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A story about failed navigation.

Tony hadn’t been living with Bridget for long, but so far, so good.  He was tolerable.  He only brought a small suitcase.  He stayed out of her things.  When she came back late, he never asked.  And he didn’t smell.  Given men, Bridget felt she couldn’t expect much more than that.

When she told him to do something, he did it.  But now and then, his willingness, his acquiescence, made her tired.  Once in a while, she wanted a good fight.  But no matter what she did, no matter how far she pushed, Tony just took it.

They talked it over one night with the lights off and the blinds of the condo’s outer wall retracted so they could look at the lights of the city far below and not at each other.

“Sometimes,” she said, “I don’t know if you’re even a man.”

“Sometimes, I don’t know, either.  More wine?”

So it was alright, their “relationship,” though Bridget hated the word.  What else was she supposed to call it?  Seven dates.  A long weekend in Montauk.  And “I guess you better move in, if you feel that strongly about me.”  He looked over the steering wheel at the ocean and said, “I do.”  She didn’t like to think of that night.  It made her feel unsettled.  Now she owned this big complicated contraption when all she’d wanted was a simple tool.  Like a can opener.  Why couldn’t Tony be a can opener?

When Bridget was home and Tony was at work, she liked to visit their neighbor, Jules Simpson, who was 79, had dentures, and always came to the door in her bathrobe.  Jules told great stories.  In the 1970s, she’d been a porn star, then got married, and hadn’t worked a day since.  Her husband, who’d owned five of the magazines, enlarged her covers and had them framed under glass.  Heavy gold-leafed frames everywhere you looked in Jules’ condo.  Sporting Life, Mayhew, Sexsation, Curious, Sensorama.  All featuring Jules in her early 30s when she was blonde and had tan lines and good teeth.

“Where’s that beau of yours?  He’s a looker.”  Jules always asked where Bridget’s beau was and added that he was a looker.  She always poured a cup of instant when Bridget came over because Bridget had once said she liked coffee.  And she always lit a long black cigarette, a brand named Her Spice, and kept the box open on the glass coffee table in front of them, as if she knew one day Bridget would suddenly decide to drop all that non-smoking nonsense.  This was their ritual.  Something about it, deep down under all the layers of politeness, was confusing to Bridget, amusing to Jules.

“I don’t know.  He’s at the office.”

Jules nodded.  The tip of her cigarette flared.  “Adjusting those claims,” she said through the smoke.

“Yeah, well, I don’t care.”  Bridget took a sip of the instant.  Across the white and gold living room, the door to the kitchen was propped open.  Bridget could see the red Folgers jar beside the sink.

“It’s good to have your own money.  Be strong.”  Jules smiled.

Bridget automatically nodded, then wondered why she had.  What, exactly, did the older woman mean by that?  She felt Jules knew more about life, had lived more fully.  She and her publisher husband once owned a yacht.  They’d owned a palatial home in the Caribbean.  They’d partied with princes and ambassadors.  They’d travelled all over the globe.

“Think it might rain tomorrow?”

“No.”  Bridget placed the bone china coffee cup on the glass table gently so it didn’t make a sound.  She stared into the empty fireplace.  “It never rains this time of year.”

“Oh, that’s a relief,” said Jules.  “I’m due for some shuffleboard this evening.  You sure you wouldn’t like to tag along this time?  I know—nobody there under 60.  But we’re not that boring.”  She laughed, tapped her cigarette on the tarnished silver ashtray that had cherubs for feet.  It looked like it had once been a jewelry box with a hinged lid.  But the lid had been removed and now the box was half full of ashes and cigarette butts and was taking on a dull gunmetal sheen.

“Maybe sometime.”

“You think about it,” Jules said and closed her eyes for a moment as if she were hearing music.  Maybe she was.  The condo was also full of musical instruments that looked expensive and unplayed.  A Yamaha baby grand.  A sitar in a Plexiglas box.  An oboe on a stand.  Museum quality.  Like the magazine covers.

“It’s been nice visiting with you,” Bridget said.

With eyes still closed, Jules said, “Yes, it has been nice.  And remember Scorpio goes to the wall in two days.  Keep your head on a swivel.”

Who says, keep your head on a swivel?  That night, Bridget lay awake, looking at the moon, wondering.  Bad lines from a military action flick: “Keep your head on a swivel, private!”  “Yes sir!”  Then an explosion and Jimmy Cornfield goes down from a German grenade. 

Tony was breathing heavily beside her, lost in a dream.  Tony would never say, keep your head on a swivel.  He’d say, “You want me to check inside before you go in?”  He’s say, “Call me when you get there so I know you’re alright.”  He’d say, “Just say it.  Just once.  You don’t have to mean it.”

That’s good.  Because love stinks.  Bridget even told him once over dinner at a restaurant: “You know, love stinks.”  And Tony shrugged, looked down at his alfredo.  “Everything good in life has an odor, I guess.”  He said it so simply, so disaffectedly to his fettuccine that she couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.  Later, she decided he wasn’t.

As Bridget lay there, looking at the full moon in a clear sky, she realized no one in their right mind would be worried about rain tomorrow.

A week later, she sighted Jules in the building lobby, which, in a way, looked very similar to the interior of Jules’ condo. Mirrors and marble.  Gold leaf and white couches.  It was only missing the musical instruments and the framed blown-up magazine covers.  Some people, thought Bridget, you can give them any amount of money and they’ll turn their home into a lavatory at Caesar’s Palace.

“Hey!” Bridget waved to her as they passed, Jules going out, Bridget going in.

Jules looked at her, startled, without comprehension.  Then, after a moment, “Oh hi, darling.  I’m just heading out to the market.”  She grinned with the corners of her eyes.  She was wearing oversized Dior sunglasses, a green surgical facemask, a maroon beret with a bow on the side, and a full-length suede coat with a furry collar, even though it was still warm in the middle of the day.  The taxi waiting at the curb must have been hers.

