Black Ribbon

Then my uncle bought the costume shop.  And, for a while, things got interesting again.  New Years Eve, 1991, he let me borrow a classic notch-lapel tuxedo and some patent leather shoes.  The whole package.  Socks.  A cotton laydown collar shirt.  Onyx links.  And a midnight solid bow tie.

“You look like James Bond,” he said.  Then he turned to my friend, Evert, and said, “You look like James Bond’s hairdresser.”

“Thanks, Uncle Tim,” Evert said.

“Why do you hang out with this guy?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “But, yeah, thanks.”

Evert was wearing the same thing I was.  But Uncle Tim never felt right unless he was giving somebody a hard time.  He was basically a good guy, funny too.  I was sad when they found him three years later.

This was supposed to be a fun night.  The Hotel Escondido threw a big party every year.  You needed formalwear to get in.  And an invitation.  So Evert and I already had the problem half solved thanks to my uncle, who now sold costumes but also wedding gowns, tuxedos, and second hand suits.

He put three folded hundreds in my pocket and gave me a hug.  “Don’t give any to goofball over there.”

Evert was waiting by the door.  “I can hear you,” he said.

“Be careful,” Uncle Tim said and chucked me on the shoulder.

I was 18.  The year before, Evert and I snuck into the Hotel Escondido in the best clothes we could find.  I was in my old pinstripe Confirmation suit that I had to keep unbuttoned because it had started to tear inside.  Evert wore a sweater and khakis.  We ate canapés, got drunk on fancy champagne, watched the fireworks from a stone balcony, and made out with girls two years older than us, who said they were getting paid to be there.  After midnight, Evert and I escaped through the side entrance one step ahead of security.  It was great.

This year, we were going to do it right.  We’d studied the floorplan.  We knew the exits.  We knew what to say to security.  And with Uncle Tim’s assistance, I felt we were bound to meet some nice girls this time who weren’t being paid.

When we got in my ancient Rambler, Evert said, “Why is your uncle such a dick?”

“He gave us these suits, didn’t he?”

“He’s a dick.”

“He’s old school.  He went to jail a couple years ago.  He had a messed-up childhood.”

“Dick.”

It was somewhat true.  Uncle Tim could act obnoxious, always seemed a little angry, dressed in all polyester, and smoked too much.  But he could pick you up with one hand.  He loved dogs.  And his laughter could almost knock you over.  Nobody talked about why he went to jail.

I parked in the dark corner of a dirt lot seven blocks away from the hotel and set my two steering wheel locks.  Then I pulled the old Alpine out of the dash and put it in the trunk under a piece of cardboard and some crumpled newspapers. Downtown San Diego in the late 1990s wasn’t bad.  And the Rambler wasn’t good. But such were the cars that usually got jacked—the buckets.  And anything Honda.  Evert never stopped making fun of me for using two steering wheel locks on a car like mine, to which I always responded, “Get your own fucking car, then,” and to which he never had a comeback.

The street was ghost empty.  And we could see the Hotel Escondido’s lights turning the everything yellow down at the end.  It had originally been a 15-story office building, built on a hill in 1949 in a time before mirror-glass and rooftop helipads.  It had gargoyles.  The elevators were marble and brass and smelled like old metal.  And there were butt urns set every few feet down the halls.  If you were going to crash a big holiday party, that was the place.

The festivities would be in the ballroom on the ground floor, an enormous space with parallel staircases on either side sweeping up to a vast mezzanine and a stone veranda that overlooked the lights of India Street and the bay.  What most didn’t know was that there was a dirt trail up the side of the hill to a small, unlockable wrought-iron gate.  The gate opened onto a narrow service staircase that led up the side of the building to the veranda.

When I’ve told others about that night, they’ve asked me, “Did you get thrown out?” as if that were the punchline, the most important detail, some kind of moral at the end.  I never know what to say.  Of course we got thrown out.  Was it a stupid plan?  Of course it was.  Were we stupid kids?  My answer to that is all kids are stupid at 18.  The trick to having more good memories than bad is to be the right kind of stupid at the right time.

Later, I waited in the Rambler in front of Evert’s house while he changed into some sweats.  He brought his tux out in a large paper grocery bag, shoes on top.

“Tell your uncle thanks.  But I don’t think I’ll be doing this again.”

