Kerry Shawn Keys minibio

“I don’t know who I am, but I have many names and live in Vilnius,” says Kerry Shawn Keys, an American living in Lithuania of nineteen years now. He is a human orchestra: translator, poet, prose writer, author of children’s books, dramatist. Kerry has already become part of the Vilnius landscape and culture. The poet Sigitas Geda said about him, “by his presence and participation in the everyday life of Lithuanian poetry, he has made us stronger as well.” Kerry, though, calls himself an “outsider”, and outsiders are generally better at seeing certain things than locals or those ensconced in everyday life, in the “system”. A view from the side is always interesting, and with that in mind, the Vilnius Review has decided to begin publishing Kerry’s short, witty essays about Lithuania and Lithuanians. So, here, each month you will find "A Palmer's Chronicle".

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reflections on belonging

Graphic Novels

Photo by Dainius Dirgėla

By Kerry Shawn Keys


in memory of the infamous Korean novelist (Republic of Užupis), poet, and painter, Hailji (Rim Jong Joo), the narrator of this tale.


When I first heard of Zopilote’s death in Vilnius, I was back in Seoul working like an insect at the University. I had little time then even for my own self-inquisitions. By this I mean my race with time and clocks and virgins across the pages of the self. And to try to rationalize not going, I reminded myself that he was already dead over twelve months. Still, I felt an obligation and even a welling-up of fraternal emotion to go to Vilnius, see his haunts, and carry out his last wishes – he had put them in his file cabinet under the heading “Lim” – that’s me – and a Lithuanian archivist had stumbled on them and immediately emailed me. Having always been inflicted with premonitions of death, he had some time before cut off a few strands of hair, placed them in a Christmas card envelope with a note asking that I take them and another “cutting” that I would find in Vilnius to a place called Obit Kalnas, a hotel of sorts (perhaps I would now say out of sorts)in the town of Nida on the Neringa spit. He sent me another card mentioning the hair within the Christmas card envelope and the hair in Vilnius just in case one cutting were lost I might still use the other. Zopilote had always been anal in his attention to minutia and to death. He went on to say in both cards that I was to scatter the hair among some dahlias in honor of his father. So forth and so on, a few other instructions included, the oddest that I should carry the hair in an empty cello case because otherwise it might set off car-security alarms. Until this day I haven’t caught the connection. And later in Lithuania I just ignored his suggestion because the cello case had a more practical use. I had a sabbatical coming up, and so some months later found myself at Vilnius airport.

You could say a second journey began at that point. I had never been in this “East” before, but I had heard much had changed for the better in the dozen years since liberation. It was hard to imagine this once I arrived but I will accept what the residents that spoke English told me over and over. I suspect the non-speakers of English might have had a different tale to tell. The only money-exchange in the entire airport was closed for a few hours for repairs – they were putting up a sign that said it was a money- exchange. So, after some bargaining and confusion with the lolitas(the local currency), I hopped in a taxi and headed straight for the Writers Union where the archivist wrote I could best get the information I needed and where Zopilote’s locks were requisitioned in a jewelry case inside a shoebox with the name “LIM” inscribed in gold leaf on the top. At first the taxi driver took me to the detox clinic but the physician there then directed him to the Union. All went smoothly at first. I presented my passport. A secretary gave me the box and I immediately noticed how splendidly it matched the gold-leafed décor inside the Union. The chief, a Mr Indus ( alias, Zapata in some circles) – I had already heard of the ancient linguistic and Aryan connections to India – invited me for a beer and soup to the pub headquartered in the same building. I can’t recall the name but it had a folksy ring to it – something like The Seventh Son. Mr Indus didn’t resemble a Hindu at all nor a Mexican, and when he spoke it reminded me more of Greek in hexameters, or ur-Russian than Pali, or Sanskrit as I fantasized it. For sure, I can only imagine that Sanskrit is perhaps the ur-tongue of Hindi. Mr Indus briefly explained that my friend had gone hunting for mushrooms, and had picked, cooked, and eaten the wrong ones. He had gone into convulsions, his testicles inflating into a large, toxic variety of a “puffball”,  and within a matter of minutes he had died – his “puffballs” simultaneously exploding and broadcasting spores all over the city. And that was it except for one thing – prurient rumors had immediately circulated. Then after nine months and a few weeks had passed, they had subsided. There would be no new onslaught of claims to my friend’s substantial holdings. The courts had been clogged for months – so much bullshit in the plumbing. The possible heirs had been narrowed down from a hundred to a dozen. And then Mr Indus let loose with the thunderbolt – Zopilote’s body was embalmed and his instructions were to also bestow it on me to take to Nida. Nothing had been said in the email for fear I might be frightened of the prospect. And, in truth, I was trembling. Mr Indus then showed me on a map where Nida was, wished me well, and that was that.