“Okay.”  The market?  Did that mean something?

Still eye-grinning, Jules said, “Okay.  Ta!”

Bridget watched her go out through the glass doors and get in the cab.  An intense self-loathing rose up inside her, the sort she hadn’t felt since high school, when she’d lock herself in the bathroom and make the shower searing hot.  She imagined Jules’ pubic hair, gray and matted, and thought she might vomit. 

But there was a time, wasn’t there, a time when Jules was young and gorgeous and had a lot of sex, a time when she’d done all sorts of things, some Bridget probably couldn’t imagine.  She got in the elevator and pressed the button.  She also had her anti-viral facemask on, but glared hard so the bearded man in a rumpled tan suit would notice.

About to get on, he looked at her, took out a mask and put it on, then stepped back.  “It’s cool.  I’ll get the next one.”

“No, it’s not cool,” she said as the doors shut.

She’d had thousands of interactions like that with thousands of men.  It used to feel good.  That was before the virus.  Now, she thought, what’s the point?  She could go up and tell Tony, “I want to push you out a window.”  And he’d shrug, shake his head, and say, “Tell me about it.  It’s going around.”

Their sex was robotic and infrequent.  Like two broken machines that kind of fit; though, they were designed by different companies for different purposes.  He couldn’t be a can opener.  He was more like an after-market adapter.

Maybe this was hell.  The overpriced tasteless condo Bridget inherited from her aunt.  The building packed with rich old people too tired for Florida.  A live-in boyfriend who doubled as romantic Xanax.  And a porn star senior citizen for a neighbor who worried about Scorpio going to the wall and keeping one’s head on a swivel.  Bridget tried to have taste, but this life was tasteless.  She ran HR for a nonprofit and, since Covid, worked remotely.  But she still dressed up.  None of that spend all day in your sweats garbage.  None of that drinking wine on the Zoom call.  She tried to live the right way.

Lost in thought, she almost missed the fact that Jules’ door was ajar.  Bridget went into her unit, put her purse on the little side table that used to hold a phone, dropped her keys in the candy dish.  Tony was cooking dinner in the kitchen, the evening news turned up in the living room.  He hadn’t heard her come in. 

Bridget thought of Jules doing whatever she was supposedly doing out there (The market!  Ta!).  Before Tony could notice, she stepped back into the hallway and slipped into Jules’ condo, shutting the door silently behind her but leaving it slightly ajar.

The inside was dark.  She’d been there many times, but it felt completely different without Jules present.  The older woman dominated the room.  She had a force about her that made you pay attention, drew your gaze, made your mind work, trying to think about what Jules was saying, what she was asking, what she’d be offering you next.  Did that come from porn? 

Eight 30-year-old Juleses, in different combinations of swimwear and lingerie, grinned at her from the walls.  None of the covers had her naked; though, PRIVATE! had her smiling and winking an inch above a bodybuilder’s bulging shorts.  Something alien about all those images of Jules’ younger self smiling into the shadows of the empty condo.

Bridget stood in the silence, looking at the covers, at the slick carapace of the Yamaha baby grand in the moonlight, the sitar in its Plexiglas box like a monstrous caterpillar trapped in crystal. 

Then the lights went on and Tony was there.

“Damn,” he said.  “I’ve never been over here.  Is that her?”

“Let’s go.”

“Wait.  That’s her.  Julia.  Right?”

“It’s Jules and we need to get out of here.”

“Oh my fucking lord.  Look at this.”

On the glass coffee table by the fireplace, a vintage issue of High Society lay open to a centerfold of Jules kneeling before a woman in a tennis court, going down on her.  The woman was also blond and tan, her tennis skirt around her ankles.  The angle left nothing to the imagination.  In the top corner of the picture in puffy pink letters: Anyone for Tennis?

“Come on.”  Bridget took hold of his arm and pulled him toward the door.

“You can’t unsee this.  I’m not sure I want to unsee this.”

She let go of him.  “Fuck you.” 

A few minutes later, Bridget went back to Jules’ and made sure the light was off and the door was shut but not completely.  Better to shut it but not lock it in case Jules forgot her key.  Better, in case Jules came home and noticed something out of place.

Bridget sat up for a long time in the dark living room, looking at the night, wondering about Jules and that centerfold, about her door left ajar.  When Tony came in, he didn’t turn on the light and sat on the opposite end of the sofa.

“You okay?  What were you doing over there?”

“Fuck off.”

“I didn’t know she did porn in her youth.  I was just shocked, okay?”

“Yes, you did know.  I told you.”

“Maybe I did know.  But I wasn’t expecting centerfold lesbian tennis after the pad thai got cold.”

“You know I hate pad thai.”

“Do you?  You should have said something sooner.”

“Well, I hate it now.”

Tony moved next to Bridget and put his arm around her.  “Yeah,” he said.  “Maybe I’m getting kind of tired of it, too.”

She put her head on his shoulder, tentatively at first, then relaxed.  They didn’t say anything else.  For a long time, they simply watched the lights of the city, 18 stories down and far away, an unmapped sky beneath their feet.

Read my new piece on Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/magazine-rejections-and-learning-to-love-the-hate

A story about everyday heroes and the good people who egg them on.

 

“God,” Cecilia said.  “It’s him.”  She gripped my hand. 

Lynette leaned forward and exhaled a funnel of smoke.  “You think he’s gonna call somebody out?” 

“Shit yeah.  Look at him.”

Everyone in the courtyard was.  Tenants stood in the Langston’s windows, waiting for Esteban Dominguez to pronounce what they assumed would be his next sentence of death.  He stood in the center beside the stubby bird-shit-covered fountain, staring up at the apartments, his fists clenched. 

12-year-old Jeannina, who lived up on the fourth floor and whose mother wisely never let her play downstairs, yelled, “I love you ’steban!”  Doubtless she was telling the truth.  The ecosystem of the Langston Apartments was very sensitive.  Drop someone like him into it and people immediately ran to the windows.  It was better than TV.

