Writing Exercise: A Noir Opening Scene in Close Third

Twenty years ago, she might have lit a cigarette.  That would have been better.  Twenty years and people still didn’t know what to do with their hands.  Now they looked at each other and waited.

“I love him.  Is that what you want to hear?”

“I don’t really care about that, Mrs. Sorrel.  Not what I’m asking.”

“You don’t care?  That’s a little cold.”  She balanced her silver purse on her thigh, then turned it slightly.  “And it’s Barbara.”

“What I mean is were you home that night?”

“Instead of with a friend?”

“Yes.  Instead of with a friend.”

“Let me put it to you this way, Mr. Gaffney, after ten years of marriage to Ivan, my friends don’t come around much anymore.”

People waited patiently through what used to be lighting-up-and-smoking pauses.  They looked at each other with blank expressions.  They used the spaces to figure out what they wanted to say next.  In this way, modern conversations were formed.  Women used to listen more than men.  Now nobody listened.  Now people addressed themselves in the presence of others and called it talk.

“I think we should start over, Barbara.  I have to ask because it helps me get an idea of what went on.  Any little thing, you know?” 

He smiled, went over to the pot of stale coffee by the window.  Nobody liked it when you handed them a Styrofoam cup of office coffee, but everybody took it and then felt like they owed you something.  This Stan Gaffney knew like he knew the time or the traffic five floors down on 32nd Street.  Small things to keep in mind.  Small things that made up large things.

She said thank you, took the coffee, and set it on the edge of his desk, far enough away without seeming impolite.  Then she turned her purse on her thigh again, unzipped it, looked inside.  No answers in there.  She zipped it back up.  “Alright.  Sure.  I was home.  I was asleep.”

“At 8:00 in the evening?”

“I drink.  Can I call you Stan?”

“You were drunk?  Passed out?”

“If you want to put it like that.”

“What were you drinking?”

When she came in, she’d set her phone on the other wooden chair facing his desk: Mrs. Barbara Sorrel and companion, Mr. iPhone.  Now she checked it, tapped it with her thumb, trying not to seem like she was stalling.  Maybe the cell phone was the new cigarette.

His question put her off.  Why did the type of booze matter?  It didn’t.  What mattered was the amount of time it took her to think up a brand.  Back in the day, she’d have just taken out another smoke.  Blonde, late 30s or early 40s, good skin, she’d have been nervous, an upscale woman like her with a missing husband, sitting Gaffney’s dusty office on the fifth floor of the old Martindale Agricultural Building.  She wouldn’t come in wearing a pinstriped blazer over a designer T-shirt with yoga love in gold cursive and long-pleated cream pants.  She wouldn’t look like she’d just had her hair done.  She’d have been—or at least would have pretended to be—distraught.  Too bad she wasn’t.

“It was Camitz.”

“How many bottles?”

“What do you take me for, Mr. Gaffney?  Not even a whole one.  I was hardly drinking, actually, just very sleepy.”

“Pills?”

“Not that night.”

“Okay,” he said.  “Thank you.  I guess that’s it.  Anything else you think I should know?”

“There’s a lot I think you should know.  Like, where’s my husband?”

“We’ll get to that.”

“You better for what I’m paying you.”

Now they both smiled together, hard, perfunctory.  They’d been talking for 90 minutes.  She wanted to find out what became of her husband after his birthday party four nights earlier, an event attended by about a hundred people, the part of Kansas City that still had money. 

Stan wanted to know what was so special about the orientation of the purse on her thigh, why she kept turning it, why she talked tough but couldn’t make eye contact, why she’d walked into his office smelling like high-end Baccarat Rouge, why she’d lied about passing out drunk, why she’d come to him at all.  Small things that turned into large things.  Little pieces that fell out of a puzzle.  Put them back in and you saw the picture.

On her way out, Mrs. Sorrel turned, holding her silver purse in front of her like some society matron in a stiff vanity portrait, the sort of thing people hung in the foyers of tasteless mansions.  “You’re probably going to discover that Ivan has a long-term girlfriend named Cheryl O’Neil.  I can get you her address.”

“You’ve been aware of her for a while?”

She nodded at the carpet.  “Even came to our wedding, if you can believe that.  I didn’t know her name at the time.  I found out later.”

“But you were suspicious even then?”

“You want to stay married to a man like my husband, Mr. Gaffney, you don’t get suspicious.  You get realistic.”

Barbara Sorrel had enough money to get as realistic as she wanted.  When she came in, Stan gave her his highest rate and she cut the check then and there like it was nothing.  But maybe all that realism meant she couldn’t trust the usual cadre of flunkies and stool grooms attendant on a man like Ivan.  Maybe she couldn’t put her faith in anyone she knew.  Maybe she felt that finding her missing husband meant she had to drive out to central Missouri to a little town named Hauberk and hire a private investigator nobody ever heard of.

“Well,” he said.  “I’ll be in touch.  And Mrs. Sorrel?  Have a better day.”

She laughed, nodded, and the door closed softly behind her.  

On Forgetting One’s Humanity

Professional writers and artists sometimes forget that they are human beings. In the immense pressure to monetize their work, develop personal commercial brands, and get recognized as professionals (because without such things, capitalist culture regards an artist as a hobbyist at best), they can forget that their art is only one part of who they are. It might be a very large, dominant part, but they exist as multifaceted, complex beings who cannot be wholly defined by what they produce for others to consume.

Forgetting their humanity leads creative people into a lot of pain and self-torment, especially during those inevitable times when they’re not producing a lot of work and they feel like they don’t matter and might not even really exist.

That’s when it’s important to remember that it’s not how often or how much you produce that makes you real. It’s how committed you are inside—knowing that you will return to the work in time and putting your faith in the creative impulse to guide you. Inspiration will return. And so will you.

In the meantime, make the other parts of your life as deep and as excellent as you can, which is a neverending practice you owe to yourself and to those who have nurtured you along the way, crucial to your wellbeing. You are not a content machine. You are a channel for something greater than your anxious everyday personality. Remembering that, honor who you are.

A Good Thing Going: an Exercise in Idiosyncratic Voice

There are a number of things Victoria won’t do.  And the trouble with that is I’m paying her to get up off her skinny ass every fifteen minutes and look down at the street.  And that’s exactly one of the things she won’t do.  She won’t do it because I want her to.  She won’t do it because she likes to get something for nothing.  Maybe she won’t do it because in our miniature thimble food stamp life, it amuses her to see the pissed-off look on my face all the time.

“Go,” I say.  “Go.” 

And I raise my hand like she can talk to the palm if she wants to argue.  But Victoria doesn’t argue.  She never talks to the palm.  She dyes her hair blond every month and lets it go dark at the roots.  She eats us out of house and home.  She disrespects me on a daily basis.  She lives in a different universe than most other normal people.

Still, sometimes I say go and she does.  Sometimes, I think she actually does what I’m paying her to do just to keep me guessing.  That’s another thing.  I never know what’s wrong with her.  But there is something definitely always wrong with her.  And I’m always on the receiving end of it and guessing about it and how it’s going to screw up my life next. 

I’ve been guessing for over ten years of marriage to the woman.  And I still have to pay her minimum wage.  We got married long enough ago for me to have forgiven myself for the period of temporary insanity—compounded by horniness and rapid decision making—that led up to the wedding.  In short: I’m a victim of the human condition.  And that’s something at least I don’t have to guess about.  But: capitalism.  She’s got to get paid or she don’t go.

She comes back from the window and just stands there.

“Yes?”

“Nothing,” she says.  “Linda doing her whore thing.  That Hoffman kid’s sitting on top of his car.  There’s a dog.  Nothing for you down there.”

Then she stops and smirks.  She’s waiting for the punch line, the second shoe, the moment I look disgusted or angry or depressed or even like I don’t care anymore.  So she can laugh at me and say something sarcastic and go back to her crossword puzzle.

And she goes: “I’m sure you’re going to make it down the stairs in time before Linda gets a customer.  I’m sure.”

“You don’t know a goddamn thing.”

“Oh, I know a thing or two,” she says raising her eyebrows at where my legs should be.  Instead of a thing or two, I’ve got a stump or two.  But I’ve got all kinds of moves.  It’s like she doesn’t even see the guide ropes down the stairs or the pulley system I put in.  I’ve got a lot of time.  What did she think I was doing up here with the hammer?  I’ve told her, but the words just bounce right off her crossword-doing brain.

Victoria’s done every crossword book published in the last 50 years by Simon and Schuster.  She has stacks of them.  I asked her one time does she want to just stick to the ones in the Herald because they’re free and she tells me they’re way too easy.  So she’s like this crossword puzzle Jedi master.  And she’ll throw words out on me, too.  Like: lugubrious.

I’ll be sitting here, drawing something—what I usually do every day—like trying to get the line of Linda’s calf just right or the expression when one of her customers looks up and thinks he sees me watching but he’s too busy getting his money’s worth to keep thinking about it—and Victoria will just come out with lugubrious.  Just spontaneously like that and completely blow my mind.

“Where do you think all these drawings come from if I can’t make it down the stairs in time?  I’m even faster now than when I could walk.”

“You keep on telling yourself that,” she says to the crossword book.  “Mmm-hmm, you keep on believing.”

