Cris Mazza and Davis Schneiderman

Anybody Here Seen Our Old Friend John?


Artists' aesthetic statement:

This is a collaborative short story. The authors produced it by sending work back and forth over email, based upon the agreed-upon protagonist, along with prompts for the other author, such as, include a line from Edith Wharton, visit a particular website and include 15 words found on the front page, etc. This story will be incorporated into a larger text called The Book of Methods, featuring a series of collaborations between Schneiderman and other writers, all powered by "machines."


1) As long as the chicks still want to fuck him—John—the world can't be ending.

If he can get one on each arm, his constellation is rising. (Whatever the hell that means —the ladies sure know what's rising.) Gemini. The starbirth of the Orion cluster. But these things tend to go hand-in-hand: if he can't get his next documentary produced, the fruit won't be as easy to pick, no matter how many film festival theatre lobbies he strides through, open trench coat flapping behind him like a Leni Riefenstahl medium shot. Yes, John must always work fast for maximum return.

But damnit, he'll have to spend as much time glad-handing potential producers and investors—wiping sweaty palms against his trousers—as he might ordinarily spend accumulating the ladies with a sort of underhanded charisma, ever so charming at first but less so as each sentence passes the damn-like threshold of his whitened teeth. God knows it doesn't take him much time—no time, really—to secure one hottie in hand and have another licking her chops at him from the bar. He uses his extra time to hustle investments, but then what to do with the lady-in-waiting (who won't want to be waiting for long), since it takes too goddamn much time to explain the project to each investor—the nuances of his art—and such duties keeps him circulating the floor forever even when the babes get tired the way they do with fluttering eyelids, and they want to go for another fruity drink or chocolate martini or find a Jaccuzi with thick enough bubbles to net him a hand job.

He thought he'd kicked this pernicious time problem last year when he got some star-struck projection-room boy to play a sample for the next film, a sort of pre-trailer John invented, just before the lights came up at intermission during a five-short subject screening on who knows the fuck some bullshit about human dignity.

John was bankrolled by the end of short subject four, not to mention all the way into the silk blouse beside him. He gave the projection boy an autographed picture and a condom for good luck.

Another time he got a nightclub DJ to cut all lighting and play his current release's trailer on the ceiling during an invitation-only post-screening party to a long-time colleague's twenty-year documentary triumph. These kinds of things can be accomplished with a lady on each arm, and the thrum of the crowd gets her purring like a lap-cat in his ear.

John still got laid last night, twice in fact, but not a single sample DVD of this new project has successfully transferred into one of the manicured, slightly soft, yet imminently masculine hands of the moneymen, and the clattering discs in his coat pockets seem, like a shamanic rattle made of a shrunken head, to be keeping the ladies, at least the attractive ones, at arm's length today.

That's when he hit upon the solution. Ingenious.

Instead of pitching this project about a wildlife ecosystem developing in abandoned factories and warehouses on the west side of Chicago, his next film could, and really should, be about him—John—his success and how he got here, a postmodern blockbuster with a split screen, one side would be the film he shoots and the other would depict him shooting the film.

Of course half the screen will be black when he puts down his camera and entertains . . .

Jeez, that other camera's going to have to be on a tripod, he's not an exhibitionist, after all, or else...genius, one of the ladies can shoot they can take turns.

2) John gives birth of the skyscraper

Unstoppable success pounds in his head the way a crow flies across the cityscape—it's a punctuated, stuttering, staccato wingflap to avoid the new buildings floating above the city. Steel frames support the entire weight of the walls, and so multiple stories rise rise rise like dreamy puffs of smoke from the pipe his partner sucks so meekly in the back drafting room. Yes, Root can fill the entire rear office suite with his tiny engine of industry and so hide his face in a mask of fume and tar.

Our John checks on Root after lunch at the Union League club: Venison dressed in collops. Thin steaks cut from the haunch and larded with ribbons of salted fat. Held together with an unctuous forcemeat of raw beef suet, the hard fat of the kidneys, and prairie herbs (Russian Sage, sticky to the touch) which transfers to the meat its succulent viscosity during the long roasting process—to find his emaciated partner Root lost in the frame of his shaggy muttonchops. Root, by god, you're already half a ghost, John says, and he pours them both a brandy.