“Lip!” he shouted.  “I don’t want to do this in front of your grandpa!”

“It’s Jackie,” Lynette said.  “Esteban warned him last week.”

“Come on, Lip!  Get out here!”

Cecilia shook her head at Lip’s foolishness. “Kid better do it.”  “He’ll never live it down, he doesn’t.  He’ll be a story forever.”

“He won’t be a story.  People around here are too tired to make up stories.”  I took one of Cecilia’s Camels out of the box.  She lit it for me with a tiny Bic that had Hawaiian flowers on it.

Lynette nodded.  “They’ll make up one for Jackie, though.  That’s for damn sure.”

Jackie Lipson was 16 and thought he was some kind of gangster.  He lived in the Langston with his senile grandfather and his girlfriend, who’d dropped out with him the year before.  They spent a lot of time at the rec center a few blocks over with the other juvenile delinquents.  The only thing I ever heard about Lip was that he did a lot of graffiti.  I couldn’t imagine what Esteban wanted with him. 

But I almost loved Esteban, too.  For as much as he liked to strike heroic poses and be looked at, he seemed to lead a charmed life.  He didn’t carry weapons.  People said he’d never been shot.  And in his own, weird, comic book way, he was trying to make the neighborhood a better place.  In all the depressing penury, he was a bright spot, bigger than life, and I’d be lying if I said that some part of me didn’t agree that he deserved the attention.  Esteban got an A for effort.

The neighborhood needed someone, especially the Langston.  So why not him?  In order to lead a decent life, the Langston required a herculean amount of self-discipline—more than most people had.  My room, for instance, had an ongoing cockroach scenario.  They were large, intelligent, and had acquired a certain immunity to poison.  They ate it right up.  But as long as I didn’t leave out any garbage, standing water, crumbs, or have any open cuts, they treated the room as a staging area for other more critical maneuvers. 

Perhaps because of this or because of something known only to them, the rats stayed out.  People complained about the supposed building-wide rat infestation, but in the five months I’d been staying at the Langston, I’d never seen one.  Just the pitter-patter of little feet in the kitchen at 2 AM.  Otherwise, my hot water worked.  My neighbors kept quiet.  And I took care to be mindful of life’s merciful trade-offs.

“Hey Esteban!  Hey!  Over here!”  Cecilia waved like she was flagging him down on the highway, leaving zig-zags of smoke in the air.  She had a particular obsession with Esteban that ruled out anyone short of People or European royalty.  They were destined to be together.  He just didn’t know it yet.

I looked at the curling flowers tattooed on Cecilia’s forearm.  She’d briefly put her hand on mine, and it had felt good in a secret way that would never show on my face.  I’ll admit that was the reason I didn’t listen to my better judgment telling me now was the time to go up and deliver a speech to the roaches.  When was the last time a pretty girl held my hand, even for a minute?

Esteban looked over, grinned, waved, then nodded at the Langston.

“Lip!  I don’t got all day!  Be a man!”

He was, without a doubt, the angriest person in Missouri, but he loved the ladies.  If you nominated him for the angriest ladies’ man on the face of the planet, he might win.  That was just his style.  Esteban had been arrested for murder twice.  But, because he lived in a different reality, some cross between the old West and 18th century Spain, where one could engage in lethal street fights and be considered a neighborhood hero instead of a killer, he got off both times.  The story was he’d killed a pimp and a drug dealer.  Everyone said, “Good for ’steban.” 

All I knew was that he worked out a lot, didn’t seem to have gainful employment, lived with his mom on the other side of Nimcato Cemetery, and was impossibly, devastatingly handsome.  At 6’3” with wavy black hair, a square jaw, and the physique of a proletarian hero in a Communist propaganda poster, Esteban seemed like he should be wearing a cape instead of starched khakis and a white dress shirt.  But that was the only way I’d ever seen him.  I imagined his closet: half white dress shirts, half khakis, all starched, ironed, and perfectly aligned by mom to aid him in his fight against crime.

The cigarette was good.  I never bought them, but my lunch break friendship with Lynette and Cecilia was giving me lung cancer anyway.  Still, there’s something incredibly pleasant about a social smoke.  If you can control yourself, put yourself on a meter, all kinds of drugs can be enjoyed, even the coffin nails.  My grandma, who smoked one pack of Luckys a month, used to say nobody who smokes once a day is a smoker.  By that definition, she wasn’t.  And now neither was I.  But most people can’t regulate.  Most people run like wild dogs over the hills.  Grandma said that, too.

“You think he’s some undercover cop?”  Lynette winked then glanced at Cecilia.

“You mean like Charles Bronson or some shit?”

“Chuck Norris back in the day.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “Like in The Octagon.  Maybe he knows kung-fu.  Catch a bullet in his teeth.”

“Nah, that was The Last Dragon,” Lynette said.  “Maybe The 36 Chambers of Shaolin.”

Esteban pointed up at a window.  “There you are, you little shit!  You want me to come up and pull you out?”

Cecilia groped for her pack of cigarettes.  I slid the pack against her hand.  She didn’t notice right away.  Then she extracted a fresh cigarette with two fingers, keeping her eyes on the drama, a smile on her face.

Far above, there was a faint high-pitched cry, as if muffled by several mattresses, the ghetto version of “The Princess and the Pea” where the pea talks shit: “Ima kill you, bitch!”

That was all Esteban needed.  He ran for the Langston’s lobby.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “You sure that wasn’t Buckaroo Banzai?”

“You both need to shut the hell up.”  Cecilia turned back and frowned at each of us in turn. 

Lynette grinned.  “Buckaroo Banzai was a classic, man.”

The Langston Apartments was a dirty place, no doubt about it.  It was dirty from the William Lucy House next door on the western side, a skid row nursing home like you’ve never seen.  Dirty because clean is next to impossible in places like these.  Clean living and the downward spiral don’t mix.  And I knew someday there would be an accounting, some kind of judgment that would clear it all away. 