And if she busts out with a word like lugubrious, I’ll usually say something like, “Lugubrious?  Get the fuck out of here with your lugubrious.  I don’t even know what that means.  That’s not even a word.”

But it won’t do any good.  She’ll just nod like Buddha and take another sip of coffee like she’s doing right now.  And I’ll know it’s a word because I’ll definitely go look it up in her crossword puzzle dictionary.  And then the joke will be on me.  Always.  But I never back down over a word.

“Look, I’m paying you too much to keep an eye out for me, in that case, if you don’t even think I can get down there in time.”

“It’s your money.”

“Damn right it is,” I say, wheeling myself over to the shelf where I keep my sketch book and backpack.  “I’m going to go do my art.  With my money that you’re stealing by not doing your job.”

“Keep your money,” Victoria says.  “I’m going on strike.” 

She isn’t going on strike.  We’ve been married a decade.  My wife doesn’t strike.  Even when, for example, I get really pissed-off and use a word like lugubrious in every other sentence to drive her crazy.  I might say something like, “I’m not trying to be all lugubrious about it, but I think we’re running out of coffee” or “Those kangaroos on the show were really lugubrious the way they ran around like that.  Don’t you think?”  That sort of thing used to get to Victoria.  But now she just laughs at me.  She doesn’t even bother defining the words for me anymore.

The rope and pulley system gets me down to the landing and then out the front door of the building in less than a minute.  It works like this: I’ve got a pair of really smooth electrician’s gloves.  It took me forever to work them down so the rubber wasn’t sticky.  Now they slide on the ropes like no tomorrow and I can glide down the stairs hand-over-hand.  I’m using a double-braided Mammut Supersafe 10.2mm climbing rope threaded through a system of 12 extra-large anodized aluminum pulleys nailed to the wall of the stairwell.  I cinch up the seatbelt on my wheelchair, kick off from the top step outside our door, and let gravity and expert hand coordination do the rest. 

Whenever I get to a pulley, I have switch hand positions.  I’ll admit I missed a switch once and wound up on the landing after taking a dozen stairs upside my face.  But since then, I got professional at it, and I cross-train with 10 lb. weights for those times when I have to carry something heavy down in my lap.  It’s all in the biceps.

So that’s what I do to get down, and today I’m actually out on the sidewalk as the guy gets out of his car and follows Linda into her apartment building across the street.  Why she takes her customers up to her own residence I will never understand.  But I don’t ask questions because we’ve got a good thing going.  Her building has an old-fashioned Otis traction elevator inside with an expandable iron gate.  By the time I wheel myself up the ramp and go into the lobby, the elevator is coming right back down for me.

The lobby’s all brown marble and decaying sofas, and if you’re moving fast in a wheelchair, you really have to be careful you don’t turn too sharp.  Marble’s slippery and it hurts your face when you fall.

Ever since getting blindsided by a drunk child in an SUV in the winter of 1994, I’ve learned new things about all kinds of surfaces.  I was on the crew resurfacing the part of upper 47th street that runs down to the water when the girl’s fender pinned me against our truck.  That day, my life changed in just about every way.  No legs, no more job at the DOT. 

Now I read a lot more, and I’m compiling my own set of words like a Sith master getting ready to pull one on the Jedi.  I even went back and got my AA degree.  Recently, I’ve earned certificates in painting and drawing from The Odessa Institute Online—not cheap, but what the hell am I going to use my money for now?  Just to pay Victoria to be my lookout? 

I was about to retire so we could move out of the city.  Instead, now I’m an artist.  That’s what I do.  And my subject is, and always will be, Linda.

538 Words About Dreams and a Lighthouse

(Part of a long story in progress.)

It was around this time that the dreams began.  Looking back, it seems remarkable that they hadn’t begun sooner in all of us.  But, even if they had, we probably wouldn’t have known.  We wouldn’t have talked about it. 

Tyler would have belched and blamed the beer or the Eagles or the general stupidity of Carling.  Greg would have gone along with him, regardless whether he secretly harbored some superstitions or otherwise fanciful beliefs about the provenance of dreams.  And Lindsey, perhaps the smartest and most insightful of us all, would have left it open.  “Maybe it all means something,” she’d say.  “Or maybe not.”  Then she’d ask, again, about the bonfire.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I would have been more forthcoming than Lindsey.  Someone who has a hard time talking about love wouldn’t be able to easily broach the subject of dreams—which supersede love and, in that sense, seem to grant access to an even more private, deeper vulnerability.  It was better for all of us not to ever speak about dreams or love, as was our custom.  But the dreams were real, as real as dreams can be.  And there was no escape, no respite, no bright simple explanation for how they seemed to dovetail with our thoughts, our anxieties. 

In the shadows of my dreams, I saw the lighthouse at Beacon Point.  And the vision struck me like the resonance of a deep temple bell, though when I woke I could not say exactly how or why.  The lingering impression of something incongruous and dense just beneath the surface of the very mundane lighthouse made me doubt my mind.

Dreams of water and rain, of a dark rusted hospital ship drifting toward the rocks.  Waking to thunder and lightning outside my bedroom window.  It had been storming just off Beacon Point for days, never moving too far inland, just enough to cover Carling and the beach.  How much had I slept?  Three hours?  Two?  I went into the kitchen and started some coffee.

Dreams and the fragments of dreams.  Echoes and reflections of a mind untethered.  I didn’t like it when I dreamed, the loss of control, the stillborn sense that I’d been somewhere else, leading a wholly different life.  The residue of those feelings and the fragments that sometimes returned throughout the day: the lighthouse illuminated from behind by an unknown source, its tiny circular windows dark and still, the rain coming down hard but completely silent.  Such images would come back to me like memories. 

In my mind’s eye, I’d recall the surf crashing noiselessly against the rocks, arms of white water raised in a voiceless paean.  And the dead hospital ship making its way inexorably toward the land.  It would crash against the shipways.  The destruction would be incredible.  Enormous.  In my dream, I felt desperate to tell someone.  But I was always alone.

The coffee maker beeped.  I leaned against the sink, looking out through the little window far above the apartment lot, the space tinged green by sodium floods.  And watched the sheets of rain glitter pale emerald against the night.

One Cat at a Time

A story about volunteers.

Of all the things I’d hoped to accomplish that fall, digging a six-foot-deep moat around the family house wasn’t one of them.  But the governor decided to end all Covid restrictions in the middle of the pandemic, causing the state’s heavily armed population to take it as a sign and go berserk.  When that happens, you dig a moat.  So I couldn’t argue with Uncle Red’s decision to fortify the premises.  Nevertheless, there were problems. 

My own troubles started a week before I moved in.  Hauberk College cancelled its spring semester in the interests of social distancing and good hygiene.  So instead of moving into the dorms the second half of my freshman year like I’d planned, I found myself staying at the house my mother once described as “a ramshackle pit” and trying to spend as little money as possible.  I was supposed to have received a dining hall meal plan along with my freshman year scholarship.  Given my Aunt Phoebe’s cooking, I think losing that meal plan depressed me the most.

“Put your back into it,” Uncle Red said, “or I’ll make you mask up!” 

I nodded and tried to approximate what “putting your back into it” looked like, but I was tired.  I’d been shoveling my assigned section of moat since morning, my back hurt, and I’d gotten blisters on my hands.  This, I thought, is no way to start an adult life.  If I’d wanted to dig moats for a living, I could have joined the Peace Corps like my brother.

In my uncle’s view, masking up was the ultimate dunce cap, fit only for democrats, Marxists, social justice activists, and professors.  In this branch of my family, wearing a mask to protect against Covid was a sign of weakness, wrong thinking, unworthiness, and shame.  I had a pack of five N95 masks in my suitcase, but I hadn’t taken them out. 

It was enough that everyone knew I was attempting college.  Anything more and I felt the generosity of my relatives would become strained beyond the bounds of credulity.  As Uncle Marty liked to say, I’d be just another “freak peckerhead.”  And nobody wants that.  More importantly, I’d also be out on the street.

“That’s hardpan you’re digging!” yelled Aunt Phoebe from the porch.  “Too hard for you!”

“No doubt about it!” yelled Uncle Marty.

“You got that right!” yelled Uncle Red.

I said nothing and kept trying to look like I was putting my back into it.

Uncle Red was called “Red” because his first name was “Redding.”  There was a story behind it that no one ever talked about.  He was short, had a beer belly, small eyes, and a round face.  He was also completely bald and never had anything close to red hair.  Uncle Marty looked completely different: tall, muscled, with blue eyes and a thick blond goatee that made you think of King Arthur. 

Aunt Phoebe, on the other hand, was completely gray and starting to develop a stoop from osteoporosis.  She liked to say her bones were getting smaller along with her brain.  None of them looked like each other.  And none of them looked like me.  I sometimes wondered whether any of us were actually related.

The moat was wide enough for two grown men to stand on the bottom shoulder to shoulder.  We knew this because that’s exactly what my uncles did.  They checked the depth with a wooden yardstick as we progressed.  We dug our way clockwise around the house; past the corner of the porch; past the enormous red-brick chimney that started at the base of the foundation and went up six feet above the roof; past the completely rusted propane tank, which everyone agreed would someday explode; past the back porch and the far corner of the house, gray and disintegrating like the old barns you saw from the highway; and back around to the front.  It didn’t dig like hardpan.  The ground was relatively soft.  Still, it was an enormous project to attempt in one day.

