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Source: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/as-the-leopard-so-the-coliseum

One thinks: this shit’s never gonna end. Puerto Rico. Idiot with a bump stock on the the 32nd floor. Nuclear Viagra giving Trump an intercontinental hard-on. Hurricane Maria, Irma, Harvey, take your pick. My friend’s house underwater in Houston, his dog on an inflatable raft. Girls stabbed in Marseilles. Girls with acid in their faces. Girls shot in a club. Catalonia blowing up. Spanish police hurling voters down the stairs, zip ties, broken jaws. It will never, ever end.

One thinks: on a long enough timeline, the probability of any given thing in the United States becoming a horrific instrument of death rises to about 99%. Maybe puppies, water lilies, and soft serve ice cream are exempt, but you’d be surprised. America is a lethal place. More lethal this year than last year and you know why. There is no fate. No grace. No help from above. Just you and me and the justice we make. But maybe I don’t know what’s just anymore.

One thinks: if we could figure out what justice is, we might make a little more of it in the time we have left before the Empire falls and the barbarians come wailing in to roast mom for dinner. But, you see, mom has it coming. The Empire is always collapsing. That’s part of what makes it the Empire. And mothers are the ones raising a new generation of infantry to help it all along. Mothers are secretly to blame. If you really want to be the change, just don’t breed. But you can’t help yourself, can you.

I once dated a girl whose mother had retired to Coronado Island after 30 years of running a large farm in the Midwest. The woman now lived in a pristine four-story mansion with stained glass windows and aged admirals as neighbors. The story of how she got transported from a farm to a high-end resort off the coast of San Diego unpacks like a cliché movie of the week: illegal pesticides, cancer deaths, enormous lawsuit, and an out-of-court settlement that made everyone but the families of the farm laborers obscenely rich.

Mom was, as they used to say in Northern California, hella happy with the outcome, even though (or maybe because) her second husband also kicked it in the process. She was the Laughing Farmer Buddha of corporate hush money. Though after she met me, she was perhaps less amused by life or by her daughter’s choices in men.

When we shook, she twisted my hand open in a death grip, looked down at my palm, and said, “Hmm. Soft hands.” Then she stepped back, crossed her arms, and frowned at me the way you would at a corpse just dragged from a polluted river, the corpse of the man I could have been but obviously wasn’t and never would be. Watching the exchange, her daughter—who I’d been out with no more than two or three times before that night—seemed ready for good bit of fun. It was then that I began to feel that none of us were destined to be best friends.

One thinks: there must be a reason I had this experience, some sort of magnetic resonance floating out around my navel, pulling in all manner of bigots, racists, fools, prevaricators, sea lawyers, farmer savants, red-mesh-cap-wearing bumpkins with absolute opinions on everything they don’t understand and fear. Why does Donald Trump exist, you ask? Why does wedding cake taste like shit? Why can’t we have nice things before those things try to kill us? Scott Pruitt works for the EPA, for one. But maybe you don’t like that answer. Pay no attention to the pesticide behind the curtain.

Toward the end of dinner, her mother told the story of how she’d come into her millions. It was a yarn she seemed to have told at many dinners over the years. She’d refined it with certain references to the overall stupidity of her late husband, racial slurs aimed at the farmhands, clever allusions to the worthlessness of a college education, hints at an ongoing Zionist conspiracy, and various artful insinuations that such evils were all rooted in the basic homosexuality of our times. She was, in short, one of the most repulsive people I’d ever encountered.

She was so offensive that I began to wonder whether it was all a practical joke. But by the end of the night, I saw the truth. This was a suitability test being run by her daughter. If I could deal with the repellent overbearing mother, I was worthy. If not, well, there are winners and losers in this wide world and the daughter was only interested in the former.

For desert, we had mother’s old-time funnel cake topped with sweet cream. We took our plates to the den, where mom started up the fireplace and handed out glasses of cheap bourbon to go with the cake. I saw my date wink and pour hers into the philodendron by the couch. But the plant was not within range of where I was sitting. I thought about pouring it between the cushions.

“You gonna drink it or look at it?”

I smiled and ate some funnel cake. Mom was already into her second glass.

Then her daughter said I was trying to be a writer, which made her mother guffaw and suggest we play a game of Scrabble. Because writers are supposed to like Scrabble. And so did mom, who saw it as a kind of IQ test. She even owned a Scrabble dictionary, no doubt for those late-night bourbon-fueled disputes about whether “gherkin” was a 170- or 180-point word.

Needless to say, mom won the game. I don’t remember the specifics, but I do recall her mix of satisfaction and disappointment, as if she’d once again proven to herself the uselessness of liberal intellectual book learning and what a waste it all was.

One thinks: why didn’t I run out the door screaming when I had the chance? Maybe because I stayed (and because others before me had probably excused themselves long before the funnel cake), the daughter decided I was good boyfriend material. She kept calling long after I gave her the Let’s Not Even Be Friends talk and blocked her number. Her mother had done her part for Big Farm Poison and the Hitler Youth while Jesus Camp and Rush Limbaugh were riding high.  Now her daughter was running free on the earth.

This was long before we ever thought Trump would be anything more than bad TV, before he started referring to our present non-nuclear-holocaust moment as “the calm before the storm.” This was before the end of America, the grand finale, the New American Century with Slim Pickens riding the bomb down to bring on the Rapture. I know you believe it. So stop shaking your damn head. You were there in Charlottesville. I know it was you.

“He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.” – John Barth, Lost in the Funhouse

She’s married now, lives in a suburb of Boise with husband and kids, supports Donald Trump, the white identitarian movement, and a particular identitarian organization of which I gather her husband is a card-carrying member. She must be a genius. The public posts on her FB timeline are mostly family photos, lifestyle articles from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop site, comments about the coming race war, and Breitbart. I know she’s not an evil person. But I can’t make fun anymore. It’s hard to even smile.

And so one thinks: that’s all over now, the thought, the hope, that the system would right itself. The system is what got us where we are. The system is wrong if it has produced this. I’m almost to the point where I’m ashamed I voted at all, even if it was for Hillary. Let’s not ever be friends, okay?

You go make America great again until your gene pool becomes so homogeneous that you start sacrificing people on step pyramids in the forest. Only the steps of those pyramids will be made out of bullet casings and the skulls of immigrant children. Go ahead. If your sister doesn’t mind, I won’t say no. I’ll be in hiding. I already am. Don’t come looking for me. And don’t keep calling. I’ve got soft hands. I like books and classical music and non-violence. I don’t own a bump stock. I don’t even own a gun to put a bump stock on. I won’t be manufacturing any justice in my basement today. I just want you to stop fucking with me. I’ve got my ear to the tracks.

PDX in the afternoon and everyone is miserable. Suitcase slightly too heavy equals the most exorbitant bag fee I’ve ever paid in a fever of desperation. I could have bought a second suitcase, should have. In the security line, a teen starts shouting that he’s not going to remove his shoes and is detained while 200 people watch. 45 minutes later, the scanner finds a sword-shaped metal object hidden down the back of my shirt. There is nothing down the back of my shirt. I am patted down.

“What’s back there?” asks a bullet-headed TSA officer with a nervous tick in his left eye.

“Nothing.”

“Are you sure about that?” He looks me over, twitches, does the hand-held metal detector. It beeps when he passes it over my back. I can still hear the boy shouting in some far-off security area.

I am asked to step behind a partition. I remove my button-down. I am patted down a second time. My T-shirt is tested for explosive residue. My shoulder bag is tested for explosive residue. My shoes are examined with a TSA dentist’s mirror-flashlight, then tested for explosive residue. I am asked multiple times where I am going and my answers are checked against passport, boarding card, secret TSA spreadsheets. This is not the first time this has happened.

I tell him I think there’s probably someone with my name and physical details on some kind of list.

“Oh really?” He taps that into his tablet PC and gives me a long sour look. “You’re free to go.”

 

Layover at SFO. 45-minute security theater, but I have time. It passes smoothly, no screaming, no detentions, no squeaks from the machinery. I deposit my last freelancing check at an ATM, change the money into Euros, hating myself for doing it like that but feeling like I should have some cash in my pocket. Then I look at my boarding pass. It says, “THIS IS NOT A BOARDING PASS.” I go to the gate, but there’s no one at the gate. At information, I’m told that this particular airline won’t issue a boarding pass at the gate for this flight and that I have to go back to passenger check-in to talk to a representative. I’ve never heard of this, but things are always changing when it comes to air travel. So I consider my options.

Since my 20s, I’ve had a knee problem that can act up in a very painful way. Today, I’m walking with a limp and every step is agony. But I’m a veteran traveler and I’m not going to call for the senior citizen golf cart. Plus, time is now getting short. A crowd of anxious Irish have already started queuing up for the flight to Dublin. So fuck it. Perfer et obdura, dolor hic tibi proderit olim. Back to check-in I go.

By the time I get there, I am perspiring heavily. The pain in my knee feels hot, dull, and serrated all at once. The girl in the green polyester blazer gives me, then my passport, the same level stare. “It’s a good thing you came up here,” she says. “Your bag might have not gone through.”

My bag? What did my bag have to do with it? Ah, I think, it must be because I’m flying with two different airlines, United and then Aer Fuckery. The latter must not like the former. Airlines are like angry steroidal pumas that need to be constantly stroked and placated or your valise winds up in Somalia.

I smile. But because no one smiled at her since she was a child, just developing her deep hatred for all life, she is immune to smiles.

“I have a knee problem and I’m wondering if there’s any way, since we’re doing this, you can put me on the aisle. It’s a 10 hour-flight.”

She gives me the stare again, hands me the boarding passes, then unleashes the puma: “You were already on the aisle. But I wouldn’t have changed your seat. We never change seats. You couldn’t have gotten a seat change from me. Oh no. We don’t do that. So you shouldn’t ask that at check-in.”

“Really? Never?” I think Aer Fuckery must fly in a different universe than the rest of us.

“Never. And I’d advise you to get to security if you want to make your flight.” She said all of it with maximum leaden distaste: look at this bum asking for a better seat.

Back to security theater, the line is three times longer than before and people seem three times as anxious. When I get through, I have to run-limp back to the gate. The extras from Titanic have already started boarding, replete with bowler hats, a miasma of farts and liquor, and multiple jokes being told at all times in multiple directions. I love the Irish. And Irish air travelers love a gimp willing to run through an airport. A few people cheer for me when I show up coughing and sweating.

“You did the foot race.” The enormous red-faced man in front of me in line smiles, sways, and extends his hand. We shake. Yeah. The foot race. Grand.

There are no more problems getting going. And, though I now stink and have started wincing with every step, I’m ready to settle in with Excedrin, my book, and a good 10 hours of intercontinental semi-consciousness and dread. I actually love the physical sensation of takeoff and landing, and I’m not afraid to fly. But put me in any poorly lit area for that long and I start thinking about my life, which is never ever advisable. As soon as the harsh self-critical life performance review begins, I usually start the in-flight movie fest. Pull blanket up to chin. Shut off brain. Sweet novocaine for the soul. Unfortunately, I’ve been flying so much this year that the only films available I haven’t seen are Marley & Me, The Boss Baby, and The Fast and the Furious.

I wonder whether I should just drink my way across the Atlantic. But Aer Fuckery charges for their alcohol and the stubborn angry Welsh hillbilly in me feels that the booze should at least be cheaper and more abundant if not better. Moreover, I will not give AF any more of my money after all the fun I had back in SFO. This is the dark side of assimilation, kids. I noticed the Americans on the flight had already opened their wallets and fired up the Vin Diesel. I’ve lived in the UK too long to appreciate an $8 can of Budweiser.

Could it get worse? Well, the plane didn’t crash. No one freaked out. And I had space. So I can’t complain about the basics. I did have some issues with the complimentary key lime pie (fellow travelers allergic to the chemicals used in UK and Irish dairy products take note) and spent a good part of the night in line for the toilet reminding myself that at least there was a toilet. Think about it. Small graces. Simple truths. Yes, indeed.

The connecting flight from Dublin to Paris was also uneventful and sedate. Of course, AF lost my suitcase (“Your bag might have not gone through.” Uh huh). And then, on the delirious train ride in, some girl wanted to talk to me about Donald Trump. Really, universe? After all this, you offer me a Trump conversation before I even get to Denfert Rochereau?

Well, so be it. I’m here. I’m back. I have new income possibilities. I can eat the cheese. I feel a certain rationality returning that was conspicuously absent during my recent visit to the States. I feel a new chapter of my story beginning. Meanwhile, my suitcase is either winging its way to me over the dark waters or is destined to be a gift for someone in Mogadishu. But words are still here and my knee is already on the mend. Who knows what’s next? Only time, as they say, will tell.

I feel toxic, radioactive. || Michael Davis

Source: Hurricane Dreams

What’s next after the violence in Charlottesville? || Michael Davis

Source: Burning Down the House

I’m currently going back through the first 75 ms pages of the novel, making notes and essential line edits, and putting in reminders of the edits people have suggested to me here and on Wattpad.  This has been a great experience so far and I’m excited that Chapter 10 will be done before long.  Since I’ve never written a science fiction novel before, much of this is new in process as well as substance.  Keep the emails and comments coming and thanks for reading. ~ Michael

[8 July 17, did some essential line edits and added some material. Currently working on Ch.10.- M]

 

9

Luck, fate, delusion, coincidence. They might have all been the same as far as Donny was concerned. The code made it all relative. That which he couldn’t control he named—for lack of any other way to emotionally cope with it. He called it bad luck. He called it coincidence. He called it the Damocles Algorithm.

Had he hallucinated a fragment of his consciousness as a lonely girl in a red cap? Had he named her Mera, the Cultivator, because some broken piece of awareness was trying to send him a message? It was possible. The history feed said Griffith Gardens had been locked for 57 years. Had he really been there? Or had Donny been sitting on a curb somewhere, delusional, lost in the deserted wastes of his own mind, another side-effect of being chipped, adrift an impossible world of his own making, like dreaming of a sky with no rain.

His black coveralls were uncomfortable, freshly creased smelling of chemical starch. He zipped the front all the way up as he swiped in through the tiny airlock on the north side of the Shung Building’s dome. Why the employee hallway needed an airlock was a question for the history feeds, not for night workers like Donny. Still, one noticed details now and then: airlocks where a simple doors would have sufficed, enormous anti-riot spikes as if a building were an ancient dreadnought set to tear holes in enemy ships, asymmetrical quadrangles designed to force rioters toward various choke-points or lines of sight.

If you paid attention, you’d see the signs of how corporate culture had anticipated changes in climate, population, and culture over time. Adapting to and channeling human behavior is what kept the multi-nationals alive. And now the sectors of Los Angeles were an archaeology of blight and control, layers of subcrete, Plexiglas, and steel pulverized and effaced decade after decade to make room for new, more profitable, layers. The dead zones were like necrotic organs, devoid of all profitability and therefore of meaning, of existence—disavowed, disrecognized spaces. Security gates walled them off with motion detectors, autoguns, electrified concertina wire. You didn’t approach a security gate red zone from the dead side unless you had a municipal identity card or chip with a transponder. The autoguns were highly accurate.

The Shung Building was itself was a kind of dead zone, a junk pile from an earlier era guarded by humans because synthetics were too valuable and expensive to waste on a detail like that. Over a century ago, the so-called robot revolution was expected to usher in utopia. All the dull, filthy, dangerous jobs were supposed to go to pre-synthetic industrial units and a universal basic income was promised to all—as if the corporations would ever let that happen. Instead, corporations like Shung, Ryderco, and Aspernix developed the first synthetic technology. And many of the dirty and low-paying jobs that went to low-AI proprietary robots went back to cheaper humans. Many specialist jobs went to the high-end synthetics. And so things continued the way they always had, if a little quieter, as the fearful voices of egalitarianism and humanism faded into the hum of mega-factories that operated unceasingly with flawless efficiency. Art, culture, and most human intelligence went orbital. Those left behind had ubiquitous AI, the feeds, an endless variety of pre-pac soy that imitated various old-world foods, the luminescent half-dark of the city, and the endless poison rain.

Donny entered the break room and printed a soy-chicken sandwich, still thinking about Mera, about his meeting with Freddy, and how that old woman’s PVC arm seemed obscene and yet just right, a sign of the times far more honest and true than the synthetic white Shiroi Karasu or even Freddy himself. The soy-meat sandwich was supposed to smell like the real thing. Sometimes Donny chose tuna, sometimes beef or chicken, but it always smelled the same, tasted the same. The printer’s internal assemblers congealed a gray patty and sprayed directly into a congealed soy-bun—a lunch eaten by every worker on the planet. It was supposed to have all the nutrients your body needed, but how many people on earth knew what actual chicken tasted like or what nutrients were necessary for a long, cancer-free life beyond your estimated peak productivity levels? Donny put the sandwich in the mini-fridge, filled his thermos with Postum, and his starting workday ritual was complete.

Then Loach stepped in, panting, smelling like body odor and patchouli.

“We don’t have no time to bullshit, Donny. You listening? We got a situation.”

“Why don’t you take a step back.” Donny held the topped-off thermos between them as much to cancel Loach’s smell as to put some symbolic distance on what the big man was muttering. Loach had told him that patchouli kept off the mosquitoes. Donny couldn’t remember ever getting bitten or even seeing a mosquito in the Shung building, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any. According to Loach, the stagnant water bred swarms of them, some lethal, full of disease. But Donny would believe it when he saw it. Until then, killer mosquito swarms would be just another one of Loach’s stories.

“Them version ones up on the deck level 15 are activating and I don’t know what else.”

“That’s impossible.”

“Yeah?” Loach massaged the back of his neck. “Zeke’s here and he says he saw it. And Zeke doesn’t lie.” Loach looked more exhausted than usual. He’d unzipped his coveralls down to his navel and Donny could see a V of sweat on his ribbed tank-top underneath.

“You’ve been up to something down in control, haven’t you? Did you flip some switch, turn something on by accident?”

“I didn’t turn on shit! Come on!”

Loach walked out of the red-lit break room and Donny followed screwing the thermos shut and wondering whether his supervisor had finally gotten into the sand. Zeke was waiting for them in the hallway, three electric double-barrels bundled under his arm. Where Loach was balding and stocky with oily shoulder-length hair combed back behind his ears, Zeke was completely hairless. He didn’t even have eyebrows. Tall and thin, his coveralls hung on him, all bones and sharp angles and a long grave face.

“Hey Donny. Been a while.”

Donny nodded. He wanted to ask how long. They always worked opposite shifts. So Donny didn’t know exactly how long it had been since he’d last seen Zeke. Maybe since before. But if Zeke noticed a difference, he wasn’t letting on. He handed a shotgun to Loach and one to Donny. The guns had ARQUEBUS LTD down each barrel in chrome block letters like some kind of toy. But their 10-gauge 766-grain lead slugs accelerated and compressed to 1400 feet per second by an electrical current. They could cut most walls in half, turn an organic person into red mist. Donny didn’t know what they could do to a synthetic. He’d only seen the guns once when Loach showed him the security room down in control. They’d been locked to a wall-rack with a shiny steel chain through the trigger guards. But now one of them was right here in Donny’s hands. Why Loach thought they needed to be armed like this when they could just cut the power to the nursery level was unclear. Version ones didn’t have an onboard power supply. They drew power through the bottoms of their feet. Shut down the level and they’d shut down everything beneath a version three, of which there were none currently listed in the building.

“I hate this shit.” Loach cracked open his gun’s breach and checked the slugs in each barrel.

Donny looked at how Zeke was holding his shotgun resting in the crook of his arm and did the same. “I suppose you’re going to fill me in on why we’re set to take down an army.”

“We don’t actually know what’s going on up there. There might be a lot of them. They might be going apeshit.”

“It looked like a lot of them on the monitor,” Zeke said.

“How many?”

Loach sighed. “Does it matter? We got a protocol for this. We go straight by the book.”

They had a protocol for everything. There was a four-inch-thick operations manual back in the break room—an ancient, coffee-stained three-ring in a hard plastic case that Donny had never seen Loach take down, much less read. It stayed up there, covered in dust like some kind of forbidden scripture. Loach quoted from it with great specificity at times—a specificity that could only come from a perfect recall or from perfect bullshit. Maybe Loach carried eidetic cross-point memory implants, but Donny doubted that even more than the big man’s mosquito stories.

“So what’s the protocol?”

“Simple, kid.” Loach cocked the hammers on his double-barrel, and Donny heard the faint whine of its trigger coils charging.

“We go up there and shut the bitch down.”

Zeke put his hand on Donny’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. Anything comes at you, blast it.”

“I’m not worried.”

“Good, Donny. That’s real good.” Zeke nodded and smiled around his cigarette as he lit it.

Loach went first. Then Donny. Then Zeke, keeping one eye on the hallway behind them. Then they went through the round opening that had once sported a pressurized cast-aluminum door with a wheel handle in the center for sealing the employee hallway from the main dome. It was made like that in case of a gas attack, but now the door was long gone, probably stolen. They crept out, across the ground floor of the dome—silent, except for the motion detector’s ping and the whispery shuffle of their work boots on the subcrete.

Speaking felt wrong under the vast dark of the broken Shung dome, vulgar, like raising one’s voice in a place of worship. Loach would have denied it, but it seemed to Donny that they all felt it, the solemnness, the quiet. They climbed the frozen escalator steps to the mezzanine like they were in some kind of procession—black-clad gunmen, the long hand of the Shung Corporation reaching out from 30 years ago to kill whatever had woken up on deck level 15.

It occurred to Donny that whatever, maybe whoever, was now awake up there probably didn’t know that there had been any kind of shutdown. These were version ones, the first generation of synthetics, still more machine than artificial person. They were supposed to have been problematic, made a lot of mistakes, sometimes caused accidents, deaths. Only the Shung corporation would have assigned a group of them to a nursery level.

“Hold up.” Loach murmured so quietly Donny almost missed it.

The three of them stopped, still in single-file, halfway across the mezzanine. Donny looked back and saw that Zeke had squatted, pointing his double-barrel over his left thigh at the valley between two six-foot-high mounds of what looked like broken plastic crates. Zeke looked coiled, ready to shoot or spring back, and Donny wondered where he’d learned that pose, what sort of life Zeke led before hiring on at Bug.

“What?”

Loach didn’t answer. He adjusted the motion detector, panned it around.

Then Zeke whispered, “We better get a move on,” smoke trailing up from the cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

“I hate this. Makes me want to shit myself.” Loach stared into the dark.

“Maybe using the flashlight would, you know, help you get control of your nether regions.”

“Fuck you.” Loach moved forward, the motion detector in his left hand, the double-barrel held low in his right.

By the time they reached the enormous urn and the hidden access hallway, Zeke was already getting to the end of a second cigarette. He flicked it and they watched it spark orange against the wall. When they got into the freight elevator and pulled the doors shut, the crackly AI voice said, “Smoking is hazardous to your health.”

Donny looked up, past the safety bars, as he always did, at the tiny points of light.

All kinds of things in the Shung building were hazardous to one’s health, some due to age, some by design. But Loach didn’t want to give away their position. If there were malfunctioning version ones wandering around the upper levels, keeping the flashlight off was probably wise. This generation of synthetics had limited vision, but they’d notice a flashlight.

The freight elevator took the three of them to deck level 15, but it didn’t open directly onto the marble foyer that led to what had once been condos for Shung middle management. Instead, they had to walk through a completely dark loading area by the glow of Loach’s motion detector, then through another access hallway so narrow that, if Donny hadn’t been holding a shotgun, he could have reached out and touched both sides. When the detector started pinging, they stopped in place.

Loach muted it but kept his eyes on the detector’s small glowing screen. “16 meters,” he murmured. “North-northeast.”

“What’s up there?”

“Don’t ask stupid questions.”

“Just get ready,” whispered Zeke as he patted Donny on the back. Zeke had gotten very close in the dark. And Donny found himself wondering again about Zeke’s past. What possessed a normal person to want to work in a place like this—to want to work for Bug Security at all? Donny knew his own excuse. And Loach was clearly making a career out of it because it was just about the best he could do for himself. But there was something off about Zeke, off like the guys who came to Friendly’s group. Was he chipped? He didn’t show signs of wreckage. So what was it? He could be a little crazy. Maybe he was just a weirdo. Or maybe—though Donny didn’t even like entertaining the possibility—Zeke was synthetic.

When they reached the end of the hallway, Loach shut the detector off and faced them. “This is an access hatch. It’s designed not to be noticed. But we got no idea what’s going on out there. The scan said multiple pings, 16, maybe 20. So pick your targets, if it comes to that. There’s a hallway goes straight back. At the end is the power emitter. We shut that down, the whole floor goes dead.”

“The floor is dead,” said Donny.

“As dead as it gets,” said Zeke.

Loach set the motion detector down at the base of the wall and turned back towards the door. “Just don’t shoot me in the ass.”

And you, Donny wanted to say to Zeke, when the time comes, where will you be pointing your gun? But he just looked back and saw the other man’s bald, eyebrowless visage in the light from Zeke’s antique chemical lighter. He puffed a cigarette into being, grinned with the corner of his mouth, and snapped the lighter shut. Then all Donny could see was the glowing ember when Zeke took a drag.

“I think I got it.” Loach said as he cranked the wheel handle. The hatch groaned and he pushed it open.

They crouched in silence, gripping their guns—so quiet that the hiss of Zeke’s cigarette sounded like air being let out of a tire in short intervals. It was humid. A nearby pipe must have burst or the heat exchangers must have spooled up when the level came on. Loach was sweating out every drop of moisture in his body. Fear sweat. Don’t make a sound sweat. Did version ones have a sense of smell? If so, Loach was more of a problem than a solution.

They crept a few feet into the foyer, then crouched again. The three of them stayed that way, perfectly still, not making a sound, until their knees started to ache. Eventually, Donny detected a mechanical hum, almost beyond the range of hearing, somewhere far off in the dark. It might have been in the walls. Might have been on another level entirely. But it was the only thing noticeable apart from the sound of Zeke smoking.

Finally, Loach couldn’t take it anymore, whether from knee pain or stress. He stood up and said with a normal voice: “Fuck it. I’m done with this shit,” then snapped on the flashlight. Loach could take care. He could be methodical. But he hated being like that. And enough was enough. They couldn’t crouch there in the dark forever.

When the light came on, Zeke said, “Holy shit,” his voice higher than usual, cutting off at the end as if he had a lump in his throat.

There were 16 version ones standing in the foyer. In good condition, they’d look vaguely human—rubbery skin over a baked ceramic endoskeleton harder than steel. The ones meant to pass for female had on dresses or miniskirts. The males had jumpsuits or faux-canvas work pants and long-sleeved vinyl shirts. They wore wigs, had fake eyeballs that hid tiny sensor arrays, brains that contained 1000 microprocessors and the most advanced AI for their era, which still couldn’t pass the Turing Test; though, it could beat the world’s greatest living chess master nine games out of ten.

But these version ones were not in good condition at all. A few had been burned horribly such that arms or, in one case, half of a torso had melted like wax. Others had lost their wigs and had put new ones on incorrectly, long blond hair hiding half of a scorched face or slipping back on a an exposed ceramic skull meant to imitate human bone structure. All 16 of them simultaneously turned toward Loach a moment after he shined the flashlight around the room. Then two started walking over. The one on the right was missing both of her arms and her face was half-melted. The top half of her dress no longer existed and her rubbery breasts were torn and blackened. But the male on the left seemed relatively whole. He even had his wig on properly and could have easily been mistaken for an organic person in low light—save for the star-shaped bullet hole in the center of his forehead.

Loach shined the flashlight on him. The version one’s eyes stared straight ahead the way a blind man seems to have traded common sight for a vision of something infinite and distant.

“Stop right where you are,” Loach said. “Designate.”

Hearing the old command word, the two did stop, for a second, the lead synthetic tilting his head to the side like a puzzled animal. Then they continued forward.

“I knew it.” Loach started backing up. “Command and control is offline.”

Donny was in the middle of asking what that meant, when Zeke opened fire.

8

Certain moments in life stay with you forever—even if they didn’t happen.” Friendly smiled behind a clump of kitsune udon. He held the noodles in front of his mouth with black chopsticks, making Donny think of worms in the beak of a crane. “Anyone can have an anomalous experience. The unenhanced hallucinate just as often. It doesn’t mean you actually met some magical gardener and had a life-changing experience.”

The noodle shop was named 白いカラス, Shiroi Karasu, White Crow. Its oversized mascot fluttered and refolded its wings, staring through the glass storefront at the rain. A thin silver chain ran from its leg around a dowel, which made a perch at the top of a wooden hat stand. The stand was very old, would have been a valued antique if long thin nails hadn’t been hammered into its top struts in order to keep the dowel in place.

Is that what I am? Enhanced?”

Friendly slurped fat white noodles between his lips, grinning as he did it. Everything he did seemed easy, effortless, enjoyable. “Well, you’re just as special as everyone in the group. You’re also a product of our times. I still think you need a sponsor.”

She said she knew . . . “

About your chip? Your old life?” He laughed and plucked a hunk of aburaage from his bowl. “Of course she did.”

The bird was synthetic. It didn’t need to be chained to its perch. It would never try to escape. But someone had decided that the silver chain was necessary to maintain the illusion. It turned its head and looked at Donny, blinked, then looked back out at people passing the restaurant. They kept their heads covered with slowly dissolving broadsheets, walking umbrellas, the sanitary hoods of cheap mylar ponchos one found in Venice Sector’s canal stalls. The shop’s name blinked above the door, staining the crow’s pure white feathers with multicolored light.

I never said I had a life-changing experience.”

But that’s what you wanted, right? Some kind of relief? Some kind of explanation?” Friendly rested his hand over Donny’s on the table, but Donny pulled away. For a brief moment, Friendly stopped smiling. “It’s what everyone in the group wants, Donny. But what does The Book say about that?”

Donny looked down at his cup of jasmine tea, the little black grains at the bottom. Graciela said her mother taught her how to read the future with tea leaves. He wondered if she could read the past.

I don’t know.”

Friendly drank from his bowl, noticed that the tip of one of his shorter dreads had gotten into the soup, smiled at it like it was a pet, then cleaned it slowly with his paper napkin. As he did this, he recited from memory: “Part two, chapter 13, ‘The Futility of Blame.’ Our problems are of our own making. The synthetic aspects of our being merely symbolize our struggle. We have accepted the truth, that ultimately we have done this to ourselves, and that we can therefore hold no one outside ourselves responsible for the experiences in our lives.”

She was crying . . . when she put me in the drone. She said she was sorry she forgot to make me tea. Then she said, ‘I only wanted to be touched one last time.’ What do you think that means?”

What I think is irrelevant. Since you imagined it, you have to ask what it means to you, what your unconscious was trying to communicate. For example, I’ve noticed you don’t like to be touched.”

The old woman in a ragged kimono, who’d served them, came out from behind the curtain. She frowned, barked something in a language that wasn’t Japanese, went back to the kitchen. Her left arm was filthy white PVC that had been scavenged from a pre-synthetic public service unit. If you lost a limb and you could find an arm or a leg that fit, there were clinics that would wire the servos to a cheap control chip. It wasn’t illegal because nobody cared about the old vaguely human municipal robots. Do it with any version of a synthetic person, though, and the LAPD would make you disappear. Loach once told Donny about a black market synthetic body trade that was big money. But Loach liked to talk.

What else did she say?” Friendly tipped back his soup, then set the bowl down, smiling as if Donny had just told the best joke ever.

I don’t remember much. I was drugged. The Midnight Gladiolus—”

Does not exist. There’s no such plant. There’s an Evening Gladiolus, which went extinct 137 years ago on all continents, but that’s all. I looked it up when you left me that crazy message.”

I don’t know.” Donny squinted at his untouched tea. “I think I asked her if she’d always been the Cultivator. And she said that always is a long time.”

Friendly laughed, shook his head. “Listen to yourself, brother. You definitely need a sponsor.”

Do you like it here, Friendly?”

As in, this noodle house? Yeah, I love this place.”

That’s not what I meant.”

Friendly tilted the bowl and showed him the last fat noodle curled at the bottom. “Do you know why it’s called kitsune, Donny? Because it’s supposed to be the fox’s favorite food. Do you think that’s true?”

They looked at each other.

I think we’re done here.” Donny stood and wouldn’t shake Friendly’s hand, which seemed to amuse Friendly as much as the prospect of noodles being named after foxes.

Look, I’ll get you another copy of The Book. And Donny? Read it this time, okay?”

Her name is Mera,” said Donny.

Friendly grinned, nodded slowly. “Right.”

 

< Read Ch. 9 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IN >

< Read Ch. 7 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IJ >

7

You know my name?”

Indeed, I do.”

But I don’t know yours.”

She had light brown hair done up beneath her cap and green eyes. Her face was pale like the patch of moonflowers he’d seen beneath the sycamore trees.

Do you want to know my name?” The girl extended her hand and they shook. She had a warm, firm grip. Donny felt the film of dirt on her palm. If she were human, an organic human, at least, she’d be about 19 or 20. She’d have a job, some kind of ongoing romance, maybe a capsule apartment like his in one of the megablocks. She’d have certain goals for what she’d do once she took the off-world qualifying exam and left the dark poisoned world behind.

But Donny figured she’d never been anything but a pretty girl of about 19 or 20. She didn’t have big dreams because synthetics produced on Earth were meant to serve a purpose planet-side and were therefore forbidden to leave. Every now and then, one of them tried to sneak into a freight container bound for a low-orbit docking platform and got caught or died from hypothermia.

What version are you?”

She wiped her hand on her smock and sighed. “Version four, I think. Is it that obvious?”

Just a lucky guess.” It felt strange returning her smile. Donny supposed he’d grown used to ignoring Friendly’s constant grin. But he wondered whether patrolling the lonesome empty spaces of the Shung Building, those sad group meetings, and the constant fear that the code would catch him off-guard had weaned the smiles out of him. When was the last time he’d felt kindness or humor? Graciela said she found him interesting, funny even. But she had no idea.

So. What was it? Facial biometrics when I came in?”

Bacteriological phenotype recognition, actually. When you walked through the lilac-nasturtiums.”

Donny tried to recall what the lilac-nasturtiums might have looked like.

She laughed at the look on his face. “The little orange flowers with the dark centers.”

I don’t remember them.”

That’s part of their charm.”

He nodded. “So you’ve been aware of me since I entered.”

I’m the Cultivator.” She turned and pointed at the little wooden shed. “I live there. I’m aware of everything—in the gardens, not cosmically speaking.”

That was a joke. I think you told a joke.” Then he felt bad because it sounded condescending, which wasn’t how he felt. How did he feel? He wasn’t sure. Unsettled, perhaps. Like he wanted to keep talking to this pale girl who knew everything and smiled and winked at him and told jokes. But then he thought of the iron stair, the moths fluttering around the light globes, the rippling spiderwebs.

Humor is a sign of intelligence.” She stuck her trowel into the dirt and handed him a fat purple eggplant. Donny turned it over. It was heavy, flawless.

What is the nature and purpose of the gardens?” A control question. Synthetics tasked with particular jobs had to answer, even if they didn’t want to.

She frowned, as if the question hurt her somehow, then recited: “Griffith Gardens is an architectonic botanical printing facility and public attraction. All organic materia that enters is sampled from intake nodes in the ceiling. Internucleotide telemetry is calculated based on an index of over one-billion phosphate groups compiled on 27 October 2042 by Doctors Shoda Yokoyama and Suhaila Habib of Biomedizinische Ingenieurproduktion, GmbH. The purpose of Griffith Gardens is to curate aspects of Earth’s historical genetic diversity.” She shook her head as if snapping out of a trance and pressed her lips into a thin line. “You didn’t have to do that. And my name is Mera.”

Sorry.”

She took the eggplant back, cradling it like a child, and some of her former smile returned. “Apology accepted, Donny. Please only ask control questions if absolutely necessary. In most cases, I am allowed to provide information without being compelled, especially to a donor.”

So now I’m—”

Yes.” Her grin came back brighter than ever, as if she were about to shake his hand and congratulate him on a job well done. “Your DNA is now part of the gardens, too.”

How is that legal?”

It’s not illegal.” Mera took his hand and led him toward the shed. “It’s wonderful.”

In gardens that were more than gardens, the shed was destined to be something more than just a shed. The interior was awash in the pallid light of a ball-sized globe hovering near the roof’s peak. Fanged pruning saws lined the walls along with shovels, garden stakes, hanging sacks of chemical fertilizer labeled RISQUE BIOLOGIQUE, a green HDPE soil hypodermic, two meters of coiled garden hose; inverted bouquets of dried posies, impatiens, camellias, foxgloves suspended from hooks around the edge of the ceiling; and a wheelbarrow of potting soil in which three perfect eggplants had been rested as if it were a crib.

Mera raked her thin fingers through the wheelbarrow dirt, making a slight furrow. She placed the eggplant from the garden beside the others and sighed. “There,” she said and patted the fruit.

What are you going to do with that?”

She turned back towards him, smirked, cocked her head to the side. “I’m responsible for this, Donny. All of this. I’m the Cultivator. What am I not going to do with it!”

Right.” He nodded at the eggplants dreaming their small purple dreams. And the spell of the place, of Mera, the beautiful, improbable garden Cultivator, faltered. The sheer weirdness of the moment—standing in a half-lit garden shed with a synthetic girl who told jokes about the cosmos and treated eggplants like babies—bloomed in his mind like the electric blue hydrangeas he’d passed with their tiny hyperoptic lights.

All that glitters is not synthetic. Donny smiled at the thought, a new adage in a world defined by synthesis and hybridity, where nothing is ever all one thing or pure or simple or natural in the old-world sense of the term. Not even Mera, who seemed to be studying his expression with a mix of cheerful curiosity and . . . something else. He felt an overwhelming urge to tell her about the chip in his brain. Instead, he looked down at the the dirt floor and the subcrete trapdoor set with an iron ring.

That’s where I live,” Mera said. “My capsule.” With the index finger of her left hand, she hooked the iron ring and pulled, revealing not a trapdoor but a solid meter-square block of subcrete gridded with ancient rebar. She lifted it out of the square hole as easily as if it were paper and set it down beside her. Then she noticed the look on his face and laughed. “I’m strong.”

I guess you are.”

Would you like some tea?” Mera dropped into the hole without waiting for an answer.

Of course he’d like some tea. What else did one do after putting eggplants to sleep in a wheelbarrow crib and lifting enormous subcrete blocks with a finger? Donny didn’t jump after her. He climbed down the short ladder that had been made from bent rebar, his palms orange with rust when he got to the bottom.

But it wasn’t a capsule at all. At least, it bore no resemblance to any megablock apartment capsule he’d ever seen. The room was oblong, felt cold and dank like a sub-basement, but the walls were hard-packed earth, machine-smooth. Roots grew out of the ceiling. Long cream-yellow flowers in bloom clustered across the floor. The little pathways that had formed around the clusters reminded Donny of the twisting subcrete walks in the garden above. And he wondered if the designer who’d made the lonesome iron bridge, the light globes, the ever-evolving genetic soup of the flora and fauna had made this space as well—mechanically replicating the motif of the garden above as if this were a shoe-box diorama, perfectly to scale, and Mera was tasked with maintaining its fidelity.

She’d slipped off her red knit cap and her hair down over her shoulders. A small kerosene lamp on a stool cast flickering shadows of Mera and the flowers over the walls.

No floating lights down here?”

No.” In the center of the room, she was a dark silhouette amid the still blooms as if she’d grown up with them. Maybe she had. “These flowers need an extra amount of darkness. The lamp is the only light source that won’t damage them.”

He walked towards her, letting his fingertips brush the open petals, breathing in the perfume. “This is . . . I feel . . . strange.”

Mera moved farther in until she was a shadow among shadows at the other end of the room. But her soft voice was clear. “Is it strange, Donny? The gardens have been around for 78 years. How long have you been around?”

The kerosene flame disappeared and the room went dark.

I don’t remember. I have a chip—”

In your brain. I know.”

Donny felt her arm around his shoulders. Mera had found her way back to him in total darkness without making a sound. They walked forward together.

How could you know?”

The gardens are connected to the municipal database. Your genetic fingerprint is how the LAPD knows who you are, where you work, how to locate you. Legal bio-cybernetic implants are included in your file.”

He felt the hard aluminum edge of a cot press against his shins. Mera turned him around and helped him sit. Donny could sense an unnatural chill radiating through the dirt wall at his back. And the faintest vibration there—an enormous machine far away, yet powerful enough to make itself felt through meters of compressed earth.

Then it is legal.”

He felt her warm lips on his forehead. “It is. It was.”

And you know . . . about me.”

Yes.” Mera held his face, kissed his jaw, his cheeks, his lips. “I know about you.”

I need to—I don’t remember.” Donny struggled to form the words. She was beautiful—synthetic, yes, but it felt like being with Graciela. Mera’s voice was soft, her touch gentle. Yet she’d straddled him and was holding his wrists against the cold dirt wall. His mind felt tangled. Was it the code asserting itself? Donny felt a wave of fear. Where had he put his pills?

The flowers are beautiful, aren’t they?”

I can’t see them.”

But they can see you, Donny Stilton” she whispered. Then she kissed him again, tightened her thighs against his hips, laced her fingers into his, sending trickles of dirt onto his arms.

Something in him was trying wake up, to initialize—a control structure, the Damocles Algorithm, possibly a neurochemical anomaly formed from neodymium leaks in the chip’s housing. He had to find his pills. But Mera’s hold on his wrists was solid, immovable.

You need to . . . I need . . . ”

They’re called gladiolus tristis, commonly referred to as Midnight Gladiolus. And twice a year, they’re lethal.”

I—”

She kissed him again. “Don’t worry. Right now they’ll just make you sleepy.”

And the code drifted back into the darkness of his mind. Somewhere, out there, it was still trying to activate, to run its processes in the monotonous one-pointed logic of a machine whose sole purpose was to kill its user.

Donny’s mind drifted after it.

 

< Read Ch. 8 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IL >

< Read Ch. 6 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IH >

6

Simple presets. You said, “Take me to the park” or “I want to go to an aquarium” or “I want to buy some shoes” and the taxi AI knew just where to go. But it only seemed to be following a stochastic process, using random sampling for all potential outcomes in its flight range that fit the criteria in that exact moment. The truth was that certain destinations were fixed, hard coded from the beginning. Corporations paid big money for that. Everybody knew it, but no one talked about it in the feeds because AI was supposed to be independent. They called it “computational neutrality,” a fancy term for being able to choose your shoe outlet from a list of potentials. The taxi drones never gave you a choice. You said “shoes.” The drone said “Thank you” and that was it.

Donny felt that maybe he should have said “home” or even “aquarium” instead of “somewhere beautiful” because who knew where the drone was going. He supposed he’d have to ask eventually. What deal had Skyway Cabs made for the fixed value of “beautiful”? Sometimes, when he looked at the plastic clown face making his udon, the liquid crystal cartoon butler asking him if he’d like a shoe shine while he was getting his pants fumigated in a delousing kiosk, the giggling toddler speaking English with a 40-year-old Japanese woman’s voice trying to sell him laxatives scented like cherry blossoms, he worried that the whole world had gone synthetic. Fake smiles, grinning cartoon rabbits, green-faced women moaning about live bait suppositories. He knew he was sometimes dealing with a kind of swarm intelligence or a decentralized self-organizing data entity whose sole purpose was to get him to buy laxatives that smelled like Tokyo in autumn, take them all, and then buy more.

He liked to give the commercial AIs his personal Turing Test even though he knew they’d fail it: do you like it here? They never knew what to say. Maybe one AI in a hundred was soft coded for extraneous chitchat like that. You could say, “Shit, it’s going to rain again?” And your capsule apartment’s housekeeping program might respond, “I know. So disappointing.” That is, if you felt like paying to have a conversation with your ceiling. Donny didn’t have a housekeeping program. He had to clean up his own messes.

The drone shot through the rain in the center of the skyway as the tiny plastic compass next to the dash monitor pointed north.

Where are we going?”

The monitor woke up, its eyes blinked. “Current destination is Griffith Gardens, 4730 Crystal Springs Drive, Los Angeles, Feliz Sector, 90027.”

Thank you.”

You’re welcome.” The left eye winked. Then the monitor went dark again.

The group got scared if you didn’t share your story. They needed to be able to have some idea of what you could do. They had to feel like they trusted you. They wanted to believe you weren’t coded to torture or kill everyone in the room or light the building on fire in a trance. Friendly was supposed to know if someone was okay. Los Angeles County Psych Services forwarded him the files on potential group members before they attended meetings. The really violent ones (that they knew about) stayed locked up at Psych Central. At least, that’s what Friendly said. But he didn’t always know. And in this day and age, you couldn’t be sure about anything.

Not even the gardens. Some of it had to be organic. But most of the flora was overtly artificial, even to the extent that the hydrangeas glittered with tiny hyperoptic lights where their anthers should have been and the sweet alyssum’s flowers were so perfectly identical that it was clear they’d come out of a lab. Donny turned and watched the drone lift off, pointing south as it rose above the Griffith Gardens Arch. It’s blue jet lights blended with those of the larger tumbrels and fourgons moving down the skyway.

The gardens hid from the burning rain beneath insulated octahedron domes as big as the foundry he’d just left. By day, the panels polarized dark green, turning completely opaque in order to screen out all light and radiation. But at night, they became transparent. Donny looked up through the rain-soaked dome at the brilliant coruscation of the skyway, a serpent of varicolored jet lights moving through Feliz towards Chinatown, where it would bank west into Inglewood Sector.

This was the taxi’s “somewhere beautiful” preset. And it was. Pale white globes hovered, gently washing the subcrete pathways with a ghostly moonlight. The gardens looked deserted. Still, the gentle light, the faint rain patter far above, the singing of cicadas in the copses of ash tree clones imparted the sense that the place had been waiting there just for Donny, that someone must have known he was coming and arranged it all specifically for him. That was the effect of a well-constructed garden—solitude without loneliness. It felt so different here than the Shung Building’s dark expanse, which always seemed more absent than solitary, more like it had been hastily emptied than opened by design.

Naturally, the cicadas weren’t real. Or, if they were real, they weren’t organic. They lived in this perpetual artificial night and sang whenever they wished, unlike their ancestors who existed in the natural world and had to hide from predators. Donny started down the twisting subcrete walk, wondering whether the biologists who maintained the gardens had also introduced predators for the cicadas to balance the ecosystem. What would prey on a synthetic insect? A synthetic lizard? A spider with hyperoptic eye clusters? A glowing night bird born full-grown in a designer’s lab tegument? Donny hadn’t watched the relevant feeds. Anything was possible.

He passed mounds of white forsythias like explosions of mist in the half-light. Cape fuchsias, lilacs, bunches of purple dianthus that looked like obsidian stars jumbled on either side of the path. And then flat fields of moonlit grass, gray and waving in the airflow. Everything had tiny octagonal labels spiked into the ground somewhere nearby, even the fields: poa annua – meadow grass in glowing cursive.

Even more flowers after the fields ended. Identical night-blooming clusters under shade trees that faded into the darkness. Ironic: shade trees that lived in continual night, no doubt genetically engineered to survive that way, the ultimate in absurd botanical design. Nature had been completely subverted. But what was nature? A fairytale. A myth. Humanity had become its own synthetic creation, subject and object collapsing under strata after strata of unregulated urban growth, pollution, structural violence. The chemical wasteland to the east of the city stretched all the way to Dallas. The old flora and fauna were now grown in vats, unable to survive outside specially engineered habitats. And the sky hadn’t been blue for decades.

Donny had seen on VR what the sky used to look like. At least, he’d seen what the VR feed manufacturer thought the sky used to look like. VR sense immersion hadn’t existed three generations ago when the rain finally grew lethal and the sky turned gray-brown. The history feeds said there had been great sunsets for about three decades while the old empire fracked the last drops of oil out of the earth and fled to the orbital colonies. But how could anyone know for sure what the sky was like? VR was a simulation of a guess, in the end no different from the chip forced into Donny’s brain—fake perceptions, fake urges, fake data, fake life. A simulation of a guess of an approximation of a memory. And now, maples, birches, sycamores—silent and dark, cloned from single genetic templates, single parents, perfect in every way except in their replicated perfection, in their high fidelity, in their interchangeability. Above all else, the trees, the garden, and the flowers were products. Like everything. Like everyone.

He put his hands in the pockets of his windbreaker and considered going home. Maybe he’d come to the gardens simply because they figured into a complex marketing algorithm that had included the drone taxi’s preset. Maybe it was sheer randomness that brought him here or the serendipity of an aimless night or the need to detoxify from the infectious dread and pain of the evening’s group session. Maybe. But Donny had ridden the elevator to the old children’s nursery at the top of the Shung Building many times—where yellowed crayon drawings were still pinned to the walls and a dead first-version synthetic named “Mother” sat in a rocking chair smiling into the dark. And he dreamed he’d seen an organic pigeon flap past his apartment window. And he thought he might have smelled Graciela on him in the morning after they’d made love. And he told himself there had to be more to all this than code.

At the center, there was a green wrought-iron staircase that arced over the back half of the dome up to a door in the curvature of the roof. The stair was something out of an ancient world’s fair, wide enough for only two people to walk abreast yet incredibly solid, as if the entire span had been cast at once from a die. Its green paint peeled in dark tongues and the spiderwebs that clogged its whorls and arabesques rippled gently in the circulating breeze. It was an old stair, interesting if not beautiful, like something out of a dream.

Again Donny wondered: maybe all of this really is a dream. Maybe I’m in some VR coma brought on by the code. I’m actually in my kitchen with my eyes rolled back in my head, making a high-impact over-and-under Anaconda revolver from printed resins and toilet cleaner. He walked up the grassy mound to the little subcrete dais where the stair began. It’s possible, he thought. It could all be in his head. Didn’t Graciela say she was beginning to wonder whether she’d dreamed him?

The stair’s entry arch featured two iron swans standing tall with wings outspread atop chipped green Corinthian columns. Their necks were bowed and the tips of their beaks touched to form the peak of the arch. A few steps beyond, light globes—small versions of the ones that hovered over the pathways—glowed on either side atop ornamental posts. In older centuries, their iron cages might contain gas lamps or even fire. But whatever bacteria or bioluminescent substance had been grown in them now cast a perpetual radiance every few meters. The posts were decorated with coiled snakes or fish or spiral columns of ants, an unnatural level of detail for something so lonesome and neglected.

Donny thought he might bring Graciela here just show her the staircase bridge and ask her what she thought. Was it real? The stair didn’t belong here in a octahedral dome full of synthetic mock-ups of forgotten life. Yet it seemed perfectly fitted to the space. Had some designer commissioned it, spiderwebs and all, to look exactly like as it did? If so, Donny wanted to meet that person, someone who’d go through the trouble of making an iron staircase that looked so old and out of place, then leave it for others to discover still and alone in the pale half-light.

The staircase was longer than it looked from the ground. He climbed until he found himself beneath enormous turbines set in the roof of the dome. Their deep thrum made the structure vibrate beneath his feet. The stair terminated at a iron-railed landing bisected by a plastic door in the shape of a ribbed octagon. He held onto the railing and leaned over. The landing was so high up that all Donny could see were the pairs of light globes back down the span. They looked like a slope of tiny glowing eyes floating untethered in the dark. From that elevation, the floor of the dome was shrouded in darkness and overgrowth as if it had evolved that way instead of being deliberately engineered.

He realized that the long bow of the stair mirrored the necks of the swans decorating the top of its entry arch. Maybe the entire staircase was a swan. But the iconography of Griffith Gardens could have meant anything. And as far as personal meaning was concerned, octagons and swan necks did nothing to help Donny understand why he’d wandered here when he should have gone home.

He’d once seen a VR reconstruction of some author from the ancient world reciting a poem. One of the lines stuck with him: “Not all those who wander are lost.” Maybe not. Then again, not all those who are lost are wandering. And many who wander are lost, but there are a lot of ways to lose yourself in Los Angeles at night. Not wandering seemed better to Donny, all things considered, than the alternative, given the chip in his brain. Yet here he was, “somewhere beautiful.” And so the question remained: was any of it real? How real? To what degree were his senses being mediated by the Damocles Algorithm—suppressed for the moment, but still integrated into the primary functionality of his brain in ways he he’d never fully understand?

Donny slid the plastic door to the side, stepped through, then slid it closed behind him. He found himself on another iron-railed landing that overlooked what must have been the second dome. An identical staircase, lit by more sets of caged globes on iron posts, swept down into a jungle canopy. From the skyway, Donny had seen at least three domes, maybe four, like a cluster of gunmetal blisters on the crumbling ash-gray mountainside. This was apparently how one traveled within them, which meant the long staircase was deliberate, which meant that, instead of a drone or a lift or some sort of moving walkway, visitors were intended to climb these ghostly stairs. What did that say about the designer who planned it out? The gardens seemed more like a personal expression than an invitation.

He started down, stepping around small puddles of condensation formed on the steps. As he got farther way from the turbines, the air grew progressively humid. One of the light globes reflected in a puddle like the moon on a clear night. The moon over the jungle. Donny considered that someone who’d gone through the trouble of building such an environment might have felt obligated to put a few synthetic jaguars down there, little octagonal tags around their necks listing their genus and species for visitors to discover in their last moments.

Little clouds of white moths fluttered around the light globes as he got closer to the overgrown canopy. That explained the spiderwebs, at least. Synthetic moths coded to flutter around the lights. Synthetic spiders coded to web up the ornaments and flourishes in the wrought-iron railings. The circle of life preordained by an unseen hand.

It was all very absurd, funny in a way, but also darkly believable. This designer saw himself as an artist, not caring that some wouldn’t be able to climb the long narrow staircases between the domes or that people might slip on a puddle and tumble down hundreds of feet of wrought-iron steps. He or she didn’t seem concerned that visitors might simply give up, not willing to follow the complexities of the creative vision. But didn’t that describe Los Angeles as a whole with its abandoned warehouses and lonely arcologies, its crowded megablock slums and vacant skyscrapers? One of the last remaining cities on the surface of the earth, it was a place of extremes, an expression of everything that could be done without ever asking whether it should be done. Like the chip in his brain.

Chipsets were very complex. They could imitate simpler circuitry to hide their true purpose. Neural dataflows could be obstructed or redirected in response to specific triggering events without the subject ever being aware that his behavior had been pre-coded. Would the moths flutter if they knew they were hard coded that way? Would the spiders look for a different source of food or stage a hunger strike?

Donny often wondered how people could be expected to relate to each other, to know each other in any real sense, with tech like that now so common. How did you know you liked spaghetti or the smell of rain on dusty asphalt? How did you know it was you who’d learned to build sand castles that summer in Heaven’s Paradise with your uncle Mel? How could you ever be sure that what you felt was love or hate or anything? As the hardware improved, software and wetware became increasingly synonymous. People no longer said things like, “That’s out of character for him” or “That seems just like something he would do.” Character had simply evolved into a type of persistent algorithmic circuitry. And circuitry needs no justification in a world where jungles grow in domes.

But when he reached the floor of the second dome, Donny saw that it wasn’t a jungle at all. It was an enormous grassy field enclosed by trees and topped by gnarled vines which grew across the entire space like a roof. Impossible. Not natural. Yet there it was. The stairs ended in the center of the field, a few feet away from a small wooden shed with a peaked roof, surrounded by a tidy vegetable garden. A girl in a red knit cap and filthy white smock knelt in a patch of eggplants, raking the dirt around them with a trowel and humming to herself.

She looked up and smiled. “Hello, Donny.”

 

< Read Ch. 7 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IJ >

< Read Ch. 5 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IF >

Trump, Brexit, and what we can learn from Anthropoid. || Michael Davis

Source: My Friend Has Gone Nazi

5

Maybe he didn’t want to go home.

The anonymous author of The Book advocated a daily routine as the test for sanity. Code might turn you into a werewolf every full moon, but if you got up in the morning, went to work, cooked dinner, and kept a tidy living space, you were at least a functional werewolf. That was supposed to be better than nothing. But Donny wasn’t so sure.

He stayed dry under the florescent awning that blinked with advertisements in 17 or 18 languages. The feeds said there were 25 documented language groups in the city, 72 discrete dialects. You could hear or read almost all of them if you walked a few blocks through the Feliz Sector. So far, Donny had walked about three kilometers. Around kilometer two, he’d finally gotten one of the damp cigarettes going while staring up at an advert for Portuguese contraceptives. A green-skinned girl moaned and writhed on what looked like a blue octopus. Pinyin subtitles blinked across the bottom of the screen. From what he could tell, it was a biotic suppository called “Live Bait.” But Donny’s Pinyin was bad.

Maybe he didn’t want to go home because that was regular, stable, predictable, just what Friendly would advise. Maybe Moss was right: they woke up with chips in their brains because they’d made the choice at some point to explicitly not follow the rules.

The rain was as filthy as on any other night, smelled like sulfur, turned your skin gray after prolonged exposure, a mark of the street. Whole families lived and died in the shadows of the arcologies, the corporate office towers, the megablocks, the commerce domes that squatted like enormous mirrored bullfrogs in the vast circuit-board horizon of greater Los Angeles. Most street kids would never ride a drone up over the lights, see the city pulsing and fuming beneath them in black space like a confluence of stars. They’d never see the orbital colonies, feel a low-grav susurrus lift them off their feet beneath an artificial sky. Instead, they’d subsist on garbage and carry weapons made from broken machine parts. The rain would burn their faces gray like the skyline. And toward the end of their short lives, they’d become unnoticeable shadows, as if they were merging with the streets and alleys that birthed them.

Morbid thoughts on this rainy Tuesday night. Donny smoked as he walked, pulled up the hood of his windbreaker, watched two kids chase each other out a steam-filled doorway. Their clothes were a mesh of metals, resins, scraps of synthetic fibers no doubt salvaged from the Staples Garbage Pyramids far to the south. You couldn’t see the Garbage Pyramids at night. But during the day they pointed up through the rain like gargantuan hives, shaped that way from a century of municipal dumping.

The drone on the foundry’s roof hadn’t waited, even though Donny had asked it to. So now he was on foot. The meeting had been so upsetting, so pointless and depressing, that he wouldn’t have wanted to go right home even if he could. There was a drone station six kilometers south in Chinatown. Six in the dark. He’d walked it before on a night just like this. The streets were congested with the usual foot traffic, ground cars, rickshaws festooned with blinking lights, holograms swooping up to scrolling marquees, light-glow in the rain, street vendors grilling pale ikayaki and gai yang that could make you sick for days, while the crowd swarmed in every direction, heading to every sector that wasn’t dead.

Maybe it was simply that he didn’t want to stand beneath the buzzing light bar that ran the length of his capsule apartment, thinking of the 34 handguns he’d made all in a single night. Bleeding from another near-miss, half aware, Donny had stacked the guns in two laundry baskets in the closet. Then, on some night after that when he’d been too slow with the pills, the baskets had gone empty. Of the 34 guns, he’d now found ten—the most flimsy, the ones that would have only worked once or perhaps not at all. The zip gun made from a cardboard toilet paper roll. The crumpled graphite barrel printed and reprinted until it began to resemble a 1905 Luger 8. The blue glass bottle, its back end melted into a propellant reservoir with a plastic compressor valve that could send a bullet down the neck.

And bullets. Boxes of them. Bullets were harder to make. Still, Donny had so many. Somewhere, he was buying them. Had been. Consistently. Which meant the yellow pills weren’t working all the time. And he wasn’t remembering when they didn’t. So the Damocles Algorithm was toying with him. Some part of it—some part of Donny—knew he’d eventually run out of materials to make guns at home. Then what?

The drone station came into view. Intense white floods. Pristine subcrete. Little caged security guns on electrified poles that sparked blue from the moisture. And the row of drones, a line of black wasps gleaming in the light under a large corrugated awning. Donny didn’t know how the others left the meetings. Friendly had a ground car. The rest must have walked or caught drones. But Donny couldn’t imagine enormous Moss climbing into one of those narrow cockpits. Moss was afraid of heights. Even if he could have fit, the drones reached dizzying levels at the top of the skyway.

Donny climbed into the drone at the end of the row, spoke his 18-digit account number, and waited for the AI to authenticate. He knew he was thinking too much. Ruminating. Depressed again. Lost in all the Moss questions, chip questions, bullet questions, blue octopus, Garbage Pyramids, the cold darkness of the Shung Building, Graciela snoring in this T-shirt, how long will the yellow pills last, and what to do about the little broken duck.

Maybe we can get some epoxy. Put it back together. It’ll be a fun project. Fun was something people had, a normal part of everyday life. Graciela knew about things like that. She said being with him was fun. Donny probed the idea the way you might hold an odd stone, maybe put it in your pocket and turn it over a few times, your brain absently mapping its contours. Fun. A strange, oddly shaped thing that she’d handed to him. Dangler might ask what one did with fun, what its intended function was. But Dangler didn’t say anything earlier in the evening when Friendly also told them how important it was to learn how to have fun again. Like everyone in the group must have had all kinds of fun at some point but forgot about it along with everything else. Like it was possible to recapture that life again.

Jackson Filter said, “I think I had fun once.”

And Friendly nodded, flashing his maddening grin. “Yes, Jackson, of course you did.”

Of course. But nothing was of course anymore. Jackson Filter had taken his name from the logo on the industrial lading container where he’d woken up covered in blood that wasn’t his, a tube snaking out of his nose, and a portable pacemaker on its last three bars of power. Jackson had a bomb in his heart. As long as he recharged the pacemaker every day, he’d stay alive. If he didn’t, the chip in his neopallium would trigger and nobody knew how big the explosion might be—as big as the city of Los Angeles or as big as a man’s heart. No, of course was stupid. Of course was unthinkable.

Check,1187, rising,” said the drone, a different pair of eyes—far less alluring that those of the previous drone—blinked at him from the dash monitor. “Please fasten your seatbelt, Donald Stilton.” Then the turbines kicked in and the drone hovered slowly out from under the awning. Rain clattered against the acrylic canopy and the black wasp suddenly went straight up towards the skyway, gathering speed as it rose past the marquees, the tangle of hologram adverts, bright white floods, coruscating fields of pixilated Pinyin, New German, English, Spanish, Japanese, the green girl in the distance advertising “Live Bait,” the night throngs of the sector down on the street with their bio-luminescent amulets and VR-guided walking umbrellas and tuk tuks belching grease fumes into the particolored night.

What is your destination?”

I’m . . . not sure.”

It is necessary for you to state a destination. What is your destination?”

I . . .”

Are you disoriented? Do you require medical assistance?”

No.”

Please state your destination.”

Do you like it here?”

You have failed three of five opportunities to state a destination. What is your destination?”

John Desmond Frame, Jr. had been unusually talkative that night, And Rupert Two-Gears. Two extremely closed-mouthed individuals suddenly telling stories, emoting, describing memories. It felt strange. In a circle of ghosts, of men who’d been erased from the dayside life of human society, strange was an achievement. And then there was Moss’ outburst at the end. That wasn’t of course, wasn’t something anyone would forget. Moss throwing chairs. Putting his fist clear through the side of the corroded steel bin behind him. Breaking the arc lamp’s tripod over his knee. Screaming about how unfair it was, that he’d kill someone, that he’d have his revenge. He never said on whom. Because he didn’t know.

Moss was a kind, gentle giant until he wasn’t. Then he was a raving psychopath. Of course he was. Donny thought of the guns impossibly hidden somewhere in his capsule apartment. It’ll be a fun project, she said. If by “fun” Graciela meant something else, maybe “a moment of slightly less fear.” Maybe that’s what fun was for people like Donny.

The drone was at 700 meters and still rising to the skyway. The city was teeming with light, movement, energy—except for two unlit megablocks standing dark and neglected in Old Hollywood like rectangular black holes, enormous intangible voidspaces noticeable amid the rain chop and light wash only by virtue of how desolate they seemed. They no longer drew power from the L.A. grid. Disrecognized. Like him.

You have failed four of five opportunities to state a destination. What is your destination?”

Take me somewhere beautiful,” he said, not sure why, half-expecting the AI to ask for clarification or deny his request or offer him a sedative. But the eyes on the dash monitor blinked and the AI said, “Thank you” as the drone rose into the bottom lane of the skyway.

< Read Ch. 6 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IH >

< Read Ch. 4 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-ID >

4

He’d broken the little ceramic duck by the sink. He’d been so out of it, so determined to pick up every last pill, that he must have missed the duck. But Graciela hadn’t.

You came. You left. I guess I slept through our whole night together.”

Donny watched her lean towards the camera. He had an ancient Samsung VR phone, but he couldn’t use its clunky obsolete VR. No room for a second chip to make his brain backwards compatible. Whenever Graciela or Loach or someone from the group left a message, he had to watch it on the tiny screen.

I’m beginning to wonder if I haven’t dreamed you.” Still in his white T-shirt. She must have called as soon as she got home. Graciela’s long black hair shined in the ambient light from the window. L.A. was never fully dark, never fully light; though, the days were brighter than the nights. And the rain never stopped.