It wouldn’t come from the street, from the likes of Esteban Dominguez.  Instead, the good people of Hauberk, Missouri, would simply kick the tenants out and tear the structure down.  Put up mirrored glass, a Pilates studio, a bistro with garden seating.  They’d install an uncomfortable college girl dressed in black to remind you that a reservation is necessary.  Then the sorrows of the Langston would be gone forever, along with the unfortunates who called it home.  For the moment, however, they all still lived there, locked tight on that downward spiral.

“Lunch break’s almost over.”  Cecilia sighed, flicked ash onto the table.

“Shit,” Lynette said.  “We can be a little late.  Nobody’s gonna die.”

The days were still warm.  Because I’d studied English in school, I now had a job in a call center that required my presence four nights a week.  I spent afternoons reading in the courtyard, mocking the world at lunchtime with Lynette and Cecilia, who were care nurses in William Lucy House.  They were the hardest cases I’d ever met.  They regularly egged each other on, competing to see who could be the toughest, coldest, most cynical misanthrope on the block. 

Today, however, was special.  It was as if the gods had preordained it to be particularly awful.  I suppose this is because the downward spiral is a spiral and some days are therefore better than others.  As soon as I saw Esteban Dominguez walk through the courtyard’s open wrought iron gates, I knew this wouldn’t be good.  And now he was in there, doing something horrific to Lip, cleaning up the neighborhood. 

No matter how they tried to erase the Langston, even if they burned it down and shot the ashes into space, the sense of it, the sheer echo of its presence, would linger like the scent of something rotten.

“What about all those old folks shambling around like Day of the Dead?”

Cecilia rolled her eyes, took a drag, blew smoke in my face.  “They’re like bumper cars.  They just go bump up on everything.”

“Then we put them back in their rooms,” Lynette said.

“Yeah.  They get tired bumping up on tables and chairs.”

By now, everybody in the building or the surrounding area, even some of the residents of William Lucy House, had come out to watch.  With the exception of Art the drug dealer across the courtyard, Esteban might have hospitalized or otherwise exiled every other dealer, pimp, or toy gang member south of 32nd Street.  Maybe Lip was the only one left.  But he wasn’t really a gang member.  He was just a dumb kid.

Art sat all day, hoodie up, across the brick courtyard at the farthest patio table, blinking into his cell phone.  Lost souls came in through the courtyard’s wide-open gates on a regular basis, did a hand-off with him, and were out in a flash.  Nobody cared.  Few noticed.  His side of the courtyard was dark for half of every day because the U-Pack-It Self Storage facility on the eastern side blocked out the sun. 

I absently watched the torment on his face as he no doubt considered making a run for the gates while Esteban was up in the Langston delivering justice to a 16-year-old.  Art’s perplexed expression and little mustard beard seemed to float in the shadows, illuminated in his hood by his phone’s screen, like a monk discovering the Grail.  He was definitely discovering something.  But what Art had come into this life to learn, only he could know.  Maybe not even him.  Shadows on shadows that September afternoon in the Langston Apartments.  And nobody knew what lurked in the hearts of men, least of all the men.

Someone started screaming incoherently out one of the open windows.  A little girl.  Could have been Jeannina, but there was no way to tell.  Lots of families lived in the Langston.  Then a single shoe, an old, ripped up Nike running shoe, sailed out and bounced next to the concrete fountain.  A comment.  Some kind of omen. 

Lynette giggled.  “It’s on now.”

That it was.

I hoped the next thing to come flying out wouldn’t be Lip and wondered if anything went balls-up like this over at William Lucy House when the bumping finally stopped and one of the residents had a moment of hideous clarity.

From my interactions with Lynette and Cecilia, I’d come to understand the nursing home next door was place to pay grandma back for all those years of criticism and meddling.  Undead geriatrics shuffled into the apartments’ courtyard, two or three a day, not knowing where they were, heavily medicated or needing to be, sometimes covered in their own feces. 

Nobody wants to end up like that.  At least, nobody wants to know they’ve ended up like that.  And so, as they wandered in, staring down at the courtyard’s broken bricks, muttering at the sky or at the dry concrete fountain filled with trash, I liked to remind myself that there must be a modicum of grace left in the world.  If you’re going to spend your last days talking to stones and covered in shit, better to think you’re somewhere else.  Or not to think at all.

It took Esteban approximately five minutes to pull Lip down the stairs and out into the courtyard.  Esteban’s white dress shirt was ripped open, exposing his perfectly sculpted hairless chest.  Lip’s girlfriend, Susan, who I imagined was always up there doing high school dropout stuff, came out, too. 

She’d caught something in the eye, a streak of blood smeared down her cheek.  But that didn’t stop her from shrieking.  Susan was clearly a master shrieker.  She sounded like some kind of flightless waterfowl at the time of year when they pick fights with each other and pound their wings on the surface of the river.

In the present case, Susan was pounding on Esteban’s shoulder with her right hand while she kept her left fixed in a death grip of Lip’s hair—Lip, who was screaming, “Ima kill you” over and over, rather unconvincingly, I thought.  Esteban had Lip in a headlock, his other hand tangled in the front of Susan’s sweatshirt to keep her at arm’s length and prevent her from being able to hit him in the face.

They came lurching out like a highly mutated, six-legged beast that shouldn’t exist, but, due to the inhumanity of post-industrial life, the spiritual pollutedness of the Langston, and the essential radiant evil at the heart of urban Hauberk, they screamed, they staggered, they forced themselves toward that Nike running shoe like destiny. 

And the onlookers cheered.  Cecilia and Lynette cheered the loudest.  It didn’t matter whether Lip deserved this.  He was going to get it, which made people happy, their own pain alleviated for a brief moment of someone else’s: straight-up Schadenfreude in the afternoon.