A gift, John sniffs, from the Philip Armours the Potter Palmers the George Pullmans to the Marshall Fields that'll do you more good than wasting away to the sound of your slowly beating heart your body growing gaunt and tuberculuar with each passing day. Off again, Root, out into the city of big somethings . . .

Hog something to the world.

John's a man of thick waist and firm bearing, and it's time to see a client: a Yale-Harvard-Princeton man with a tight grip and humidor packed with thick-leaf delight.

Hours later, the Yale-Harvard-Princeton man's old building. Load-bearing walls. Only 10 small stories. John smiles.

The doorman's head bows low to the ground and he can imagine sediment from this old building cracking from the top of the entrance arch and trickling down his back like a nest of staff-covered spiders, white like a shock of aged hair, spreading through pant legs before dropping, in thunderous spread, along the cobblestone floor that now rears up in fantastic patterns to meet his gaze.

Sir, you're simply not on the list for today's meeting some kind of mistake these things happen. No need boy. Chin up, John says, and whispers something mildly vulgar to the red-headed youth, pressing a wad of paper into his hand.

From the tenth-story penthouse—once so high high high . . . but now nothing. It can be doubled, tripled, exceeded, John knows, marching into a thick-smoked room of grey men in impeccable suits seated around a table. They make a sullen tableaux. John listens:

Sullivan, your plan is pure unadorned genius. We break ground next month and we can feel the future pulsing through your veins—have another drink—have another—and another—oh, you, you're here. I can tell you we've come to a decision so please don't waste our time, John.

Throbbing, John pulls up a chair at the end of the long table. We'll have you know that we are behind Sullivan completely.

Our John. No matter, just hear this: the sky is truly the limit so far as we need be concerned now and you can see how the mystique of the Beaux-Arts Greek column-style, the glazed terra-cotta facade must give way to the bundled tube-like form, a triple-lobed footprint based upon an abstracted vision of the flower Hymenocallis, or "beautiful membrane" in Greek, with the triumvirate of elements arranged around a shared core. This, gentleman, is the future.

Your topper-most tower will erupt into a spire that will nigh touch the sun. The view will be oriental, Lake Michigan like the Persian Gulf, with unnamed caliphates presenting tribute to the heart of the heart of the country. Perfumed incense. Harems of loose women.

From this, gentleman, you will live forever along with me . . . even if there is no one left in this room to hear John's voice go on and on in time to the beating of the great hearts bubbling thick sewers of cholesterol over the un-sucked marrow of pheasant bones left on sauce-smudged china.

3) John is voracious.

Or you could say omni-voracious, if omni means big and savvy and exclusive like the Omni Hotel in Chicago, where John always stays when he's giving a talk, even though he lives on the North Shore—exactly where he won't divulge; suffice it to say, to stress the North Shore, in which aptly named magazine he's listed as having been nominated for the year's prestigious prizes in culinary murals, those larger than life (if you consider perspective) interpretations sliding, on the diners' periphery, from wall-to-wall in certain ethnic restaurants, most notably Italian, with pregnant bunches of grapes tumbling over villa walls eroded and pinkened by sunshine and time, the tower of Pisa hazy in the distance behind a gondola slipping like a dark wedge through midnight waters beside the sidewalk café where steaming mussels pile on a plate with a fine bottle of Chianti and a crusty loaf, one of which John frequently tucks under his arm when he strolls his milieu of Paris or Rome, mentally translating the shop signs and plaques giving name to public art into a lingua franca that places men of his kind at crest of a great chain of being descending down down down to the protozoan past where artists gave the great Jesu the full proportions of a man but only the size of a small child.

A halo rings John's head.

This specific way to speak of representation is the subject of his talks, as his expertise in public art has led several of the restaurants, particularly Tony's, D'Roma, and Scarletti's (before it closed) to nominate him for the North Shore Magazine honors—those three, with their mural invoices pending, bearers of his finest, most recent work, depicting the troubled and dazzling plasticity in the facial expressions of the victims of Pompeii which transcends the lush peasant girls carrying baskets of tomatoes to market.