She lived somewhere on West Washington by the old cemetery. Bad area, full of gangs, junkies with heads full of sand. He’d never been to Graciela’s apartment, couldn’t see anything in the message but the corner of the window behind her, the same window he always saw when she left a message. “So I left the duck by the sink. I don’t know. Maybe we can get some epoxy. Put it back together. It’ll be a fun project.”

Donny smiled. She hated shit like that.

Graciela said she’d call him tomorrow, but he knew she wouldn’t. She tried so hard to be unpredictable that he could tell whenever she was going to call. Sometimes she surprised him—like showing up in his bed last night—but mostly they did the on-again, off-again thing. How it had to be. Donny’s time was limited. Some night, the algorithm would win. He didn’t want Graciela to be anywhere near him when that happened.

The drone banked north towards Feliz Sector. Sunset Boulevard curved below like a dead vein running straight through the heart of the city. Donny could barely make it out beneath the lights of the megablocks and the sherbet-colored rain-halos of the scrolling marquees, signs flashing TITUS LTD, ENLISS-ZAIBATSU, DAIMLER MONEYSHOT 360, COKE, DELCO POYNTER. You could see so much when your drone climbed up toward the top of the skyway near the upper floors of the mega-structures—the sectors that pulsed with light as well as the unlit dead zones like Sunset Boulevard or Old Hollywood. The LAPD didn’t control those areas. Their blocks stood dark, vacant, populated by the mentally ill, failed cyborg conversions, cannibal gangs, rogue synthetics, fugitives, the castoffs of society. You might see little fires dotting the landscape there, but everyone knew: if your drone went down in a dead zone, you needed to get clear because it would be about to self-destruct. No rescue-retrieval in the unregulated sectors.

He played her message again. I’m beginning to wonder if I haven’t dreamed you. Maybe she did. Maybe they were dreaming each other along an endless timeline of days no different than nights. Someday Donny’s timeline would reach a termination point. Graciela wasn’t synthetic. So someday hers would, too. In-between was some kind of shared dream that passed for life, that could feel like a nightmare if Donny let himself get distracted, if he didn’t try to make it be a good dream after all.

When the drone plunged straight down to the jump pad, he felt a moment of weightlessness. Cheap taxis didn’t worry about your equilibrium.

Take it easy,” he said. And a graphic of a woman’s eyes appeared on the dash monitor—long lashes, turning irises that read Skyway Cabs in stylized Gairaigo.

Has your experience been unsatisfactory?”

Your descent was too fast.”

Would you like to register a complaint?” The eyes blinked. Someone had coded those beautiful lashes to blink but left the rest of the face off. As if someone were peering out from a crawlspace in the nose of the drone, a perfect nubile beauty grown in there just to take passenger complaints.

No.”

The eyes blinked, crinkled at the corners as if she were smiling. “Thank you.”

The hatch opened and the filthy rain drenched the cockpit.

Donny was late. He felt sure storytelling had already started by the time he crossed the roof and took the shaky metal stairs down to the foundry’s alley. The Feliz Sector was desolate, even though many of the old factories and warehouses were still in use. Donny wondered (again) why Friendly had chosen this location for their meetings. Was it just that they were erratic dangerous men who couldn’t be trusted? Or was it something more? Aside from a dead zone, one could not find a more lonesome place to meet.

These enormous, empty buildings were what remained of the old defense engineering sector that had crept inland over centuries of endless war. Around 30 years ago, the last military-industrial facility went sub-orbital. Now, according to the learning feeds, production was fully automated with enormous mass drivers that could put materiél anywhere on the surface within minutes. What the feeds didn’t say was that after the military left, the parasites crept in. Aftermarket chipware. Sand labs. Organ printing operations. Sweatshop micro-assemblies for obsolete nano still salable in Europe or Inner China—not all of it criminal, but certainly gray market, highly temporary, and very low profile. Everything was done quietly in Feliz Sector. Windows were spray painted or taped up with plastic bags. Equipment ran in basements with only a spaghetti-profusion of power cables and fiber-optic transfers jacked to external grid boxes to indicate anyone was there.

When Donny came out of the alley and rounded the corner of the building, the street was as dark as a dead zone. He walked through the unlit hallway that ran the length of what had once been a ground-level production floor until he saw the glow of the basement stairwell. Then he heard the sound of Rupert Two-Gears telling the story he always told when it was his turn. Rupert was the most unnatural-looking member of the group. Ironically, he also happened to be one of the least coded. Three flights of stairs and Donny could smell the basement—heavy rust, the tang of machine oil, mold, wet earth—and he could hear Rupert saying, “It’s not that I lost my mind. I was just over-written three or four times.” Overwritten. Meaning Rupert had gone in and gotten himself chipped. And then somebody didn’t like the fact that he had. Or just didn’t like the fact that he was alive.

Donny walked into the glow of the arc lamp and Rupert paused, stared at him. Then everybody else did, too.

Friendly smiled. “Welcome.”

Moss’ glowing irises rotated. “Welcome” Then his left eye flashed. Did that mean he’d just taken a picture?

You’re late,” said Jackson Filter.

You’re l-l-l-late,” said Teague.

Rupert raised a long pale hand. “May I continue?”

Friendly inclined his head. “Please do.” Then, still smiling, he looked up. “Aren’t you going to have a seat, Donny?”

There was one empty folding chair in the circle. Donny’s. He sat and took out his waterlogged pack of cigarettes, carefully pulled out a bent one without tearing it, and put it between his lips.

After my third overwrite, something must have happened. I drank solvent.”

No,” Dangler said. “It was not solvent. Four weeks ago, you told this story and you said you drank lubricant.”

Well, I don’t remember. It might have been lubricant. Then again, it might have been solvent. But I know it did this to me.”

Dangler nodded.

Jackson filter said, “For fuck’s sake.”

Moss’ left eye flashed.

Rupert Two-Gears was hairless, blue veins forking in his marble skin, lips in a small pained frown. His ribs pushed visibly against his pink child’s tank-top that had obviously been printed for a girl. Donny wondered whether there was a little girl in Rupert’s life. He looked alien, undead, skeletal, like something that had clawed its way to the surface but shouldn’t have.

And that’s when I blacked out the last time. I remember that. Blacking out.”

And then?” asked Friendly.

Then nothing. Memory stops. The rest is —fragmented.”

Overwrite a chipset and it wouldn’t matter how small the original program was—a helper for differential equations, maybe, or basic Spanish, or a field-of-vision clock display. No matter what it had been at first, once overwritten, its code would mutate into bloatware, an expanding tangle of contradictory commands, as new control structures tried to dominate the implant. The mutant code would eat into parts of the brain that were never meant for it. Overwrite a chip once and, given time, aneurysms, hemorrhaging, and serious mental illness would be inevitable. Do it three or four times and you clearly want the subject to die a long horrific death. Yet here was Rupert. All that remained of him. Such a small change, overwriting a cortical chip. It was almost elegant compared to the Damocles Algorithm. But, in many ways, it was far worse that Donny’s affliction. Donny knew he would lose control some night and put a bullet in his brain. Rupert’s bullet was already there twisting through the gray matter.

I admire your courage.” Moss had gotten red nano tattooed in a Celtic knot pattern around the back of his neck. When he leaned forward, it writhed and resolved into a new design. Donny wondered how many different triquetras it had in its memory. Some functional tats could change into hundreds of different related shapes over time.

Rupert regarded Moss for a moment, then offered a tight smile. “Thank you. You’re very kind.”

Moss’ left eye flashed.

What the fuck is that?” Jackson Filter pointed at Moss’ eye. “You recording again, asshole? Didn’t we cover this last time?”

What could that nano tat do? What was its intended function? People suffering from invasive code didn’t often go in for more enhancement. They tried to hang on to the humanity they had left. And Moss was so augmented that further modification would bring him dangerously close to the synthetic tipping point, where one could no longer claim to be predominately human.

My eye is malfunctioning today.”

Bullshit.” Jackson Filter crossed his arms, looked at Friendly. “I don’t buy it. He’s always trying to preserve everybody’s stories for some secret fuck fantasy of his. It ain’t right.” Then Jackson looked at Donny. Donny nodded. It wasn’t right. But neither was Moss.

Friendly shook his head, grinned, opened his leather-bound copy of The Book of Synthesis he always kept under his chair. “You all might want to follow along. Part three, chapter 41. ‘Trust as a Prerequisite to Recovery and Reintegration.’”

John Desmond Frame, Jr.—who’d torched half of his face years ago exposing the titanium reconstruction beneath, his right eye pulsing like an orange ember in the wind—was wearing an expensive suit, vest, 19th century railroad watch on a golden chain, silk tie with a Balliol College pin. He always dressed like that, his suit always smartly creased as if it had been printed that morning. His copy of The Book was non-synth cream leather pressed with silver letters that glinted in the light from the arc lamp. He had a red leather bookmark featuring a black chess rook above a lion rampant. The bottom of the bookmark read, CASTLE SECURITY in block letters so big Donny could read them from the other side of the circle. Frame seldom spoke. When he did, his voice sounded immanently human and soft, yet somehow menacing coming from that half-titanium face, those blackened lips burned into perfect titanium teeth. “Focus,” Frame said, “on the text. And be quiet.”

Jackson Filter closed his mouth and looked down at his copy.

Moss’ left eye flashed. The crimson triquetra on the back of his neck turned green as it changed shape.

Danny didn’t have a book. His edition had long ago made its way through the bowels of the Los Angeles municipal recycling system. Instead, he flicked his plastic lighter, but the damp cigarette wouldn’t catch. “Shit,” he mumbled and kept trying.

Friendly chuckled, beamed at him, then commenced reading the most well-known passage in The Book: “We take as fact and yet also as an article of faith that we are bound in a confraternity of suffering. Our pain, as we have come to understand it, is our sacred mutuality.”

The others, even Jackson Filter and John Desmond Frame, Jr., started to read aloud in unison.

Our certitude, that we have been victimized by parties unknown in ways that are mysterious and ineffable, is the basis of our devotion both to each other and to the truth—”

Donny joined in at the end, not sure why he did apart from the fact that he’d heard the words so many times he’d memorized them, the bent cigarette jerking in his lips as he spoke.

“—that we are now, as we have always been, human beings, worthy of the designation and destined to live the time we are given as our forefathers have done—in life, knowingness, and hope.”

Amen,” said Jackson Filter, brushing away a tear.

Friendly slowly closed the book. “Amen, my brothers.”

Donny whispered it to the cigarette as he tapped it back into the pack with the tip of his finger. He couldn’t argue with the words. They were all suffering in ways none of them fully understood, and the biggest, deepest pain came from not knowing why.

I want to weep,” said Moss, “but I can’t. No tear ducts.”

Dangler’s monotone: “That makes sense. Without tear ducts, crying is impossible.”

There are other ways to express your grief.” Friendly steadied Moss’ shoulder but pulled his hand away when Moss looked down at it.

Then Moss turned toward Donny. “What do you think?”

I think grief is overrated.” Donny sniffed the waterlogged pack of cigarettes, frowned, and put the pack in his windbreaker pocket. “I’m a big fan of survival.”

John Desmond Frame, Jr.’s orange eye glowed, but his human eye looked just as intense. “Yes. And payback.”

And payback.” Moss nodded. The Celtic tracery on his neck burned bright red like a brand.

< Read Ch. 5 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IF >

< Read Ch 3 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-Iw >

3

Still twitchy, but he had to go to work. And, now that he’d arrived, swiped in, got his black coveralls on, printed a soy-tuna sandwich in the break room and put it in the mini-fridge, Donny almost felt normal. The pills would prevent the chip from communicating with his body for three or four days, but the inhibitory drug’s side effects would last a whole week. He wouldn’t be able to smell or taste anything and his pounding headache wouldn’t go away no matter how many vending machine painkillers he took. Felt like someone dropped a heavy weight straight down on top of his head. And then there would be the dangerous period when the pills wore off. The lingering side effects prevented Donny from taking more, leaving him completely vulnerable for a few days before he could dose up again.

The code didn’t always run on those unprotected days. There was no telling exactly when it would. But it did once, right in the middle of his shift. He barely survived that night. So he now kept a pair of handcuffs from the equipment locker with him at all times. There was a spot in the sub-basement where Donny could lock himself to a pipe coming out of the wall if he felt the chip coming online. Unlit hallway. Nothing else around. Even Loach, his supervisor, wouldn’t look for him down there. Because if Loach ever found out, that would be the end. And what better job was there for someone in Donny’s situation than as a night guard? Better to pass out down there in the dark and tell Loach he’d gotten drunk, overslept, something.

He made Postum in the ancient tin percolator and poured it into his thermos. The tiny break room had caged red lights in the ceiling to discourage sleeping on the job and it smelled like a rubber tire. Donny spent as little time in there as possible. Tonight, especially since he was feeling on edge, he wanted to get out and do his rounds, just be out there in the dark with the heavy flashlight and the motion detector, where nothing ever moved and the only sound was dripping water. He stepped into the dark and swiped his key card through the magnetic reader, locking the break room down. Old tech, but there wasn’t much of value in the tiny closet apart from the filthy printer. The red light at the bottom of the door faded, and Donny clicked the strong LED flashlight on, did a sweep around what had once been a synthetic play-garden for children. The beam lit up a 300-meter cone, made the distant shop windows flash and the drops coming down through the dome ceiling far above glitter like falling diamonds.

The Shung Building was gigantic, deserted, partly flooded on the ground floor. By the time Donny made his first round through the dark shopping levels with wires hanging from the ceilings and the old silver mannequins still posed in shattered storefronts, he’d be ready for his sandwich and second thermos. He didn’t remember being hired for the job at Bug Security. It, too, was from before. But he supposed it couldn’t have been hard to get. Most people probably didn’t enjoy being all alone in such an enormous dark space. Then again, Donny wasn’t most people. It suited him just fine. Even if he’d never been chipped, he felt he would have sought out a job like this.

As he passed, the smooth chrome eyes of a mannequin stared at him from a shop that used to sell synthetic canaries. He had no idea what use a canary shop would have had with a mannequin, but the whole place was like that. He noticed strange details now and then on his rounds—enough that he no longer questioned why a mannequin head might be staring up out of a broken toilet, why a half-skinned animatronic cat might be hanging from a snare in the one of the vacant bedrooms on the hotel level, or why the steel hatch to the jump pad on the roof might be banging open in the storm when it had been supposedly welded shut. Maybe normal people would be unnerved by things like that, things that didn’t have answers. But not Donny. The world was too much, too broken, too sick and evil for him to ever feel like it owed him an explanation.

The motion detector hummed softly, occasionally making a set of quiet pings when it sent out a pulse. The semi-circular display had a glowing grid he could use to pinpoint exactly how something was moving and how far it was from him. It never picked up anything bigger than a rat. And he’d killed the last rat weeks ago. He hooked the motion detector on his belt and took a sip from the thermos, panning the cone of light over the broken shop windows like jagged translucent fangs and then out across the vast ground floor. Far off in the dark, the constant rain had collected in a stagnant puddle that seemed more like a small lake. Loach said it was draining, but Donny didn’t see how it could. The rain never stopped.

Still, Loach was the man. You didn’t argue with him. Donny climbed the dead escalator, listening to the motion detector ping and then answer itself. Somewhere, on the other side of the dome, in an area where the subcrete floor had partly fallen into the basement level, there was the rubble of an old-fashioned 20th century glass elevator. Loach showed it to him on his first day, shining the flashlight at the shards of chemically treated glass, lighting them up like rainbows. Loach chomped on his cigar and said, “Look at them lights, man. You ever see anything like that?” Donny said he hadn’t. But, to be honest, maybe he had.

The mezzanine level was mostly broken equipment and piles of garbage. It overlooked the ground floor and was the real reason whoever owned the property still paid for Bug Security. There wasn’t much to steal, but if people wanted a quiet place to squat or smoke sand, this was it. Through Loach said he’d caught some junkies once, there was never anybody when Donny did his rounds. The motion detector pinged as he shined the light between piles of broken furniture, shredded paper, packing cartons, useless machinery brought down from the hotel level and dumped here long ago, the burned torso of a mannequin protruding from the side of a junk pile like it would crawl away if it only had arms.

There were 32 empty levels, part of a corporate arcology that never took off, and Donny’s job was to check them all three times during his shift. The Shung Corporation disappeared 30 years ago. Loach had told him all about its history, how the entire workforce lived at the top. When the company went bankrupt, everyone got chipped for a one year lifespan. The big tech corporations did things like that back then. And though it was still legal to contractually agree to a post-termination death date, technology had improved. Now an employer could reliably erase a worker’s memories without having to cause a fatal aneurysm, rendering corporate espionage and data insecurity a non-issue. The Shung Corporation had been notorious for a number of things. But they were long gone, just another ghost in a city of ghosts.

Still, someone was paying for the power. The whole building was jacked into the greater metropolitan grid and could be turned on from a control room in the basement. Donny found the access hall to the freight elevator. The two-meter-wide hallway was totally hidden unless you knew to turn right at an enormous urn that must have once held an equally large plant, maybe a shrub genetically engineered to grow as large as a tree and emit relaxing pheromones whenever anyone stood close to it. Now the urn was full to the brim with rain water. It was directly under one of the holes in the dome, which sat like a five story high blister at the base of the tower block. If you took a drone from LAX to Griffith Admin Center, the Shung Building resembled nothing if not an erect cock and ball. At least, that’s what Loach called it and now Donny couldn’t look at it any other way.

He reached the end of the access hall and swiped his key card on the elevator’s call panel. A distorted male voice said, “Thank you. The elevator is approaching.” It had an antique AI. Donny could talk to it, but what was the use? Its firmware hadn’t been updated in three decades. It never said anything interesting, though it might spontaneously offer inaccurate weather reports and the incorrect time. If he asked it a human question, like “Do you like it here?,” it would respond with “The Shung Corporation is on the cutting edge of biotechnological innovation.”

Donny stepped onto the elevator, pulled the steel doors shut, and told it to go to level three. Then he glanced, as he always did, between the safety bars that crisscrossed the top of the elevator car. Tiny points of light set in the dome twinkled like stars, some of them caught in an endless cycle of sputtering and flaring, and there was something beautiful about that—unintended beauty, like the shards of the old glass elevator or the silver eyes of the mannequins in the shops staring into the dark.

Do you like it here?” he said to the elevator.

The Shung Corporation is on the cutting edge of biotechnological innovation,” the elevator said.

Donny nodded and looked back up at the artificial stars.

< Read Ch. 4 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-Iw >

< Read Ch 2 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-Ir >

2

Donny clicked open the door to his apartment. Graciela was asleep in his bed. One of many good things about the apartment: you could look straight from the bedroom, through the kitchen area, through the living room, to the door. You could sit up in bed and put a bullet through an intruder—if you were fast like Moss and you could shoot straight. But Donny had never fired a gun at another human being, even though there were more than 34 handguns currently in his apartment. He’d fired about half of them at himself. That was the Damocles Algorithm. That was part of his wreckage, but not all of it.

He let the door shut behind him, then walked over to the foot of the bed and looked down at Graciela. When they had sex, she’d sweat. She liked to cuss. She liked to smoke his cigarettes in bed. She liked to drink. When she used his bathroom, sometimes the smell of shit lingered through the toilet’s deodorant spray. It made Donny feel good, calm. Graciela was real, as organic as any woman born the old-fashioned way in a hospital. Not in a lab.

Sometimes a synthetic person came to believe it was organic. And every now and then, organic people like Donny, who’d been involuntarily chipped by a family member or a spouse or an employer, discovered their hardware or coding during a routine physical or because of a triggering event or in some other more dramatic way. In most cases, forced implantation was legal in California, whether it was court ordered or whether the subject contractually agreed to it. The problem was remembering your life before the implant, even remembering you’d agreed to it in the first place. A certain degree of memory loss was inevitable. It protected the people who’d done it to you. At least, it added another layer of difficulty if you tried to find out. But sometimes people got their memories back. And sometimes they took revenge.

Graciela didn’t know about any of this. She knew, in a general way, things like forced implantation took place. But she didn’t know about Donny’s coding or the few fragments he remembered from his past. She thought all the guns were some weird macho thing. That was good, too. But Donny didn’t like it when she spent the whole night at his place, because that’s when it usually happened. He had some pills. They were supposed to help him block the algorithm that made him build guns in a feverish agony-filled trance and then try to use them on himself. The pills worked about half the time—if he remembered to take them. The side effects were horrible. Donny only took them when he felt the code kicking in, the strobe of pain in the center of his forehead. When it started, he had to move fast. He didn’t always make it.

Graciela sighed in her sleep. Donny took off his shirt, shoes, chinos, and lay down beside her, resting his right hand on the small of her back. She was wearing one of his white T-shirts and her warmth felt nice through the cotton. Real cotton. A luxury item, hardly in his budget as a night guard. But synthetic clothing gave you skin cancer and Donny felt he had enough on his plate. He smiled at the thought: enough on my plate, imagining an antique china dinner plate, gold scroll-work around the edge, a gold spoon beside it, and a Steyr Mannlicher L-D12 with an extended clip resting in the middle like a charred T-bone. Black steel. Tactical sights. Very similar to the first gun he could remember finding hidden in his apartment.

Donny panicked that night, not knowing that he’d ordered it online six days earlier. That was before the assembly subroutine activated. Now he had guns made from PVC piping, cardboard tubes, a disassembled fire nozzle he’d brought home from the Shung building and hacksawed in a trance with bloodshot unfocused eyes, his nose bleeding down to his belt. He’d gotten rid of his 3D printer, but he was still finding polymer firing mechanisms sunk in the toilet tank, piled on top of each other in a forgotten bowl in the kitchen cupboard, stuffed into a rip in the side of his mattress. He dreamed about guns almost every night, had encyclopedic knowledge of their specifications, materials, assembly. It was part of the code.

There was a VR channel where you could learn about objects from the past, examine them from all angles, experience what they might have been like sitting in your hand. Donny felt that in his previous life—the life before the implant—he must have spent a lot of time in VR, especially on the learning feeds. Most people had never seen an astrolabe, van Gogh’s Starry Night, a 16th century Koran in green leather fitted in brass. But he could remember such things and they had nothing to do with the Damocles Algorithm.

He’d heard of a similar channel for extinct animals. Some liked to spend all their free time playing with otters in high-def mountain streams. But somehow virtual animals didn’t have the same appeal for Donny. The archaeology of the past was more real because it had been artificial from the beginning—then an astrolabe, now a pixilated astrolabe. That was more honest, more organic, than a pixilated otter.

Donny listened to the rain patter on the big circular window to the right of the bed. The window depolarized at night. Unless he raised the auto-blind, the enormous ECO-TANGENT marquee on the apartment block across the skyway lit up the bedroom. Graciela apparently didn’t know where to find the controls. So the blind was still only half-raised, the way he’d left it that morning. A red-orange bar of light twisted on the ceiling whenever the enormous ECO-TANGENT logo flashed passing drones.

In a few minutes, he’d go into the kitchen and make a strong cup of Postum to keep him awake. Then he could go somewhere else and let Graciela sleep. The apartment was oblong, actually a very small capsule model. 72 floors up the megablock. The block generated a new capsule whenever a tenant moved in, incinerating the old capsule in its slot for hygiene purposes. Donny felt lucky to live there. It was hard to find a place in the city with decent filtration and radiation shielding. He didn’t know how he’d managed it. All he knew was that his name was on the lease. So he must have lived there before.

Somewhere Moss, Teague, Friendly, Jackson Filter and the rest were also going to sleep, however they managed to live, in whatever holes they called home. Well, he thought, they probably weren’t actually sleeping. They, as a group, didn’t seem to sleep all that much. And who could blame them? They’d gone to sleep one night as a relatively normal people only to wake up to nightmares they couldn’t escape.

Donny didn’t realize he’d dozed off until the subroutine had already begun. He gasped, sitting up beside Graciela. She was still on her chest, still breathing deeply, sleeping like a normal human being, whatever that was. He didn’t know anymore. The cramps had already started, aching nausea, his left hand trembling as if being jiggled at the end of an invisible string. His hand was separate from him now, coming online, connecting to the thing in his brain that wanted him dead.

He slid off the bed, dry heaving, his right arm hugging his stomach. Nothing to vomit. Just pain. A drop of blood fell out of his nose, black and glistening on the capsule’s blue polyamide carpet like a tiny jewel. Then his left arm started flopping at his side like a fish struggling to breathe.

There was still time. The spasms always started in one of his hands, then moved across his body like a seizure. There was time to get the pills, to get to the sink. He needed to take four of them. They were big. Donny had to put them in his mouth and then get some water in there. And he had to do it fast. He could already feel his heart starting to race. He focused on his breathing. If he started to hyperventilate, it was all over. He’d pass out and then the chip would only wake up the psycho-motor areas of his brain—the parts necessary for locating or building a firearm, loading it, and firing it point-blank at the side of his head.

The little ceramic duck on the edge of the sink. Something Graciela wouldn’t notice. Donny knocked it over with his right hand, trying to stay upright with his left arm spasming, his left leg starting to vibrate, his throat muscles getting rigid. Underneath the duck was a little cellophane packet full of the yellow pills. He tore the packet open with his teeth and they went everywhere. Focus. Count four lying on the counter. Starting to hyperventilate. His entire body trembling. Just as Donny’s right fingers started to pulse, he got the pills in, cut his mouth on the sink faucet, but got the water flowing. Swallowed. Fell to the kitchen floor and didn’t think, didn’t move, until the convulsions slowed, then faded and he lay there surrounded by triangular yellow pills that didn’t have a name. Donny listened to the rain. Graciela hadn’t woken up. One good thing. One small good thing.

 

< Read Ch. 1 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-In >

< Read Ch. 3 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-Iw >

As touching the terrors of the night, they are as many as our sins.”

– Thomas Nashe, 1594

1

They wanted Donny to talk about the algorithm running in his brain, as if talking about it again would change something.

He stood and knocked over his folding chair. “Stop recording. I’m not gonna tell you twice.”

Sorry. I wanted to—review it—later.” Moss’ irises pulsed faint blue, then rotated as he erased the file.

The group stared. Donny lit a cigarette with a paper match. “Yeah, well, I shouldn’t have to say it.” He didn’t take his eyes off Moss.

Sitting, Moss was still taller than Donny. Standing, he was easily over eight feet. He weighed close to 400 lbs., all synthetic fast-twitch muscle fiber and chemical emulsifier. Hairless and scarred, Moss looked like someone who’d grown up in an industrial ghetto or who’d been sent to the gulags. But he had perfect balance. Was ambidextrous. Said he could see 20/20 in the dark and could bend a steel railing with his hands. Donny believed it. Moss was obviously enhanced. And code like that was open source these days. Outpatient. Anyone could chip you in—or have you chipped against your will. There was no telling who Moss had been or what he’d done or what his skeletal structure looked like. He was the same as everyone who came to these meetings. His memory was salad.

I said I was sorry. I’m—really sorry, man.” Moss looked away, folded his hands in his lap.

You know the rules.” Friendly raised his eyebrows and nodded to himself, wrote something in his notebook. “We don’t record. We keep it all in-group.”

I could care less about the rules. I just don’t like the thought of him watching playback of me in his head. It’s sick.” Donny righted his chair and sat back down, exhaling twin jets of smoke out his nose like punctuation.

I accept the rules,” Moss said. “But the reason we’re here is because—because maybe we’re not so good at following rules.”

Friendly grinned, nodded again. “That’s the truth, brother. The absolute truth. That’s what we mean by self-acceptance.” Friendly had big white teeth, a wooden ankh on a bead necklace, thin dreads tied in a perfect bun. He was definitely synthetic. He didn’t sweat. He smiled way too much. Donny wondered, again, what Friendly had done to wind up running a support group that met on the production floor of an abandoned foundry. Who’d built him? Why? Was it for this or something else?

Let’s just get on with it,” Donny flicked ash onto the subcrete and Friendly’s glance snapped down at the nub of ash the way a mongoose fixates on the head of a snake. The snake’s head jerks, the mongoose follows it so fast it seems like they’re moving as one. Yeah, sure, nothing unnatural about Friendly.

Friendly’s gaze slowly unfocused, softened, he looked up at Donny and nodded. Then smiling, he looked around the circle. “It’s Teague’s turn to share this evening. Isn’t it?”

Teague peered at Friendly with his good eye. The other was a dead milky orb with only the faintest outline of an iris. Someone had done that to him, among other things. He had pockmarked cheeks. Had someone done that as well—for realism? Or was it natural? He probably didn’t know.

There’s a burning question, thought Donny. Can synthetics get chicken pox? Is that the new thing?

I shared before,” Teague said. “I told you—you know who I am. I’m chipped. You know this. Right?” Teague looked at Friendly, who nodded.

Yes. But we need to hear your story.” Friendly would be smiling even if he’d had to tell a mother her kid had been torn apart by wild dogs. Donny stared until Friendly noticed and winked.

Teague sounded nervous, but telling your story was part of the therapy. In your first meeting, you were expected to share the nature of your coding as far as you understood it. You did a fearless and searching inventory of all the people you’d hurt as a result of your involuntary actions. You confessed. But there wasn’t supposed to be any judgment, just understanding, acceptance, compassion. Only then could healing begin. That’s what The Book of Synthesis said, anyway. Friendly gave everyone a copy. Donny read half of chapter one before throwing it in the trash. He didn’t expect to be healed. Talking couldn’t remove a chipset from your cerebral cortex or the software that had become integrated with your brain functions, your wetware. Donny didn’t know why he came back week after week, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t because of The Book.

Teague crossed his arms, cleared his throat. “Well, okay, so you all know me from last time, right? You know my name. It’s Teague. It’s my last name. I don’t know my first name.”

Moss stared intently at Teague with those dull blue filaments in his eyes that pulsed whenever one of his subroutines kicked in. Moss said his eyes weren’t supposed to do that. They had their own battery power and it was failing. Soon he’d probably go blind. Or worse. There was no way for him to know without contacting the company that made his eyes. But, of course, he couldn’t remember.

But what’s your wreckage?” Donny flicked another bit of ash from his cigarette to see if Friendly would react the same way.

Friendly smirked and wagged his finger as if Donny had been a naughty boy. “We don’t call it wreckage, Donny. You know that.”

Wreckage?” Teague’s mouth twitched. His good eye darted around the circle. Then he stood and spread his arms, and sang out in lyric tenor: “By the River Jordan, I sat down and wept! By the river! Le delizie dell’ amor, mi dei sempre rammentar! Sono io! Sono io! Ecco chi sono!

That’s who you are? You’re a river?” Dangler tilted his head to the side, considering the possibility.

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal!

Friendly stood and put his arm around Teague, helping him down into his folding chair. “Firewall. It’s okay, brother. Just sit back down.”

Teague had begun to shake, spittle foaming at the corners of his mouth. He tried to keep talking but could now only utter incoherent syllables, his good eye turned down toward the tip of his nose while his hands writhed in his lap.

Wow,” Dangler said. “How is that anything like a river?”

Let’s go easy on Teague tonight.” Friendly sighed, sat down, and smiled warmly at the group. “Evidently, this is a protective aspect of his coding. But that’s why were here, right? That’s part of the work.”

Dangler shook his head. “That must feel strange.”

How do you know what strange feels like?” asked Jackson Filter, who always seemed to be sitting next to Dangler even though Jackson despised him.

You’re right. I don’t actually know what strange feels like. What does strange feel like, Jackson Filter?”

Talking to you. That feels strange,” Jackson said and turned his folding chair slightly so he wouldn’t have to look at Dangler.

Donny smoked, took it all in. These men were broken, miserable. And the group meetings were a special kind of hell. What good did they do? Every week Donny swore that was the last time. But when the next meeting came around, he found himself on a drone texting Friendly that he was on his way. Could coming to the meetings also be part of his coding? Someone wanting to program him to attend group therapy for being programmed was absurd, at least as absurd as anything else in Donny’s life.

The old foundry’s enormous pressure injectors, iron crucibles, plungers, chamber machines, and die cavities towered around them like the discarded toys of a giant race. Everything had rusted horribly from the moisture, even the walls and the roof. It was always raining in Los Angeles and you could smell the acid tang of the rust. Hundreds of feet above them, rain clattered on the foundry’s corrugated roof and filled the air with mist, muting the glare of Friendly’s arc lamp. One day, the roof would come crashing down. Then they’d finally see who had physical enhancements to go along with the code.

Dangler, for example, looked completely normal. No scarring. No obvious synthetic characteristics. That is, if you overlooked the fact that he was 62 but appeared 22. He had bushy blond hair, a perfect even tan, and a vacant stare. He’d been coded against emotion. Sometime, he claimed, maybe 20 years ago, someone had done it to him. And for the last two decades, he’d felt no happiness, joy, fear, or anxiety. Higher levels of creativity were forever closed to him. Dangler was very good at imitating the behavior of others, but original thought or action was beyond him. He once said a middle-aged woman occasionally stopped by his room at the YMCA to ask how he was feeling. But he didn’t know who she was or why she came. She refused to explain why Dangler had been tattooed in the center of his chest. But that was his name. She said that had always been his name.

I’m sorry.” Teague pulled up the collar of his white T-shirt and mopped his face. “I don’t know what came over me.”

You were speaking Italian,” said Jackson Filter.

I don’t know Italian.”

Well, I guess you do.”

Friendly raised his hand. “Guys, we all know what a firewall is. It’s the code protecting itself. Sometimes, it’s hard. That’s intentional. But what do we say to those who have harmed us?”

Everyone but Teague and Donny called out in unison: “WE FORGIVE AND PRAY NOT TO FORGET!”

Yes,” Friendly said. “And, as it says in The Book, self-remembering is the basis of love, which is the greatest power in the universe.”

Amen,” said Moss.

Amen,” said Dangler.

Amen,” said Jackson Filter.

Amen,” said Rupert Two-Gears.

Amen,” said John Desmond Frame, Jr.

Teague covered his face with his hands and started to weep. “Amen,” he said.

Everyone looked at Donny. He blew a line of smoke at the arc lamp. Then he smiled at Friendly and flicked a nub of ash onto the subcrete.

< Read Ch. 2 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-Ir >

Johnson was “willing to place his lonesome ass in the way of seriously bad and scary stuff and then bring back the tale, told better than it’s ever been told before.”

Source: Here’s Why Denis Johnson Was the Last Truly Great Gonzo War Correspondent

...

Early rendition of Alfred E. Neuman, 1908.

Today, I wonder whether I should re-think some of my ultra-liberal biases and attendant leftist news consumption.  This is good.  But, man, I’m beat.

The alt-right (and the radical religious right) to me seems like a uniquely American expression of deep stupidity but, of course, I would say that. Look at my demographic: college educated, democrat, fiction writer, from Southern California, who’s been an expat for almost a decade. Of course, I think Trump is the worst thing that could have possibly happened to the world. Of course, I wanted Bernie but voted Hillary. Of course, I want net neutrality. Of course, I support many (but not all) positions taken by the ACLU. Of course, I believe that, in an earlier era, Obama would have been considered a moderate republican. Of course, I have a problem with drones, civilian casualties, the terrific scope creep of the Patriot Act, and the “war on drugs.” Of course, I care about my country.

If I didn’t think the Green Party was run by bumblers, I would probably join. I’m pro-choice, pro-Planned Parenthood, and I support gay marriage. I think many of these things should not even have to be controversial in a liberal democracy. I dream of a day when there will be universal healthcare and free college tuition. I think climate change is one of the most, if not the most, serious issues we face today. But the truth is that most of these biases and beliefs can be (and are) predicted by an algorithm. The even sadder truth is that I only have so much energy I can devote to fact checking and being outraged. This is a problem. Tiredness is a problem.

The problem is not that there is a right answer we have to find. The problem is that uncertainty and complexity are exhausting over time, especially when you’re necessarily engaged in other things. Most Americans are not, actually, stupid. They’re invested in certain areas–mostly job and family–and in most other respects have a general (superficial) understanding of the world, including political issues and identifying yellow journalism, confirmation bias, and what passes for fear mongering click-bait. I have also seen this in European and Asian countries, relative to various cultural differences and levels of education. The USA doesn’t own “stupid.” Every country with a powerful media has a horse as a proconsul somewhere. The difference is that the States likes to put its toga-wearing horses on display, whereas other countries have not. But this is changing.

In an enormous post-industrial society, you will have many levels of political, historical, and economic awareness and many opinions emerging constantly in the news media. You will also have crackpot theories; secessionism; separatism based on race, religion, and / or gender biases; conspiracy paranoia; multi-directional shaming; late night talk show infotainment; social justice fanatics; religious absolutists; new age hucksters; ambulance chasers; a continuous horde of cynics; doom-saying historians looking for their 15 minutes; the resurgence of failed orthodoxies (like Nazism, ethno-nationalism, and whatever Steve Bannon happens to be reading); and the all-encompassing opportunism that feeds off these things. What you won’t have is a simple black-and-white truth. You will have truthiness.

To live in an information society infected with truthiness is extremely taxing. But just as there is no black-and-white truth, there is no easy solution. A friend of mine has suggested “slow news” as opposed to internet news feeds. It seems like there are some merits there. But slow news does not necessarily safeguard against yellow journalism, which has been around since newspapers could fold. In many ways, the 24-hour news cycle and its problematic presence on social media makes it harder for governments and corporations to spin interpretations in their favor. We should be grateful for the ineptitude of Sean Spicer and the alacrity with which he and his boss are covered by the press corps.

I don’t have answers. I don’t think there is a single version of what is true—at least not one that can be had through the media. But I also don’t think the cross-eyed chants of “burn it down” and “fuck your feelings” have done any good. They helped Trump get elected as president, and he has thus far made a mockery of America. The left understandably wants him gone. The GOP wants him to calm down and let them get on with the kleptocracy. His base supporters are currently upset because he bowed 5 inches to receive an award in Saudi. Some of his supporters are no doubt upset that the Reich hasn’t yet emerged in all its glory. I suspect they will still be upset when he gets impeached.

“Nothing is an absolute reality; all is permitted” – Hassan-i Sabbah

Today I’m thinking about how most people locate the center of meaning in their lives in their social identity, which is synonymous either with their career role or some caretaking role or both.  But the artist finds the center of meaning in the act of making art.  This is an important distinction to keep in mind, especially for me when I’m not writing.

When I don’t feel capable of producing writing, I nearly always get depressed to some degree.  My insecurities get stronger.  I start wondering whether I’ve wasted my life following insubstantial dreams.  Nevermind that I’ve already accomplished things my younger self could have never imagined possible.  It’s as if none of that ever existed.  It’s failure, failure, failure, failure, failure on repeat in my head.  And it never relents.

Of course, this doesn’t happen in productive times because, when I’m actually involved with my work, I’m not even considering other things.  At most those old insecurities are tiny thoughts, easily dismissed by the reality of the page filling up with words.  Writing is all-consuming when it’s happening.  When it isn’t, when I’m unable to move my mind into focus, I feel incredibly empty and worthless, which reminds me of something my first creative writing instructor once said: “Writers drink and use drugs probably because when they can’t write, they think they don’t exist.  And they will do anything to escape that pain.”  It took me years to fully understand what he meant.  But I don’t try to escape the pain that way.  I just suffer. 

No matter how much I publish, no matter how many stories and chapters and essays and posts I write, it’s never enough to make me feel satisfied like I’ve arrived in a secure, content, stable place in my life and work.  As soon as I write the last word of something, I’m already thinking about the next thing.  Only during those moments of actual work, when I can forget myself fully do I feel any respite.  

When I’m like a clear pane of glass and the light of my work is shining through me, I experience a kind of bliss, a satori.  Nothing is ever that good.  Drugs or alcohol can’t come remotely close because they shut down or at least reconfigure thought processes.  Writing, when I’m immersed in it, enhances all processes, all existing configurations of thought—even the critical and analytical routines that consider form and technique—and precipitates insights, perspectives, realizations.  This is far better than taking drugs.  These are the drugs of the mind.  And the only thing I live for is to be in that place, putting words on the page.  The rest of my life, actually 90% of what I do that isn’t writing, is preparing to write or recovering from having written so I can do it again.

This way of life emphasizes introspection and subjectivity.  It is not contingent on the opinions of others, permission from authorities or institutions, or any other sort of social frameworks external to my inward experience.  That is a wonderful thing, sometimes.  But sometimes the alienation I feel can be terrible: from friends, family, society, culture, what passes for normal life.  The constant pain of living in my own subjective universe and knowing that, while others may do the same, they can never truly share this experience with me, is very subtle but very tangible, especially when I’m depressed about not writing.  When there is no bliss, there is only emptiness and doubt, an inner stage devoid of actors, props, and background, all too easily filled with regret, self-criticism, worry, and the memory of past failures.  But that’s the life.  That’s its hard interior, even when it looks soft on the outside.  

It means I have to make a living somehow as well, whether though freelance work, teaching, or something else.  When I’m producing, that’s fine.  It’s easy to accept when you’re high on life.  But these needs, these ups and downs, having to be a responsible adult while also being this other thing, a writer, an artist, can make life quite difficult when the words aren’t there.  The thing that society labels “artist” the way people label “happiness” or “love” or “god”—using the term in an offhand way, while not truly knowing what it is or truly caring that they don’t—is the life of Persephone, half on the earth, half in that other place.

All jobs are hard.  All lives are challenging for the people living them.  This one, too.  Even those days when I manage to get it right.  Why do I do it?  Maybe I’m obsessed.  And I guess it’s something at which I’m reasonably competent.  And I like it better than mowing lawns.

Trump thinks he has eliminated the problem. || Michael Davis

Source: Fatal Vision: the Precipitous Exile of James Comey

Peril Jack is political art. But what does political art mean? Come find out.

Source: Political Art | Kurt Cole Eidsvig

“Some people write for fifteen years with no success and then decide to quit. Don’t look for success and don’t quit. If you want to write, write under all circumstances. Success will or will not come, in this lifetime or the next. Success is none of our business. It comes from outside. Our job is to write, to not look up from our notebook and wonder how much money Norman Mailer earns.”

– “The Long Quiet Highway,” Natalie Goldberg

A long time ago, I watched a black-and-white movie about the French Foreign Legion in Algeria. The title escapes me, as does most of the plot, but I vividly remember one scene. A young recruit had snuck off to a local village to visit a girl he liked and was arrested for deserting his post. He was brought before his commanding officer, who gave him a lecture very similar to a bit of dialogue in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, a film I have watched over and over. I think that’s why I remember the scene from the former otherwise forgettable film.

In any case, the lecture went something like this: You think you care about this girl, but you’ve already seen people die all around you. You think you want to go back home someday, have a family, and grow old comfortably. But these are civilian dreams. You are not part of that world. You have no need for that world, and it has no need for you. The recruit is visibly agitated, angry, surprised. He asks whether they aren’t there to make the world a better place as they have been told—to fight the National Front for democracy and to preserve social order. The commander shakes his head and says: Today, we fight them. Tomorrow, we fight with them against somebody else. Politics changes like the weather. But we stay the same.

I’m reconstructing this conversation from memory. So it may not be exact, but I think I’ve captured the essence of the dialogue. It was a good scene, maybe the only good scene in the movie, but still very romantic in how it evoked the “this life is not for you” sense of doomed heroism we love in stories about the cult of the warrior.

For many years, I’ve rejected this romantic perspective. I’ve thought about professional soldiers the way I’ve thought about sport hunters: anachronisms at best. More often, they seem dangerous and cynical, full of misplaced machismo and the need to justify their existence with bullets instead of brains. So I felt annoyed when someone recently referred to my freelance writing as “being a hired gun.” Not only is that inaccurate—though I can see it in terms of private investigators, lawyers, even lobbyists—but I think it sensationalizes what is basically a very humble line of work.

While there is a lot of professionalism in the field, writing content for media sources and corporations has always struck me as nothing like being a mercenary, a legionnaire, or even a samurai. It always felt more like being a craftsman who specializes in a very specific sort of product. Still, it got me thinking about what a “professional” actually is in a philosophical sense. And now I’m not so sure about these distinctions. This morning, I gave myself a writing assignment, something working writers, especially freelancers, need to do on a regular basis. I set a goal of 700 words in response to: what is a professional?

The Existential Condition of the Professional

I started thinking about that Foreign Legion movie scene and the moment in Seven Samurai when the samurai have successfully defended the farmers against the bandits; though, their friends have died in the process. Kambei Shimada expresses the inherently Pyrrhic nature of military victory: “Again we are defeated. The farmers have won. Not us.”

Again we are defeated…

It’s a melancholy moment that resonates with You have no need for that world, and it has no need for you. But, thinking about it in terms of my many varied writing jobs over the years, I think I’ve come to a deeper understanding. Being a professional means walking the path of mastery and radical individualism. So while it may be true that “civilian life is not for you,” such a path seems more like an existential choice than involuntary alienation from normal life.

It seems to me that if you are a true professional, you engage in one thing so deeply and exclusively that it emerges as an aspect of your nature. Your will, your inner self, and this thing you do are indivisible, indistinguishable. Essentially, you learn that it is who and what you have always been. It’s an inner part of your character that has now found expression in your life as some kind of career or activity.  This emergence ultimately transcends existing categories of normal, mundane life, realigning your values with the profession as the most profound and worthwhile source of meaning. All else must take second place or no place.

The I-Ching alludes to it in hexagram 32, Heng / Duration: “The dedicated man embodies an enduring meaning in his way of life, and thereby the world is formed.” To embody an enduring meaning is to become synonymous with it, to presence it such that you are its student and its conduit. As Yeats says at the end of “Among School Children,” “O body swayed to music,/ O brightening glance,/ How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

The Superior Man vs. the Inferior Man

Not everyone is called to be a professional in this esoteric sense of the term. Its exoteric definition simply indicates a level of proficiency where one can expect to be paid for one’s efforts. But there seems to be a deeper stratum of self-awareness that emerges in some practitioners. The I-Ching calls this person the “superior man,” meaning that he or she operates on a more profound, more philosophical level.

32, Heng

The “inferior man” is someone content to live more superficially within existing, inherited cultural frameworks. Above all else, the inferior man values gratification and relief from the problems in his life and offers up obedience to conventional society in exchange. Conversely, the superior man seeks mastery and will pursue it to the detriment of family, friends, finances, and even social respectability—which is not to say she automatically gives up these pleasures. Rather, she assigns them second place in her life.

In The Hagakure: A Code to the Way of the Samurai, Tsunetomo Yamamoto, a 17th century Edo samurai in the service of Lord Nabeshima Mitsushige, writes “Even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams.” To a samurai, “awakening from your dreams” means accepting death as the most likely consequence of your profession. It is pursuing the path of mastery regardless of the consequences. And it is therefore the way of the superior man, who embodies an enduring meaning in his way of life above and beyond the conventional joys and trials of mundane existence.

Seduction of the Youth

This way of life can seem very romantic. The young, in particular, are often attracted to its emphasis on integrity and its ostensible clarity. This is how it should be. If the long painful road to mastery didn’t enchant and seduce people from an early age, humanity’s deepest knowledge would eventually be lost to time and mortality.

And yet, very few set foot on the path of Duration fully realizing how much they will be asked to sacrifice. In the fullness of time, they will die to their old lives and be reborn in the image of their chosen profession, which is to say, they will embody this thing which now sustains them, which flows through them, and which has come to define the purpose of their existence.

Consider the difference between these two expressions: he is a dancer versus he dances. The first describes a professional. The verb of being shows equivalence. He = dancer. There is no distinction between the two. Contrast this with the second expression where dancing is something he does. It is an action undertaken by a noun, not an existential state. He does some dancing. It is not what he is.

Many people who are frustrated with their lives, especially teenagers and disappointed young adults, fantasize about being absorbed into the lifestyle of some profession. They think, if only I could be like so-and-so (often a professional athlete, artist, or celebrity), then I wouldn’t have these problems. But becoming a true professional involves as much pain as it does pleasure. It can mean cutting out everything that is not the profession—a high price to pay that becomes a brutal requirement for those trying to progress. Lawyers will sometimes say, “law is a cruel mistress,” which is undoubtedly true for all professions where mastery is concerned.

Who Becomes a True Professional

Anyone can do it, but few will, since the obstacles are wholly internal. Time, age, finances, social permission, and starting ability are ultimately irrelevant because the path of the true professional is a state of mind. Only the inferior man has to worry about those external things, since he functions primarily within the constraints placed on him by others. The true professional, being the superior man, develops his own set of constraints organically by paying attention to his character and the dictates of his heart.

Jean Reno showing one-pointed focus as Leon, the Professional

This is a matter of discernment, of self-understanding, which makes the professional mindset possible through a succession of insightful shocks or moments of clarity. Such realizations often come when certain sacrifices have been made.

For example, the time, money, and logistical arrangements necessary for living in a remote cabin for three months in order to finish your novel will produce not only work product but also greater awareness of what you really want to write and who you really want to become. This, in turn, will provide a vision of the next step, the next goal and its necessary sacrifices. Every step entails a sacrifice to be made, something material that will be given and received, a self-insight, and an altered state of consciousness.

In some philosophies, this pursuit of mastery is considered dangerous, an outlaw ethos. It’s seen as “antinomian” (anti / opposite or against + nomos / rule or law) in the sense that it often disregards approved social norms. Those who have become proficient to the degree that they have “awakened from their dreams” have disregarded the desires and statuses manufactured by consensus culture. They threaten the system by their very existence. They have undertaken a path of radical individualism that privileges subjective personal meaning and depends on mastery and self-understanding for forward progress.

It is very hard to control such a person with conventional rewards and punishments. The path of the true professional stands in stark contrast to lifestyles that interpolate people into preexisting categories designed to provide gratification and relief in exchange for obedience in thought, word, and deed. Instead, having transcended superficial levels of meaning, the professional finds himself enjoying hidden pleasures and suffering from unique pains. He can talk about his discipline to beginners and to the uninitiated, but only to a point. There are things that can only be understood by those with eyes to see and ears to hear, developed through firsthand experience.

There is no Going Back

It’s not hard to see that the path of the true professional, being extremely demanding and fraught with difficulties, is not for everyone, nor should it be. There is something to be said for the joys of a simple mundane life and the fun of dilettantism. Moreover, as you walk the path of individuation, you may come to a sobering realization: once you took the first faltering steps toward what would become a life-defining quest for mastery in your field, there was no going back.

In a sense, as the commanding officer says to the legionnaire recruit, you reach a point at which you have no need for that world, and it has no need for you. The path has changed you forever as you’ve sacrificed and been reborn again and again. The Egyptologist, Isha Schwaller de Lubicz, expresses this beautifully in Her Bak: the Living Face of Ancient Egypt, a speculative account of initiation into an Egyptian mystery cult where radical self-transformation is the highest goal:

What is life? It is a form of the divine presence. It is the power, immanent in created things, to change themselves by successive destructions of form until the spirit or activating force of the original life-stream is freed. This power resides in the very nature of things. Successive destruction of forms, metamorphoses, by the divine fire with rebirth of forms new and living is an expression of consciousness that is independent of bodily circumstance.

When the dancer is the dance, both emerge as an expression of consciousness, a state of mind above and beyond the movements of the body. This is the reality of the true professional.

I have been reading about pro-Nazi exiles recruited and paid by the CIA. I can never read such things without feeling powerfully upset. But I also keep in mind Ludwig von Rochau’s idea that “the law of power governs the world of states just as the law of gravity governs the physical world.” Rochau supposedly coined the term, “realpolitik,” which originally had to do with achieving Enlightenment ideals in a world that didn’t operate according to those ideals. Reading about the CIA’s support of the Svoboda Party in the Ukraine led me back to Rochau, someone I haven’t thought about since my undergraduate years.

People seem shocked when they first learn that American Imperialism (like all imperialism no matter what costume it currently happens to be wearing) involves propping up murderous dictators, victimizing the weak, and destabilizing the social order of disobedient nations. Every nation that reaches a certain level of power becomes amoral. This is not to say it’s alright from an ethical standpoint. This is just the nature power politics–inherently pragmatic and opportunistic.

The inherent viciousness of such governments is held in check by two closely related things: the press and public opinion. Laws have nothing to do with it. Laws can be changed or ignored–as we see happening in the UK and the USA. But look at what has happened at the town hall meetings across the States. Those are a large part of what caused the lack of GOP support for Trumpcare. Fear of an angry mob gets things done in Congress, yessir.

Exposing a government’s essential Machiavellianism will not change the imperative for realpolitik in the world, but it can blunt the essential cruelty of decision makers, opening up a space for the weak and poor to evacuate to the hill country. Get grandpa dressed and fire up the sampan while there’s still time, why don’t you.

Picture an enormous rock rolling down the side of a mountain. The rock is moving in accordance with universal law. If you’re smart, you get out of the way. If you’re not so smart, you try to argue with gravity. I propose the wise course is to pay attention to what’s going on, know when to get out of the way, and live to read more books, complain about the murderers in power, and play with more kittens in your hut. Then maybe you can write political pieces on the inherent nastiness of the rulers and live to see them published.

Alternately, you can die for your beliefs. That is very heroic, but gravity will keep the boulders rolling down the mountains and there will always be bullets flying through the air. There will also always be empires and bloody strongmen and fools wearing crowns. It’s up to us to accuse them, argue for reform, and cast blame where it belongs. But we can’t do that face down in the canal.

And it’s alright to say, “But who will look after my cats?”

I do not often post writing that isn’t mine.  But, thinking about a former friend today, who through bitterness and a certain insanity has become a neo-Nazi, I searched “Who becomes a Nazi?” and discovered this brilliant Harper’s piece from August of 1941 by Dorothy Thompson.  

I think it’s not only (unfortunately) timely, but it reveals something about the personality types we often see in the media.  It may help us comprehend how friends and relatives can become this hateful thing.

Who Goes Nazi? | Harper’s Magazine http://harp.rs/48j9xxa


It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis.

It is preposterous to think that they are divided by any racial characteristics. Germans may be more susceptible to Nazism than most people, but I doubt it. Jews are barred out, but it is an arbitrary ruling. I know lots of Jews who are born Nazis and many others who would heil Hitler tomorrow morning if given a chance. There are Jews who have repudiated their own ancestors in order to become “Honorary Aryans and Nazis”; there are full-blooded Jews who have enthusiastically entered Hitler’s secret service. Nazism has nothing to do with race and nationality. It appeals to a certain type of mind.

It is also, to an immense extent, the disease of a generation—the generation which was either young or unborn at the end of the last war. This is as true of Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Americans as of Germans. It is the disease of the so-called “lost generation.”

Sometimes I think there are direct biological factors at work—a type of education, feeding, and physical training which has produced a new kind of human being with an imbalance in his nature. He has been fed vitamins and filled with energies that are beyond the capacity of his intellect to discipline. He has been treated to forms of education which have released him from inhibitions. His body is vigorous. His mind is childish. His soul has been almost completely neglected.

At any rate, let us look round the room.

The gentleman standing beside the fireplace with an almost untouched glass of whiskey beside him on the mantelpiece is Mr. A, a descendant of one of the great American families. There has never been an American Blue Book without several persons of his surname in it. He is poor and earns his living as an editor. He has had a classical education, has a sound and cultivated taste in literature, painting, and music; has not a touch of snobbery in him; is full of humor, courtesy, and wit. He was a lieutenant in the World War, is a Republican in politics, but voted twice for Roosevelt, last time for Willkie. He is modest, not particularly brilliant, a staunch friend, and a man who greatly enjoys the company of pretty and witty women. His wife, whom he adored, is dead, and he will never remarry.

He has never attracted any attention because of outstanding bravery. But I will put my hand in the fire that nothing on earth could ever make him a Nazi. He would greatly dislike fighting them, but they could never convert him. . . . Why not?

Beside him stands Mr. B, a man of his own class, graduate of the same preparatory school and university, rich, a sportsman, owner of a famous racing stable, vice-president of a bank, married to a well-known society belle. He is a good fellow and extremely popular. But if America were going Nazi he would certainly join up, and early. Why? . . . Why the one and not the other?

Mr. A has a life that is established according to a certain form of personal behavior. Although he has no money, his unostentatious distinction and education have always assured him a position. He has never been engaged in sharp competition. He is a free man. I doubt whether ever in his life he has done anything he did not want to do or anything that was against his code. Nazism wouldn’t fit in with his standards and he has never become accustomed to making concessions.

Mr. B has risen beyond his real abilities by virtue of health, good looks, and being a good mixer. He married for money and he has done lots of other things for money. His code is not his own; it is that of his class—no worse, no better, He fits easily into whatever pattern is successful. That is his sole measure of value—success. Nazism as a minority movement would not attract him. As a movement likely to attain power, it would.

The saturnine man over there talking with a lovely French emigree is already a Nazi. Mr. C is a brilliant and embittered intellectual. He was a poor white-trash Southern boy, a scholarship student at two universities where he took all the scholastic honors but was never invited to join a fraternity. His brilliant gifts won for him successively government positions, partnership in a prominent law firm, and eventually a highly paid job as a Wall Street adviser. He has always moved among important people and always been socially on the periphery. His colleagues have admired his brains and exploited them, but they have seldom invited him—or his wife—to dinner.

He is a snob, loathing his own snobbery. He despises the men about him—he despises, for instance, Mr. B—because he knows that what he has had to achieve by relentless work men like B have won by knowing the right people. But his contempt is inextricably mingled with envy. Even more than he hates the class into which he has insecurely risen, does he hate the people from whom he came. He hates his mother and his father for being his parents. He loathes everything that reminds him of his origins and his humiliations. He is bitterly anti-Semitic because the social insecurity of the Jews reminds him of his own psychological insecurity.

Pity he has utterly erased from his nature, and joy he has never known. He has an ambition, bitter and burning. It is to rise to such an eminence that no one can ever again humiliate him. Not to rule but to be the secret ruler, pulling the strings of puppets created by his brains. Already some of them are talking his language—though they have never met him.

There he sits: he talks awkwardly rather than glibly; he is courteous. He commands a distant and cold respect. But he is a very dangerous man. Were he primitive and brutal he would be a criminal—a murderer. But he is subtle and cruel. He would rise high in a Nazi regime. It would need men just like him—intellectual and ruthless. But Mr. C is not a born Nazi. He is the product of a democracy hypocritically preaching social equality and practicing a carelessly brutal snobbery. He is a sensitive, gifted man who has been humiliated into nihilism. He would laugh to see heads roll.

I think young D over there is the only born Nazi in the room. Young D is the spoiled only son of a doting mother. He has never been crossed in his life. He spends his time at the game of seeing what he can get away with. He is constantly arrested for speeding and his mother pays the fines. He has been ruthless toward two wives and his mother pays the alimony. His life is spent in sensation-seeking and theatricality. He is utterly inconsiderate of everybody. He is very good-looking, in a vacuous, cavalier way, and inordinately vain. He would certainly fancy himself in a uniform that gave him a chance to swagger and lord it over others.

Mrs. E would go Nazi as sure as you are born. That statement surprises you? Mrs. E seems so sweet, so clinging, so cowed. She is. She is a masochist. She is married to a man who never ceases to humiliate her, to lord it over her, to treat her with less consideration than he does his dogs. He is a prominent scientist, and Mrs. E, who married him very young, has persuaded herself that he is a genius, and that there is something of superior womanliness in her utter lack of pride, in her doglike devotion. She speaks disapprovingly of other “masculine” or insufficiently devoted wives. Her husband, however, is bored to death with her. He neglects her completely and she is looking for someone else before whom to pour her ecstatic self-abasement. She will titillate with pleased excitement to the first popular hero who proclaims the basic subordination of women.

On the other hand, Mrs. F would never go Nazi. She is the most popular woman in the room, handsome, gay, witty, and full of the warmest emotion. She was a popular actress ten years ago; married very happily; promptly had four children in a row; has a charming house, is not rich but has no money cares, has never cut herself off from her own happy-go-lucky profession, and is full of sound health and sound common sense. All men try to make love to her; she laughs at them all, and her husband is amused. She has stood on her own feet since she was a child, she has enormously helped her husband’s career (he is a lawyer), she would ornament any drawing-room in any capital, and she is as American as ice cream and cake.

II

How about the butler who is passing the drinks? I look at James with amused eyes. James is safe. James has been butler to the ‘ighest aristocracy, considers all Nazis parvenus and communists, and has a very good sense for “people of quality.” He serves the quiet editor with that friendly air of equality which good servants always show toward those they consider good enough to serve, and he serves the horsy gent stiffly and coldly.

Bill, the grandson of the chauffeur, is helping serve to-night. He is a product of a Bronx public school and high school, and works at night like this to help himself through City College, where he is studying engineering. He is a “proletarian,” though you’d never guess it if you saw him without that white coat. He plays a crack game of tennis—has been a tennis tutor in summer resorts—swims superbly, gets straight A’s in his classes, and thinks America is okay and don’t let anybody say it isn’t. He had a brief period of Youth Congress communism, but it was like the measles. He was not taken in the draft because his eyes are not good enough, but he wants to design airplanes, “like Sikorsky.” He thinks Lindbergh is “just another pilot with a build-up and a rich wife” and that he is “always talking down America, like how we couldn’t lick Hitler if we wanted to.” At this point Bill snorts.

Mr. G is a very intellectual young man who was an infant prodigy. He has been concerned with general ideas since the age of ten and has one of those minds that can scintillatingly rationalize everything. I have known him for ten years and in that time have heard him enthusiastically explain Marx, social credit, technocracy, Keynesian economics, Chestertonian distributism, and everything else one can imagine. Mr. G will never be a Nazi, because he will never be anything. His brain operates quite apart from the rest of his apparatus. He will certainly be able, however, fully to explain and apologize for Nazism if it ever comes along. But Mr. G is always a “deviationist.” When he played with communism he was a Trotskyist; when he talked of Keynes it was to suggest improvement; Chesterton’s economic ideas were all right but he was too bound to Catholic philosophy. So we may be sure that Mr. G would be a Nazi with purse-lipped qualifications. He would certainly be purged.

H is an historian and biographer. He is American of Dutch ancestry born and reared in the Middle West. He has been in love with America all his life. He can recite whole chapters of Thoreau and volumes of American poetry, from Emerson to Steve Benet. He knows Jefferson’s letters, Hamilton’s papers, Lincoln’s speeches. He is a collector of early American furniture, lives in New England, runs a farm for a hobby and doesn’t lose much money on it, and loathes parties like this one. He has a ribald and manly sense of humor, is unconventional and lost a college professorship because of a love affair. Afterward he married the lady and has lived happily ever afterward as the wages of sin.

H has never doubted his own authentic Americanism for one instant. This is his country, and he knows it from Acadia to Zenith. His ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War and in all the wars since. He is certainly an intellectual, but an intellectual smelling slightly of cow barns and damp tweeds. He is the most good-natured and genial man alive, but if anyone ever tries to make this country over into an imitation of Hitler’s, Mussolini’s, or Petain’s systems H will grab a gun and fight. Though H’s liberalism will not permit him to say it, it is his secret conviction that nobody whose ancestors have not been in this country since before the Civil War really understands America or would really fight for it against Nazism or any other foreign ism in a showdown.

But H is wrong. There is one other person in the room who would fight alongside H and he is not even an American citizen. He is a young German emigre, whom I brought along to the party. The people in the room look at him rather askance because he is so Germanic, so very blond-haired, so very blue-eyed, so tanned that somehow you expect him to be wearing shorts. He looks like the model of a Nazi. His English is flawed—he learned it only five years ago. He comes from an old East Prussian family; he was a member of the post-war Youth Movement and afterward of the Republican “Reichsbanner.” All his German friends went Nazi—without exception. He hiked to Switzerland penniless, there pursued his studies in New Testament Greek, sat under the great Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, came to America through the assistance of an American friend whom he had met in a university, got a job teaching the classics in a fashionable private school; quit, and is working now in an airplane factory—working on the night shift to make planes to send to Britain to defeat Germany. He has devoured volumes of American history, knows Whitman by heart, wonders why so few Americans have ever really read the Federalist papers, believes in the United States of Europe, the Union of the English-speaking world, and the coming democratic revolution all over the earth. He believes that America is the country of Creative Evolution once it shakes off its middle-class complacency, its bureaucratized industry, its tentacle-like and spreading government, and sets itself innerly free.

The people in the room think he is not an American, but he is more American than almost any of them. He has discovered America and his spirit is the spirit of the pioneers. He is furious with America because it does not realize its strength and beauty and power. He talks about the workmen in the factory where he is employed. . . . He took the job “in order to understand the real America.” He thinks the men are wonderful. “Why don’t you American in- tellectuals ever get to them; talk to them?”

I grin bitterly to myself, thinking that if we ever got into war with the Nazis he would probably be interned, while Mr. B and Mr. G and Mrs. E would be spreading defeatism at all such parties as this one. “Of course I don’t like Hitler but . . .”