Esteban had done this exact thing before.  I’d been sitting in the courtyard the day he dragged out Timon Washington and beat him senseless with a heavy rubber dildo in front of his screaming mother.  Whether the dildo belonged to Esteban, Timon, Timon’s mother, or to some other unnamed party was never decided. 

Why the beating took place also remained mysterious.  People cheered nonetheless.  They simply concluded that Timon had it coming.  Misbehave and you get the dildo.  Bread and circuses.  Public lashings.  Picnicking at Bedlam to watch the tormented lunatics act like beasts.  Nothing new. 

Timon left town after that.  You don’t get your face rearranged with a sex toy in public without the next step being a bus trip.  Someone gave Esteban a sack of oranges to thank him.  Jeannina professed her love.  He was a hero.

Just like today.  He kicked Susan about five feet to the side.  She landed on her knees and fell over, still shrieking with a handful of her boyfriend’s hair.  She couldn’t stand up and just assumed the fetal position.  Meanwhile, Lip was trying to struggle out of the headlock.  But Esteban was bigger.  He’d been an athlete at Hauberk Technical High (baseball, but still) and had about a foot-and-a-half and 60 pounds on the kid.  Now that he didn’t have to deal with Susan, he could reinforce the headlock with his free hand.

“Fuck him up!” Cecilia screamed, then plucked a stray bit of tobacco off her tongue.

“Yeah!”  Lynette added, coughing, shaking her head.  “Do it ’steban, you hunky stud!”

She was red in the face from laughter.  She looked like a demonic chain-smoking leprechaun.  Whether she was laughing at Cecilia, at the sad drama unfolding in the courtyard, or merely at the vicissitudes of life that had conspired to bring such absurdity to bear in this particular time and place was unclear.  Reasons didn’t matter.  Quality entertainment did.

I felt like I should do something, but what could I do?  Esteban was now punching Lip in the face while holding him steady in the headlock, and one of those things was making the kid purple.  I didn’t know how to fight.  And for all I knew, Lip really had done some shit. 

At least, that’s what I told myself.  Another part of me—the lover, not the fighter—was watching Cecilia out the corner of my eye.  She was flushed, really into it the way people get when they sit in the front row at a boxing match.  They want to taste the blood, feel the sweat.  They get involved.

Was there a civilized, non-lethal way I could get her that involved with me?  Unlikely.  I had more of a chance with Lynette the Chortling Leprechaun, which was to say, no chance at all.  I thought Lynette might have been married.  Cecilia probably wasn’t, but who could say?  The fact that she was getting off on seeing a young man be severely beaten suggested marital involvement.  Marriage often seems to produce avid boxing fans.

Susan crawled towards us and tried to stand, but couldn’t manage it and slumped down on her hip.  Maybe she’d broken a knee.  Cecilia leaned forward as far as she could and flicked her cigarette butt.  It bounced off Susan’s forehead, but the girl didn’t notice.

“That’s not nice,” Lynette said, still grinning.

“I’m not nice,” said Cecilia.

And that was the truth.  Though usually not-nice people, I said to myself, have a secret heart of gold.  You just have to get to know them.  Salt of the earth.  Do anything for you.  Right?  Lip was probably like that.  He probably had a great sense of humor.  When he wasn’t high or threatening to kill people, he was probably a pretty cool guy, probably knew all about The Punisher and the X-Men, probably drew a lot.  Most graffiti guys like to draw.  And Susan was basically very pretty with long black hair that shined, almond eyes, olive skin.  She probably had nieces and nephews who thought she was cool.  Who wouldn’t want to drop out with a girl like that?

I wanted to say to Cecilia, “The world is a wonderful miracle and everyone is beautiful.”  Instead, I watched Esteban punch Lip again and again until the kid’s face got smashed in and you couldn’t tell a bloody cheek from a bloody lump. 

The headlock had probably saved his life.  If his head had been against the courtyard bricks, it would have been all over but the shouting.  Across the courtyard, I noticed Art slipping out the gates like a nervous lizard, grateful, no doubt, that his time had not yet come.

Esteban dropped Lip straight down like a bag of rocks and started to piece his shirt back together with what buttons remained.  That’s when the applause really kicked in.  I finally got off my ass and tried to help Susan up, but she just frowned, told me to fuck off, and dragged herself over to Lip, who was lying on his back with his mouth open, bleeding a lot.  I sat back down.

87-year-old Martín del Rio, who lived on the second floor, owned a .357, and liked to say people could break into his place but they’d never come out, walked over to Esteban and shook his hand.  I heard him say, “Estamos agradecidos. Necesitamos ayuda.”  We’re grateful.  We need your help.  And I knew that, also, was the truth.

They looked down at Susan, her cheek resting on Lip’s chest.  Then the old man clapped Esteban on the shoulder and walked back into the apartments.

Cecilia leaned over to Lynette and whispered, “Should I go say hi?”

Lynette nodded.  “If you want to, now’s the time.”

“What do you think?”  Cecilia said to me.  “Should I do it?”

“Never stand in the way of love.”  My eyes were calm, my mouth relaxed, the horrible octopus buffeting the insides of my heart with its dark tentacles remained imperceptible to the ladies of William Lucy House.  Cecilia nodded as if I’d said something profound instead of a line I’d read once on a Hallmark Valentine’s Day card. 

Susan was sobbing loudly and it was clear that Esteban was about to stride away triumphantly into the late afternoon.  If Cecilia was going to do anything, she needed to do it now.  Nancy Cortez, one of young Jeannina’s aunts, came out and handed Esteban a paper sack of potatoes.  “Hey ’steban!” Jeannina called from her open window.  He smiled and waved up at her.  But Cecilia stayed in her chair, paralyzed, staring at him like he’d descended on a cloud.

“He’s just so beautiful.”

“For fuck’s sake.”  This was turning out to be the funniest day ever for Lynette.  “Just go talk to him.  What are you?  Ten?”

