrapped in a floral blue paper towel. The show’s over.
It’s late Friday in late summer in Wakefield Estates, where the shadows are long and the light is perfect and the sky a photographer’s fantasy of absolute blue typically apprehended only on film, too blue to be arching in inhuman grandeur over this engineered community of pastel houses and big friendly trees.
Inside the polished kitchen soft northern light arranges itself evenly, democratically, among the fixtures and furnishings, the appliances and the apples, each discrete object contributing its own subdued reflection of snug solidity, charmed ease, tasteful harbor. It is a good place to be. The peeler is flashing again, metal blade in a whittler’s blur, strips of orange vegetable matter stuck to the window above the sink in random crisscross like an entire box of desperately affixed Band-Aids. Behind her the routine clunk of fresh ice cubes dropping in the Kelvinator, and on the Formica counter at her elbow the Sony portable coolly irradiating her body with the problems of today’s women: VIXENS BEHIND BARS: GIRLS WHO HAVE WILLED THEIR LOVERS. Rho barely notices, absorbed as she is in the physical task at hand and a mentally punishing recapitulation of the futile chase after self-respect which constitutes much of her so-called “working day.” She’d almost quit again. For the second time this month. What was happening here? Accumulation, she thinks, that’s all, just the dispiriting accretion of nine-to-fives, of petty betrayals, minor sarcasms, slights, injustices, and plain rudeness collecting like refuse under a rotting wharf until one blighted morning all the fish are dead, there’s no place left to swim, and if sweet alert Lou hadn’t recognized the sniperlike narrowing in her eyes and hustled her out past Mickey’s smirk and the confused management team, she just might have released a sampling of the words grown slow and secret as fungus behind the professional exterior she’d had to retouch almost hourly for the past nine months. These were the words of disclosure, the ones to prompt an awful unveiling of the second self. She and Lou had fled to a corner of the cafeteria behind the ailing ailanthus, the bad joke of the company. The tepid coffee tasted like chlorine and the abstract neo-avant lithograph on the opposite wall kept somehow reminding her in a distinctly unpleasant way of the physical baseness of the body. It wasn’t a thought she was supposed to have—she regretted the admission—but maybe she just did not like female bosses. And Lou, whose boyfriend’s most recent message to her machine had been “If I hated you any worse, I’d be doing something more than just leaving you,” had instantly agreed, saying me neither, they go completely Looney Tunes once a month. So at least there had been the release of laughter. The tears came later, alone in a stall in the women’s room, the only one, it turned out, with no paper.
Then the wit-gathering, the brave soldiering on to after five, the obligatory traffic jam, the polluted lungs and mind, hunting food supplies at the local supermarket, where amid the day’s carnage she actually experienced, while wheeling her wobbly cart down the broad buffed aisles, a small detonation of pure happiness. It came inexplicably out of nowhere and was gone by the time she got home, a psychic comet in elliptical orbit from that parallel universe her real emotional life, the good one, seemed to inhabit. Would she ever even begin to assemble the time and the will necessary to piece out the meanest portion of the puzzle that was her existence in this world? What was so damned difficult about comprehending middle income, middle of the road, middling middleness?
The vegetables are lined up like good little soldiers on the cutting board, though the peppers are slightly wrinkled, the lettuce browner than she remembered, and each time she tries to slice a tomato—injured finger held awkwardly aloft, away from spraying juices—her hair keeps falling forward into her face, obscuring her vision; she tucks it behind an ear, off it falls, the left side having been crudely chopped last Saturday by Sylvester himself of famous Sylvester’s, a reminder with each turn of the head of some basic asymmetry. On the Sony an X-ray tech from Bedford Falls is describing how her husband comes home from his plumbing job, packs away the flank steak and boiled potatoes, and settles down in front of the tube wearing a chiffon cocktail dress, black nylons, and a pair of stiletto heels. At the commercial Rho discovers the cucumbers in the back of the refrigerator are frozen solid. Is there time for a quick dash to the Feed ’n’ Fuel? The clock on the wall, a fanciful twist of wire and brass most visitors don’t even recognize as a timepiece, is telling her that if she leaves right this minute…but a famous actress confessing that her famous mother used to beat her repeatedly with an English riding crop sets Rho off on an unscheduled tour of the Mood Museum, guilt thick as dust on all the exhibits, even the newest wing, where the paint’s still wet and the descriptive plaques hopelessly inadequate and the curator the same creepy figure in black who liked to skulk underneath her crib and whisper horrors to her in a language no one else could understand…so there won’t be any cucumbers in the salad and she’s sure the Hannas won’t mind.