Mr. J over there is a Jew. Mr. J is a very important man. He is immensely rich—he has made a fortune through a dozen directorates in various companies, through a fabulous marriage, through a speculative flair, and through a native gift for money and a native love of power. He is intelligent and arrogant. He seldom associates with Jews. He deplores any mention of the “Jewish question.” He believes that Hitler “should not be judged from the standpoint of anti-Semitism.” He thinks that “the Jews should be reserved on all political questions.” He considers Roosevelt “an enemy of business.” He thinks “It was a serious blow to the Jews that Frankfurter should have been appointed to the Supreme Court.”

The saturnine Mr. C—the real Nazi in the room—engages him in a flatteringly attentive conversation. Mr. J agrees with Mr. C wholly. Mr. J is definitely attracted by Mr. C. He goes out of his way to ask his name—they have never met before. “A very intelligent man.”

Mr. K contemplates the scene with a sad humor in his expressive eyes. Mr. K is also a Jew. Mr. K is a Jew from the South. He speaks with a Southern drawl. He tells inimitable stories. Ten years ago he owned a very successful business that he had built up from scratch. He sold it for a handsome price, settled his indigent relatives in business, and now enjoys an income for himself of about fifty dollars a week. At forty he began to write articles about odd and out-of-the-way places in American life. A bachelor, and a sad man who makes everybody laugh, he travels continually, knows America from a thousand different facets, and loves it in a quiet, deep, unostentatious way. He is a great friend of H, the biographer. Like H, his ancestors have been in this country since long before the Civil War. He is attracted to the young German. By and by they are together in the drawing-room. The impeccable gentleman of New England, the country-man—intellectual of the Middle West, the happy woman whom the gods love, the young German, the quiet, poised Jew from the South. And over on the other side are the others.

Mr. L has just come in. Mr. L is a lion these days. My hostess was all of a dither when she told me on the telephone, “ . . . and L is coming. You know it’s dreadfully hard to get him.” L is a very powerful labor leader. “My dear, he is a man of the people, but really fascinating.“ L is a man of the people and just exactly as fascinating as my horsy, bank vice-president, on-the-make acquaintance over there, and for the same reasons and in the same way. L makes speeches about the “third of the nation,” and L has made a darned good thing for himself out of championing the oppressed. He has the best car of anyone in this room; salary means nothing to him because he lives on an expense account. He agrees with the very largest and most powerful industrialists in the country that it is the business of the strong to boss the weak, and he has made collective bargaining into a legal compulsion to appoint him or his henchmen as “labor’s” agents, with the power to tax pay envelopes and do what they please with the money. L is the strongest natural-born Nazi in this room. Mr. B regards him with contempt tempered by hatred. Mr. B will use him. L is already parroting B’s speeches. He has the brains of Neanderthal man, but he has an infallible instinct for power. In private conversation he denounces the Jews as “parasites.” No one has ever asked him what are the creative functions of a highly paid agent, who takes a percentage off the labor of millions of men, and distributes it where and as it may add to his own political power.

III

It’s fun—a macabre sort of fun—this parlor game of “Who Goes Nazi?” And it simplifies things—asking the question in regard to specific personalities.

Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi. They may be the gentle philosopher whose name is in the Blue Book, or Bill from City College to whom democracy gave a chance to design airplanes—you’ll never make Nazis out of them. But the frustrated and humiliated intellectual, the rich and scared speculator, the spoiled son, the labor tyrant, the fellow who has achieved success by smelling out the wind of success—they would all go Nazi in a crisis.

Believe me, nice people don’t go Nazi. Their race, color, creed, or social condition is not the criterion. It is something in them.

Those who haven’t anything in them to tell them what they like and what they don’t-whether it is breeding, or happiness, or wisdom, or a code, however old-fashioned or however modern, go Nazi. It’s an amusing game. Try it at the next big party you go to.

New DOJ policies on illegal immigrants will benefit the private prison industry. || Michael Davis

Source: Money Is Thicker Than Blood

Trump knows he’s drowning. || Michael David

Source: The End of the Hustle

Trump’s last months in office. || Michael Davis

Source: The Crying of Lot 45

Reeling this morning from my all-Trump-all-the-time ulcer-inducing news feed of despair, I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing. I’ve been a compulsive news reader since I learned how. And, for the last few months, my morning habit has evolved into a kind of shamanic pathworking. Not the startup-bro takes ayahuasca at Burning Man to dream up new apps sort of thing. More like: I drank the cobra venom and I might be having an aneurysm but, if I live, I’ll probably learn something. Because that’s why we read the news, right? To learn something?

My wife walked into the room, looked at me breathing in front off the laptop, and walked out. After living with me for close to two decades, she deserves a merit badge for humanitarian service. I accept this. Nevertheless, we can’t bring ourselves to compromise on certain things—when the enfant terrible will be impeached, for instance, or when certain GOP representatives will disrobe and start flinging fecal matter at Rand Paul live on CSPAN. You can’t agree on everything.

But one thing we do agree on is that, after reading political posts for an hour, one should not look at emails, blogs, or news about the academic job market or the entertainment industry. Doing so inevitably weaponizes the cobra venom to such an extent that instead of a golden journey to Ixtlan with Don Juan, one finds oneself slipping down to Xibalba with the Lord of the Smoking Mirror. Ghost jaguars. Shrieking bats. Night winds. Tentacles. The American Healthcare Act. Steve Bannon in a bone necklace gesticulating at the moon. A real bad trip.

I was just about to read some Penelope Trunk on why it’s better to marry for money and get therapy instead of going to graduate school for an MFA when my wife came back in and asked me if I’d lost all sense.

“I’m, uh, reading.”

“Why do you do this to yourself?”

“Because, um—what am I reading? Shit!”

I was still in a trance. Penelope had already led me partway down to Tezcatlipoca’s Place of Fear and Torment. I closed her blog and the five newspapers I had open in the browser before I could go any further, but the damage had been done. You never emerge from a news pathworking unscathed.

For example, I’d read in the L.A. Times that Dave Chappelle just cut a $60 million dollar deal for 3 Netflix comedy specials at $20 million per special. And, in all honesty, I got the same feeling I’ve had in the past while reading about Trump filing Chapter 11 six times and defrauding his contractors while possibly laundering money for the Russian mob; Bannon and Puzder beating their wives; and a recently fired U.S. Attorney getting headhunted to teach at NYU as a sweet payoff in which he can “continue addressing the issues I so deeply care about.” Right.

There’s something sickening there, like justice has nothing to do with any of it—just graft and lots of vigorous lying. How many gold-plated toilets do any of them need? I got a very unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach as I tried not to think that such things exist in the same world as the famine in Sudan or North Korean death camps or the East Chicago water supply so full of lead that 1000 residents are being asked to relocate. Don’t play in the dirt, kids. Just Netflix and chill.

Still, reading about Chappelle was a nice break from the moral Andrea Doria taking place on Capitol Hill, even if the obscene payout did make me a bit nauseated. I think Dave Chappelle is one of the funniest people on the planet. He’s brilliant. There is a very small cadre of extremely talented comedians in the world, of which he might be the foremost member. Very few entertainers are on his level and he definitely deserves to get paid for his work. There’s no question about that. But $60 million on top of all the millions he’s already made seems a bit excessive, no? How about that children’s hospital in Sudan where so many children need help that “the hospital has run out of beds”? I wonder what a quarter of a million could do there? I wonder what $1000 could do.

If anything, the article on Chappelle caused me to start thinking philosophically about what an amount of money like that really means in the life of any individual. I know you can buy a lot of bottles of Pernod-Ricard Perrier-Jouet. And I know you can reach a level where everything becomes relative. If you’re partying with the rich and famous all the time, $60 million might still be an important chunk of change, but maybe it’s not as much, relatively speaking, as one imagines at $50,000 a bottle.

I find myself thinking, what if Dave took 2 of those $60 million (he’d still come away with $58 million, which would be enough to purchase several small islands and a Bavarian castle) and devoted that fragment of his inconceivable wealth to changing someone’s life or the lives of several people who could would clearly and directly benefit? What could be done for someone who can’t afford a prosthesis, for example, or someone living in a shelter who doesn’t have the resources to get back into the workforce, or a family in the Rust Belt living in a transient hotel because they lost their house? Such people aren’t hard to find right at home in the great United States.

Moreover, it may be that someone with over $60 million in the bank could easily hire the right assistants (a whole team, a task force, an entire building’s worth of henchmen and secretaries) to make something like that happen ricky tick. We’ve seen far stranger things in the media lately. We’re bound to see stranger things in the months to come.

Cool dude.

I know Dave has been involved in a lot of charitable events and donated his time to good causes—all of which is as admirable as his talent. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about direct action in the lives of people who would be forever changed. Is that naive? It’s certainly not as easy as giving a NGO a big tax-deductible donation or volunteering to participate in a charitable event. Then again, genius-level comedy isn’t easy, either. It takes guts, brilliance, a gift, and the determination to make it happen—just like anything good in life.

Someone in college once said to me, “Yeah, money can’t buy me love, but a certain amount of money will give me the power to make finding it more likely.” I thought about that for years before concluding that it was pure garbage. You can find love in a ghetto. You can find love in a refugee camp. You can find love after everything has been taken away and you think your life is over. As my wise grandmother used to say, “If someone loves you, they’ll come and spend time with you while you mop the floors in a slaughterhouse.”

That seems right. Quality is not quantity. And love, happiness, tranquility, and the satisfaction of doing good work are all priceless, being essentially internal achievements and therefore free to all human beings. But one thing money can do is create conditions for healing the world. And that matters, maybe more than anything. Why do I bring this up after too much Sean Spicer on a Wednesday afternoon? Because it’s been making me ask myself the same old question: What is good? And, once again, I must conclude that quality and quantity are mutually exclusive categories. Show me what you’re doing. Show me how you’re going to heal the world. Then I’ll tell you what’s good.

What is it like to be Dave Chappelle—to be a brilliant artist and to have so much money that it sets you apart from every other artist in your field, except for a very exclusive group of people who happen to be as fortunate and gifted as you are? I have no idea. I do know, like most people, I love his work. But, at the same time, I think of the dreams most people have of a little house with a dog and a garden somewhere quiet where they don’t have to live in fear, of no more crushing debts, of a dental plan, of their kids having reasonable chances to work for a decent future, and of some kind of profession that doesn’t produce night terrors. And I know what it isn’t like to be Chappelle.

These are very modest dreams, but they’re ones that most sincere people have. Most people don’t need half or a quarter of a million to realize such dreams. Most people don’t need or want a super yacht, don’t need to be on the board of the Bank of Cypress, don’t need a tower in midtown Manhattan with their names way up on top in gold. Shit, most people don’t even need tenure—even though the failed sideshow entertainer who passes for our President wants to destroy PBS and the NEA just for kicks; even though, for 30 years, the academic job market has been run by people who dress up in SS uniforms and burn offerings to Ronald Reagan in their secret masturbatoriums. But I know reading about such things is imprudent. It’s Paul Ryan’s Popul Vuh.

So I’ll be trying to detox from the news for the rest of the day. Maybe I’ll work on my novel while I wait for the next paid writing assignment to appear in my inbox like sweet life-sustaining mana from heaven. One thing I won’t be doing is reading any more about Dave Chappelle discovering El Dorado. Because I feel reasonably certain that today someone’s going to die because of money and it won’t be him.

 

classroomLong ago, I was an English teacher at a private high school in central California. It was a good, if demanding, job and unlike many of my colleagues, I seemed to manage occasional moments of non-misery in the workplace. In fact, the two years I spent working there taught me more about human nature than two decades of university teaching, freelance writing, and working abroad ever did.

Without a doubt, teaching over 100 adolescents each semester schooled me not only in how people will behave when going through some of the worst years of their lives but the extent to which many parents are feverishly inadequate when it comes to raising kids. With respect to family, no one wants to admit they have no clue what they’re doing. Everyone must pretend things are running smoothly and they’re in complete control.

I found this pretense interesting, particularly during parent-teacher conferences when ashamed, bewildered parents would whisper, “What do you think I should do?” as if my ability to manage large groups of adolescents somehow qualified me to give them advice. At first, I would explain that my two degrees in English plus minor gifts in speaking in front of people and writing did not mean I had a solution to why Jimmy couldn’t sit still or why Leticia cried through every class and felt compelled to layer everything around her in Purell, or why Leo circulated pictures of his girlfriend’s vagina. Over time, I developed a less draining response: “I do not know.” All Quiet on the Western Front may prepare us to think about the meaning of war, but it will not prepare us for Leo’s girlfriend’s vagina.

I suspected then, as I still do, that confronting such situations is not within the job description of a high school English teacher. But maybe, in the hundreds of outrageous situations in which I found myself in that job, I could have done more. The questions I ask myself now are the questions many parents asked me then: what should I have done? Was there anything to be done at all? There must be an expert somewhere, a veteran administrator or someone with a PhD in education theory, who can speak to this. Maybe a prison psychologist.

I wish I could believe that. In spite of my lingering questions, I think I’ve come to believe the opposite: there actually are no rules—not just for teaching or parenting, but for any area of human experience. A friend once said to me when we were going through our own high school torment: “This is the meaning of life: we all suck and we’re nothing.” I don’t think he fully appreciated how profound that statement was when he said it. 27 years later, I’m still seeing it prove out.

We all suck: no one—and I mean this in the broadest, most inclusive, most general sense—actually knows what they’re doing to the extent that assumptions and judgment calls are unnecessary. Perfect human understanding does not exist and human error is ubiquitous. Even our attempts at artificial intelligence are subject to our limited assumptions about what intelligence actually is (or can be). What can we know beyond a shadow of a doubt? The truth is: nothing, unfortunately.

Surely an engineer will feel confident that, say, as energy is transformed or transferred, an increasing amount of it is wasted. Surely something as dependable and consistent as a physical law (in this case, the Second Law of Thermodynamics) is immutable, absolute, not a matter for interpretation. But even something as ironclad as a law of physics is not without its exceptions. Some things are givens within the parameters of a particular knowledge paradigm, but those givens are always relative to and dependent upon the parameters themselves.

For example, within the agreed-upon bounds of thermodynamic theory, basic laws obtain as a reliable set of rules for the behavior of energy, entropy, and temperature at thermal equilibrium. But we also know that even within that theoretical framework, an empirical finding like the Second Law is subject to exceptions. In 2002, researchers at the Australian National University, in a paper entitled, “Experimental Demonstration of Violations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics for Small Systems and Short Time Scales,” found that “systems can undergo fleeting energy increases that seem to violate the venerable law.” And while this is only one small example, it is by no means isolated or anomalous to the extent that we could dismiss all such exceptions out of hand.

In fact, our entire narrative of scientific progress is predicated on discoveries which alter existing assumptions about how the world works. As Thomas Kuhn observes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world.” The scientific narrative changes. Because it was always a narrative, never an unassailable, omniscient catalogue.

Nothing is beyond interpretation, not even the bedrock assumptions of our most materialistic sciences. Rather, ways of knowing amount to best possible premises always subject to discourse and development over time (to say nothing of the complexities of the information technology we rely on to document and transmit that discourse). We do the best we can. We develop and codify optimal principles for a given field. And then we work with those principles until we encounter a paradigm-disruptive discovery that forces us to revise our theories.

But we’re nothing: Even the most qualified and intellectually responsible claims are part of a conversation (discourse) which is grounded in work that came before and which will be superseded by discoveries and realizations that follow. In many cases, an individual contribution to any field is no greater than a minuscule inch forward with vastly disproportionate implications.

Still, there are careers to develop and Cessnas to purchase and grants to chase and colleagues to slander and books to write and mistresses to support and students to convince. In Polishing the Mirror, the guru Ram Dass—then a social psychology professor named Richard Alpert—describes what he felt was a hollowness at the center of western academia:

In 1961, I was thirty and at the height of my academic career. I had a PhD from Stanford University, and I was a professor of social relations at Harvard. I had arrived at a pinnacle of life as I thought it should be, professionally, socially, and economically. But inside there remained an emptiness—a feeling that, with all I had, something was still missing. Here I was at Harvard, the mecca of the intellect. But when I looked into the eyes of my peers, wondering “Do you know?” I saw in their eyes that what I was looking for was nowhere to be found. In a social or family setting, people looked up to me and hung on my every word because I was a Harvard professor, and they clearly assumed that I knew. But to me, the nature of life remained a mystery.

In Ram Dass’ use of the term, we “do not know” much about the world in any absolute sense. We cannot know because our intellectual tools are as finite as the time we have in which to use them. This is not to argue that we should be content with ignorance. But it is a way to foreground a simple suggestion: speculation is absolutely necessary when it comes to developing knowledge.

Assumptions are necessary. Ultimately, belief is necessary. Kuhn, at least, seems to agree: “Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like.” This seems reasonable not just in science but in any field of human activity.

So what remains to be done if we can never fully know our world and ourselves? Everything! Our inability to attain perfect understanding is no reason to abandon the pursuit of outer and inner knowledge. Rather, it leads us to an acceptance of our limitations as individuals and as a species and, in that acceptance, a very personal yet very real sense of freedom.

Maybe the right answer to those parents who wanted advice should have been: you already know how to raise your kids because what you think is best will be the best you can possibly do. Maybe, as my high school friend seemed to imply back in 1989, we are not static, monolithic, isolate objects. We are no thing.

Instead, we are dynamic, dialectic, fluid collaborations—living syntheses of what was known in the past and what will be discovered in the future. Maybe “discourse” is the most accurate metaphor for human experience. If so, all we can do is try to engage in life’s conversation as robustly as possible. Maybe there are no rules beyond that.

“Baby,” I said, “I’m a genius but nobody knows it but me.” 
― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

These are strange times to be an American. || Michael Davis

Source: Planespotting and the Persistence of Facts

Sally Yates at Carter Center

Woke up this morning thinking about Sally Yates—how standing up to President Trump seems to have dramatically influenced the course of her life, how I’ve watched part of her emotional transformation through social media, specifically Twitter, and how her public narrative seems to reveal and confirm things I’ve suspected about the nature of personal meaning and career.

She seems to be undergoing a kind of emotional rebirth.  As someone who works primarily in the emotional mind—emotional intelligence being the primary resource for teaching and doing creative writing—I have learned to recognize when someone is emerging into a deeper, more meaningful emotional life.  She certainly is, even if only by a slight degree.

Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning consistently seems to prove out: it doesn’t matter what we do or where we are as long as we can find or create meaning for ourselves.  And so I return to the question of my own career, my own meaning.  When I think back to the teaching I have done, I’m faced with the choice of believing that most of my professional life has been meaningful vs. meaningless.  Obviously, I prefer to think my work has made some kind of difference.

It’s hard to believe in things I cannot see, but I have to nurture a certain degree of faith in the teaching and writing I’ve done.   Sally Yates, someone who has lived primarily in the analytical mind, is now at the beginning of something new—one hopes, something emotionally significant and transformative.  To see someone publicly come into being like this is to bear witness to a largely unnoticed dimension of human experience.  It’s something that sincere teachers get to see more often than any other profession. 

But my personal question remains: how am I coming into being?  Just as someone with Yates’ background and skill set might step into a more intuitive life (by running for public office instead of remaining in the legal-bureaucratic infrastructure), I bear the responsibility for my own development.  Where am I going now?  What’s next?  The future is never fixed, never certain.

More developments are emerging regarding Trump’s Russian connections – a new post on Splice Today.  Read it here: http://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/sater-cohen-and-the-collapsing-house-of-cards

trumppressSpeak of the Devil: Journalism in the Trump Era

Good nutritious narrative angst from yours truly…

Fun news: I just published my 32nd piece of short magazine fiction, this time in Ink & Coda magazine.  You can read it for free on their website: http://www.inkandcoda.com/issues/4-1/bora-bora/.

Best wishes to everyone in 2017!

 

 

 

028

We come into the world screaming and it remains for us to learn how to impose order on our experiences such that we can live in a reasonable way. We could say that adult life comes down to whether we have behaved reasonably, according to the information available. In the tension between what we know (including perhaps what we should know) and what we do, agreed upon behavioral standards emerge as a social foundation.

This seems obvious, but the question as to what constitutes reasonable behavior (and, by extension, right action) is always a matter for interpretation. The standard of a “reasonable person” for determining negligence, at least in U.S. civil law, usually goes like this:

The so-called reasonable person in the law of negligence is a creation of legal fiction. Such a “person” is really an ideal, focusing on how a typical person, with ordinary prudence, would act in certain circumstances. The test as to whether a person has acted as a reasonable person is an objective one, and so it does not take into account the specific abilities of a defendant. Thus, even a person who has low intelligence or is chronically careless is held to the same standard as a more careful person or a person of higher intelligence.

A jury generally decides whether a defendant has acted as a reasonable person would have acted. In making this decision, the jury generally considers the defendant’s conduct in light of what the defendant actually knows, has experienced, or has perceived. (http://bit.ly/2fWFUqi)

When this is effective, the reasonable person standard incorporates social assumptions about “ordinary prudence” (aka common sense) and still allows for the particular situation of the defendant, creating polarity between the ideal and the real, insofar as the court is able to imagine these things. In other words, we try to come up with a standard for what should have been done and then ask whether the individual in question could / should have followed suit.

Due to its flexibility, however, the standard can lead to what may seem like odd or inappropriate conclusions. And as useful as it may be, sometimes we can’t help but suspect that any attempt to establish reasonability will still be rooted in the arbitrary biases and popular assumptions of those involved. It calls to mind the old philistine response to art: we don’t know what art is, but we know what we like. Similarly, we don’t always know what reasonability is, but we always like to think we know what we would have probably done. And just as this remains a difficult question for the courts, it remains a difficult question in every individual life.

Birth is painful—the first, most profound lesson we are taught by our mothers. Every subsequent lesson, whether taught to us by family, friends, or schools, is a matter of determining and enacting reasonability in a particular context. This may often be just as painful as giving birth, but it’s something we must do and something most of us do automatically. It is equally necessary in the life of a chemical engineer, an entrepreneur, an impresario, and a stay-at-home mom. When undertaking anything, we have to ask: What are the best practices? What are the best premises? How should we proceed according to what we already know? Our overall effectiveness depends on how we answer these questions and put the answers into practice.

Again, this is all very obvious on its face; though, the questions become more difficult and complex when someone raises “policy.” Policy comes into play in arguments where “each party offers plausible interpretations of the law. In this situation, the judge may then decide the case on the basis of the social goals that the decision will promote, and the purposes behind the particular rules” (http://bit.ly/2f3JC0c). Simply put: we may not only ask what should have been done and whether the person could / should have followed suit. We may also ask whether this is the sort of behavioral standard we want to encourage. As the old saying goes, “If you can’t argue the facts, argue the law. If you can’t argue the law, argue the facts. And if you can’t argue either, argue the best policy.”

Such determinations are challenging in established courts with rules for how arguments are made. It’s that much harder to determine reasonability and best policy in private organizations that require everyone to accept the group’s ideological viewpoint before discussion can even take place. Courts of law are bound to examine a broad range of ethical, political, and social policy considerations, whereas private groups—even those that are extremely large and diverse—need only keep their narrow institutional assumptions in mind when determining what should be.

For example, while one might argue against punishment in a particular case because it could invite a deluge of frivolous litigation (and it is good policy to discourage frivolous litigation in our already overburdened courts), a religious tribunal might decide that the same party should be punished because they are in violation of holy law. To the religious court, the highest standard of reasonability, and therefore the most beneficial policy, rests on scripture, which is the ultimate value and authority, no matter whether this is at variance with the values of mainstream culture.

With this in mind, the members of such organizations find themselves faced with an important question: are the beliefs of the organization more persuasive, i.e. more reasonable, than those of mainstream society? This opens up additional problematic questions, like: is there something unreasonable in mainstream assumptions as I have come to understand them? Is that what led me to this organization (with its alternate viewpoint)? Do I have the knowledge and insight to make a reasonable choice now that I’m in this organization? Did I have the requisite knowledge and insight when I decided to join?

In this, as in so many other things, only lived experience and its results can provide clarity. In other words, when trying to decide what a reasonable person would do and the best policies that should support that behavior, one must look to the “real world”—to what passes for objective material existence—as the only reliable test.

For instance, it’s all well and good to believe that if you pray to the tooth fairy, she’ll bring you a plate of peppermint candies at midnight. It may be more pleasant to believe in a world where that could happen, but believing doesn’t make it so—doesn’t make it a feature of lived, objective, material existence. And if you choose to sincerely believe that this is going to happen, you shouldn’t be disappointed when you don’t see the peppermints in the morning. So one comes back to the necessity of testing one’s assumptions in the laboratory of everyday life.

Saying this presupposes that it is more reasonable to behave in a way that squares with lived experience and to found one’s assumptions on observable, material phenomena. In other words, it is reasonable to assume there is an objective, physical reality that is more or less dependable. Some things prove out, again and again, when we do them. If you put your hand in the flame, your hand will burn.

Without falling into Cartesian hypotheticals about external forces capable of conditioning our perceptions, we can say that ideologically driven organizations run into difficulties when the foundational assumptions of these groups do not prove out in lived experience. Most religions have this problem, but also cults, social clubs, governments, corporations, and private societies do as well.

The question for the individual remains, no matter what group’s set of assumptions are being used: what is the most reasonable standard of behavior? How to do I know? And what should I do when I’m satisfied that I do know?

So here are a few questions you can ask yourself if changing times make you feel like your beliefs are in jeopardy: What groups have you joined? What is your “reality tunnel”? What is the reasonable person standard of these groups? What biases and assumptions do they contain? How do you think they contrast with the standards of mainstream society? What values do these standards reveal? What “best policies” are implied? Where and how do you lack the knowledge to answer these questions? Are there obstacles to gaining this knowledge? What are they and why are they in place?

Maybe the most important question is: how has your lived experience supported / refuted the assumptions about reasonable behavior in your political party, cult, religion, club, society, or corporation? If your lived experience has nothing to do with what you’re being asked to believe, you might want to make some changes.

We get up in the morning for a grande latte enema. || Michael Davis

Source: A Good Day to Die

In the wake of Trump’s victory, we must keep asking, “What now?” || Michael Davis

Source: When the World’s Turned Upside Down

Rise up. Create. Raise awareness. Raise consciousness. Build understanding. Drop the empty rhetoric of your “party” and focus on understanding. See the possibilities of becoming more than what you are. Recognize this in others. It’s not about religion. It’s not about tribe. It’s about art, expression, the grassroots potentialities that emerge as every person’s birthright–if we only pay attention. It’s about you and me. How can we come together? How can we build something excellent? The tools, the powers are right here, available, free.

voting-booth-polling-place-voters

It’s 4:30 AM as I begin to write this. I’ve already been up for an hour. I’m not sleeping that much these days. Over the last 48 hours, I’ve lost friends, given a lot of advice, gotten advice, been told off, and been accused of hypocrisy for taking a political stand while using the term “antinomian” to describe myself. But I think people misunderstand.

The broad definition of “antinomianism” (originally a Protestant term used to mean that divine grace releases one from the need to follow secular law) can be used to indicate spiritual non-conformity, not necessarily secular or political non-conformity. And whenever I use the term “spiritual,” I’m talking about consciousness, becoming more conscious and less under the sway of conformist culture. That is my spirituality—to become more conscious, to wake up to the vertiginous complexity and potential of everyday life as I’m living it and, in that never-ending process, to make the world reflect my best qualities.

Therefore, being anti-nomos (against law) is, for me, an internal, subjective stance, which may find expression in the objective-world choices I make, but which begins in the mind and heart. In this sense, the usage of the term is a lot like what Emerson means when he writes that “every revolution was first a thought in one man’s mind.” Inwardly rejecting the “normalization” exerted by conformist culture is anti-nomos; it amounts to a spiritual revolution.

That said, I do not believe that abstaining from voting and posting cynical, defensive statements about the political system does a bit of good. Not participating in the political process is, in my opinion, the height of stupidity and the position of default conformity. It is rooted in fear of having to make a choice and having to take an external, painful, perhaps terrifying objective-world position. Further, I believe it expresses weakness of character.

True spiritual antinomianism is to find what you truly believe, what expresses your most deeply cherished values and then work to make those values manifest in the world. It mandates work and, in light of recent events, it definitely mandates political involvement, even if such involvement amounts to voting for a third-party candidate or writing one in. Non-participation hands power and its jurisdiction over to others. It is the ultimate capitulation to conformist culture. It is opting out of the hard work of citizenship. And it is irresponsible to one’s Self, to that degree of consciousness one already possesses.

I’ve been posting two kinds of things for the last few days: news items critical of Trump and music. Because that’s where I am emotionally right now. I’m still processing what I feel is my country’s latest, greatest political blunder. I’m also questioning whether I should never return to the United States or whether the next opportunity for me to become more conscious lies in that direction.

Many of you saw me write, before the onslaught of private messages (both supportive and accusatory), that I wouldn’t be returning to the States again. I still feel that way, still completely averse to the decision my country has made to choose the worst, most disastrous candidate for President. But I’m also beginning to wonder whether that pain, that aversion, is a meaningful indicator from “myself to my Self,” i.e. from that inward part of me always on the lookout for ways to become more awake, more conscious, and less subject to groupthink.

It brings to mind two myths of Odin. In exchange for wisdom, he sacrifices one of his eyes for a drink from Mimir’s well, which will impart ultimate knowledge. It’s a deep myth in the sense that it contains layers of meaning (among others, consider the implication of gaining insight and yet seeing with one eye instead of two). And yet the value of an eye is undeniable. How far would we go to obtain internal gifts at the expense of our external bodies?

The second myth comes from the Havamal, an old Norse poem from the Viking age: “I know that I hung, on a windy tree, for all of nine nights, wounded with a spear, and given to Ódinn, myself to myself, on that tree, which no man knows, from what roots it runs.” In order to obtain the Runes, Odin submits to a nine-night ordeal, again making an external sacrifice for an inward gain, the Runes symbolizing, among other things, the power to create meaning through language.

In both of these and in many similar world myths and legends, we find the theme of pain as a doorway to greater consciousness. And deliberately, consciously embracing such pain when it arises is nearly always anti-nomos, in direct violation of the Pleasure Principle that delimits popular opinion and what passes for common sense.

So I’m still exploring these ideas, but I can tell you one thing: voting in a legal election is revolutionary in the most profound sense. However, in the aftermath of a failed revolution, one does not dig one’s grave in accordance with the wishes of those in authority. If one seeks to act politically as a conscious revolutionary instead of reacting obediently as a sleepwalker, one practices discernment in moments like this. One looks inward and asks, “What’s next? What’s best? What will make me more conscious? What can I do to raise the consciousness of others and thereby make the world a better reflection of my best qualities?”

There’s a lot of work to be done, I think.

Read the Letter Aaron Sorkin Wrote His Daughter After Donald Trump Was Elected President

The Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Social Network and mastermind behind The West Wing reacts to Donald Trump being elected the 45th president of the United States in a moving letter written to his 15-year-old daughter Roxy and her mother Julia Sorkin.

Well the world changed late last night in a way I couldn’t protect us from. That’s a terrible feeling for a father. I won’t sugarcoat it—this is truly horrible. It’s hardly the first time my candidate didn’t win (in fact it’s the sixth time) but it is the first time that a thoroughly incompetent pig with dangerous ideas, a serious psychiatric disorder, no knowledge of the world and no curiosity to learn has.

And it wasn’t just Donald Trump who won last night—it was his supporters too. The Klan won last night. White nationalists. Sexists, racists and buffoons. Angry young white men who think rap music and Cinco de Mayo are a threat to their way of life (or are the reason for their way of life) have been given cause to celebrate. Men who have no right to call themselves that and who think that women who aspire to more than looking hot are shrill, ugly, and otherwise worthy of our scorn rather than our admiration struck a blow for misogynistic shitheads everywhere. Hate was given hope. Abject dumbness was glamorized as being “the fresh voice of an outsider” who’s going to “shake things up.” (Did anyone bother to ask how? Is he going to re-arrange the chairs in the Roosevelt Room?) For the next four years, the President of the United States, the same office held by Washington and Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, F.D.R., J.F.K. and Barack Obama, will be held by a man-boy who’ll spend his hours exacting Twitter vengeance against all who criticize him (and those numbers will be legion). We’ve embarrassed ourselves in front of our children and the world.

And the world took no time to react. The Dow futures dropped 7,000 points overnight. Economists are predicting a deep and prolonged recession. Our NATO allies are in a state of legitimate fear. And speaking of fear, Muslim-Americans, Mexican-Americans and African-Americans are shaking in their shoes. And we’d be right to note that many of Donald Trump’s fans are not fans of Jews. On the other hand, there is a party going on at ISIS headquarters. What wouldn’t we give to trade this small fraction of a man for Richard Nixon right now?

So what do we do?

First of all, we remember that we’re not alone. A hundred million people in America and a billion more around the world feel exactly the same way we do.

Second, we get out of bed. The Trumpsters want to see people like us (Jewish, “coastal elites,” educated, socially progressive, Hollywood…) sobbing and wailing and talking about moving to Canada. I won’t give them that and neither will you. Here’s what we’ll do…

…we’ll fucking fight. (Roxy, there’s a time for this kind of language and it’s now.) We’re not powerless and we’re not voiceless. We don’t have majorities in the House or Senate but we do have representatives there. It’s also good to remember that most members of Trump’s own party feel exactly the same way about him that we do. We make sure that the people we sent to Washington—including Kamala Harris—take our strength with them and never take a day off.

We get involved. We do what we can to fight injustice anywhere we see it—whether it’s writing a check or rolling up our sleeves. Our family is fairly insulated from the effects of a Trump presidency so we fight for the families that aren’t. We fight for a woman to keep her right to choose. We fight for the First Amendment and we fight mostly for equality—not for a guarantee of equal outcomes but for equal opportunities. We stand up.

America didn’t stop being America last night and we didn’t stop being Americans and here’s the thing about Americans: Our darkest days have always—always—been followed by our finest hours.

Roxy, I know my predictions have let you down in the past, but personally, I don’t think this guy can make it a year without committing an impeachable crime. If he does manage to be a douche nozzle without breaking the law for four years, we’ll make it through those four years. And three years from now we’ll fight like hell for our candidate and we’ll win and they’ll lose and this time they’ll lose for good. Honey, it’ll be your first vote.

The battle isn’t over, it’s just begun. Grandpa fought in World War II and when he came home this country handed him an opportunity to make a great life for his family. I will not hand his granddaughter a country shaped by hateful and stupid men. Your tears last night woke me up, and I’ll never go to sleep on you again.

Love,

Dad

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First dig two graves. I think Confucius said that. But nobody started off by saying I wanted to stab my girlfriend and bury her in the backyard, but I was reading Confucius. So I dug two graves. Instead, they usually began with I really don’t remember. I’m not too clear on what happened. It was a mistake. It was an accident. I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t do it. I did it, but she had it coming. She begged me to do it. I don’t remember digging. I didn’t dig. I’m on meds. I walk in my sleep. I’d had some drinks, Ambien, Klonopin. I couldn’t have done it. If I did it, I didn’t mean it. I didn’t do it but, if you say so, I don’t know. Maybe.

They started all kinds of ways, but they usually finished the same: You need to understand. If you’d been in my shoes. If you were me. If you only knew. You’d have done it, too. They wanted you to see, to make sure you understood, it could have been you. So put a No. 2 pencil through the left eye of your cousin because he took your favorite CD and then say, you’d have done the same thing. How can you say you wouldn’t?

On April 6, 2010, I sat in a motel room in Denver, watching people say this over and over. It was my last year of graduate school and because I’d picked up a paralegal certificate along the way to my PhD, I’d gotten a job transcribing around 100 digitized police interviews for a defense attorney’s office. The original transcriptions had been lost and they were desperate. I told myself it was just another job because it paid like one. But it wasn’t. It was a journey through human dread and pain. Watching those confessions brought back my nightmares, then my relentless insomnia, then my chain smoking, then a depression so thick and wide I felt like I was drowning.

I’d driven out from Kalamazoo, Michigan, two days before in a rented Ford Econoline 150 that I’d meant to use as a living space while I attended the AWP Writer’s Conference at the Colorado Convention Center. The van was completely empty except for the driver’s seat and some bungee cords. I had a sleeping bag, a cardboard box full of books, some clothes, my backpack, and a laptop. The Conference was four days long. I planned on driving over to the hotel every morning, then relocating to a distant parking lot every evening. It was a good plan in theory.

But I felt shaken when I saw the van start moving towards the interstate at a rest stop somewhere in Nebraska. I barely reached it before it rolled into traffic. And even though I’d found a cinder block to put under one of the wheels, I couldn’t relax after that. I kept imagining it going head-on into a family of six. So when I got to Denver, I found the cheapest motel room I could, charged it to my sad broken credit card, put the van in their empty asphalt lot out back with boulders and cinder blocks under all four wheels, and tried to calm down. I told myself at least I wouldn’t be sleeping inside it when the family went boom.

My memory of that time is intensely vivid. I’d never been to Denver before. And, though it was my third AWP Conference, I’d decided that this was the one that mattered. I was about to get my PhD in English; I was waiting on several university job interviews and had one lined up at the Conference; and it was possible, against all odds and popular opinion, that my career plans were actually going to work out. I just needed a little more cash. Hence, the transcriptions. I had a deadline, an envelope of flash drives, and a supervising attorney who never returned my emails. I was transcribing about ten interviews and confessions every day. And I was starting to feel not right the way one feels after watching Triumph of the Will or the 2016 presidential debates: this can’t be real.

I suppose I’ve been thinking about Denver because my old friend, Theo, emailed me the other day while I was watching the final Trump-Clinton debate. The last time I saw him was six years ago at AWP. So the fact that he emailed me suddenly, after so long, was surprising all on its own. But I opened Theo’s email right when Trump started talking about Clinton being okay with ripping babies from their mothers’ wombs, right as I was starting to feel the old out-of-control nightmare anxiety rising in my chest, the sense that things were not right, that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Theo wanted to know how I was liking Kentucky, if I was still writing, why he hadn’t seen me at any conferences. I thought, Kentucky? And then I remembered. That was the interview I’d had at the 2010 AWP, a small regional college located close to the Tennessee state line. While Trump was saying, “In the ninth month. On the final day,” I looked at Theo’s paragraph and thought, this is what he remembers about me. This is what motivated him to write to me after six years. Trump says, “That’s not acceptable,” and I think, Jesus Christ.

How do you make a true confession? You sit in an interview room at the police station, sometimes in a hotel room or a conference room. White walls. Simple table or none at all. It’s not often an interrogation room. It’s for interviews. It’s small and everything is plastic, metal, Formica. Maybe people walk around in the background. Maybe it’s completely quiet. Lean forward in the steel chair that’s bolted down and doesn’t swivel. Fold your hands on the table that comes directly out of the wall. Start off with: “I’m not sure. I don’t remember.” And even though he’s recording what you’re saying, he’s also nodding and jotting it down on a steno under your name, which tonight is something normal, like Jim. He notes that you have a wandering right eye, a cleft lip, and a green tattoo of a cat on the side of your neck. He notes this in spite of the fact that it has already been noted in your file because he’s bored. But you’re thinking, trying to remember. You’re a bit stunned. You think you can talk your way out of this.

File after file, story after story, it only got worse. Around 9:00 AM on the first day of the Conference, I found myself in the back row, watching a panel discussion entitled “Decolonizing Poetics: Womanism and the Art of Decolonization.” As I sat there, I listened with my right headphone to a man explain how he pulled his brother out of their burning vehicle. He’d been driving, had a BAC off the chart. He said he didn’t know his brother was dead. And in my left ear: poetry’s essential role in the decolonization of bodies from centuries of white supremacist, capitalist, heteronormative intrusion. It was hard for me to concentrate on the evils of patriarchal hegemony while listening to someone crying, saying I didn’t know. How could I know? And the detective saying, I understand. Take your time. I was typing furiously on my laptop in order to keep up. People thought I was taking lots of notes on the decolonization of la mujer.

The room was packed, which was good. My undergraduate creative writing students from Kalamazoo wouldn’t be able see me from the hall. I was in no shape to interact with them. Of course, I hadn’t slept. Around 3:00 AM, I’d watched The Mothman Prophecies in the motel room, probably not the best thing to do, given my state of mind. But it’s one of those movies you can sink into, like Blade Runner, Vertigo, or Chinatown—movies I always keep with me, maybe just to have them playing in the background while I’m doing something else. I’d shut the laptop in the middle of a deposition involving a juvenile accused of multiple homicide. Even though I’d only transcribed about one-fourth of the files and I was half a week behind, I just had to stop for a while. I smoked a pack of Camel Lights and watched John Klein have creepy phone conversations with Indrid Cold until the sun came up.

The supreme irrelevance of the panel discussions at AWP is a thing of legend. After 90 minutes of decolonization, I remember meeting Theo on the mezzanine, where we drank vending machine coffee and read the Conference program. “Play Ball: the Language of Sports,” “The Writer as Literary Outsider,” “Bollywood, Bullets, and Beyond,” “What’s Not Funny About Serious Disease?” “The Person Within Myself.” I thought they were hilarious and stupid, but Theo was upset. He took everything seriously and was trying to figure out why he’d flown to Colorado just to listen to low-rung literary celebrities talk about whether they wrote on a word processor or with a pen. I told him I’d heard there was going to be a meet-and-greet with some Big Six agents from New York. But Theo just looked at me. No one was going to be interested in his book-length memoir about teaching English in Guam.

Theo was skinny, had bushy brown hair, and wore ripped thrift store clothing, whether from choice or necessity I never knew. He also smoked but wasn’t concerned with quitting. I think he needed to smoke because, in his own very quiet, withdrawn way, he was just as stressed out as me, maybe more. He was about to hit the job market with no publications, no interviews, one composition class of which he’d been the teacher of record, and a six-year PhD in English that he’d financed mostly through private loans. I never asked why he’d done it like that or what he planned to do after we earned our degrees, but his protracted silences and occasional outbursts didn’t militate in favor of wine and roses. Instead, he sat across from me, slurping chemical coffee and shaking his head: “’Aroused, Parched, and Fevered: the Translation of Sexual Poetry?’ Goddammit. Why am I here?”

I didn’t have an answer. I was there for the interview. That was my reason and I felt it was a good one, maybe the only legitimate motivation one could have for going to AWP.

He stood up, said he was going to go wander around the area, maybe find a bar where he wouldn’t have to see perspiring writers handing each other business cards. I watched him walk down the convention center mezzanine as long as a football field. I didn’t know it at the time, but his brother had been involved with a conservative group demonstrating against the “Ground Zero Mosque” that was supposed to have been built near the site of the former World Trade Center. Theo was constantly talking about how crazy the Tea Party was, about how Obama couldn’t get anything accomplished because of GOP obstruction. At the time, I think we all felt that American politics couldn’t get any more embattled. And Theo seemed to suffer from the political upheavals that year the way we all do now, worrying that no one is capable of guiding us away from self-destruction, that our world is careening out of control.

I put my time in. My interview wasn’t until lunch the next day. So I drifted through random poetry readings and panel discussions, across the book fair area where small presses and magazines had tables covered with all the books they’d published that year. Lost Nose Quarterly. The Dingus. Barbaric Yawp. Boilerplate Cadenza Press. And then the big trade houses, tables manned by the best dressed interns in the world who’d drawn the short straw and had to sit there glowering at peons all day.

I knew a few people, grad students from my university, professors, employees of magazines that had published my stories over the years. I was happy to see a few of them. But I didn’t talk much. I simply exchanged nods or a quick word, keeping my distance. This is because AWP is a place of reckoning for most English studies people. You will inevitably notice your friends and colleagues there in the process of making horrible life-wrecking decisions. For example, if you’re going to walk around with your girlfriend where people will notice and tell your wife all about it, why not let it be at the world’s biggest book fair and writer’s conference?

I remember colliding with a professor I’d known for years, who normally dressed like Agatha Christie, but that day was done up in black leather and heels. A wispy undergrad who’d been unsuccessfully attempting a mustache was holding onto her arm with both hands.

“It’s you.”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s me.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I have an interview.”

She did a double take. Her companion looked from her to me the way one watches a flying squirrel jump from tree to tree. It’s alien and incomprehensible and a bit unnatural. But we’re all mammals, so one has to look.

“You do?”

“Yes.”

It seemed crazy to her that someone could be considering me for an actual job. I recall telling her where and seeing the look of relief on her face when she realized it was somewhere far away from anywhere she would be. Why? This happened a lot in my world and not just with me. It was as if people were living in pampered, self-congratulatory reality bubbles. And, when those bubbles collided, there was immense cognitive dissonance, distaste, even dread. I must have been a destructive force to her—someone presenting a very unflattering reflection. All that black leather. She’d bought it for a reason and I was ruining her cosplay experience with young Werther.

She mumbled out something like good luck and moved into the crowd, pulling Werther along with her. I watched her go, feeling grateful that Theo hadn’t been there to analyze, for an hour, why she and the kid and the conversation we just had was so fucked up. But that year everything was fucked up, painful, riddled with lies and disappointments.

At the same time, I was learning that the way to make a true confession is to believe there is a truth and you know it. There’s what happened. There’s what you think might have happened. And there’s what you confess. It doesn’t matter if you’re the only person left alive, the only one who saw, the only one who’s supposed to know. You’re being asked to tell a story. So you do.

Jim’s interview is long, full of silences, false starts, retractions. The detective has gone from uninterested to barely awake, murmuring his questions from behind the camera.

“I’m coming out of the Elbow Room,” Jim says. “It’s late. They kicked us all out at bar time. And that’s when I see Sean. He’s got a board.”

“A board?”

“Yeah, like a board with some nails pounded in it. And I say, ‘When you gonna give me back my Steel Wheels?’ And he goes, ‘Fuck you, Jim,’ and tries to swing on me. And I had a pencil in my pocket.”

I write it all down, word for word, but I don’t contextualize: maybe you’re not stupid, but you’re drunk. Or you’re not drunk, but you’re scared. Or you’re scared, but you’ve been in this steel chair before, which makes you really scared. Or you haven’t, which makes you terrified. And the detective says, I understand. Take your time.

Back at the motel, I made progress with the work, but it took a toll on my body as well as my mind. I subsisted on beef jerky, fruit cups, and tap water while I typed until my fingers ached. Like any good student, I had a due date. I had to get it done. I moved between the particleboard desk and the moldy bed, changing positions whenever my back started to hurt too much.

“You sure about that, Jim?”

“About what?”

“Him swinging the board at you.”

“I think he did. It looked like he was.”

And there you have it: the moment of truth, wherein Jim enters what could reasonably be called his own personal Air-Conditioned Stupid Place or The Shitcloud of Unknowing or, my personal favorite, The Solid Gold Stinking End of All Life—that empty space between the known, the unknown, and what gets said about it, where admissions of guilt are born and go to die. And you go with them. Maybe the only thing the court will know for sure by the end of its time with Jim is that there’s a right way and a wrong way to make a true confession.

Three people I didn’t know in a very warm room at the Hyatt Regency. I was sitting in the stiff-backed desk chair. They were sitting on the bed.

Left, Betsy: Victorian lit., floral-print dress under beige grandpa sweater, belly bulge, black leggings, bags under eyes, gray-streaked brown hair still damp from midday shower, unmistakable hangover wretchedness on her like some kind of odorless colorless gas. She scowled at me over her tumbler of coffee.

Middle, Jack: British Modernism, cadaverously thin, didn’t know what to do with his hands baby-blue polyester suit like a sagging dirigible, black tie with salmon swimming up toward the knot, rimless glasses—the expensive kind that darken when you go outside—now half-dark.

Right: Abeline: creative writing: Levis and a man’s white button down, hair combed behind her ears, tight practiced smile, multiple silver rings on each finger.

How long, I wondered, had this hiring committee been looking?

Abeline dropped her hands on her knees. Her silver rings clinked. “You know, it’s a funny story. We saw this guy in the elevator—where was he from?”

Silence.

Then Jack, to the carpet: “He—”

“Ole Miss.” Betsy frowned into her coffee, then snapped her gaze up as if I were about to argue.

“Yes. Ole Miss.” Abeline’s smile never moved. She leaned forward to refocus my attention. “He was wearing a wig and a fake mustache. Can you believe that?”

I opened my mouth, but she wasn’t asking me.

“Ha,” said Jack.

“Typical,” said Betsy.

They looked at me. I said: “That’s strange.”

“Not so strange. Actually, no.” Abeline tilted her head to the side in the way of a raptor about to steal an egg from a nest. I realized her smile was small so it could stay fixed without hurting the muscles in her face.

“Not so strange for AWP.” Jack shot a glance at Betsy, who glared at him.

“He was looking for a different job,” Abeline said. “Going behind someone’s back.”

I attempted a smile. “Are you enjoying the conference?”

Jack cleared his throat. “So we like your CV. It’s a good CV.”

Abeline nodded. “It’s a very good CV. You have a lot of teaching experience. I suppose that should count for something, right?”

I nodded. I was having trouble processing, following the implications. Something? Should count? Did that mean the default was that it counted for nothing? And if you stripped away my teaching experience; if you discounted my letters of rec.—which hadn’t and, I knew, wouldn’t be mentioned because they hadn’t been read; and if the entire committee was made up of two lit. professors, who probably didn’t read much outside their specialty areas, and a creative writer, who seemed more a product of natural selection than a sympathetic colleague; my hybrid fiction-theory dissertation wasn’t going to matter. I had nothing. I was screwed.

Betsy peered at me, a knowing grin spreading across her face. “What makes you want to work in our department?”

“Ha,” said Jack.

Abeline nodded, looked me over.

I’d prepared a speech. I’d practiced. Because I was scared. Because there was a woman who wrote on the internet about what not to do in an academic job interview and I’d believed her. Because I had one interview and this was it. I launched into a disquisition on their department, on who was publishing what and how I thought my work would make a good fit, on my student-centered decentralized teaching style, on my commitment to diversity. And, though all of it was true, I saw the expressions on their faces change like time-lapse of a decaying corpse. I saw each of my memorized bullet points float away into the abyss between me and the three professors sitting on the bed. But the woman on the internet had said, focus on what you can do for them, not on what you want them to do for you. So I focused. I focused like a motherfucker.

4:00 AM. Beyond exhaustion in the dead gray motel room, I was almost done with the transcriptions. Dry mouth, stinking of instant coffee, I didn’t even have the energy to feel my usual anxiety. I watched a tiny spider on the window sill laboriously rope the legs of a fly three times its size. It seemed to take a long time, the fly getting tired, then struggling in frenetic terrified bursts, the spider crawling all around its body, staying on top of it, relentless. It seemed like a big meal for such a little spider.

On my laptop, Albert Leek was explaining to John Klein that telling the world about phone messages from spirits accomplishes nothing. It was the scene where they’re standing in Leek’s “college professor’s house,” straight out of central casting, with the usual stacks of books, dust, sad photographs, and regret—Leek in a crew cut like some retired police captain who’s seen too much, a little heavy, a little tired, and Richard Gere in his Washington Post reporter’s overcoat. He’s supposed to be John Keel, aka John Klein, but he’s really just the same old Richard Gere, gently bewildered, just crazy enough around the eyes for us to believe he’d go looking for an author on psychism to explain Indrid Cold—the voice on the phone, the invisible presence in every scene, the psychopomp of Point Pleasant, West Virginia.

It’s a good scene, maybe the best scene in the movie. Leek is a tormented man, not just by ghost voices but by everything he’s lost in his attempts to tell the world about his discoveries—

“John, I had tapes of their voices! But so what? Nobody cared. I knew a building was going to blow up. I tried to prevent it, but no one listened . . .”

“What happened?”

“People died.”

—tormented the way we feel John Klein will be if he continues trying to reveal the truth.

Five hours later, after a shower, a fast food breakfast, and taking the wrong freeway exit on my way to the convention center, I found myself in “Tips, Trips, and Techniques for Publishing Insiders,” where I watched Charlie Sheen’s estranged twin go over each step in the publishing process as if he’d personally invented it. But I was still thinking about Albert Leek and Indrid Cold and that spider, as merciless as any force of nature, crawling around its prey.

The high point in the talk was when the blasé panel of Big Six agents and junior editors slid into Q&A and began to explain how tired they all were, how overwhelmed, and what this meant for the the future of publishing. Charlie’s twin, replete with slicked back hair and facetious grin, was saying something about having five novel manuscripts to read on his flight back to New York the next day.

Then a hand went up.

“Yeah?”

“But what are you reading for dinner tonight?”

She must have been 24 or 25. No one in the room seemed to know how to react to her question.

Even Charlie hesitated. “I think I’m free.”

Nice. There was an exhalation. Somebody clapped. People laughed. Love conquers all. An elderly woman with long silver hair, her face flushed purple, stood up, said, “Shit,” to no one in particular, and stalked out of the room. She couldn’t accept the inherent beauty of a community of writers coming together to engage in mutually beneficial intercourse.

I thought: somewhere Indrid Cold is watching all this. Toward the end of the scene, we realize John Klein can’t accept that the older man is just telling him to give up.

“I was investigated, almost arrested. My wife divorced me. My kids stopped speaking to me. Do you know what four years in a psychiatric hospital can do to you? Being right is worse than being wrong. If you’re wrong, you’re just a fool. If you’re right, you’re a suspect.”

I knew the lines by heart. Was it better to be a fool or a suspect? What do people want to hear? And why should anyone care? Bring your manuscript to dinner. Wear something sexy.

Somebody raised a hand and asked whether literary fiction, given Harry Potter, was finally dead. One of the editors started to describe how he’d first met J.K. Rowling and what a wonderful person she was. The woman who’d invited Charlie to dinner sat there with arms crossed, not looking at anyone, a smug expression on her face. That’s when I left, too.

If you’re smart, you don’t confess it the way you think it happened. You’re smarter than Jim. You’ll say, The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had born as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You’ll say, I swear I was in my right mind at the time, just as I am now, and I recall everything perfectly. I chose to do it. I planned to do it. Moreover, I’d do it again. As I transcribed those words, I’d know that you were lying. But the detective will merely sigh and say, go on.

To tell a true confession is to confess it like it’s true. It’s not about what happened, what Indrid Cold whispered to you over the phone at midnight. It’s about how you narrate what happened. It’s about your delivery. It’s about suspension of disbelief. If you want to tell it right, you have to set the scene. You lay down some back story. You make it plausible—even if you are lying and are trying to confess a crime you didn’t actually do.

“You always walk around with sharpened pencils in your pockets, Jim?”

“I just had one, alright?”

“How sharp was it?”

“Pretty fuckin’ sharp.”

“Give me the sharpness on a scale of one to ten.”

“Are you kidding me? It was a pencil. All I know is it was sharp.”

Later, after “Horror and Sci-Fi Taken Seriously” and “Ecological Cowboy Prose of the New American West,” I decided drive back to Michigan the next day. Theo found me on the phone in the lounge of the Hyatt, letting the car rental company know. When I hung up, I could see that he was functionally yet unquestionably drunk.

I told him about the interview, how all they’d really wanted to know was whether I’d take a one-year teaching appointment instead of the tenure-track position they’d advertised. Theo shook his head the way you do when you hear your teenage cousin got arrested again. He’d been drinking gin steadily since the night before, his own bottle, up in his room.

I asked him what he’d gone to at the conference and he said, “Do you . . . think I could make it in sales?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Good. Because this English crap won’t hunt.”

I agreed. The English crap wouldn’t hunt. It wouldn’t bark or roll over or bring you your goddamn slippers unless you took it out to dinner. I told him I was driving back in the morning. But he was concentrating hard on standing up.

“Sales,” he said.

I nodded. “Sales.” And I raised my fist.

I finished the last transcript sometime after midnight, then finally got a little sleep. I left my plastic key in the motel’s after-hours drop box and got on the road before dawn, feeling like this was probably going to be the last AWP Conference I’d be attending.

I’d wasted a lot of money and time to bear witness to the fall of the academic-trade segment of the publishing industry with all its slaves, clowns, and dancing bears. I didn’t have a job offer or a book deal. Then again, I wasn’t the one getting plugged by a poor-man’s Charlie Sheen in exchange for him reading my novel manuscript. The road, at that point, felt like a relief.

I suppose Confucius said that you should dig two graves because vengeance is the path of destruction and that which you offer to others, you offer to yourself. The wisdom of this is beyond reproach. I’ve thought about it carefully. However, it does not account for how you will get your victim and yourself into the graves once you’ve committed the act—to say nothing of who will replace the dirt on top of you.

This means you will either need accomplices or the second grave isn’t for you. The entire interpretation changes. And the true nature of Confucius emerges as a lethal, cold-blooded killer. Don’t just take out your enemy. Take out his friend or a family member likely to avenge him. Do it in twos. You’ll be glad you dug the graves ahead of time. Then at least you’ll have a good story to confess.

So It’s the end of October now and I think I’m going to vote for Hillary, even though I have my reservations. I’ve seen too many lousy politicians come and go to consider the alternatives. But the harder thing will be what to say to Theo. I’ve changed a lot in these last six years. I’m not sure how I could possibly explain, in an email, the twists and turns my life has taken since I left Denver in that rented van. If Albert Leek is right, confessions make you into either a fool or a suspect. And I suppose what I’ve written here will do both. But it’s something. And it’s all true, as well as I recall it. Would you believe it? And believing, would you hear me out if my name were Indrid Cold?

We want a plan. We need a plan. || Michael Davis

Source: The State of Emergency

A short story I decided not to submit to magazines.  It will be included in my third story collection, Living the Dream.

 

There was nothing. I told myself I just wanted to get out for a while. I went to the Post Office Bar with Elka and had some drinks. Elka wasn’t quite five feet tall, but she drank like a Ukrainian diplomat and only wore black.

Maybe I thought things were too still. Back at the apartment, the rooms were too white, too still, too silent. We didn’t own anything but a couch and a bed. My wife was on one. Then she was on the other. All day long. She needed everything quiet all the time. Quiet, so she could think. There’d been a death in the family, you see. So it had to be quiet. But really, there was nothing left. I’d been selling everything we owned. Now we had paper plates. My wife had a little Sony she watched with the sound off in the afternoons. But there was nothing. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Nothing left. Nothing but white walls. Nothing to do but leave her alone. Nothing to say.

But then Elka. Shrieking. Sweating. Her big Italian sunglasses. Screaming, “Take it off, bitch!” when the gay threesome came on dressed like neighborhood postmen.

The DJ announced that they were gonna go postal and Elka laughed so hard she splashed gimlet across her 12-year-old boy’s v-neck.

“Shit,” she said. “I love this fucking place.”

And, right then, so did I.

Later, we knew that time had passed because we were out of money and cigarettes and Elka had lost her voice. We staggered out the side door into the snow. The tiny lights of Hauberk looked blurry and far away like a Walmart Christmas tree rolled down to the end of the alley.

Elka wheezed, pounded on her chest. “What am I gonna do with you, Percival?”

“You’re gonna stop calling me Percival.”

She tripped, landed on her right knee in a snow drift that came up to her chest, which we both found funny.

“What, you wanna go living a lie?”

“Fine.” I helped her up and we almost fell together. “Go ahead. Call me Percival.”

My name is Carmine. Carmine is better than Percival or Percy. But nobody calls me Carmine. Some people call me Jeff or Skip. My wife used to call me Tim, even though she knew Carmine was it. Her name was Lilly, like the flower.

Elka and I tried to make out, but she was too short and that always made it impossible. We walked out of the alley and stopped on the sidewalk blinking at each other.

She stood on her tiptoes and patted my cheek like grandma from the old country. “Be good to yourself,” she said and tottered over to her antique black Karmann Ghia. I leaned against the corner of the Post Office Bar and watched her drive the four blocks between the bar and her house. She parked with one wheel up on the curb, got out, fell in the snow, lost her balance, found her keys under the car, and staggered to her door. Then I was alone again.

Hauberk, Missouri, is not a large place. But it has a downtown and an uptown, train tracks, and, beyond them, a zone of inbred criminality before you get out to the farms. I’d lived in various parts of Missouri all my life and people said everything was changing. But at 3:00 AM all cities are one. They even smell the same. After a night in the Post Office Bar, you noticed booze and mold and body odor and stale cigarettes peeling off into the crisp night. And that’s the fuel you needed to keep walking and breathing in the good wholesome darkness after all those cocks went postal.

I wandered down Artichoke Lane and took a right on Fugit. I didn’t have a destination other than not home. What do they say? You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here? What did the DJ say? Now that we’ve gone postal, let’s go ball-istic—AT THE AFTERMATH! There was a bus outside for all the drunks who wanted to keep the party going. Elka wanted to go, but she was broke. And I was too square for after-hours party buses or the chicken adventure someone said they were about to have on the one outside. We’re gonna have a chicken ADVENTURE, people! Maybe that’s why I was unhappy. I didn’t get down with the poultry on a Thursday night.

Still, Elka was a good drinking buddy and she seemed to like me, even if she still didn’t know my name after a decade of working at the same car lot. She sold many Range Rovers to senior citizens who wouldn’t be allowed to drive in a year. What was she? 60 years old? It was hard to tell with the little people. But she was a hell of a saleslady.

By the time I got to Areopagus Avenue I started to seriously wonder why this part of Hauberk had the most fucked-up street names I’d ever seen. Then I realized the answer in one of those sudden bursts of clarity that only bloom in the botanical quietude of a cheap gin drunk: because I was walking towards the cemetery and everything gets self-consciously fucked-up around Midwestern cemeteries.

No one mentions it. You don’t think about the superstitiousness until you notice it for yourself. After you do, it’ll stick with you like a nasty fact of life you’d rather not remember. It’ll bother you forever on a deep gut level, even if it does seem like something that could be a story you could probably tell at dinner. I realized I was entering a distortion field of nervy Midwestern superstition as surely as the street was named “Areopagus.”

I crossed over and went down along the tall wrought iron fence that separated the world of the Hauberk dead from the lowest rent housing this side of the tracks. People say you’re supposed to whistle to keep the spirits off. And I will not claim to be wholly unsuperstitious; though, I’d had enough gin that whistling would have probably interfered with walking and right then one was more important than the other.

Nimcato Cemetery explained the fanciful street names, why front doors opened onto driveways on the other sides of the houses, and why there was not a single window facing Areopagus Avenue. People didn’t even like to park their cars on streets that ran along a graveyard. Or, if they did park there, you might see little crosses drawn in the dust on the corners of a hood. Plastic Jesuses. Bibles in back windows between stuffed Tiggers and Kleenex boxes. And every now and then, some old lady hammering nails into the corners of her front yard to “nail down the sin.” That was Hauberk, Missouri, when nobody was looking. Still, I didn’t aim to get primitive with the locals. Sin rhymed with gin and the only thing getting nailed that night was my liver.

But then I said, “Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus Mary Joseph Mother of Christ Saint Expedite Infant Savior of Prague Saint Anthony Defend Us In Battle Holy Spirit Amen. And all the souls in purgatory may they fucking protect me.” I said this out loud and with great sincerity, the fumes of my iniquity rising up out of my mouth like some reverse gimlet Pentecost, not only because no one else was visible in the pools of yellow-bright streetlight but because when I finally got to the corner of Areopagus and Bardolph, I could see the front gates of the Nimcato Cemetery standing wide open.

I didn’t know if the gates were always left open, but I suspected they weren’t. This bothered me. It might have scared the shit out of me—at least enough to bring on some religion. And if anyone had been around in that superstitious moment, I might have further confessed that if Elka hadn’t arrived to pick me up at the dog park three blocks from my apartment, I’d been prepared to drink the pint of Gilbey’s I’d bought as a safety measure earlier in the day. Drink it straight, sitting in the dog park. Hallelujah. It’s a wonderful life. Moreover, I realized I was sipping on this same pint as I wandered onto Bardolph and then through the cemetery gates. But liquor is never an explanation for anything.

It started to snow again. In the pale glow from the streetlights, the mausoleums and sepulchers seemed like an alien world, an abandoned planet of monuments and pylons under a dead sun. And I walked right in, not only because I was drunk but also because the booze had breached some iron-bound vault deep down in the sub-basement of my being where I kept thoughts of my wife’s mental illness alongside memories of the times she used to speak and live. Memories that went back before her father put a gun in his mouth, before there was nothing. And though I was not an unsuperstitious man, I simply didn’t have the capacity to cry and also wonder why the gates were open or whether it would be wise to walk through them. Thus, I was deep inside before I started to get truly upset.

But upset isn’t the right word. It would be better to say that I had a moment of terror, knee-deep in a drift, looking up at a weeping angel looking down at me, snow collecting on the top of his head, his shoulders, his pointing hand. It was the saddest largest marble angel I’d ever seen, sculpted to heroic proportions, his wings outspread like the goddess of victory. And how he was lit in that ghost light. And how the contours of shadow behind a falling sheet of snow made his expression seem impossible and beautiful and wholly unsympathetic to any sort of human grief, a thing of perfect tragedy up from the foundations of the world. At least, that’s how he seemed to me as I stared awestruck and drunk in the snow, gripping my Gilbey’s like a magical weapon.

