Essays on Writing and Life
by James Sallis

Never mind working without a net; living as a writer is like working without even the tightrope, learning to balance, suspended, in mid-air. That's the way James Sallis has lived for almost forty years, publishing a blizzard of novels, short stories, poems, essays, translations and biographies in everything from "Transatlantic Review" to "The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction." Two rules, he says. Put your butt in the chair. Don't look down.  
WFL columns

Writing from Life
Babe the Blue Ox, and Mike
Stalked by Poetry!
Approaching the Page
Repopulating Oz
On Just Saying No

Distress Signals

Around 1970, fever-ridden and staring out the bus window on his way to visit me, my old friend David Lunde wrote: We must learn to put our distress signals in code. In "A Few Last Words," masking the tale of my own failing marriage as an end-of-the-world story, I'd done just that. Around the same time, one of my first good poems (there'd been quite a number of the other sort) set down unheralded on the helipad; in it I dealt more directly, if still at some distance, with much the same material.

Among the moon
and feathers she was sleeping
and the sound of his feet coming
home up the stairs, home
to her, disturbed her.

Jesus, was what she said
under her pillow after a while
and he was nearly
asleep, Jesus, you could at least
do it with a little imagination.

He sat
on the edge of the bed,
he said, Yes, you're right,
I could. He left. She lay
listening to birds.
(One had said: It's your freedom
makes me do this. And the other:
You contain me.)

Then one day
a noise at the door and there
he was, smiling inside his suit.

He left, was
gone, came back — but
had sensed a flood, could not taste
that pure, clear fall of rain.

I'm given, constant readers tell me, to end-of-the-world stories. True enough, I have a great and lasting fondness for George R. Stewart's Earth Abides Matheson's I Am Legend Pangborn's Davy Bester's story "They Don't Make Life Like They Used To." Everything my wife insists is only metaphor in my novel Renderings I take as actual.

—What are we waiting for? she says. She is lying on the ground beside me; she lifts her head and turns her face, two separate motions, turtlelike, to watch me. Pain waits in her eyes. —Please talk to me, she says. I have sat all morning without moving, here in this deck chair by the cabin. —We are waiting, I say, for the end of the world. I can see it far off over the water, moving towards us.

In the novel the world is ending, I tell my wife, really it is. She smiles and sips her tea. Street lights blink on outside our window.

Only take time to look, and beneath the surface of any life you'll find what seems unbearable pain. All our messages — innocent, passing exchanges shouted across cars and porches, sermons and politician's speeches, hammered-out, lapidary poems — are distress signals. Art and simple humanity alike consist in knowing this.

Because Karyn and I have moved to Phoenix's historical district, the street lights that just blinked on outside our window are antiques. We share our new home with two residents quite different in, as they say, aspect. One is slender, somehow fingerlike, with translucent skin and a remarkably elongated, flat head. This is Reginald. And for the other, barrel-shaped and stubby in a way that instantly and inescapably brings to mind the word stout, only the name Balzac would do.

Reginald and Balzac are geckos. They live on our front porch as did, in our previous home in west Phoenix, an apparent family of three who would go scurrying into a hole in the slump block whenever we drew too close. (One always thinks of the interior of that block: sparsely but comfortably furnished perhaps, shopworn sofa, stacks of old magazines, a few half-eaten moths scattered about on coffee and end-tables.) Those geckos, liking their food delivered, preferred having the porch light left on; though likewise advocates of home delivery, our new housemates prefer darkness. Balzac stands stock-still and upside down near the middle of the porch's roof, Reginald most often on the perpendicular overhang.

To me, geckos represent Arizona every bit as much as awesome sunsets, cholla and saguaro, ragged horizons of mountains. At that previous house, daily, small lizards came out onto the struts of the awning above the window in the room where I wrote and rested there baking in the sun, from time to time performing what I can only think of as lizard pushups, knees pumping the body up to full extension and lowering it hydraulically back down. All day as I worked, fascinated, I would watch lizards of every size as they sprinted, froze and flowed over fences and alley walls. But it was the geckos I most loved and looked forward to.