When we found our way back to the front yard, the ouroboros could almost bite its tail.  So we broke for dinner.  It was ham and cheese sandwiches, brought out by Aunt Phoebe on her Franklin Mint 2016 commemorative platter, featuring  Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln healing the sick of Bombay.  Above them, the good Lord smiled down from his golden throne in the clouds.  Aunt Phoebe liked to joke about it, but I also noticed she kept the platter on a decorative stand by her boom box over the sink.

My uncles and I sat on the edge of the moat, our feet dangling down like kids at swim class taking a break.  There was a festive air, a certain delight that Uncle Red and Uncle Marty never seemed to show.  But when they looked at what we accomplished they smiled and high-fived each other.

Back on the porch, Aunt Phoebe turned and yelled, “Eat up, boys, but don’t take too long!”

“Not a chance!” yelled Uncle Red.

“We’re on it!” yelled Uncle Marty.

Then the three of them looked at me.  I raised my fist in solidarity and took another bite.

Uncle Red, Aunt Phoebe, and Uncle Marty, lived together in the house about 40 miles northeast of Hauberk, Missouri.  It was a two-story Coronado foursquare build by the Louis Company for my great-grandfather in 1912.  He moved there from Kansas City with the expectation that the town of Hauberk would eventually grow along the railroad in his direction, raising the value of the land.  That proved, however, to be a precipitous assumption.  The property was the last bit of an unproductive patch, which before the Great Depression had been optimistically designated as farmland, but which was now just a flat plain of grass and birch trees with dry creeks and too many crows.

The house had been going to seed for the last 80 years, just like our family, and was known to be an area where you might get threatened with a .410 for trespassing.  Still, Uncle Red, Aunt Phoebe, and Uncle Marty, having survived their respective spouses, retired together to the old house in the late 1990s.  Since then, they seemed to have given themselves over to the kind of melancholy one feels when the good old days are unquestionably gone forever. 

When they weren’t digging moats, they were a fairly morose bunch and they were avoided at all costs by the rest of the family.  I’d learned that the feeling was generally mutual; though, the three of them maintained a reverence for our grandfather and his property that bordered on religion. 

They did not keep the place up, but they did admire it greatly, if only in the abstract and usually in the evenings after a certain amount of alcohol.  The house signified the last good, common, family thing in their lives.  They were not well off, but they treated the old homestead not unlike one of the great estates of a lost European nobility, a sad reminder of a grander, more glorious age.

“You’re never gonna get it done!” Aunt Phoebe yelled.

“I know!” yelled Uncle Marty.

“Damn shame!” yelled Uncle Red, pitching his crumpled can of Bud into the open leaf bag in the center of the front lawn.

I looked at the remaining distance we had to cover, maybe about 15 feet, and realized that Aunt Phoebe would have said that even if we’d only had one shovelful left.  That was just her style, the same way that my uncles agreed with her no matter what she said.  I was a guest in the house, yes, but I was also a spectator.

When the George Floyd protests came to Hauberk and someone tried to burn down the Walmart Megastore a block west of the college, Uncle Red, Aunt Phoebe, and Uncle Marty defaulted to the fatalistic, medieval siege mentality that had been lurking in their DNA all their lives.  They ran up their credit cards at the gun shop and patronized whichever local box stores were still open in order to prepare for the worst.  They figured the End Times had finally arrived.  It cheered them immensely.

All Hauberk was on edge.  Everyone was talking about what had recently happened in Nirvana, just over the Arkansas line, where an anti-police brutality protest turned brutal and an entire strip mall went up in flames, including a bank, a nail salon, a Mongolian restaurant, and a storefront sculpture gallery featuring Remington reproductions and assorted objects of rodeo art. 

Though the editors of the Hauberk Gazette condemned the violence in the strongest possible terms, stressing the need for dialogue and down-home midwestern tolerance, there was an abiding sense that anything could happen.  One worried that the civil unrest, which had so recently and shockingly boiled through the country on the coattails of the pandemic, might rush inward from the coasts once again, burning everything in its path, until it all coagulated in the center of Hauberk’s main drag.

“Knees!  Dig from the knees!” yelled Aunt Phoebe.

“That’s what I keep telling him!” yelled Uncle Marty.

“Absolutely!”  yelled Uncle Red as he tossed another can of Bud into the bag.

Unfortunately, the moat had not been dug from the knees and it was decidedly not watertight.  The 50 gallons of bituminous tar specified for that purpose in Uncle Marty’s Medieval Siegecraft for the Modern Home was not obtainable from Amazon Prime in less than a month, the local Home Depot having sold out of it two weeks earlier.  We weren’t the only ones digging moats. 

Things got more difficult when Aunt Phoebe strained her back boiling crab apples in an enormous cast iron cauldron behind the house.  This took most of the joie de vivre out of the moat digging experience, seeing that she then parked herself on the front porch swing with a Mason jar full of ice water so she could critique Uncle Red’s and Uncle Marty’s shovel technique.

“The knees!” she yelled.  “It’s all in the knees!  If you don’t hurry it up, you won’t get finished before sundown!  And then what?”

“I know!” yelled Uncle Marty.

“Dig like you got a pair!” yelled Uncle Red—I think to me, since he had his back to Marty and it wouldn’t have made sense had he been addressing Aunt Phoebe.  But I’d learned to take nothing for granted while staying at the house.  And though we hadn’t talked about it, I think we’d all seen enough zombie movies to know what happens after dark when moats are only half-dug. 

Mercifully, Aunt Phoebe left me alone.  Yes, I had bad shovel form.  I knew it.  At 19, I’d already developed what some might call “rickety knees,” which ended all career paths involving well digging, trench maintenance, basement retrofitting, pool resurfacing, and freelance latrine management well before I could investigate those brochures at the Hauberk Job Center. 

Sometimes, Uncle Red called me, “boy” or “the kid,” not in a condescending way but because, to the three of them, that’s what I was and probably what I’d always be.  Uncle Red often said, “A man busts his ass.”  By that calculus, I was just a kid with an unbusted ass and weak knees, who’d therefore gone to college to study Marxism and smoke dope.

“You’re hopeless!” yelled Aunt Phoebe.

“Truth!” yelled Uncle Marty.

“No kidding!” yelled Uncle Red.

I did my best to put my back into it and dig like I had a pair.  I shoveled as fast as I could, thinking we’d have to engineer some sort of pit trap or at least a deadfall with broken rocks and shards of glass at the bottom to stop the house-invading hordes of liberals my aunt and uncles expected any time now.  In case we didn’t get the tar, my Uncle Red said they had a backup plan; though, none of them felt inclined to share it with me just yet.  And I knew better than to attempt to pry it out of them.  They had their secrets, jointly and severally, to be sure.

Still, in spite of the fact that none of us pleased Aunt Phoebe with our shovelry and my uncles took regular piss breaks, constantly bringing more Bud Light out from the pantry, we completed the moat by nightfall.  They completely filled the plastic yard bag with their empty cans.  By the end, they were, as Aunt Phoebe put it, “drunk as two otters.”  Nevertheless, it was a magnificent moat, yawning, black and ominous as a skull in the dark.

I felt we would all sleep well that night—my uncles from an abundance of beer, me from physical exhaustion, Aunt Phoebe from her nightly Halcion crushed up and taken with warm milk.  In the upstairs hallway, she grabbed me by the arm as we passed each other on the way to our rooms.  It was dark, but we paused in a slant of light from the circular window over the stairs.  Fingers digging into my arm, she warned me not to go outside if I woke up before dawn. 

“Why?”

“Cause you don’t know what’s out here,” she whispered.  “You never know.”

I thought Aunt Phoebe was going to caution me against falling into the moat, but I couldn’t imagine what caused her to think I might be wandering out there in the middle of the night.

“Bears?”

“Ain’t no bears in Missouri,” she said.  “Leastways not around here.”

“Democrats?”

She sighed, frowned at me, then let go of my arm and shuffled down to her room at the end of the hall.  One day, Aunt Phoebe would tire of my sarcasm.  Then there would be hell to pay.  Until then, it would be either liberals or bears or perhaps liberal bears, and hell could wait. 

It was a big house, two stories up on a high footprint.  The wood and flagstone front porch was painted dull clay red on a gray concrete foundation about six feet off the ground.  The top floor—four bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a solarium full of cardboard boxes and miscellaneous dusty junk—felt more like a third story. 

I opened the bedroom window and felt the night air on my face.  The window was more like a set of narrow doors with yellow glass panels.  It had little French handles made of pewter and, when it was fully open, it framed my body from mid-shin.  No screen.  You turned both handles at once, swung both sides inward, and then it was just you and the night sky.  No one, to my knowledge, had ever fallen out and broken his neck, but it was the first thing I thought of as I stood there listening to Uncle Red snoring two rooms away. 

The flat blue-gray plain of dead farmland stretched out under the moon.  Here and there a black copse of birch broke the monotony.  Uncle Red called them “volunteers,” because the birds had dropped the seeds.  The saplings grew tall and thin together like groups of people mingling at a party.  My uncles were too superstitious to cut them down.  When I asked, Uncle Marty just said, “You don’t fuck with the land.”  And that was that.

