For inspiration, to keep her writing schedule, Mona has been using the To Do list of author Henry Miller, famous for Tropic of Cancer and a lusty affair in Paris with one of Mona’s special loves, Anaïs Nin. Boiled down, Miller’s repeated advice to writers is: Get in there, god damn it, every damn morning, and god damn it, enjoy your god damned writing!
Well ye gods, Mona thinks. How great to feel so very virile about it.
Henry Miller, of course, never had to think about dishes in the sink or to buy groceries for dinner, or whether having sex might give him a bladder infection. “A man is what he thinks about all day,” said some positive thinker, at a time when it was obvious a woman had to think about so much more. Yes, she remembers, that was Norman Vincent Peale, How to Win Friends and Influence People. He’s the one who inspired Charles Manson to greatness. And more recently, a president who tried to destroy America.
“God damn it!” This was the sound of Gus finding something not to his liking. She ignores him.
Henry Miller, Mona repeats aloud, because the sound of his name gives her a sad pleasure. Authors and characters who affected you in your youth never lose their power. Mr. Toad of Toad Hall in his motorcar from Wind in the Willows will never die. She thinks of Toad often. Henry Miller invaded Mona Lee’s teen-age years, and today she reads from Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion:
“Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty.”
“What a cunt,” Gus calls from the bedroom, laptop on lap. Mona Lee knows that he is not talking to her, but is speaking of the current U.S. president. She continues to ignore him:
“…the tender shoots we stifled because we lacked the faith..” Oh how that hurts Mona Lee. Lacking faith, finding it so hard to make a story of the unlikely origins and layers of her life—that is her crucifixion.
“And I mean cunt in the most British of ways, darling.”
Ignoring Gus is a learned ability.
Mona Lee approves of Miller’s call to writers to just get in there and do it, but he also wanted to inspire us to have pleasure in the writing, to work hard and then head off to some bar or beach or bed for the joy of it. Mona ends up in the afternoon watching series on HBO, Netflix or Amazon, and spends way too much time sharing outrage against the current president on Facebook.
“Hey Mona Lee,” Gus yells from his position in bed, laptop over his genitals, “my Natasha returned to the smoke shop last night.”
“Ah,” sighed Mona. Not ignoring him for a minute might be a relief from her thoughts of regret. “Uh Huh,” she said again, having forgotten that a girl named Natasha had ever been at, or left her post at the smoke shop.
“And. So. Gus. Did she want you?”
Gus reminds her: Natasha is the beautiful young Russian sales clerk where he buys his Export A Canadian cigarettes, the cigarettes they both smoke, a terrible habit, part of their strategy for not living too long. Now that they have both lived longer than expected, and their strategy for suicide has not yet worked out, slow deaths by not breathing is truly a terrible “love pact.” It’s time to stop again, she knows they can, they’ve done it so many times. But, just in case, Mona’s imagination goes again to what Gus calls their "love pact", to die together in some desert spot, where at night the two of them could witness the beauty of the Milky Way, and a full moon shining above them, before taking a lethal overdose of something... (how you get that something? Mona has no idea).
Mona Lee knows she is being glib, because the two of them are relatively healthy. It would not be so amusing to think about a romantic death if one of them were terminally ill. She knows that. "Your writing is glib," she has been told.
“Natasha? Want me?” Gus calls from the bed. “Oh. Yeah, she wants me, like she wants an extra grandpa.”
“Oh…honey, I can’t think of you at any age but 26, I really can’t. And what woman wouldn’t want you, at any age?”
Gus laughed, appreciating such praise, while knowing she’s shoveling horse shit, and then he went on. “Natasha was very mysterious; I asked if her family were doing alright, and she said in a long low drawn out voice and that thick accent: ‘Oh, Noa…some peoples…vill…just…niever change.’”
That’s great, honey. I’m writing now, Gus.
"Allrighty….I vill leefve you alooooone."