The gin might have been magic—if I’d turned my back and downed it all with oblivion in mind. But the bottle slipped from my fingers when I looked along the angel’s extended arm to where he was pointing. And, with that, oblivion was but a transient thought, a sincere wish lost to a saner, soberer life where the dead don’t walk. Or, in this case, lie on top of graves.

I looked at where the angel was pointing and I saw my wife, Lilly, lying on a grave, the nightgown she never took off arranged just the way she liked, bunched up beneath her knees. Her delicate ankles. Her feet askew. Her hair draped over her shoulders like I saw it some nights when I looked at her in the moonlight, thinking about nothing, no future and no past, trying hard to wish away my hopes and dreams one by one.

“Lilly?” I whispered and took a step. “Lilly?” Almost as if to say her name out loud was the deepest obscenity I could utter in that place. And then I fell and didn’t want to stand up and look at the angel’s face or at what might have been my dead wife in the saddest strangest part of town.

I lay face down in the snow until I imagined that I, too, was dying, losing feeling all over my body from the cold. But because I am a coward and because I may have been screaming when I finally staggered to my feet, I found I was facing the opposite direction. I found myself running out as unconsciously as I had come in, running for the gates which I imagined might close any minute. I knew with some animal certainty that if they closed on me, I would vanish, all trace of me gone forever, even my footprints in the snow.

I shot into the street and kept running down Bardolph, as fast and as far as I could, my breath wheezing out Camel Lights and lime-gin. I ran until I reached the cheap Christmas lights of Hauberk’s downtown and burst into the Dixie Diner—panting, wild eyes, covered in snow like the yeti.

The obese pink polyestered waitress behind the counter took me in piece by piece. “You need a hand?”

The two men at the counter—who were both dressed in gray felt suits and skinny black ties like door-to-door vacuum salesmen from 1950s, but who could have been anything at 4:00 AM in a diner in central Missouri—looked up from their Denver omelets and grinned.

The wiry, nervous cook covered in grease leaned around the door to the kitchen.

The old lady with horn-rimmed glasses in a booth by the window, eating a chili bowl and reading a paperback, glanced over, the corners of her mouth stained orange.

And I said: “I think I need a cup of coffee.”

The waitress poured it without a word. I sat at the counter and tried to drink it, but my hand shook so much it spilled.

The two vacuum salesmen to my right were still grinning.

“Tough night, pal?”

I didn’t say anything. I tried to sop up the spill with a napkin, but even my napkin hand was shaking.

“Look,” the waitress said to the spill. “You don’t have to pay for that coffee. But I’d ask you to drink it and go. We don’t want no trouble in here. No druggies.”

The other of the two men—the one who hadn’t spoken yet, content to eye me like a feverish delighted vulture looking at a corpse—slapped his palm on the counter and said, “Aww, come on, Junebug. He ain’t gonna be no trouble. Look at him. He couldn’t find his cock in a rainstorm.”

This made Junebug and the other vacuum salesman laugh. And that’s when I started crying.

“Shit,” Junebug said and got a box of tissues from behind the counter. She put it in front of me beside the puddle of coffee. Then she took out two tissues for herself. The sight of me crying made her want to cry, too.

“Well I’ll be damned,” said the first vacuum salesman. “This is a cry-diner. A criner.”

“That it is, fucko,” his partner said. “That it is.”

Nothing made any sense. I looked at the coffee in the cup, at the spill on the counter like it was a logic problem I couldn’t solve. I didn’t know if I should stand up or fall down or run into the street.

“I need to get home to my wife.”

The old lady in the booth peered at me through her horn-rimmed glasses.

Junebug sniffed and polished the pie case. “That sounds like a very solid idea, hun.”

But because I was a coward, I gripped the counter as if I might get swept away into space, into the deep ocean, into the cold endleess nothing. I didn’t want to go home all of a sudden and learn where Lilly was: there, not there, lying in Nimcato Cemetery on top of a grave, being pointed at by the saddest angel in the world.

Fucko wouldn’t stop. “I’d like to buy this gentleman breakfast. “Whadya say, huh?” He slapped me on the back. I could smell his cologne drift over me in a great cloud of chemical musk. You could spray it on villages in the desert and go down for war crimes. “Whadya say? Ham and eggs? Junebug? Ham and eggs? Give him a plate for fuck’s sake.”

She looked at him. “I don’t think that would be the wisest course, given his precarious condition.”

“Come on. I’m paying. Give him some ham and eggs. Ain’t this a business? Ain’t I a customer?”

“You’re getting on my nerves is what you are.” Junebug sniffed, dabbed the corner of her eye with a new tissue, and sighed. “Don’t make me come across the counter and crack your face open, sweetie.”

Fucko shut his mouth. Then his friend looked at his watch and said, “Come on. Time waits for no man, am I right?”

“Yeah. Too bad for you. No ham and eggs.” Fucko got up and they walked out.

The sun was rising. The old lady with the horn-rimmed glasses was long gone. Junebug offered me another tissue but I didn’t notice until she was stuffing it back in the box.

“What’s really going on with you, if you don’t mind me asking.”

“I wandered into the cemetery. I saw an angel. And I thought I saw my wife lying on top of a grave.”

“I guess it was a long night,” she said. “You know them old visions are only in your head, right? My old man used to see his grandpa coming for him with a knife after drinking moonshine all night. You ever try moonshine?”

“I might have had it once.”

“Well then you know.” She nodded and refilled my coffee. “I’d call you a cab but the cabs don’t start up for another hour.”

“I’ll make it.”

“Go home. Kiss your wife. You’ll be fine. Some nights you just get lost. Drink enough moonshine and you get into all kinds of weird shit.”

I shrugged. I couldn’t process. I didn’t know which end was up.

There was no way I could have foreseen that three years later, standing at the memorial service after Lilly finally ended it all, I’d think back to that night and to what Junebug had said. Sometimes, you just get lost. How could I have known then, how could I have told her, that she would be right?

No one says what they’re really thinking: there is no escape. || Michael Davis

Source: The Debate Did Not Take Place

20 thoughts on what it takes and how to do it.

1. Nobody owes you time, money, or sympathy. Editors have hard jobs and need to balance a lot of concerns that writers don’t. If an editor or some other client is spending time on you, take it as a compliment. This is true for all readers of your professional work, whether they’re publishers, managers, or website owners. Any time spent on you and your writing is a vote of hope and confidence in your abilities, even if the reader is critical or has a hard-edged personality. It’s a tough business. Keep that in mind.

2. Never write for “exposure” or because someone says the job will “look good on your resume.” That is usually a mistake.

3. Don’t waste time. There are a lot of ways to do this that seem good at first. Sometimes, you have to take a risk on something that will ultimately turn out to be a wasted effort. But most of the time, money is a good test. Are you getting paid? For real? In legal tender as opposed to “exposure”?

4. Write outside your comfort zone and don’t be afraid to do research. It’s the only way to grow. Get used to pushing yourself. You should be surprising yourself at what you can do on a regular basis. How do you expect your work to impress others if it’s the same old thing putting you to sleep?

5. The truth is compelling. Try to tell it as much as possible in and about your work. Contrary to popular belief, telling what you believe to be the truth is likely to result in a higher degree of personal effectiveness.

6. Don’t complain that it’s hard. Of course it’s hard. You can always go clean carpets for a living if you can’t handle being a writer.

7. Don’t complain that you’re broke. Of course you’re broke. A writer trades social respectability and small middle-class luxuries for the big luxury of being a professional writer.

8. Play the field. No one knows you exist unless you make them know. Moreover, rejection will be a constant. The writing world communicates primarily in metaphors of loss and rejection. Remember that it will hardly ever be personal, even when people try to make it seem that way.

9. An agent is not your personal savior. An agent is a businessperson who understands how to make money in your particular field of writing. Sometimes, agents help. Other times, they’re a waste of precious time and effort (see point 3 above).

10. Always plan six months to a year ahead of time. You will hit dry spells and in freelancing there is no security net on which you can depend.

11. Avoid wasting time convincing judgmental friends and relatives that you are honest and have an actual job (see point 3 above). People will be curious about how you exist. They will often assume that you are gaming the system somehow while they have to break their backs at jobs they hate. To non-writers, it will seem like you are getting paid for doing something everybody does on a daily basis. This attitude is grounded in ignorance, but don’t tire yourself out trying to correct it. For example, if you also write screenplays and novels, it’s better not to mention it. When people hear, “I write fiction,” the first thing they’ll think is, “How come I’ve never heard of him? If he were any good, I would have.” The way to avoid people automatically concluding that you’re a loser and a failure is to stay as boring as possible: “I mostly write technical stuff.” The upside is that if you’re a freelancer for any length of time, this will be at least partly true.

12. Get sleep. This should be obvious, but early college programming dies hard. You can’t write well with a bleary mind.

13. Don’t be afraid to disappear to get work done. Time gets distorted when you’re writing intensively. What seems like a week to you might only be a few days of sustained work. Often, your friends and family won’t even notice that you’ve spent the weekend at a small table in the attic.

14. Get out and meet people. Freelancers usually prefer to write from home in their pajamas. Outdo them by dressing like a professional and offering to meet with clients. Some people won’t be interested, but some will jump at the chance to avoid having to express themselves in text (their problem in the first place). This is especially true if you soak up the travel expense. While meeting with them, take pictures, notes, recordings. Practice active listening. Stay as engaged as possible with the culture of their organization. You may also mention that you offer writing tutorials and intensives. Be a walking advertisement of all you can do for them. You will develop some very meaningful business relationships that way.

15. Accept that much of what you write will be secret. It’s called “ghostwriting” and it exists at all levels in all fields. People don’t want it known that they had to hire you because they didn’t have the opportunity or capacity to do the writing themselves. Your CV should be honest, but accept that you’ll always have done more work than you can show. This is part of your professionalism. Some of the highest paying clients will require the most discretion.

16. You don’t need to impress anybody. That’s for escorts and politicians. Your writing has to impress people. It does this by being clear, precise, imaginative, and otherwise correct as defined in your guidelines. As long as you can produce work like that, you will get a lot of repeat business.

17. Have fallback income to reduce stress. This goes beyond just saving half a year in advance. There will be times when no one wants to hire you and you’re burning through your savings while you wait for new leads. This doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It’s just the way things go sometimes. Having a secondary way to pay the rent and get your teeth cleaned will keep you sane and actually make you a better writer by giving you new experiences. It also toughens you up in a lot of different ways. Just like Aunt Fanny used to say: every artist needs a trade.

18. Give yourself assignments. Writing well takes constant practice—just like playing the viola, only the viola is the writing part of your mind. So you need to write regularly even if no one is paying you to do it. You can use those pieces later as samples if you don’t have professional clips yet. Post your uncomissioned pieces to a blog and let the world in on what you’ve been thinking about. This practice is indispensable.

19. Help other writers out when you can. “Good will” comes back to you when you least expect it. This is another hidden dimension of what it is to function as a professional. It’s also just a decent way to live. That said, sometimes helping someone out means giving an honest appraisal of their work when they ask. It doesn’t mean hurting their feelings if you can avoid doing so. Never expect others to be as tough as you pretend to be.

20. Never apologize for what you do. Your cousin, Jimmy, might imagine that all you do is sit around all day while he busts his ass at the car lot. Send him a card at Christmas and let him feel superior. He will never understand your strange world of ideas, structures, and sounds. He doesn’t need to. Not everyone can sustain the writing life (see point 11 above).

She was my first real girlfriend and she terrified me. More precisely, the possibility of her getting bored with me terrified me. And she was always at great pains to remind me that boredom would have dire consequences. Boredom was the end.

I had no idea who she really was and neither did she; though, I had developed some ideas over the months we’d been dating. I’d projected and imagined. Meanwhile, she thought I was Ross from Friends. She’d say it all the time: “You’re just like Ross. Oh my god.” Sometimes, she’d say, “You’re just like my brother,” but, mostly, it was Ross.

Between her brother and his collection of hot mustards and Ross, there was a very narrow margin for keeping Christina entertained. Still, I tried like a motherfucker. I was 18 years old and fully believed she was The One.

She broke up with me while we were sitting in a theater before a movie. I don’t remember what movie it was, but I do recall that it was a Sunday afternoon and it was extremely hot outside. She told me she needed to feel safe and protected. And she didn’t think I could do that. She needed someone who would fight for her. We stared at the blank screen and listened to the Muzak. Then she said she hoped we could stay friends.

For the next two hours, Christina rested her head on my shoulder while I contemplated the infinite tunnel of grief and abandonment I had just entered. I suspected the real reason she was breaking up with me was that she’d gotten bored. And I hated myself for letting it happen when I’d known ahead of time THAT WAS THE ONE THING THAT COULD NOT BE TOLERATED. 25 years later, I still remember her saying, “You don’t even own a gun.”

To my credit, I did not run to the corner gun shop and buy a nine. I’ve always felt that having a gun around would make it too easy for me to permanently check out. But I thought about what she said for a long time and eventually the reality of who Christina was blossomed in my mind. She was, for all intents and purposes, an idiot. But then, as the wise man once said, stupid is as stupid does. Her point about me not owning a gun would prove to be the set-up for a 25-year-long joke, the punchline of which was delivered only last week . . .

 

My 9x19mm Parabellum Romance

At the end of Games People Play, transactional psychiatrist Eric Berne suggests, not unlike Orwell in 1984, that most people are concerned primarily with reproducing and distracting themselves while they wait for death. However, Berne notes that exceptional individuals can transcend the default monotony of an unexamined life:

THE somber picture presented in Parts I and II of this book, in which human life is mainly a process of filling in time until the arrival of death, or Santa Claus, with very little choice, if any, of what kind of business one is going to transact during the long wait, is a commonplace but not the final answer. For certain fortunate people there is something which transcends all classifications of behavior, and that is awareness; something which rises above the programming of the past, and that is spontaneity; and something that is more rewarding than games, and that is intimacy. But all three of these may be frightening and even perilous to the unprepared. Perhaps they are better off as they are, seeking their solutions in popular techniques of social action, such as “togetherness.” This may mean that there is no hope for the human race, but there is hope for individual members of it. (81)

I’ve entertained this idea for a long time. In fact, it has bothered me enough over the years that I’ve structured a large part of my life trying to be an individual who isn’t caught up in mindless self-distraction and reactivity. But sometimes I feel incredibly afraid of this binary. I’m never sure if I’ve succeeded in avoiding groupthink or if success is even possible.

It’s not Berne’s “fright of the unprepared”; rather, I think I get afraid because I worry that the binary itself is oversimple and therefore misleading and impossible. Can I honestly believe that individuality is directly and cleanly opposed to conformity and that these are the available options in my life? I sometimes wonder whether I’ve fallen prey to false assumptions in this respect. Frankly, the thought leaves me cold.

For example, I think, I’m going to avoid going to that melodramatic tear-jerking romance. How boring. Looks like Titanic in space. Having seen over a hundred similar formula-bound period pieces, I feel on some level that I must be right. But then I have to wonder how many people out there are thinking the exact same thing. How many people, by selecting out of the Mindy Project-Titanic-Atonement-A Walk in the Clouds-Bridget Jones demographic, have opted into the anti-Mindy Project-Titanic-Atonement-A Walk in the Clouds-Bridget Jones demographic? How many of these “non-conformists” are straight men within a certain age group? How many of their life choices could be predicted based on the Facebook groups they follow and don’t follow? Should I then run out to buy a TEC-9 to impress my empty-headed girlfriend? What sort of man would make her feel safe and protected? Who decides for me if I don’t? Who decided for her?

 

Your Brain in its Vat will be Tangy and Scrumptious

There appears to be a marketing angle for everyone as soon as we learn that someone has written a mass-market manual, entitled The Art of Non-Conformity. But isn’t this about more than just marketing and consumerism? Isn’t it really about whether we’re sleepwalking through our lives? How does one lead, in Berne’s terms, an aware, spontaneous, and intimate life? Do any of us know what these things mean such that we could define this sort of life in a sentence? Or is such an existence necessarily so idiosyncratic that it resists generalization?

Orwell wrote that the proles “went to work at twelve, they passed through a brief blossoming period of beauty and sexual desire, they married at twenty, they were middle-aged at thirty, they died, for the most part, at sixty. Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer, and, above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds.” That sounds a lot like most people. But it’s certainly not the picture of an aware, spontaneous, and intimate life—is it? How can we tell?

If, like Orwell, we assume that there is a persistent objective universe that could be mediated at all times by the political ideology of a state apparatus (or a Cartesian brain-in-a-vat AI), then we can’t be individuals unless we assure ourselves that we know and can act meaningfully on what is objective. We can’t lead authentic lives unless we have both knowledge and agency grounded in an objectively persistent material world.

Moreover, as philosophically complex as this becomes, I have to wonder whether it is even possible to determine whether an objectively persistent material world even exists—back to Descartes and the problem of the Cogito. In the end, there are no definitive answers and it would be naive to expect them. There is only the eternal interplay between narratives and questions. What do we prefer to believe?

 

My Killing Joke

The punchline came when a mutual friend of ours tagged her on Facebook and the hand of the past reached out to tweak my nose. There she was in the same town, SUV, kids, cop husband. Over the last 25 years, she got exactly what she wanted. I avoided all that, which is exactly what I wanted and I still don’t own a gun. Have either of us changed? Or are we both still playing the hands we’ve been dealt, telling ourselves we’re special and authentic and clever? There’s no way to know. We can believe what we like.

In the end, it seems, the joke is on us. No matter who we decide we are—no matter if I’m actually Ross or Christina’s actually a rocket scientist—there’s no central authority to tell us what’s objectively real and what isn’t. This is not Oceania and there’s no dominant newspeak (yet). Instead, we’re forced to carry the burden of meaning as individuals: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible” (Frankl 131).

The most responsible thing might be to keep spinning narratives and keep asking questions. If nothing else, we can be consistent in that.

 

 

Works Referenced:

Berne, Eric. The Games People Play: the Psychology of Human Relationships. Ballentine, 1996.

Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon P, 2006.

Guillebeau, Chris. The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World. TarcherPedigree, 2010.

Hickey, Lance. “The Brain in a Vat Argument.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/brainvat/. Accessed 26 September 2016.

Orwell, George. 1984. U of Adelaide, Feb. 2016, https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/orwell/george/o79n/index.html. Accessed 26 September 2016.

Skirry, Justin. “René Descartes (1596—1650).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/descarte/#SH4a. Accessed 26 September 2016.

(or: Footage of a Canadian Treeline in a Time of Goats and Perdition)

I watched it last night and was going to write a review entitled, “Why Snakes on a Plane is Better than The Witch” but I realized there is no comparison. Snakes on a Plane has snakes, Samuel Jackson, and a plane. The Witch has . . . the treeline and a message at the end informing the audience that it was based on actual accounts of 17th 1297806972474_originalcentury witchcraft, making us wish they’d studied plot structure a little more closely back in the 17th century.

Oh and everybody dies except Thomasin, the ingenue, who has two expressions: dumbfounded fear and hysteria. Because, you know, there’s a witch out there who lives in a hut like Baba Yaga and likes to get dolled-up as Snow White with lip implants. But that’s neither here nor there. She’s got a veiny beast-arm with which she kills children. Sometimes shit floats in the dark. This is some serious business. It’s a witch, people. Come on, now.

I’d warn about spoilers, but it’s not possible to spoil something that has been rendered un-spoilable by stripping it down so far that the possessed family goat has more gravitas than the entire cast. Katie Dickie is a brilliant ralph-kate-witch-620actress, reprising her nutcase mother role from Game of Thrones, but now in a bonnet. She gets three expressions: dumbfounded fear, hysteria, and maniacal hostility. William, the bewrayed, misunderstood husband, who knows a lot about scripture but who is somehow as effective in life as a suburban husband in a Lorrie Moore short story, gets two: grief-stricken and fearfully enraged.

The rest of the family—the spooky eyeliner-wearing siblings, the chickens, the brother whose sole purpose is to eventually meet the beast-arm—are plot furniture. They each get one expression: ye oulde dumbfounded fear. Maybe the chickens also get the poultry version of bitterness, since they happen to be better actors but, due to species-bias, they are relegated to supporting roles. Hollywood, man. The sickness is deep.

Overall, The Witch is a lot like the Big Alligator in the Sewer movie you go to see in the afternoon when your air-conditioning breaks down. Only Snow White isn’t that scary, the black-philipDevil isn’t very present as a supernatural menace, and the treeline is under-utilized as a character. I almost want to say that Deborah Harkness could have written a better screenplay—which is saying something, since A Discovery of Witches is one of the worst novels I’ve ever had the misfortune to attempt. Yet it seems better than this.

Where is the Devil? Out there, in the woods, right? Oh yeah, that’s the beast-arm’s function in the story. Wow. Or possibly the Devil is hiding in the fear-wilderness of the human unconscious? Sure, that works. That’s what Hawthorne gives us in “Young Goodman Brown,” a story that manages to make you feel a little more paranoid and insane every time you read it. And then there’s WGN America’s Salem, in which evil is a very real, very tangible, very transformative presence—which is what we need in a movie like this. And that is definitely what’s missing–aside from, you know, an interesting plot and characters. Hence, the superiority of Snakes on a Plane, which doesn’t even try.photo

You can’t rely on repeated expressions of dumbfounded fear to make the audience feel something. You can’t explain the flatness away by saying, “Well, these backward rubes were religious fanatics. So, you know, there’s your paranoia and human unconscious at work!” No. I don’t care if they were a settlement of Juggalos who fell out of a time machine. It doesn’t matter who we think they are. What matters is how rounded they are as representations of real human beings to whom we can relate.

We have to feel what the characters feel. And we can’t feel anything if all we get is constant two-dimensional dread. Put simply, in order to feel afraid we have to have the experience of not feeling afraid as well. We have to know and relate to the characters as extensions (projections) of what we feel and what we care the-witch-2-600x360-1about. But there is no balance in this film.

At the very end, when the ingenue decides to join up with the goat, who speaks like Sir Lawrence Olivier with strep throat, we think there’s going to be some big reveal, some payoff that’s going to transform all the open-and-shut dumbfounded fear into something else. Maybe Thomasin will show us something new about herself that adds depth and ultimately makes us give a damn.

Nope. She’s buck naked, floating, laughing like Janis Joplin. Roll credits. And you just wasted 93 minutes you could have spent walking through the woods of Ontario. So mote it be.

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This morning, there was an enormous bumblebee on the inside of my bedroom window. I didn’t know how it could have gotten through the slatted vent near the ceiling, but that was the only explanation. I sat on the edge of the bed and watched its shadow crawl up my arm. A bumblebee! Enormous but tiny, just like me.

I am lethally allergic to bee stings. And so I found myself imagining once again how I might die from the anaphylaxis that could be brought on by such an enormous tiny creature. It could have stung me in my sleep. Of course, the engine of a 787 could have fallen through the roof and killed me in a giant conflagration of bloody bone fragments, busted two-by-fours, and smoking metal. Or my heart could have simply exploded at the stroke of midnight, all those muffulettas catching up with me at last. You never know.

Anything can happen and sometimes it does. I sat there and imagined my death for at least 45 minutes before I realized I was doing it. Then I got mad at myself. I just wasted 45 minutes of my life imagining my death. I can never get those 45 minutes back. It’s like I’ve been dead for the last three-quarters of an hour. But I also had a back ache. After a few more minutes thinking about the pain in my back and imagining myself in a wheelchair—how hard it would be to take a shit in my tiny bathroom if I were paralyzed, how I’d never have sex again—I thought, well, at least the bumblebee got my mind off of my back pain for a while. Now my back’s going to hurt all day. What a miserable day. Fuck my back. Fuck that bee. Fuck all creation. Life was, once again, a festival of misery and hate. A friend of mine in high school once described it as “a shit show for the devil,” but we’re not friends anymore and, if that were truly the case, I tend to think god would be the one laughing the loudest.

I got back in bed and pulled the covers up over my face. On days like this, I will sometimes lie in bed thinking horrible things, crying sometimes, unable to concentrate, unable to motivate myself to even stand, but feeling certain that death owes me a favor and it’s time to pay up. Today I had all the symptoms: intense pressure in my skull like my brain was trying to push its way out, racing thoughts, overwhelming world-veiling all-consuming guilt with no rational explanation, and that persistent little voice always telling me I deserve everything I get (What makes you so special, anyway? Who says you’re more worthy of taking shits and having sex than the next guy who’s probably paralyzed, constipated, and horny and yet still a better person than you? What have you really accomplished? All you’ve ever been is a horrible humiliating failure. Let’s relive some selected memories . . . ). So it goes and it never stops. Until it does. And then, suddenly, I’ll be fine again. The sun will come up. I’ll get out of bed. No one will have noticed. And I won’t mention it.

The longest I’ve ever been down in one of my “spells” has been three consecutive days, three days of black torment that almost caused me to take my own life. But that was an extreme. I’m more often down for 24 hours or less. And since I set my own work schedule, it’s still possible for me to function as a professional. I can usually feel it coming. Almost like a drug addict who, from bitter experience, knows to lock the house down and draw the curtains before shooting up in the basement, I log out of social networks, turn off my phone, put journals, mirrors, and alcohol away.

In Darkness Visible, William Styron puts it like so: “Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.” Sadly, it is not incomprehensible to me. Of all the friends I’ve had, it’s the one I know will never abandon me.

So I lay there—thinking about all the worst possibilities in my life, all the horrible outcomes I’d probably brought on by being defective and weak and cursed, while running a search through my past to find the elusive Turning Point where I must have transitioned from an innocent kid with potential into the embarrassing failure I was now—and felt the bumblebee land on my face.

Granted, I had the bedspread completely covering me. But it landed directly over my eyes. I could see it through the fabric walking around, fluttering its wings a little, its feelers rotating.

I’m not a flower, I thought. I sent it telepathic messages. I’m not a flower. I’m a human. And if you sting me, I will fucking end you before I die. I felt extremely angry, infinitely angry, so angry that it was hard to keep still. The worst part was I didn’t know why. The bee was innocent. It was as much a victim of circumstances as I was. But all I could think of was how stupid it would be to suffocate from anaphylactic shock in bed with the covers over my face like a suburban burial shroud. The Shroud of Michael. More than I’d earned but no less than I deserved.

I had perhaps one of the oddest sensations I’ve ever had, feeling like my emotions were clawing at me, trying to pull me apart, and yet having to focus on remaining completely still—all while my mind was defocusing into the irrational haze of a depressive fugue. I thought about Styron, how I didn’t know enough about his life; about some of the people I care about, how I knew even less about theirs; about Hem and Fitzgerald and how much my high school students had hated A Movable Feast and how I’d loved it; about my early failure to become a classical pianist; about my subsequent failure to become a lawyer; about my failure to get on the tenure track; and about the failures of various students over the years which I’d carried like a sack of rocks on my back, each one somehow traceable back to me, to my fault, my mistakes, my defects. And though there may have been some faint light blinking at the end of the dock, something I could focus on, something to tell me that yes, there was an end to this just as there was to all things, I couldn’t see it.

Then the bee flew back to the glass. Slowly, ever so slowly, I crept up, opened the window, and watched it fly away, over the rock wall, into the trees.

I sat back on the edge of the bed. The clock read 8:03 AM.

The robot ghost of Ram Dass, one of my favorite self-help gurus, posted the following to his Facebook page this morning: “The judging mind is very divisive. It separates. Separation closes your heart. If you close your heart to someone, you are perpetuating your suffering and theirs. Shifting out of judgment means learning to appreciate your predicament with an open heart instead of judging. Then you can allow yourself and others to just be, without separation.” This statement is why I love Ram Dass. His personal philosophy is so opposite to mine that I feel he is my spiritual uncle, still part of a family from which I was estranged long ago.

Since the dear old boy obviously didn’t post this himself and since the invisible automaton (whether human or a AI postbot amounts to the same thing) tasked with marketing his personality isn’t programmed for discussion—and since the commenters on the page seem more like the postbot than the guru—I will add some thoughts here with my morning coffee.

It would be easy to say, “Judge and prepare to be judged because this is human nature.” But responding that way is useless without a lot of support: what is human nature and how can we know it? What is judgment? How are passing judgment on others and the experience of judgment being passed on you similar and different? And why should this part of human nature be preferable to the idea, “judge not.” If I can’t develop some reasonable working hypotheses here, I can’t argue with the guru at all.

And yet there is something I feel when I read a statement like, “Separation closes your heart.” I think I feel angry, indignant. Same with, “Then you can allow yourself and others to just be, without separation.” So I want to explore these feelings as a way to at least get to some subjective truth, some way of knowing myself. Because if I can’t come up with answers to the above questions, more objective ways of knowing are foreclosed. In the end, while thinking about this, I have only myself, my feelings, my sense that something rings true or false. Where do these negative feelings come from? Why was I experiencing them when all the guru was saying was that it’s good to come together with people and try to understand them?

Inception

I was re-watching Inception the other day, a movie I like a lot and one that manages to be extremely clever while also being high-concept and super-formula-driven. And I thought about something a screenwriting teacher from AFI once said about the social function of movies, especially high-concept ones: they provide novelty (i.e. new information); the reinforce dominant social values; they offer vicarious emotional relief via a simplified fantasy life; and they generate a sense of closure (i.e. everyone lived happily ever after until the sequel) as opposed to real life where there is never any true closure. Inception does all these things.

After watching Inception multiple times, I felt like I finally understood it enough to think about it critically. And as soon as I reached that point, I started to get depressed because here was one of my favorite movies showing me something about all movies and, by extension, about human nature. Inception provides a complex matrix of streamlined ideas about lucid dreaming and subjective filters for reality (novelty / new information); it has the usual provincial social values of most action films (hero must set things right with wife and family who don’t understand what he has to do to make a living); vicarious emotional relief via a simplified fantasy life (unlimited funds, beautiful women, travel, super powers in a “heist movie” frame, and meanwhile the corporate energy moguls are portrayed as sad clueless cretins); and it gives a sense of closure (the Total Recall ending—is this reality? Does it matter if you’re happy?). All well and good. We can pick any high budget action film and get the same layout. But what does this teach us about what we need? Because we will obviously pay good money to get it.

What I realized while watching Inception for something like the fifth time is that we are indeed separated. We are indeed suffering. And this is so horrible that we need to enter another frame of reference (the fantasy world of the movie) for relief. Inception, like so many other movies in its genre and in general, gives new information because our days are monotonous and we are bored. It reinforces social values because we feel uncertain about what we are told to believe about our lives. It offers emotional relief because the conditions of our lives regularly depress and discourage us. And it gives a sense of closure because this suffering only ends at death and since we don’t understand death, we can’t look forward to closure there, either.

In short, Hollywood understands the nature of our constant pain and offers us a very straightforward transaction: pay a little and get a little relief. We might criticize the movie industry for this, but really there is a lot of sincerity there. Hollywood wants to make great amounts of money, sure. But people also want to make Star Wars, Escape from Alcatraz, Key Largo, High Plains Drifter, and Citizen Kane because of the power in creating something like that—the vast cultural impact that comes with satisfying the above human needs so deeply that people will carry some of that satisfaction for the rest of their lives. Because life will be hard for everyone whether they open their hearts or not.

Separation is a Given as is Judgment

So when the guru tells me that separation breeds suffering, I have to agree. But this is why I’m estranged from that particular family: we cannot avoid suffering and it is disingenuous to claim that we can. This is how I feel when I think about my own experience as a social being. Suffering is inevitable because culture depends on being able to use stable and replicable data (old, often monotonous, information). A stable society depends on shared values that are nevertheless constantly being challenged in a divisive and uncertain world and therefore need reinforcement. We’re very upset about these things. And nothing is ever completely handled. It’s never over.

I think I get angry at such self-help advice because it presupposes things can be solved. And that, if I only change myself, suppress something in myself, root something defective out of myself, I will have life handled. This makes me angry because it seems like a lie, like marketing, beneath which is a very old, very Christian idea: you are defective the way you are. You must atone for this defectiveness by conforming to the pattern we give you. Only then will you find release from your suffering. Rubbish. I would rather watch a movie and find temporary relief, then think about and understand why.

There is a lot to be learned from gurus advocating self-help and self-change, even if those gurus are engaging in stealth Christianity. I like Ram Dass for his infectious cheerfulness, his sense of humor, and his intelligence. However, when it comes to what I must do to feel better, my emotional sense is that I would rather indulge in who I am than try to become who someone says I should be.

There are only two sureties in life: that we have been born and that we will die. The rest, at least from a finite human perspective, is variable.

No True Answers, No Answerable Truths

Contemplating the mystery of our birth—why was I born?—is likely to cause a certain degree of anxiety, at least for those of us who judge ourselves to be in mundane circumstances: my family is not wealthy; I am not wealthy; I am not famous; my job is not glamorous; my children are unimpressive; my spouse is boring; I am not exceptionally beautiful or witty or gifted; and, though I secretly tell myself I’m smarter than most people, I just as often fear that I am not. Erase me completely and there will be someone very much like me to take my place. Why, then, do I exist? The world is quick to provide temporary relief and sell us an answer to this unanswerable question. If we’re honest with ourselves, maybe after purchasing a few bottles of snake oil (and who can blame us for that), we will eventually come to the conclusion that if we can’t know about the reason for our own lives, no one can.

Death is a similar mystery with no good answers or reasons. We know what happens biologically after the cessation of life, insofar as we are able to agree on what actually constitutes life. But we do not know whether mind is coterminous with brain. If it isn’t, then where does the mind go after the body rots? If it is, then human consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter and is therefore unlike any other thing (event? concept? process? ghost? singularity?) in the known universe—another unfathomable mystery. As Marcus Aurelius says: “Providence or atoms” (Meditations, IV.3). Life comes down to one or the other, even if we can’t know what either truly is.

Only We Care About What Our Lives May Mean

Even before we’re naught but dust, we will watch ourselves vanish by inches. Consider that in a few years, society will tell us that our significance has already passed. We won’t be dead yet, but we will still be told that it is time to retire and make way for those who are younger and therefore more socially relevant. Our worth will be judged according to what we have earned for ourselves in 20-30 years of active adult life. And such judgment will be based on the social values of the moment—ideas presently in fashion, not even, necessarily, what we were thinking about when we started the company, wrote the book, or climbed the mountain.

We will still be asking, Why, then, do I exist? And, as we reach retirement age, we may find others asking us that, too. Moreover, we may complain about the stereotypical characteristics of the Millennials, but every generation (like every individual) judges the world according to its own perspective and values. We, in Generation X, also judged the Baby Boomers. And they cruelly judged us as well as the Lost Generation, etc. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis. Times change, and we change with them. And so goes the world.

But in spite of our all-encompassing solipsism, we will still have regrets. We will either have worked very hard in practical ways to do what was expected of us (and feel that we never fully addressed our inner potential) or we will have pursued some path of inner realization (and feel that we never got to experience conventional kinds of success and recognition). This may be an oversimplification, but the principle is sound. We will eventually realize, on some level, that we cannot have it all because we are going to die and our time is limited. This may make us cry because we can’t stop asking why we had to go through all this anguish and absurdity just to wind up in the ground. Or it may make us free because the inevitability of death puts all the anguish and absurdity into perspective.

Freedom From the Burden of Meaning

There may be some value when we contemplate life in terms of death. Embracing the inevitability of death can free us from what we may feel is a mundane and meaningless existence. Someday soon (especially if we consider the relative shortness of life), we will all be dead. All the people we know will be dead. All the things we cared about will have changed, some far beyond what we could have imagined. And those who follow will not think about us much. How often do you think about your great-grandparents? Your grandparents? Your great uncles and aunts? They are not a relevant or functional part of your day to day existence, even if you do have some way to regularly honor them.

At best, the people living after us will have certain ideas of who we were, since it is impossible to convey the dimensionality of a human life. If we are lucky, we will be summarized in terms of our professional achievements and historically significant actions (if any). Our images may be preserved in photos or videos, but those images won’t be us, either. People will never know who we really were inside, what we truly thought, how we truly felt. In every way that counts, we will be gone, questions silenced, problems solved, story told.  We will be free.

 

I met a traveller from an antique land, 
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, 
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, 
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, 
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read 
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, 
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; 
And on the pedestal, these words appear: 
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; 
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare 
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

“Ozymandias,” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose (1977)

As I have said many times and in many different ways, graduate study in literature and creative writing is not easy for anyone, even in the most favorable circumstances. There is an inner, emotional, psychological, processual effort that no one talks about and an outer, technical, rhetorical, production effort that everyone takes for granted. Both of these “efforts” are difficult. They must run concurrently and consistently for satisfactory completion of your program. And no one—not advisors or fellow

"Philosopher with an Open Book" by Salomon Coninck (c. 1645)

Philosopher with an Open Book by Salomon Coninck (1645)

students—will have the wherewithal to set aside their own problems in order to help you with yours. You are alone. You are responsible for expressing a universe of ideas in your own voice. You will accept this or fail.

If you pay attention, you will soon come to realize that your path is more or less unique—that you’re following a largely self-determined trajectory through the work. It may be partly modeled on someone else’s (such as that of a mentor with a strong personality telling you what you should be reading, writing, and thinking), but ultimately you’re making your own intellectual path by walking it. This is one of the signature characteristics of higher study in the humanities. It may be a strength.

A large part of this blog is dedicated to exploring these things, to making the implicit explicit for the good of those who feel drawn to the discipline of English studies and / or creative writing. It’s clear that I’m critical here of what I often see as hypocrisy and self-serving prevarication in greater academia. But I also disagree with the Libertarian voices currently developing the Don’t Go to Graduate School in the Humanities genre of business-oriented success advice. I think, in spite of very practical arguments to the contrary, if you feel called to study, write, and teach, by all means do it. Just don’t do it ignorantly and learn how to survive afterward so that you can keep doing it. How this unfolds in your life will be a mystery specific to your becoming.

With this in mind, I expose my own values here, my own work, which continues the inner-outer efforts I mention above. The Writing Expedition represents part of my disciplinary “production effort,” dedicated to expressing insights on what I have experienced in this field. Moreover, I think “expressing” is the right word because it implies a dichotomy. In order to ex-press something (or “squeeze out” if we want to look at the origin of the word), there must be an interior area where it already exists. An inner world. Often, a hidden world that can make the dominant scientistic discourse of reductive materialism very nervous. Like it or not, the Academy is subject to the dominant political, economic, and aesthetic tropes and discourses of the day; though, academics often find this distasteful and prefer to ignore it.

The ivory tower covered in camouflage.

It is safe to say that the Academy is an ancient type of institution that has survived to the present by appearing to be what society needs it to be in any era. Study the history of higher education in the West and it is easy to notice that the great universities have not existed in spite of what they imagine to be the barbarism and ignorance of the profane, but as a mode of cultural expression, 9th gatea conglomeration of beliefs and rituals, a matrix of ideas given a particular form in the material world. In other words, the Academy is an extension of culture. It offers a product that society wants and survives by making that product seem relevant. It has always been that way; though the outer wrapper of the product is redesigned again and again to reinforce existing narratives of power and faith. In the rare times it fails to do this: Kent State, May 4, 1970.

As Martin Petersen writes of CIA tradecraft standards (intelligence agencies being very similar to universities), “We have to establish our credibility and usefulness individual by individual, administration by administration. There is no down time when it comes to quality” (“What I Learned in 40 Years of Doing Intelligence Analysis for US Foreign Policymakers,” Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 55, No. 1). Without being too cynical, we could easily convince ourselves that establishing credibility and usefulness is one of the ongoing directives of the Academy: we want to matter.

Enter: John, who also wanted to matter.

When I was in graduate school, studying creative writing and rhetoric, John, a friend of mine there who happened to be a gifted poet, went through a kind of nervous breakdown. Since no one knows what a “nervous breakdown” actually is, we can call it that or we can say he went through a season of harsh depression, anxiety, purposelessness, and emotional pain. His wife described it as a “slow-motion train wreck” and they both tried to laugh about it. But it was real and the pain he went through changed his life.

Before you even think it, I should note that this person is not me. Things may have changed for John since then, but what hasn’t changed is the high-schoolish competitiveness in our colleagues that has lingered for a long time. Since many of them read this blog, I will only tell the part of his story that everyone already knows. And I will do it for a particular reason. Nevertheless, I hope he forgives me for this and understands what I am trying to say. Knowing him, I think he will.

It started with the birth of his daughter in our second year. John had come to the PhD from a high-paying career in industry, such that he didn’t have to take out student loans and could rent a fairly large house (as opposed to the holes most of us were living in). His wife didn’t work and they were living off their considerable savings. Still, the pressure was on, partly because John now had a child to think about, but also because had an immense work ethic and he was no fool. He knew, as did we all, that there were very few full-time teaching positions available and that trying to get one (even getting an interview at AWP or MLA) was like playing the Irish sweepstakes.

Nevertheless, John applied himself, wrote good poems, said smart things, and generally did well. He was older, married, and didn’t waste his time like the rest of us at the sad graduate school parties or looking for love in all the wrong places. He had a particular energy around him that said, I know the truth and, if I don’t know, I’m sure we can discover it together. In short, he seemed like the type who should win the career sweepstakes and become an assistant professor. There should be more people like John in teaching positions. When I think of what it takes to be a great graduate student, I think of him.

But he reached a breaking point, something in his “inner process” that no longer worked the way he thought it should. The reality of being a father had become far more real and compelling than the realities he was creating as a student of English and a poet. His hair turned stark white over the course of a month and he went through a kind of existential fugue, which according to him involved a lot of crying, regret, and hopelessness. Eventually, he dropped out of the program. He moved with his wife and daughter to Arizona to live with his in-laws. And two or three years later re-entered a PhD program at a different university, this time to study British modernism. As far as I know, he’s now a professor somewhere in the Midwest and I am sure he is great.

I tell his story here because although it had an ostensibly happy ending, his dark night of the soul is one that most of us experienced on some level at some time in our work. The difference may have been that he suffered from pressures we didn’t have, destroying the credibility and usefulness of the Academy for him. I believe this as much as I believe that he also lacked certain essential qualities necessary for running those inner and outer efforts concurrently and consistently, at least the first time around.

The voice in the fire: one hears it or one does not.

A teacher of mine once made an interesting observation about “mystery.” The more one seeks out the lacunae in one’s life—the numinous moments, the noetic leaps of high strangeness that result in extraordinary creations, realizations, and states of consciousness—the more mystery seems to increase, not decrease. Seek the mysteries and you will find there are more mysterious things in this world than you ever imagined. Or maybe you will find yourself imagining more such things as you learn to accept new ways of knowing.

Conversely, if you let existing modes of expression, accepted narratives, the exoteric rituals of consensus culture (especially those of the Academy) crowd your senses, ways of knowing will become narrower; meaning will become increasingly delimited and rigid; and the dominant cultural discourses (for us, scientism and reductive materialism) will come to seem all-encompassing. This is what I believe happened to John in his first PhD program. His outer effort was strong, but his inner work was obstructed by the anxiety of feeling responsible for his family. I do not fault him for this. However, I think his experience offers us an interesting lesson.

Recall that the “inner effort” is an emotional, psychological process. It therefore partakes of mystery because interiority cannot be completely mapped. This is where the muse, the creative genius, lives. This is where we dream, where we hear that voice speaking to us about who we truly are and how we must express ourselves. It is the place artists go when they produce authentic and original work.

Funny thing about the muse. She gives and she takes. Dedicate your life to a particular mode of expression and you must always try to hear her. Your sense of the numinous will increase exponentially, but you will also have to make sacrifices. As your outer effort must concern itself with “credibility and usefulness,” your inner effort must be like a love affair with the mystery inside you, which is what we’re talking about when we refer to the inner life of an artist.

Hakim Bey discusses this in The Temporary Autonomous Zone and calls it “sorcery”:

The dullard finds even wine tasteless but the sorcerer can be intoxicated by the mere sight of water. Quality of perception defines the world of intoxication–but to sustain it & expand it to include others demands activity of a certain kind—sorcery. Sorcery breaks no law of nature because there is no Natural Law, only the spontaneity of natura naturans, the tao. Sorcery violates laws which seek to chain this flow—priests, kings, hierophants, mystics, scientists & shopkeepers all brand the sorcerer enemy for threatening the power of their charade, the tensile strength of their illusory web.

A poem can act as a spell & vice versa—but sorcery refuses to be a metaphor for mere literature–it insists that symbols must cause events as well as private epiphanies. It is not a critique but a re-making. It rejects all eschatology & metaphysics of removal, all bleary nostalgia & strident futurismo, in favor of a paroxysm or seizure of presence.

Incense & crystal, dagger & sword, wand, robes, rum, cigars, candles, herbs like dried dreams–the virgin boy staring into a bowl of ink—wine & ganja, meat, yantras & gestures—rituals of pleasure, the garden of houris & sakis—the sorcerer climbs these snakes & ladders to a moment which is fully saturated with its own color, where mountains are mountains & trees are trees, where the body becomes all time, the beloved all space.

We can just as easily speak of it in terms of embracing a wider spectrum of expression. Viktor Frankl puts it this way: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible” (Man’s Search for Meaning).

The Green Muse by Albert Maignan (1895)

What, then, is the voice in the fire? It’s not a degree from Yale, tenure, and a tactless sense of entitlement. It’s that unmappable, ineffable interior effort, that numinous guidance system which instructs and inspires us to continue our work. It sustains us through years of advanced study, reveals the mystery inherent in the world (even in something as outwardly mundane as the sight of water), and helps us answer for our lives. If we are responsible practitioners of our art, we will listen to this voice just as carefully as we may express our work-products. If we stop listening and forget the internal process, focusing only on the external product, we will enter the dark night of the soul, which entails a lot of suffering.

This is the meaning of that famous line from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” If this is the life you choose (realizing that you have been chosen to answer for your life this way), I continue to wish the best for you.

Listen. And seek the mysteries.

Today, there was flooding in London. I was supposed to be there. But because I have no cartilage in my knees, I often wake up in agony on barometrically improvident days. Dark days of lying on the bed, focusing on my breathing. Days in which it’s hard to think, much less write. Days of codeine and jasmine tea and misanthropy. Walking from room to room is difficult and leaving the house is out of the question when I’m feeling like this and Port Meadow is up to 22C with 95% humidity.

Strangely, this never happened when I was living in Bangkok, one of the hottest, most humid places on the planet. Only here in the UK will the muscles in my legs tighten overnight, pulling the bones of my knees into each other, slowly, like a form of medieval torture. As with most manifestations of extreme pain, the experience transcends words. Maybe if I brushed up on my German, I could describe it. German seems like a good language for articulating suffering. At my current level of fluency, I can only say things about rain: schließlich, regnet es auf der Wiese. Or something like that. Maybe that’s all I need.

This condition has been going on regularly since 2003 when an orthopedic specialist gave me the option of surgery (resulting in no more pain but having to walk with a cane for the rest of my life) or occasional pain and my normal range of functionality on all the other days. I chose the second option, of course, which I still think was right. But goddamn, son, it hurts.

It’s a shame she won’t live – but then again, who does?

So it’s late afternoon. I’ve been trying to get meaningful writing done all day and a personal blog post is as good as it’s going to get. Lots of painkillers, tea, and sheer meanness seem to have worked such that I can at least get these words down. Lord knows I can’t allow a day to pass without producing some kind of manifesto, story, novel segment, editorial, white paper, or media rant. But, sitting here in my bathrobe, feeling like I’ve been put to the question by the town fathers for leading a black mass in the woods, I’m close to just dosing up, crawling back into bed, and moaning myself to sleep.

Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking. I know. Bad idea in my current state of mind. Still, I keep seeing the image of Deckard and Rachael making out in Deckard’s apartment, which admits of no rational explanation other than I associate rain, flooding, and climate change with the Blade Runner aesthetic. Blame PD James and Alfonso Cuarón for linking those together in my head via Children of Men.

Anyway, Blade Runner‘s about halfway over and Rachael’s been sitting at Deckard’s piano, talking about her dreams. And we feel bad for her because even though she’s sensitive and beautiful, we suspect she’s just some high-end Real Girl noir sexbot insinuated into Deckard’s life to distract him from the real nefarious shit that is likely going down over at the Tyrell Corporation. And every time I watch the movie, I read the moment they kiss in a different way.

Sometimes, I read it as Deckard giving in to the illusion. He knows she’s a replicant and doesn’t really care at that point because they’re both lost souls in a world where the distinction between natural and artificial has ceased to have any meaning—so forget about the fact that you’re lost and come over here.

Sometimes, I read it as Rachael giving in to the illusion that what she’s feeling for him is more than just an algorithm written into her synthetic gray matter by proto-Elon Musk Eldon Tyrell. Giving in because she wants to and maybe wanting is enough or everything.

And yes, if we look at that scene after reading Through a Scanner Darkly, we will have an emotional meltdown because Philip K. Dick was no fool and he understood something when he wrote:

But the actual touch of her lingered, inside his heart. That remained. In all the years of his life ahead, the long years without her, with never seeing her or hearing from her or knowing anything about her, if she was alive or happy or dead or what, that touch stayed locked within him, sealed in himself, and never went away.

So I do this. I think of this. And I listen to “Wish You Were Here” sipping my tea and breathing through the pain while I look at the meadow. And that last stanza, “We’re just two lost souls/ Swimming in a fishbowl/ Year after year/ Running over the same old ground/ And how we found/ The same old fears” means a lot to me; though, I have never felt more alien in this world.

The Voight-Kampff Empathy Test

Sometime back in 1993, William Gibson is supposed to have said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed,” which is a saying that seems wise, then obvious, then wise again the more you think about it. But 23 years of hindsight later, the obvious part seems far more dominant than whatever might have proven insightful. It’s 2016. Has the sheer science-fiction-horror-dread of this moment in time caught up to us from the back end of the 20th century yet? The future is not evenly distributed, at least the good parts where someone like me can get bionic knees. In 1982, Blade Runner gave the world a vision of rebirth after decay instead of the unadulterated Kali Yuga we’re entering now.

Ridley Scott wanted to show us how replicants just want to be loved and how those replicants are really us. Instead, we’re seeing how we’ve failed to evolve beyond the dystopian Reagan-era cyberpunk automatons we fantasized about in the 1980s. We never got past Terminator. Now, all we can say, with any degree of sincerity, is: blame the drugs. But not the ones people were on in the eighties when they handed us the trickle-down theory. Blame the nasty synthetic street drugs that made the best story of the last two decades have to be about a high school chemistry teacher dying of cancer who starts cooking meth to pay his bills. Yeah. Debt. Meth. Drones. Endless war. Doesn’t it add up?  Time for your meds.

All our dreams of machine salvation, online utopia, and some vague transhumanist singularity depending on an equally flimsy brain-as-hard drive metaphor became loud, stupid, self-important Neo from the Matrix—our savior, here to make us feel better about being consumers and take away our pain. The fridge logic singularity of Matrix Revolutions was merely the last cynical whimper.

But I’m in a bad mood today. Don’t listen to me. Now we have Trump and Hilary. Now the sweaty holographic fetish reel of decadent and naïve Reagan-era consumerism obviously didn’t work, but we’ve taken too much fluoxetine hydrochloride to care. It was never going to work. It wasn’t built to work. And it was always going to be ugly beyond words.

“And, for an instant, she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty, that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human.” 

Count Zero, William Gibson

One of the great, maybe incredible, things about having interesting friends is that you have a lot of stories to tell, if you’re the sort of person who likes telling stories, which I am. One of the sad, maybe horrible, things is that your friends are often your primary audience for these stories and people reach a point at which they stop trusting you with the events of their lives. They think you’re going to reveal everything ugly and embarrassing written on their hearts and on their faces, and their inherent defectiveness will then be shamefully exposed to the world. Who wants that?

So it’s not hard to see that misunderstandings will be inevitable and a certain degree of paranoia will definitely set in. In fact, your friends are sure to become convinced everything you write is about them personally. Oh sure, maybe you’ve used different details (like age, gender, geographical location, profession, background, ethnicity, species of house pet, and everything that happened) but really it has to be about them. They might as well have told the story themselves about themselves. And sometimes they do.

But more often they don’t. Because if they had, they’d understand that a good story is like an exotic bird. It’s nice to look at for a while, but how much more wonderful would it be to watch it fly out of your house and into someone else’s, then, squawking, fly into another house and another house until the entire block is pissed off and lights are coming on and maybe somebody throws a shoe and shatters his own windowpane and then the baby starts crying and somebody says I never loved you while standing at the sink and everyone winds up having an affair and life is changed forever. You story did that. So you don’t really have a choice. You have to tell it because what else could have such a remarkable effect? It’s magic. The Resplendent Quetzal has to fly.

Then again, if the story is completely unbelievable—even if it really happened—certain steps must be taken. Say, for example, you have a friend who wins an absurd amount of money in a poker game he should never have been playing. The amount he wins is so large that he fears for his life. But that’s not what makes the story great. The great part is that he had an immense amount of student loan debt, the sort that if he worked long hours for most of his life and never took a vacation or retired, he still wouldn’t be able to get out from under it. And a single poker game put him in a position to eventually pay the whole thing off.

Of course, what really happened is more complicated than that. And, for two years, you mull the story over, trying to come up with a way to tell it—how he paid off his debts and turned his life around and especially how he never played cards again, figuring his luck was divine and the gods don’t do favors like that more than once. For two long years, you feed the bird, imagining what would happen if you let it out on a warm spring night when the chimes are tinkling and everything seems quiet and slow.

Do you have a responsibility here? How much would everyone (especially your friend) hate you for writing the story? The cost-benefit is agony—especially since you know deep down that you’re doing to write it, that your friend is a great person but that you have this compulsion and eventually you will be powerless against it.

So one warm night with the chimes tapping the window and too much caffeine in your veins, you tell yourself you’ll just write it. You won’t send it to a magazine or post it on your blog. You’ll write it like an exorcism and be done with it once and for all. Your friend will never know. And the story will fly out of town, down to some rainforest canopy in the feral part of your hard drive to live with the Splendid Fairywren and the Lilac-Breasted Tern in the cold confetti of paradise.

At least until you drop your laptop in a motel pool on some drunken Sunday far in the future. The point is that you write the story. And, in the course of constructing a realistic narrative about an unreal thing that really happened, you realize that your friend is a fundamentally decent human being. The discontinuities and convolutions of doing creative nonfiction to a bit of his life reveal his essential goodness not unlike a magic mirror. The glass clouds over and it’s not your face looking back. ‘Tis true. He’s a thousand times better than you, oh hypercaffeinated story-writing fool with disheveled hair and guilty conscience.

All you can do is try to render what you consider to be his essential goodness and the wonder of his story—one which has been told many times by many writers better than you but which rarely comes about in real life. The poor, hardworking underdog wins for once and actually does the right thing with the money. Somehow, it’s even better because you can admit that if you had that much, you’d be sunning yourself ricky tick on a super-yacht off the coast of Zadar with Anastazija and Ljubica. He is basically, without a doubt, a better person. And this is why the gods do you no favors. So maybe you do understand a little bit about the world.

In any case, the bird, like the bennu-phoenix of antiquity, rises off your laptop like a flame from its own ashes. Where before it was merely a delicately feathered idea of itself, your writerly fever gives it shape and magical fire. It explodes into words. Then it demands a cookie. Because it is your bennu-phoenix, it prefers Mcvities Milk Chocolate Caramel Biscuits with a cup of strong Assam tea and a little coconut milk. But this is only natural. The real question is: how long do you expect such a marvelous bird to stay put?

Your friend comes to visit and you say nothing. You’re probably so busy shrugging and blaming the houseboats down on the river for the burning smell, that you don’t notice how he’s changed. It smells like an upholstry fire? Well, you know those boat people are always sailing their barges on the other side of the meadow. They’ll strip an empty house clean for fuel. They do it all the time. And you surreptitiously drop a cookie between the seat cushions, hoping the bennu-phoenix will quit trying to nip you in the ass while you’re sitting across from the reason for its existence. The bird wants out.

But your friend has changed, hasn’t he. He’s still got a considerable amount left over after paying his debts and even contributing significantly to his niece’s college fund. A certain air of respectability rides on his shoulders, as if it were now his duty, his burden, to have opinions about things. He’s been reading art history, you see. Politics. He uses the word consequence enough to make you think the word must have tiny lead counterweights roped to it like a piece of flying scenery.

And so you work very hard at having a conversation with this person while trying to square your perception of who he is becoming versus who you have imagined him to be. You feel like your house might burn down from shame at any moment and, though bennu birds might rise and fall, a house only goes one way if it isn’t standing straight. Such shame: that you could have been so wrong, that no matter how many caramel biscuits you feed your creation and no matter how its feathers seem to rake the air with brilliant fire, it is fundamentally false when you thought it was true. Your friend has become a pretentious asshole.

“And so I explained,” he waves his hand and the little counterweighted words bob and weave in the air between you, “that I’m taking this extremely seriously. I said, I’m a shareholder in this company. I’ve got two advanced degrees. And if you’re questioning my judgment on something someone in my position deals with every day, we’re going to have words.”

“So what did he do?”

“He backed down. He had to. I mean, seriously.”

Seriously? He goes. That night, you can’t sleep. You’re covered in a kind of mourning. You thought he had the greatest, most classically great story you’d ever heard—conceived in essential human goodness and dedicated to the proposition that not everyone will be transformed by money into a self-obsessed unaware narcissist.

So you let the bird out, feeling sad and betrayed and blaming yourself, too, for being just as unaware. And it flies onto your blog and burns there for a while. And you hope it has as good a life as any bennu-phoenix could have, it’s origins shrouded in myth, its destiny a riddle.

 

Written for a friend who sleeps the sleep of the just while the cold stars wheel above our heads.

26 May 2016

 

America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing. 
America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956. 
I can’t stand my own mind.

—Allen Ginsberg, America

If there is such a thing as a formula for success in life, it might go something like this: don’t complain, get results, and watch your back. Notice I said success, not happiness. We can determine metrics for success relative to a given line of effort in a given context—even if such achievement must therefore be contingent and temporary. Still, we can develop certain best practices for success within those parameters. But we have no idea how to determine happiness.

Since 1964, smart people have agreed with Paul that you cannot, under any circumstances, buy love. Clever people (who probably like John’s “Watching the Wheels” a lot more than anything on A Hard Day’s Night) say you may not be able to buy love, but you can certainly buy the conditions most favorable for finding it. However philosophers, especially mathematicians and rhetoricians, respond that “favorable conditions” mean very little when dealing with a binary (love / not love). And playing even-money odds is still a losing game. In other words, correlating a certain quantity and quality of conditions will not necessarily cause a particular outcome. So put your raggedy wallet back in your pants, eh?

Thinking you can beat the system by “bettering your chances” is sloppy, unnecessarily mystical, and prone to failure. It also happens to be in our nature and one of the emotional drivers of post-industrial culture. Part of us may be secretly relieved that we can’t buy love in a Tokyo vending machine, but an even deeper, more pathological part assumes there’s some morality always-already implicit in winning.

We despise the weak, the downtrodden, the unfortunate. We’d prefer that our Bentley be polished by a former office manager recently hoovered into the service economy, not by the mentally ill bearded man who’s been sleeping in the bus station. But we shouldn’t blame ourselves for feeling this way. We know what we like, even if all of heaven’s angels think we’ve grown into monsters.

Max Weber identified this justification-by-success 111 years ago when he wrote that:

the peculiarity of this philosophy of avarice appears to be the ideal of the honest man of recognized credit, and above all the idea of a duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself. Truly what is here preached is not simply a means of making one’s way in the world, but a peculiar ethic. The infraction of its rules is treated not as foolishness but as forgetfulness of duty. That is the essence of the matter. It is not mere business astuteness, that sort of thing is common enough, it is an ethos. (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 16-17)

In our present economy, this pathological faith seems to have mutated into an ethos blind to pervasive redundancy, obsolescence, dehumanization, and systemic violence so toxic and transpersonal as to make one long for a time machine. No one actually believes he or she is secure anymore or will be in the foreseeable future. No one believes (or even likes) the baby boomers, but everyone wants to believe what they say about things naturally improving.

We could argue that western economic systems have been in decline at least since the state of the “special relationship” in the Reagan / Thatcher administration. The modernist concept of empty-at-the-center radiant socioeconomic decay is now a legitimate way of describing our post-modern reality. Gordon White puts it well in his book on chaos and economics: “By refusing to adjust your strategy from the recommended life offered to the baby boomers forty years ago, what you are saying is that you have every confidence in the system; the current challenges are just temporary, and someone will come and sort it all out for us” (The Chaos Protocols). Right. I have yet to find someone willing to identify this messiah without having to listen to incoherent bellowing about making America great again.

So maybe if we’re not as successful as we think we should be, we can at least remind ourselves that we are trying to avoid being completely evil, that the morality of winning is a hollow and damaging ideal, and that we’re doing our part to bear witness to this:

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round,
I really love to watch them roll,
No longer riding on the merry-go-round,
I just had to let it go.

Personally, I’ve done what I could to disconnect from what a professor of mine once called the “cant of success,” but I still get suckered by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and four-hour work weeks and the undergrad-in-communications-level presentations on TED and Big Think. I still read too many articles about “lifehacking” designed to make me a more efficient self-propelled office mechanism. But I read a lot of Allen Ginsberg, too. Like, America:

America why are your libraries full of tears? 
America when will you send your eggs to India? 
I’m sick of your insane demands. 
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks? 
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world. 
Your machinery is too much for me. 
You made me want to be a saint. 

I want to be a saint, but I’m afraid. I want to love everyone, but I’m afraid. I want to tell the truth, but I’m worried that I don’t know what I’m doing. And I worry that we are all actually perfect and have nowhere to go. As a real life saint once said to me: “There’s nothing to be done. There’s nothing to achieve.” This breaks my heart a little bit more every time I think of it.

Who am I to say what is good or bad?  The bad parts are as integral to my life as the good parts. Sartre said that, and I think I agree.  I’m told to want certain things.  I feel like I have desires and pains.  But if I’m going to be honest with myself, I have to accept that desire and pain are both are necessary for a full life.  This, too, breaks my heart in unforeseen circuitous patterns.

Because I know happiness will remain as distant and ephemeral as the next world, until it comes.

I’ve written three books of fiction to date, all story collections; though, only one of them has been published. This is not remarkable or typical in any sense, even if I do have the stereotypical writer’s voice in my head telling me that I should be submitting to more book contests, etc. My submission schedule results in about 2-3 stories placed in magazines every year, a process I actually enjoy, and I have no plans to stop doing that. Still, I sometimes wonder whether the world needs another immature literary magazine, another lousy e-book marketing campaign (what Chuck Wendig calls the “shit volcano”), or another mediocre career-building novel entering the flotsam. What does the world need?

Better: what do I need?

Books are not the only way to be published, even if they are the fiction writer’s holy grail—specifically novels, ideally lots of novels—because they sell and therefore build careers. Or, as an industry professional once said to me at an AWP conference, “You need to write at least a novel a year for the next five years if you want to be a contender.” He was an important person in the publishing world, had a red nose, a cigar in his lapel pocket, and I was completely intimidated by him at the time. So I nodded as if I understood. But I didn’t and should have asked, “A contender for what, exactly?”

Publishing only feels like boxing. In reality, it’s business, the alchemy of transforming things into money. When business and art collide, a volatile chain reaction usually takes place resulting in all sorts of monstrous transmogrifications, creeping morbidity, and a certain amount of screaming. Put simply, how many writers have you heard of who built a career out of publishing a book a year? I can think of maybe one or two and none writing outside strictly defined genres.

The only literary writer who may produce full-length books with that kind of regularity is Joyce Carol Oates, someone as great as she is prolific but who is entirely unique. So “a book a year” might not be the best advice if you’re in this to make art. If you’re in it to make money, why aren’t you running a brothel, flipping houses, developing apps, or managing a hedge fund? You can probably make an app a year. Brothels, I don’t know, but I imagine their schedules are a bit more eventful.

Every writer asks a version of this question, sometimes on a regular basis: should I be writing harder, faster, longer, mo betta? Should I be soaking down the meadow like a frustrated stallion on horse viagra? How much is too much and why is it that by asking this question I feel soiled? Of course, as with most questions writers ask themselves, there are no answers. There are only opinions and that vague soiled feeling. To be honest, there is only subjectivity in this context.

So how much? Stop asking. Stop thinking about it. Just write. And if you want to be a “contender,” find a different metric against which to measure your progress.

 

“Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.” – W. Somerset Maugham

Yesterday, I got an email from a former student asking for advice on whether he should apply to a PhD program in English. This is not the first time someone has asked me this, though I have mostly stopped answering because (1) people must learn for themselves and no one thinks his or her experience will be typical; (2) graduate programs generally present an unconscionably glossy face to prospective students; (3) in order to persevere in an academic career, it is necessary to develop a personal philosophy that allows you to put the work first; and (4) my own experience in academia has been highly atypical.

Still, I consider May 1 to be my 6th anniversary as a PhD in English. This remains, in spite of all my criticisms, one of the greatest (and surprisingly joyful) achievements of my life. So every year around this time, I take a day to reflect on the good as well as the bad—how far I’ve come and what I’ve had to overcome as a result of my long years in graduate school.