Rho glances up to check on the twins and there, just beyond the carrot-splattered pane, in remarkable close-up, is a large bright lemon-yellow bird perched in regal isolation atop the feeder, and she looks, she is looking dead on, she doesn’t blink, but the bird is gone, a trick of bad editing. Amazing. Too quick for the children to see and probably just as well. The inevitable round of questions about pets and cages, freedom and death. Brother and sister are squatting side by side in the sandbox Wylie hammered together the summer they all went to Nice, to the place like in the American Express commercial, the year of the big promotion, a fabled time in the family chronicle. Identical blond heads are bent in consultation over a serious arrangement of plastic blocks. Daphne sits watching from a nearby swing, youthfully lean body dawdling between the chains, the basketball shoes on her feet blindingly white and apparently several sizes too large. Her long black hair a hood of dark flame in the enfilading sun. She’s the Averys’ daughter from over on Termite Terrace, and despite the finger-scooped peanut butter jars, the bottle-cap ashtrays tucked discreetly under the couch, both Rho and Wylie like and trust her, they’ve known Daphy since she was six, and she’s even recently completed a two-week course in which the conscientious baby-sitter is taught such essential tasks as how to bathe an infant, prepare a simple meal without fire hazard, and find the numerals 911 on either a dial or push-button phone. And the girl is also, for Rho at least, a touching facsimile of her own mysterious adolescence, her distance from which seems to vary daily, those fierce piebald years she chooses, against all reflection, to preserve as singularly enchanted.
Now Chip, she sees, has found a cracked water pistol she could swear she’s already thrown out twice and is holding the pink gun to his head as if to hear a delicate ticking or the roar of the sea. His sister is banging the flat of her spread hand into the bottom of the box, mashing her sand dough into cookies the way Mommy does. A moment framed, even as it occurs, with the halo of future nostalgia.
She knows it’s Wylie an instant before the phone rings. She knows why he’s calling. The meeting ran late. The client didn’t show. The traffic’s bad. She wants to get ugly with him but the prospect of any further emotional expenditure deflates her, she can actually feel her body sagging into the wall. Pick up a cucumber, she tells him. Fresh. And limes, more limes. And don’t for once forget the charcoal. I love you.
Time to inspect the house. Well, the plants need watering and the three days’ growth of fuzz wiped from each of the several television screens. She throws the comforter over the unmade bed, replaces the towels in the bathroom, gathers up Wylie’s magazines—Easyriders, Forbes, On Our Backs—she can’t keep up with his interests, whatever they are. The living room is white with black furniture and she can’t decide if she likes it as much as she’s supposed to. The day the decorators left, Wylie lounged about on the cream couch the rest of the afternoon, wearing an evil pair of sunglasses. Even after she’d laughed—and longer than the gag required—and night had come on, he refused to take them off. He never knew when to stop. Baby pink and dripping from the shower, he’d once chased her, wet towel snapping, through the house, skidded on one of his own puddles, and knocked himself out on the oven door. What a struggle it had been pulling a pair of briefs on him before the paramedics got there.