I looked for the moat, but I could only see the edge of it if I leaned way out, which scared me when I did it.  I’m not afraid of heights and old creaky houses, but there was something about how the stands of trees cast long shadows in the moonlight that made me think no one would ever notice me out there if I fell and broke something. 

The room smelled like they hadn’t vacuumed since the Kennedy Administration and I wondered how many people had slept in the lumpy queen bed over the years, what their lives had been like, and how many of them might have stood at the window on a moonlit night and watched those dark stands of trees sway in the wind.

In the morning, I came down to the kitchen, feeling groggy and sore from the previous day’s agricultural labor, all that putting of my back into it and digging like I had a pair.  Aunt Phoebe set out a bowl of Cream of Wheat for me with a slab of butter in the middle like a tiny radiant sun.  She was in a good mood, doing the dishes, whistling, had the local conservative radio show going full blast from her ancient boom box over the sink. 

I noticed she’d washed and replaced the Franklin Mint platter beside the radio.  After I’d been sitting at the table for a minute, Aunt Phoebe fell back into her unconscious habit of answering the show under her breath—“Right” or “Not a chance” or “That’s for damn sure” as she moved around the kitchen.  I thought it was a holy roller radio service at first.  But it was just an agitated republican.

“We’re pretty much stocked up,” she said.  “Nothing can touch us now!”

“What about the crab apples, though?” 

Aunt Phoebe gave me a sour look.  “I dumped ’em.  Too much work.  And I was short on jars.  The squirrels’ll get ’em all before the end of the week anyhow.  You’ll see.”

The speaker on the radio had a feverish, almost breathless way of spitting out his words, as if each one were a bullet.  The question under debate was what the violent liberal rioters were going to do when Trump won again.  A group of illiberal Marxist dissidents was supposed to be holding a sit in that evening in downtown Saint Joseph and the local militia was set to come out and prevent various statues from getting beheaded.  The speaker paused, then asked with great intensity: “Will they burn YOUR town next?” 

“Not this damn town,” muttered Aunt Phoebe; though it was unclear which town she meant.  It was all a bit hard to take with a bowl of greasy porridge after a day of engaging in medieval siegecraft.

The moat, as I have already mentioned, was lacking a sealant, at least one appropriate for a crusader stronghold.  But the backup plan was sound and had already been put in motion.  My uncles returned in Marty’s Dodge Ram just as I was forcing myself to swallow the last spoonful of breakfast.  Roped steady in the truck bed was a 50-gallon drum of self-hardening fiberglass resin they’d bought that morning at Complete Building Materials over in Columbia.

Uncle Red explained the plan as we looked down into the moat.  “This turns to stone and it’s watertight.  When we have to, you know, pour Greek fire in there and light it up, it won’t burn extra hot like with the tar, but it’ll keep it going.”

“Greek fire?”

Uncle Red lit a cigarette, squinted, gestured at the moat with his smoking hand.  “An incendiary weapon first used in Byzantine warfare in the seventh century, Anno Domini.  What’d they teach you at school?”

“Napalm,” Uncle Marty said and grinned.  “They never expect napalm.”

“Isn’t that against the Geneva Convention?”

They laughed.

Later, we sloshed the self-hardening resin around the entire inside of the moat, got harangued from the porch by Aunt Phoebe for sloshing it wastefully and not bending our knees (“I know!” yelled Uncle Red.  “Yeah!  Exactly!” yelled Uncle Marty.), and got dizzy from the fumes.  Then Uncle Marty took me out to see his cattery.

Two things are always true in this existence of toil and servitude, no matter who you are and no matter what you do for a living: one never expects napalm and visiting a cattery will change you.  The former is true because napalm, like moats, is something out of myth and legend, something we only see on TV.  No one says, “It’s looking like rain tomorrow, Bob.  We better roll out the napalm.”  It just doesn’t happen.

The latter is true because feral cats are sons and daughters of the goddess, Bastet, and therefore inherently divine.  And 38 furry divine beings peering at you from the roof and through the slats of an ancient collapsing barn will deliver such pagan grace as to make you rethink certain fundamental assumptions and generally reconsider your life.  Uncle Marty explained this to me when we got there, which also made me reconsider Uncle Marty.

He had a large black cat statue, which he’d positioned at the edge of the roof overlooking the broken side door.  “Soon as I put the statue up,” he said, “they started coming.  They told their friends.  I’m well known.”

“You’re a cat celebrity.”

“Don’t joke.”  He nodded at the Bast statue, which had been carved so artfully that the black cat sitting next to it looked identical.  “She’s a goddess.  She’s kind.  But she’s got her dignity.  You know?”

I didn’t.  I also didn’t know whether he meant the black cat sitting next to the statue or Bastet herself.  When we got out of the truck, the cats started meowing.

“Ancient Egypt’s always called to me.  I got a ton of books on it.  Started having these dreams.  Then one day, I came out here to shoot some cans and I saw a cat sitting right over there.” 

He pointed to a cement block sticking up about a hundred feet away, part of an old house’s foundation, what they used to call a “ghost basement.”  The house got torn down and all that was left were concrete basement walls sunk into the earth.  But the barn had remained, slowly listing until a tornado or maybe just age and termites caused it to definitively collapse sideways.  From the look of it, one more bit of harsh weather might do it in completely.

Uncle Marty opened up five large tins of cat food and positioned them around the doorway.  He talked as he washed out and refilled two aluminium water dishes of the sort the local farmers used for goats and alpacas.  “I followed the cat inside here but it was gone.  Then, about a week after that, I had a dream of cats in a golden temple and I knew.”  He straightened up and gave me his King Arthur smile as if the rest of the story should have been self-evident.

A large crowd of cats had now formed around my uncle, some taking sips of water, some rubbing against his jeans, or nibbling at the food.  A row of them looked down from the edge of the roof like vultures.  Pairs of eyes stared at us from spaces in the wood.  The meowing was prodigious and incessant.  I’d never seen feral cats act like this.  Then again, I’d never seen an ancient Egyptian cattery barn dedicated to a goddess before, either.

“You knew what?” 

“I knew I touched on the infinite.”

In the evening, Uncle Red got drunk up in the attic, watching C-SPAN on the house computer.  Uncle Marty disappeared to his room.  And Aunt Phoebe put on the AM ballroom station, twirling around the kitchen like an ingénue of the early cinema.  Contrary to what one might initially think, this was their usual routine. 

It was also why I hadn’t asked Uncle Marty to explain what touching the infinite meant.  After many nights of watching my aunt bow to an invisible dance partner, whom she referred to as “Mr. Godfrey,” and listening to Uncle Red have heated drunken arguments in the attic with his dead wife (Aunt Paula—I met her once when I was very young), an Egyptian cat shrine in backwoods Missouri didn’t seem unreasonable.

Aunt Phoebe and my uncles weren’t stupid.  They weren’t insane.  They were simply ingrown, weird, haunted by people or things long gone, by memories or regrets or fantasies.  And to watch them in their evening pursuits, to pass judgement on them, even silently, seemed indecent, made me feel as though their loneliness could add to mine.  So I gave them as much room as I could in that dusty old house, retreating to my bedroom after dinner to read.

My great-grandfather’s bookcases were still in the basement, preserved under dusty drop cloths and I liberated the complete Dickens in hardback, the stories of Guy de Maupassant, an illustrated Moby Dick.  I kept a diary on my laptop; though, I was often uninspired and only tapped out a few lines.  And that was the circumference of my nights when I wasn’t recovering from digging like I had a pair.  I’d hoped to study English at Hauberk College, since reading was the only thing I ever truly enjoyed, but given a long enough timeline in that house, I felt I, too, would be holding seances, talking to ancient cat goddesses, and sharing a Coke with Mr. Godfrey.

I’d never been normal, if normal meant barbeques and baseball games.  I wasn’t fond of team sports, wasn’t voted most likely to succeed at anything.  Toward the end of my senior year, as I was getting ready to go away for college, after noting loudly and critically that I didn’t have a girlfriend, my mother pronounced me too smart to be normal and cast her own form of divination, part curse, part prophecy. 

I would, she said, be lonely and miserable in the years to come.  But there would be a time when the tables would turn and all those kids who seemed to be having fun now would despise themselves and their lives.  Then it would be my turn as long as I studied very, very hard.  She had that angry righteous light in her eyes when she said it.  But she never foretold that a virus would sweep the world or that I’d wind up living in “the ramshackle pit” instead of taking British Literature at Hauberk College.  My parents hadn’t returned my last three calls.  I could only assume that they didn’t want me coming home so soon.  Maybe they thought some moat digging would be good for me.

We were about ten miles out from the house on a dirt road without a name.  I asked Uncle Marty if the barn was part of the family property, but he just smiled and shook his head. 

“Somebody owns it,” he said.  “Or nobody does.”

“Maybe the cats.”

Uncle Marty laughed, nodded.  Maybe so.

Lesser Magic

A story about spiral dances.

 

I threw the beer can.  It was half-full, just like Dorian’s head.  So when it hit him, the damage was minimal.  A brain in a half-full head is a self-parking mechanism.  It floats—not in intelligent space, not in some New Age cogito-esque void full of purple smoke and glittery points of cosmic consciousness—but in an oily brine exuded by all the old lizard desires.  In Dorian’s case, this meant racism, football, bros before hoes, and the ability to quote Rush Limbaugh chapter and verse.  Dorian was an idiot, a bully, a formulaic high school tyrant.  And I hit him with a beer can in the summer of 1992.