Oh, the girls, the girls, the girls, how many of them will be there tonight, and how will he choose? Tonight at the awards ceremony for which he has been nominated, although not included in the finalists . . . but he'll be there to be first to shake the hands of the winners, to throw an arm around them when the cameras flash, to ask for a drink (if the winner is a woman) or to join the entourage, if drinks have already been arranged. Surely, surely the next time he finds himself posing before one of the great European artworks of our (or any past) century, there'll be a street-wise and pain-acquiesced woman at his side.

John is rising, so much higher than their pain.

4) Your confidence, please, asks John.

Give me your confidence for one so down on his luck, speaks the boy-man, John, of no more than 22 or so, ragged by upright, in the chamber of the Palmer House Hilton. Green flak jacket. Long face gaunt like Abe Lincoln. Is that so much to ask in a world where no one can trust anyone anymore except maybe in the yellowish cistern of this esteemed-but-rotting hotel? Nay, go down to Trader Vic's for a Mai Tai—it's the drink's home and first birthplace my friend—and you'll find 100, nay 200 people arrayed around their potables like gray olives splashing in a steep martini glass.

The only way out, they think, is through the continuous chirp of cells phones set vibrating against the crotch.

I'm asking only for your confidence, for your faith, dare I say it . . . for my plight is not so easy to dismiss. I am indeed trapped here, in Chicago, without ID or money for reasons already explained to you, and that I must—dare I say, it is essential—board a bus outbound for Lafayette, Indiana this very night.

The crisp man in a dun-colored business suit, tired at the end of a long night and caught under the mosaic dizziness of the entire Palmer House operation, sighs deeply and reaches for his wallet. The 22-year old, more like 222, or 322, smiles broadly. I see I was too quick to decry your lack of confidence in me. This $20 loan, for I can only call it what it is, will be sent back to you directly. Tomorrow—in fact —or my purple blood be April green, and you shall see that you have done well to place your trust in one such as the me I call myself.

Now sir, your address on this note card, please?

Of course, there are reasons to be wary, speaks our man John aloud, now cold on the winter pavement heading, briskly, eastward toward a blistering Michigan Avenue. The spit of the crown fountain seems frozen in a wash of misty smoke. A few bums—nay, homeless—sit with their backs to the small brick wall to the east of the two structures that in summer shine with happy facial projections. He walks slowly past the rattling cups, the worn-out shoes, the newspapers balled up inside the pant legs for insulation from the arctic blasts passing like typhoid over the streets. A leg shoots out.

Sir, you've tripped me.

You better watch where you're going.

But, you, my friend, stuck your leg out to trip me. Deliberately, it appears.

You better watch where you're going. John.

The black city. The dark city. The fountain at night.

In one swoop, John sticks his leg out an overturns the bum's cup of change. A handful of quarters mixed with Laundromat tokens spill out onto the icy cement. Brittle buttons sewing themselves to the street. The other homeless men rally around the spill—grabbing coins and, to John's surprise, throwing them back into the bum's now uprighted Styrofoam cup.

Things must be righted, they say.

Seems that these men have confidence in you, sir, so perhaps I needs return the favor. John takes out a thick wad of bills, and peels off 30, maybe 40 dollars. It may have well been 300, 400. Distributes them to the group, haphazardly.

Gentlemen, you must excuse me. I need to find passage to Indiana this very night, and I see, up ahead, what looks to be a pair of icy purple shadows entering yonder restaurant who can assist, if only they have faith in the small me residing quietly, coldly, inside of us all.

4) John's Eternal Return to John

But before they can completely disappear, John finds them in a Russian restaurant.

They hadn't told him they were all going to dinner together (despite the short sourpuss's constant complaints of paroxysmal positional vertigo whenever she has more than one screwdriver).

In fact, they ditched John earlier when he'd come across them having drinks at the conference hotel: recall those first sideways glances between them as they sat hunched, almost like toads with stomach ulcers, arms tucked in, leaning forward toward their colorful liquids, on sofas around a preposterously short table (their toadstool, eh?), and he'd stood on the periphery, outside the circle, upright and fully erect, not letting on for an instant that his sciatica was screaming at him to both have a drink and sit his ass down.