As part of that, I write this blog post from a place of deep sincerity, responding to the question: should I apply to PhD programs in English?

Graduate school, especially in the arts and humanities, is an existential riddle very few people solve to any degree of satisfaction. Its dimensions are so far-reaching and complex that many years can go by before those who have lived through it get any kind of clarity about what they experienced.

I might have understood a bit more, a little bit sooner, about my situation than most graduate students. As someone who spent a significant amount of time acquiring various academic degrees and certifications, I have always been studying something. I grew up in an academic household, have been incredibly lucky with finding good teaching positions, and have learned to handle “administrative prevarication” in ways that have allowed me to survive. Not everyone has this experience. In fact, my story is an exception to a very unpleasant rule.

Deep-seated career frustration, depression, and even suicide seem to be on the rise for graduate students. This would appear true even if we assumed that 50 years of back-page articles on dysfunctional academia and the perpetual ranting in the higher-ed blogosphere was inherently anecdotal. By 2016, however, we no longer have to wonder. Over the last seven or eight years, we have been getting a clearer sense of how broken graduate education is in the west. William Pannapacker (aka “Thomas H. Benton”) writes in “Just Don’t Go, Part 2” (2009) that graduate schools

play obfuscatory games with their placement records and rarely give students a realistic sense of what it is like being in graduate school — how it’s not all about the “life of the mind” as two years gradually turns into a decade of contracting horizons and growing desperation.

Of course, the lack of accurate information available to students about graduate school is not accidental; it’s an essential component of the academic labor system. Even assistant professors, who should know what’s going on, encourage their students to go to graduate school because it is professionally risky to do otherwise. One might be seen as “doing a grave disservice to the profession,” as one writer said to me in a tone of bureaucratic menace.

But of the many letters I received last month, the majority included some version of “Why did no one tell me?” and “What am I going to do now?”

More than a few confessed the depression they experienced in graduate school. Several mentioned thoughts of killing themselves, and — after a decade of reading letters by the thousands on similar themes — I was not surprised at all. It’s more than accumulated anecdotes. As Piper Fogg recently presented it in The Chronicle (February 20): “67 percent of graduate students said they had felt hopeless at least once in the last year; 54 percent felt so depressed they had a hard time functioning; and nearly 10 percent said they had considered suicide, a 2004 survey found. By comparison, an estimated 9.5 percent of American adults suffer from depressive disorders in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.”

These are actual numbers. And the reason Pannapacker remains one of my personal heroes is that his was one of the earliest and most honest voices to talk about the obfuscation that I and my fellow graduate students experienced firsthand. What once sounded like a conspiracy theory, fancifully attempting to explain why an English department could be staffed with 8 tenured faculty members and 38 adjuncts, now looks like reality.

There has (at least since the late 1960s) been a dearth of reliable data for most academic fields correlating graduate student health, subsequent career performance, and program funding. I suspect this is because acquiring such information was as difficult as asking someone to incriminate themselves in court. There is a reason the Fifth Amendment exists. The academic analogue might be labeled, “The Conspiracy of Silence in the Interests of Self-Preservation.”

It’s not hard to understand that, particularly in academic culture, speaking up at any point may ruin one’s already slim job prospects. Moreover, it is unwise to use language like exploitation, depression, long-term poverty, unnavigable bureaucracy, Machiavellian feuding, and misrepresentation when talking about what you experienced for close to a decade as you tried to get a PhD. People will tell you to keep your mouth shut and that’s largely good advice, at least from the standpoint of the strategic job search. Unfortunately, it’s not so great from the standpoint of mental health.

Maybe your experience was like mine: after two masters degrees, I completed a PhD in just over 3 years. And though I suffered some serious personal tragedies toward the end of my program, I was able to complete my work with a minimum of trouble. Compare that to Zoe Stavri who writes in her blog, Another angry woman, that her PhD program was “so indistinguishable from depression, that I am left wondering whether in fact depression is a feature rather than a bug.” Or Audry Watters, now a freelance writer and tech journalist, who received no support or leeway when her husband died in the middle of her PhD in comparative lit. On her website, hackeducation.com, Watters explains why she quit:

I quit because I’d lost the stomach for being part of the institution of higher education — one that wasn’t sustaining me intellectually, financially or spiritually; one that wanted me to teach classes for very low wages — as a grad student and then likely as an adjunct faculty member. I quit because I was exhausted and couldn’t handle the obstacle course that grad school and the academic job market still required my running through. I quit because I needed to heal from the trauma of watching Anthony die. I quit because far from that so-called Ivory Tower being a place of solace and contemplation, it had become a nightmare of bureaucracy and politics.  (“The Real Reason I Dropped Out of a PhD Program”)

Historically, what could usually be found (aside from the highly suspect Bowen and Sosa Report in 1989) came from confessions made online by the disappointed and the overlooked—those who no longer had anything to lose, felt they had gotten a raw deal from the academy, and were unwilling to be complicit any longer. Sadly, more of these non-entities exist now than ever before. The upside—if such a word could even be used in this context—is that people like William Pannapacker are telling the truth—at least a version of the truth that teaches survival.

The saddest, most tragic part is that only those who are tough survive. For example, I have survived because I love teaching so much, I’d do it for free and I’m ruthless about avoiding that eventuality. Others, whether through intensive networking or existing connections, survive through a kind of perpetual low-stakes patronage that can be like nepotism or hustling or just an exotic form of luck. But everyone agrees that academia shouldn’t be about these things. And, with the exception of Penelope Trunk, everyone agrees that a graduate humanities degree should not require the prospective student to have a trust fund as a prerequisite. As Alex Pang wrote back in 2004:

No one has born the weight of the decade’s terrible academic job market more than young Ph.D.s. Caught between a culture that insists they cannot leave academia, a system that doesn’t have enough room to allow them to stay, and a sense that Ph.D.s are not suited to nonacademic jobs and nonacademic jobs are unsuitable to Ph.D.s, they have too often found themselves deprived of opportunities and alternatives.

In a highly cited Chronicle of Higher Education column, “Deprogramming from the Academic Cult,” Margaret Newhouse mentions a number of unhealthy attitudes typical in this kind of academic culture, ranging from extreme perfectionism to overwhelming peer pressure to unrealistic career expectations. It’s useful to read her piece alongside a similar Chronicle post by Pannapacker in which the author summarizes Newhouse’s ideas relative to his own career:

Although I am currently a tenure-track professor of English, I realize that nothing but luck distinguishes me from thousands of other highly-qualified Ph.D.’s in the humanities who will never have full-time academic jobs and, as a result, are symbolically dead to the academy. Even after several years, many former graduate students grapple with feelings of shame and failure that, to outsiders, seem completely irrational.

For all its claims to the contrary, graduate education does not seem to enhance the mental freedom of many students, some of whom are psychologically damaged by the experience. As Newhouse suggested—perhaps more rhetorically than seriously—graduate school these days seems to have a lot in common with mind-control cults.

Science writer, Gwen Pearson, also thinks of academia as a cult and writes that the “Alternative Careers in Science” workshop she is regularly asked to give at her university is called “alternative” because “They don’t mean becoming a music composer or a patent examiner; they mean getting a job that isn’t a professor in academia. Because, to them, anything else IS alternative, and, ergo, inferior.”

For many grad students, it seems that there is eventually a “looking glass moment” in which they wonder if they truly are inferior life forms and realize that their sense of self has been inexorably altered as a result of living inside academia. Sometimes this is what you’d want: you have acquired a range of implicit and explicit methodologies for leading an intellectually curious life. But just as often, it can be shattering: you feel unfit to be or do anything other than function as a scholar in a university setting. Most people stop at that stage and grieve for the life they could have had if they hadn’t gone into graduate study, for the deep sacrifices they were compelled to make by a broken system, and for the profound opportunity cost involved.

There is an immense amount of unfairness and dishonesty integral to higher education, at least right now in the west. And it goes without saying that reform is needed. But I think Zoe Stavri is correct when she notes that even though it’s obvious reform is necessary “none of this will happen, because the problems in our universities are the same as the problems outside of our universities”—which is to say that the entire concept of an “ivory tower” as a refuge from economic and political realities is nothing but a myth:

The thing about PhDs is they are a scam. On paper, they are studying a topic that you love, and becoming an expert in it, and generally contributing to human knowledge. In practice, what actually happens is the university gets a research assistant for three years, to work on a project that they want studied that is in some way related to a thing that interests you (but is actually whatever they could get funding for). The university doesn’t have to pay a penny for this research assistant: in fact, they get paid to have you there! I imagine it would be a whole lot easier if everyone just admitted that this is what is happening, but nobody does. And instead, the whole structure gaslights and emotionally blackmails PhD students. It shifts all of the problems we encounter as employees into personal failings: clearly we’re not interested enough in this topic that we supposedly chose, and if we cared enough, we’d want to do the work.

If you want to attend graduate school do not dismiss voices like these. Remember, these people—the ones passionately describing what were perhaps life-shattering experiences—are just like you. They love(d) something and want(ed) to be part of it. They are smart, driven, accomplished. And they were cast out of a system as soon as they ceased being functional parts of its hierarchy. By rights, they should be teaching someone like you at some college somewhere. But this is not how things worked out.

Consider further that Pannapacker’s hypothetical of what could happen to any (academically successful) PhD after graduation is a point-by-point accurate description of what befell at least two people with whom I went to grad school:

Everyone has told her that “there are always places for good people in academe.” She begins to obsess about the possibility of some kind of fatal personal shortcoming. She goes through multiple mock interviews, and takes business classes, learning to present herself for nonacademic positions. But again and again, she is passed over in favor of undergraduates who are no different from people she has taught for years. Maybe, she wonders, there’s something about me that makes me unfit for any kind of job.

This goes on for years: sleepless nights, anxiety, escalating and increasingly paralyzing self-doubt, and a host of stress-induced ailments. She has even removed the Ph.D. from her résumé, with some pain, but she lives in dread that interviewers will ask what she has been doing for the last 12 years. (All her old friends are well established by now, some with families, some with what seem to be high-powered careers. She lives in a tiny apartment and struggles to pay off her student loans.) What’s left now but entry-level clerical work with her immediate supervisor just three years out of high school?

I write this not to scare you but to open your eyes. Graduate school is wonderful. It is also hard. It can also damage you greatly. You have to be strong, steady, emotionally resilient, and willing to look at your years of study as valuable in themselves. No matter what people say, a PhD in an arts or humanities subject is not likely to be a strategic career move. You do it because you love it and you are too stubborn not to do it. Regrets are inevitable. However, if you love the work more than you love leading any particular lifestyle, you will be able to put the work first. This means before kids, before money, before love, and before the comfortable middle-class life someone else might be enjoying with your same degree.

Am I saying you have to be a poor monk in order to do this? Not necessarily; though, I’m not ruling it out. What I am saying is that the work must come before all other things. If you can have those other things, wonderful. But they are “in addition” not “along with” or “because of.” If you think it’s impossible to work outside a university setting, read Alex Pang’s excellent blog post about this exact possibility. But, above all else, do not assume that you will be paid or even regarded as anything but cheap labor after all your work and sacrifice.

Make the work your refuge. Develop alternate forms of income if necessary after graduating. And always take extraordinary steps to ensure physical health and mental stability. Contrary to popular opinion, academia is not for the weak. And those who “can’t do” certainly can’t survive in its highly competitive and unforgiving environment.

 

* NoteIf you are just graduating from university with a BA in an arts or humanities field and are wondering about what to do next, this is solid advice: http://chronicle.com/article/What-to-Advise-Unemployed/44491

Today, Rebecca Schuman wrote a worthwhile piece in Slate, “The End of Research in Wisconsin,” covering the academic outcry against Gov. Walker’s $250-million budget cuts and subsequent demolition of tenure at state universities.  It’s mildly sensational Slate fare, which is to say, it’s well-written, informative, and disturbing.  I think one of the main reasons we’re seeing upsetting stories like this about the “worth” of a college education relative to the poisonous fallout that attends it is because anti-intellectualism is a theme in American culture that has never gone away; though it’s never seemed this poisonous.

Consider: higher education has always been a battleground in WI (and just about everywhere else). We know that the collision of opposing values (and the economic landscapes created by those values) that emerges when government and academia vie for power is as old as the United States. Or we would know that if history was actually considered as valuable as STEM.  The current STEM-fetish in the States is likely the invisible elephant in the room.  But Shuman’s piece doesn’t get into that.  Instead, she talks about how angry the University of Wisconsin faculty are at Gov. Walker’s maneuvering, citing the exploits of sociology professor, Sara Goldrick-Rab, who tried to strike back by warning incoming freshmen about the situation.  Well, that’s interesting and dramatic, isn’t it?

Gov. Walker is probably interested in (1) consolidating power; (2) controlling high-profile programs (STEM–ever see an English department with a research budget in the millions?) that will be directly and indirectly lucrative; and (3) silencing all opposition. What else is new? He’s a politician.  Do we expect him to have humanistic values?  His entire worldview is based around trying to eat the appendages of his opponents without letting his opponents eat his.  He is not interested in φιλόσοφος.

This is the same struggle going on in most state-funded universities throughout the country.  This is the same collision of values we’re seeing (in a far more complex and apocalyptic sense) in the current presidential campaign.  Sure, we should care about it; we should debate and discuss.  Our policies should reflect our deepest beliefs.  But college is not going away and neither are state governors.

The usual doomsaying is well represented in the media; though, many Americans still believe and will still believe in going to college, in tenure, and even in the humanities–despite the fact that self-help celebrity James Altuscher makes a pretty good argument to the contrary: don’t go to college because it costs too much.  If all we cared about was ROI, yeah, I could agree.  I guess that’s all many, if not most, people care about in the West: job skills, earning potential, stability.  And who could blame them?  They’re nervous wrecks, mostly because they’re in debt and jobs are scarce.

Still, I don’t buy the entire argument. You can’t commodify learning; you can only try to commodify what a particular degree is “worth” according to what the economy seems to be doing.   For example, student loan debt in the States is ridiculously exploitative. Few disagree with this.  And so when Altuscher says college is a horrible investment, he is more or less right. But sometimes an investment is horrible on one level and profitable on another.

How much would you pay to stay out of the rat race for 4 years, talking about ideas while learning how to communicate, lead others, and discover what really makes you tick?  Sounds priceless to me.  But maybe “priceless” doesn’t mean you want to go into debt for the rest of your life.  When the anti-intellectuals use ROI as an argument against the Academy, what they’re really talking about is student debt vs. the state of the economy.  And they’re conflating these things in an argument against all “useless college degrees” because humanistic inquiry runs contrary to the business values congruent with STEM.

But then, of course, there’s Penelope Trunk, a writer who often seems as damaged as she is imbalanced.  She comes across mostly as an internet troll masquerading as a career advice guru.  I’d like to present an impartial façade when I talk about her, but she’s good at what she does.  Ten minutes on her blog and I feel horrible about the world because she does; she’s making a living off of it; and she is a strong writer.  Sadly, all that learning she did in college has been aimed at destroying what made her.  She is the vanilla Ann Coulter.  And her perspective is where the University of Wisconsin controversy is destined to end.

Trunk has argued vociferously that graduate school, especially in the humanities, is now a frivolous pastime for the idle rich. She intensifies and extends Altuscher’s argument by saying that “non-science degrees are not necessary for a job” (the STEM fetish raises its head once again) and adds that “If you’re looking for a life changing, spiritually moving experience, how about therapy? It’s a more honest way of self-examination—no papers and tests. And it’s cheaper.”  This, my friends, is the fine art of trolling.

She loves it: “I do tons of radio call-in shows where I say that graduate degrees in the humanities are so useless that they actually set you back in your career in many cases. And then 400 callers dial-in and start screaming at me about how great a graduate degree is.”  And so I bring her up because this is the answer to what my friend, Al Cabal, has called “the end of America.”  It’s not the end of higher education.  It’s deeper than that.  It’s the final termination point of our self-inquiry.  As a country, at least in the media, we cannot bring ourselves to think past the trolling.  Cabal puts it like this:

New York City just shut down the subways because of snow for the first time in the 101 years that system has existed. Twitter trolls are grounding aircraft. A drunken federal employee landed a drone on the White House lawn. The entire American police state has been built on panic driven by bullshit with low production values. Never underestimate the taste of the American public. If you doubt that, just turn on a radio to any contemporary music station. Watch the most popular TV shows. Tell me who the Kardashians are and why I should care. Google “Operation Mockingbird.”

Bullshit, indeed.  In “The Great American Delusion,” Cabal writes, “When I think of the incredible hubris of this country and its anencephalic and heartless citizenry, I think of the Greek goddess Nemesis, and an old Elvis Costello lyric: ‘She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake.’”  

Today, in Wisconsin, academics are screaming because their privileges are being abrogated by a power-hungry state government.  Today, in the United States, this dynamic is in flux on every level and all we hear are the trolls arguing an anti-intellectual bottom line so utilitarian that it would make George F. Babbitt blush.

 

One of the many reasons I love pulp fiction from the early 20th century: writers like HP Lovecraft can have a line like, “the moon was gleaming vividly over the primeval ruins” (from “The Nameless City“) and actually get away with it. If I wrote something like “gleaming vividly,” my teachers would have beaten me publicly for about an hour. Is it gleaming? Really? Do you have any idea what that is? Vividly? What does “vividly” look like? Do you even know? If you know, how come you’re not showing it in concrete terms? If you don’t know, fuck you, why are you writing it? Oh, the beating would be vast and terrible.

Instead of telling the reader that the moon was gleaming vividly, the harder, more powerful, more evocative and immersive technique, is to show the gleam, show how it’s vivid, show how the ruins might look primeval using descriptive language. That’s the way I was taught. But HPL can get away with lines like this because he’s consistent. And this brings up a deeper lesson about fiction writing: stylistic consistency is more important than any given stylistic choice.

In other words, Lovecraft will write a line like “the moon was gleaming vividly” and we will have to either accept it or shut the book. If we accept it–okay, it’s pulp fiction or it’s HPL or we’re just feeling generous that day–then he hits us with “It poured madly out of the dark door, sighing uncannily as it ruffled the sand and spread about the weird ruins.” Wow. Take it or leave it. Do you want to enjoy the story or not? It’s no fun if you have to complain about the writing. So you take it. And then he’s got you: you’ve decided to let him have as many adverbs / vague adjectives as he wants. You’re going to let him tell you that the sigh was uncanny (what does “uncanny” sound like, eh?) and the ruins were weird (can you think of the last weird ruins you’ve seen?). He has trained you to read and appreciate *his* fiction rather than trying to meet your expectations.

Some great fiction writers can do both. F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, can write idiosyncratic prose and also ground those weird (!) choices in hard-edged concrete description. People think he learned this through his association with Hemingway, but that’s according to Hem in A Moveable Feasta great book but likely packed with exaggerations and a few outright lies. Hem might have learned it from Gertrude Stein, but the idiosyncratic flourish we’re talking about is less evident in his work probably because he had such a strong background in news writing. He *had* to make his prose acceptable to the reader (something that also helped him support himself by selling stories to LIFE and The Saturday Evening Post in an era when you could live that way).

Lovecraft is great in other ways. Still, when I read a passage like this, I have to smile: “In the darkness there flashed before my mind fragments of my cherished treasury of daemoniac lore; sentences from Alhazred the mad Arab, paragraphs from the apocryphal nightmares of Damascius, and infamous lines from the delirious Image du Monde of Gauthier de Metz. I repeated queer extracts, and muttered of Afrasiab and the daemons that floated with him down the Oxus.”

I know HPL sets himself the very difficult task of writing about states of consciousness that have only a tenuous connection to everyday life. So maybe that’s the reason for many of his writerly choices. I do take a certain daemoniac enjoyment of how he disregards certain modern conventions.

  • Set a word count goal. My minimum goal is 7 pages per week, which comes to about 2450 words.
  • Give yourself permission to write poorly. You are the worst judge of your own writing, especially in a first draft. You need to get around your hangups if you want to be productive.  The only way to do this is to stop caring what the world will think.
  • Meditate. I do it for 15-20 minutes before I start. I close my eyes, pay attention to my breathing, and still my mind. You can’t focus if you have a head full of burning spiders.
  • Never talk about what you’re currently writing. Talk about what you’ve already written if you must. Ideally, unless you need to be flogging your “platform” and self-promoting, don’t talk about your writing at all.  Put it out there and let others talk about how great or horrible you are.
  • Always talk about the craft of writing but only after you’ve done your writing for the day.
  • Program yourself by creating rituals and routines that inform your body and mind it’s time to write. I try to write at the same time every day.  After I meditate, I have coffee, light a little incense (which replaced a cigarette years ago), and disconnect from electronic media.
  • Always end with something more left to say in the scene. It will take far more energy tomorrow to start from zero than in media res.
  • Do not compare yourself to other writers, ever. You are a unique snowflake. Believe it.
  • Avoiding low blood sugar is one of the secret keys to intellectual productivity, especially for creative people. Have your donut, but be sure to also snack on fruit and seeds.
  • After you write and dump all your energy into your work, do a little exercise to avoid feeling exhausted for hours. I currently do yoga and chi gong, but a good swim or a jog would be just as effective, I think.

tumblr_inline_nx0i37Gzbg1rbqvxq_540I’m back in Oxford today, immanentizing the eschaton once again in the Social Sciences Library, where I must regularly do at least 67% of all my work. The other 33% is done either in pubs (sometimes quiet and wonderful places to sit, sometimes full of stinkin’ drunks, though what do you expect, eh?) or coffee shops (usually loud, packed with psychotic tourists, and unclean just an hour after opening). Unlike London, Oxford is not predominately a culture where people will sit in cafes working. I was surprised at that when I first arrived, having become very comfortable with the American and Central European styles of productive solitude-in-a-crowd encaffeination.

Cafe culture is slightly different wherever you go, but there are certain international standards one can expect (that is, everywhere but in Oxford). I think my top five favorite cafes of all time have to be:

(1) Cafe 976 in Pacific Beach, California, essentially a well-kept house from the 1920s with a big porch and a garden, where I used to while away the evenings of my misspent youth reading tarot;

(2) Cafe Josephine in Tallinn, Estonia, as much for the owner’s dog, Bari, a gregarious old retriever who functions as the unofficial greeter and maître d’hôtel, as for the coffee, which is also excellent;

(3) Cafe Indigo in Prague, which I think has gone the way of the dodo, but which used to serve an Algerian coffee that would knock you out of your shoes and realign your priorities in life. It was a great gathering place for students and literary types;

(4) Zeitgeist Coffee in Seattle for frankly being one of the coolest places you’d ever want to sit and think; and

(5) Osama’s in Columbia, Missouri, where I used to hold my office hour and drink Turkish coffee after Turkish coffee in order to cope with the sad realities of teaching freshman comp in the Midwest. It was run by Osama Yanni, the nicest guy you’d ever want to know but unlucky enough to have a name recognizable by the vast unwashed proletariat of the Show-Me State. It closed.

There have been many others (and more than a few in Tallinn and Paris), though these are the ones I think I’ve liked the most in my itinerant writing life. These are the places where I’ve written some of my best stories.

But today, today brothers and sisters, I am holding forth from the holy of holies, the inner chamber of the inner chamber of the great whited sepulcher of sepulchers, the ivoriest of the ivory towers. Actually, it’s not that grand. I’m in the steel-and-Formica lounge of the Social Sciences Library, over by the vending machines. It’s a spot where I can at least eat a sandwich and have my coffee without being psychically accosted by some miserable family on vacation from upper Spokaloo, pissed that they just paid £15 each for breakfast on the Tolkien Walking Tour. It happens. Now you’re all wearing identical Gandalf vs. the Balrog T-shirts. Balance your expectations relative to that choice, okay?

Naturally, this is a university, the university, and people don’t just come here for the amenities. They come to do the work (always the work, whatever it happens to be), to get recognized, and to generate sufficient cultural cachet for them to continue on in the style to which they are accustomed. The coffee can be bad. It’s for the service class anyway.

Enjoying what you’re eating often upsets people here for many reasons. You are expected to frown into your soup and sigh over your bagel. You might even go so far as to faintly shake your head at your Greek salad, implying thoughts of great consequence that probably have nothing to do with your packet of fattening and therefore off-limits croutons. The weight of the world is buried in your mashed potatoes. Your parfait is the parfait of melancholy. To enjoy any of it is to indulge in an unforgivable lapse of seriousness.

In such an environment, one tries to be as gentle and understanding as possible toward the highly refined sensibilities of the world’s future ministers, art patrons, and captains of industry—most of whom were born after Kurt Cobain died but who nevertheless seem to constantly reference his death as if that were some kind of magical touchstone for sincerity. This makes me kind of tired, but I try to get along.

For example, I will not smuggle lunch into a reading room. I signed a five-page agreement when I got my very special non-student library access card (speak friend and enter), stipulating that I would not bring food and drink into Moria no matter how lightheaded or hypoglycemic I might become. There are the vending machines outside. There are enough steel-and-Formica tables in the lounge to support an army. So I intend to honor that agreement. And I acknowledge that seeing me in the corner with a Cesar salad might drive some of my more delicate colleagues over the edge.

They might snap and order a pizza in the middle of the night, discipline punctured, starvation-vegan diet shot to hell, shame, existential angst, eventual career failure, disinheritance. There shall be no cheese and pepperoni. For many of these kids, life is a game of no-limit hold-em with the Devil, but as long as they do exactly what they’re told, they feel they’ll keep on winning the way they always have. The thing most of them don’t seem to understand is that if you build your life around a game, even if you never lose, that’s what your life will be about. Welcome to the casino of success. You are a VIP for life. When you die, we’ll bury you under the craps table.

So food. It’s problematic. Earlier, I was breaking about half of the rules, enjoying a deli sandwich and reading Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, which also meant I was smiling. So it was not surprising when I felt hot darts of psychic rage boring into the side of my face. They were coming from a very thin, aggravated girl at the table across from me. She had on a sweatshirt that looked a few sizes too big and what I assumed was her usual expression of dislike mixed with contempt. I thought what I always think: who, me? But then I realized: it wasn’t the standard-issue animosity most people display in this environment. It was a food thing. Next to her laptop was a plastic bag of carrot sticks and a bottle of mineral water. Lunch. I’d be in a bad mood, too.

I looked back down, pretending like I didn’t notice her staring, but I was also thinking, you know, there’s this golden retriever named Bari you really need to meet. If only. A clean, well-lighted place and a friendly dog can make all the difference in your life, in your work. I dug into my sandwich. It was good.

I once took a creative writing workshop from Richard Ford, in which he spent a lot of energy inveighing against the epiphany in short fiction. This must have been in 1997 or 1998. Little did any of us suspect at the time that his vehemence was probably a reaction to a single bad review that had come out for Women with Men by some no-name writer with an ax to grind. The review criticized Ford for being unwilling to let his characters change or realize very much as they suffocate though postmodern American decline.*

I’ve tried unsuccessfully over the years to find that review. It has mysteriously disappeared from the internet. Does that actually happen? Does the writer now swim with the fishes? Maybe it came out in Kirkus or in the AWP Chronicle; though, I tend to think it wouldn’t have been the Chronicle, given how careful they are with avoiding the faintest whiff of contentiousness toward the darlings of the Big Six in one of the most atavistic industries in the world. So probably Kirkus. Or Salon. I think people at Salon could still read at that point.

Anyway, the review was scathing. I remember it not because I necessarily agreed with it, but because at that time I was in awe of Ford in one of the most unproductive and frankly brutal workshops I’d ever experienced. The Xanax intake in our class went up precipitously after the second meeting, while the likelihood of dissent dropped to 1938 Great Purge levels. All heads were bowed. Everyone had joined the party. Dissidence was shown zero tolerance. And I felt that our instructor had gradually begun to resemble Frank Booth offering Jeffrey a ride in Blue Velvet as if we relived that scene in each critique.

Ford’s ability to craft fiction nevertheless spoke for itself. That was the problem: you might think the guy tuning your piano is a surly misanthrope until he starts playing Rachmaninoff. Then you decide you must have been wrong about everything. How much more do you think a highly accomplished yet incredibly acerbic celebrity could shock a group of young students just starting out? Several of my classmates quit writing fiction for good after sitting through critiques that took apart their 20-page stories sentence by sentence. The rest of us were intimidated yet determined not to seem that way. We wanted to be real writers. We would endure. Since then, I’ve come to believe I was more impressed with Ford’s craft and less with his worldview; though, young writers tend to conflate the two when under the influence of a particular teacher and I certainly did.

So when he talked about the epiphany in fiction as being largely an empty obsolete convention, we nodded and wrote it down. What the hell did we know? Besides, the term had religious overtones. That was an absolute no-no. The largely white, upper-middle class Breakfast Club of terrified 20-somethings in my shop immediately started to write gutless (and mostly bad) Ford-Carver imitations—pared-down realism in simple declarative sentences where nothing much happens beyond a .000001% change in the protagonist’s depression.

The theme of every piece became: please don’t hurt the writer of this story. Joan, a secretary at a Toyota dealership—who’d decided to take a story writing class through open university because she liked reading Stephen King—was the only student who’d had the guts to write a scene involving prayer. I remember her story. Though it was painful to read, she may have been the worst writer and the best human being in the room. After her second critique, she developed a facial tic, but she kept coming. I kept coming, too, and tried not to notice that my cigarette and coffee intake had almost tripled as I subconsciously girded myself for fiction fight club. And I also took multiple beatings. You don’t forget beatings like that. They qualify as formative experiences, not because they help you be a better writer but because they show you what not to do, what psychological damage feels like, and how unnecessary it is.

Class and money, of course, were part of the problem. This was at a state university in California, the program I was in before I applied to the MFA at the University of Montana and learned that not all writing programs are created equal. Maybe fortunately, I hadn’t yet seen how students in Ivy or near-Ivy writing programs are coddled and courted as long as they have connections. In Montana, several of my classmates had agents before they even started (or wrote anything). Famous visiting writers showed up twice a week and yawned through their workshops, occasionally meting out a beatdown to the group pariah—usually the kid on heavy student loans whose parents don’t happen to be international art dealers. It makes strategic sense to do this. You look like you’re doing your job and a bit of focused brutality keeps the others in line. Plus some kid without connections won’t likely be a problem in the future.

To his credit, this did not happen in Ford’s workshop. Everyone took a beatdown. Then again, no one had an evident future in creative writing. So he might have been shouting at a room full of corpses, professionally speaking. He seemed angry about having to teach the class in the first place. I think he was there as a personal favor, produced no doubt through the clandestine machinery of patronage and obligation that keeps the MFA Ponzi scheme up and running even in the lowliest regional colleges. Look at the list of visiting writers on any half-page AWP Writer’s Chronicle MFA program advertisement and compare this to the names consistently showing up in Best American Short Stories over the last 20 years. Then look up who’s publishing those people and where they’re teaching now. Who takes those classes? Who can qualify to enter those MFA programs? You’ll figure it out. It’s not hard. And, after that, I’d like you to sweep out the break room.

However, there is another difference between the finishing-school MFA and the one I was in at that time: lack of tact. Students in the highfalutin MFA programs, especially the students on big loans, have a very powerful sense that they must not argue too loudly. They are, after all, being taught by MacArthur fellows and the Pulitzer winners. But go down to a state college on the edge of a farm community where Animal Sciences gets more funding than English, Art, and History together. There you will encounter a type of student looking for an education and angry that she isn’t getting it. Already alienated, many of these kids will gravitate towards the arts, not because it’s a cool thing to talk about at daddy’s dinner parties, but because they have become true believers. Debt is going to be part of their lives forever, but maybe they’re still idealistic enough to want to become artists even though their future as parking lot attendants is pretty much locked in at that point. Every class matters to them. Every text is something that they’ve had to sacrifice for. And if they’re going to be publicly abused and their work put to the question, they want it to be for a good reason.

Thus it came to pass that on the day we were talking about publishing (such that it was clear none of us would ever publish a damn thing because, hey, look around), Karin** raised her hand. I knew it was coming. I could feel the barometer drop as Ford, in mid-sentence, looked over at her. She’d had a pissed-off look since the first day and, meeting by meeting, she seemed to be holding in the rage. I never got to know Karin very well, but I remember that she had a lot of piercings and bright carrot-orange hair which must have been dyed. She was gravely serious about becoming a writer. She was making it happen through loans and waitressing at Denny’s. Moreover, she had a two-year-old son. Karin did not lead an easy life. She led a determined one. And she was not impressed.

She asked a question: “Can you talk about how you first got published? I mean, isn’t it true that you’re so famous whatever you write can get automatically published at this point?” In the spirit of Mark Twain’s after-dinner speech at John Greenleaf Whittier’s birthday party, “the house’s attention continued, but the expression of interest in the faces turned to a sort of black frost.” The daffodils in the faculty club immediately turned to ash and crumbled. Dogs began to howl. The corner of Joan’s eye began to violently twitch.

The way I remember his response was that it was something acidic and dismissive. It was not altogether as harsh as I had expected and, to my surprise, he did not command her to commit ritual suicide then and there. But Karin never came back to class after that meeting. I may not recall his exact words because, in that moment, I was having what can only be described as a major epiphany. I realized it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if I came to the next meeting or went to a bar and got drunk or wrote 20 pages of the best possible prose. What mattered was my attitude to my own work, how sincere I was while remaining dedicated to learning the craft. That’s what being a real writer is. I have Ford’s workshop to thank for that.

It was the first big realization I had in the writing life: every act of writing is an act of defiance. All else is opinion, vanity, and marketing. If that sounds too extreme, let me respectfully suggest that you’re not expressing yourself as fully or as honestly as you could. Let me suggest that you write something that people will disagree with and that you also happen to believe. And let me suggest that you put it out there to publishers and learn to deal with the inevitable beatings. And then defy those and do it again.

 

 

* Kathy Knapp does an updated version of this critique in American Unexceptionalism: the Everyman and the Suburban Novel After 9/11 (2014).

** Not her actual name but close enough for those who might remember.

So the holidays are over. I spent mine reading obscure horror stories from the 19th century and the nonfiction writing of various friends, drinking too much Tetley’s tea, and enjoying myself at home. I mostly stayed in Oxford this year; though, I did have fun going to London on Christmas Eve. It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest places on earth to spend any amount of time. Since I am so close, I go there often. The City of London had a fairly spectacular fireworks display yesterday that can be seen here if you missed it.

Like most relatively sane people, I try to avoid making resolutions at the beginning of a year. Nevertheless, I did make one for 2016. This year I intend to follow through on some of my very long projects to an appreciable degree, putting forth my best effort possible to get some things completed and in the mail before 2017. I should note that I am getting close to completing my third book. However, I’ve been working on it for 6 years (including many painful revisions and reversals), which is how long it took me to write the first one.

Something tells me that I should be writing faster, but I’m convinced that whatever that something is, it isn’t the voice of a writer (or at least of a very good one). So I have decided to keep ignoring it. The good news is that several long projects of mine are probably going to reach completion this year, which will nevertheless be an enormous relief.

What I’m Not Doing Anymore

One thing I’m definitely not doing any more is giving free fiction writing advice to people who send questions via my old WordPress email address. I have not publicly listed that email for some time and now it is completely shut down with no forwarding.  Unfortunately, it was still accessible until very recently.

There are a few good reasons for me shutting down the Q/A portion of my website. I realize that operating a public site, even a WordPress blog like this, exposes a person to all kinds of craziness in addition to pleasant interactions with like-minded readers. You need to have a tough attitude to do anything public. And you need to be willing to block the assholes immediately. I do all those things. On the other hand, I can get so wrapped up in talking about writing that sometimes it uses the energy I need in order to do my own work. That’s where the situation gets hard.

There is no shortage of good writing instruction and advice out there. I remain a huge fan of the Gotham Writers Workshop, where I taught for seven years. I can’t say enough good things about the workshops there. But now I’m writing more than I ever have and I need to sustain this intensity for as long as I can.

Moreover, I should pose the obvious question: who the hell am I?  Just another guy with a few degrees in English who learned early in his career how to publish short fiction in magazines. That’s about it. And that, plus composition and research, is what I’ve taught for most of my career. Sure, I can teach you how to write a story and maybe give you some tips about how to get it into a magazine or lit. journal. But a lot of people can do that. Just because I’ve done it for a long time and maintain a blog about writing doesn’t make me super special.

More than a few talented writing instructors are teaching at Gotham, Lit Reactor, and in various MFA programs right now. If that’s what you’re wondering about, honestly what are you waiting for? There’s never / always time to start thinking seriously about fiction writing, right? Get a portfolio together and start researching a program or dig through the Gotham / LR websites and learn what you have to do to get into the next shop.  Do it and resolve that you will make the best of the experience and get everything you can out of it.

Still, I’ve enjoyed teaching writing, especially being able to meet so many interesting students along the way. But no one can write like me (for that matter, no one can write like you—which has always been the basis of my writing pedagogy: develop your own voice because, more than anything else in your creative life, it will belong to you). So I’ve realized that, at age 42 with perhaps 28 years left on this planet as a cohesive entity, I need to move more fully and deeply into my unique creative vision.

This means that unless you intend to offer me a serious job or decent freelance work (feel free to message me on Twitter about this and only this)—both of which go to supporting my writing—please save us both the trouble. The fact that I will continue to post thoughts on this website is not an offer of free advice, free content writing “for exposure,” or feedback / editing of your own work (which is something I do for pay).

The Next Thing

I travel a lot. It’s part of how I make a living as a freelancer. It’s fun in many ways, especially when I get to spend time with friends as part of my travel plans. It can also be an enormous headache. So now more than ever, I try to operate in places not just because I have to but because I’ve fallen in love with them. My short list includes Paris, Tallinn, London, Boston, San Francisco, Washington D.C., New Orleans, Portland, Prague and Copenhagen. These are the places which I find myself thinking about (and often returning to) again and again. Within a year to 18 months, depending on certain conditions and things that will fall shortly into place, I will be living in one of them, maybe for good.

I mention this because it goes along with the theme of positive change. Living light and never staying in one place for long has its appeal. Since 2010, I’ve lead that life in earnest, seeking experiences instead of things. But I’ve also realized a fundamental truth: there are many great experiences to be had when you get to know your neighborhood, when you become reasonably fluent in the local dialect, when you have a library card—the simple pleasures of being able to live somewhere for more than 6 months and actually make some non-online friends.

This is a change I will be making. And I’m looking forward to it immensely.

Trouble

You don’t live this kind of life without burning bridges. Graduate school, for example, is a lot like high school. No matter how much you achieve, people always remember you the way you were and deeply resent having to revise their opinions if you’ve actually done well for yourself. It’s part of what makes class reunions so painfully entertaining. But MFA and PhD programs don’t usually have reunions (except for the two official orgies of desperation and loathing we call AWP / MLA). Instead, they have enduring envy and the urge to send occasional passive-aggressive messages.

In 2016, I will also be saying goodbye to various acid-tongued lurkers from my past who can’t seem to accept the fact that—in spite of how much I bitch about the writing world—it is my home and I am fundamentally happy here. Yes, I criticize a lot of what I see as hypocritical or false in writing programs or publishing. But please note that I spend time on these things because I care about them very much. Isn’t it obvious?

So if you are one of these people, go ahead and live a little. Work on your own stuff / self and let me work on mine. We’ll all be happier that way.  Remember to be kind to yourself. And good luck to you.

Upcoming Projects

Of course, I’ll continue to write about writing and publishing here. I also intend to start a creative writing video project on YouTube soon with the same sort of focus. I’ll cross-post it with this. So if you are one of the 2654 people already actively RSSing this blog to date, you don’t need to add the YT subscription. It will all show up here, too.

I’m also going to start reviewing more books and magazines (sorry Aaron, it’s coming very soon, really), writing about critical theory (especially postcolonial theory, which is an interest) and about the writers I love. Right now, it’s Bret Easton Ellis, J.G. Ballard, Thomas Ligotti, Fuminori Nakamura, Isaac Babel, Shirley Jackson, Catherynne Valente, James Cain, Jim Thompson, Asa Nonami, Yoko Ogawa, and Henri Barbusse. But there will be others, many and various.

I will be representing the Thrown Free writer’s group more often and I hope to feature the visual art of some of my multi-talented writer-artist friends as well.

All these things make me happy, which is why I do them or intend to. If you’re one of my print readers and / or a reader here, I appreciate your time and hope that 2016 allows me to bring further interesting material to your attention.

Happy New Year.

Michael

It was the beginning of a time when it was almost as if the novel itself didn’t matter anymore. Publishing a shiny booklike object was simply an excuse for parties and glamour and goodlooking authors reading finely honed minimalism to students who would listen rapt with slack­jawed admiration, thinking, I could do that, I could be them. But of course if you weren’t photogenic enough, the sad truth was you couldn’t. – Bret Easton Ellis

John Berryman is supposed to have said that a writer never knows if he’s any good. He asks himself this throughout his life and dies without a satisfactory answer—no matter what prizes, money, publications, or objects of social approval have been tossed his way. It’s easy to conclude that this is just an egotistical hangup for celebrities with enough time and money to fish for validation. Am I good? Tell me. Really? Tell me again. But what Berryman didn’t say was that these doubts seem to come to every person in every field. And insofar as nothing in this world is ever finished or static, such questions must always remain open.

In fact, most things a writer may ask herself about writing (usually in a fallow time when she isn’t writing and feels hollow and dead inside) have no real answers. There is no objective standard for writerly success. You’re never going to know, quoth Berryman. Perhaps because of this, the path of a developing writer is fraught will all kinds of psychological pitfalls, uncertainties which emerge in the space between creation and judgment—writing the thing and then deciding whether it’s worthy.

Consider the luminous transcendent moment when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature. Let’s be honest: she fucking deserved it as well as anybody else. Do you mean to tell me she isn’t a skilled writer? That she hasn’t led the life? That she doesn’t deserve to get paid? Sure, the Nobel system is a politicized, public relations hype-sandwich. In that, it’s no different than the Pulitzer, the MacArthur Genius Grant, the Stegner, or any of the other smaller awards that function as patronage for writers.

Still, I had to laugh when Bret Easton Ellis—who is also great but very different—commented that “Alice Munro was always an overrated writer and now that she’s won The Nobel she always will be. The Nobel is a joke and has been for ages.” After the inevitable social media backlash, he added, “The sentimental hatred for me has made me want to re-read Munro, who I never really got, because now I feel like I’ve beaten-up Santa Claus.” That one kept me laughing for about a week. But the truth is a lot simpler than whether or not Ellis beat up Father Christmas: Munro might not be his cup of tea. But nobody can say definitively that she is “completely overrated” because nobody actually knows. Not even, I will venture to say, Alice.

Young writers (in years and / or in terms of artistic development) especially try to fill this gap with metrics designed to quantify success and banish their excruciating doubts. But most writers have to fight this battle, some throughout their entire careers. Over the course of many years in the writing life, one sees it all:

  • the hack machine who puts out a formulaic novel every three months like clockwork and points to this as the ultimate sign of achievement;
  • the bitter self-publisher, who has completely dismissed the Manhattan book industry as a hive of scum and villainy, and who now only writes direct-to-Lulu ebooks because nothing else matters anymore;
  • the one who can tell you any any minute of the day or night how much money his books are making and exactly why other writers are so jealous of his commercial prowess;
  • the defensive YA-ist (Young Adulterer? Young Adulterator?), who started out trying to be Pam Houston but after the first orgy of rejections turned to Harry Potter the way an abused housewife turns to brandy—it takes the edge off in the middle of the day, helps her convince herself that writing about fairy children with super powers is her true calling, and makes it possible for her to stop experiencing those week-long fugues of black existential dread in which she used to compare herself to Pam;
  • the lost soul in the MFA program, trying desperately to clone herself into Alice Munro or Donna Tartt or Jonathan Foer or Gary Shteyngart or whoever else is currently receiving the publishing industry’s golden shower du jour (Look how closely I can imitate X! Can I get a cookie? Do you love me? Why won’t anyone love me? You promised me a cookie. Where’s my cookie! I’ll be over there, cutting myself, until you bring me my cookie.);
  • the lost soul after the MFA program, trying desperately to justify himself to his drunk brother-in-law at Christmas dinner by mentioning all his literary journal publications (I just put a story in Bumfuck Quarterly! It’s my fifteenth publication! And fuck you, you philistine.);
  • the lost soul who got the two-book deal early on, enabling her to worm her way into a tenure track position at a small liberal arts college, and who behaves outwardly as if this validates every word she has written and will ever write (but who continually asks, Is this it? when she’s not buying cases of gin at the package store because maybe Gilbey’s is the only answer);
  • others, many and various.

I know. I’m being cruel. Although cruelty does come standard with the writing life, these are stereotypes and we all have a little of this inside us.  So pointing fingers is a bit hypocritical.  Call it the pathology of trying to be a writer in a system that presents itself as a meritocracy but functions via medieval power games and nepotism. And we can be as angry as we want. We can shake our little fists at the heavens or spend hours upbraiding ourselves in the mirror. But we’re never going to know how to be good. We’re only ever going to know that we want to be.

 

Cunning is what counts in this life, and even that you’ve got to use in the slyest way you can; I’m telling you straight: they’re cunning, and I’m cunning. If only “them” and “us” had the same ideas we’d get on like a house on fire, but they don’t see eye to eye with us, and we don’t see eye to eye with them, so that’s how it stands and how it will always stand. The one fact is that all of us are cunning, and because of this there’s no love lost between us. – Alan Sillitoe, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner”

Long ago, in another, more colorful life, I knew an aging exotic dancer named Juliette. She was 22 years older than me and beautiful in ways exotic dancers half her age weren’t or weren’t anymore. Usually when someone starts off by saying, “I knew an exotic dancer named Juliette,” the preterit know must be read in the most expansive and liberal sense. However, Juliette and I had a far more intimate connection—the greatest intimacy with many in her profession being not so much sexual or romantic as sincere. We were friends. We got along.

Specifically, I would sit in the club with a bottomless coffee (yes, even the coffee) and write fiction. On her breaks, she’d sit with me and eat—a bowl of potato soup or chili con carne, pot pies, various pulverized Stouffer TV dinners heated up at the liquor store a block away. Dancers need to eat just like the rest of us. And her breaks were the times she didn’t have to try to be sexy or smile at people, even though she still did when we’d sit in the back and talk about the weather. There is nothing sexy about a pot pie.

I was a 29-year-old graduate student. And Juliette—especially given the local culture of Missoula, Montana—was certainly old enough to be my mother. At 50, she occasionally looked her age. But she most often looked about 25. She was one of those gifted people who always look young and who always look happy even when they’re sad. Born in Manchester, England, she’d made her way across the Atlantic and across Montana first by marriage then by inertia. And she once told me she didn’t see how Missoula was any better or worse than where she grew up in “Gunchester.” It’s an old story. Goes like this: you get married; you get citizenship; you get away from Anaconda, MT the way you got away from the UK; you take off your clothes for men every night in a bar; you get money for regular frozen beef stroganoff and peas; you befriend the dopey-looking guy scribbling on a steno pad in the corner. You are amused. He publishes a story about you. It’s a living.

Things Get Weird in the Chong Market

So yesterday I came down with a bad case of synchronicity. I hadn’t thought of Juliette and our conversations for a long time. She was entirely unique, one of nature’s prototypes, completely unashamed of her body, and someone who shouldn’t be forgotten. Unlike most in her profession, she didn’t secretly hate men for being the hog-faced repellent bastards that we generally are. And that alone should have commended her to my active memory. Still, a lot had happened since then. I’d lived in five countries and spent a significant amount of time in several more, lost myself, found myself, learned to speak poorly in various foreign languages, deliberately forgot certain things and inadvertently remembered others at the least advantageous times.  I’d done my own long slow dance with the devil in the pale moonlight.

I did not dwell on the painful exigencies of the past because I typically do not like feeling depressed. And my MFA years were full of neuroses, desperation, and dread—in my fellow grad students and in myself—which is what I mostly think of when I remember living in Missoula. People in the English department there hardly ever seemed stable and never seemed happy. All in, it was a stereotypically morose humanities graduate program experience best forgotten, which might go toward explaining why I wrote half my first book in a strip club. But that is a subject for a different (and no doubt equally painful) excavation of the past.

But synchronicity: standing in the narrow crowded Chong Market (the only place I can find Mama-brand noodles in Oxford that taste like the ones I had on a daily basis in Bangkok—I am that guy), I had what can only be described as a supernatural-level return of the repressed. While looking at a stack of tiny red plastic offering bowls, I heard someone pronounce “Chinese bowls” like “Chinese bowels.” I wasn’t sure who said it (the place was packed), but I remembered Juliette and her innumerable bowls of chili, which she called as “bowels of chili soup.” I never mentioned how funny that sounded to me because I was afraid she’d take it the wrong way. Over time, her accent had evolved from heavy Mancunian English to some utterly unique amalgam of Manchester dialect plus upper United States and lower Canadian. It was an amazing moment. And, for the rest of the day, I felt surrounded by the kind of trippy new age glitterdust that only comes with spooky action, tinfoil-hat Sedona harmonic convergences, and Tinker Bell. How could I have forgotten Juliette?

A Moment of Spontaneous Hoodoo

One of the greatest features of the Chong Market—other than their extensive assortment of ramen and fish sauces—is the enormous red and gold Hotei shrine dead center in the store. Having had such an intense resurgence of memory, I decided something momentous had just happened. When the hand of the past reaches out and tweaks one’s nose, one should pay attention.

I thought of making an offering to Hotei Buddha for the health and excellence of my longish writing projects, even though that had nothing directly to do with my memory of Juliette. Of course, I’m not in Asia but in Oxford and so, after standing there for a while, drawing weird looks from people going down the narrow aisle, I started to think Hotei might not be the way to go. If I was feeling like working some kind of old-timey Seven Lucky Gods Hotei hoodoo, would it not have been even better to go the Saint Friedeswide route and light a candle in the abby down the street?  The trouble was, the culture of Oxford doesn’t particularly like its medieval saints and I’m still waiting for Frida to return my previous call (it’s not me, it’s her—she’s been busy—don’t I think it might be good to start seeing other towns?—am I seriously jealous of the time she’s been spending with Binsey?—let’s act like adults for once—she needs some space). So I decided to settle for just my little Hotei figurine at home, some incense, a stack of hell money, and a shot of something strong to salute the mystery of it all.

Because moments like that are all about mystery. Synchronicity is memory plus pattern recognition. And memory is narrative, wherein lies what the ancient Greeks referred to as the mysterion—more than just your garden-variety Professor Plum with a revolver in the conservatory. It’s the thing that only reveals itself in your life by degrees, unfolding like a Rose of Jericho. It’s the palimpsest you solve over time. It demands interpretation.  I bought my noodles, put two pence on Hotei’s shrine, and drifted along Hythe Street Bridge, feeling Tinker Belled, like I was missing something. What message was I sending myself?

If You Were Any Good . . .

By the time I reached the other side of the bridge, I felt I had the answer: it’s important to remember as much as you can, no matter how painful, because this is what creates you. By extension, it is how you create.

Earlier in the day, I’d had a conversation about a family member who’d written me off a long time ago to the tune of if you were any good, you’d ________. Every writer hears that at some point; though, I count myself as one of the unfortunates who’ve had to hear it more than once from resentful friends as well as distant and immediate relations. Okay, friends? Maybe “people I used to know and no longer like all that much.” But you can’t beat hearing “if you were any good” from family. That’s a special kind of wonderful. When you hear this, remember it because the past is a mysterion you need to constantly interpret and whoever said that, no matter how much they grin and prevaricate, will have your worst interests at heart going forward. As the person writing the developing narrative of your life, you are the one responsible for writing the plot.

There is absolutely no way a writer can avoid dealing with the past. The entire problem of leading a creative life is bound up with personal history and the old sad “if you were any good” attack. It’s the meritocratic lie that creeps up from the subconscious in the long dark of your novel-length writing project. It’s a nutty relative coming out of nowhere to say she knows that what you wrote is all about her and that’s why she’s so upset. It’s your uncle asking you if you have an agent yet. It’s feeling like you have to do NaNoWriMo to prove something on Facebook. It’s the thing you should never forgive or forget if you respect yourself as an artist. Let them insult you all they want and critique your work on its merits, but never put up with them insulting you through your work.

All of this, as Ecclesiastes might say, is vanity. It gets in the way of mental health, but more so if you allow yourself to forget it.  NaNoWriMo, for example, is an interesting exercise the way having a colonoscopy can be interesting. It’s a unique experience. You have troubling thoughts about the people providing that experience. You walk out stiffly and tell yourself you’re glad you did it; though, you’re not altogether sure it was necessary, and you quietly resolve to never do it again. If you were any good, you’re sure you’d have loved it.  Keep that in mind for next year.

For that matter, if you were any good, you’d be living in New York City. If you were any good, you’d have a novel being optioned, you’d be on the NY Times bestseller list, have a Stegner Fellowship, and no doubt have rancid AWP Conference hookup fellatio scheduled right after the panel discussion in which Charles Baxter says things about moral fiction that everyone will try to forget. If you were any good, you’d be something in residence somewhere. You’d be making a fuckload of money for yourself and around 200 better dressed people who majored in English at Brown and Vassar. More importantly, you’d be making your friends and relatives finally shut up about your life choices because you’d be on that Limitless drug that shot Bradley Cooper through a cannon and transformed him from a writer into a low-fi Jeb Bush. All these things you have to have and make and do in order to be real. If I’d said as much to Juliette, she would have laughed me out of the strip club.

Oh Yes Money is Part of It: The James Patterson Experiment as a Case Study in Thuggery, Bullshit, and Woe

I took my Chong Market mysterion as an opportunity provided by my subconscious to remember and therefore create. In other words, don’t have selective memory. Hold onto the good things, the good conversations, the good people, but keep the painful things pressed hard against your heart. For creative writers, this is essential. Allow yourself to forget a good person and you profane what the world has given you. Allow yourself to forget a painful experience and you lose a hard-won part of your soul.

Walking back home across a city in which people put razor-sharp spikes on four-foot backyard fences because they feel they should, I thought about my old friend, Juliette, and wondered where she was, if she still was. Was she back in Gunchester? Did she get married and become a happy homemaker? Did she wail off half-naked to the horizon on the back of some werewolf’s Harley? Juliette could have done anything because she knew how to survive anywhere. One thing she understood better than I ever have: money will win in the end but that doesn’t excuse us from anything.  We still look to the past in order to create the future.

Consider the “James Patterson Experiment,” which sounds like a funk band started in 1975 at Chico State but which, in reality, was a cynical (but rather funny) project by an unpublished ebook writer named Paul Coleman. Coleman boiled James Patterson’s bestseller formula down to a relatively depressing yet realistic set of principles: “Paul is using Patterson’s fast-paced style (short paragraphs, short chapters), plenty of action (‘when in doubt, blow something up or shoot someone’), and plain language (no purple prose here), among other tactics.” Why? Because Paul wants to get published and pay rent and James Patterson is one of the wealthiest writers alive ($94 million).

Now also consider that there are other “real” writers out there: E.L. James ($80 million), Danielle Steele ($23 million), Stephanie Meyer ($14 million). Searching for literary authors with money gets us the likes of Richard Ford, Haruki Murakami, and Donna Tartt (who, according to Vanity Fair two years ago, was the “It Girl” who’d become the “It Author,” having written The Goldfinch, described as the “It Novel”— read some Vanity Fair and then say it with me: fuck It). These people have all the talent. And if you don’t agree, we’ll replace you online with a 404 Error page and send some Viking-Penguin leg breakers to beat your mother into submission. If you were any good, you wouldn’t be googling the net worth of the person who wrote 50 Shades of Grey.

You don’t mess with enfants terribles littéraires who suddenly get money. And you definitely don’t mess with the hideous lampreys who make a living off of them. There is no one more gangsta than an author (plus lamprey cloud) who can now tell the world to kiss his ass. To be fair, most authors feel they’re due for a little ass worship, given the abuse that comes standard with the writing life. But feelings aren’t the point. In the immortal words of Boss Hogg, “Blood may be thicker than water, but money’s thicker than blood.”

When you’re talking about creative works that produce millions, it’s no longer about art or even about taste; it’s about intellectual property. So Paul Coleman’s website is now a 404 Error result. Why is that, do you think? Where is Paul Coleman now? Google “James Patterson Experiment” and see what comes up for the first 10 pages of results. No, this is not paranoia. This is the notion of “loss prevention” filtered through high-end corporate logic.

To wit: if you pose the classic Foucaldian question: “What is an author?” you may receive a list of brand names that represent intellectual property interests distantly related to human beings alive or dead. If you disagree with this list, we throw our heads back and laugh because you’re broke, chump! Get some talent and you’ll get paid. Then you’ll be real. Only then. If we don’t disappear you in the meantime for asking too many questions since, if you were any good, you’d be something you’re not right now. But I think about Juliette, who was wholly herself. And yesterday, I may have asked the Foucaldian What, exactly, am I? more than once on my way to my little house on the meadow.

One Last Tiresome Synthetic Connection Evoking the Restless Spirit of Bob Nucklet c. 1989

Bob Nucklet (Where are you now, Bob Nucklet?) played the trombone. He was tall, still wore his band letterman jacket two years after graduation, and had his drunk of a father to thank for the fact that he couldn’t walk straight. Bob was an amazing trombone player, but his day job was waiting tables at Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego. We’d stayed friends after I’d transferred and he graduated due to our mutual love of comics and music. Picture me, 17 years old, tooling around San Diego with Bob in a broken-in-every-way-possible 280ZX to buy comic books. We’d discuss Seven Samuroid and Axl Pressbutton over 7-11 coffee with the intensity of post-Soviet avaunt-garde film critics.

When I woke up this morning, thinking about the past, about all these things and more, I had another resurgence of memory: me haltingly trying to explain to Bob that I was picking up classical guitar as well as piano, worried that he would respond like all my other musician friends with piano players think they can play anything. Instead he simply nodded and said, “Just keep playing, Michael. Just keep playing.” And I think I should keep that memory close as well because I have kept playing in my own way—with words and doing my best to avoid the if-you-were-any-goods coming at me from time to time.  Hotei knows, it hasn’t been easy.  

I wonder what Juliette would think if she met Bob. I’m sure they’d fall in love.

No reasons. No consistency or explanations. Just the frozen dark, the hiss, Marion snoring in the seat beside me, mouth open. And the thought of all that water below us. I try to remember getting on the plane. I look at my face in the black window. In the glass beside my reflection, I see Darius standing in the aisle, looking down at us.

She okay?”

His question makes no sense. I feel like it should, like he’s implying something I should understand. I force my eyes open, but he’s still blurry. “What?”

Is. She. O. Kay?” His jaw tightens. Blue lights in the ceiling glint on his bald head.

We look at Marion. She has drooled on her black satin neck pillow.

You never ask if I’m okay.”

Darius takes her pulse.

My heart is beating normally, you know. Respiration normal. Everything’s good. I’m in great health.”

He places Marion’s hand gently back in her lap and checks her seat belt. Then he looks at me for a moment. “Yeah. Fantastic.”

I’m so out of it that I have to force my eyes open, again.

Darius hands me a box of Altoids. “For when she wakes up.”

Don’t mind if I have a few as well?”

He sighs. “Fuck off, Charlie,” the ghost of his Essex accent emerging in the off.

I watch him make his way back to his seat in coach and imagine the plane crashing into the dark Pacific. Impact ripping off the wings. Explosions. Screaming. The water rushing in. What are the chances of it actually happening? Somewhere, there are statistics on this. But it could happen without warning just as easily as anything. This is the thought I have when I let my eyes close and I drift back to sleep.

La Maison Shibuya. Marion’s Tokyo residence. 25th floor. I wake up in the white leather chair perpendicular to the white leather sofa. Everything in the living room is white leather or silver or glass. The windows have polarized, turning the morning sun into a gray disk. A glass coffee table with a silver vase of reeds is directly in front of me. My left ankle is crossed over my right knee. A full martini is in my hand. Perfectly still. No sound at all. My eyes are open. Chockablock Shibuya skyline beyond the windows. Gray circuit board to the horizon.

I guess I didn’t make it to the bed. But there must have been a period of consciousness if I’d made myself a martini. Or pseudo-consciousness. Valium zombie consciousness. I don’t recall. Fragments. Emails I wrote on my phone that make no sense. Something emotional—crying in a bathroom, a collapse, wanting to explain something but not being able to. Nasty interludes with Darius, Marion’s guard dog, who knows karate and who will someday push me out a window the same way he handed me that box of Altoids. But Marion always has Valium. And it’s always like this when we fly. And we always fly.

The door to the bedroom stands open. Our suitcases sit in a perfect row beside it, the good work of Darius. Marion’s feet protrude over the bottom edge of the bed. The rest of her is hidden beneath an enormous white comforter that resembles a cloud bank. She wouldn’t have made it to the bed either, but for Darius the Karate Luggage Master. And I wonder, did he undress her, too? Isn’t that my job? When he finally sends me out the window, 25 floors down, maybe she’ll remember who I am. Then she’ll have to pay Darius more. Or pay him less. Or have someone send him out the window, too.

Her feet are straight, parallel, almost like she’s deliberately pointing her toes. Marion is 54, blonde, and she takes care of her body in ways most women don’t. CEO of the United Toy Company for 10 years, she takes care of her company in ways most women don’t. And she takes care of me, when she can remember. When she can’t remember, when she does drugs and sleeps too much; it gets quiet and I get wasted. Then maybe I get a little closer to Darius helping me take that big first step. T-minus defenestration, counting down. I set the martini on the coffee table and notice an enormous black horsefly floating in it. Then I realize it’s a design on the side of the glass. Who would buy such a thing? Marion has four residences. I wonder if she even knows what’s in them.

I walk into the kitchen. It’s brighter there. The windows don’t polarize. I place my forehead against the cool glass of the floor-to-ceiling window opposite the marble counter. The sky is crystal blue. The sun glints off Shibuya’s glass and steel. And for a moment, I feel suspended in the air over Tokyo, looking down at the mechanical life crawling through the city.

In the steel cabinet above the sink, I find a row of gray polycarbonate coffee mugs that look like they’ve never been used or even touched. I take one down, put it in the Keurig shaped like a chrome vacuum cleaner from the 1950s. On the counter beside the machine, an enormous Kakiemon bowl shows orange ducks in flight beneath a pale green sun. It’s heaped with coffee pods. I can’t read the kanji labels. So I pick a red one, hoping it’s the strongest, lock it in the chamber, as if it were some kind of anti-aircraft shell, and press the button. Milk fills a beaker and begins to froth in a completely silent whirlpool.

When I smell the coffee, I decide I’m almost feeling normal. But then I look back into the living room. A wet girl wrapped in a towel steps out of the bedroom and smiles. I’ve never seen her before. And I refuse to just accept this. My normal does not include people I don’t know just stepping out of the bedroom. No matter how weird Marion gets, no matter how drunk or high I may get, I refuse to let this be my normal. She’s dripping. She must be in her early 20s: Amerasian, pretty, defined the way one gets from Pilates or some kind of unfriendly aerobics. The towel covers most of her. What do I say? What is expected of me in this situation? I put on my sunglasses and look away until she walks right up to me.

Hiya.” She winks.

Hello.” I turn to the window. From the 25th floor, Shibuya in late morning seems like it should contain an answer to everything. But my mind isn’t working fast enough. I think of science fiction. I imagine we’re in a vast computer simulation. This girl isn’t really here, a pretty ghost, a hologram from my subconscious. “Were you always here?”

Always?” Quiet laugh. She thinks that’s funny. “I’m not always anywhere.”

You’re here with—Darius?”

Can I have some coffee?”

I step over to the Keurig without looking at her. The latte is finished. I take out the milk canister and hold it over the mug so the tiny servomotors in the bottom can blend it into the coffee along with the foam. I hand it to her and she gives me a big smile. Her teeth are small, even, whitened. I wonder if there is anything about her that isn’t perfectly formed to spec. The tips of her hair drip onto the counter top.

Are you always here?”

I get another mug, put another red pod in the howitzer, and start the process again. “I came in last night.”

I know. Why are you wearing sunglasses?” She licks off her foam mustache. “It’s good.”

This is a private residence. I’m sorry, but I don’t know you.”

Serious now, she bows. “Excuse me. I’m from Mister Lo. I was here for—”

Me? You’re here for me?”

Ah, no.” She turns toward the window.

Oh. For her.”

The girl takes another sip, nods once. Then, as if Shibuya has finally chosen to speak to her instead of me, her expression goes blank. She sets the mug on the counter with both hands. I watch her pad across the living room, enter the bedroom, and shut the door softly behind her.

This is not normal, but it is my life. All I can do is look at the miniature milk vortex frothing in the beaker, at silent Shibuya circuit board, until I hear the front door open and click shut. A distant helicopter threads its way between chrome and glass office towers, a tiny black wasp, green pinlights winking on its tail. I decide this proves there is life out there, beyond the window.