I got up again and, for a second, terror passed over Cecilia’s face when she thought I was going to bring Esteban over.  But I felt like if I didn’t do something for Lip, the octopus might escape.  Susan helped me roll him over.  He was gurgling.  When we got him on his chest, a river of blood flowed out of his mouth.

Esteban glanced at me, then turned and walked out the courtyard.

“I don’t got a car,” Susan said.

“It’s okay.  I got bus money.”  Everybody knew the walk-in clinic was four bus stops away down between the Providence Cinema and the Kodiak Hotel, another apartment building just like the Langston but uglier. 

Windows were closing.  Life was already falling back into its usual rhythm.  Lynette and Cecilia didn’t want to get near Lip.  So they just waved on their way back to the bumping oldies.  Lynette winked, blew me a kiss.

That afternoon, sitting in the waiting room of Urgent Care next to Lip and Susan, I decided not to take any more cigarettes from Cecilia or Lynette or even to have lunch in the courtyard again.  The roaches might get frisky if I brought a sandwich up to my room, but theirs was an honest frisk. 

I felt that Lip would be alright, eventually.  Maybe this was a turning point.  Someday, a dumb kid just like Lip would probably put a bullet hole in Esteban Dominguez.  Of that, I was sure.  I didn’t want to be around when it happened or have to go to his funeral and listen to what a great guy he was.  Everybody would be sad that day, which would be as funny as it gets.

A new story in Terror House Magazine.  Click here and read it on their site: https://terrorhousemag.com/two-women/ 

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.

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.

A short short about mistakes by lakes.

 

Hockel knocked once, softly.  Louis knew it was him, but Louis didn’t get up.  He stared at the rain on the window.  It had been raining for eight days.  After six, Louis found that he could almost believe it was going to rain forever, a cold, greasy, stinking rain coming down on the city for all eternity. Cleveland would never get clean.

He folded his hands on the unfinished wooden table, felt Hockel waiting silently on the other side of the door.  It was late afternoon on a Tuesday and, in the waning light, the rusted tube-chimney on the opposite building’s roof looked warped and blurry through the wet windowpane.  Louis had been staring at it for—he wasn’t actually paying attention to how long.

Hockel knocked again.  He’d keep knocking until Louis answered.  Hockel was as predictable as the rain.  Louis stood and quietly moved down the short hallway that connected the room that served as a living room, cotroom, and kitchen to the closet bathroom and the front door with five deadbolts and three sliding latches.

“What.”  Louis spoke softly, his left hand hovering over the dented copper knob.

“Louis?  That you?”

“Who else would it be?”

Hockel lived two doors down.  And, in the year Louis had rented the tiny concrete-box studio on Euclid Avenue, Louis hadn’t said a cheerful sentence to anyone other than Gina. 

Now Gina was gone.  But, unlike everyone else in the building, Hockel couldn’t take a hint.  He regularly appeared at the door with that soft, insinuating knock of his.  Eventually something horrible was bound to happen to Hockel, given his lack of sensitivity.  Then Louis would be free.

“Can I come in?”

Louis shut his eyes and took a breath.  “What was it you wanted?”

“Open up.”  The knob jiggled.  “It’s dark out here.”

The light in the hall outside had been broken for weeks.  One had to walk down from the elevator in complete darkness and know where the right door was.  But it wasn’t difficult.  Louis had gotten used to it.  He opened the door a few inches. 

“You mean to say you can’t find your door?”

Hockel pushed in, turning around the edge of the door like a gust of wind.  “Of course not.  I’m not an idiot.”  He sat in the other chair at the little wooden table beneath the window.  “I just don’t like waiting out there in total darkness for someone to answer their door. You know there’s roaches in this building, right?”

Louis sat back down and sighed.  “I’ve never seen any.” 

“You wouldn’t.”

At 34, Louis was short, wiry, already balding with a narrow face and a delicate pointed chin.   Hockel was five years older and at least 20 pounds heavier.  Everything about Hockel seemed swollen, from hands to lips, his shock of jet more like a mane.  He was just starting to go gray and his hair stood up in places though he always tried to slick it back.

“I’ll have a coffee.  Black is fine.”

Louis looked at him.  “You came over to order me to make you a coffee?”

“When you hear what I have to say, you’re gonna want to, I don’t know, pass out or scream or something.  Before that, let’s have a cup, alright?”  Hockel thought for a moment, then grinned, which involved his entire face, making his eyes open wide and his forehead wrinkle.

“It’s about Gina, isn’t it?”

Hockel shrugged and pursed his lips, resting his chin on his hands.  “Only one way to find out, eh?”

Gina.  What could be said about her that hadn’t already be said already, over and over, from Louis to Hockel, from Hockel to Louis, from Lewis to Gina’s voicemail, from Gina’s voicemail back to Louis as he replayed her outgoing message in the middle of the night?  If Hockel had something more to tell, it might mean that she had come back from Lithuania.  Should Louis let himself hope that somewhere in the frozen dark of Vilnius, in the decrepit condominium Gina inherited from a grandmother she’d never known, her affection for him had somehow returned?

He got up, went to the sink, and started to fill the kettle—as much to hide the anxiety at the corners of his mouth as to make coffee. 

“Come on, man.  Did you really think I’d hold out on you if I knew something?”

“I don’t know what to think,” Louis murmured. He lit one of the gas burners with a wooden match.  The ring of blue flames wooshed into being and gripped the bottom edge of the kettle like little blue hands.

“What?”  Hockel was still half-smiling when Louis sat down again.

“Nothing.”

A few moments passed in which neither of them said anything.  The rain clattered against the window.  The cheap aluminum kettle began to wobble and hiss.  Maybe it was the way Louis stared at nothing or the lack of conversation, but after a few minutes, Hockel started to drum his fingers loudly on the table.

“This rain.  It’s crazy, yeah?  How do you sit in here all day with that racket going on?”

“I don’t sit here all day.  I have a job.”

Hockel nodded slowly.  “Oh, right.” 