But no invitation came forth, and no, he guesses, just after he'd wandered on, giving his gracious hellos (and business cards) to the next group, and the next, they'd on some cue left their clear plastic cups and sipping straws, and then single-file found a side door leading to a side street leading to continued sideward glances to see if he was following. Hasn't he more dignity than a monk with herpes? He didn't follow.

He found.

He discovered.

And to prove his magnanimity, he altruistically kept walking, didn't stand outside (to vicariously absorb and enjoy their soup spoons of borscht, for which he was perilously and perpetually ravenous), did not remain there frozen, dripping blood halfway to their mouths while they stared from the other side of the window aghast at his knowing, benevolent smile and trusting raised eyebrows cementing with icy freeze.

That was his gift to them, to know, to see, to understand—and keep walking—to give them their little club and Russian restaurant clubhouse, to allow them to tell their stories-of-John, their tales-of-the-Johnster, their legends-of-the-Johnerator, their faces flush like Scarlet fever as they recount his well-planned exploits.

He'll endure the exile of being on top of them all—floating in a sort of amniotic stratosphere unmoored from their petty concerns. They only do this to you when you are above it all—John floats—when you're this good—John shines—when they can't best you—John wins.

He pauses on the corner, just one-and-a-half feet of brick wall past the window where they still sit slurping, their crimson mouths bloody as the soup, he knows, although it's made of beets, not blood, and strange that he can't remember a single other kind of Russian food that might be on their plates. Perhaps he hadn't had a good enough look.

Wasn't there somewhere he had to be? Wasn't someone expecting him somewhere?

Doesn't he have another appointment?

Another dinner somewhere where he's expected to make an appearance, a showing, so another group could go home and write in their blogs, "Guess who showed up at our dinner?"

Maybe it was this group, and their frozen faces of revulsion were set because he'd kept walking. And if he dies of pleurisy or better yet apoplexyy (the stuff of 19th century retired sea captains) here on the corner, they'd tell stories of it next year and the year after, how he'd meant to join them for dinner but never made it, how the remainder of their years of dinners would be marred by the calamity they can't forget, the heartbreak of coming so close, of having him walk on without noticing the empty seat where they'd piled their coats.

He turns. He returns.

He'll do this for them.

5) The Great Wheel turns according to John's will.

It looks exanimate enough, John agreed, with its idle wheel looming above the black stream dashed with yellow-white spume, and its cluster of sheds sagging under their white load.

That thing'll never fly they say but John could all be see the Great Wheel turn like some rotating colossus over the mud-soaked plain of the Midway Plaisance. Over 2100 passengers can fit inside its 36 cars, and at .50 cents per person, each circumrotation of the steel car over the flat earth, or perhaps, rather, the moving earth rotating at roughly a thousand miles-per-second and the stationary steel carriages becomes then the only sedentary place in the entire universe . . . suspended for a dark moment on the edge of the black city of Chicago this day of our Lord, June 21, 1893, the first public turning of the Great Ferris Wheel.

John has risked everything to be here and he strolls the midway with the woeful diligence of a foreign legionnaire, a military man conscripted into service on the wild seas of an inhospitable Pacific archipelago. He is both boss and bottom-dweller at the same time, and only by dint of hard work and some odd force of will can he find in the gleaming alter-metropolis of the Midway—that space aside the perfect White City of sullen staff-colored buildings—a vision of the humanity to come: this wheel as merely the start of a new vision, its idyll character dissolving in these barkers hawking their cheap wares astride belly dancers brown from the Arabian sand and the West African Dahomeys running about with pygmy spears and the New England settler cabin stoked with the fires of witchbone and Nathaniel Hawthorne's severed head spiked on the end of a flaming spit.

Together, speaking a swirl of tongues, with skin wet with the pulsing of peoples collaged together like pasteboard particles in a chemical vat, John knows he can make the Great Wheel move with the power of his faith.