First, I thought I might telephone this Obit Kalnas place and make reservations but the various local guidebooks made no mention of it, and besides I only spoke a halting English and French, had little knowledge of Russian, and no Lithuanian. I had learned to say “It’s a pity” in Lithuanian, but that was about it. O’, I could say aciu in Lithuanian because it reminded me of achoo in English, the onomatopoeia for “ sneeze”. Except in English with the accent on the second syllable it is really more like the actual forward movement of the snot when one sneezes. In Lithuanian, the sound has a bit more equilibrium. And I also know the word “lolitas” for the currency, which I sometimes refer to as dollys as a way of tripping the memory into the American dollar. I had been told that Zopilote after a half-dozen years in the country, could only say “It’s a pity that”, and so despite my attempt to be humble, a certain note of pride lodged in my throat. He had me by one word only. I tried emailing Obit Kalnas but they boomeranged back with “no such address exists” or “try howling three times like a wolf”.

In the end, it wasn’t such a bad trip. I took the bus straight to Nida. Lithuania is a land of fields, forests, hot-air balloons, lakes, potatoes, and beautiful lasses. I counted exactly 333 hitchhiking girls I would have died to pick up. I even tried telling the bus driver to do so, but he only understood German. So, no luck. When in desperation I designed an hourglass figure in the air (the perfect San Diego type), he stopped the bus for me to take a leak. The consensus of the passengers was that I was diagramming my bladder. I went into the woods but there were so many mushrooms, and not wishing to offend Zopilote or any of his possible offspring, I just pretended to pee. Soon I thought my bladder would indeed burst like a puffball full of beer. The other passengers must have thought I had blue balls or prostate problems the way I was moaning and fumbling with the door of the WC. Or they might have thought I was too shy to squirt or take a dump in the woods. Unfortunately, the WC on the bus was locked. I was later told that most of the toilets suffered from leaks and that an extra yellow line had developed on the highway causing a lot of traffic chaos, and so a law had been passed to keep all bus WCs locked. It was a beautiful trip after the bus again stopped and I managed to relieve myself on the back tire, not even attempting the woods again. I had earlier been a little apprehensive when Neringa was referred to as a spit, but then had heard that a spit is a peninsula of sorts. It was late afternoon. The bus dropped me off in the center, and fortunately – I thought at the time – the Tourist Bureau was right there and still open. Mr Indus hadn’t drawn me a map of Nida, and I had no idea in the world how to proceed to Obit Kalnas. I knew I was on a Spit and that was fearful enough. At first the lady at the desk gave me a blank look. Then, she looked surprised and said “yes” there was such a place but she knew nothing about it except that she often had to find other accommodations for visitors who would arrive first thing in the morning at the Bureau eager to find another place to stay. “No”, she didn’t know the prices – they never registered with the Tourist Bureau. And “no”, she didn’t know exactly where it was – just somewhere to the North, as she pointed with her middle finger as if to say Fuck off and go there. And so I assumed it was uphill since in my adolescence I had been somewhat of an amateur cartographer and knew that North was always at the top of the wall-map and thus somewhere near Heaven.