Only we weren’t in high school anymore.  And Dorian had fucked himself up on oxycodone so bad after senior year that he now had a lazy eye.  And I couldn’t afford college.  And it had therefore become manifestly unclear who was having the last laugh, since Dorian was making five figures selling Toyotas with his dad on I-49 and I was pushing a mop in Kansas City three nights a week.  Ha ha.  Right?  Modern life.

So the can.  I’d never thrown a football straighter than a piece of cooked spaghetti, but the Miller can hit Dorian behind the left ear with military precision.  And then he turned, about to hulk-out, with that lazy right eye probably giving him enhanced peripheral combat vision and his girlfriend, Lorena, shrieking like an agitated monkey: “No, Dor, don’t kill him!” And so there we were.  But why I threw the beer can is somewhat more complicated and has to do with Ally and why we were angry and always dressed in black.  (At that moment, Ally was in the car, watching, dressed in black.)

Black was our color and zero was our number.  Nowhere was where it happened and nothing was the result.  Our unspoken credo since 10th grade.  Ally and I lived it like two little nihilists until we finally had sex in her attic and became something else.  On October 14th, 1990, to be exact.  Probably around 2:00 AM.  And it wasn’t bad at all.  I don’t think it’s strange to have recorded the date in Herr Diary.  Strange is relative.  And we were definitely strange according to everyone else in our school.

Dorian crossed the distance between us in a flash as soon as he saw who’d thrown the can.  Because, a year after graduation, our high school pecking order was still hanging over us like some podunk Great Chain of Being. And the bros half of bros before hoes would have invalidated his status as a higher-order lifeform if said bros learned he backed down from me.  But maybe that unique moment in time, in the Silver Hill Mall Parking Structure B, was part of the greater anomaly that had begun to warp my life, losing me the only woman I ever loved, and blasting me out of the Midwest forever like some doped-up chimp shot into space just for the yucks.  Who’ll ever really know anything in this fallen world?

At the moment, though, the only monkey sounds were being made by Lorena.  Ooh, baby, dooon’t!  He came on like the Amtrak.  And later I’d write in Herr Diary that I wasn’t sure exactly why I hit him with the car door of all things.  But now I’m fairly convinced it was because I was terrified, realizing what I’d started, and I’d been trying to get into the car as fast as I could.

Force met force in a Newtonian kneecap singularity in which the 1965 Malibu door prevailed as the immovable object.  I’d never seen someone’s leg buckle backwards at the knees before, but the Chevy had an oblong ridge along its doors at just the right elevation for hulkamania.  Too bad for Dorian.  It hurt him.  But I regret nothing.

They called us freaks because we didn’t know goth from shinola.  But we did have a one-tone wardrobe.  We took German instead of Spanish, philosophy instead of P.E.  Black coffee in the mornings and The Cure’s Disintegration, Ministry, KMFDM on cassette in the upper parking lot. 

Toward the end of junior year, Ally got into Anton LaVey and started wearing an enormous goat-head pentagram, referring to herself as the Übermädchen.  We got matching tattoos in Fraktur on our left shoulders that read, “Nichts.”  I read The Virtue of Selfishness, Philosophy: Who Needs It, and Return of the Primitive.  I decided that the world was cruel and nasty and that being able to accept this truth without stepping in front of the Amtrak on it’s 6:00 AM rumble outside our little town of Hauberk, MO, meant I was a superior being.  Then Ally discovered an essay called, “Bitchcraft” and declared that she was a Satanic witch.  And we had more sex.  And she called it black magic.  She cursed the whole football team, her mother, the principal, and “others.” Who those others were, Ally said she’d never reveal. We were seniors, then.

Dorian writhed on the ground, screaming, holding his knee with both hands.  Lorena was so upset she stomped her feet, making her tan lines jiggle as she wailed in simian grief.  I stood behind the door for a moment, looking down at Dorian.  In the passenger seat, Ally lit a cigarette.

Then I snapped out of it, jumped in the car, and shot through the parking structure, bottoming out at the end of the B-level ramp and swerving into the night.  We never did see Lethal Weapon 3.  To this day, I can’t bring myself to watch it.

“That was . . . um . . . manly?”  She rolled down the window because the ashtray was full.  Ally’s hair was long and eggplant purple.  It whipped around her head, hiding her expression.  But I knew what it was.

“Just don’t, okay?”

“Go ahead.  Drive faster, Mike.”  Her way of saying I was driving too fast.  She called it “lesser magic,” some speaking-in-opposites thing to control you.  If I drove faster, I did what she wanted.  If I slowed down, I did what she wanted.  Then she could say to herself, See?  Sheeple are easy.  In truth—and I have admitted this to Herr Diary more than once—I threw the beer can because lately Ally had moved me from the people village to the sheeple pen.  And I didn’t like that.

“What do you want from me?  I know your fucking tricks.”

“Oh, really.”  She flicked the cigarette out the window.  “I don’t want to go home.”

“Well, I don’t want to take you home.”

“I’m not completely fed up with you, Mike.”

I punched the gas and ran the stop sign at the entrance to I-49.  “I’m not fed up with you, either.  I feel great.  It’s been a great day.”

I had half a tank of gas and I was thinking of driving all the way to Kansas City at suicide velocity just to prove I couldn’t be manipulated, that I was the immovable Newtonian object that moved where it pleased.

But then Ally said, “He’s never going to walk right.  You’re aware of that, aren’t you?” 

I began to feel low, like I was worse than Dorian, roids and Rush Limbaugh notwithstanding.  Now I’d never rise up on any Great Chain of Being.  Never go from mineral to vegetable to mop-pusher to night watchman or whatever modicum of ascension I could have achieved if I’d only controlled myself in Parking Structure B. 

So I turned around and took Ally home like good sheeple do.  When we got there, she smirked, gave me a big theatrical wink, and said, “Catch ya later, tough guy.  Call me,” which I think meant she never wanted to see me again.  But you couldn’t be sure of anything when lesser magic was involved.

I sat in the car until the lights in her house went out, breathing in what I imagined were the last traces of her cigarette fumes.  Though, it could have just been the ashtray.

I went to jail.  And it wasn’t funny.  When I got out, I needed a new job.  I got temp work with a company that repaired farm buildings that had been damaged by tornadoes.  Part of my job training was memorizing interesting tornado facts.  Like, did you know that tornadoes have been reported in every state of the Union?  Did you know that a tornado can occur at any time, but they are most likely to occur between 3:00 PM and 9:00 PM?  That every tornado has its own color, sound, and shape?  That the safest place to be during a tornado is far underground or in a foreign country or, optimally, far underground in a foreign country?  That tornadic winds can accelerate a piece of straw up to 300 mph, effectively turning it into a toothpick projectile of death that can tack your guts to a telephone pole? 

You don’t know these things because you’re normal.  But having gone to jail and emerged as a tornado specialist, I had entered the paranormal.  We pulled a lot of straw out of the corrugated metal walls of barns and granaries.  The sun shone through the holes like god’s shotgun blast.  We rebuilt houses, gathered the appendages of farm animals that had been torn apart and deposited on roofs, and inspected bathtubs for tornado durability.  Missouri is in Tornado Alley and if you don’t have a sturdy bathtub, you’re asking for death.  If you get caught in your house, the bathtub might be the last resort for shelter; though, there have been accounts of people being hurled extremely long distances while hiding in their tubs.  There is no easy solution when your bathtub is hurled. You’re sheeple at that point. You’re Nichts.

Through all of this, I thought about Dorian, about Ally, about the future.  I had regrets.  I wished I could give Dorian back his knee.  I wished I had told Ally I truly loved her and wished I’d suggested we take a break from backwards-talking bullshit and Ayn Rand and Die Übermädchen.  I confided these things to Theo, an anorexic dreadlocked hippy who I worked with and who got me the tornado job because he also attended my court-mandated anger management course.

We’d be re-stuccoing the side of some farmhouse and he’d say, “Mike, are you mindfully releasing your anxiety triggers by allowing an abundance of positives into your conscious buffer?”  And I’d say, “Yes, Theo, I’m trying to actualize as many focused positives as possible in this segment.”  Only, we’d be using compressed-air stucco blasters.  So it would sound more like, “Mye-SHHKEEREEYIT-allowing a-SHHHKOYIP-ositives into your-FLISSSHOP-uffer?” 

But I’d know what he was saying because people in the anger management course always said the same things.  I could have just talked about my “uffer” and Theo would have nodded.  After a week of power-stuccoing, you’re half deaf.  I wanted to feel good by confiding in Theo.  Instead, I think the parts of my past he did understand just made him smoke more weed on break in his truck while trying to bring positives into the current segment.  I think I was depressed.  I think I was trying to give myself a “consciousness upgrade” as my anger coach called it.  But jail, the thing that wasn’t funny, had changed me. 