The gears creak like a million mice processed in an industrial shredder as John puts his hands to his temples and concentrates. Brings things together. He picks out a number of passengers on one of the lower cars and focuses hard on a derby hats, the ugly white parasols, the similarity of neatly trimmed handlebar mustaches hanging down from the car like ivy weighted with lead. John falls to his knees and feels the grassy mud beneath his trousers soak through with softness, almost tenderness. He will make things turn, around this space, this moment, this patch of land at the shore of Lake Michigan.

John concentrates.

Brings things together.

Visualizes the dawn breaking clear and bright rotating around the axle of the Great Wheel. Daniel H. Burnham and the others marshaled on the speaker's platform in three-piece suits and a spume of cigar smoke rising like the devil's flame. John removes a small golden whistle from his pocket at the same time the shadowy man on the platform does the same and they move together, one the homunculi of the other, and the Iowa State Band strikes up "America" to the cheers of the thousands and the wheel begins to move and John places his belly in the dirt and rubs himself deep into the wet muck and feels himself lifted suddenly high above the ground in a rotation that will make him for once in his life the center of everything that ever can be as the Great Wheel turns and turns in a nauseating crank of steel that John can feel vibrating through his entire body that is the universe that is everything there is.

6) John sees his quest as a postmodern blockbuster with a split screen:
one side would be the film he shoots
                                                                     and the other would depict him shooting
                                                                     the film.

We will investigate the various factors that have led to John's invisibility.

                                                                    They will address the changes that come with the
                                                                    years, the persistent problems, the recurring joys, all
                                                                    of them affected strangely by the specter of John.

We will explore these questions through a portrait of a man—our John—who craves the attention of others—not for his ego—but for electric spark of human connection.

                                                                    They will discuss how they recreate, re-inhabit,
                                                                    locate, and celebrate John's origin(s) in language;
                                                                    and further, they will reflect on the notion of his
                                                                    literary heritage. For lo, he has one, deepening and
                                                                    extending the tapestry of what it means to be
                                                                    human.

We will provide immediately useful and specific information to help demystify the process of John's sad exile, even though we agree it to be necessary.

                                                                    They will therefore approach the topic of those-
                                                                    other-than-John from a variety of perspectives.

We will also discuss how the subgenres flow one into the other—why John's gender is important—how John crosses boundaries in ways counter to our understanding. How we need him to take this risk. For us.

                                                                    They will all discuss their ideologies, and thus their
                                                                    philosophies of John, in order to highlight
                                                                    ultimately how they differ from him in such ways
                                                                     that he strangely excites them. At times, he gives
                                                                    them voice.

We will investigate what constitutes innovation, and John's version of same, through an analysis of the cultural conditions that gave rise to the "innovative" characteristics which John wants desperately to know.

                                                                    They will talk about their formation, their cultural
                                                                    traditions, and their work to increase social
                                                                    consciousness—and how John is not a part of
                                                                    this Great Work.

We will discuss the synergy, in which we become closer to John.

                                                                    They will provide a social, political, and literary
                                                                    context for understanding the phenomenon of John.

We will synergize with John if we can, even though there is much to dislike.

                                                                    They will discuss the benefits and difficulties of
                                                                    each approach to the complex problem of John.

We will synergize with John because, again, we need to understand something of him.

                                                                    They will set this work about John in the context of
                                                                    the larger field, thus negating so much.

We will put our arms around John on a cold afternoon, and together, hold him as close as we can while the others—their eyes locked forward—walk briskly past.


Cris Mazza is the author of over a dozen books. Her most recent fiction titles include Trickle-Down Timeline and Waterbaby. A native of Southern California, Mazza grew up in San Diego County. She currently lives 50 miles west of Chicago and is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Davis Schneiderman's next novel, Drain, will be published by Northwestern/Triquarterly in 2010. His other works include Memorials to Future Catastrophes (Jaded Ibis, 2008), Abecedarium (Chiasmus Press, 2007), DIS (BlazeVox, 2008), Multifesto: A Henri d'Mecan Reader (Pluto 2006), and the co-edited anthologies Retaking the Universe: Williams S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization (Pluto, 2004) and The Exquisite Corpse: Chance and Collaboration in Surrealism's Parlor Game (Nebraska,forthcoming). He teaches at Lake Forest College, directs Lake Forest College Press/&NOW Books, and can be found, virtually, at davisschneiderman.com/.



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