I nodded, waved, and pulled into the street.  In the rear-view, I saw Evert standing in the drive next to his mother’s gray Pinto, watching me go.  We wouldn’t be doing this again because Evert was headed to college in a few months.  And I was headed nowhere.  Uncle Tim already said I could work for him at the shop.  I was considering it.  But it wasn’t something I felt like talking about.

When we snuck down from the veranda, we expected a grand ballroom full of people.  But it was half-empty and it didn’t look like the management had paid any models to stand around and look glamorous.  The DJ was spinning solid ’70s disco and nobody there looked under 40.  A few drunk soccer moms were doing something that vaguely resembled the Twist in the middle of the floor, acting more self-conscious than the kids at my high school dances.  No waiters with canapés.  Only a long buffet table with a cashier at the end.

It took about an hour for security to notice us and show us to the door.  We didn’t run.  It was too depressing and low energy for that.  Last year, they’d worn tuxedos, too, and had little earpieces like in a spy flick.  This year it was black windbreakers with SECURITY in yellow block letters across the back.

“Let’s go.”  A windbreakered guard with curly blond hair beneath a black and yellow ball cap that read “A-1” put his hand on my shoulder and guided me toward the lobby.  Evert trailed, looking down, hands in his pockets.

“I’ve got an invitation,” I said.

“Sure.” The guard opened one of the front double doors for me.  “Have a happy new year.”

“You, too,” Evert said, “You have a hell of a year,” as the guard shut the door softly behind us.

Evert lived with his mom and sister about five minutes from Pacific Beach.  After I dropped him off, I parked in an alley near Crystal Pier and walked down to the end.  The beach bars were full.  You could hear the distant shouting and music like little pockets of chaos, little hell caverns, each competing for some sort of reward to see who could be the most crazy and perverse.  The Garden of Earthly Delights.  Every New Year’s Eve, the whole world became that painting.

The pier smelled like creosote and rotten wood.  It went far and high enough over the water that you could dive off the end and swim back.  At least, that’s what everybody said.  Or you could die.  It was a big dare, one of the many opportunities for making a bad decision you encountered as a teen in San Diego.  The bad kind of stupid.  I thought about jumping.  I could give the ruined tuxedo back to Uncle Tim with the $300 and make up some wild story.  He’d love it.  Instead, I leaned against the railing and looked back at the city glittering electric in every color of the rainbow.

To my left, one of the fishermen you saw on the beach all hours of the day and night took a swig of something in a paper bag and said, “Prom?”

“New Year’s.”

“Wow.”  He smiled, adjusting his fishing pole against the rail.  “Fuck that.”

The sky was clear.  There was a full moon.  And you can’t stay at the end of a pier forever, even though there were some nights I’d spend hours there, leaning against the rough wooden railing.  If the beach bars sounded like an infernal Hieronymus Bosch pep rally, the ocean at night was a different sort of hell: black ribbon over glittery onyx, the sound of the surf letting you know there’s a lot going on out in that faceless, trackless dark and you’re right on the edge.  One step off the pier was all it took to be part of it forever.

Time of night changes the darkness on a street, even if it’s beachfront and lit up like New Year’s Eve.  I walked down Ocean Front, avoiding the crowds in front of the bars, made a left on Hornblend, and crossed Mission.  Tourists from New Jersey, Connecticut, Vancouver, New Mexico, all drunk, packed ten to a truck, no shirts, speeding pale through the streetlights, hollering, tossing crumpled beer cans at the dark storefronts.

Growing up in San Diego, I saw them every year, every holiday, every summer night I spent at the beach.  No big thing.  Half of them would be arrested by dawn.  A fourth would go home and make up tales of the vacation they’d had.  Maybe a sixth would believe their own lies and want to move to California someday.  But they’d never be able to afford it.  Or they’d get as far as Bakersfield and learn the true meaning of heartache.

I told myself if the party at the hotel had only been better, I’d feel differently about everything.  I told myself then I wouldn’t feel so depressed.  But none of that was real enough to be true.  It was just a story I was telling.  Truth was, I didn’t feel much of anything.  No anger.  No pain.  No regret.  No sense of missing out or that I had to search for something better.  Nothing but a faint melancholy, a vague tiredness.  High school, my life, was about waiting, everything calculated in terms of how long things were going to take, when I could expect them to end, what I’d have to put up with until they did.