Dorian’s father got a lawyer who got the district attorney who got the police who got me.  Dorian probably had the most expensive legal team in Missouri.  The judge called it a “neutral street fight” in the hearing.  The state chose not to bring assault charges against me.  But there was the matter of battery with a car door, which was mitigated by it being my first offence and by the fact that it was impossible to prove I wasn’t just enveloped in white-knuckle terror, trying to get away from 268 lbs. of enraged ex-lineman hulkamania; though that’s not exactly how the judge put it.  On my public defender’s advice, I pled down to “public affray” and got two months in Moberly Correctional, a year of anger management, and a $3000 fine to be paid in monthly instalments of $50 for the next five years.  My public defender told me I was lucky. In retrospect, I think he might have been joking.

Ally never visited me, but she could have.  The level 2 minimum security unit in Moberly Correctional was very relaxed.  It was a mellow incarceration and the pepper steak was okay.  I shared a cell with a nice Italian kid not too older than me who’d forged a bunch of checks in Saint Louis and got in a high-speed chase with the Highway Patrol while tripping balls.  During the day, I mopped, cleaned the toilets, and did groundskeeping.  In the evenings, I read books from the tiny prison library: Eat, Pray, Love, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Great Gatsby, The Razor’s Edge, How to Score with Women Under 30—the most used book there but strange, I thought, for a male prison—and The Spiral Dance by a New Age feminist in San Francisco who called herself Starhawk.

We were doing clean-up on a corporate dairy farm outside St. Joseph after a twister had de-legged five or six Holsteins, which meant we had to wear hazmat suits.  It was just me, Theo, and two guys doing community service, which meant they disappeared as soon as we started unloading the biohazard bins from the truck.  So it was basically just me and Theo.

“Damn.  It never ceases to amaze me how much there actually is inside a cow.”  Theo heaved a carcass into one of the big red bins.

“Hey.  You ever hear of some chick named Starhawk out in California?”

Theo thought for a moment, scratched himself through his hazmat.  “Yeah, I think so.  She’s cool, right?  Witchcraft.  But the real militant feminist shit.  Give us equal pay or we’ll hex your balls off!”  Theo wiggled his fingers like a cartoon wizard.  Only he couldn’t do it very well with heavy gloves on.  So he added, “Ooooh,” and walked around with his arms sticking out straight like Frankenstein’s monster.

“I’m serious.  You ever read The Spiral Dance?”

He stopped doing the monster and looked at me through the clear plastic visor of his suit.  I wasn’t joking.  I wasn’t releasing my anxiety triggers. 

“No.”

“You should.  It’s good.  You ever read any Ayn Rand?”

Theo looked at me a moment longer.  Then he dug into the dirt that had been under the carcass with his shovel.

“You can keep that shit.”

Back in Moberly, The Spiral Dance had started me thinking.  What if Ayn Rand had been wrong when she claimed that guns or logic are only two ways people can deal with one another?  Starhawk’s vision was different—a single universal yoni constantly becoming aware of itself in greater degrees of particularity, a spiral dance of vaginal creation in which love was the force of individuation, the glue between the “myriad separate things of the world.” All in, that sounded pretty fucking reasonable.

Sitting in my cell, listening to the Italian kid snore while I read, I suddenly wanted to believe it more than Rand’s “Judge and prepare to be judged.”  I’d been judged.  Now I wanted to be a Wiccan vagina-hippie in a fairyland San Francisco where public affray wasn’t a thing and I didn’t have to imagine Dorian walking with a cane for the rest of his life.  But in the margin beside Starhawk’s passage in which she called us all unique “swirls of the same energy,” someone had printed in barely readable ballpoint: So how come my brother got no hands?  Because of swirls like me, dear friend.  I’m a bad swirl. A bad, bad swirl.

After a month of upgrading my consciousness and de-tornadoing farms, I decided I had to find Ally.  I didn’t know what I’d say.  But I felt I had to say something.  Instead, I’d find Dorian, which was not what I intended—or would ever intend if given the choice anywhere on a timeline between now and eternity.

But before that could happen, Theo blew up on me.  He hadn’t said much in the week since I’d asked him if he’d ever read Ayn Rand.  Then an Enhanced Fujita EF-3-level twister came through Hauberk at 165 mph.  They called it the Marlena Tornado, after the small town just south of us that took the brunt of it.  Like Marlena Detrich—a hot dead blonde now resurrected as a killing wind.  Another bad swirl.  It took off several roofs, but luckily nobody got hurt.  We were in the truck, headed to a cornfield run by some genetics company, when Theo pulled into a ditch, got out, started screaming and pounding on the hood.

“What you don’t fucking understand, Mike, is that Ayn Rand completely disregards the question of metaphysics!  That’s her first basic stupid fucking problem!”

I locked the truck’s doors.  Happy pot-smoking Theo had become a werewolf.

“What about Descartes, huh?  What about Hume?  What about motherfucking Kant?”

“Theo?  Hey man.  I think you need to, you know, inventory your anxiety triggers.”

“Critique of Pure Reason, asshole.”

I was torn.  Did I leave my best and only friend on the side of the highway raving about Ayn Rand failing to account for the Existentialist position on concrete human values?  Or did I need to subdue him somehow, tie him up with strips of clothing and put something in his mouth to keep him from swallowing his tongue?

He rattled the driver’s side door handle.  “Open up.  OPEN THE FUCKING DOOR YOU OBJECTIVIST.”

“I am not, nor have I ever been, an Objectivist.”

“Don’t LIE to me, Mike.”

“Truth!  Kant is logically consistent in his argument that human beings are valuable in themselves!  But Rand contradicts this assumption when she argues that altruism is immoral!  Breathe, Theo!  Breathe!”

After a moment, his therapy kicked in.  He held up his hands as if to say okay, okay, and took a few deep cleansing breaths.

“You are a white cone of joyful light!”

He closed his eyes, breathing, mouthing the words: I am a white cone of joyful light.

“Your anger is not you!  It is a feeling passing through you!”

My anger is not me.  It is a feeling passing through me.

“Anger is a choice you can decide not to make!”

Anger is a choice I can decide not to make.

The mantra seemed to work.  Mr. Vignus, my high school philosophy teacher, used to say that philosophy could save your life.  Only now did I understand.

What was a book like The Spiral Dance doing in a prison library anyway?  It made less sense than How to Score with Women Under 30.  Starhawk’s book had a creased spine and dogeared pages.  It had been read a lot of times since—according to the stamp inside the front cover—making its spiral way to Moberly Correctional back in 1979.  Maybe all people, no matter how deviant, are in search of some kind of connection.  However, it is worth noting that on the shelf directly above The Spiral Dance, right beside For Whom the Bell Tolls, were four tattered bright orange copies of Mein Kampf.

Theo didn’t speak for the rest of the way.  I just sat in the truck, staring at the fields outside Hauberk, bewildered. I felt sure of only two things. My anger was not me. And lesser magic was a bitch.

Animal Science

A story from my first collection, Gravity.

It was hot. That was foremost in my thoughts. A sheer, raw, violating hotness that wobbled on the cement quad and in the still dry air above it. I focused on getting across without fainting. I fixed it in my mind. I didn’t have to ask why there weren’t any birds in the Flushing sky. I knew they all had heatstroke, carpets of passed-out sparrows under the campus trees. Even the shade pulsed with heat. I’d accepted the hottest day in Michigan history the way one accepts an incurable disease or a prison term or a bad marriage. I stopped fighting. I let it own me.

As I reached the rusted double doors of Animal Science, the world seemed to tilt. Darkness rushed into the edges of my vision, and the numbness of heat prostration began to twist through my skin. Panting, I sat down on one of the benches in the building atrium, wondering if my three-mile hike from the adjunct lot was destined to put me in the hospital. The central A/C was broken, but there were box fans every 30 yards, and I felt truly grateful to the Animal Science secretaries for providing the hot air current. Hot air that moved felt better than hot air that didn’t.

I would have thanked one of them, but the secretaries seemed oblivious, radiating a certain continuous misery—large, overdressed women with pained expressions, drifting slowly through the halls. They seemed to move in a complex pre-set loop from one office to another, leaning in doorways, fanning themselves, adjusting their clothing, their bangs stuck to their foreheads. It was clear they’d set up the box fans because they’d been ordered to—not due to some hidden motherly goodness or basic human decency. One of the fans had already blown over. It rattled facedown, blowing air against the floor.

The Animal Science atrium was an enormous vestibule beneath a dirty glass cupola that read FLUSHING CC in green block letters. There were graffitied wooden benches at the four corners of the area where the classroom wings intersected, and there was a vaguely Cubist fountain of burnished steel rectangles in the center. As it hadn’t worked since the Ford Administration, the students used it as an enormous trash bin. Today, it had been covered by a red drop cloth as if it were the hidden reason for the President’s speech, some miracle invention to be unveiled, a secret weapon destined to eradicate everything old and broken, and bring perfection to the unwashed of south central Michigan.

The summer students of Flushing Community College were nowhere around. They’d no doubt been dispersed hours earlier by campus security, all class meetings in the building summarily cancelled. There was an important occasion underway, which meant no sideways ball caps and bellybutton rings, no heavy eyeliner, no tribal barbed wire tats and low-rise revelations. Everyone in the atrium wore business attire but me. And if the portly assistant deans and accountants and assorted adjusters in their suits and pearls seemed uncomfortable—secretly perspiring in their boxer shorts and pantyhose—they at least tried not to show it when the President looked their way.