I found a taxi and asked the driver to take me to Obit Kalnas but he was unaware of the place. Fortunately, he spoke a little English. So I said the Writers Union Hotel, but then he answered that the detox clinic was quite far away in Palanga. Not wishing to go over the matter again, I just asked him to take me to the top of the hill. It was starting to get dark when I saw the flashing lights revolving, and I thought this must be the place – definitely in the vicinity of Aurora Borealis. But it turned out only to be a lighthouse. No one working there, the light just going round and round in a reassuring stupor. After stumbling around for a while in the woods, suddenly I saw a complex of buildings and a sign, Obit Kalnas. There at last was the registration office. It was locked. No one to register me and Zopilote – for a single, since he was still hidden away in the cello case. Seemingly no guests in the area, but a few teeny poons walking around who looked like they might be staff because they seemed to have nothing to do and were staring emptily in front of themselves and didn’t respond when I asked where I could register. Finally a rather bewildered and frightened “manager” appeared and said they weren’t used to unexpected guests and perhaps I should have telegraphed beforehand, but he would see what he could do. A room was found. However, the whole complex seemed quite abandoned – like a playground with weeds growing through the concrete and the basketball hoops missing. Yes, a room. I was relieved – quickly went in, plopping my bags on the sofa-bed, gently putting the box with Zopilote’s hair on the TV set that I guessed was now a make-shift coffee table. As for Zopilote, I left him outside the entrance in the cello case. Even though embalmed, the smell was a bit too cheesy with a lingering odor of a mix of stale beer with one of the national dishes, a pig’s intestine embalmed with mashed potatoes. It dawned on me why Zopilote was so insistent that his hair be taken here – it would surely rest in piece. And with the fresh winds blowing in off the sea, the body even six feet under wouldn’t attract as much attention as in Vilnius. One could imagine a contemporary art gallery there confiscating it for an existential exhibit on fragrance and death – at least Mr Indus had expressed some such fear. Only a select few would ever be able to find the place in Nida at the Obit. Mr Indus had remarked that the whole Obit enterprise could go bankrupt since the clientele had become more and more exclusive over the years – only the most seasoned of travelers enjoyed the unexpected amenities of the place. I understand this now also – there were eggshells on the floor from some previous Easter. You could still detect the onion-skin dye. And there was a caravan of ants so close upon one another that their formation wavered in a peristaltic motion like some seven-meter-long snake. From the door of the room to the door of the refrigerator, which didn’t close tightly enough. There was an entrance-hole only big enough for one ant at a time perhaps. Or they had the habit of traveling Indian-file. I tried to imagine how many kilos of fish and bread must have been left during the Easter evacuation. I also began to agonize over Zopilote’s body right outside the door – could or would the ants find a hole into the cello case?

Nevermind. I would be staying only a short time, taking care of my friend’s locks, performing the requisite ceremony. No instructions had been given to me about the body – that would have to take its turn later. Perhaps I would deposit it in the polluted lagoon – it wouldn’t attract any special attention there. Well, I went into the bathroom, took a dump, flushed, and lo and behold the toilet bowl had a big crack with a leak. I noticed the cabbage soup from the Seventh Son bar at the Writers Union slowly oozing out across the tiles into the drain (which worked! something like in the Tao te ching: that which is emptied gets its usefulness from holes – shit! I forget the exact passage and its gist). Given my  “oriental” upbringing, I didn’t want to be obviously rude, but I thought I must somehow change rooms. I returned to the office. It was closed, of course, but I located the manager in one of the maid’s rooms, and after some persuasion on my part, he admitted that there was one other room available – the other rooms were not ready yet – reserved for some months now for a certain “Karen Go La”, but since she was already a year late I could perhaps take it. I happily agreed, never mentioning my mission nor the irony of the whole affair. We would be an odd couple there, but Zopilote might have his own room after all. And so I took my suitcase, the shoebox and jewelry case with Zopilote’s hair, and plodded to the other end of the complex. Then, returned for the cello case and Zopilote. I noticed a string-like, serpentine shadow seemingly following us but I was in too much of a hurry to investigate, and besides I thought that perhaps Zopilote had merely sprung a leak.