The kettle began to shriek.  Louis got up slowly and turned off the burner but leaned against the stove, listening to the kettle’s long wail die off.  He dumped a spoon of instant into a cracked yellow mug and poured the hot water.  Then he set it down hard on the table before Hockel, the swirl of undissolved grounds twisting on the surface.

“Instant.”  Hockel sighed.  “My stomach will never get used to it.”

Louis sat back down and folded his hands again.  “So talk.”

Hockel took a long sip then licked his lips, smiling down into the cup.  “Still, you do buy the good stuff, Louis.  I’ll give you that.”

“Gina.  If you’ve got something to say about her, say it.  Or am I going to have to wait for you to finish the whole damn cup?”

Hockel paused, the cup halfway to his mouth, and nodded solemnly.  “You know, I get it, Louis.  I know what it feels like to be put under the bus by a woman.  By many women.  All kinds of women.”  He took another sip, shook his head.  “Damn.  It gets better with every sip.  I have to get some of this shit.  What’s the brand?”

“Lucky Instant.”

He set the cup down and grinned again.  “No way.  You’re definitely messing with me now.  This is the good shit.  I know you wouldn’t make me a cheap cup of coffee on me.  You’re too classy for that, my friend.”

Louis looked out at the rusted chimney.  It stood all by itself at the edge of the opposite roof, condemned to be assaulted by all the rain and snow of Cleveland’s unforgiving winters until the day the wrecking ball took it down.

“Remember how Gina used to come over to my place and bum cigarettes off me?”

“Yeah.”

“Those were the days, eh?”

“What’s so amazing about that?  She was your neighbor.”

“She was your neighbor, too.  But you don’t smoke.  That was something she had in common with me.”

“Guess it was.”

“Yeah.  Guess so.”  Hockel tipped back the cup, then set it down and pushed it towards Louis with one finger.  “I appreciate the coffee.  Generous of you.”

Louis looked at him, then back out at the rain.  “I think you better get going, Hockel.  You know the way.”

Hockel stood, grinning again.  Louis looked at Hockel’s brown short-sleeved shirt with a lighter square where the front pocket used to be, his frayed gray pants, his bare feet in rubber sandals.

“Okay,” Hockel looked down at him.  “If that’s how you wanna play it.  That’s cool.”

When Hockel got to the door, he turned back and wagged his finger at Louis as if the latter was a misbehaving child.  In that moment, in the Louis’ peripheral vision before he turned his head to look, Hockel gave the impression of a large grinning bear.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Hockel said.  “Something my mother told me on the day I got let go from the plant.  You know, I got caught up in some stupid shit out there.  And, when I came home, all pissed-off and full of bitterness, she said some broom factory bullshit is not why you failed, son.  Cleveland’s why.  Cleveland is why you fail.”  He nodded to himself, then smiled again with his whole face.  “She goes, you get out of here and you’ll do just fine.”

Hockel fished a bent cigarette out of his pants pocket and put it in the corner of his mouth.  “She wanted me to join the Navy.”  He laughed and shut the door behind him.

Louis looked down at his hands still folded on the table.  He thought of the four dates he’d had with Gina and imagined her buying a plane ticket to Vilnius, dropping her good-bye letter to him in the airport mailbox.  The letter didn’t say much—goodbye, was nice living next door to you, you’re a decent guy, sorry things can’t work out but a condo is a condo. 

Louis went to the sink and washed out the mug he’d given to Hockel.  The kettle was still hot.  Its curl of steam still twisted up from the spout.  He spooned some instant into the cup and went to pour the water but hesitated and poured it onto his left hand instead—white hot pain so intense he dropped the mug and kettle in the sink. 

Louis collapsed where he stood, back against the sink cabinet, burned hand between his thighs.  But he didn’t make a sound.  Instead, he looked up at the window.  Rain was still pelting the glass.  The rusted chimney was a faint silhouette in the glare of the drugstore across the street. 

A story about pain.

 

When I rolled into Missoula, Jim Donlon was waiting for me in dark glasses and a black cardigan with a white T-shirt underneath.  He looked drunk.

“Davis,” he said, as if my return was the last in a long line of depressing accidents, “what the hell is this?”  His way of saying welcome back.  I took the cigarette he offered, and we walked out of the bus station through the snow.  He was parked five blocks north.  We stopped in at the Old Sod along the way.

I was exhausted from my three-day bus ride from San Diego.  And neither of us felt like talking right off—which was fine by me considering that these were the first drinks I’d had in almost a year.  Jim was closed-mouthed when he drank, the sort who made it seem alright for you to quietly let alcohol simmer in your veins.  We must have looked ridiculous that afternoon, sitting in the empty bar without talking: me with suitcase and laptop satchel and Jim still wearing his sunglasses.  We used to come to the Old Sod a lot.  And here we were as if I’d never left.  In the months I’d been gone, nothing had changed.  Nothing good would ever happen in this lousy bar.  The fat bartender would be eternally reading the paper.

“I thought you quit drinking.”  Jim blew long shoots of smoke out his nostrils. 

“How’re things?” I asked.  “What’s new?”

Jim sighed.  “Look at this.”  He took out the smallest pistol I’d ever seen and put it on the table between us.  The barrel was two inches long, lighter than my drink.

“Careful,” he said.  “It’s got a bullet in there.”

“What do you need this for?”

Jim finished his drink, lit another cigarette.  “You’re back in Montana, Davis.  Didn’t you notice?”

“These things kill people.”

“So do these things.”  Jim held up his cigarette.  “And this thing.”  He stood and grabbed his balls.

There weren’t many people in there.  Two mustachioed old men in the corner staring into their beers.  The jukebox had Broken on it.  There was one woman in the place—redhead, mid-forties, plastered.  Jim hid the gun in his waistband under his cardigan and walked over to her table.  They talked.  He held up his hands and asked, “Why not?” loud enough that I could hear it.  Then he came back and sat down. 

We looked at each other.

“Jim?”