This was the President’s Hour and the only attendees were apt to be those on the President’s administrative staff or those hoping to ascend. About 30 of them were present, milling, casting furtive glances in her direction. It was a yearly reception held for an hour in the middle of summer session for any employee with a grievance. Naturally, it was catered. A long cafeteria table held pyramids of crullers, nickel-plated salvers of creampuffs, watermelon slices, cheeses, eight different types of cracker, fancy lion-footed tureens of Guatemalan coffee with upside-down cups on saucers.

The President was currently holding forth at the far side of the atrium. Her voice carried over the hum and rattle of the fans—all peaks, no valleys, a voice that stayed in the higher octaves as if it resonated from a rare ornamental glass caught in the wind. She was talking about austerity and solar panels.

“In 25 years,” she said. “An amazing ROI.”

Helen, a tall pale woman in her early 30s, who managed the Presidential office and dressed only in dark primary colors, smiled and nodded vigorously. Oh, yes. The ROI was amazing, wasn’t it. Just amazing.

All of the food was free and nearly all of it would go untasted. The President’s Hour spread was legendary at the college. And it remained the stuff of legend, probably due to the fact that no one dared raise a grievance with Madam President. It seemed that there could never be a good reason for an employee of FCC to speak with “All Heads Are Bowed,” as a colleague of mine had named her.

No one in the English Department knew I’d come. It would have been scandalous if they’d discovered me crossing over for crullers and cool slices of peppered roast beef with avocado spears, an unforgivable violation of the general surliness expected in all dealings with the administration, doughnuts notwithstanding. But I was an adjunct, unemployed through the summer, and it was there. Food. Whole platters of it that would be dumped by College Catering Services as soon as the President got back in her blue Mercedes and drove home to her house on the river. Eating trumped solidarity just as the transmission of my ancient Honda had trumped groceries earlier in the month.

I raked my hair back and re-tucked my soaked button-down. I was sure I had no more liquid left in my body. I looked like I’d fallen in a puddle, my shirt and the tops of my khakis half-soaked through. I stood slowly, waiting for the dizziness to recede, my hand on the back of the bench.

“Reprioritizing,” said the President. “Austerity measures? Absolutely.”

She was a small woman, though extremely vigorous looking with short gray hair and piercing blue eyes. One could see that she’d once had normal human feelings and responses. But, at some point, she’d made the choice to rebuild herself as the perfect weapon—the way people will in law and finance who attend seminars on how to win through intimidation. Her page on the college website said that she admired Ayn Rand, Walt Disney, and Davey Crockett, trained privately with a sifu of Bak Mei Kung Fu, ran marathons, did Pilates every morning. She was currently enrolled in an online course for developing a photographic memory. When her eyes swept the crowd, people shifted their weight, looked away, put their hands in their pockets.

I undid the clasps on my shoulder bag. It was just about time to execute the mission. Normally, my shoulder bag held course texts and student papers. But today it only contained three extra-large heat-resistant refrigerator bags. The plan was to fill them as quietly and quickly as possible. The hike back to the car would melt everything in the bags down to a hybrid food substance that, while unpleasant, would remain reasonably edible. I’d eat a slice of it every day with some tap water. If all went well, it would sustain me for two weeks.

They were talking about money, which made them dangerous but wholly focused on each other like lions circling a dead impala. I could hear their bestial roars: “efficiency review,” “resource management,” “new Gant charts,” “reapportioning our assets.” Soon the President would say something that would draw everyone’s attention with a veiled reference to layoffs—trimming the fat off the impala of some department’s temporary employment. And the rest of them would lick their chops with glittering eyes. It was as inevitable as any herd ritual, the instinctual pattern of it written deep in the DNA of the college administrator. Perhaps it was just as inevitable as the appearance of the wild adjunct, impending starvation having made him foolhardy around the larger predators.

I squeezed out my shirt cuffs and rolled up my sleeves. I would have to be fast and smooth, unremarkable, bland. Most of all, there could be no hint of intellectual or academic energy about me. That was as dangerous as a deer arriving late to the watering hole with a cut on its rump.

Marvin Wilson, one of the assistant deans, smoothed the ends of his moustache and patted his tie. “Yes, indeed, Madam President,” he said. “You got that right, for sure.” Marvin was partially deaf and once said during a faculty address that hearing aids gave him headaches. So he went without and compensated by using a Victorian hearing trumpet and speaking very loudly. At close range without his trumpet, Marvin could give off a nervous cheerfulness that made him seem about to snap. The possibility of a violent psychotic break was his only natural defense against other administrators with more formidable capabilities. Though, as Marvin was also unseasonably fat, one wondered whether a right hook from him wouldn’t result in immediate death. I imagined that the President often made him cry.

When the heat rises to such a degree in Flushing, crying is hardly out of the question. Even if a grown man like Marvin were to strip down right here in the atrium, weeping and running his hands over all his slick white corpulence, no one would blame him very much. No Michigander would do aught but invoke the usual curse on all things democratic, homosexual, and Californian—concluding that good Marvin must have been at least one of those things in the closet after all. Of course, the fact that I was born and raised in southern California hadn’t helped my job prospects in Michigan after getting a PhD there the year before. But so it went.

The President took her place behind the podium set up before a bank of 30 folding chairs padded with white cushions that read FLUSHING in the same block letters as on the cupola. She cleared her throat into the microphone and said, “I will speak to you now,” causing everyone to immediately stop their conversations and take seats.

“Let us bow our heads in thanks for surviving another fiscal year.”

All was silent except for the rattling box fan that everyone continued to ignore, since righting it would have meant getting up and moving out of the President’s aura. It would have meant performing an overt, subservient act. During the President’s Hour, all visible actions took on an amplified significance in the pack logic of the administrator, signs of how the pecking order would be for the upcoming academic season until the great migration back to the atrium next summer. So the fan stayed face-down, rattling loudly. Even Madam President ignored it.

“Let us be thankful that the state subsidy has increased by 4.6% and that enrollment has remained consistent, giving us a projected windfall of 6% per annum.”

All heads were indeed bowed. The President closed her eyes and extended her hands over the seated administrators like a charismatic minister delivering a holy benediction. No one saw me glide up to the food except one of the Animal Science secretaries way down the east wing hallway. I could see her staring, frowning. At that distance, she could probably only see how I was dressed and little of what I was doing. She no doubt thought I was a student drawn like a stray hyena to the outskirts of the kill.

“And let us remember how fragile our jobs are, how easily we could be made redundant or be replaced. And let us give thanks that our good attitudes and hard work have not yet brought this upon us. Amen.”

“Amen,” replied the crowd.

“Well,” said the President, “it is encouraging that in the five years we have been holding the President’s Hour, not one grievance has been voiced. It shows how committed we are to solving our own problems. And in this economy, with nothing certain, that’s the right way to be.”

A round of light applause rose up from the crowd and Marvin’s thunderous, “Here, here, Madam President, here, here!” Then she looked right at me, but I almost had my third bag full. I’d turned such that, from her side of the room, my actions weren’t visible. I had my back to her and appeared to be staring intently at the dropclothed fountain, while my hands moved quickly and efficiently out of sight at waist level. I didn’t have time to worry.

Besides, the President was right in the middle of the yearly spell of intimidation she wove over her subordinates. She wouldn’t want to jeopardize it for a cheese plate. Then again, the approaching secretary had no such compunctions.

“My subject today, as you may already know, follows from the email I sent all of you the day before yesterday on the matter of austerity measures—finding out what isn’t, who isn’t, working and applying the right corrective metric.”

The Animal Science secretary wore white, a voluminous blouse and skirt meant to conceal the unflattering parts of her body. But its effect was rather to make her seem even larger than she was. The woman moved forward like a gunfighter, hands held open by her sides. She led with her stare, her expression fixed in a pointed frown. She came down the east wing hallway, stalking me, not looking away for a second.

I filled the third bag just as the President broached the subject of faculty hiring freezes and dispensing with non-essential adjuncts, which made everyone applaud feverishly. I’d cleared out the back quarter of the table. Bag three was cheese and pastry—the most problematic bag, given the heat. But I couldn’t allow myself to think about that. Thinking about the food spoiling before I got it home would have made me cry like Marvin. Bag two was all cold cuts. Bag one held rolls and crackers.

I might have even tried to guzzle a few cups of black coffee if the secretary hadn’t noticed me. But there she was about 30 yards away and closing. As I crossed the atrium, casually (yet quickly) walking behind the fountain in the direction of the west wing hallway, I kept my eyes on the floor in front of me.

“These are hard times,” said the President, “which means you are going to have to be hard. When we institute District Plan 44, you’re going to have to do some difficult things. And you’re going to have to face some members of our community who unfortunately think they’re indispensable.”

I’d almost made it across the atrium when I looked up and saw Marvin half-standing, turned, one hand white-knuckling the back of his chair. He was staring right at me, his big watery eyes wide with shock, his mouth slightly open under his light brown moustache.