Henry Miller had come and gone in Mona’s life since high school when she read The Air Conditioned Nightmare, essays of condemnation of the path America was taking, written after his return from Paris and Greece in 1939. In his own words when it was published in 1945: “…we are a vulgar, pushing mob whose passions are easily mobilized by demagogues, newspaper men, religious quacks, agitators and such like. To call this a society of free peoples is blasphemous. What have we to offer the world beside the superabundant loot, which we recklessly plunder from the earth under the maniacal delusion that this insane activity represents progress and enlightenment?”
At sixteen, such feelings resonated with her. Today, it sounds downright prophetic. It was the rebellion of the beats in the late 50’s that had finally made the censored Miller popular in his home country, when his books were no longer banned, and “smart” people were reading them. Miller’s Nightmare exactly coincided with Mona’s feelings about the sprawled out suburbs with no center she had visited, and the ugly mini malls springing up, and all of the crappy developments wrought by industry and corporate greed. What is it in American suburban planning that does not love a center? No church, no city hall, no town square, houses spiraling out around a center, where people could meet, have a community? Was it deliberate, paid for by the oil companies so you will have to drive? No town center, no revolution. Nothing but highways, you've got to buy our gas! Henry Miller could see what was happening.
Miller had once visited Mona’s neighbor state in a little place called, Monte Ne (Ne pronounced, nay), Arkansas, where in 1900, a one-time presidential candidate named “Coin” Harvey sought to build a pyramid to remember America’s greatness, which he believed was already dying. He claimed that Monte, Spanish for mountain, and Ne, the Omaha Indian word for water, would name a great monument; he would also build a European spa. The enterprise turned out to be a calamitous failure, and what had been built was destroyed in a flood. But this spot was a great love of Henry Miller’s, and Mona’s mother took the family there to see the odd ruins beginning to emerge from the water—oh how interesting that place was—is—as it still exists as a tourist destination. The Pyramid was never built, but the foundations are there, an amphitheater in a kind of Aztec style, a spa tower called The Oklahoma Row. Coin had a theme song written for it:
Beautiful Monte Ne, God's gift to man they say
Health resort of all the world is beautiful Monte Ne
Rosy cheeks and purer blood they gain there day by day
in mountain air water rare at beautiful Monte Ne
Mona was entranced as a teen with the exotic beauty of the place, and how a great pyramid might have looked there, and what the hell were Masons? Miller was enamored of Masons—our founding fathers were Masons, and slaveholders. Not enlightened as to race, as hardly any whites were.
“Some piieple vill jus…niever chahnge…” came again from the bedroom. Clearly, Gus was smitten by the way smoke shop Natasha spoke.
In the early sixties, Mona grew obsessed with how her developing breasts and cheekbones made her confused, got in the way of forward motion and thinking. Beauty and sex and failure and a dark view of America, all tied up together in Miller’s prose, speaking to a generation of well educated, rebellious beats and hippies, all buried under a flood in exotic Arkansas. Why did her imagination not impel her to tell stories then? Why was telling a story so difficult for her? For her, life was splattered on canvas like a Jackson Pollack— there’s no A and B plot, it was all stimuli and reaction, the female passivity; she did not understand then that you could make your own story. Mona might have taken up this fight against America going wrong, but in 1961, for her, it was going right: Robert Frost at the White House, the values of art, literature and growing Civil Rights action—until Kennedy was murdered. Then King and Robert. A state of depression took over her body, and her escape from Oklahoma was slow and painful and full of erotic love and confusion. Where was the story? Buried in Arkansas.
“Soome peeeples, dey yust neiver chahnge.” Gus is still perfecting his accent for Natasha, and sings it like a song.
Some people never change. How ridiculous is she, to think she could take on grand themes in her stories and collages, at her age? Manifest Destiny destroying the beauty of a hybrid society of Indians and whites, and the inheritance of slavery, and youth and romance and sex and death all at once? How idiotic to get in there and do your work every day, and god-damn enjoy it, at her age.
By her age, how many books had Henry Miller written?
Give up, says her old self.
By her age, Mozart had been dead for more than forty years. By her age, Sappho and Georges Sand and Colette and Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood, and Doris Lessing and ….
She jumped from the chair, headed to the bedroom, pushed Gus’s laptop aside and landed on top of him, taking his breath away. He laughed, “Oh, I thought you were working,” and enveloped her in his arms.