Geckos may not be quite the Darwinian success story that cockroaches are, but they're close, with something on the order of 700 to 900 species worldwide. Cockroaches, as it happens, like other insects, are a favorite food source, for which reason geckos in many cultures are perceived as household guardians. Sophie Schweitzer writes of first encountering geckos following her move from Europe to Hawaii:

A chirping sound, the kissing of lips, or perhaps the smacking of cheeks followed by a rapid pitter-patter would startle me awake, and in the dim light of a lantern I would suddenly see a little lizard attack a crusty cockroach somewhere on the wall.

The two battled, and the sound of hard-shelled cockroach wings being bashed against the ceiling by a graceful gecko, hardly larger in size, held me in awe. The struggle was ruthless and final. In the morning only a few hairy legs bore witness to the unpredictable laws of the jungle.

Again like cockroaches, most geckos are nocturnal, ranging in size from that of a small safety pin to four inches or so. Much of that length may be tail, comprising the majority of the gecko's body fat. When the gecko is attacked, the tail will detach, writhing to attract and hold the attention of the gecko's pursuer while the animal flees. Though the tail eventually grows back, it will never again be as strong. Gecko eyes have vertical pupils covered by immoveable, transparent membranes that the gecko cleans with its long sticky tongue. Microscopic suction-cup structures on their toes (looking, in microphotographs, like bunches of albino broccoli) allow them to walk and run effortlessly on almost any surface with little regard for gravity. Their skin color changes with the ambient temperature. They are the only lizards capable of making sounds apart from hisses, and their name may in fact derive from their barking chatter.

Geckos subsist on insects, and the same methods levelled against their basic food source — glue boards, sticky cards and the like — are advocated to those misguided souls who perceive geckos as pests.

In old Hawaii, geckos were seen as avatars of the great, dragonlike monster-god Mo'o, their bodies routinely employed by Mo'o for his manifestations. Thus the small lizards were greatly respected, even held sacred; along with the shark, owl and hawk, they became mankind's guardian spirits.

In China, geckos are used medicinally to treat cough and asthma, to purify lungs and kidney, to replenish blood and bodily essence, and to treat impotence:

The gecko is caught in summer. The internal organs are removed, and the eyes are cut and drained. Pieces of bamboo are used to fix the body, and then the gecko is baked and put in a dry place.

I have been careful not to let Reginald and Balzac hear of this, of course.

A quieter time now, like a held breath, as sprinklers come on all along the block and traffic sounds subside. Outside my window another day begins to go down in flames. Pinks, violets, cobalt blues and slate grays spill across the sky as though pails of pigment have been kicked over. Underlit clouds show bellies heavy with darkness. Reginald and Balzac will be expecting us soon on the front porch. As far as I know, they've never watched Westerns, but the two of them know quite a lot about riding off into sunsets together.

We've lived in Arizona seven or eight years now. A few months after moving here, I wrote a short story, "Saguaro Arms," that Karyn says was my way of embracing my new homeland — not to mention the geckos.

And so, ponderously, as though on camelback, swaying, over desert and between dunes, we've come to this foreign land, where the sun fights its way down through layers of color, where saguaro lift arms in welcome all around us and geckos with cowlike skulls sail the backs of lit windows each night.

The story ends, as will this essay:

As you settle into your tub then, night closing around you, day hanging out backstage bitching with the other bit players till it's time to go on, I sit listening to neighborhood gunfire, to the wheeze and pump of accordions through Juan's window next door.

From their corners the jaguars watch me. Even after I turn off the lights their eyes gleam and flicker. Against moonlight on the back of my windows, as on photographic plates, appear the silhouettes of geckos, perhaps a dozen of them, facing this way and that. Like myself, like the jaguars, awaiting what I will do next.

James Sallis' latest novel, Cypress Grove, is just out from Walker Books.