“Now there are going to be cuts. And it will be up to you to speak to those being cut in language they can easily understand. You will not be using institutional jargon”—polite laughter from the crowd—“or financial terms that someone with a Masters in philosophy can’t be expected to wrap his head around.” More laughter broke out, this time with some clapping. “Instead, each and every one of you will have prepared a simple statement of fact that you will repeat if confronted in the office or hallway or elevator. Moreover—“

It was then that she noticed Marvin, who was now fully out of his seat, fumbling for his inhaler with his right hand and gesturing frantically with his left.

“Marvin? Did I give you permission to stand?”

Marvin sucked in a blast from his inhaler and I disappeared into the west wing hallway. Half of the crowd had probably seen me. But no one wanted to join poor Marvin in the place of judgment and scrutiny. As soon as I entered the hallway, I broke into a jog. The secretary had almost crossed the atrium behind me. There were no fans down at this end and the air itself was a barrier—a hot thick cloud pressing in from all sides. Formaldehyde from some of the laboratory rooms gave off the rich odor of old urine. And the deep bouquet of cow dung from the student dairy seeped through the walls.

In the distance, the President’s voice boomed: “Sit down, Marvin!”

I could hear the secretary’s shoes flapping, gaining ground behind me. I wasn’t sure exactly what she’d do if she caught me. But I had a feeling it would result in campus security, public humiliation, no employment in the fall, and—worse—having to give the food back, even though no one would want it now. No one had wanted it in the first place. But the secretary came on anyway. It was the principle of the thing. The rules. The food had to be dumped. And no other creature in the college ecosystem believed, ruminated constantly on, lived and breathed the “principle of the thing” more intensely than the department secretaries. At Flushing CC, the rules were all they had. It was harsh, but it was the Law of Nature, cruel and beautiful and wild.

But knowing all this didn’t stop me from ducking into an open classroom once I was around the corner and out of her sight. Hopefully, the secretary would pass by and assume I exited the building way down at the end. Each wing of the Animal Science classrooms had two hallways connecting to each other at 90-degree angles. Since there were four wings, if you pictured the building from above, the only image you could imagine would be a swastika. I tried not to dwell on this.

It was an old stadium classroom dedicated apparently to farm animal biology. A sign on the wall said the capacity was 300 people. I wondered if 300 people had ever, in the history of the planet, converged in a single room to discuss the innards of cows and sheep. I ran down the aisle, looking for a place to hide just in case the secretary got wise and doubled back.

Luckily, the room hadn’t been refitted with motion sensors that automatically turn on the lights. There were shadows made by the red exit signs glowing above the doors I’d just come through and on either side of the stage. And the stage platform was illuminated by a feeble ceiling light directly over a plaster cow the size of a small truck. Next to it, in a cardboard box, were detachable portions of its hide, half of its skeleton, and various oversized plaster organs.

The cow’s enormous glass eyes looked as if they were about to begin rolling in agony, the beast suddenly realizing that it had been taken apart and left there on display. Bathed in hot shadows that smelled of formaldehyde and animal excreta, the room seemed more like a vivisectionist’s chamber than a classroom—a black hell where the insides of living things are slowly removed layer by layer before a stadium crowd.

I hesitated for a moment, looking up at the cow, and then ran to the exit doors on either side of the stage. They were both locked. I was about to run back up to the top and peek out into the hallway, when I heard the door I’d come through click. Someone was slowly opening it, talking back to another person in the hallway. It was the secretary speaking to someone male. How could she have gotten campus security so quickly? I climbed up on stage, but there were no curtains at the back of the platform, no other doors.

Standing beside the cardboard box that held the organs and one side of the cow, I considered the complete absurdity of my life. After 15 years of higher education and two advanced degrees, the best job I could get was that of a temporary employee at a community college in rural Michigan. Now I was stealing food because there was no more money in the bank and I’d eaten all my backup lentils. Once the lights came on, there would be nowhere to hide, no way out. I put my arms around the cow and tried to steady myself.

Should I try to eat as much of the food as possible to fortify myself for the impending ride to the police station? A wave of dizziness passed through me and I felt a bit nauseous. I began to breathe heavily and worried that I might pass out, that I was starting to hyperventilate. I hadn’t hyperventilated before. If I was about to hyperventilate and lost consciousness, this would be the place—hanging onto a gigantic plaster cow in a dark room that smelled like shit.

“Okay,” the secretary called, “you look in there. I got this one.”

And then I got an idea. It was a really large cow.

The secretary found the light switch just as I snapped the outer hide of the cow into place. With the internal organs and half of the ribcage removed, it easily accommodated me as long as I was able to maintain a fetal position over my shoulder bag. The inside smelled like mold and half-melted crullers. The permanent part of the ribcage that didn’t detach pressed into my back. And the hard plaster mold of the chest cavity had a painful ridge directly beneath my knees. But the important thing was that I was completely hidden.

Light streamed in through the hollow nostrils of the cow and the tiny cracks and spaces that had formed after years of animal science. I listened to the footfalls of the secretary on the nylon-carpeted steps that ran down the aisles between the bleacher tables. Luckily, she didn’t approach the platform, didn’t smell the melted chocolate or hear me breathing.

I followed her huffing and cursing as she moved from one door to the other. Evidently, she hadn’t exerted herself this much in some time. But there she was: one condemned to a life of stapling documents, changing toner cartridges, and taking petty condescension, going out of her way to stick it to someone even less fortunate. The king of the beggars is always a tyrant. The prisoner in charge of the work detail always makes use of the whip.

She came back to the open space before the stage and paused. I held my breath. She must have been staring straight at the cow. The pain in my knees was intense, and I tried not to think about walking again would be like.

“Motherfucker.” The way she said it told me both that she hadn’t caught on and that she was giving up. A motherfucker with emphasis on the second part—more fucker than mother—a spontaneous cry of universal frustration. All hunters know that sound. Raptors probably made it when their quarry found a hole in the rocks. Tigers might have roared it at the cruel sun while apes shook the branches of trees and motherfucker-saying humans fired rounds into the mist just so the report could sound the depth of their anger. No blood today. Today, the impala goes free.

I heard the door up at the top of the stairs click and I forced myself to count to 20 before I popped the side of the cow off and lowered it to the stage. After being enclosed in there for a few minutes, the outside air tasted pure and sweet. There was a lesson: even a cup of dirty water is welcome in the desert.

My knees buckled and shook when I put my weight on them, taking my first steps into the light like a newborn calf from my plaster mother.

Motherfucker.

The question was: who was the father? By the time I got back up to the hallway, I had my answer. It was the President. The secretary and campus security were nowhere to be seen, but the voice of the President echoed down the hallway. She was still back there, the Mother of Abominations fathering monsters with all heads bowed and a metric for every inappropriate erection or eructation.

“Let us go forth,” she was saying, “and remember what it is we’ve been hired to do. And that, above all else, we must be hard if we want to be good.”

The administrators streamed out into the heat and I with them. No one looked at me twice. I did not exist, which was just as well. Sometimes insignificance has certain advantages. I walked around the front of the building, avoiding the barbwired student dairy pasture. The administrators were dispersing quickly, a cloud of navy broadcloth and silk untwisting in every direction like a drop of coloring in a glass of water. No one wanted to stand in the sun no matter how much more gladhanding and social jockeying remained.

I took the most direct route to the adjunct lot, a narrow cement walk that ran from Animal Science, around the weed-choked amphitheater that hadn’t been used in years, and down the line of parking lots ordered in terms of importance—administration, permanent faculty, staff, campus police, plant operations, students, farm equipment and machinery, and then adjuncts and seasonal help.

On my way through the administrative lot, I saw them: the President striding forward ahead of Marvin and two young women in business suits and identitical bobbed haircuts. The three of them were struggling to keep up, speaking over each other, trying to get the President’s attention. Then another wave of vertigo passed through me. The President and her courtiers seemed to grow smaller as the edges of my vision grew dark. I put my hand against a tree and thought about dehydration. Even the parking lot trees—selected expressly for their hardiness and ability to live their whole lives in small concrete rings in the asphalt lots—seemed about to go up in flames. The bark felt as if it were burning the palm of my hand.

I closed my eyes. When I opened them, a short balding man in a coal gray suit stood facing me beside the open door of his Acura. He tossed his suit jacket onto the passenger seat, pulled off his blue clip-on tie, and tossed that in after it. Then he whistled.

“Need a ride?” He smiled, looked me up and down, nodded at his car.

“No.” It came out in a dry croak. My throat felt swollen, raw.

He shrugged, ran a hand over the top of his head and flicked off the sweat. “You might like a ride.”

I was afraid to let go of the tree. I said no again and looked down.

He squinted hard at me. “How old are you, anyway?” Then he got in his Acura, whipped the car in reverse out of the parking space and, with one last hard look, shot down the row towards Campus Drive.

I sat down three times on the walk back to my car and drove home in the slow lane. When I got there, I opened the windows in both rooms of my apartment to catch the faint draft that sometimes reached the sixth floor. Then I put my shoulder bag in the empty fridge and lay down on the hardwood next to my bed. It was cool there, the only cool spot in the place. I stared up at the pocked white ceiling, listening to my downstairs neighbors have their daily screaming fight. They’d go until someone slammed a door and something broke against it. And then she would sit right beneath me and sob as the birds of Flushing woke up from their prostration beneath the trees and the neighborhood cats stretched awake, their tails twitching in the heat.

* Note: this story originally appeared in The New Ohio Review, 12 (2012): 101-109.