Early afternoon. Yoyogi Park. A short walk from the condo and Shibuya Station. Before I left, I checked in on Marion, but she was still not up. I think about texting her. Instead, I stare at the children playing by the edge of the fountain pond. Above them, the tall jet of water creates a thin rainbow in the mist.

The last time we were in Japan, I did things, went places, spent money, hung out with people I hardly remember. It’s hazy. I was with Marion and the guys from Play Asia, a toy distributor. There were prostitutes—or girls getting paid to shop with us or paid to shop and have sex with someone or paid to seem that way and do something else altogether. It’s unclear what most of Marion’s entourage was or why they were there, but they were all getting paid for something.

Now I have more questions: why the girl; why a martini and going to sleep in that chair. How long did we all stay up? And where was Darius through all this? He evidently slipped his chain and went barking through the neighborhood, pissing on fire hydrants and running after cars. I know I might have jet lag or something-else-lag, but I can’t stop thinking that the girl never told me her name. She was just “the Girl from Mister Lo.” I don’t know why Marion does these things. Or if she was even awake last night. And what could I have said to the girl in my post-flight zombie state? She seemed to know more about me than I know about her. Maybe it’s all irrelevant.

The Tokyo Toy Show starts tomorrow. This is a big thing for Marion. So it’s a big thing for me. But I know very little about the business. I draw a salary from the company. I’m her personal assistant, but I know nothing. On days like today, when I’m alone and everyone else is unconscious, I sit in parks like Yoyogi Park with a steno pad and a pen trying to write short stories. I’ve got one almost done, which used to be a turn-on for Marion. But now it doesn’t matter much to me. When we discard our habits, what’s left? Just that long first step out the window. An Akita puppy yaps beside the children at the water’s edge, stomping its paws, running around in circles. Happy dog. We should all be like that. None of us should be from Mister Lo.

No one in Japan pays attention to a vacant-looking gaijin scribbling on a steno pad in the park. I’m on a bench with the latte. And I’m looking at my last scene, the one where the old man walks out on his front porch in Missouri. He looks at the rolling plains of grass and realizes he doesn’t care if his son ever comes home again. He doesn’t need to worry about his daughter, either. They’ve got their own lives, and he’s content with his. That’s how the story ends, but I can’t quite get the last paragraph the way it needs to be, can’t get the emotion right. And that Akita puppy keeps yapping, far too joyful for a world with Marion and Darius, Mister Lo and me. And I know that, before long, I’ll give up and wander through the park. I’ll go up through Shibuya Ward and get on the Tokyo no Chikatetsu and ride it out to a distant stop.

I get as far as Ikebukuro, and Ikebukuro is enough. On crowded Platform 6, I wait for the train back to Shibuya Station. It’s December 18th and people are dressed for the possibility of snow; though, snow is rare in Tokyo. A yellow sun reigns in a cloudless sky between the awnings of the platform. A white octagonal apartment block with red stripes like a candy cane looms in the distance.

I listen to the subdued conversations around me, my lousy Japanese comprehension made worse by the need for those nearby to be polite and not draw attention to themselves. And I feel ridiculous yet again, the gaijin in his gaijin place. Riding the metro can be a pointless exercise when it fails to calm me down—as pointless and purposeless as trying to make sense of a whirlpool of milk or a dripping girl without a name. Such times are the worst, when I can’t outrun my anxiety, when it builds like a wave and crashes over me. And then there’s invariably some candy-cane building standing over me, communicating in no uncertain terms: this is absurd and you are absurd and absurdity is your prison and this prison is your life.

So I take the Chikatetsu back to the condo. The luggage still stands at attention by the bedroom door. I’m half-expecting the Girl from Mister Lo to be sitting there, wrapped in a towel, on the white leather sofa. Or Darius, waiting to torture me with some kind of medieval, inquisitorial truth-seeking device. Or even Marion, awake at last. But she isn’t awake. Or, rather, she has been, but she isn’t now. Marion has, at some point, gotten out of bed. She filled the bathtub so that it overflowed. Now there’s an inch of water pooled on the bathroom floor. The bedroom’s white neoprene shag squishes underfoot. After her bath, she apparently got in bed again and wrapped herself in her comforter cloud bank. But the Girl from Mister Lo is definitely gone. I sit down on the bed beside Marion and touch her arm—still damp, her honey-blonde hair matted against her face. How does the CEO of a corporation live like this? Every time I ask the question, I think of all the other times I’ve asked it.

I take out my phone and call Darius, as much as I hate to do it. He answers with the din of an arcade behind him. Moshi moshi? Kore wa daredesu ka? His Japanese is impeccable, but since he must see that it’s me, I wonder why he bothers.

Hey. Look, she’s still not awake.”

I hear dinging, high-pitched girl laughter. Someone says, koto o furenaide kudasai, in a voice deeper than Darius’.

Then his voice: “What?”

Marion. I’m wondering how much she took.”

Stop wondering.”

You were the one asking if she was okay, alright? Now I’m asking.”

He hangs up on me. The nicest man in the world hangs up on me. I put my hand on her forehead. I listen to her breathe slow and soft. And I decide she must be okay. Marion knows what she’s doing. This is how she recovers, how I don’t, why there’s a girl waiting from Mister Lo, why I get lost in the park. Later, if I ask her how much she took before the flight, she’ll say something like Darius: don’t ask. Marion doesn’t pay me to ask. I walk back into the pristine living room—a place I despise for its sterile, symmetrical perfection. The windows have de-polarized. The coffee cup I gave to the girl still sits on the kitchen counter.

On days I can’t bear to walk outside, I think I might need a doctor or at least a prescription. Marion hasn’t bothered to leave me the address of the convention center; though, she knows I was looking forward to going with her and seeing all the new toys from around the world. Likewise, I can’t summon the massive energy it will take to find this out for myself, go there, and explain that I’m with her. Instead, I choose to sit in the white leather chair for an indeterminate length of time.

Same old silence. I haven’t spoken to my parents in what seems like a decade. Might be. I don’t think any of us are counting. Then there’s my sister, Linda, who I call maybe every other year. The few college friends I had back in Los Angeles—what, two? three?—never responded to my emails after I dropped out. Radio silence. Global silence. Silence to the end of the universe.

When I met Marion two years ago, I went from a one-room efficiency in North Hollywood to chrome and white leather. Still, I don’t get a thrill when I think about my bank account anymore. And really, I don’t need to think about it at all because I don’t have to spend any of the money. If I want something, I tell Darius or just order it with Marion’s credit card. Everything is available, all the time. The only thing I have to do is stay in shape and deal with black oceans of silence between the times I spend with Marion. Eventually, I know the plane will crash. Impact. Screaming. The water rushing in. Somewhere, there are statistics on this.

I go down six floors to the gym, which is deserted, and work every muscle group until my body hurts. Then I run five miles on the treadmill as the poisons I’ve consumed leech out in my sweat, which has lately begun to take on a hint of cheap floral perfume. It’s something I’m eating. Some plane food never meant to be digested by hominids. I tell myself: less fruit, more bread. More bread is nearly always the solution. That’s life wisdom, my son—deep knowledge from college. I look at the red digits on the treadmill, at the news loop playing on the flat screen, and try not to think.

Los Angeles, before. Living 45 minutes away from Linda—before she met Ad Exec Larry and cashed out, moved to Seattle, got a Lexus, had a kid for all the wrong reasons, decided that pursuing a career as a graphic designer was, well, stupid. But at least she graduated from Saddleback Community down in the OC. Most of the students there look like Justin Bieber after a scrub down. The girls have blonde hair down to their asses. Everyone dresses well. Everyone there seems to be waiting for the universe to tell them they’re sexy. You might see some tats and that pigpen student with a weight problem who’s on the wrong meds in the eighth year of his two-year degree. But he’ll be rare. A lot of great hairdressers come out of Saddleback. Highly articulate waiters. Telecommunications specialists. Hotel management professionals. I’m not passing judgment. It’s more than I’ve done.

The day I interviewed to be Marion’s personal assistant, I did not attend O-Chem and Literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Linda drove me over to the temporary office at Irvine Spectrum in her black and brown Acura Legend. She’d been laying out at Huntington Beach and she smelled like coconuts, her skin a perfect creamy brown. Her hair had tiny waves in it. Green contacts. Black bikini with cut-off Daisy Dukes. A four-year-old boob job that seemed to be holding up well. Even among the beautiful people, my sister had the Command to Look, always confident, in the zone.

The volume is all the way down on the flat screen. It’s set in the middle of the floor-to-ceiling gym window. A window in a window. While you exercise, you can stare at Shibuya or at the news or at the news-as-Shibuya. There’s a section on the Tokyo Toy Show. Marion in her navy business suit with pearls. Darius’ shoulder at the edge of the picture. I close my eyes and listen to my footfalls on the treadmill, counting steps the way I sometimes do.

You’ve got this,” Linda said, when we pulled into the lot, sharp midday sun glaring white on all the windshields.

I shook my head. “I don’t even know what a personal assistant does.”

Linda’s smile was a sunburst and I wondered how we could share the same DNA. “Doesn’t matter,” she said. “People are all the same.”

The great world spins and I dream. Marion’s prescription sleeping meds. No safer than any other thing in her narcotic arsenal. But the world can spin. Let it. Depressed after a day of working out in silence, white leather furniture, and Japanese television, I take her little green pills at random just to see what will happen. And then I’m floating in the black ocean. Nothing but wind, water, the fixed incomprehensible stars, the cold machinery of night. I know this is a dream, what they call a lucid dream, the kind you’re supposed to be able to control. But I’m not flying over Everest or visiting the rings of Saturn. There’s only me in the wind and waves, the constellations I don’t know.

I wake up, bedroom spinning. I’m making out with Marion in the dark, my hands on her body, hers on mine. We’re breathing hard and I’m half on top of her. But I can still feel the ocean on my skin. For the briefest moment above the bed, there is no ceiling. I look up at the pinlight stars, cruel and endless in the night sky. It should feel strange that my body is trying to have sex while my mind is elsewhere. But nothing is strange anymore. She opens her legs and I’m fully on top of her, moving against her, but my cock is limp and I’m thinking about plane crashes and drowning and the possibility of gravity failing, such that I float up from the 25th floor of La Maison Shibuya past the moon, and no amount of trying is going to get me hard at that point.

Marion pushes me off, turns her back to me. Would you believe me if I told you that I fell in love with her at a time when I should have been taking road trips with friends and getting my anthro requirement out of the way? I roll in the opposite direction and vomit quickly, painfully over the edge of the bed. The last of the floral whatever that I think probably came from the Hello Kitty Gin I got from a vending machine comes up like acid stripping the flesh off my throat. Then I’m on my back again and the ceiling has returned but everything’s still spinning. It takes me a full minute to realize Marion is moaning. The Girl from Mister Lo has her face between Marion’s legs. I close my eyes.

The windows in the condo are already polarized. The sun is already up. Marion’s gone and the bedroom smells like sex. It’s not a bad smell. My eyelids make a tiny pop when I blink. My eyes were so crusted shut that they could make a popping sound. Amazing. Was I crying again in my sleep? Still dizzy, I make my way carefully into Marion’s bathroom, where her various business suits are draped over the chrome vanity table, her white silk blouses crumpled in little mounds on the floor. Her jewelry case is old-fashioned, belonged to her grandmother, looks like a small powder-blue suitcase from the 1930s with fold-out mother-of-pearl trays. I put my face under the faucet and let the water run across my cheek, down my neck, thinking of how Marion’s life used to seem like an incredibly fascinating archaeological dig, layer upon layer of detail, history, meaning, pain. She wasn’t like the few girlfriends I’d had in college—into nail art and taking their shirts off at concerts. Marion had depth and she had heart and sometimes there were little things, like the jewelry case, which reminded me the she was different, thoughtful. Now the first thought I have when I see the folded-out trays with their little square compartments is that the thing looks like a tackle box.

In the living room, the Girl from Mister Lo is wearing a purple velour two-piece track suit with the monogram of La Maison Shibuya in gold thread on the left front. She’s unzipped the top to between her breasts and it’s clear she isn’t wearing anything underneath. Even though I saw her naked last night, going down on Marion, that triangle of pale skin makes me look away.

Hi.” She turns down the volume. It’s some kind of sketch comedy show with a laugh track and sound effects. The Girl from Mister Lo glances at me, then back at the show and laughs. “It’s so funny. Have you seen this? It’s called Silent Library. They have to be quiet or they get punished.” The comedians can’t be quiet. One eats noisy potato chips. Another has a digital watch that beeps and he doesn’t know how to turn it off. Close-ups on their worried expressions. Sweat beaded on their foreheads. Canned laughter off screen.

Cool.”

She looks at me, then back at the show, then turns it off. “Okay. Want to go do something?” She’s smiling. Pretty almond eyes. Whitened teeth.

Do something?”

Her smile fades. “I’m sorry. She told me to be here when she comes back.”

Her name is Marion.”

Yes.” Serious now. She nods once and looks down to the side. “Marion.”

What’s your name?”

Akina.”

Fuck you, Akina.” I walk into the bathroom and turn on the shower. When I come out, naked and dripping, thinking I should apologize, she’s gone.

When Marion returns, it’s like a spatial anomaly. She isn’t there. Then she is. And she materializes without ceremony, without even being noticeable. I come out of the bedroom and I’m shocked to see her standing in the kitchen, dressed in a conservative dark green business suit with matching earrings. She’s eating a croissant and reading the Arts page of the Asahi Shimbun.

“Shouldn’t you be making friends and influencing people at the expo?”

Marion doesn’t look up. I repeat myself to be sure that she heard me and is actually ignoring me.

She chews, swallows, folds the back page.

“Marion.”

“Yes?” she asks without looking up.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Don’t you have some drugs to be doing or some cynical little story to be writing?”

“Drugs? You’re pissed that I’m doing your drugs?”

Marion gives me an icy smile, and walks into the bedroom. I hear the lock click.

“Wait a second,” I say through the door.

Nothing. Then the sound of the shower.

“Hold on a second, goddammit.” I pound on the door, but it’s a good one. Solid. “You can’t just take a shower on me.” I pound some more.

My hand hurts, but I beat on the door until some invisible arbiter on a celestial throne hears and acknowledges my right to be pissed off—the ghost-satrap of all sad self-righteous cases betrayed and accused by their women. Because Marion is that to me. Right?

What about last night, huh? What about Akina?”

The shower goes off and the condo is silent again. I know she can hear me. The door might be fancy but the walls are paper-thin.

I look in the fridge for booze but find only a half-empty, expired carton of milk. So I make another coffee with the space-age bullet machine and stare at the city some more. I should be feeling anxious and, on some level, I guess I am. But in my front brain—the place I should be resolving things and drawing conclusions—I’m slow. I’m sipping a sour latte while I stare dumbly at science-fiction Shibuya ward in all its gray majesty. I’m not thinking or feeling very much. I wonder if it’s like this for people about to suffer horribly—a moment of free fall before the impact.

I don’t speak Japanese. I tried once, took an online class, stuck with it for a few months. But, like most things in my life . . . . I guess I can say Hello. Goodbye. Where is the bathroom? Can I have a crepe for my spotted dog? The crepe thing because it was in the tiny course booklet they sent in the mail. Marion and I had a good laugh about that one. I’d text it to her during the day. And she’d text back something funny. But you can’t retell an inside joke. It’s pointless. I wonder what she’d do if I texted it to her now. We haven’t had a good conversation since before we left L.A.

It’s afternoon on the third day of the Toy Show, but it feels like I’ve been here for weeks. I put on jeans and a T-shirt from my suitcase, find a pinstriped button-down still folded in its cellophane wrapper in one of the closets. Instead of the train, I get a taxi to Shinjuku, where I buy pink doughnuts. I sit and eat them by a koi pond in front of a store that sells console video games and luck cats with their paws waving up and down. Green plastic irises. Clown grins. Golden aliens come to our world in the shape of small pudgy cats. Twenty sets of dead eyes stare at me through the glass. I can’t look at them.

I think of texting Marion, even calling her, though I know she won’t answer. Strange how this feels, all the pressure that seems built up around her, how the prospect of just having another conversation with her makes me nervous. This, even though I was in bed with her last night, even though, at some point, I started to think of her as my girlfriend—as absurd as the term may be when applied to a 54-year-old woman.

The koi are enormous, gliding slowly around the artificial pond made to look something like a tide pool. Foreigners have thrown coins in the water. I make out a few US quarters, some British pence, others less recognizable, maybe Korean. There had to be a point where those koi were having yet another languid, liquid day and suddenly warped grinning giants were tossing pieces of metal all around them. Koi stress. What passes for a bad day in the pond of the universe. Watching the koi—before I can talk myself out of it—I take out my phone and call Marion.

Darius answers. “Don’t call this number.”

Where is she?”

He hangs up.

What the fuck!” I scream it so loudly and suddenly that an old man in a suit drops his briefcase on the sidewalk. He picks it up, gives me a disapproving look, and wags his finger. “Bad,” he says.

I call back but it goes straight to voice mail. The man continues down the sidewalk. I’m bad. The alien cats grin and wave. Don’t grin at me, you ghastly fuckers.

The toy expo is at the main convention center called Tokyo Big Sight. “Sight” might be a play on words or a mistake that no one caught in time. Its other name, the one you see on the maps, is the Tokyo International Exhibition Center, situated right on the bay.

The structure itself resembles a square of four inverted pyramids, their tips extending to the ground in great oblong columns, all of it covered in shiny titanium, a New Age Egyptophile mothership. Right now, it’s probably full to the ceiling with grinning luck cats, paws waving, eyes glittering.

These are the things that stand out to me here, things that emanate from some pure, ancient, eternal soul-energy but have to bubble up through Tokyo’s various shales of politeness and hardpan conservatism to the caliche where all good people have to linger and smile and pretend beneath a gigantic Hello Kitty sign. When I think about it, Tokyo is perfect for the toy industry, being a simulation of something an emperor once dreamed. But it’s out of control now, electrified, nuclear, pulsing, grinning, waiting for you to arrive at the toy mothership so it can do a dance and take off into the impossible future.

But I don’t go where I haven’t been invited. And maybe I just feel like hell. That old man was right when he wagged his finger at me. Son, you got a problem. Instead of the old man, I keep seeing the Captain from Cool Hand Luke saying this to me. My father loved that movie. He owned it and, whenever he’d watch it, he’d quote the Captain as if I were Luke. What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate. I grew up hearing that line.

The dogs on this street are either huge or tiny and they’re all accessorized with rhinestones, steel fetish spikes, tiny gold paw pendants hanging below their jowls. But the teenage girls prefer kittens. Three girls in black hoodies covered with patches walk past, each holding a different-colored cat. The patches are unicorns, explosions, One Direction, Taylor Swift’s face bigger than a dinner plate in the center of one girl’s back. Someone somewhere—probably in Tokyo—has that as a tattoo and is proud of it and can never go home again.

And whenever I think of why I left home the way I did—why I started at a Cal State L.A., near my sister but never going back to visit my parents in Palos Verdes; all the shitty jobs I took that had nothing to do with finance or anything remotely associated with my father’s world; why I decided I would never get married or have children of my own; and how I’ve never been interested in acquiring the various status symbols necessary for becoming a puffed-up self-important asshole like him—I think of that part where the Captain says, You gonna get used to wearing them chains after a while, Luke. Don’t you never stop listening to them clinking. Because here I am with a woman almost my father’s age, who, I guess, doesn’t love me and never did, who texts me while I’m staring into the koi pond: Dinner tomorrow night. Buy a suit. Don’t get high.

I have the Louis Vuitton three-piece I brought with me. What she means is: buy a better suit. And “don’t get high” just means I’ll need to be in stealth mode all night—not her boyfriend (or whatever I may be). I’ll be back in personal assistant mode. I have a very thin herculon shoulder bag with an iPad in it for this. I think I’ve turned the iPad on twice. I don’t really know how to use it. But stealth mode means dignitaries or the veiny cadavers who rise from their crypts every year for the occasion of her husband’s birthday. His name is Bob. Technically, Bob still owns the company. But, after five strokes, his leadership has declined somewhat. They roll him out about once a year so everyone can see him waving from one of the factory balconies: His Holiness Bob, Pope of the Toys.

Maybe I’m sick of pretending. Maybe I’d better watch my back whenever Darius is around and I’m standing near a window. Them chains. I text her back: Thanks for being so real. You complete me. And then maybe I have a small sobbing breakdown, making the nearby Japanese foot traffic highly uncomfortable for the two seconds it takes to pass through my area of effect. I don’t want to live on this planet anymore. I want to fly up past the stars. Crash in the black ocean. Swim with the koi.

Small breakdowns” sounds like a Japanese reality show: you fail to be silent in the library. Then they do horrible things to you or maybe you just feel horrible and they film it. You sit by a koi pond and cry in the middle of the day; they film the fish reacting to your tears; someone off-screen is laughing; there are sound effects; you’ve served your purpose. Just like in the States or 37, 000 feet above the Pacific Ocean at night, nothing comes without some kind of price. Everything is a transaction, even hard-to-appraise human things like friendship or trust. You think money can’t buy you love, but you’re wrong about that. In most ways, it can. I get back on the Tokyo no Chikatetsu and think: I have no family to speak of, nothing ahead of me. My only friend in Tokyo is Reymund Torneau the Saucier, but I know Reymund won’t remember me.

Despondent after my small breakdown, I ride the train as it threads its way through the Tokyo sprawl, urban blocks of the city center, traffic tunnels, suburbs. Tochomae. Yotsuya. Takadanobaba. Station after station. Billboard anime sexbots holding persimmons. Robot crane garages. Tiny parks with cherry trees. Whitewashed Buddhist shrines trimmed in gold. Bronze statues of statesmen and gods. Everything that can be plugged in, is. Not all of Tokyo is electrified, just most of it—Akihabara Electric Town passing in a profusion of crackling signs, pulsing neon, particolored light and glass even in the middle of the day. It’s a red-green blur when the train accelerates. High-voltage pea soup.

So, my best and only friend, Reymund the Saucier. He, too, is electric. And though he will not remember me, at least I remember him. His small storefront cafe, Merveilleux Goûts, sells French sauces in fancy glass jars. フランスの ソース, Furansu no so-su, on every label, even on the Cajun hot sauce. Reymund is French. Therefore, all of his so-su must be Furansu. I step off the train at Nishi Station in Toshima. And, after a short stroll, I’m there—a little bit of Furansu on a gray street opposite a baseball field.

Since my last visit, two vending machines have been installed on the sidewalk to the right of the shop. One sells scarves. The other, dog whistles. Things you might need in France. And to the left of Merveilleux Goûts, a spotless, empty Kentucky Fried Chicken, the employees leaning, snapping rags at each other. The street itself looks dirtier, older, and grayer than I remember. Almost like something you’d see in Hamtramck or Scranton. Not so Japanese looking. I might convince myself I’m back home as long as I don’t look down past the parked cars to the vanishing point, where circuit-board highrises, thinner and more imposing than anything in the States, push into the sky. But where’s home? Tell me. I want to know.

Merveilleux Goûts is crowded. I walk in and take a seat at the counter, which is like the counter in an American diner—only everything, even the cutlery, is white. Reymund and his three Japanese assistants work as quickly as chefs in a four-star restaurant. And they look the part in their dress whites and straight Careme 50-pleat hats. Reymund paces the open kitchen, barking orders in Japanese while cooking multiple things in multiple locations. His assistants frown, concentrating intensely. It’s fascinating to watch, a malicious ballet that uses misery to produce excellent food. Merveilleux Goûts offers a brasserie menu with 15 different kinds of sauces, any of which can be sampled from small tasting bowls. Along the left side of the dining room, there are shelves of plastic dome containers filled with various entrees, pastries, even a rabbit ragout with pappardelle, all with a small container of appropriate so-su, Reymund’s specialty.

A young girl, who could be working for Mister Lo, but who is instead serving excellent European misery food, walks up with a small white plastic tray. Fair skin. Shoulder-length hair with a salon curl. On her tray there are tiny sauce cups. People are encouraged to take a miniature spoon from one of the dispensers located along the counter and have a taste. A man in a double-breasted Chinese suit beside me does exactly that, makes an appreciative sound and bows to the girl, who bows in return. When she comes up to me, I wave her off.

Reymund looks right at me without recognition, as expected. We met at a lunch with Marion, Darius, a translator, and two Korean businessmen who owned a corporation that made self-assembling toy robots—toys that essentially played with themselves, removing the human element. The whole time, Marion and Darius traded racist jokes about Koreans, while the translator composed statements that seemed possibly neutral and pleasant.

We ate in one of the rooms above Merveilleux Goûts, and all of it was served to us by Reymund personally. Though, at the time, I couldn’t figure out whether he and Marion were friends or whether he secretly despised her and was serving her due to some arcane geis placed on him through a business connection that he had to honor or else. Knowing Marion, I suspect the latter. But I can remember holding the first decent human conversation I’d had in months with Reymund downstairs at the doorway to his kitchen, while everyone upstairs was still eating. The man was capable of cracking jokes while delivering extremely hostile drill-sergeant commands to his underlings. He was a brilliant kitchen schizophrenic, and he had me laughing in spite of myself. Reymund seemed to understand why I lingered down there instead of returning immediately from the restroom.

But today clouds of steam billow in the open kitchen as he commands his forces with a degree of irritation one only sees in kitchens of fancy restaurants or in potential crime scenes. I half-stand and wave when he glances into the dining area, only to see him turn, lift up a bowl of what could be custard but which is probably something far more exotic, and toss it unceremoniously to one of his assistants, a young Japanese man with a terror-stricken look on his face. The assistant bows and runs through a side door. I sit at the counter in Merveilleux Goûts for 90 minutes. In that time, I taste seven different kinds of gravy with seven different miniature spoons.

Eventually, the young girl returns but without the tray. She says something in Japanese that I barely understand. I think she’s asking me what I’m doing there—but in a roundabout way, like, can she help me, one way or another, find what I’m seeking or find the exit.

You can’t help me,” I say. “Anata wa watashi o tasukeru koto wa dekimasen. I do not need assistance.” Or maybe what I say is that I’m beyond help.

She looks at me as if I just said I have a terminal disease, then offers a tight insincere smile, bows, and walks away. She cannot help me. I do not need assistance. I am beyond help.

Out on the street, the sky is overcast. It’s cold. December weather. The front page of the Asahi Shimbun tumbles down the gray sidewalk. The drivers in cars notice me as they pass. But they are perhaps less surprised than they would be in a ward that isn’t as international as Toshima. Still, I am a gaijin. I am a Russian in the synagogue. These little circuits of supposed European high culture overdone with French names and ridiculous marketing cannot help me.

Instead of going directly back to the train station, I decide to walk for a while in the general direction of Shibuya. Looking into the faces of people driving by, I think of my one true friend in Tokyo, who no longer remembers me or who perhaps no longer wishes to. Watashi wa watashi no hanten inu no tame no kurēpu o motsu koto ga dekimasu ka. Can I have a crepe for my spotted dog? No, evidently I can’t.

So the great world spins. I get off at Kōrakuen Station and walk past Tokyo Dome. Five stark white gulls jerk into flight from a mirror-still puddle in front of the entry gate. Traffic crawls down Sotobori-dori. People on the sidewalk open umbrellas and look down as they go by. I stare at an iron manhole covered with writing I can’t understand. A wooden truck carrying street food backfires like a muffled fart. And, for a moment, my perceptual field widens enough that I become aware of everything moving around me at once. Variables in an enormous equation that has nothing to do with me.

I have attained perfect invisibility, a stone in the river. I’m not completely cognizant of where I’m headed, but when I arrive at my destination, it seems that I may have subconsciously intended this route all along. Tokyo Blue Light. A private club in Bunkyō Ward, open all the time. We stopped here that day after having lunch at Reymund’s. Of course, by the time we arrived, we were incredibly high. But I still remember. Bamboo everywhere. A whole forest of it. Low carved tables and furniture. Purple twilight from recessed blue and red ceiling lights. Add cigarette and hookah smoke and the club is disrecognized, de-timed, a non-place gone fully sideways from the traffic out on the sidewalk streaming past its blue-frosted windows. This is where I go.

Greeted at the door by a geisha in an electric blue kimono. S/he runs Marion’s Platinum MasterCard for the ¥120,000 cover. I leave my shoes on a black steel shelf by the door. Then through the black-carpeted bamboo forest to plush cushions by an ebony table inlaid with mother-of-pearl kanji. I suspect all the “geishas” here are men, but there is no way to be sure. The girls in short skirts come later, with hookahs, booze, whatever else. I sit down on the cushion and the geisha host/ess towers above me, expression unreadable behind thick white makeup. Two very thin young men dressed in black pants and button downs bring a bottle of shochu on ice and two glasses, a silver box of the Tekel cigarettes Marion likes, crystal ash trays, a heavy silver lighter.

When the host/ess ran the card, Marion’s information must have come up. That or the geisha has an eidetic memory. It could be either, both, something else. Is it necessary to understand why things happen? Following the plan from last time means there will probably be Jack Daniels and a mirror for Marion’s cocaine. There will be a girl for her and one for me, both fluent in English and willing to sit very close and find everything fascinating.

But today, when they come—two stunning Chinese girls with glazed smiles, their hair in glossy braids—I wave them off. They pivot and disappear just as easily as they came. And then it’s soft voices in Arabic somewhere off in the bamboo forest to my right, a mist of hookah smoke drifting in, and those twin red and blue suns high above. The bourbon arrives when I finish the shochu and I start to feel a little better. I smoke cigarette after cigarette, give my bourbon a jolt from the heavy glass soda bottle they brought with it, and listen to clipped Japanese mix with the Arabic. This is better than humanity—sitting in the purple light, getting displaced. I’d move into Tokyo Blue Light if it were a hotel. Sadly, the best I can do today (tonight?) is ¥80,000 bottles of liquor and high tar.

With Jack Daniels, I want to talk to someone other than myself. But the wait staff is giving me my privacy and, what, I should call Darius? I do call the number he said I’m never supposed to call, Marion’s, about 20 times, clicking off every time it goes to voice mail, which happens immediately from the second time I call to the 20th. Then I call the time in Porterville, California, the town my high school girlfriend was from. 13 digits. At the tone, the time will be 3:16 A.M. Thank you. Then I call my sister in Seattle.

She drops the phone, picks it up, says, “Uh, hello?”

You weren’t sleeping, were you?”

Who is this?” The TV in the background is turned up so loud that it hurts my ear through the phone, CNN, going to an ad.

It’s Charles. You can’t tell my voice anymore?”

Charlie? Oh my god.” The sound of a door muffles the TV one degree. The sound of a second door muffles it again.

Where are you?”

Hold on.” The noise gets softer until it sounds like a normal TV in the next room. “I’m in the closet.”

In your bedroom?”

Yeah. The shoe section. It’s a big closet.”

Guess I should see it someday.”

She doesn’t say anything. The CNN anchor is talking about Michael Jordan starting a foundation for newborns with bicephalous mutations. I imagine Linda sitting in a room full of shoes.

What’s with the TV?”

I just keep it on, like, for noise. I don’t sleep.”

What about Sunny?”

Michael Jordan’s spokesman is a father whose two-headed son is now 12 years old and doing fine. And a malfunctioning drone carrying military armaments on a test flight outside the Camp Pendleton Marine Base, demolished a segment of Interstate 5, resulting in four civilian deaths. Caltrans is clearing the wreckage. Updates as the situation develops.

Sunny . . . she’s with Larry’s mom in Pittsburgh.”

In fucking Pennsylvania? Jesus Christ, Linda. Where’s Larry?”

The sound of a lighter. She coughs for a full minute. The Lakers still have a shot at second place.

I don’t know.” She laughs. The controversial new cookbook smuggled out of Afghanistan has sold more copies than any cookbook in history. “He hates it when I smoke near his shoes.”

Smoking, Linda? Really? I’m in Japan. Want to come out here for a while? I’ll buy you a ticket, have a car come get you. It would be good, right?”

I don’t know. I’m kind of busy. I’ve got a lot . . . going on. But thanks.”

I miss you.”

I hear her exhale smoke. There’s an ad for some drug in the background. Ask your doctor if it’s right for you.

Bye, Charlie. Take care.”

I look up at the twin suns, light another cigarette of my own, and listen to the emptiness on the other end of the line. I’ve never actually met my niece, Sunny, but I have seen pictures. I think I’ve got one somewhere in my luggage. Or I did at one point.

The plan is to finish the bottle of Jack and stagger through the warped streets of Bunkyō Ward around the Dome. But after talking to my sister and thinking about my niece getting shipped off to Pittsburgh and what that probably means, I get lost in the bamboo forest and the geisha host/ess has to lead me to the door. After Tokyo Blue Light, the evening outside seems bright, lights on the stadium, the fan of a small fountain illuminated behind a courtyard gate, the gentle swoosh of cars down Tōkyō-to. My phone tells me it’s 8:10 PM. I’m drunk. If I adopted my niece, where would I take her? The thought of Marion and me as parents is alien enough to make me laugh out loud when I step back on the Chikatetsu. It’s empty, which is good.

It has occurred to me that maybe I protest too much. There are starving people, broke-ass people, guys who fantasize about situations just like mine. But I wanted something else. The elevator on the outside of La Maison Shibuya is made of glass. Riding up to the 25th floor, I get the grand view of Tokyo at night, pinlight helicopter comets moving through glowing constellations, pale blue banks of office windows floating in the dark below HITACHI, REMBRANDT HOTEL, エレクトリックラブ, FUDO MYO LTD. The new gods of this age, their names glowing pridefully in the darkness.

By the time I open the door to Marion’s place, I’m half-sober again. I have an anxious thought that maybe my key card won’t work, that I should have stayed closer to home. But then the light and air-conditioning hit me and I see Akina and Darius have set up an all-white Ping-Pong table in the center of the leather, silver, and glass living room. Even a ping pong table must be stylish and integrated.

I stand in the doorway with my hands in my pockets and watch them play, wishing I was still drunk. Akina is in pale blue negligée. She’s laughing. Darius has camouflage sweatpants beneath his long-sleeved dress shirt, his conservative red tie loosened but still in place. Marion sits in one of the white leather chairs, texting on her phone, three empty martini glasses by her foot. She’s wearing a pair of men’s blue cargo shorts, one of Darius’ Chang Beer T-shirts, and she seems to have gotten tanner since I last saw her. But none of it matters. Not even the fleeting thought that she might be sleeping with Darius, too. Maybe we’re all just a traveling harem for Marion, who—let’s be real for a moment—would never, could never be my girlfriend. The term seems as ridiculous as that Chang Beer T-shirt, something that doesn’t fit with a woman like her. Pearls, yes. T-shirts and cargo shorts and a college dropout going nowhere, hardly. This. This is my life.

A rolling steel bar cart has been positioned near the kitchen area. A middle-aged Japanese man in a tuxedo stands behind it, polishing glasses, pretending not to look at anything. The ping pong ball caroms off Akina’s shoulder and hits the bartender in the forehead. He doesn’t react and neither Akina nor Darius apologizes or even acknowledges his presence. She scoops the ball off the carpet and they continue.

Hello?”

Darius has some kind of fancy reverse grip on his ping pong paddle and he looks like he knows what he’s doing, which in itself is bizarre, his laughing adding to the strangeness. He serves. He jumps up like a professional and returns, red tie flapping. Akina also seems quite good. A full ping pong tournament is going on in the suite. Apparently, this makes everything hilarious.

Hello?” No one looks at me. Not even the bartender.

Marion stops texting and takes a call. “Oh, hi, Daisuke.”

I knock on the door jamb and think: this is my door, too. So why am I knocking? “Hello?”

No, we can do the plushy line and the macro fitting at the same time. It won’t be a problem.”

Darius misses a return and Akina yells, “Yatta!” Then she poses, winking and giving him a thumbs up. Darius bows from the waist and they both start laughing again.

I’m absolutely serious,” Marion says. “Really. I love it.” She drums four fingers on her knee. Her knee is so tan and smooth that the light gleams on her skin and I notice it all the way across the room.

Ready!” Darius serves the ball and I watch them hit it back and forth until he scores another point.

Darius,” I say, but he won’t turn around. I’m still standing in the doorway. I look down at my scuffed black shoes. The tips are exactly perpendicular to the edge of the beige neoprene shag carpet. It’s supposed to feel like fabric, clean itself, and never get threadbare. But going barefoot on it makes me think of AstroTurf and lousy nylon carpets in small insurance offices.

Akina serves. The bartender smiles at me from across the room, no doubt wondering who I am, why I don’t come in.

Darius.”

Marion lowers the phone and says to the bartender: “I’ll have a Captain Seven.” The bartender smiles, nods.

Ha!” Darius with an overhand smash. The ball hits the table, goes well over Akina’s outstretched paddle, and bounces off Marion’s shoulder.

That’s why I already approved them.” Marion’s still on the phone. She smiles at the carpet.

Darius.”

The bartender walks five feet to Marion and presents her drink on a silver tray. She takes it, stands and, phone to her ear, walks in the bedroom shutting the door behind her.

Akina holds up the ping pong ball and smirks. “Backspin!” She serves the ball and Darius grunts, jumping to the side just in time to return it.

I drift in, forgetting to take off my shoes before stepping on the neoprene. I could be floating. Whether from exhaustion, drinks, too many Tekels, or emotion, I’m out of phase. I settle into Marion’s seat, staring at Akina’s back as it twists in her blue negligée—a pale inner skin that will eventually slide free in Marion’s bedroom. The white leather still holds Marion’s warmth and I can feel it through my pants. I know that warmth well and I consider, for a brief moment, how things could get better. But Akina makes another return and yells, “Yatta!” I think of how warmth fades over time. In the end, there’s just this cold leather.

I’m so lost in my self-pity that I don’t notice Darius standing over me.

Take your shoes off.”

I look down at my shoes. They’re scuffed. There’s a thin line of gray mud along the outside edge of the right one. The left one is about to come untied. And I think: when was the last time I bought shoes? I mean, in a proper way, going to a shoe store and trying on a few pairs—not simply giving specifications to some grinning flunky who comes back with eight different pairs. How distanced have I become from anything real? What is this space I’ve entered?

Your shoes. Take them off.” Darius is sweating. The top of his bald head glistens. He has a damp spot on his tie, which I suddenly realize is some kind of crested college tie from the U.K.

Did you go to college in England?”

He kicks my foot. “Show some respect. Now.”

Cambridge? Oxford?”

Then he hits me with the ping pong paddle and Akina starts screaming. The paddle is relatively light, but the wood is solid and Darius has a good angle on me. He holds the blade of the paddle in his hand and drives the edge into the corner of my eye. I try to stand up but he hits me again and I land back in the seat. The front of my powder-blue button down is speckled with blood after the third hit and I’m having trouble seeing out of my left eye. I want to get up, tackle him or something, fight back. But that’s the thing about being hit repeatedly, savagely, by a large man using the edge of a wooden ping pong paddle as a wedge to open up the side of your face—it takes your energy.

Darius sniffs and says, “Now take your shoes off.” But when I don’t do anything, he just shakes his head and walks out, around the ping pong table, still holding the bloody paddle.

I spit out a tooth, which I guess means he also hit me in the mouth. And it seems the region of my brain that controls pain has shut a lot of it down—the left side of my face feels like it’s had an injection of concrete. And my hands shake on the armrests, even though I’m not using my hands for anything in particular at the moment. I also seem to have pissed myself.

Akina and the bartender have run away. I’m sure there’s something wrong with me because, when I try to stand up, I have no sense of how long I’ve been sitting there, staring at the white regulation ping pong table with its stark green sidelines. It takes me years to rise from the seat and move to the closed bedroom door. When I try the handle, it’s locked.

Marion?” Speaking is difficult. Only the right side of my mouth moves and I’m still bleeding onto my chest, creating a long dark slick of blood like something out of a horror movie.

No answer.

I knock again. “For chrissakes, Marion, open the door. I’m hurt.”

The living room looks like a crime scene—because it is. I leave a bloody palm print on the bedroom door, bloody smears on the armrests of the white leather chair. My two suitcases stand inside the front door. I remember pushing them into Marion’s bedroom. I guess someone removed them—probably Darius; though, at this point, any of my dear friends here could have believably done it. By the time I step onto the glass elevator with my luggage, I’ve recovered enough to see through the red film coating my left eye. I try not to lean against the chrome railing. Someone will immediately have to scurry around with a spray bottle and a rag, and I can’t bear to think of it being my blood that they have to clean. A strange thought, all things considered.

The janitor at Hiroo Hospital is kind enough to bring some paper towels. We wipe the blood off my suitcase handles and he disinfects everything with an antibacterial gel. 20 people watch this in silence from a bank of plastic seats. When I emerge with 13 miniature staples in my face, the sun is coming up. My taxi driver is waiting by the curb. He asks me in perfect English if I need to go back to where he picked me up. I say no. “Kūkō ni watashi o toru.” Take me to the airport.

I’m sitting on a steel bench in the airport, looking up at a screen showing arrivals and departures. To my left: a duty free shop featuring bottles of Johnny Walker under a heavy copper sign that reads, House of Walker. To my right: the moldy wall, carpeted all the way up to the ceiling in blue and pink argyle. I haven’t bought a ticket. I’m having trouble concentrating and my face aches like it wants to give birth.

In the cab, I texted the forbidden number: I’m leaving. My other suitcase has some things I actually want. I’ll send you an address. After 30 minutes of staring at the flight times on the screen, my phone beeps. Marion.

Charlie. Where are you? I’ll send a car.”

I’m leaving.”

You can’t. We have dinner. It’s all set. I need you here.”

A fat gaijin in a Hawaiian shirt and a suede Australian bush hat walks out of the duty free shop, stops, and looks at me for a moment.

I ordered you a suit. It’s really nice.”

Marion,” I’m saying, “Marion. Listen to me. I’m—burned out.”

The fat man whistles. “Hey. What happened to you? You need medical?”

I turn toward the wall.

If this is about the thing with Darius, I already talked to him.”

Yeah? The thing with Darius? I’ve got 13 staples in my face.”

We’ll fix it,” she says. “We can overcome this.”

I turn back and see the fat man already far away, walking toward the departure gates, his bright red Hawaiian shirt a tiny lick of flame.

No,” I whisper. “We can’t.”

Charlie? You still there? Can you hear me?”

14 hours later, I step off the plane at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. It’s the middle of the night. I slept most of the way, high on the pain pills for my face, and now I’m on a different planet. St. Louis was the soonest departing flight to the States. I have no other reason for coming here. Within an hour, I have a room at the enormous empty Hilton downtown. I go out on the balcony and look at the glowing blue-green pool 20 floors below.

In the distance, headlights float past an illuminated fountain that reminds me of the one in Yoyogi Park. I can’t imagine what Marion is doing, who she’s with, whether any of this even matters to her. I can’t imagine where I’ll be tomorrow, what I’ll be doing. The bottom lights of a plane turn against the sky. I start a cigarette, leave the balcony door open, switch off the lamp by the bed. Then I lie down with an ash tray so I can watch the planes take off.

I’m watching my father from the mezzanine of the Chicago Hilton. He’s sitting in the lobby with a prostitute and they’re both drunk. She looks like she’s providing a GFE, a “girlfriend experience”—what passes for one in her price range. Laughing, poached beet red from booze and sun, she sits on his lap, slips off, lands on the floor, hauls herself up, tries again. He glances around, as if he can sense someone watching. But he’s too far gone to think about looking up at the entresol, where I’ve been sitting now for 15 minutes. It’s Christmas Eve.

I don’t really know if she’s a prostitute. But maybe I do know. Or I know enough—that my father now only engages in transactional relationships with women; that she’s wearing huge plastic bangles, has runs in her nylons, a sloppy stain on her blouse. Tangled, white-blonde hair. Large injected lips. A smoker’s laugh like a hatchet splitting wood. Just his type. He took her to Bora Bora for three days. Now they’re waiting for a room.

“That’s FUNNY,” she says, and they both crack up. He said something hysterical. Something really funny.

I tailed my father and his new friend here from O’Hare, brushed through their vodka cloud without being recognized, went up to the armchairs on the mezzanine, then got a call from Frankie Lum.

Frankie’s voice in my ear. He’s talking about putting a tracker on his wife’s Civic. He can follow her on his smart phone. Wants to know what I think about that, but I’m not really participating in the conversation. He says that tomorrow he might take his kid to Disneyland and wants to know if I’d like to come or is it too weird?

“I don’t know. Should it be?

He doesn’t say anything and, for a moment, I forget he’s there. Then: “You mean Disneyland’s weird or it’s like we’re gay for each other and Manny’s our kid?”

“It’s your son, Frankie. I don’t know how gayness comes into it. But now it is weird.”

Why does my father do this? Maybe I know why. Maybe I consider smoking a cigarette, even though I quit 4 years ago. I’d have one if I could walk through the lobby without being noticed. I’d feel better in some ways that probably don’t matter.

“That fucking sadist. I know what she does during the day. Like I even need to track her down.” Frankie has been cheating on his wife with women he meets online for years. Somehow, this makes no difference. Bonnie does it once in a while and she’s lying, cheating, vicious, while Frankie’s the victim.

I tell him that I couldn’t go to Disneyland even if it wasn’t weird. I have to visit my mother’s grave with my father tomorrow since she died two years ago on Christmas morning.

“She says she has to work. On Christmas? You have no idea what this is doing to me.”

A waiter from the bar brings them a bottle of Absolut in a champagne bucket shaped like a loving cup, glasses, tonic water in a vintage fluted carafe. My father says something and her OH MY GAWD draws stares around the lobby. The two women at the front desk giggle. My father—red-faced, sweating in his wrinkled Valentino pinstripe and Montecristi Panama hat—looks very much like Minnesota Fats inflated by hot gas. Like he might float up and pop.

The possibility that this woman is actually his girlfriend and not being paid flickers through my mind. I dismiss it immediately when she calls him DADDY and falls out of her chair for the fifth time.

The concierge stalks over, whispers in my father’s ear. The concierge is a short man in a cheap blue suit. He has a mustache and perfectly squared, sprayed hair. My father nods and then he and the girl start laughing all over again. My father offers him a drink. The concierge straightens his tie and looks down at my father the way one looks a bum jingling a cup from a doorway.

Frankie asks if I’m listening to him. I tell him the truth.

“You’re not paying attention to me? What the fuck, James? I don’t even know if we’re friends anymore. Can I trust you?”

“Sure.”

“What’s that mean? Sure? Like I’m asking if you want to hit a movie? I’m saying can I trust you?”

I ask him why and immediately regret it.

“Illinois law. This state’s fucking law says, and I quote: grounds for marital dissolution exist if, without cause or provocation by the petitioner, the respondent has committed adultery subsequent to the marriage. That’s compiled statues 750, chapter 5, section 401, bitch.”

They’ve found my father a room. An entourage has assembled in the lobby: a guy to load their 10 suitcases on a rolling cart; a guy to carry the bottle of vodka, tonic carafe, and glasses on a silver tray; another guy to help the lady walk; and the concierge, overseeing everything, with dead eyes and a key card. Back to Bora Bora: a mountain caravan replete with porters and shitfaced great white hunter in Panama hat. They move slowly through the lobby, the lady stumbling on her heels and shouting FUCK every time.

“You think it’s weird to come with me and Manny to Disneyland? That’s fine. Cause my son and me are gonna be busy photographing his mother breaking the law. Thanks for nothing. See you on Monday.”

Frankie clicks off. He gets emotional like that. He’ll come away with a flash drive full of photos of Bonnie in flagrante delicto with the pool boy or another yoga teacher. They’ll fight and go somewhere for the weekend to straighten things out. Then Frankie will hook up with a morbidly obese woman named Jolene or a sex-addict cutter or a bipolar divorcee or a leathery women’s volleyball coach in the back office of the high school gym.

Always the same: he’ll come over to my desk at work to confess. He’ll ask me if I think he’s got a problem, if I think he’s a bad person. And I’ll say if he’s into Jolene and she’s into him and they want to do it in the master bedroom of the house she’s supposed to be cleaning that day, then that’s their business. I’ll tell him good and bad don’t come into it, which is what he wants to hear. Then all will be right in the world. Except, I guess, with Manny. Nothing’s ever going to be right with that kid. But you can’t pick your parents.

After the entourage departs, a certain calm descends on the lobby. 1 AM. Lights wink on the enormous fake Christmas tree over by the doors. The girls at the front desk lean against the wall beneath eight brass clocks that show times from around the world. The concierge passes me as I pass through towards the entrance. He’s loosened his tie. He walks forward with his hands in his pockets, staring at the carpet.

Outside, snow along Michigan Avenue is three feet high. I ask one of the valets for a smoke. He gives me a Marlboro Light. I don’t cough. It doesn’t make me sick after four years of Puritanism. I spend a long time slowly smoking it, watching the flakes come down in the headlights of cars.

Bora Bora is one of the Leeward Islands of French Polynesia. It’s surrounded by a lagoon and a barrier reef. The island is completely supported by tourism. There are 18 hotels, but my father always stays in the Herenui Suite at the Four Seasons. The biggest town is named Vaitape. It’s on the west side of the island, opposite a lagoon. Somewhere inland, there’s a dormant volcano. And there are many coconut trees. Coconut trees are everywhere. You could close your eyes and point and you’d be pointing at a bunch of coconut trees. At least, this is what I’ve read. I’ve never been there. In 45 years of marriage, my father took my mother on one vacation to New Mexico. Now he goes to Bora Bora and stays in the Herenui Suite twice a year.

I should eat something, but I don’t have an appetite. I trudge over to 7-11 and buy a pack of Marlboro Lights, a blue plastic lighter. Then I go back to the valet, hand him two cigarettes, say thanks, and he looks at me like I’m a psychopath.

I’m not crazy, but I do hear my mother telling me I need to eat. I hear her voice all the time from out of the past, from my memories. And I know it’s not a psychopath thing. It’s a grief thing. When you’re a kid, it’s enough to know there is such a thing as grief. If you’re lucky, that’s the extent of your knowledge for at least a decade or two. But you learn. Everybody learns. So fuck the valet. I paid him back with interest out of gratitude and this is how he acts. I hope his lungs turn black.

The All-American Diner is open on Christmas Eve. It’s half-full of sad-looking old men in wrinkled clothing, the ones who can’t afford or who can’t bring themselves to pay for some company. My Denver omelet tastes like corn oil. The wind picks up and the lights of the Hilton across the street make gauzy halos in the snow.

I could go home to my studio apartment in Westmont, smoke a few more, fall asleep in front of the TV. But the same thing that motivated me to tail my father and his unfortunate new friend from the airport is what keeps me in the diner booth. I can’t go home. And I can’t say exactly why, but it feels like giving up on mom.

The last time I spoke with her, the cancer had reached her brain. She talked gibberish half the time. But you could see, deep down, that she was still in there. It had been a bad day, a messy, humiliating day for her in which the nurse had to be called multiple times. But there was a moment when she turned to me and said, “Don’t blame your father. He won’t know how to take care of himself.”

At the time, it was okay. Anything she said was. But now it breaks my heart to think she’s looking down at all this. At me, here. At my father up in the room, sweating out Citron and Viagra while he grunts and strains through the last night of his Girlfriend Experience. We should be sitting in the living room, having a drink together on Christmas Eve. We should be doing the things families do.

Frankie calls and I let it go to voicemail. I’ve had just about enough of Frankie Lum for one day. I finish my omelet and eat a piece of toast to soak up the grease. After four refills of coffee, I start feeling like a jerk for taking up the booth so long. New gray-faced men keep coming in, their trench coats and umbrellas caked with snow.

It’s a strange sight on Christmas Eve, but the lone Russian waitress keeps the glasnost fish eye of hate trained on everyone in equal measure. I tip 25% because no one should have to work in the All-American Diner on the night before Christmas. Or ever. There is no Russian word for “table service on Christmas Eve in Chicago.” The waitress scoops up the money before I’m fully out of the booth. I don’t look at her.

I wander back into the lobby of the Hilton and leave a message for my sister, Elsa—who said no straight out when I suggested a family memorial service for mom. But she said she’d be coming to town with her husband Johann and to give her a call. So I do, even though I told myself I wouldn’t.

Her voicemail’s tinny robot message expels a burst of German, then her name in her own voice, slow and clear, the way she might enunciate it for a two-year-old. I can’t bring myself to describe what I’ve been going through. So I just say, “It’s your brother. I’m at the Hilton. Dad’s here.” And I leave my number to prevent her from being able to claim she lost it. She loses it every time I give it to her. In this era of cell phones and caller ID, there’s only one way that’s possible.

“Can I help you?”

Ah. One of the girls from the desk. Heavy glasses, brown Velma hair in a bob. Freckles. Big mean stare. She’s had her nightly snigger and now must deal with the vagrant dripping on the upholstery.

“I don’t think so.”

“Are you staying here, sir?”

“I’m James Garrit. My father, Trevor Garrit, is staying here.”

“Do you want to ring his room or leave him a message?”

“No.”

“Then can I help you?”

“Not really.”

“Then why are you sitting here?”

“Don’t you think it’s a little late for philosophical questions?”

“I’ll be back.”

“I’m sure you will.”

The trouble with Bora Bora isn’t that the volcano might wake up some day and turn the place into a burning hellscape sinking beneath the waves or, even worse, that the entire economy depends on wrinkly divorcees like my father. It’s that the island has exploitation threaded into its soil. Polynesian settlers took over in the 4th century. Then Captain Cook arrived. Then missionaries from England built a church. And once that happens, as my grandmother used to say, it’s all over but the shouting.

In 1888, Queen Teriimaevarua abdicated as supreme ruler over the island. Henceforth, Bora Bora would be a French colony. Baguettes. Wine in the afternoon. Tennis. A vacation spot for Legionnaires on furlough and a place to take your mistress when that dusty little nid d’amour in Lyon starts to seem confining.

My phone vibrates and I make the mistake of answering without checking. I expect Elsa. But no. Frankie.

“You still staking out your dad?”

“You live in a world of stakeouts and mistrust, don’t you, Frankie.”

“Screw you.” He hangs up.

No, I am not surprised that he does this. Yes, this is my life.

The desk girl returneth. “Sir, if your party isn’t expecting you, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“I thought this was a lounge.”

“No, sir, this is the lobby.”

“But people sit here and order drinks here from the bar, right?”

“No one sits here, sir. This is just the lobby.”

“Does the lobby have a function?”

“People walk through it.”

So Bora Bora. One cannot nurture expectations contrary to the nature of a place. But since I’ve never visited the island, it exists only in my imagination. And therefore it exists only for my father, only as a symbol of his treatment of my mother, especially while she was dying. There it really is a ghostly hell where lobster-red tourists marinate their organs in loving cups filled with Vodka and the Girlfriend Experience is compulsory.

Frankie texts me: Apologies. Under stress. Forget Disneyland. You need to be the one to follow Bonnie. I just can’t do it. Text YES if you understand.

The weirdness never stops, does it?

Is that a no?

“So you’re saying no drinks?”

“I’m calling security.”

The sun comes up and I’m still in the lobby-lounge-place people walk through with no drinks. I did nap a bit. Velma the desk girl eventually called the concierge, not security. But perhaps because of the earlier difficulty with my father, nothing was done. She wouldn’t look in my direction. Then she went home. And I remain. Like Gibraltar. Like the Great Sphinx. Like the brooding volcano at the center of Bora Bora, which the natives call Otemanu.

But there is a moment when the gravity shifts, when the barometric pressure rises and I don’t feel so certain. It’s a familiar feeling. Even before I see Else standing over me with her hands on her hips, I know it’s her.

“You look like shit.”

“Good to see you, too.”

She looks down at me and, for a moment, I get the impression that she really does see me as an enormous glistening turd.

“Why don’t you just get a room if you can’t bear to go home?”

“Have you seen what they charge for rooms here on Christmas?”

“Don’t poor-mouth me. It’s disgusting.”

I follow my sister out of the lobby and compliment her on her silver Bentley Continental.

“I’m selling it.”

I know that if I ask why, she will tell me she doesn’t like the curvature of the dash board or how the back seat ashtrays vacuum her cigarette smoke too directly. Asking questions pisses Else off. Her driver’s name is Howard. But she doesn’t have to say a word to him. Howard knows not to ask. We get into the back seat and the car slips down Michigan Avenue. It’s perfectly silent. No snow crunch under the tires. No rattle from the heater. The first thing I hear is the flitch of my sister’s lighter.

“So you’re here to spend the holidays crying in a graveyard.”

“I just thought it would be nice to have a memorial.”

Else exhales smoke and it’s immediately snatched apart by air currents, vents, suctions, the hidden impedimenta of flawless climate control designed to keep the interior of the Bentley throne-room perfect.

“It’s morbid and useless. You’re smart enough to know that. This is really about the fund, isn’t it.”

“I don’t want your money, Else.”

“SHUT UP YOU FUCKING LIAR!” She slams her cigarette into the ashtray built into the door. “You know it’s about money. It’s ALWAYS about money. I should kick you out into the snow right here.”

“No,” I whisper. “It’s never been about the money.”

Howard changes lanes. We cross the Chicago River. Traffic floats past outside, heading downtown for morning services or home or far, far away from whatever home has come to mean.

So much rage in her little body. Else lights another and we listen to the ashtray whir as it opens and takes her previous cigarette down into its mechanical bowels. Else came into the world as a mistake. That’s what our parents used to say. They never stopped saying it.

When she was 14, they sent her to a convent school in Frankfurt. She spent her holidays there, too. Like she didn’t exist as part of the family. Like the cigarette: whir, click, gone into some fancy garbage disposal.

Four years later, she appeared at the New Years celebration my father’s magazine was throwing in Brooklyn. Else, all grown up, dressed in black, weaaring immaculate boots, a smoker of fine cigarettes, and a lesbian. Three years after that, she married Johann Moll and moved to Geneva. She’s still married to Johann. But why, how, and in what capacity I do not know.

When it comes to my sister, the only thing I can be sure of is that she thinks her trust fund should have been larger—that I received preferential treatment yet again, that I somehow cajoled a chunk of her inheritance away while mom was on her deathbed, and that I’m angling for the rest of it.

Actually, I received nothing. Instead of a trust fund, my mother had intended the family gold—a substantial number of heirlooms that had been in her family since before the Renaissance—to come to me. My father made off with that before the ink was dry on the death certificate.

I had no way to prove anything. But I never complained. I never threatened to kick someone out into the snow. In any ten of Else’s thoughts, eight are invariably about money and one is about something she hates. I like to imagine that the remaining tenth thought might be about art or music or kittens, but it’s probably just about selling her Bentley. In an earlier age, she’d be a cruel Cleopatra, a Lucrezia Borgia, a young Roman matrona rooting for the lions.

Antipater of Sidon is supposed to have written the following in 140 BCE:

I have gazed on the walls of impregnable Babylon along which chariots may race, and on the Zeus by the banks of the Alpheus. I have seen the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Helios, the great man-made mountains of the lofty pyramids, and the gigantic tomb of Mausolus. But when I saw the sacred house of Artemis that towers to the clouds, the others were placed in the shade, for the sun himself has never looked upon its equal outside Olympus.

I have enjoyed that passage ever since I was forced to read it in high school. Antipater of Sidon is the prototypical sidewalk pitchman, the classical version of: Hey buddy, you thought you seen wonders? You ain’t seen wonders. Back here in the tent, shit, I got some wonders. Only five bucks for a look at the sacred house of Artemis. But how might he describe Else’s arrival in Bora Bora?

I have gazed on the 32-karat gold shingles of Johann Moll’s house along which chariots may race, and on Herr Moll dressed as Zeus by the banks of Rhône. I have seen the lingering bad attitude of his wife and her colossal resentment towards her brother, the groundless mountain of irrationality that props up her lofty opinion of herself, and her gigantic ego. But when I saw Else Moll arrive, smoking Gitanes in a diamond palanquin, I knew Bora Bora might never recover, and Otemanu himself might be so offended as to erupt after four million years.

Or something like that. The point is, we travel all the way to her empty Victorian on West Armitage without another word between us. Just cigarette smoke getting suctioned away and Howard engaging the turn signal with silent dignity. The whir of the ashtrays. Dirty snow. Bleak white-gray Chicago Christmas morning beyond the tinted glass. I have all the time I need to speculate about Antipater of Sidon and offending the volcano and how sad my mom must be that we all turned out like this.

The interior of Else’s house is a time capsule of late Victoriana—not because she is in any way enthusiastic about Favrile glass or Morris wallpapers, but because Johann bought the place along with its contents in a single consumerist ejaculation. I have no idea if either of them have spent one night in the house since they signed the papers last year, but I tend to doubt it.

“You can sleep here tonight.” She puts a glass ashtray on the Louis XV rococo coffee table polished to a museum sheen. “But don’t think you’re moving in.”

I imagine how the house cleaners must feel, coming here to dust once a week, nothing ever moved, nothing changed. “I’m not homeless, Else. I actually have a job, a life.”

She smiles, raises an eyebrow. “You’re obsessed with our dead mother. Any woman attracted to you is either stupid or thinks you’re a chump. Or both. You have no life.”

“Speaking of that, I think dad just got back from Bora Bora with a hooker.”

Else walks over to the baroque drink trolley that looks like two brass flamingos having sex while falling to earth. It’s fully stocked. None of the bottles have been opened. The whole room disturbs me. Red Persian rug. Tasseled drapes. The tall stained-glass windows glare with late morning light.

“Who cares. Martini?”

“It’s ten in the morning.”

“It’s Christmas.”

“I’ll pass.”

She shrugs without turning around and makes her drink. “If he wants AIDS, that’s his business.”

Calling Else was dumb. I knew it was. Why did I do it?

“I think I should go.”

“Yeah,” Else says. “Maybe you should.”

She takes a sip of her drink and stares up at the tall window, a blinding red, green, and yellow mosaic showing a saint blessing a pack of dogs. If it was taken from a church, what kind of church? If it was made to order, who would want to look at that every day? Johann?

“Why did you want me to come here? Just to see the inside of the place?”

“This house means nothing to me.”

“Sure.” I stand up to go.

“You don’t understand a thing, do you. You’re completely clueless. My clueless brother.”

She follows me to the door, smoking furiously, then holding her cigarette and drink in one hand and cupping her elbow with the other.

I open the door. Tiny snowflakes swirl around us. “Don’t forget,” I say over my shoulder. “You were a mistake.”

Try to get a taxi in Chicago on Christmas day. I dare you. It’s not impossible. Nothing is impossible. It’s just highly improbable—like every other thing we want. What should take me 30 minutes takes 4 hours and it’s nobody’s fault but mine for letting Else do her number on me yet again.

Somewhere between the house that means nothing and the Hilton, Frankie updates me on his situation.

Manny’s in the car. Okay? When they ask you where he was, you know I said he was in the car.

What?

I’m doing this. It’s the only way. Not for me. For my son.

Don’t talk crazy.

I always liked you, James. But someone has to put a stop to her. She’s evil. She’s fucking up my son’s childhood.

You don’t sound rational, Frankie.

Good-bye.

Hey. Don’t be like that.

And this, too, is Frankie. The last time he got this upset about Bonnie, he threatened to burn down his house. I’m guessing that’s what he has in mind today. Always the same. Good old Frankie Lum, creature of habit.

Only I do not believe—not even in all worlds and all times while infinite monkeys type ad infinitum on infinite keyboards and the means and will and opportunity recur in Frankie’s life like the tide—that he would ever burn his own house down. Had he but world enough and time, he might find the proper expression for his inner turmoil. He might be able to actually say what he signifies by threatening arson. But he doesn’t. And so. And so.

Okay, Frankie. You want to get a beer?

My $67 Christmas cab ride through the most circuitous route known to the driver brings me right up to the front of the Hilton before Frankie responds: okay. Because nobody wants to be alone on Christmas. Of course, he and Bonnie could decide to spend the holidays with each other like a family, but I guess Frankie prefers to work it out by threatening to commit felonies.

I tell him I’ll call him after I go to the graveyard with my father. I’ve already Christmas-guilted the new front desk girl into telling me my father’s room number by the time Frankie texts me back one last time: okay. It’ll give him time to think up a face-saving excuse for not torching his house after all. And whatever he says, I’ll make sure to believe it.

The elevator plays all of The Partridge Family’s “My Christmas Card to You” by the time it gets up to the 17th floor. The music makes me want to shoot myself and does nothing to improve my disposition when I knock on my father’s door.

I’m thinking about Else saying so you’re here to spend the holidays crying in a graveyard, about Frankie standing in front of his house with a gas can and some rags just so the world will take him seriously, and about mom—feeling like I should be somewhere making an apology for my family, burning incense, praying for her soul and her forgiveness. I don’t consider myself particularly religious. But I was raised Catholic. And we know how to do all kinds of guilt.

My father answers the door, still drunk, his black silk bathrobe hanging open. White pubic hair. His enormous belly. He’s got a red fez on his head with a golden tassel and his face is painted like a clown. He looks at me for a moment before realizing who I am.