And I told myself Evert had it better.  But what did I know?  “I don’t think I’ll be doing this again,” he’d said.  “Why is your uncle such a dick?” he’d said.  I could have told him some obscure Tibetan Buddhism fact from world history, “Yes, the answer is to just apply yak oil to the icon of Yidam Kurukulla and do the great dance of the Knowledge-Causing Mother-Buddha,” and Evert would have given me the exact same look.  The I’m leaving for college look.  The too bad you aren’t but that’s how it goes look.

Right on Bayard and down past Grand.  Left on Thomas where the old cinderblock apartment complexes rust and crumble to eternity.  At night, they look like industrial back lots for meat packing plants or ball joint factories.  Weird and empty.  Nothing you’d want to spend time in.  Orange-white safety lights always buzzing.  Concrete stairwells that smell like piss.  Some tatted-up, naked guy in a window, holding a bottle of wine.

Where was I walking at the end of 1991 in Uncle Tim’s notch-lapel tuxedo?  I thought the Rambler might have already been towed, which made everything feel even more tiring, more futile.  Home was in North Park, 20 minutes east on the 805, with a mother and father whose idea of a good New Year’s Eve was not having to suffer fools all night and start the new year with a headache.  They were smarter than me.  I told myself next year I’d go to bed early.

One of the apartments, three flights up, was open, light streaming down into an empty courtyard parking lot, stereo thumping.  A woman with long wavy green hair leaned over the metal railing and waved at me like otherwise I wouldn’t notice.

“Come up here,” she said.  Flannel shirt and jeans.  Very drunk.

I looked at her.

“Steve.  Come up and dance.”

The stereo inside was loud.  I had to shout.  “I think you got the wrong guy!”

“Steve!  Get up here!”

“I’m not Steve!”

“Don’t worry about it!”  She waved me up in wide, exaggerated arcs.  I thought she might lose her balance and go headfirst over the railing.

Inside, ten extremely drunk people were trying to dance in the small shag-carpeted living room.  A few cardboard boxes of Bud Light had been savagely torn open and unopened cans had rolled under the plastic coffee table.  On the couch, a very large man snored with his shirt unbuttoned, wet spot on his crotch, unlit cigarette between his fingers.  I looked at his hairy belly, at the green-haired woman who said her name was Ada.

“I’m Steve,” I said.  A joke.  But she was busy telling me how the man on the couch had stolen the beer out the back of a liquor store.

“He’s a genius,” she said.  “He’s Polfrey.”

“That’s his last name?”

She frowned up at me.  “What?”

I smiled and shrugged.

Ada stepped back and took me in.  “What’re you doing in that mod getup?”

“Not a lot,” I said.  And that she understood.

We danced.  We danced slow when everyone else was dancing fast and falling into each other.  Some bleached surfer went face-down into the plastic coffee table, rolled on his back, and laughed.  A girl in a burgundy pencil skirt and cream blouse, looking like she’d just got off work at an insurance office and didn’t approve of any of this, sat on Polfrey’s legs, took the cigarette from between his fingers, and lit it.  Someone sprayed beer on the stereo, on the window, on the splotchy ceiling light.  Someone said happy fucking New Year.

I thought Ada might be in her 30s, but at that time I wasn’t good at judging anyone’s age beyond my own.  She laid her head on my chest.  “You sure are dreamy, Steve.  I could take you home to mama.”

We went out in front of the apartment, kissed for a while, and leaned against the railing.  “But I don’t live with my mama.  You want me to take you home?  My girlfriend wouldn’t like that one bit.  You get high?  Do drugs?”

I said I didn’t and Ada patted me on the shoulder.  “That’s good, sweetie.  You keep that dreamy smile.”

“I should go,” I said.  “They might tow my car.”

She gave me a fierce hug and kissed me on the cheek.  “I’m gonna get high.”

At the edge of the parking lot, I looked back.  Ada was still standing at the railing, silhouetted in the doorway light, waving in slow motion, like when you watch someone’s ship pull away from the pier, not really expecting to see them but hoping you might catch one last glimpse.

Walking back to the Rambler, I decided that when I returned the tuxedo, I’d tell Uncle Tim I met a nice girl and we danced all night.  He’d say something like, after you ditched that moron friend of yours, right?  And I’d say yeah, that’s right.  Exactly.