The grounds around the second lodging were much nicer – there were even the few dahlias the groundskeeper was transplanting as I moved into the second room. When I awoke the next morning he was still there trying to stake them and grumbling something about needing permission from the manager, but that the manager had been up all night on the roof of one of the rooms trying to signal the lighthouse to signal the TV Tower in Vilnius to signal the Writers Union that “yes” they had a paying guest but he was “oriental” looking and maybe a communist. I was amused, not offended. The groundskeeper indicated that the same sequence of signals would be necessary to get  permission to stake up the dahlias except that he would have to contact the assistant manager first who would then contact the manager and so forth. I soon noticed that there was a bench right outside, but, peculiarly, facing the large picture-window of my room, and not discreetly in another direction. My first thought was maybe it was a convenience for voyeurs. A Victorian, Roman Catholic country always produces a bevy of voyeurs and horny priests. Then I felt ashamed at my thought – and decided that it was there facing my room so I could sit there anytime day or night, smoke a Havana cigar, and joyfully reflect that I was not in my room, because again there were eggshells, a cortege of ants, yellow stains on the sheets, and a leaking toilet.

It was still relatively early – and since there was no alternative to change rooms again – I went up to the café at the main building for dinner. It was two flights up from the manager’s office and directly above the WC. Perhaps this was the owner’s mistake – it should have been designed in reverse to cut culinary costs, having in mind the dire straits of the Writers Union finances and the two toilets I had thus far encountered. Well, the café was open for drinks but no dinner – a bit too late, 7 PM or so. Plenty of places in the Center to eat, I was told. There was a freezer in the café with all sorts of ice-cream, candy, Popsicles, etc., and so I asked the barmaid if I could buy an ice-cream. Again, the reply was that the kitchen was closed.

A bit dismayed, I went out on the terrace next to the café, some apple brandy in hand. No one else about – just me. Then I saw a car drive up, a guy get out and walk toward the office. I heard a loud knocking, over and over. I surmised that there was no response. Then the guy returned to his car, stood on the hood, and shouted “I’m Jim Ballsfelt, editor and writer for the Tough Guide Book to the Baltics.” Finally the manager appeared, seemingly exasperated by the rush of business, and led Mr Ballsfelt to the room that I had previously occupied. The door shut. I downed my brandy, toasting with delight a guest probably too exhausted or jaded to complain. The next day I introduced myself to the writer and asked him how he was managing with the eggshells, the ants, the leaking toilet. He was somewhat offended and replied that it was a tough guide book that he was writing, and that with a seasoned traveler’s savvy he had made a plaster of eggshells mashed with ants and plugged the leak to the toilet. Ah, the ingenuity of the Western mind.

To make a long story shorter, the following day I performed the necessary observances with Zopilote’s hair – a Masonic ritual I can’t really divulge to a Lithuanian. The ants had thoroughly devoured Zopilote’s body, and so out of respect I didn’t squash them and hence with the eggshells make a plaster similar to the Tough Guide writer’s. Then I checked out of the Obit Kalnas. It was necessary to do so in order to get my passport back. But I also checked out due in part to my “oriental” courtesy – suppose some mutation of Zopilote might some day show up wanting to rent the long-awaited room. It would be “officially” empty except for the eggshells, the ants, and the apple brandy stains on the bathroom floor. And so I took the bus back to Vilnius, paid my respects to Mr Indus, who took me to the Seventh Son for a delicious mushroom omelet and sorrel soup. I am now jotting down this outline hoping to later turn it into a cinema script for a road film about my trip to Lithuania, about Zopilote, about Obit Kalnas if I can ever find it again, and perhaps about the ongoing saga of the cello case, which I checked with my baggage. It’s full of ants, and dahlia petals from outside my room in Nida. I don’t think the x-ray machine will detect them, and if so, what then? I feel a little queasy in my stomach – maybe the mushroom omelet. And I have a hankering for some pickled cabbage. In my country men never get pregnant – it’s not the natural order of things. And yet somehow I feel I am still carrying Zopilote with me. Those damned mushrooms!




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