When the phone rings again, Rho takes it in the spare bedroom, the air still faintly medicinal, faintly evocative of Mother herself. It’s Betty, who shared a cube with her at Fleischer and Fleischer until Rho left about a year ago for these fresh-looking pastures of now defoliated opportunity. As long as they’ve known each other Betty’s been in search of an identity beyond her famous silver earrings. Today she wants to alter the spelling of her name to Bette but is worried about embarrassing mispronouncements. Rho suggests she change the last e to an i. Betty says she’ll think about it. By the way, did Rho hear that Natasha finally quit, as promised, as rumored, with no savings, no parachute, the only safety net in that girl’s life the one she’ll be wearing over her chestnut bangs working the french fryer at McDonald’s. Beneath the jokey manner there’s a genuine chord of wonder and anxiety. Rho wants to tell Betty she nearly quit today, too, but she hesitates, the moment is gone, and Betty is rambling on through an intimate catalogue of Natasha’s other woes: the buck-toothed lover boy who sleeps around without even bothering to clean himself off before coming home to her, the blue bruises on Natasha’s arms and face, the not so subtle hints that Natasha herself has been testing other beds in other rooms. This is why Betty works. She gets up, drags herself to the office morning after grim morning just to keep up with her stories. Perhaps one day her colleagues in accounting will have a story to trade about her. Perhaps there’s already a story in play about Rho. She refuses to imagine details.
After she hangs up, she remains seated there on the edge of the high antique bed, the bed she was born in. Mother watches from the gold frame atop the peeling bureau, the eyes in every color photograph of her ever taken a set of burning red stones invisible to normal gaze, only the lifeless camera capable of revealing clearly and consistently her true demonic nature. On the scratched mahogany table beneath the window squats a crude peacock carved from cheap pine with an unsteady hand and, leaning against the burnt-out lamp, an unfinished paint-by-numbers canvas of a bug-eyed cow Mother bought at a Kmart in Mason, Kentucky, on her last and final visit to Cousin Dewey’s. “You know,” she complained, “I don’t believe they put all the right paints in this box.” The disorientation came on a week later. She grew frightened by the motion of her mind. In darkest night she clawed herself awake from suffocating visions of sweaty walls and iron doors. By the end she was eating Kleenex and twisting her dry colorless hair up into a headful of reptilian dreads. She looked like an old demented white Rastafarian.
But Rho isn’t supposed to have bad thoughts today. She’d promised herself. She wasn’t supposed to be the Wicked Witch of the West at work either, arriving with one too many cups of coffee riding her nerves and a vague crankiness she could best attribute to “VCR hangover.” The night before, she and Wylie had watched, for reasons hopelessly irreclaimable now, three rented films in a row, his choices of course, all fitting into the current shoot/chase/crash cycle of his rigorously limited viewing habits. In the first the good guys caught the bad guys but contaminated themselves horribly with badness in the catching, in the second the bad guys got clean away, and in the third the good guys were really the bad guys all along. This visual extravaganza was then capped by a dream that troubled her sleep and stuck to the bottom of her day like a wad of someone else’s stale gum. There is a house and in the house is a living room that looks exactly like theirs, furnishings, decor, the stark absence of color, unused ashtrays in all the right places, except the house seems to be located on a spectacular beach somewhere, melony light reminding her of California, although she’s never been there. She is upstairs lying between black satin sheets in a king-size bed, snoozing her way through a different dream…the one of this life, perhaps. Downstairs a tall shirtless man in white pants stands in dark silhouette at the glass door opening onto their redwood deck and, in this universe at least, a white deserted beach, an empty blue ocean. Is the man Wylie? She can’t tell. And her attention keeps tracking back to the glass table exactly like theirs and yet not, and the dark object placed there with such compositional skill: the inescapable, indispensable gun. It’s a loaded .45 caliber automatic of military issue, hardware expertise she did not possess in waking life. Nothing moves. This is the loneliest room in the world. Is a scene about to begin or has one just concluded? Who is the man turned indifferently away from our scrutiny? Whose gun? What’s happening here? Why do these questions disturb her? Her hair falls into her face. She decides to start the party early.
In the kitchen she mixes herself a customized daiquiri. She stands at the sink, one hand quietly gripping the counter, she savors her drink. Consciousness skips a beat, and mental space is instantly renovated, angles and edges begin to develop padding, thoughts wander off from the party to find themselves in dead-end corridors and musty rooms with no doors, popping peanuts one by one into their toothless mouths, muttering solecisms to the lifelike forms on the wallpaper. Spooky. Wylie would shrug it off, but she is, as he says, the nervous type. That’s what everyone said about Mother, too.