Dominance and Submissions

Let’s say you’ve labored long in the fields of creative writing and the People Who Know (or maybe just the people who’ve noticed) have appreciated your talent.  Some have appreciated it loudly and publicly, some quietly to friends in ways that eventually come back to you, some through amazing feats of jealousy, and others through an unrelenting aggressive competitiveness that beggars belief.  The lower the stakes, the higher the vitriol is an axiom of creative culture.

Let’s also say that for the first decade of writing and submitting short stories to magazines with names like Lost Nose QuarterlyBarbaric Yawp, and Bitch Review, the feedback of the 25-year-old readers working on these magazines mattered.  Susie Lillywhite, the fiction editor at Uncommon Snuff, writes you a personalized rejection, praising your “humorous story of cis-het men behaving badly,” and your ever-present grinding self-doubt abates for ten full minutes; though, on minute 11, you wonder how Susie writes dialogue (“Hello, Mister Cisgendered Heteronormative Male.  How are you today?” / “Hello, Thinly Veiled Proxy For Susie Designed To Signpost Authorial Identity And Abate Criticism.  I am fine.”).

You get the inevitable raft of rejections and a few acceptances.  In time, your acceptance average goes up.  You know this because you obsessively gamify your submission process on a spreadsheet like fantasy baseball.  Maybe your box scores show progress.  Maybe all this effort means something—if not anything tangible in your day-to-day existence, then perhaps in a kind of working-fiction-writer sabermetrics that suggests your chosen life direction hasn’t been a horrible mistake.  Maybe the 500 hypothetical readers of Dogwater International are upping your short story RBI.  It’s possible.  Don’t say it isn’t.

You’ve got a novel in progress.  This goes without saying.  Everyone has a novel in progress.  Your screenwriter friend, Gaurangi, tells you she has two novels in progress, a poetry chapbook in progress, and a book of essays in progress.  Yet, she’s miserable and hates her life.  “Is that because you’re still assistant manager at KFC and can’t break through the glass ceiling?”  “No,” she says, “it’s because you’re a fucking asshole.”  You’ve been friends for 15 years.  Her name means “giver of happiness.”

There is no joy like mine, you think.  I am a cherry blossom adrift in the infinite cosmos.  The form email from GOAT Bomb sits in your inbox.  You can see that it begins, “Dear Valued Author, thank you for submitting to GOAT Bomb . . .” but you’ve been meditating.  And if zazen has taught you anything, it’s that impersonal form rejections are naught but the transcendent meanderings of The Great Vehicle.  The rejections aren’t depressing you.  It must be something else.

So let’s say you’ve also learned how to save money as an effective freelance survival tactic.  Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’ve managed to eke out an existence as a ghost writer and a copyeditor.  Let’s say, also for the sake of argument, that your cousin, who thought college was stupid, now makes low six figures as a construction manager and thinks you’re hilarious.  You see him at Christmas dinner, a rosy-cheeked beer-drinking construction Santa with a twinkle in his eye.  And he asks you the same thing he asked you last year: “Are you a mental midget?”  He finds the question hilarious.  “No,” you say.  “I mentally fidget.”  He can’t stop laughing.  “With your digits!”  In this family, we come together through spontaneous and combustive rhyming.  You don’t take it personally.

But you don’t follow baseball.  Thus, your spreadsheet submission game perpetually teeters on the edge of something else, deep and dark, eldritch and unspeakable, an existential abyss.  Why do you do it?  How does publishing another story in The East Punjabi Fiction Annual (that took you six months of sustained before-dawn writing sessions and seven painful drafts) matter in the construction management food-on-the-table sense?  You joke, but there are no rhymes for it, at least none that would entertain your cousin.

The fact is, you are a mental midget.  You must be if you still have to worry about putting ten more dollars on the credit card for a sandwich at Safeway—which isn’t Joe Biden’s fault.  So don’t start.  The supply chain is effed-up, yes.  Covid is ineffable, yes.  The pandemic shooed you out of Bangkok one step ahead of the Thai quarantine police, yes, and now you’re living in a Hawaiian jungle, but that has nothing to do with anything.  Here you are.  The feral rooster outside goes, “KEEEEE-YAAAAW-KOOOOO!”  And the great world turns with its comings and goings.