I resist the urge to walk back down the hall to the elevator. Instead, I put my hands in my pockets.

“What’s with the clown makeup?”

“Hello, Jim. How’d you know I was here?”

“Come BAAACK,” his friend calls from somewhere behind him in the room. “We ain’t done yet.”

He wobbles and holds onto the door frame. “What’re you doing here? You staying here, too?”

“I called you about ten times. I had to follow you here from the airport. It’s Christmas day, dad.”

“No shit.” Then, over his shoulder: “Hey, Carla, didja know it’s Christmas?”

“Today? Wow. Time flies. Hey, who’ya talkin’ to, daddy?”

“Nobody, hun.” He looks at me and thinks. “You need some money? Is that it?”

“I thought we might go over to mom’s grave. You know, just for a few minutes. Put down some roses.”

“I got this party thing later. But let me give you some money, Jim. For Christmas.” He turns back into the room and Carla takes his place. She’s dressed in a green fishnets, a green vinyl babydoll one-piece, green platforms with a big costume emerald on the top of each.

“He’s a sad clown and I’m Poison Ivy. Who’re you?”

“I’m just leaving.”

“Yeah. Okay.” She stifles a burp. “Good.” And she shuts the door.

I’m halfway to the elevator when my father catches up with me. He’s got a vodka tonic in his right hand and a roll of bills in his left. A gangster roll. Living large, my dad.

“Take it. Five-hundred bucks. For Christmas, you know?”

When I don’t reach out and take it, he tosses the roll to me. Reflexively, I catch it. He grins and I feel like an asshole.

“Good,” he drains the rest of his drink. “Gimmie a call next week, okay?”

I toss the roll back at him. It bounces off his belly and lands on the carpet between us.

“Go fuck yourself.”

“Hey.” He bends down to pick up the roll and almost falls on his face. “That’s not right. That’s no way to treat me.”

He doesn’t follow me down to the elevator. He just stands in the middle of the hallway watching me, repeating, “That’s not right, Jim. That’s no way to be,” over and over. The elevator closes and a moment later I can’t hear him anymore. I wonder if he’ll remember that I came by at all. Something tells me Carla won’t mention it.

The lobby is full of happy, smiling families—people visiting relatives in Chicago, people from the west coast, from New York City, from Austria, from North Dakota. I sit in a plush chair in the center and listen to their conversations. I pay attention to my breathing.

Frankie texts me: Look, I need a favor.

Another one?

You didn’t do the last one.

Which should tell you something.

I need you to take Manny until tomorrow night. Is that too gay for words?

Frankie. Gay is okay, you know? You use the word like a 14-year-old. What are you going to do when Manny starts saying things are “so gay”?

Are you really asking me that right now? I’m calling out for help.

It’s the middle of the day and bright, but large flakes drift past the front windows. The Canadian father of three next to me calls it the “polar vortex.”

Did you know it’s never snowed in Bora Bora?

WTF are you talking about? Something’s happened. I need to

There’s a long pause in which I imagine Frankie is trying to come up with a way to seem not so predictable, not so much like an overly dramatic fool.

spend some time with Bonnie. Set her straight about a few things.

You flying to Palm Springs this time?

No. What makes you think that? We’re going to Niagara Falls. But hey we need to take a rain check on that beer. Can you come get Manny ASAP?

He’s forgotten all about me saying I had to go visit my mom’s grave. The dead don’t compute. They don’t exist. They don’t matter when it’s time to go to a casino in Niagara Falls to fall in love all over again or to a costume ball dressed like a mime version of Kasper Gutman. Who’s going to take care of the dead if not us? If not those of us who can still remember them? Staring at my phone, my thumb poised above the little keypad, I ask these questions again for the thousandth time since my mother died on the worst Christmas of my life. Still, in the end, maybe family—any family with a chance to be more than a rabid bunch of animals snapping at each other’s throats—matters more than the dead.

So: Yeah. Okay. We can go to a movie or something.

Cool, man. Can you come right now?

I tell him sure. I’m not doing anything special.

When I go outside to have a cigarette, Else’s driver, Howard, is waiting in the snow, standing by the silver Bentley, with a cardboard sign that reads, JAMES GARRIT. He looks at me as if he’s never seen me before.

“Greetings. Mrs. Moll has told me to take you wherever you need to go today.”

“Has she. Howard, right? I met you earlier.”

“I have no recollection of that, sir.”

I shrug and let him open the car door for me. We pull away from the curb. I imagine I could say nothing and Howard would still know to take me Mount Olivet Cemetery then to Frankie’s house. But I tell him anyway and he simply nods. Beside me on the backseat is a bouquet of 36 large roses. I count them as we go and think about my sister sitting in that house, drinking, looking at the stained-glass saint blessing the dogs.

My cell phone tells me that in Vaitape, it’s 77-degrees, partly cloudy, with a 20% chance of rain. Today, Bora Bora is silent. Otemanu broods, shrouded in mist, knowing nothing of Christmas, while tiny yellow butterfly clouds twist above the jungle. I picture this as the snow falls silently over Chicagoland, over the sidewalks, the river, the Eisenhower Expressway, and my mother’s grave.

Your eyes are closed. And a voice repeats itself: if you can’t eat, you need to sleep. “If you can’t sleep, you need to build something. Something edifying and engrossing. A sculpture. A sculpture that will take you out of yourself and release your attachments.” The voice of Dr. Bentley Philips, your wife’s psychiatrist. He arrived an hour ago, claiming that you called him. It’s possible that you did.

“But that’s only if you can’t sleep,” he says.

Sitting under the chandelier on the white shag of your unfurnished dining room, your new two-story house seems enormous and the night endless. None of the windows have curtains. Through the large bay window in the dining room, the desolation of the new housing development is clear: empty asphalt drives, vacant yards, half-built skeletons of houses. You see the silhouettes of transplanted midget palms waving in the orange glow of sodium vapor lamps around your circular driveway. Evil midget palms with fronds like sword blades. The chandelier is large and electric. It blazes like an alien mothership.

“Can’t you give me something?”

“You mean a fat pill that’ll knock you into next Tuesday?”

Bentley is a Buddhist, does Buddhist psychotherapy. He uses terms like “satori” and “blissful illumination” and talks about “exploding supernovas of joy in the meninges of the skull.”

“You’re an addict, Ed.” He tamps the bowl of his bong with his thumb. “Say, ‘I’m an addict,’ and I’ll write you a script right now.”

It’s possible that you’re an addict. But it’s a fact that, due to meth and despair, you haven’t been sleeping. You’ve been seeing mice at the edges of your vision. Your conversations with yourself in the bathroom mirror have grown cryptic and obscure—as have your talks with the cast of Battlestar Galactica.

“What if I say, ‘Fuck off,’ and punch you in the mouth?” You may be delusional and talking to television characters through the bathroom mirror, but unfortunately you’re not imagining Bentley. You’ve always hated your wife’s psychiatrist.

He shrugs and takes a long draw, tiny wisps of smoke rising from the bowl. The fact that you might have called him in a meth-addled stupor doesn’t make him any less of an asshole. You remind yourself that Bentley, too, shall pass. He coughs out used smoke and tells you to blame yourself, not the drugs. He says you need to admit what you are.

You put on the Sounds of the Humpback Whales CD he has in his boom box, the one he always brings with him to play chants and guided meditations and shit like that. Then, over the sounds of whale fin slapping the water, you tell him he’s a worthless pot-head.

What you don’t say is that you feel worried when you look through the front windows—the opaque, mirror-black world waiting to eat you, the wide circular drive illuminated in the middle of the glass. You watch the midget palms standing around the drive as if engaged in ritual, their fronds fronding the wind as the chandelier waits above, its monstrous mandibular arms glowing with the fires of perdition.

Bentley wants you to hit the bong. He nods and smirks when you wave it off as if he was testing you. There’s no way to blame drugs for this situation. Drugs are innocent. You blame Paula, your ex-wife. Fucking Paula, who abducted all the furniture en route and disappeared.

So if squinting Commander Adama appears in the dark dining room window or behind you in the bathroom mirror and starts telling you you have to roll the hard six just like in the series, you’ll ignore him as a rule. You’ll tell yourself there’s more than enough time to fix his geriatric bullshitty hallucinatory ass. If you see a mouse doing the Macarena across the back of the toilet tank, you’ll blink it gone. You’ll listen to the whales and tell yourself this is not psychosis. This is the necessary meth, the straight dope. Emotional life support. Beyond question. Only meth will save you from a violent probing on the alien mothership, which you feel will be more or less inevitable once the chandelier reveals itself.

The doctor’s triple-chambered bong bubbles as he initiates an herbal satori. The bong is bright orange, as long as Bentley’s arm, with pointillist green arabesques on the side. It’s enormous, faintly penile, slick-looking. The arabesques seem like sequins formed out of abjad. You imagine a woman with needles sticking out of her tongue licking designs into the bong—all about the unpronounceable name of god and forgiveness and how you must turn away from foolishness. Indeed.

The midget palms are right outside the window now. They wave and dip their fronds. Standing between them, Commander Adama beckons. You give him the finger and Bentley laughs. “Hallucinational are we?”

“I’m cold.”

“You’re sweating. Say you’re an addict, Ed. Just say it.”

The necessary meth, the straight dope: if you’re going to be completely honest, you’ll admit that the meninges of the skull cannot withstand more than 72 hours of racing heart and no sleep before acute psychosis sets in.

Psychosis. The big chosis.

This is not something other drugs can prevent, not even satori weed from the good doctor’s bong of enlightenment. Rather, amphetamine psychosis is a Daisy Duke Moment, a stretchy atemporal hiccup of severe disidentification in which you realize that you are now and always have been, say, the Antichrist or a tawny pug that was once shot into space by Soviet physicists or the sexy hillbilly cousin of Bo and Luke Duke for 6 full seasons.

But if you admit to yourself that Commander Adama is actually just a palm tree outside the window, then you must confront the unsettling question: what are palm trees?

“Look at you with your cock bong,” you say. “Have I ever seen you without a bong?”

“Paula has.”

Meth psychosis would constitute a total break in the reality piñata. It would constitute a new state of being in which you’re blindfolded, weeping on the ground, and all the candies of the world will have razorblades in them forevermore. Death Piñata. It’s the Winchester Mystery House on acid. It’s Daisy Duke. It’s Mitt Romney having won instead with plagues of locusts, the death of the firstborn, the Tower of Babel falling down all over again. It’s the chosis that makes the rest of society’s piñata-beaters want to tie you up and throw you in a hole. Daisy Duke? Oh my sweet lord, yes.

“You know, there’s nothing wrong with fucking a psychiatrist up, Bentley. People will probably like me for it. The police will. I could fuck you up right now.”

“With every threat you make, Ed, I grow stronger. You know why? Because I’m a Jedi knight and you’re an addict. That’s why.”

And a voice repeats itself: if you can’t eat, you need to sleep. If you can’t sleep, you need to build something. Something to distract you. Something to relieve you and bless you. Something sacramental. Something to initiate satori. And therefore, you know the only relief possible lies in the construction of an utterly enlightening machine dedicated completely to personal bliss, covered in knobs and cranks, and weighing more than a gun safe from the 1930s. One must build a beautiful, interactive sculpture. A machine, yes, but one that would connect you to the infinite.

“That’s the spirit,” Bentley says. And you realize you’ve been talking out loud, but it doesn’t make the idea any less brilliant. So this is what you do. Infused with the unstable and perhaps inbred hillbilly energy of an impending Daisy Duke Moment, you know you have to roll the hard six. You watch yourself get out some tools, a squirt-can of 3-in1 oil, and the box of machine parts someone left in the front closet. You watch yourself scream incoherently at Bentley like some kind of bloodthirsty pterodactyl. You dance in circles and stamp your feet until he helps you carry in the enormous moldy butcher block you found in the storm drain below the housing development. Then you listen to the whales and start to superglue the parts on.

It takes forever.

It only takes a little while.

It makes you want to gouge your eyes out with a screwdriver.

It makes you giggle like a little girl.

You’re not hallucinating. Those aren’t palm fronds swishing scissor-like beside your ears. That’s not Commander Adama in the foyer with his uniform pants around his ankles. He’s putting Daisy Duke and the new girl-Starbuck through a lesbian bondage routine with ball gags and chains and a stuffed puglet. They’re surrounded by midget palms, but you don’t have time to watch the fronding. You’re at the gound-zero-eleventh-hour-apocalyptic-meltdown-trigger-point-of-all-creation and there’s no time to be a tourist with the whole reality piñata hanging in the balance.

It looks like a chunk of Watts Towers when you finish, an amazing machine bristling with buttons and levers, knobs, cranks. You turn the knobs. You push the buttons.

You do feel slightly better.

“That sculpture you made has focused your thoughts. That’s good, my son,” Bentley says.

“This is a machine that creates satoris, bitch. Drug free. None of your Jedi bullshit. No psychobabble. Just pure, sweet, extra-virgin distractive bliss. Better, by far, than your cock bong. You better recognize.”

Bentley nods, smiles, his eyes nothing but slits. “It’s good that you took my advice, Ed. But remember, those levers don’t actually do anything. They’re just a placebo. They won’t keep you from diving head-first into a drained swimming pool or running over yourself with a car. You will eventually do something like that, you know.”

The thought of running over yourself with a car is terrifying. “Screw that. It’s about focus. You think I’m a meth addict, but you’re high and wrong. I made this machine before you told me to. I made this fucking years ago. I’m ancient like the hills.”

“Addict. That’s what I think. That’s what Paula thinks.”

“Paula has no philosophy and neither do you.”

Bentley’s cackles turn into coughs. He lies back and stares at the mothership chandelier, puts his hands behind his head. “Bliss machine. I like that. Bliss is nice. Machines are nice.”

In the menagerie of lethal street drugs, methamphetamine has had a short yet astonishing history. It is everywhere and nowhere, the redneck grail. It can be made from various combinations of iodine, battery acid, cold pills, acetone, paint thinner, white gasoline, wood ester, fiberglass resin, grain alcohol, liquid ether, and Bisquick. Moreover, it’s frisky and it wants to bring you the paper in the morning. It’s coat has a glossy sheen and it’s just so cute the way it wags its tail. Cute as a button. Meth is a pug that loves you. And it’s never, ever going away.

So let’s say at least some of what you’ve been experiencing has been due to blown-out meninges and perhaps to the sheer stuporous exhaustion that comes from overclocking the bodymind with such chemical puggy goodness. Before you left Gainesville, you had quite the little laboratory in your garage. But you were not a drug dealer. You were a married man with equity and a Prius, a fan of whimsical Rube Goldberg inventions, minor league baseball, and space opera. You recycled. You had a job as a chemical engineer for a company that produces one thing: synthetic lube oil for the nose cones of ICBMs—lube oil that used to come from whale blubber. This was good work you were doing. Yes, Daisy, you were saving the fucking whales. You were saving Free Willy. Sing with them, Daisy. Sing.

In fact, all the drugs you made were for personal use. Contrary to popular belief, meth did not turn you in to a raving, flesh eating werewolf. Rather, it made you more efficient and aware at work while providing an excellent hobby interest. And now, after ten faithful years of whale conservation and making it possible for the United States to turn North Korea into glowing maple syrup for 20 centuries, you don’t even own a bed.

So let’s say you’ve taken up chain smoking as both protest and comfort, sitting against the dining room wall in your boxer shorts, contemplating the mournful song of the humpback whale and pug dogs and battlestars and why Paula is so wrong about everything. Let’s say you’ve been compulsively applying ChapStick and snorting rails of homemade powdered meth at the rate of 250mg every three to four hours for the last 48 consecutive hours. Let’s say you’ve started to twitch. Let’s say a raindrop that got caught on the windowpane made you cry. Nobody loves you. The whales are singing. The house has no furniture.

Bentley’s finishing another bowl. Let’s also say you’re alright with despising him enough to choke him unconscious with one hand if he gets too close.

“Why did I call you? There’s no way I could have called you.”

“Because you need my help,” Bentley says.

And let ‘s admit that your obsession with Battlestar Galactica has also played a role in this—that you are powerless over Battlestar Galactica and that your life has become unmanageable. You look over at the machine you built, the Blissful Illumination Machine (BIM). It’s now covered by an old T-shirt. It’s sitting on the carpet where the dining room table should be.

“I need furniture is what I need.”

“Yeah.” Bentley nods. “That’s true.”

The current meninges-frying meth binge started 48.5 hours ago with a call in the deep end of the night, the phone squealing like a child shocked out of a dream. It’s alright, you said half-sleep, daddy’ll take care of everything. But you don’t know why you said that because you don’t have kids. You were holding the phone upside-down in the dark.

“What did you call me?” said the little voice.

“Are you the movers?” you asked. “I told you not to call me at night. For chrissake, it’s the middle of the night. This is unacceptable.”

“Ed Tiller? There’s an end table here with your name on it, Mr. Tiller. We thought you’d want to know.”

“It’s almost midnight. You should have been here last week.”

Creeping death: you knew exactly why they were late, why you’d been sleeping on a blanket for days under a sinister chandelier in the dining room—the only room with carpet and therefore the warmest place in the house since the heaters didn’t work.

“We’re in Lubbock,” he said. “I’m sorry. We’re in Lubbock.”

But that was 48.5 hours ago when you were psychologically defenseless. Now you’re higher than Luke Skywalker and you’ve got the BIM finished and you don’t have to dwell on Lubbock or calls in the middle of the night letting you know your soon-to-be-ex-wife had the movers divide your possessions in a truck stop parking lot.

Under the T-shirt, the levers and protrusions of the BIM resemble a jumble of bones under a shroud, a fat pug skeleton. Could the image of a skeletal pug bring enlightenment under a shirt? Why not? Dipping a pug in acid and wrapping up the bones is not something Rube Goldberg would kick you out of heaven for. Saint Rube, patron of over-engineered machines and useless gestures. Ave Sanctus Rubius, hear our prayer.

“I’m hungry. Big surprise there.” Bentley laughs at his own wit. You notice Captain Starbuck and Commander Adama making out over in the foyer. They’re sloppy, loud. It’s horrible.

“I’ve got some instant coffee in the kitchen,” you say. “That’s it.”

You focus on the BIM with all your power, trying to block out the slurping, smacking noises.

“You should switch to xenadrine, Ed. Contains ephedrine, caffeine, aspirin. Best legal speed there is, actually. You could crush it up.” Something mocking in Bentley’s voice.

“You’re the worst doctor I’ve ever met. What did you ever do for Paula anyway?”

“I freed her from the illusion of separation, Ed. And I made sweet love to her vagina. Say you’re an addict, Ed. Say it.”

Hideous. But you’re not coming down to his level. You’re not down with killing pugs yet. There’s one last episode of Battlestar Galactica: the Reimagined Series waiting. One. Only one. And if you can get over the image of Starbuck and Commander Adama going at it, maybe you can finally get closure. The dvd has been sitting on your laptop, looking at you. But you have approximately 25 minutes left on the laptop battery and, thanks to Paula, no power cord—no way to recharge without leaving the house for Radio Shack. Is it even possible to leave the house? No. It isn’t.

Bentley has the munchies. He goes to look for the instant coffee, which he says he’s going to eat. But he’ll never find it because you actually taped the packets under the sink, realizing, in one of your more precognitive moments, that otherwise anyone could take them. You start to chuckle. You hold your hand out and can’t stop it from shaking.

No, it’s not possible to go anywhere outside. You’d wind up in the drunk tank, spread-eagled over a fender, tortured in a basement. Nothing good ever happens in a basement. And you’re sure nothing good is exactly what would happen to you. The world beyond the house’s airlock is the cold vacuum of space, the cruel stars waiting, and no luscious Captain Starbuck to love you and make it alright.

“Where the hell is it?” Bentley’s voice is hollow and slightly lower coming from the kitchen. Commander Adama and Starbuck have reverted to their natural midget palm state. The foyer is now a tropical island. Toucans. The dulcet tones of a ukulele. Turn the cranks of the BIM. Pull the levers. Ave Sanctus Rubius.

“What? Bentley you fuck? Munchies? Feeling a drug craving? Wishing you had a plate of chimichangas, perhaps? Pizza? A big bowl of buttered popcorn? Say you’re an addict, Bentley. Say it. Then maybe I’ll tell you where I had the—sandwiches.”

He’s back in a flash, standing over you, hands balled into fists. “You’re mentally ill,” he says. “You’re addicted to illegal narcotics. That’s why you’re so cruel.”

“A whole cooler of sandwiches straight from Safeway, Bentley. Just think about it.”

“It’s not you, Ed. It’s the horrible disease of chemical dependency in you.”

“Turkey. Pastrami. Tomato basil. Lightly drizzled with olive oil.”

“You sick bastard.”

“Chipotle antipasto on rosemary flat bread with capers and chicken remoulade.”

For a moment, he looks like he’s going to cry, which is good.

“Caramelized onions, Bentley. Hear me? Caramelized.”

Then he does, a single tear rolling down his cheek. “You know, I never doubted what Paula said about you. But I never understood how deep your sickness goes.”

“Paula snorted Xanax on a nightly basis and couldn’t get off unless I choked her. Welcome to my world, Bentley.”

“So.” He wipes his cheek, takes a deep breath and tries to smile but now he’s twitching, too. “Were you just kidding about the sandwiches?”

In the course of watching the entire Battlestar Galactica series 13 consecutive times—always high and always stopping short of the Final Episode—you have come to believe that a power greater than yourself could restore you to sanity. You said as much to Paula when you were still living with her back in Florida and she was complaining about your nightly viewings. “Honey,” you said, “I think there’s something encoded here. Something metaphysical. I think Captain Starbuck might be talking to me. I mean, really talking to me.”

“Starbuck is talking to the camera, Ed.”

“I think I believe in god. A numinous reality. The communion of saints. The forgiveness of sins. The whole fucking thing. It’s there. It’s right there. I think I’ve finally got religion.”

And then she pointed to the sign she’d made a week before, the sheet of printer paper taped over your desk that read: “CAPTAIN STARBUCK ISN’T REAL. SHE IS AN ACTRESS NAMED KATEE SACKHOFF IN A TV SHOW THAT ENDED. YOU ARE AN IDIOT.” Paula’s pointing nail was a bloody claw and her eyes were dead moons of resentment. Maybe she was right and you are an idiot. But there can be no denying that the words Captain Starbuck speaks are oracular in nature, that Battlestar Galactica might have ruined your marriage but it might also have saved your soul. And, yes, it is possible that Paula resembled a Cylon.

In fact, it would not be untoward to say that in spite of saving the whales from nuclear nose cones, faithfully sorting bottles from cans, and pulling down six figures to keep dear Paula in gold rings and Gucci, there was never a time when married life seemed right and stable. That is, except for said moments of chemical methamphetamine communion with the words of Captain Starbuck, whose wisdom yet warms the cockles of your heart.

Paula was no Captain Starbuck. She knew it, too. And hell hath no fury like a woman scorned for a television show. But please. Paula owned enough handbags to kill a normal human. Handbag overdose: Gucci, Melli Blanco, Prada, Dolce and Gabbana, DKNY, House of Florence, even one made of pure black goat. Open her closet and there they were—leather-smelling, ruby studded, chained with nubbins of white gold and clasps and little symbols. A Babylon of bags. And a hanging garden of shoes. And Paula with her cartons of Virginia Slims and five different groups of friends you didn’t even know about for the longest time and were never allowed to meet.

Paula’s calves were cut like rocks and the fake breasts she got from Husband Number One were hanging in there strong at a generous C. She had her own bedroom. But you always had breakfast together. Damn those breakfasts were good. You could feel the love bubbling in the bacon. And she didn’t mind that you had a laboratory in the garage. She didn’t even notice if for months or didn’t care until you spoke for 17 hours—couldn’t stop speaking—about mysteries, Cylons, oracles, galactic sorcery. She made you dump the beakers before you moved and that should have told you.

Her brown hair was always in a twist. Her cellie blew up nightly. Callers with names like J-Dub, Rickkie, Kayreesha, Fabian d’Alonzo. Who’s named Fabian in this day and age, you wanted to know, but that was part of the You Don’t Ask and I Won’t Tell part of the marriage, the biggest part, and Paula wasn’t telling. Your obsession with Battlestar Galactica tore it. Maybe it meant you’d never assimilate and take a name like Rock-D and start wearing shiny tight-fitting shirts to clubs with one-syllable names. In your defense, Paula had no ear for the oracular.

Between man and wife, man and Daisy Duke, or man and pug dog, there can be a great sadness. But there comes a time when man and dog must reconcile. Dog is dead, says man’s wife. Man is dead, says dog. But you could imagine a better way. In a world gone mad, space opera is the ultimate anodyne. You quit reading scripture years ago. You went through a poetry phase. Sure you read Flowers of Evil and it seemed to mean something at the time, but Paris imagined as a bloated whore doesn’t uplift. And, in the end, the best that you could say for Baudelaire was that he liked cats. As for “Tintern Abbey,” don’t even bother. You got “Ozymandias” and most of William Carlos Williams and the jokes of Billy Collins and Howl and Leaves of Grass but whatever the leaves meant didn’t catch and, after all, you couldn’t smoke them. There was no Burning Bush Effect, no Daisy Duke Moment, no divine revelation from the mouths of the gods. This you got from Captain Starbuck, her voice flowing like Hecate’s fountain: Gorgo, Mormo, Moon of a Thousand Forms. Yes.

So you made a decision to turn your will and life over to the care of Captain Starbuck as you understood her. It wasn’t wrong. It was following your bliss. And that can’t be wrong. Even if your wife has not left you and there’s an end table with “Ed Tiller” on it sitting in a parking lot in Lubbock, Texas.

The only thing keeping you from ending it all is the BIM and the Final Episode. You lost your job. You lost your marriage. You lost the whales you should have been saving from nose cones. And you lost all the clothing you’d had in your drawers. All you’ve got left is this two-story tract house in Santa Monica, two boxes of shirts, a laptop, a psychiatrist baked out of his mind, and sorrow. And after the Final Episode, you can die as you’ve lived: a nothing, a failure, a no one. A zero. An empty crying thing, blown out of the Battlestar airlock and falling up into the big dark.

You wake up listening to your breathing. The side of your face is bonded to the shag with vomit. The whales are still singing. You’re fairly certain it’s your vomit. You take the T-shirt off the BIM and look at it, inhaling it’s 3-in-1 oil, turning its cranks. The base is solid wood—the butcher block, moldy and unlegged. On its surface, you have affixed rubberized red knobs, lathe handle, stippled cranks, link arms, handle washers, index sprockets, casefeed arm stop pins, an assortment of jam nuts, a camming pin, and a variety of other components which were unlabeled and which will now never need labels. From the same cardboard box you found in the front closet, you obtained the plastic spout bottle of 3-in-1 oil with a skull on the back and WARNING: HARMFUL IF SWALLOWED in bright red. But not harmful to the BIM. To the BIM, it’s holy anointing oil. And as you manipulate the parts, you breathe in the scent of the mechanical world and sigh.

Bentley must have left earlier. He’s back now, cooking lamb chops. He’s got a plastic bottle of vodka, which he alternately drinks from and pours into the frying pan. He took his pants off at some point. He’s dancing from foot to foot in pale yellow boxers, singing Bye-Bye Miss American Pie while he fries up the chops. The question as to whether Bentley has anything beyond pot and booze in his system is now moot. High or crazy stops mattering after a while. Doctor Bentley. Mr. Rational. God’s gift to the psychiatric profession and mental health everywhere is singing at the top of his voice and frying lamb chops in your kitchen for reasons you cannot fathom, shatterproof plastic gallon of vodka notwithstanding.

You un-skitch your face from the shag and wobble upright.

“Bentley? Bentley-poo? What are you doing, Bentley-poo?”

You feel like a child walking for the first time. A new world on stilts. Everything tilting. A sudden great pure-hearted sense of accomplishment. You did it! Look, honey, junior’s walking. But as for the hideous pulsing agony in your meninges? Ignore it. Ignore the sudden anxiety you feel, realizing that the BIM will be back in the dining room and therefore out of arm’s reach if you walk into the kitchen. Banish it. There’s a psychiatrist present. The psychiatrist who had everything to do with the abduction of your furniture and the dematerialization of your wife into the post-marital vapor of Lubbock, Texas.

Bentley dances and sings like some stubbly lamb-chop-frying satyr, raising up and fluttering his hands at key points in the song as if to say, Hallelujah! I’ve been saved by lamb meat! Instead, he sings, Them good old boys are drinking whiskey and rye and flips the chops as if they were pancakes. Hot oil splatters.

“Bentley? Are you alright, my little friend? What are you doing, Bentley-poo? Did you get into your medicine bag?”

The aroma of lamb chops and cheap vodka is repellent, but you will not be repelled from your own kitchen, even if the only pan in it is the Teflon fryer he must have bought along with the booze. Your head pounds with each step forward.

“Come on, now. Let’s come back to Earth. It’s a Class M planet with gravity and an atmosphere. You’ll like it on Earth.”

Singin’ this will be the day that I die. He does a Michael Jackson spin but shrieks when he sees you in the kitchen doorway and drops the vodka. True to its design, the bottle does not break, the plastic stopper at the mouth preventing all spillage. Some bottle designer out there understands the health principle of keeping one’s vodka wet and one’s powder dry. Momentarily distracted, maybe hypnotized, you notice the tide of the vodka in the bottle. But with every rise and fall, the agony in your head grows worse. There’s no preventing that. You cover your face with your palms and breathe. When you take your hands away, Bentley has backed up against the far wall, staring at you, holding the frying pan out as if it were some holy relic against evil.

“Stay the fuck away from me.” His eyes are big and terrified. He jabs at you with the pan, the lamb chops in it sizzling. You notice the entire left side of his body is covered in blood.

“What did you do, Bentley? Is that your blood?”

“Blood? What the fuck do you want with my blood?” He looks left and right. He’s cornered. To his left stands the enormous empty refrigerator that came with the house. To his right, a wall. “You want my fucking blood. You’re a fucking vampire. I knew it.”

“Bentley. I’m not a vampire. Now put down the chops.”

“You’re a vampire and if you don’t step away from me, I’m gonna use this on you. I mean it.”

Holding the side of your head, you step past the vodka bottle and reach out to take the frying pan, which in retrospect, you should not have done. Bentley screams the impassioned death cry of a small mammal about to be snapped up for dinner and throws the entire contents of the frying pan—vodka, hot oil, and two medium-well lamb chops—at your face. You duck just in time to get a spray of searing oil across your back, burning through your T-shirt.

Bentley follows the hot oil over you, diving head-first, and hits the floor hard. He slips but gets up and disappears out the kitchen. You also slip—on a lamb chop—and land flat on your back. Your head hurts too much for you to get right back up. Your back is burned. However, you do have the energy to scream, “Goddamn you, Bentley, I am not a fucking vampire. I’m a werewolf and when I find you, I’m gonna make you my werewolf bitch and burn you with fucking cooking oil you fucker.”

But by the time you find him, you feel you understand him.

The BIM brought you back and the chops were good. Proximity breeds tolerance, maybe even complacency. Moving through the house, frying pan dripping warm oil onto your hand, you revert from murderous to melancholy. What, for example, was more important: caving in the skull of your wife’s psychiatrist or watching the Final Episode? If sitting for a moment beside your Blissful Illumination Machine could bring you back, where were you? What does it really mean to want immediate and brutal vengeance on a wife-stealing psychiatrist when the cruel stars wait in the trackless void? When you finish turning the cranks and inhaling the scent of the BIM’s holy oil, you realize that these were the sort of questions Paula could have asked herself before deciding to leave you without furniture or hope.

By the time you decide to ask Bentley about his role in this, you’re standing outside the bathroom door, listening to him scream: “It’s locked! It’s locked, okay? Locked. And when the sun comes up, I’m gonna find your coffin!”

“You got into the meth and you’re paranoid, my brother. Paranoia. Shouldn’t you know about that?”

A dedicated meth addict will develop an extrasensory understanding of the drug at some point, made from one part intuition and three parts memory of previous bad decisions. It comes with the territory and it can calm you down in the throes of a bad run that’s otherwise putting a pressure cooker death clamp on your meninges. What once was an army of brain-sucking, face-eating ghouls climbing up towards your bedroom window can be attributed to inchoate fears attributed to possessed midget palms in the drive or some other fearful agency. And gods willing, you may tell yourself: yes, that might be an octopus tentacle sticking out of the mouth of my dead third-grade teacher standing in the other room, but I understand that if I sit very still and operate the dials on this BIM, she will not notice me.

Bentley pounds on the bathroom door and tells you he knows you’re undead. “I should have staked your heart when I had the chance,” he says. What he hasn’t learned yet is that running only encourages the monsters.

“Dr. Philips, my good friend, you snorted a pile of meth from the big jar in the pantry. You were not ready for this. Magic meth, Bentley. Makes you think everyone’s a vampire. Gives you a nosebleed and a lust for lamb meat.”

Now he’s weeping, saying “Paula” over and over. You sit down against the bathroom door and hold up the frying pan: no oil, a yellow-brown drip trail leading down the hallway toward the stairs.

“What about Paula? What did you do to her?”

He slumps against the other side of the door. “You think you’re the only one who hurts, Ed? I hurt.” The pain in his voice. The remorse. Only one woman could inspire those feelings. But you can’t see your former wife and Bentley as any kind of item. Paula, the dance club going, fake Florida tan having, Prada wearing, hip-hop-hit-me-on-my-two-way no-you-can’t-meet-my-friends diva of the universe getting together with rail-thin, balding Bentley? Inconceivable.

“You’re telling me you had an affair with my wife? Or are you just high and delusional? I think what you want to be is high and delusional.”

“She married you didn’t she? You don’t think she’d step out? You don’t think she ever did? She told me she had five affairs you knew about. And then there were the ones that you didn’t know about.”

“Bentley, tell me I’m not going to have to beat the fuck out of you with this frying pan.”

There’s scuffling, some thuds, and grunting from within the bathroom.

“You’re destroying my new house.”

“It’s not your house! Paula owns it all now!” Then the sound of breaking glass—the small bathroom window being punched out since he couldn’t get it to slide up on its casement. You listen to him grunt and strain. Eventually, he returns and slumps back against the door, exhausted.

“Bentley?”

“I don’t speak to vampires.”

And that’s where things stand, philosophically. You ask Bentley to unlock the door a few more times, but he’s determined to make good on his no vampire communication policy. That and maybe he’s forgotten how the lock works, which is also a very real possibility. In order to clean his wounds or because he has recalled the legend that vampires cannot cross running water, he turns on all the taps and begins flushing the toilet repeatedly.

When the water seeps underneath the door and wets your shorts, you stand and wander through the upstairs rooms, the pain in your head lessening somewhat but still undeniably there. The empty unfurnished bedrooms. The barren inset shelves of the study. Slanting orange bars of light through vertical blinds. All the space, empty, useless, made for occupants leading more abundant lives with jobs and books and the unnamed end tables of domestic bliss. With such space, it’s no wonder that you’ve been under high levels of strain. When one reaches out in the darkness and touches nothing, what makes sense? When one’s wife says she’ll be there but spirits the furniture away to Lubbock, what is normal?

Standing at the top of the stairs, looking through the window over the circular drive, you banish the thought that the midget palms are still waiting for you out there. That’s just drug shit, paranoia. If you’d gone the distance and actually paid for some high-class metallic sodium instead of being lazy and using the more readily available ammonia and battery acid, none of this would have happened. You’d have gotten Ye Goode Oulde Dependable High, mild euphoria, perhaps a hard-on. But this: tremors, visions, agonizing headache, heartbroken terrified psychiatrist flooding your house, nervous breakdowns, grief, Saint Rube Goldberg shaking his head in dismay while incoherent screaming and splashing comes from the bathroom.

Or not a nervous breakdown. Maybe just a Goldberg Variation—like St. Goldberg’s Self-Operating Napkin, which raises a string, jerks a table, pours seeds into a cup, and sets off a tiny rocket that will cause the napkin to wipe one’s chin—a small chain reaction, an invention meant to play between the acts, meant to keep you sufficiently amused as you move through disrecognized domestic space, from having to having not, from end table to absence in the big bad dark.

Or your beloved Daisy Duke Moment: one moment, you’re a mildly depressed, slightly drug-addicted chemical engineer living beyond your means in Gainesville with a wife named Paula and the next moment you’re here, looking at your reflection in a window at night, hallucinating a tawny pug head in the place of your own. A few hours ago, battery acid having its filthy way with your meninges, you’d have believed a pug reflection—floppy little ears, watery soulful eyes, a certain Cosmonaut fervor in the seriousness of the expression.

By your watch calculator, it’s now been 50.7 hours since the movers called, 48.4 hours since you realized Paula never had any intention of arriving with the furniture to “talk things out.” Talk. Shit. Without furniture, all other marital issues are irrelevant. At this point, the only intelligent response is to huff, sniff the air, and yowl at the chandelier in socialist pug sorrow. And only Captain Starbuck has the answers. Soon you will play the Final Episode on your laptop while you make a searching and fearless moral inventory. Soon the Oracle will whisper to the maelstrom of your soul. And you will, at last and for all time, find release.

Your eyes are closed. And a voice repeats itself: I’m dying. Can’t you see that? It’s dark. I’m slipping away.

“No you’re not,” you say to the wall outside the bathroom. “You’re just a little upset, man.”

At some point, Bentley turned off the faucets. The water stopped seeping under the door and dripping through to the pantry and rooms on the ground floor. The voice sounds like it belongs to Bentley. Then again, you would be crazy to attribute everything to him when you have been so hallucinatory in the timeless Daisy Duke moment of all bad drugs—when the meninges try and fail to reassemble themselves on the brainpan and all assumptions about what’s real and what’s a hallucination must pass away. Your head continues to pound, to throb with each heartbeat, and you decide the voice is not coming from Bentley after all. Everything is quiet. The dark hallway. The locked bathroom door. Maybe’ while you’ve been holding a hallucinatory dialogue with yourself, something has actually happened to the good doctor. You reach up and try the door again. It’s still locked.

I’m dying, the voice says. Can’t you see that?

You’re not dying, Bentley. Nobody’s dying. I’m suffering from hallucinations brought on by sustained sleep deprivation and methamphetamine use.

Don’t you want to talk about it?

“There is no talk. Talk doesn’t work. There’s only: unlock the bathroom door. There’s only: eject Bentley from the house. There’s only: plug in the laptop and watch the Final Episode.”

And get Paula back?

“Paula’s never coming back, Bentley. I know that.”

Which may be the truest thing you’ve said to yourself all night. Because you are talking to yourself, aren’t you?

Aren’t you?

You try the bathroom door again and kick it a few times, screaming at Bentley for being such a worthless asshole. Because he is that, isn’t he? He’s that above all else.

You’ve replaced Sounds of the Humpback Whales with R.E.M.’s Eponymous. Drifting through the rooms to the third complete cycle of the album, you wonder exactly how long it’s going to take for this shitty album to make you hurt yourself. For that matter, how long can a psychiatrist withstand R.E.M. after a night of humpback whales in heat? Not long. With meth, less so. Traipsing through the house, doing little ballet pirouettes, you sing along with “Talk About the Passion” at the top of your voice—off-key maybe, but is there really a key? And besides, the whole point is to get Bentley to come out of the bathroom, possibly so you can kill him and certainly so you can urinate.

You discovered that the power cord to the laptop wasn’t missing after all—an incredible relief. You had no memory of tying it with a rubber band and hiding it between the shirts in your suitcase. Finding it there made you wonder what else you might have hidden away while high or blacked out. Gangster rolls of fifties? The house keys you misplaced shortly after arriving, sweaty and trembling from the airport? Yet more meth?

Bentley wasn’t careful with your current dope storage jar. You find it in the pantry, open on its side, a long yellow-white drift from the mouth of the jar to the edge of the wooden shelf. And if you were a desperate wild-eyed junkie in the classic Hollywood sense, if you’d bought the meth to use because you needed it, if that were your lifestyle, Bentley’s carelessness might have sent you over the edge into a murderous werewolf fever of spitting and cursing and hammering the bathroom door with an oily frying pan. Instead, you know you can just make more.

As Michael Stipe starts up with “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,” you consider the fact that you have resources. A BIM for stability. A house. Access to an Oracle of the Gods. A psychiatrist locked in your bathroom. To say nothing of all the drugs you want and the knowledge of how to make more.

You consider the possibility that doing one more rail of meth, just as a fortifying measure, wouldn’t hurt at all. Just one rail. One for old time’s sake. One for Commander Adama. One for the Gipper. One for Daisy Duke, Captain Starbuck, JFK, and Yanni. One for the fucking whales. One for sadness and alliteration, disorientation, disrecognition, distention, and the patent disregard of everything displeasing.

Yeah, disidentification. Right before the Soviet physicists initialize the launch sequence and your tawny pug ass goes sky-high along with casefeeds and camming pins, the mechanical universe squealing into space like battlestars gone wild. The BIM—you’ve got your beautiful, impractical bliss machine at least—a calming vector of predictability if you can just keep cranking the cranks.

So you do another line and the meninges start to sizzle.

The movers might not be coming west of Lubbock after all, of course. Santa Monica might not be on their itinerary. But you’ve got their number. And you can find them. And they know it. At least there’s that. At least you’ve got Captain Starbuck and an enormous jar of home-cooked methamphetamine hydrochloride and the Final Episode. Another rail and another smoke, lighter jumping around so much that you have to press your hand against the wall to hold it steady. You dial the movers, but they don’t answer and you’ll be damned if you’re going to start leaving them messages.

Disidentification of disrecognized space: this house could be a beautiful meth lab. A lab and a shrine. Statues to Jesus Malverde, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Saint Rube. Prayer beads, candles, and incense. An enormous day-glow poster of Captain Starbuck and Daisy Duke healing the sick of Calcutta. And all around it: separatory funnels, Bunsen burners, reaction vessels, plastic storage containers, large glass beakers, Mason jars, Pyrex, plastic Igloo coolers. Even the BIM would be wired in. A Rube Goldberg meth machine to reflect the hideous spirit of the times, putting out pounds of meth with no other purpose than to get you high and keep you there. Meth for meth’s sake. But Paula made you get rid of all your beakers before the move. Where are the goddamn Soviet physicists to shoot you into space now? Asking is pointless. Nobody cares. The pug weeps crystal tears.

The phone rings. Surprise. It’s the movers.

“I thought you were in Lubbock,” you say, yowling a little like a pug for emphasis before you shake off the Daisy Duke Moment and feel ready to communicate the full and proper extent of your indignation about your furniture being abducted.

“We were. There’s still the matter of the end table, sir.”

“There’s a lot more at stake here than just an end table, fucker. There’s a Malm and a Stolmen, an Elgå, a Brimnes, an Aspvik, and Expedit, and, yes, a Framstå. That’s all high-end Swedish shit, purchased at great difficulty and expense from the international importer, Ikea. I don’t expect you people to know about that or appreciate it, but it means a lot to me.”

“We don’t have anything like that.”

“You LIE! You’ve stolen my Aspvik!” Yes and then you hang up.

Taken intranasally in powder form, quality methamphetamine will produce a reasonable euphoria, a gentleman’s euphoria, not an all-encompassing derangement of the senses. It won’t come on like a freight train. Not a screaming bondage snuff film with ball gag and bodily fluids flying through the air, but rather like fantasy night with Sue Ellen Ellen, pristine captainette of the cheer team after the big game—soft-core and blushing with all kinds of muted pink goodness you want to keep and hold tight in the warm center of your center. So some fuck dumps your Aspvik in Lubbock and you decide it’s time for another rail because what the hell else are you going to do? What would Captain Starbuck do sans Aspvik?

You are now perfectly and completely ready to have Captain Starbuck remove all defects from your character. This is how you intend to make amends to those you may have hurt—what you intend to admit to Bentley, to yourself, and to Paula if she ever talks to you again. You will admit the precise nature of your wrongs. Because, as much as Paula has wrecked your life, can you really blame her?

It’s still dark outside and it has begun to rain. How much time has passed tonight? Aeons. Minutes. The cold vault of the heavens wheeling through the centuries. The midget palms creeping a little bit closer in the fronding of a moment. Those cruel stars.

If you can’t eat, you need to sleep. If you can’t sleep, you need to build something. Something edifying an engrossing. But how engrossing can a therapeutically Buddhist invention be if it spontaneously disintegrates? The fact that you do not see the BIM when you return to the dining room could mean that it has actually disappeared or that it is now invisible.

You close your eyes and try to get steady. Walk home to an empty house, sit around all by yourself / I know it might sound strange, / but I believe / You’ll be coming back before too long sings Michael Stipe. And, at least for the moment, you are inclined to agree. Screw Rockville—never go back! And screw Paula and screw Bentley sneaking around with his Freudian penis bong and all his Buddhist drama. So you’re having difficulties with reality. Who isn’t?

Yes?

Well, just consider where you are.

That’s the problem. I’m beginning to have doubts.

Lack of certainty is not certainty of lack. Quack. Quack.

Are you on drugs?

Yes, as a matter of fact, I am. What’s that got to do with anything?

Everything.

Something better happen soon, sings Michael, or it’s gonna be too late to bring you back. You feel he’s singing directly to you. How could he not be singing directly to you? You’re the only one here. The only other option is Bentley. And where is Bentley?

Your wife’s psychiatrist is not here being sung to. That’s one thing you know. And yet, the BIM hasn’t re-materialized. You make a searching inventory:

  1. The Rooms: empty.
  2. Bentley: gone as gone gets. Bathroom door open now. Tentacles of mist from shower hanging in the still air of the hall. It’s important to be clean. But still. Where is a psychiatrist liable to hide?
  3. The BIM: also gone. Maybe even gonner than Bentley-gone. Was it ever actually there? Were you? Stop that.
  4. Depression: everywhere but where the BIM used to be. You’re not coming down, but you’re not high, either. More like you’re sideways, as they say, stepping sideways. Things apporting hither and thither around the property. The midget palms once again inching their way up the drive. You can see those bastards with their bastard fronds. You know what they’re up to.
  5. The Whales: safe, for now.

In the kitchen, almost as if through some kind of demonic punctuation, some kind of horrible inevitability, your hand comes away from your mouth slick with blood. Bentley’s? Terrible possibilities snap and crackle across the meninges. Horror of horrors: Bentley left a perfect bloody hand print right at the place where he caromed against the white kitchen wall. The print is crusted burgundy with palm lines so clear and fine that a fortune teller could read his destiny. And double-horror: the print fits your hand perfectly. You’ve murdered Dr. Bentley.

Screaming wordlessly, your hand stuck to the print, magnetized there, you know you killed him and drank his blood. You are a vampire. And so it makes sense that you’re now condemned to die with your own hand fitted in the print, stuck forever to the evidence of your guilt. Poetic justice. No Buddhist therapy for something like this. No Blissful Illumination Machine. No love. No drugs. No Aspvik to soothe the meninges of the skull.

If you can’t eat, you need to sleep. Remember the blood on your face. It’s your blood, the mother of all nosebleeds covering your mouth and chin. You stop screaming. Michael Stipe tells you that Everybody else in town only wants to bring you down / and that’s not how it ought to be. But you’ve seen R.E.M.’s music actually make cats vomit. So you can’t be bothered by Michael Stipe’s senseless infantile puling. Especially when you’re bleeding and stuck. Then again, maybe all this blood is yours and none of it comes from Bentley.

Would that make you feel better?

I’m not sure.

You’re bleeding to death, you know.

Nobody dies of a nosebleed.

Look at your shoes.

They’re squishy, filled with blood. You wonder how all that blood got from your nose to your feet without getting on your pants. You really need to find a way to unstick your hand from the wall. The blood has attracted the midget palms. They crowd into the kitchen, Commander Adama walking behind. His face is a skull. He’s wearing a cowboy hat. He cracks a bullwhip, driving them forward.

“The hard six!” he screams. “The hard six!”

And you go down, screaming, vomiting, into the fronding dark.

The sun rises without event.

The midget palms are gone and it appears you are alive. Moreover, your hand is unstuck from the wall. Even the hand print is gone. After searching the entire house and silencing Michael Stipe, you realize there is only one place you haven’t looked for Bentley.

It takes you 15 minutes to climb the back trellis and onto the peaked roof. As soon as you stand up, you see Bentley, sitting on the edge of the peak that looks out over the empty swimming pool filled with dead leaves, the back yard with artificial grass, the drainage ditch. Beyond that: the housing development, gridlock on the I-5, morning haze over Los Angeles.

Bentley’s been up here all along, using the BIM as a back support. No blood. Yellow polo. Brown khakis. He shaved and smells like gardenia.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” he says when you walk up and sit beside him.

“We?” The lights of downtown are still winking in the deep haze like a fallen constellation. The half-developed housing project is speckled with pools of shadow around the inner frames of unfinished homes.

“Me and Paula.”

You look behind, but the roof is empty except for you and Bentley.

“Paula isn’t here.”

Bentley glances at you and smiles. “Well, perhaps not; though there is always the possibility that you can’t see her.”

“I can see you well enough.”

“Can you?”

He stands and moves the BIM so that its dials and cranks face you. You turn the dials and crank the cranks.

“I feel better. Thanks.”

“It really works, doesn’t it?” He smiles again. “Now do you trust me?”

Behind him, the sky has already changed from faint violet to pale blue. The stars have faded. The distant lights of the city are almost all gone now. Somewhere close by, two cats shriek at each other, about to fight.

“I didn’t kill you after all.”

“No, Ed, you didn’t. It’s not possible for you to kill me.”

“I think I’m sick, Bentley.”

“You’re an addict, Ed. Just say it. Say it and I’ll show you how to be free.”

At the other end of the roof, Captain Starbuck is trying to set fire to the house with a fistful of burning rags while blue uniformed Commander Adama looks on and smiles. He no longer has a skull face, but he’s still wearing the cowboy hat. A naked Daisy Duke covered in spiders with medusa-like palm fronds sticking out of her head crawls up over the edge of the roof on all fours like a lizard. She has a knife in her teeth. You can’t bear the sight and have to look away. Fresh blood drips out of your nose, making the old bloodstains on your shirt glisten.

“Just say it. Say I’m an addict.

“I’m an addict.”

Bentley’s smile gets wider. He holds up a Styrofoam cup and squirts the BIM’s holy 3-in-1 oil into it, then hands it to you. “Bottoms up,” he says.

“Won’t that mess me up?”

“You’re an addict. You said it yourself.”

In a way beyond words, that makes perfect sense. You nod and Bentley nods back. On the tip of the roof, you knock back a full cup of machine oil. It tastes surprisingly good before you feel your stomach seize and twist with a pain you’ve never felt before.

“Now do the right thing,” he whispers in your ear.

And you realize that you never saw the Final Episode and now you never will.

Captain Starbuck is behind you. She speaks with Paula’s voice. “Do the right thing, Ed.”

You nod, spread your arms, and dive into the empty backyard pool, knowing that it will open and you will fly through, at last free and blissful, into the big dark.

 

“Anyway, I think if we route the grant money into the primary fund we’ll be alright. Actually, we’ll be more than alright as long as we don’t spend another dime before fall.” Merton Swinn, the English department’s most recent acquisition, took a measured sip of brandy without blinking or looking away from Van Adler, the department chair.

Van Adler sighed and stared into the mouth of his empty beer bottle. His suit jacket was wrinkled and his feet already hurt. He’d been at the faculty party now for 45 minutes—15 minutes more than he normally preferred to spend at these things. But sometimes escape was impossible. He wished, above all else, that he were at home having a bath while his wife, Myra, blasted the Late Show downstairs in the den and laughed out loud.

He tried to smile at Swinn, but the effort felt unnatural. Lately he’d caught himself grimacing even when he was not upset, as if his face had become perpetually fixed in a transition between dismay and rage. Moreover, his hands ached horribly. Van Adler could no longer ignore the arthritis that had announced itself two semesters before and now visited him regularly with sudden jolts of pain from wrists to fingertips.

Van Adler looked at Swinn, who was starting to purse his lips, and said, “Right. But how will we account for the fact that we now have only seven tenure-track lines? Are you recommending that we forego the new one opening up? Missouri mandates at least eight full-timers in an academic department.”

Swinn’s eyes darted to Van Adler’s face, down to his brandy, over the crowd of graduate students and professors, and then to the carpet. “Well,” he said, “is that so monstrous in a recession? We have the adjuncts. And we’re not being evaluated for another two years. Who’ll complain?” He was a short, compact man who wore heavy multi-colored sweaters and round rimless glasses. At age 35, Swinn was already balding with a wispy tonsure of blonde over his ears. His eyes moved with his thoughts, which were quick and numerous.

Swinn’s dissertation at Rutgers, which he’d published shortly before being hired by Hauberk College, had been a study correlating the rise of the novel with the expansion of private leisure space in middle class English homes. Everyone on the hiring committee had agreed that it was inoffensive and at least mildly interesting. But for an expert on the literature of leisure, he seemed rather consistently ill at ease. Which was understandable, thought Van Adler, seeing that Swinn did not yet have tenure.

Van Adler sighed, shook his head, and again tried to smile. “Do you want a riot, my friend? We’ve announced the position. There’s no un-announcing it. The part-timers are already massing like flies.”

“That’s another thing,” Swinn said, following Van Adler’s gaze around the room. “We have 32 adjuncts. With a distance learning component in place, we could do with about half that.”

Swinn put his empty snifter down on the piano behind him. It was a baby Mason and Hamlin and it, along with the rest of the two-story Victorian townhouse, belonged to Juliette Lezerski’s, the department’s resident medievalist. She’d held her graduate classes in Chaucer and the bi-annual departmental get together in her large sitting room for over 30 years. Most of the furnishings in the house were historically accurate to mid-nineteenth-century Missouri, except for the piano, which Juliette tuned herself and otherwise kept in a state of factory perfection. She also played beautifully and, being slightly deaf, very loudly—always a miraculous respite at these functions. Van Adler turned, but didn’t see her. He wished Juliette would come over and start playing right now.

“There is something to be said for departmental morale, Merton. How many composition classes would you like to teach?”

“I’m teaching three at the moment.” Swinn crossed his arms, then caught himself and relaxed, clasping his hands at waist level like a boy heading to communion. Then he also smiled. Van Adler thought Swinn did a better job at smiling; though, Swinn’s eyes stayed level and his smile was nervous and tight in the bottom half of his face.

Van Adler could remember being like that years ago (before tenure), practicing a “warm, humane yet humble” smile in the mirror when Myra wasn’t around. It was something he eventually programmed into himself to an exact degree as if he’d carved it out of wood. And he held that wooden smile in reserve for those unforeseeable moments when true feeling threatened to rise and lay waste to his carefully sculpted professional image.

But that was years ago. Times were different when Van Adler had been a young assistant professor, teaching four to five sections a semester and spending the weekends writing in the humanities research library. There’d been 16 full-time lines back then and only a handful of adjuncts. Still, he’d served on more committees than he could easily count. This was his second and thankfully final term as department chair, since he planned to retire in two or three years. And Van Adler felt he had nothing left to prove to anyone. In fact, he was thinking of buying a boat.

“I know how hard you’re working.” He patted Swinn lightly on the shoulder. “And everyone thinks you’re doing a really fantastic job.”

Swinn raised his eyebrows, a flicker of anxiety and contempt in his face. Then the smile returned. “Well, thank you, Jim. It’s only been a year, but I already feel at home.”

“That’s great, Merton. That’s just what we want.” Van Adler flexed his left hand. He felt a hideous electric current dig into his knuckles and shoot down his fingers. He supposed it was time to take Doctor Whitehurst up on that prescription. He didn’t want to. It felt like giving in, like he’d lost. But maybe this kind of pain meant he already had. That’s how it was with everything, he thought. You didn’t know what you’d lost until it was gone and then your only recourse was to numb yourself and wait for the next catastrophe, the next unavoidable disappointment.

When Swinn left to get another brandy, Van Adler saw an opening. There was a small servant’s door in the pantry where a housekeeper could discreetly bring in supplies without disturbing anyone in the other parts of the house. And the door between the sitting room and the dining room had been propped open, revealing a straight unobstructed shot into the kitchen. Such moments of grace were few and far between. He felt that it would be the essence of hubris, an affront to all the gods of fortune, if he didn’t capitalize on the opportunity. No one would blame him for cutting out after an hour of fielding meaningless pleasantries and enduring Merton Swinn’s considerable angst.

And he was almost successful. He shuffled around the baby grand slowly, keeping his gaze on the fringe of Juliette’s authentic Boston Sego Bicentennial piano rug. There was a technique to fleeing a party: one walked easily yet quickly, avoiding all eye-contact, stepping cautiously as if barefoot in a room of scorpions. One kept a Zen mind, blank and empty, and did not congratulate oneself until safely in the car and away. Such was the discipline. But Sheila Barnhof-Canterbury emerged from across the sitting room at the last moment, sealing off his route to the kitchen and the pantry. Sheila was an adjunct with two kids and a husband who was out of work, and she radiated desperation in the best of times. When she saw Van Adler, her eyes lit up and he knew there would be no escape.

“Oh Jim! How wonderful to see you. Did you get my emails?”

“I’m sure I did, Sheila, but you’ll have to excuse me. I’m on my way—.”

“That’s fantastic. Then you know I’m planning on applying to the new full-time position everyone’s talking about. There is a new opening, right? It’s not just a rumor?”

He tried to flank her to the right, but she adjusted, holding her glass of chablis to the side for extra blocking width.

“Well,” he said, “it’s been advertised nationally. You can find it on the MLA job list, for example.” He put his hands in his pockets and glanced over her shoulder through the dining room. Apart from Sheila, the way was still open. But this was now a bad situation. They were very visible. And, not unlike flies, one adjunct talking about job prospects attracted others. An accurate, if unfortunate, analogy, Van Adler thought to himself, given what usually causes flies to swarm. Before long, he would have to start lying and prevaricating, making him the proverbial turd. It could get bad. It had before.

“My goodness.” Her knuckles turned white around the stem of her wine glass. Van Adler thought it might explode in her hand unless she did first. “How many applicants do you think there will be?”

“Sheila, I really—there’s no way to be accurate about something like that. Those things go up and down year to year. You know. Many factors. Hard to say.” But no less than 100, he thought, 100 if there’s one and potentially twice that many. Swinn’s job search had been a nightmare. They’d begun with 233 applications—an impossible number for a hiring committee of six professors with full teaching loads and other administrative duties. And so they’d made wide cuts, rejecting off-hand anyone who didn’t have multiple publications or an impressive pedigree. That brought it down to 50, which was where the hard work of actually reading the applications began. And there was nothing to indicate this process would be any less brutal. Sheila had a MA in English from Northern Missouri State University. What could he tell her that she shouldn’t have realized already?

She grasped his arm lightly, just above the elbow, and leaned into him. “Are you going to your car? Can I walk you out? I have a few more questions.”

Van Adler scanned the room. Three creative writing students had cornered Swinn, eliminating the possibility that he’d want to come back and revisit the budget apocalypse for another hour. But two adjuncts, whose names escaped him, were starting to move through the crowd in his direction. He had a vague memory of them. Former graduate students at Hauberk, now husband and wife. They certainly looked like adjuncts—Walmart wardrobe, disheveled hair, and a certain air of exhaustion, maybe exasperation. They must have had kids, he thought. The ones with kids were the worst off—the most scared, the most desperate, the most likely to have a psychotic episode at a faculty party. If there were a universal handbook for temporary academic employees with no benefits and no future, Van Adler felt the first line should be: if you’re going to lead that life, get sterilized early. Sadly, the best advice was always hard to give and even harder to hear. He’d definitely be calling Dr. Whitehurst about those pills.

“Jim? Are you alright?” Sheila looked up at him with her big blue eyes. She had set her wine glass down so she could hold onto his arm with both hands.

“I’m fine,” he said. “But I really have to go.”

“Sure. Of course. I’ll come with you.” She tightened her grip.

“Whatever. Just please let go of me.”

“Oh. Sorry. Yes. Absolutely.”

Juliette had appeared at the piano and began a baroque interpretation of “Blue Hawaii” loudly enough to draw everyone’s attention and prevent all conversation. The perfect diversion. Without another word, Van Adler turned, went through the dining room, and into the kitchen as quickly as possible with Sheila right behind. He unlatched the pantry door and pulled the little metal chain on the overhead bulb. It hung down at eye level on a green safety cord.

The pantry was well-stocked and looked like a cave of canned food with wicker baskets of onions and potatoes lining the bottom shelves. The door at the far end was made from polished oak planks with black metal bands. Its top rose to a minaret peak, making it look like a hobbit door or something out of the The Thief of Bagdad. It had a simple tumbler lock set in an ornate black face with an inlaid leaf design. And its shiny brass key hung from a loop of red yarn beside it.

Van Adler realized that there had never been a time when the key hadn’t looked perfectly new. Juliette must have polished it regularly. But who polishes their house keys? Only a medievalist who plays Elvis standards as if they’d been written by Antonio Scarlatti and who lives in a house on the National Register of Historical Places—someone interesting to know about but someone you didn’t want to get stuck next to on the plane.

That realization, plus the roar of graduate student cheering when she finished “Blue Hawaii” with a trill and two motets, made him feel slightly unsettled. The normal degree of strangeness was heightened tonight. There was more than the usual morose faculty party energy in the air. It was as if the impending job search had fueled a frenetic current, a wild, wavering voltage that might quadruple into something very unpleasant for the chair of the department if he were cornered by a group of drunken angry part-time instructors.

He was wiggling the key into the lock when Sheila closed the door behind them and laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Jim,” she said, “hear me out.”

She was wearing a white long-sleeved blouse designed like a man’s button-down with tails out over jeans and scuffed brown flats. One more of the buttons on her shirt was undone, plunging her neckline lower than it had been a few minutes before. He looked at the V of smooth white skin there between the slopes of her breasts. She caught him looking and smiled.

“Jim. I know you’re going to go out that door and get in your car. And you’re never going to respond to my emails.”

He opened his mouth, but she held up a hand and let it drift down to rest lightly on the front of his shirt as if she were radiating a magnetic force through her palm that held him in place.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, moving closer to him, almost whispering. “I know everybody wants this job. But it would really, really mean a lot to me, I mean, I’d be so grateful if you could help me out.”

Van Adler could feel her breath on his lips. It smelled like the cheap white wine Juliette provided at the faculty parties. He wasn’t a young man anymore. It seemed like he’d stopped being a young man earlier than most—maybe sometime in his PhD—where, like Swinn, he’d decided to get serious about his future and quit playing around. Marriage to Myra had been an advantage, solid closure on the question of romance and loneliness. He’d gotten that handled with alacrity and moved on to more important things. But Sheila Barnhof-Canterbury was a good looking woman. Was there anything he could do for her?

“I don’t think—“

“I’m not asking for a miracle.” She pushed him against the door and slid her hands up around the back of his neck. “But, you know, I find you very attractive.”

She was lying, of course. But did that matter? How many lies had he already told this evening alone? How many half-truths, evasions, duplicitous omissions? How many lies was he obliged to tell in a standard academic week—as chair, as a professor of American lit., as a mentor to a group of neurotic, hopeless graduate students, half of whom needed prescription mood stabilizers to get through the day?

“It doesn’t work that way. I’m not even on the hiring committee.”

“But you could be on it if you wanted. Isn’t that right?”

It was there, at age 65, in Juliette Lezerski’s pantry, with the light bulb swinging back and forth at the end of its green safety cord, that James Van Adler was kissed by the first woman since he’d married his wife, Myra Chambers, 33 years earlier. Kissed, that is, by a desperate woman two-and-a-half decades younger than him, who had a son and a daughter and a husband who used to be a dispatcher for a garbage truck company and who, rumor had it, now spent most nights with a bottle instead of his wife. Moreover, Van Adler sensed that Sheila Barnhof-Canterbury found kissing him vaguely repulsive, which, in a strange non-personal way, he could understand. Some days, actually most days, he felt the same way about himself.

“Sheila. Honey. There’s nothing I could do for you that you can’t do for yourself by applying. I’d be glad to write you a letter of reference if you need one. I could be honest and say you do good work. Because you do.”

She pushed him hard with both hands. He’d moved forward, away from the door about two inches, when she’d kissed him. And now he connected with the surface again, exhaling a sharp burst. A jolt of agony went through Van Adler’s hands and he cried out softly.

“You have no idea what it’s like,” she said, stepping back and sizing him up. The light bulb bounced against the back of her head. “You have health insurance. You can get your teeth fixed. When my son needs the doctor, what do I do? We’re on fucking food stamps.”

He nodded, turning the key behind him with his right hand. The situation that moments ago had seemed quite pleasant was now scandal-worthy. An intoxicated tirade by Sheila in the pantry and the rumors would reach Myra in less than a day. Above all else, Myra hated being talked about. It was what made her the perfect faculty wife. It would also be what made her perfectly insane when Bethany Lyon called to lay it on and enjoy her suffering.