She brings the half-drained glass down hard on the counter as if summoning a bartender. The television screen frantic with the saturated belligerence of afternoon cartoons. She slides open the back door and it’s like stepping out into a greenhouse. Daph immediately begins stuffing something into the back pocket of her ridiculously tight jeans. The lawn damp and spongy from this afternoon’s tropical downpour. It has been a wet and irritating month. The summer is ending badly.
p.s. Hey. ** David, Hi. Thankfully I have no idea who Karl Pilkington is. If I did know, I probably would have left that one floating in the google sea. It just started raining here not 25 seconds ago. And of course I have outdoor plans today. Drat. You can not get a good scone here. I’ve tried, I’ve looked. I’ve given up. The French just have no clue about how to make them. And neither do the Brit expats for some reason. But I’ll … survive. Eat one on me. ** politekid, Hi, Oscar!!! Oh, wow, that’s interesting about the vertical aboveground burial. I wonder if I’d feel better about eventually dying if I knew that was my corpse’s fate. Maybe so, strangely. That does sound exhausting. Family, … man. One of my brothers is an insane, super hardcore anti-vax guy who just disowned his 11 year old daughter because she wants to get vaccinated and who goes to supermarkets unmasked and gets in people’s faces and coughs. Total charmer. A husk? But, but … that’s pretty cool sounding at least on my end about the agent and the book proposal. Well, assuming they/she/he think it’s great. I was really happy and surprised to see you in the sidebar thing of the Kushner event thing, and your question was more than reasonable, and apologises for what I imagine was a rather uninteresting answer, knowing me. The Haunt ‘game’: It’s coming up fast, and we’re scrambling to finish it. We have a Zoom meeting today with the designers — they’re in the UK — to look at the almost finished version and see what tweaks and stuff need to be made. The idea is, if it turns out well and is fun, etc., we’ll try to tour the event. If so, we’ll probably see if the ICA or someone in London is interested. Hope so. It could be very cool, we’ll see, gulp. Wow, that ‘Spikes’ thing sounds/seems really awesome. I’ll download it in just a few minutes. Thank you a lot, pal. Good luck with everything. So, so nice to see you! ** Dominik, Hi!!! ‘Dancer in the Dark’ certainly has its fans. I can’t stand his films, and that one is the nadir for me. Although ‘Dogville’ is a close second. Ah, gotcha on why you read that book. That makes total sense. Thank you for the permanent invitation to your ideal city. I’ll become its crazy homeless person, you watch. I’m a terrible dancer, but love cures all, right? Ha ha, I immediately want to make a documentary about Sunday dad love’s children. Love making my vax pass shoot fireworks and cackle like a witch every time someone scans it, G. ** _Black_Acrylic, Had a Twix not too long ago. Like almost all chocolate bars, it did not have the exciting impact it did when I was a young chocolate non-sophisticate. Great about the 350 words! I hope your tutor is unreservedly blown away. ** Misanthrope, I didn’t dance, but raves were or could be awesome things to observe. I was usually on Ecstacy, mind you, But still. I have less than zero interest in seeing ‘Dune’, but, if I did, I would definitely see it in IMAX. And … how was it? That Willy Wonka remake is an epitome of everything that’s wrong with the world. ‘Harrow’ is great! I think. ** David Ehrenstein, Not a bad movie there, I agree. And a beautiful Capote story too! ** Corey Heiferman, My memory of the backstory on that calendar from my google hunt is that it was not an interesting backstory whatsoever. (If it had been, I would have copied and pasted it). How sensible: that burial tradition. But how unfun. Movies I’m looking forward to … I’m seeing the Haynes VU doc tomorrow, very interested. I’m seeing the new Apichatpong Weerasethakul film on Sunday, very interested. Jonesing for the new Wes Anderson. Off the top of my head. ** Right. A long time ago someone in the comments suggested I turn the blog’s spotlight onto a book by Stephen Wright, and apologies to that person for having taken ages to do so for no good reason, but here it is, and I chose my favorite of his novels. Do y’all know his stuff, like it, or … ? See you tomorrow.