Smoke three cigarettes with Gaurangi in her Kia in the parking lot of KFC.  It’s midnight and she is off work.  You drove into Hilo just for this because it’s a miracle that you both now live in the same place and she texted you: come smoke a cigarette with me so I can cope with the fact that I manage idiots.  She won’t smoke at home because she has a two-year-old daughter and cigarettes are poison.  “I should move back to L.A.” she says.  “The fucking Big Island’s getting me nowhere.”  “You married a Hawaiian.”  She looks at you, drags deeply, and smiles.  “Yes.  That probably has something to do with why I’m here.”

One manages a KFC in Los Angeles if one wants to be a screenwriter, a whole different fantasy ballgame.  One brings one’s Hawaiian husband to a bungalow in Glendale.  Maybe one sells the script for She’s Gotta Have It 2, earning $135,000 for the original screenplay, including treatment, and suddenly it’s all cheddar.  One writes one’s friend in the jungle: I don’t hate L.A. now.  It is what it is.  Now one can calm down and finish that poetry chapbook in peace.

You’re drinking too much coffee and you read a lot of news. Some nut writing for The Conversation says Covid and climate change are going to turn coffee into a rare luxury item like Kobe beef or Cristal.  But the enormous tin of Safeway Select on top of your refrigerator suggests otherwise. You wonder how much the writer got paid to cook up a pandemic scare piece on coffee. What if you pitched something similar about a thing everybody wants being unceremoniously taken away by forces beyond one’s control? What about cheese: “Is Cheese Systemically Racist?  Biden Might be Coming for Your Gruyere.” Or sex: “The Death of Intimacy: Gen Z Prefers Online Porn to Sex and Who Can Blame Them?” Or healthcare: “The GOP Thinks Letting Grandpa Die is Good for the Economy.”  You write these ideas down and fire up the laptop.  There’s rent to be made.

At this point, there are many possibilities.  You’ve moneyballed your way into 30, 40 magazine publications.  You have three published story collections and a multitude of columns, articles, and essays floating through the aetheric digitalia.  But you still live in the jungle.  You’ve got a neighbor up the dirt road who deals with his emotions by smoking crack and shooting cats with his Marlin 60.  You’re still getting rejections from 25-year-olds and machines that go, “While we appreciate your interest in Dark Pissoir . . . “

Occasionally, some acquaintance on social media will pay attention to you for more than 30 seconds and wonder how you exist.  How do you make a living (or How can you possibly make a living?)?  You say as best you can.  There are 25-year-olds publishing novels with Random House.  There are 25-year-olds managing construction sites and getting welding certificates and buying their kids $900 gaming consoles.  And there’s a fine line of termite dust along the base of your hovel’s north wall.  Are you discouraged?  What does that mean, exactly?

Mapping the Swamp

Today, I think I overcame my hitherto impassable mental block, the one I always get between pages 50 and 70, that indicates I’ve hit the “swampy middle.” The term “great swampy middle” wasn’t invented by me. In fact, I have no desire to discover who first coined the term because I have no desire to utter it ever again; though, I fear that’s just wishful thinking. Of course, I’m going to talk about, think about, and confront the GSW again. I always get bogged down in the middle. It’s stopped me from completing whole books. It hits me in longer stories, too. The hideous abyss waiting for writers at the middle of a piece of fiction is an inevitable occupational hazard.

I’ve been struggling with this novel for several weeks. The first 50 pages emerged quickly. And, in all seriousness, I think they’re very good pages, some of my best. So I can’t allow myself to seriously entertain thoughts of abandoning the project. I have to see it through if only for those good pages.

The only way out is to make an outline. I hate outlines. When I write, I want to be in a creative trance, driving the muse’s burning chariot through the dark firmament of hell. Or something like that. Bukowski promised that you’d know the gods and your nights would flame with fire.  When his promise comes true, it really is the best thing. When the divine chariot is half-submerged in the swamp, when it backfires a cloud of rancid bio-diesel and won’t even start, when the muse doesn’t even show up because she was partying with some publishing industry types last night and has to sleep it off, when the way forward is just a mucky green-brown maze of shit-streaked walls, you need a scaffold. You need to build a ladder out of the swamp. You need to draw a map. So that’s what I did.

I will always hate outlines. But now the editor part of my brain can see the way forward. Now I have a schematic. I know I can follow it—if everything doesn’t change tomorrow, if the muse doesn’t laugh at me and send me a dream that completely turns my scaffold upside-down. That happens, too. We’ll see.

 

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.