“But I do know what it’s like, Sheila. I was an adjunct for years.” Actually one year. “I paid my dues in a time when there were no social programs in place to help me lead the academic life.” Actually, Myra’s income as a CPA would have disqualified them for state aid had they looked into it.

Van Adler’s hand complained horribly as he turned the key and pushed the little pantry door open. He put one foot on the pebble walk outside. The walk ran through Juliette’s rose garden to a small wrought iron gate in the six-foot hedge that went along the sides and back of the house. It was a windy night in Hauberk, Missouri. The trees wagged and swished, their shadows dancing through rectangles of light. Next door, a dog started barking. And inside, Juliette had started playing a mashup of “Flight of the Bumblebee”, “Blue Suede Shoes” and Beethoven’s 5th symphony.

He looked back at Sheila. She was standing in the center of the pantry, arms at her sides and the light bulb hanging down behind her head. She was about to start weeping. And the radiance from the bulb made it seem as though she had a halo—a white-shirted wingless angel with blue eyes who’d lost her way.

“I have two children,” she said.

He smiled. “They’re very lucky.” And he stepped outside, closing the pantry door behind him. He took a deep breath. When he got around to the front of the house, Juliette had segued into “Great Balls of Fire.”

Van Adler looked up at her grinning and pounding away at the keys. Her trifocals had slid down to the tip of her nose and the strap of her glittery blue dress had slipped off her left shoulder. A group of drunken graduate students pressed in around her, singing and egging her on. In another window, Swinn concentrated on his Blackberry, a concerned look on his face, texting with both thumbs.

It was only after Van Alder was halfway home that he realized he was still smiling and that it was the old wooden smile he’d developed years ago to get out of bad situations. His face seemed to be stuck like that, the muscles overtaxed and somehow charlie-horsed in place. And he couldn’t, for the life of him, stop.

1. Veritas vos Liberabit

Karl Lessing and I decided to finish the five gallon jugs of flat Michelob his little brother had liberated from a frat party. It felt like a big decision. This was 1993. We were sitting in Karl’s parents’ garage, watching old footage of Tower of Power’s “What is Hip?” on Soul Train. And it all seemed to go together—the cheap plastic folding chairs, the Everlast heavy bag bandaged with silver electrical tape, the beat-to-shit Zenith with a wire hanger for rabbit ears, the VHS player I got at Kobey’s Swap Meet for $12, the incense cones Karl’s sister made out of ganja and cinnamon burning on a dinner plate. Nothing had changed since high school. We were two years older and both felt that because we hadn’t yet become wealthy, famous, and adored, we were obviously has-beens.

We didn’t talk much. We were better at being self-absorbed and sullen, experts actually. The way I remember it, it was a Saturday night and neither of us had girlfriends or anything interesting to do other than sit there and make the occasional comment about how much of a badass Lenny Willams was or how Mic Gilette had them chops. One thing I’d learned how to do since high school was get good grades. And, as a sophomore at San Diego State, that meant I had a lot of free time on my hands to think about music when I wasn’t feeling like a loser.

People our age were fixated on Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but Karl and I were heavily into jazz and 70s funk. That was our main obsession—Tower of Power, Brass Construction, Average White Band, Graham Central Station, Chaka Khan, Sly and the Family Stone, The Gap Band, Sun Ra, Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, Coltrane, on and on. In truth, we listened to all kinds of music when we weren’t playing it, but because Karl was one of my best friends and happened to have three bookcases of CDs, I got exposed to a lot of styles I would not otherwise have known about. I never took world music or music appreciation. I was a double major, music and English, and apart from what I learned from Karl, the trajectory of my influences was limited to what I did in my classes. Karl was also a music major. The difference between us was that, while Karl was already an accomplished jazz saxophonist from a family of professional musicians, I was just a lost soul.

But that’s not precisely true. Looking at the 20-year-old boy I was then, I can see that I was just a writer who just didn’t know it yet, not unlike a lot of the students I’ve taught over the years. At the time, I thought I was going to be a classical pianist, but I was doing exactly what a writer does—getting absorbed in other people’s lives, details, energies, seeing the world through their eyes. Not all creative people do this but I’ve recognized the tendency in many of the writers, actors, and assorted soulless vampires I’ve met along the way. And to be perfectly honest, I had the affinity and intellectual capacity for classical music but not the temperament. Temperament might be everything.

Even with all of these influences, tendencies, fears, and assumptions swirling around us in that garage like fate, the Michelob didn’t taste any better. That said, when you’re 20 and frustrated, flat stolen beer is there for you. And we were halfway to our sworn goal when something amazing happened. Maybe it was right around the moment when Lenny in all his green velour majesty, goes, Do you think it’s drivin’ a big fine car? Have you heard, it’s tryin’ to be a star?—though that would have been too perfect—that Karl had a moment of profound wisdom which has stayed with me all my life. He looked at the gallon jug balanced on his thigh, then at me, and said, “Davis, some people get everything they want in life. The rest of us become philosophers.”

2. My Life as a Philosopher

“I know the many disguises of that monster, Fortune, and the extent to which she seduces with friendship the very people she is striving to cheat, until she overwhelms them with unbearable grief at the suddenness of her desertion.”  ― Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

17 years after Karl’s moment of Michelob profundity in the garage, I was sitting in a conference room at Western Michigan University looking at a class of creative writing students, all in their early 20s, all lost souls. It was the last year of my PhD. And in my private life, something I am not inclined to casually discuss with students, I had suffered immense personal losses by then—death, estrangement, betrayal, and disappointment. But what else is new? One still has to get up in the morning and put on one’s pants.

Unfortunately, the only way to earn the putting-on-one’s-pants insight is to suffer and then choose to become a philosopher, a choice these kids hadn’t faced yet. A lot of them looked at me and thought, this guy has it made. How do I do what he’s doing? Some of them actually said as much to me in my office hours, peering across the desk in a kind of half-disbelief that I could lead the writing life, the idyllic life they imagined they wanted but felt was forever beyond their reach. In other words, they were 20 and thought they were already losers.

The key ideas in my beginning workshop were simple: you have to read like a writer in order to teach yourself about what can be done. You have to learn how to evaluate your writing on its own terms. And you need to develop discipline, which includes an ability to survive criticism and make it work for you. Most students can emotionally grasp these things after a 15-week semester, but it usually takes about that long. The problem is that the most gifted ones, the ones with that extra something—that divine spark of talent given to them by the muse or an angel or the Prince of Darkness—are usually the ones who take a lot longer to get over themselves. They’re so busy trying to sort out the fact that they’ve internalized materialistic social values at odds with who they are, that they ignore the practical side of the work.

Just as I absorbed Karl Lessing’s love of music and the aura of professional musicianship that always surrounded him, my own students absorbed similar energies from me. Even the most gifted writers over the years were not insightful enough to see that it wasn’t me they were absorbing. Rather, they were admiring some eidolon, some mirage of ideal qualities they imagined I must have in order to do what I was doing. If I’d told them what Karl had said that night it the garage, would it have mattered? No. Because they hadn’t suffered enough to understand. You can’t tell someone who has been searching for the lost city of gold that the glimmer they think they see isn’t El Dorado. They don’t want to face reality and become philosophers. They want to be on Soul Train with Lenny Williams covered in green velour. And I don’t blame them.

One young man that semester, Paul, who stands out in my memory as having seemed broken and gifted in equal parts, came into my office hour looking pale and severe. And as soon as I looked up at him, I knew we were going to have one of those conversations—the kind that start off about writing and segue quickly into What do I do about my difficult life? To honor the teachers who put up with me when I was the one asking such things, I never slither away; though, I’m often tempted. It’s draining to talk with depressed, frustrated people. But it’s a small act of kindness, which is the only sort of kindness that really matters.

So he sat down and unleashed the kraken. He’d taken a beating in workshop the day before for his fairly chauvinistic first-person story about a guy who uses a pickup artist system to seduce a barista in some nameless college town. After using her sexually, he tells her to take a hike and she’s crushed. And that was the story. I still remember it, not only because Paul seemed to have that stricken shell-shocked look of someone who’d just gone through an Inquisition-style critique, but because the story really was tremendously bad. Also because Paul was generally talented as a fiction writer and it was unlike his other work.

After going on about various things and people he disagreed with in his critique, he stopped, deflated, and said, “This is mostly nonfiction. I don’t know if you’ve realized that.”

I nodded. “I think most of the class did.”

Then Paul turned red, stood up, and thanked me for my time. I watched him through my open door as he went down the hall. I felt a little sad for him. But I didn’t feel sad for the girl in the story, who I was pretty sure didn’t exist. Did Young Paul apprentice himself to a “How to Get Girls” system? I didn’t doubt it—as much as I didn’t doubt that he was girlfriendless and powerfully, elementally lonely.

The last scene of his story went something like this: the protagonist and the girl are standing under a streetlight or something. She’s clinging to him and he says it’s not going to work out because he just doesn’t feel things like normal people. He has a cold heart. And then he walks away and she collapses in tears. Everyone in the workshop thought (rightly) that it was an ending that resolved / showed nothing. Plus, it was melodramatic. Plus, Paul seemed completely immersed in what he called the “pickup artist movement” and the other students were sick of his critiques always somehow incorporating that material.

But what I saw (and didn’t say) was that Paul wasn’t the two-dimensional womanizing protagonist in his story; he was the girl left sad and alone under a streetlight. The protagonist was who he told himself he needed to be—someone with a cold heart who doesn’t get kicked around anymore. Though there was no world, no permutation of reality, in which he could be that. He was too much in love with love and didn’t even know it. All he’d done was absorb the “pickup artist” ideology for a time—like a writer tends to do.

In the practice of philosophy, which often comes down to a single question—What is good and how do I know?—personal truth sets us free. The lost city of gold is lost for a reason. In seeking it, we learn how to live. We don’t get what we think we want, but we become philosophers inured to the vicissitudes of fortune. It is only through this that later in life we are able to resist death’s constant alluring invitations.

3. Death Pact

In 1700, Lord Nabeshima Mitsushige, ruler of the Hizen Provence, died. Tsunetomo Yamamoto was one of his loyal samurai, but he did not follow his lord in death because Mitsushige had expressed a dislike of the practice. Instead Yamamoto traveled into the mountains to spend the rest of his life as a hermit. Nine years later, he narrated a book of thoughts and parables about the samurai life to a fellow warrior, which became known as The Hagakure or In the Shadow of the Leaves. It is a powerful book, not only because it teaches us about the historical reality of the samurai, but because one of its principle themes is that much of what the samurai thinks, does, and feels is hidden from public view.

The purest expression of this was accepting death to the deepest extent possible, essentially embodying an “already dead” perspective. One is so dedicated to one’s mission that life itself is secondary. He writes that “even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams.”

By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams. I have thought deeply about this passage over the years. In my current understanding, this “dream” is a dream of the self—the self-centered fairy tale each of us carries in our hearts about what we wish our lives could be. We’ve spent so much of our time, as writers, absorbing the energies and beliefs of others that it can be hard to wake up. But if we are to become philosophers, our fairy tale dream cannot have a happy ending. In the words of Karl Lessing, we don’t get what we want. Instead, we start asking questions.

We’re shocked awake, in media res, and we realize that we’re running towards an irrational death. We didn’t plan any of it. It’s not logical. We were busy dreaming about winning and losing, success and failure, fortune and misfortune. Everything that used to make sense doesn’t anymore. Death is waiting. It’s inevitable. And nobody wins.

At this point, the writer, if he’s honest, says to himself, my mission is more important than my dream. I know I’m going to die. But I have to try to make art until that happens. This is the pact every creative person makes with death. It’s the moment we can answer the philosophical question, What is good and how do I know? It’s the moment we look back at our 20-year-old selves—those depressed narcissists already willing to concede and accept defeat because everything at that point is cast in terms of winners and losers—and smile. The lost city of gold must remain lost to mean anything. The gold is incidental.

I first noticed the wolf in East Africa. Heard of brothers fighting and killing each other outside Makamba, daughters poisoning fathers in Goma, laughing while their houses burned, and everywhere the ritual of suffering enacted with a kind of desperate abandon. So I knew it had come around to this once again: an axe age, a sword age, a wind age, a wolf age. An age of bullets. An age of scorn, of grief, of fire and ice and tongues of rust filthy with blood. In such times, no one has mercy or even remembers it. Instinct rules. Understanding is rare. And few hear the wolf creeping up behind.

I knew Bujumbura waited to impart such knowledge to me when I saw the catherine wheel in a stand of trees beyond the airfield—a frame for breaking and burning witches—with an empty metal folding chair waiting beside it. I stepped away from the plane and stared at purple thunderheads hanging low over the steaming hills. I’d arrived during the rainy season, prop wash of the Dornier 228 twisting bits of paper and plastic bags over fields of grass and ochre mud. Then into town on the back of a piki-piki, plumes of brown water shooting up behind the wheels into the rain.

Streets with broken ditches, piles of burning garbage that smelled like shit and rubber. And everywhere: singing, chanting, drumming, sirens, heavy bass, the crackle of French radio through the wet dark as we passed yellow rectangles of light cut by barbed wire, spiked security bars, the black silhouettes of branches waving in the storm.

Arrived at crumbling plaster villa with collapsed third floor, brooding and dark and unoccupied for months—the best the company could get me on short notice. Two blocks down the hillside from the President’s mansion, the house had its own water cistern on stilts, gate guards, and a cadaverous German Shepherd, who sat beside the front door and frowned at me as I carried my suitcase in. Rusted rebar lattices over the windows. The outer wall pitted by bullet holes and topped with broken glass. The bedroom ceiling covered with spiders. My home for a month.

In the morning: Laurent Nzikobanyanka pulls the outside bell rope. Bald, smiling, gold Masonic ring, pressed blue suit and cream tie, long handshake. Regional supervisor for the company—a man in love with absurdity and beer and the absurdity of beer. Straight to Ubuntu Résidence for pizza with bitter Goma cheese and 40oz bottles of the local Primus for hours.

Then slow, the ground tilting, we walk the Public Gardens while jogging clubs in identical berets run around us, three gravely serious men in yellow track suits do Tai Chi on the wet grass, and a laughing girl flips somersaults on her roller blades. A passing woman nods at Laurent. Ça va? Ça va bien. It starts to rain. People look up and laugh at the rain. And this, too, is Africa.

The report I’m supposed to write for Laurent—what report am I supposed to write? I take the Lariam I brought with me to keep off the malaria and have bad dreams, wake up in the middle of the day with cockroaches on my belly, kill them, go back to bed and have bad dreams of cockroaches. Laurent comes by and pulls the bell rope, but I don’t go to the door. Three days in, and I’m pale and trembling. I’ve started vomiting and shitting uncontrollably. I worry I might have typhoid. So I add Cipro to the Lariam and spend ten days going from bed to toilet. Ça va? Ça va bien.

On the eleventh day, I rise again, thinner, with clean intestines and more circumspection. Before dawn, dogs are howling all across the city at a WWII air raid siren being cranked for no discernable reason. The house German Shepherd, who I have learned is named Jean-Pierre, howls back one raspy and exasperated howl, his duty as a dog. But he’s heard it all before. I lean out the back door and give him an ancient withered galette from the tin I found over the sink. The dogs in the distance begin again. He holds the end of the flat cake in his mouth and looks up at me with something like sympathy. “Good boy,” I say. “Fucking eat it or I’ll take it back.” He growls a little, but he doesn’t put it down. When I close the door, I hear him whimper. Growl or whimper: life is simple until you need to do both at once.

Laurent takes me to meet Father Martin, a Catholic priest, a descendent of a Tutsi king, and an initiate of Imana, the old creator god. Father Martin has no problems with this. We walk through his small, crumbling Église de l’Ascension while he talks to us about water issues, the rebels, the Evangelical Christian missionaries defacing ancestor shrines outside Gitega. Half-burned pillar candles in wrought iron stands line the bare walls. Spiderwebs over everything. The tiny arched windows have no glass, only black bars set deep into the frames. A breeze twists down, guttering the candles, lifting the webs like an invisible hand.

That night, there is mass and then, in a tent behind the church, the worship of Imana. Drumming. Singing. I pass out on a bench and no one notices, not even me. When I come to, Laurent is gone. Covered in sweat and smelling like incense, I walk through silent black streets until I find my way home, where I drink and smoke cigarettes and talk to Imana in the dark of my bedroom.

Day fifteen, halfway through the report, chain smoking, writing what the company wants me to write to calm the investors: emerging technologies, very good, country is on the upswing, great opportunity for development, everything is wonderful, god is in his heaven, all is right with the world.

I don’t mention the child who’d been thrown in a pool of acid when he was three, who is now eighteen and assigned to guard my front gate in a blue uniform with only half a face. I don’t mention the woman who weeps every night somewhere nearby or that I heard the catherine wheel was used a month before I arrived to break every bone in a woman’s body. They said she used sorcery to make her boyfriend impotent. Grenade attacks at gas stations. Shootings in the central market. The Muslim Brotherhood taking revenge for someone taking revenge for something another group did in some other country at an earlier date. A rebel general in the hills above Kigali, raping and murdering villagers, mounting their heads on spikes by the side of the road. The wolf age. The wheel of iron, come back around for its bloody payment.

Sicker than five dogs, but no time to relax. I stop writing only when Laurent insists that I get out of the house for my health. I stink and speak incoherently and sweat and grope for a cigarette every few minutes. But Laurent is determined. We have lunch at New Parador with Jessica Stanley, a functionary from the U.S. Embassy so far up or down in the hierarchy she doesn’t have a job title. Blonde, early fifties, stick thin with a pearl necklace and a pained squint. “What do you do?” I ask. “I work at the embassy.” “And what does that involve?” “It involves embassy work.”

Laurent smiles broadly and orders three big beers.

She goes thirty minutes later, her Primus untouched. Laurent drinks it slowly and sighs. “An unfortunate woman, but someone I thought you should meet.” I don’t ask him why. The interior of the New Parador dining room is covered in chipped gold leaf. The ceiling drips water into a plastic bucket. I decide Laurent is too sincere to be putting me on.

With the month almost up, I write continuously, pausing only to feed galettes to Jean-Pierre and drink filtered water that smells like an unwrapped condom. Before I can finish, I’m visited by Reverend Moonstar, an old high school friend who used to be named Sean Roberts. He got rich importing wicker things from the Congo and selling them in Manhattan. Now he practices polyamory and runs a coven of divorced Wiccans in Italy.

Reverend Moonstar has become pale and obese. He tells me Wiccan bitches are all succubi while he mixes a pitcher of martinis in the kitchen. “You know, this light in here, I think it’s flickering ‘cause it’s broken, Mikey. And, uh, you’re not living here permanently, are you? You’ve got a serious fucking roach problem.” I tell him he’s got a dirty mouth for a man of the cloth. The reverend offers a martini to Jean-Pierre, but the dog nips his hand. Even this doesn’t bother him. He laughs and sips his martini while I bandage him up. In the morning, I open my eyes to see Jean-Pierre snap a cockroach off my shirt, bite it in half, spit it out, and lie down again with his head on my body. I don’t know how he got inside, but I decide he gets double galettes later.

I finish the paper and Laurent is pleased. He pats me on the shoulder and hopes I get over my chronic cough, trembling, and fever. I have started to sweat profusely and I’m out of Cipro. The Lariam gives me dreams of my dead mother, memories of my father on one of his two-week whiskey benders where he called the house and told us he’d been elected governor of Alaska, dreams of a man-sized cockroach kneeling by the bed, hissing terrible things into my ear.

I’ve got an extra week paid for if I want to stay and Father Martin has invited me to another service. The Public Gardens are empty and covered in mist. I walk through them in the morning, feeling like the mist is more solid than my body, like I could hike up the side of the mist to heaven where Imana waits to explain Burundi to me, the wolf age, the twilight of the gods. I realize I know nothing. I have learned nothing. And, at best, I am seriously ill.

So I take a moto-taxi out to the airport where the catherine wheel is now soot black. They have broken and burned another witch since I arrived—always a poor village woman or a rape victim. Never someone like our Reverend Moonstar, who can wear pentagrams and talk about spells and Wiccan bitch-succubi all he wants. I vomit twice in the airport bathroom and pay the attendant 500 BIF for the trouble. A mustard yellow gecko crawls out of my laptop bag before I board the plane.

Brussels. I miss my connecting flight to London and get a closet room at the Hotel Friederiksborg instead. Too weak to get to a clinic, I soak the bed with sweat and think about dying. I think about Jean-Pierre, my best and only friend, and that I should have taken him with me. Room service leaves bottles of carbonated Spa outside my door with dry toast. The conceirge is understanding and discrete; though he is clearly worried about what to do with my corpse should I kick off in the middle of the night. I live on bread and mineral water for a week until I can keep it down and am strong enough to bathe myself and walk outside.

I look up friends of friends who live on Rue de Lakenstraat—three Estonian girls who give me tea, wine, and chocolate. In my lingering dizzy exhaustion, they seem to me like creatures of pure air and fire, filling up my glass, laughing, wanting to know—everything—how many people there are in Burundi; what the climate is like; why I went there; whether I have read a certain Polish travel writer; what I think of Belgium; what I think of Obama’s administration relative to the Bush administration and if there is much pro-American sentiment in Burundi; if anyone I know has been a victim of the grenade attacks; what my dissertation was on; what they should see if they visit Rwanda other than the gorillas; and whether I am a vegetarian. I look around and tell myself none of it is real. Any moment, a man-sized cockroach will sit down next to me and raise his glass. Cheers.

When I leave I feel I’ve spent time with the fairy court in the kingdom of the Shining Ones. But when I walk along a canal into a bad part of town I see dull-eyed prostitutes leaning against the buildings and the primered chassis of an Audi up on blocks behind a chainlink fence. And I remember the catherine wheel and decide that I am somewhere on the earth after all.

In the morning, the money comes through. Job well-done. Everyone is happy. Glowing praise from Laurent. In the unfathomable machinery of coincidence, I am offered a small part-time position at the university in Tallinn, Estonia.

Sure, I think, why not? I can spend some more time with the Shining Ones in a beautiful European city. But, of course, it’s not that easy. Even now, in my dreams, the empty roads are still and silent under windows painted with the brown of old gore. And the ragged lines of cities have given way to sand and weeds. And no one cares about the trash in vacant lots or whose bones lie there, warm and pale in the sun. Of these things, only those with eyes to see can recognize the Ouroboros coming full circle again. The blackened catherine wheel. The rows of heads by the side of the road. Only those with ears to hear will notice the wolf sniffing at the door in the dead of night or recognize the riddle of our beginnings tied to the wheel and broken by the ignominy of our end.

 

 

* Note: this story originally appeared in The Painted Bride Quarterly, Print Annual 6 (2013)

There is a definite upside to living in a creaky old house next to a canal with a doctor and four housemates: you’re alive. The downside is only slightly less obvious than that: you and the housemates have to get along with a degree of functional civility, which in Oxford generally means avoiding each other in the hall.

This seems perfect. I’m an introvert by nature and I don’t actually like the company of other human beings for extended periods of time. Someone told me that this almost makes me English, but I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that the culture of Oxford is a very accurate representation of English culture in general. And I don’t believe reclusiveness and introversion necessarily characterize all of Oxford all of the time. Only some of Oxford part of the time. The part involving beer.

I’m not talking about pubs. I’m talking about survival. Beer is essential to cohabitating in Oxford. If you drink wine, you’re out of luck. Get your own place where you can listen to Brigadoon and sing to your cat while making courgette hummus for your dinner guests. I’m talking about something far more exacting and necessary, something essential: the redemptive power of beer to make everything okay when you have to get along with people completely terrified by the prospect of disclosing anything about themselves.

I don’t mean to imply that it’s necessary or even desirable to drink beer with your housemates. On the contrary, you will often drink beer because of your housemates. And the world of difference between these simple and compound prepositions is the world in which you will take 4 cans of the Fursty Ferret up to your room, lock your door, and watch old Trapper John, M.D. episodes as you sip your way toward a better tomorrow.

You will do this because the alternative is staring at the ceiling—listening to your neighbor give sexual dictation to his girlfriend or a meth-head talking to an owl down by the water—while thinking about the psycho-spiritual train wreck that passes for personal relationships in this town. And I say that with nothing but love in my heart for Oxford, its children, and its ales.

Of these particular housemates, though, there isn’t much to say. I think, if we were shipwrecked together on an island in the North China Sea, we would probably converse from time to time. Maybe if we were interned together in a work camp. But, even then, it’s possible that few words would be spoken. As a writer, I have a tendency to catalogue and amplify the personal eccentricities of the people around me. And, in that way, I come to appreciate them. But there is a certain type of person who sends me straight to Trapper John.

This is not without some theoretical precedent. In a creative writing workshop, when someone has written a supporting character who is a two-dimensional rat-bastard, who is such a complete bastard that he never evolves beyond a state of fundamental, luminous bastardy, we call that character “plot furniture.” In other words, he exists as a prop. But if we’re talking about a central character, maybe the main character, the writer has more work to do. Instead of dismissing this character as furniture, we tell the writer, “Look, you have to give the character something.” This means you have to round the character out. He can’t just be a prop; he can’t just be a bastard. You have to give him something that shows another psychological dimension. Because no one is ever just one thing in life. Uncle Wiggily might be an “engaging, elderly rabbit who suffers from rheumatism.” But he only really gets interesting when you learn that he performs a Satanic black mass every Thursday in the bobcat’s basement. Like that.

So when I write these therapeutic blog posts, I try to give something to the people I write about. I was trained to do this in the sadomasochistic hellworld of MFA writing workshops. And the fact that I’m mostly writing creative non-fiction* here never gets in the way. Giving your characters something is the “creative” part when you’re writing about people who exist in real life. But the type of person who short-circuits this, the writer’s kryptonite, is someone who can’t be given anything without you having to completely make it up.

In other words, there is a type of person who has pushed his libido down so far, who has conformed so perfectly to a kind of fastidious, highly curated, social acceptability, that the most compelling thing about him is his sweater. Sure, we can say that he’s interesting in that he tries so hard not to be interesting. We can give him that. And we know he probably has dark squirmy things crawling around in the sub-basement of his soul, but getting down there, drilling down through all the conformist blast-shielding and cautious evasiveness is tedious at best. At worst, it’s exhausting.

Of course, there’s money in being boring. It pays to be socially careful, even if it does inspire a certain degree of contempt in those of us who never could fit in. Sometimes I wonder, when such people lie awake at night beside a partner just as meticulously uninteresting, if they can hear those squirmy little devils scraping their proboscises on the other side of the blast doors—the ghost sound that torments people through their long dull miserable lives into late middle-age depression and a pension they don’t know what to do with. Then they buy a camper, I guess. Masturbate less or more. Eat a lot of soft-serve ice-cream.

It may be that I don’t have enough material on the housemates to even write a very substantial piece on them or their calculated sweaters. But, while deciding whether to write it, I remembered something Arthur Miller wrote in Death of a Salesman:

Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.

In a perfect world, we’d be able to stave down the horror of having a full conversation with each other. We’d actually step out into the hall.  But a terrible thing is happening, has been, I think, for as long as social pressure has rewarded people for not standing out in any way and avoiding human contact as a rule.  Krypton is a boring utopia.  And every utopia is a dystopia.

So beer. Instead of speaking to the housemates, everyone listens behind the door until the hall is empty, until it’s quiet in the house, and it’s possible to creep down the stairs and over to Sainsbury’s where four cans of the Fursty Ferret will run you £4.30. A small price to pay for equanimity, I guess. And I guess this post is the lagniappe.


* I publish two types of writing on this blog: creative non-fiction and short stories I’ve already published in magazines.

Astrid went up the spiral stair and, keeping her knees bent, made her way to the back corner of the deserted observation deck where her mother sat knitting and frowning at Nebraska.

“This state is endless,” her mother said, an expression of abject disgust in the turned-down corners of her mouth. “And boring. I have to agree with you on that.”

Astrid sat down with a sigh and pulled her brown hair back into an elastic band. “You’re the one who wanted to take the train. I wanted to fly, remember?” She looked at the cornfields sliding past, a carpet of unruly green to the horizon. In the distance, a miniature water tower proclaimed the existence of yet another small town. The name had faded from the side of the cistern. Only the red diamond-shaped background was visible. Astrid wondered if the town was named “Diamond” and if there were hidden diamond mines under the corn. The thought made her smile, but her smile vanished when she looked back at her mother.

“I’d rather be bored than be dead,” her mother said, returning to the indeterminate woolen something she’d been knitting since before they’d left San Francisco for Virginia two weeks ago. They were on their way back to California from visiting Astrid’s father in Arlington National Cemetery. This was the third summer they’d made the trip.

“What’s the difference?” She stood up again and had to catch herself on the metal pole beside their booth when the train lurched.

Astrid never met her father when he was alive. In fact, most of what she knew about him, she’d learned from the movie that showed how he and his buddies crashed their helicopter in the desert and fought their way back to a US outpost. Sean Penn had played her father. And as much as Astrid felt it was probably a good thing that people paid their respects to men like her father who’d died serving their country, she suspected her mother made her come wholly because she hated Astrid’s boyfriend, Julian. They could have flown just this once. But she knew her mother had insisted on the train again because it took up more summertime that Astrid could have been spending with him.

“You want some money for the dining car?”

“Save it.”

Without looking back, Astrid made her way to the other end of the observation deck where the little spiral staircase led down to the main body of the train. She could feel her mother’s eyes on her and a faint smile passed over her face. It wasn’t over. It wouldn’t be over until she called her mother a stupid, desperate whore obsessed with a dead man who’d never loved her and wouldn’t marry her. Astrid was saving the words up, rehearsing them over and over in her mind. It had become a way to pass the time while the Midwest slipped behind the train hour after hour. Every time Astrid imagined her mother’s reaction, a spark of malicious joy flared in her heart.

This was the third time she’d walked the length of the train from their sleeper compartment in the back to the observation car up front behind the forward engine. She had a key card that opened the sleeper, but there was only so much sleeping a person could do. And whenever she sat in there by herself, listening to music or to the faint hiss of the air circulating through the vents and the thump-clack of the rails, all she could think about was Julian. She’d written him three letters during the trip, each about 15 pages in length. When she got back, she planned to give them to him in a big envelope with a red bow on it and say, read these—then we can talk because otherwise they’d be out of synch and things would go bad and she’d feel stupid, like her mother had won.

She bought a Coke in the concession car and sat down at one of the tables. In the evening, the observation deck would be crowded by those who hadn’t paid for sleeper compartments and couldn’t get comfortable enough to fall sleep in their seats. But, during the day, people would linger at the concession car tables—all long-distance travelers, all bored to death and willing to make temporary friends in order to pass the time. It could become a party atmosphere, especially given the number of Marines onboard, and Astrid wondered whether the train made more money from alcohol than it did on tickets.

Sitting at the table across from her, a man in a wrinkled green suit drank canned martinis with a fat red-faced biker sporting a gray ponytail and a Harley Davidson muscle shirt. She counted six of the thin white cans on the table between them. They spoke but hardly moved their mouths as if they’d been injected with a slow setting concrete.

At another table, three enormous Marines played cards and traded their own cans of Budweiser out of an large baby blue Playmate cooler they kept in the aisle. Their voices filled the car and when the enormous blond Marine with the scar on his jaw won a hand, he half-stood and whooped like a cowboy. People had to edge around their cooler to get to the concession counter, but people did and no one complained. No one even looked their way—except for the man in the white button-down and khakis sitting by himself at a far table, who’d look up from his laptop with a level stare whenever they got particularly loud.

Astrid watched the Marines, pretending she was looking past them or at the writing on her Coke can, which she held in front of her face from time to time like it was a fascinating alien artifact that required further study. She decided that none of them were handsome, exactly. But they had an unstable, rollicking energy that magnetized the air around them—an invulnerable wall of sand-colored fatigues and muscle. If the train derailed and everything turned sideways, she imagined they’d still be sitting there, laughing and tossing each other beers while everybody else screamed for their lives.

“Fuck off, Smits. You got shit and you know it.” That was the one who had stubble and squinted a lot like he didn’t believe anything at all. His name was Leitner. Smits was the big blond with the spiked up hair. And the other one—shaved completely bald, even his eyebrows—was Johnson. That’s how they addressed each other: Smits, Leitner, Johnson, not private or lieutenant. Astrid wondered if they were old friends from high school who’d met up in the Midwest after being on duty in different parts of the world and decided to ride the train somewhere together and play cards all the way.

Julian’s last name was Kettlefield. She tried to picture him sitting at their table in sandy fatigues with Kettlefield on a rectangular patch over his heart, saying Fuck you, Johnson or Gimmie two, you cheatin’ bastard, but she couldn’t. Julian was wiry, an inch shorter than her, with beautiful eyelashes, long black hair, and a cousin who was a pro skater. His two deepest secrets were first, that next year, after they graduated, he planned to steal a bunch of money from his dad and move to Hawaii so he could go into business in a skate shop with his cousin. And second, that he’d gotten Astrid in black cursive tattooed on the flat smooth place right above his pubic hair.

She couldn’t imagine Smits with a tattoo like that. He have a name like Rosy or Sheresse or I Love You Mom in barbed wire around a bleeding heart. And it wouldn’t be above his pubic hair. It would be on the hard slab of his thigh or the side of his neck or high up on his shoulder above a skull with a knife in its teeth. She noticed that Leitner had a blue scarab tattooed in the webbing between his left thumb and fingers. Johnson had a black thorn pattern inscribed around the back of his neck, the kind she’d seen posted up as examples in the windows of tattoo parlors in Berkeley.

Smits won again. This time he jumped out into the aisle, gyrating his hips like Elvis, saying, “That’s right! That’s right you sonsabitches! Keep makin’ me rich!” The other two tossed their cards down and cursed, but they were still smiling as if it didn’t mean a thing. Smits sat down and scooped up the pile of dollars on the table. The scar on his jaw was long and pale. The rest of his face shone red with beer and joy.

They traded up more cans of Bud from the cooler. And she noticed that the biker and the businessman had also reprovisioned with six more little white cans between them. Now they were slouched way down in the circular booth seats around their table, looking sedated and completely unaware of anything in the world, least of all the soldiers directly beside them.

Astrid smiled at her empty Coke can. This was far more interesting than staring at Nebraska with her mother or listening to sad songs on her iPod in the sleeper while she worried about Julian.

It got even more interesting when the man in the white button-down cleared his throat and said, maybe a little too loudly, “HEY GUYS. You think we could dial it down? I’m doing some work over here.”

Leitner and Johnson turned around in their seats and looked back at him. Smits just sat where he was, his enormous freckled hands folded on the table beside his beer. And there was a moment of silence in which the air in the concession car seemed to have solidified in a way that would hold them all there forever: the businessman and the biker with drooping eyelids, the old train guy sitting over behind the concession counter, the Marines glaring at the man in the white button-down, and Astrid.

Then Smits frowned. He knitted his eyebrows in a look of intense deliberation and said, “Fuck it. He’s right.”

Johnson nodded slowly and scratched the top of his bald head. “Excuse us. Sorry to have bothered you.”

Leitner just turned back around. The three of them looked at each other for a moment. Then they burst out laughing just as loud and as violently as before. They laughed for a full minute with Smits slapping the table and Leitner losing his unbelieving squint while he rubbed a hand over his stubble and listed against Johnson.

That was when Smits looked across at her and said, “That’s some funny shit. I love this train.”

Astrid felt a bolt of white hot electricity explode in her chest. The three Marines were looking at her, grinning, expecting her to say something. But her mind was blank. She was now a senior at North Beach Preparatory Academy, and Astrid felt she had better judgment than most girls she knew. She could certainly call things better than her mom, who was a sad stress case most of the time and only seemed to come alive on these miserable summer trips to Virginia. Astrid also felt she had an extrasensory awareness of when guys were looking at her like that. And she didn’t mind when they did because looking at girls like that was part of being a guy. But the like that of Smits, Leitner, and Johnson seemed overwhelming in its suddenness and their good humor did nothing to lessen its impact. Astrid knew she was blushing and hated herself for it.

“Yeah,” she said, giving them a weak smile.

The man in the white button-down stood and slammed his laptop shut so hard that it sounded like a bullwhip. Leitner and Johnson turned to watch him go.

“Have a nice day,” Leitner said to his back. The man didn’t turn around and the far door of the concession car hissed shut behind him.

Smits was still looking at her. He thought for a moment, then made up his mind and slid into the circular booth on the other side of her table. “What’s your name?” he said.

Johnson slid into the booth next to Smits. And Leitner moved in next to her, shifting the Playmate cooler two feet to the other side of the aisle. He handed out a round of beers and smiled at her with the squint back in his eyes. “Drink?”

She gave a half-nod and Leitner immediately replaced her empty Coke can with a full can of Bud, opening it for her with a flourish.

“Astrid,” she said to Smits.

“Astrid,” he repeated as if he were savoring the way it felt on his tongue. “Ever hear of a name like that?” he asked Johnson, who scratched his head and said, “Can’t say that I have. What is it, a name of a flower?”

She smiled and shrugged. She touched the side of the beer can with her thumb and felt the little nubs of ice stuck to the metal.

“She don’t know,” Leitner said. “Right on. Americans don’t know that shit.”

“Yeah,” Smits said. “Well, if it’s a flower, it’s got to be a pretty flower.” His face was wide under his short crown of spiked blond. He had lines on his forehead and a dusting of freckles there and over the bridge of his nose. Astrid looked at his pale blue eyes and smiled down at her beer.

“I’m just fuckin’ with you, Astrid,” he said with a shrug and another grin. “Let’s play some cards. You play cards?”

When she hesitated, Johnson said, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll teach you.” And he slid a small square of lined paper across the table to her. It had a fairly realistic line drawing of her face in the center of a sunflower with the sun laughing down at her from one corner and the moon weeping from another like comedy and tragedy. Under the drawing, he’d written Astrid in over-exaggerated script.

“Oh my god. Thank you. That’s beautiful,” she said. “Did you do that just now?”

“I did.” Johnson bowed, clicked his ballpoint, and put it in his pocket. She noticed a Gothic E.I. tattooed on the inside of his wrist. “I’m quick on the draw,” he added.

“He’s a quick shooter,” Leitner said.

“A real speed demon” said Smits as he brought out the deck of cards and started shuffling them.

Astrid took a sip and remembered she hated the taste of beer. She swallowed it anyway and pushed a loose strand of hair away from her face. “What’s that tattoo mean?”

Johnson looked down at his wrist then back up at her and smiled. One of his eye-teeth was dark silver. “That? That’s Latin. Stands for Ex Inferis. All you need is love.”

“That’s the goddamn truth,” Smits said, drinking half his beer and dealing cards around the table. “That’s all you ever need. Right, Astrid?”

She laughed. “Right.”

“And beer,” Leitner said.

Johnson pointed at Leitner and made his eyes big and round. “Truth. Cold beer and warm women.” Then he winked at her.

For her benefit, they played a few test hands of hold’em, described by Smits as “the purest game of cards given to man by god.” But when they started to take out their wallets, she still felt hopelessly lost. The way they spoke was so full of inside jokes and loaded references that when they’d gone over the rules, it was like they were trying to explain the grammar of one foreign language by using another.

The half-can of beer she’d drunk in polite sips had made her woozy and tired. Astrid thought she might want to crawl back to the sleeper compartment and take a nice long nap until dinner, but the incomprehensible bulk of Leitner was blocking the way—a squinting, beery pile of cinderblocks dressed up like a Marine. And now they’d been debating something and they were looking at her, expecting an answer.

“What?” She raised her eyebrows and tried not to burp.

“Do you have any money?” Smits said, leaning back in the booth and gesturing to the freshly shuffled deck on the table between them.

“Look,” Johnson said, “she don’t have no cash. How old are you anyway, honey?”

“21,” she lied.

“Exactly,” he said to Smits, “you can’t take no money from a 16-year-old girl.”

“But you can give it.” Leitner nodded at her, a faint smile at the corners of his mouth. “You can sure as hell give it.”

Smits held up his hands, palms open, in the universal gesture of diplomacy and reason. “All I’m saying is this is a pure game. You don’t bet, you’re not really playing. Might as well play checkers. But, shit, I’d want to bet on that, too.”

The three of them laughed and Astrid laughed along with them, thinking that she should have understood why it was funny. She noticed that the businessman and the biker and all their little canned martinis had gone. Their table was deserted as if they’d never existed. The sun had slipped farther toward the cornfield horizon on the other side of the train, and the shadow of the concession car had gotten deeper and thicker on the gravel beside the tracks. How long had she been sitting here? She wondered if her mother were angry, walking through the train looking for her, holding her cloth knitting bag in front of her like a Geiger counter as she swayed down the aisles.

“Alright. I have a solution.” Johnson took out more of the paper that he’d used when he drew the picture of her. Astrid saw that it wasn’t a pad but an extremely long sheet Johnson had meticulously folded into three-square-inch sections. When he put it on the table, it expanded like an accordion. He carefully tore off the top section and then tore that into quarters. He did the same with two more pieces. Then he wrote Astrid Chip $5 on each little square and pushed the pile towards her. “This is Astrid credit,” he said. “Every $20 you’re in for pays out a kiss. Okay?”

“Always thinking, Johnson.” Leitner smirked and replaced Johnson’s beer.

Smits sighed and held up his hands again. “Well, it’ll fuck up the natural rhythm of the game, but I guess it’s better than nothing. What do you say, hun? You okay with that?”

Astrid hesitated. But this time Smits didn’t shrug and grin like a schoolboy or say he was just fuckin’ with her. He waited for her answer along with the other two, the new breath of seriousness between them completely unlike the mock solemnity they’d shown the man in the white button-down ages ago. Was it ages? It felt to Astrid like a different lifetime.

She thought of Sean Penn playing her father in Fallen Arrow, a film Astrid had seen many, many times because her mother watched it whenever she was feeling depressed. There was a part where Penn and his surviving chopper crew—a farm boy from Missouri named Lieutenant Barnes and a British intelligence agent named Mr. Streeter—are captured and held in a cavernous dungeon by the Taliban. The night before they’re scheduled to be executed, the local village girl tasked with feeding them and tending to their wounds helps them escape—but not before lifting her veil to share a passionate kiss with Penn, who swears he will return for her someday. Only he doesn’t. He dies in a firefight, sacrificing himself to save 20 men pinned down by a sniper in the last scene. Her father got a bronze star for that.

“Okay,” she whispered.

“Atta girl,” Leitner said, drinking the rest of her beer and putting a new one in front of her. “Game on.”

“Game on,” said Smits.

They played a few hands and she was surprised that she’d won more than she’d lost, always folding before having to contribute more than $15 in Astrid credit. Finally, Johnson threw down his cards in disgust. “Beginners luck,” he said. “Thus, I must go take a piss.”

“Don’t be a sore loser.” Leitner came back to the table from the concession counter with three six-packs of Bud to restock the cooler. He started pulling the cans out of the plastic rings and placing them in the ice, which was now floating in a miniature arctic sea. The cans made a koosh sound when he dropped them in.

One of the cans slipped out of his hand and missed the cooler, rolling down to tink against the base of the concession counter. The concession man brought it back and handed it to Leitner.

“Concession’s closing now,” he said. “You want to eat dinner, the dining car’s opening back that way.” He nodded, put his hands in his pockets, and then paused to look at them. He had a white handlebar moustache and a shock of unruly white hair. It took Astrid a moment to bring him into focus but, when she did, she thought he looked like Mark Twain—a guy who’d stepped out of a different time, someone who seemed right at home standing around on a train with his hands in his pockets. All he was missing was a pocket watch on a chain. He looked at her. Then he looked at Leitner and Smits, who gave him a blank stare in return.

“Check,” Smits said.

“Sounds good,” said Leitner.

The concession man looked at her again and raised his eyebrows. “Okay,” he said. “Whatever.” Then he was gone and Johnson came back.

“What’d I miss?” Johnson looked from Smits to Leitner.

Smits shook his head. “People never cease to amaze me.”

Leitner dropped the last can in the cooler. “Which is the source of your troubles,” he said.

Astrid had never drunk three beers on an empty stomach. And though that might have explained her eventual losing streak, it could also have been due to what Smits called the “beginner’s curse”—the moment when your beginner’s luck runs out and you have to pay your dues. He said you never knew how deeply you were going to be cursed before you started winning again. By the time the sun disappeared completely and the train’s interior lights turned the windows into scuffed black mirrors, Astrid had been cursed enough that she owed both Leitner and Johnson a kiss.

When she kissed Leitner, that sense of him as a mountain of bricks returned, the roughness of his stubble, the smell of beer and deodorant. Then there was Johnson, who let her give him a peck on the top of his bald head and bowed to her over the table—a grinning tattooed knight with a dark silver tooth.

But it was Smits who took her back to her compartment when she fell asleep. Later, she’d have a vague memory of holding onto his enormous neck while he carried her through the darkened coach cars. People were wedged uncomfortably in their seats, trying to catch a few hours before the next stop, and he’d said, “You gotta be quiet now, hun. There’s people trying to sleep.” But she felt it was important that she explain to Smits about her mother and their trips to Virginia and how Sean Penn was probably nothing like her father and how he’d gotten the bronze star even though he’d never come back for the woman he loved.

When she woke up at 10 AM the next day, her mother had already eaten breakfast and taken her place on the observation deck. They’d left Nebraska far behind in the night and were now well into Iowa, the noticeable difference being that the fields were brown as often as they were green and the water towers were closer.

She would no doubt have to work up an explanation for being carried to the sleeping compartment by a strange beer-doused Marine. But that could wait. Astrid walked through the upper and lower decks of the train several times, looking for her three friends, lingering in the concession car just in case one of them came back to restock their cooler or even look for her.

Astrid waited there most of the day before she realized that they must have gotten off at one of the nighttime stops. And although she tried to focus on Julian that day, she couldn’t. When she discovered a few of the little pieces of paper that said Astrid Chip $5 in her pocket, she felt that something precious had come into her life and then disappeared forever before she could understand it. She looked at the little drawing Johnson had done of her as a flower between a laughing sun and weeping moon and wondered where he was and whether anyone had ever given her mother something like that.

 

 

* Note: this story first appeared in Small Print Magazine, Winter/Spring 2014.

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Rundetaarn

I was sitting in a cafe across the street from Rundetaarn, a Masonic dragon tower in Copenhagen, trying to make progress with William Gibson’s novel, The Peripheral, when I realized it’s constipated with words and it wasn’t going to get any more regular after 100 pages. It’s so self-referential, so overwrought and self-conscious that it broke my heart a little bit. This is not a realization one wants to have in a city so far from home, even if the concept of home no longer makes sense. Consider the beginning of chapter 8, “Double Dickage”:

The boss patcher, unless he wore some carnival helmet fashioned from keratotic skin, had no neck, the approximate features of a bullfrog, and two penises.

“Nauseating,” Netherton said, expecting no reply from Rainey.

Perhaps a little over two meters tall, with disproportionately long arms, the boss had arrived atop a transparent penny farthing, the large wheel’s hollow spokes patterned after the bones of an albatross. He wore a ragged tutu of UV-frayed sheet-plastic flotsam, through whose crumbling frills could be glimpsed what Rainey called his double dickage. The upper and smaller of the two, if in fact it was a penis, was erect, perhaps perpetually, and topped with what looked to be a party hat of rough gray horn. The other, seemingly more conventional, though supersized, depended slackly below.

When you read something like this, unless hard work has already been done to make it clear, all you can do is give the book the benefit of the doubt and hope. Maybe in 50 pages, bullfrog dicks and frills will make sense in a way that allows suspension of disbelief. Maybe in 150.

To be fair, sometimes this actually does happen. A novel reaches a point at which its unique terms and weird settings stabilize in a comprehensible way, allowing the reader to orient herself and understand what matters in the world of the story. This is especially true in books written in a 1970s sci-fi prose style, where sensory and linguistic overload establishes a specialized language in which author, text, and reader can identify as a discourse community (cf. Tvtropes.org’s definition of “Fan Speak”). For example, when I first read Samuel Delaney, I had the experience of feeling completely overwhelmed by an alien prose style that seemed to function in performative resonance with the subject matter. I felt like I had to assimilate to this world. I was the alien.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one who had this experience. Jo Walton writes about that same feeling on the Tor.com website, in “Overloading the Senses: Samuel Delaney’s Nova.” But if the language and settings of a novel can’t become the new normal, if there is no way for the reader to orient himself, there can be no suspension of disbelief. Overload becomes noise instead of a communal bonding experience. And the reader loses interest because there is no way to become emotionally involved. There reader is shut out. It’s like peering into the murky waters of an aquarium, unsure what exactly is supposed to be on display.

Nevertheless, this is William Gibson, one of the great sci-fi writers of the late 20th century, someone I grew up reading, admiring, and trusting, which I suppose exacerbates the tragedy of the double dickage on the reader. At least, I felt doubly dicked over. Compare the above, to the opening chapter of Mona Lisa Overdrive, “The Smoke,” which is lyrically beautiful and which exemplifies everything I love about Gibson’s sensibilities:

The ghost was her father’s parting gift, presented by a black-clad secretary in a departure lounge at Narita. For the first two hours of the flight to London it lay forgotten in her purse, a smooth dark oblong, one side impressed with the ubiquitous Maas-Neotek logo, the other gently curved to fit the user’s palm. She sat up very straight in her seat in the first-class cabin, her features composed in a small cold mask modeled after her dead mother’s most characteristic expression. The surrounding seats were empty; her father had purchased the space. She refused the meal the nervous steward offered. The vacant seats frightened him, evidence of her father’s wealth and power. The man hesitated, then bowed and withdrew.

Very briefly, she allowed the mask her mother’s smile.

Ghosts, she thought later, somewhere over Germany, staring at the upholstery of the seat beside her. How well her father treated his ghosts. There were ghosts beyond the window, too, ghosts in the stratosphere of Europe’s winter, partial images that began to form if she let her eyes drift out of focus. Her mother in Ueno Park, face fragile in September sunlight. “The cranes, Kumi! Look at the cranes!” And Kumiko looked across Shinobazu Pond and saw nothing, no cranes at all, only a few hopping black dots that surely were crows. The water was smooth as silk, the color of lead, and pale holograms flickered indistinctly above a distant line of archery stalls. But Kumiko would see the cranes later, many times, in dreams; they were origami, angular things folded from sheets of neon, bright stiff birds sailing the moonscape of her mother’s madness.

The difference is striking. Here, the immersion is immediate, the images are beautiful, and there is still enough weird dramatic tension for us to understand that this is not the world we take for granted when we get on a plane to Big Smoke.

Now I’m living in England again; though, I’m back in Oxford instead of the Smoke. I wish I had something like Gibson’s Pattern Recognition or All Tomorrow’s Parties to carry with me, to help me contextualize the inherent (sometimes pleasant) weirdness of this place, which, on a good day, can seem a bit like home. I learned so much from him when I was just starting to read like a writer. And on those rare occasions when I find myself teaching a creative writing class, I still assign his cinematic vignette, “Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City,” as an example of how prose can be minimalist and immersive at the same time—especially when the students seem to have developed an unhealthy Raymond Carver fetish.

You can only read lines like, Randy, she said, I can’t do this anymore. Randy poured another glass of scotch. They looked out at the empty parking lot, before you start longing for more adjectives. (Yes, I know Carver is great. He is actually one of my favorite writers. And, yes, I can see my father right now, sneering at me, saying, Raymond Carver you ain’t. And I have to agree with him. Carver is a truly great writer and maybe by saying “Raymond Carver fetish,” I’m dismissing him unfairly. But in the neurotic, self-castigating, New Critical environment of most MFA programs, Carverian minimalism is as much a problem as it is a protection. Writing outside the boundaries of late 20th century minimalism takes courage. Description makes us vulnerable. And being willing to make oneself vulnerable is one of the hardest and most valuable lessons to learn as a creative writer. So, yes, Carver I ain’t. And Carver you ain’t, either.)

So back to the dragon tower. The Peripheral was killing me. I was doing my best, trying hard to find some way into the story, but I was failing. And it didn’t help that I had come to Denmark for a variety of reasons, none of them having to do with science fiction or reading. One reason I was there had to do with a kind of spiritual journey. I do this. I set a destination, sometimes with friends, sometimes just for me, and I go there, trying to realize / recognize another part of myself.

I once read a short story in OMNI magazine—I must have been ten or eleven years old—about people living on a space station that had somehow been stabilized at the edge of a wormhole. They would go on space walks into the anomaly and return with cures to diseases, ancient historical artifacts lost to time, new mathematical theories, answers to the great unsolvable questions. The only catch was that anyone who went out came back a little more suicidally insane. Eventually, if they went out too many times, they’d carve themselves up with surgical scalpels or blow themselves out the air lock or something equally horrible. The question for the main character was how far she was willing to go, how much of herself she was willing to sacrifice. I’ve never forgotten the story because I have always felt that I, like her, would give it all in the end—not because I care so much about humanity or so little for myself, but because the opportunity to experience what might be on the “other side” and come back would be worth anything, even if it ultimately consumed me. My spiritual journeys around the world are like that, only I come back with more of myself instead of less.

There always has to be a way to fund the trip, some work tie-in or set amount of money I know I can spend. But once I have things locked in, wherever I happen to be, I go looking immediately for the dragon tower. I go looking for those places—like Stonehenge or the Ha’penny Bridge or the Russalka Memorial—that speak to me about myself. This is entirely subjective and often inexplicable, but that’s the whole point. I don’t make these journeys for other people. I go because there are things I need to understand. I have my own “great unsolvable questions.” Maybe I never solve them completely, but every time I go, I have at least one moment like Kumiko where I see the cranes, tiny origami mysteries that unfold the corners of who I am, which makes the space walk worthwhile.

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The walk up to the top of the tower.

Rundetaarn is beautiful, symmetrical, solid, powerful—all things pleasing to the eye that carry a sense of divine perfection. I have visited it many times in dreams since then. But that day in particular, sitting in the window across the street, I wasn’t thinking about spiritual things as much as the past. The Peripheral was depressing. So I reread the postcard I was using as a bookmark. It was from Kurt, a friend who went to graduate school with me. We don’t see each other much. But every now and then, we’ll send emails or postcards or a Facebook message. He’s a painter and a poet, gifted and serious, and one of the best people I know. His note covered a lot of things but what really stuck with me was the observation he made that so few who got MFAs with us are still writing after more than a decade. He’s right and I’ve wondered about that, too.

So I was sitting there, looking up at Rundetaarn, and thinking about how the past never squares with the present. Life always seems better before. We were always saner, more prolific, healthier, more blissfully ignorant. Is this why I couldn’t connect with Gibson’s novel? Was I clinging, like a brittle fanboy, to an idiom that the writer already transcended without me noticing? Was I clinging to the idea of what it was to be an MFA student back at the University of Montana when I should just accept that not everyone wants to die in loveless penury? Was this the part of myself I was meant to bring back from my space walk—the realization that obsessing about the past is double dickage I don’t need?

(Possible corollary: obsessing about the past is actually obsessing about the present; it’s all the same space walk. It just seems different because our linear presuppositions about the nature of change blind us to the reality that everything is taking place all at once. We just see experience from progressively different angles because our perceptions are bound to what we consider the “physical world” and therefore receive the impression that things are constantly degenerating. All things change. All things are subject to cycles of entropy. But change itself is eternal, apart from our flawed conventional idea of time.)

After thinking about these things, watching tourists go in and out of the tower, I finally wrote a response to Kurt. I said:

I don’t understand why so many of the talented people we knew stopped writing because I don’t really understand the Manhattan publishing industry. I think there’s a strong connection. . . . What I am is tired of gatekeepers so worried about their careers that they only think in categories. Barton Fink comes to mind a lot. Maybe people stop writing post-MFA because they get worn out, some sooner than others. People are wired to be social and run on interpersonal feedback. Ignore them long enough and they will lose their happy thoughts. Then there are the weirdos like us who keep doing it anyway. It sometimes feels like I’m sitting in a dark room, talking to no one in particular and yet hoping someone is standing there listening. I don’t actually believe someone is there in the dark, though. That’s the problem. I can’t make myself believe it. There must be another reason. Compulsion? Obsession? I don’t know. I wrestle with this stuff a lot.

I wrote it in my journal and then emailed it to him a few weeks after getting back to Oxford. But I’m still thinking about it. And I suspect that Gibson wrote The Peripheral because it was simply time for him to write another novel—because he, being commercially successful, explicitly does not have the problem I’m talking about. The problem of dying cold, alone, unrecognized, and broke that most artists have to face. Moreover, I’m glad he’s written what he has. His recent novel might not be my cup of tea, but I suppose I am still a Gibson fan despite the double dickage.

Still, I had to wonder what it was that I was supposed to find in Copenhagen. I did a lot of different things while I was there. I had many important insights. But it wasn’t until a few days ago, when I read Felicia Day’s memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), that it all came together for me. I’m not much of a fan when it comes to celebrities. To be honest, the only other celebrity autobiography I’ve read is David Carradine’s Endless Highway. Unlike many famous people, Carradine could write. And I think Day can write as well. She’s funny, smart, and reminds me a lot of her character on Supernatural that way. It was an easy read with some very interesting parts—chapters on Gamergate and her experience as a double major in violin performance and math at UT Austin. She reminds me of a lot of people I was friends with in college—people more interested in how things work than in how much they’re going to make after graduation.

There is one passage in her book that clicked everything into place and brought me back to that day in Denmark when I was sitting by the tower. In her chapter about struggling to make it in Hollywood, Day writes:

No one had a place for my geeky, weird, homeschooled, video-game-loving inner self. They could only see me as an extremely clean but neurotic secretary. . . . . I painted myself into a tiny corner, so I could be simpler and cleaner and more hirable by Hollywood. I was rewarded for it, but it made me miserable, and I didn’t even realize it. When the system you want to be a part of so badly turns you into someone you’re unhappy with and you lose sight of yourself, is it worth it? Er . . . probably not. But self-reflection wasn’t my strong suit at the time. I just knew that I kept getting opportunities that I couldn’t turn down, that I would have killed to have in the dry years before. I never stopped to wonder, Why am I so depressed all the time after all this success?

  • Because playing a two-dimensional background stereotype of a secretary wasn’t fulfilling her as an artist.
  • Because publishing a constipated inaccessible science fiction novel by virtue of an author’s pre-existing fame is nothing more than a cynical publishing industry gesture.
  • Because giving up your art after getting an MFA is a crime against yourself committed from a place of despair and futility.
  • Because the part of me that I retrieved from my space walk was simply this: there is art and there is the business of selling it. I am and always will be invested in the former to the detriment of the latter. It’s so easy to conflate the two. And people who don’t know do this all the time—You’re a writer? So how come you’re not living in New York? How come I’ve never heard of you? There is no way to answer questions like that without sounding defensive about not “making it.” But the truth is very simple: the person courting fame is not focusing on her art. There is often a difference between what is salable / commercial and what you have to personally do as a creator.

Sometimes these things come together, like when Day’s web series, The Guild, got attention on YouTube, helping her circumvent the Hollywood gatekeepers and advance her acting career. There are many examples of this in self-publishing as well. But the point is not to find a new clever way of climbing the ladder to commercial bankability. The point is to express yourself through your work. The rest is incidental. What you find when you step through the wormhole is ultimately yourself. You climb the dragon tower and see the cranes—origami, angular things, the stuff of your dreams, unfolding.

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I finished the first draft of my novella last night. But I don’t feel anything except that same old sense of loss and emptiness. The only time I ever enjoy writing is when I’m in the middle of it. Once I finish–and I mean like 10 minutes after I write the last word of the first draft–I feel like I just got back from a friend’s funeral and all that’s left is some absurd memory of something they did.

The act of submitting my work for publication is a mechanical afterthought. It’s necessary, at least in how I choose to lead my life, but it’s not the reason I write. Put me in a box with all my manuscripts and drop me in the ocean. Never read a word I’ve written or speak of me again. Grind me into dust. Throw every trace of me into a furnace. And nothing will have changed. The process will still have mattered as much to me as it does right now. It’s the process, the act, the engagement, the work–always changing, always the same. And when it’s finished, I need it to start again. Immediately.

On the second day of the third week of the fifth month of her marriage, she already wanted to kill him. It was after the pills, after the night cab to the airport, after the restaurant fit. He didn’t give a damn. It was November.

She bought a whip. She started smoking. She changed her wardrobe to blacks, leather, reds, PVC, nothing. Some of it worked. Some of it made her think of something else. But she was all alone. She had an allowance, a gold Rolex, an eight bedroom house in La Jolla by the water. Fuck all that. She tried to burn the house down but stucco doesn’t burn. And as hard as Andy tried, she couldn’t cry.

She told people her name was Condra, but they called her Anaconda at the Sports Club, even though she didn’t touch anyone and no one touched her. No one got close. She wore silk on Thursdays. What was life for? She didn’t know. The bitches at the club all hated her when she walked in. $2000 got the burns on the house removed before Conrad got back from Japan.

He was on tour when he wasn’t composing, teaching, rubbing his tired eyes at the piano. She walked across the carpet naked like the mechanical duck that comes out of a clock when the little door opens at noon. Automated. Ignored. Displaying her body. But she might as well have been dead. Corpse porn. Conrad was killing her. He was there, playing Mahler. She knew Mahler. Mahler was dead. And so was she.

She looked at him.

He stopped playing and said, “Yes?”

Her hand twitched. “Fuck Mahler.”

He resumed playing.

***

Her gossipy, mouthy friend, Dimitria: “Just have an affair, Andy. Just get it out of your system, you know?” Dimitria wore a lot of purple. She was divorced and fantasized about Conrad. He was so sensitive; he had beautiful hair; he’d done a classical performance on PBS and wasn’t it brilliant? She’d saved the piece in TIME where he’d sat on the leather couch and talked about his muse. Andy stopped inviting Dimitria over a long time ago. Dimitria had a kid and lived in a sad bachelor apartment in Brea. She was a secretary in an insurance office.

“Just do it. Fair is fair. You’re not getting any younger? Am I right?”

“They call me Anaconda at The Sports Club. They think I’m a dominatrix.”

Dimitria lit a thin cigarette and rolled her eyes. “Please.” Purple lipstick on the filter. “You want one?”

Andy took the Whopper while Dimitria ordered another through the drive-up window. Andy blew smoke over the orange carpet that ran across the top of the dashboard.

“Your car’s a box of shit.”

“It’s a Corolla, Andy. Of course it’s shit. Eat.”

Andy ate.

“Remember that Chevy Nova I had in high school?” Dimitria laughed. Dimitria always asked Andy if she remembered the Nova. And then Dimitria always laughed. Andy looked at her with a mouthful of burger and sighed through her nose.

Dimitria dropped her off at a shoe boutique on Rodeo. Then Andy walked 15 blocks back to the Burger King and ordered another Whopper. And another. Then she vomited behind the dumpster on the other side of the parking lot and rode the 3:15 bus to the Amtrak depot at Union Station. She bought a ticket back to San Diego and sat down on a wooden bench to wait for her train.

A bum said, “Hey Vamparella, how about a dollar?” She gave him three fifties and the ticket for her return flight to San Diego that she wasn’t going to use. He handed the ticket back and said, “Baby, I don’t fly.”

It was the funniest thing she’d heard in a long, long time and she said so. He said, “Blow me” and shuffled off.

Right, she thought, everybody but Conrad. Her train boarded thirty minutes later. She got on and watched the tracks speed past. Then she slept.

Anaconda. What did it mean? It was a snake. Woman becomes snake. Was that sexy? All those pictures of Nastassja Kinski. Everyone agreed Nastassja Kinski had been very sexy. But why? Andy had a framed poster of Richard Avedon’s “Nastassja Kinski and the Serpent” in black and white over her bed. It was a mystery. Andy lay upside-down with her feet on the pillows, and stared at Nastassja, the serpent wrapped around her, emerging from between her legs. Nastassja had a belly and the snake was a boa constrictor, not an anaconda. But still. Nastassja’s belly was small. But still. What was it about her? She tried to imagine Conrad staring at that belly and masturbating, but she couldn’t.

A horn honked down in the circular drive. That would be his cab to the airport. A week with the Boston Symphony. He’d been practicing for it all year. They’d said their good-byes the night before at The Marine Room. He’d ordered the Brandt Farm beef carpaccio with chowder. She’d had the free range veal tenderloin and two martinis.

“I’m going tomorrow,” he said. “I’d invite you, but I know how you hate Boston.”

He looked like an alien masquerading as a human. Or a mock-up of a man done in white porcelain with stylish hair to his shoulders and Armani glasses. Or maybe fine china. She could knock him backwards and he’d shatter.

“You could say good-bye.” He blew on a spoon of chowder. “Do you have emotions anymore, Andrea? Really. If it’s the meds, we can change them, I’m sure.”

She stood. “Blow me, Conrad.” He flinched. That was something, but she knew it was just because there were people sitting all around them, looking. She was wearing a black latex Oscar de la Renta minidress with a vintage white Members Only jacket over it. She slapped her thigh. It went SPACK!

“I’ll call Dr. Bundt from Cambridge and