“You don’t know a thing,” he said.

We drank until we both ran out of cash, switching to pitchers of Pabst at the end, when we got to our last.  Then we staggered out into the snow.  It had begun to glow with the gray-white luminescence that only the streets of Missoula have in the late afternoon, like cold ashes.

He destroyed one of his own plastic garbage cans, when we got to his apartment, sending two weeks of trash into the air, over his car, and out into the cul-de-sac.  Two wheels of his Acura were up on the curb.  I laughed and slipped on the ice.  Everything was funny.

“What about all this trash?” I asked as Jim walked to his front door.

“Forget about it, “ he said and I found this funny, too.  I’d ripped a hole in the right knee of the only pair of trousers I owned.

 

In October of 1999, I was determined to rethink my life. 

A letter came from Yugawara, chair of the English Department, asking if I would be available to work as a private tutor for a high school kid.  The pay, he wrote, would justify my return to Montana.  I believed him. 

I packed a small suitcase and called a cab.

I’d been taking a year off in order to write; though, the real reason I’d left Missoula had been to dry out.  A graduate student at the University of Montana and twenty-three years old, I already had arrests in two different states for driving under the influence.  I was not proud of this.  Perhaps because I am an only child or because my parents both came from broken homes, I have always been indulged.  But, whatever the case, my mother and father did everything they could to help me with my drinking problem when I should have been disowned.

In order to help myself financially and morally and I think to, as my mother put it, take some time to develop a spine so you won’t always let everyone walk all over you, I moved back to San Diego on leave of absence, promising teachers and friends that, when I returned, I’d have my novel finished and be ready to take my degree.  I fully intended to do this, but I didn’t work on the novel at all in San Diego.  I produced one frivolous, eight-page story that I threw out. 

So when Yugawara’s letter came, I jotted a short note that said I was going and left it on my bed.  I took the cab downtown, to the Greyhound Bus Station, bought a eighty-dollar ticket one-way to Missoula, and sat down to wait.  My parents wouldn’t ask questions.  Still, I felt like I was abusing their hospitality by leaving so abruptly in the middle of the day with a stack of library books on my bureau that needed to be returned and no explanation whatsoever. 

I told myself that, even though I was worthless, I was doing what had to be done.  I needed to go, and I was never any good at good-byes, usually getting soppy and melodramatic enough that I made a fool of myself and embarrassed whoever I was with.  My family hated public spectacle, so at least in that sense, I told myself, I was doing them a favor by disappearing.  I would write to them from Missoula.  Though, deep in my weak, self-centered heart, I knew I was a rotten son.

It was October.  At least that much was certain, an unavoidable fact.  Winter in San Diego meant that days stayed in the upper seventies instead of the lower nineties, and palm trees swished slightly more in the wind.  But that didn’t mean winter couldn’t be just as hard there as anywhere else.  I always felt that it wasn’t the climate that killed so many homeless over the holidays but the hardness of everyday people around the world, taking out their petty frustrations on the less fortunate.  I knew that was a sentimental way of looking at things, but sitting in the Greyhound terminal can bring out the sentiment in anyone.  It seemed like all the homeless people in the city were sleeping in there that day.  And it made me sad to look at them curled up around me in the black molded chairs, stinking, talking out loud in their dreams. 

When I got up to board the bus, I left a ten-dollar bill on my seat.  Money never meant much to me.  I had a tendency to give it away if people asked for it—which someone usually did.  Or I’d fall into one of my sentimental fugues, insisting that they take it for their own good.  And I never saw the point of fashion.  It took too much of my energy, too much money, too much space in my life. 

But Jim was different: two years older, tall and thin, like me, but with better clothes and style.  He seemed to move through other people’s lives, through entanglements that would side-track any normal person, with a certain effortlessness.  Years ago, he’d inherited a lot of money, had an apartment in Montana, one in a Vegas suburb—where he’d go sometimes on weekends.  In Missoula, Jim was a graduate student in my writing program.  He took the bare minimum of units and taught classes like everyone else.  And he made having money and everything that came with it seem a given, seem easy, even the day after a drunk. 

As soon as we got into his apartment, we polished off the better part of a bottle of Absolut; though, I don’t remember doing it.  I passed out in a small wicker chair in his living room, my suitcase and satchel placed neatly by my feet.  In the morning, I woke up, still in the chair, with my legs straight out, crossed at the ankles.  My body was stiff.  I felt like I’d been dead for a thousand years.

I opened my eyes to a full-length cherrywood bar, an entertainment center, a few miniature indoor palms, an Italian leather couch, and a blonde on the end closest to me with a lit cigarette and one breast hanging out of Jim’s bathrobe.  Jim was sitting on the other end, in black pajamas, also smoking a cigarette and there was hockey on TV. 

I felt the vast, horrible waves of nausea that come from mixing types of liquor.  So I didn’t say anything.  I sat there quietly and looked at them.  Jim was staring at the widescreen.  The blonde was staring at me.

“It’s a breast,” she said.  “Want to see the other one?”

“Show him the other one,” said Jim without glancing away from the game.

“Fuck off,” sighed the girl.  She yawned, looked me over, took a slow drag.  “You look like a sick rat.”

“Darcy, this is my friend, Davis, from San Diego.”  The only way to tell Jim was hung over was that he’d let his cigarette burn down to a crooked finger of ash.

There was a silver dish of cigarettes on the coffee table.  Darcy picked one out and lit it on her old ember.  The ash tray sat on the middle cushion between them on the couch. 

“He’s breaking up with me, you know.  He broke up with me yesterday.  I’m moving out.”  She raised her eyebrows at me and took a drag.

Jim changed the channel.  “I’m sorry I was so erratic last night, Mike.  I could have gotten us both killed.  It’s stupid to drink and drive.” 

“He doesn’t care about anyone or anything.  He’s not your friend.”

“I think I might vomit,” I said.

“Darcy, be a doll and go get him the wastebasket from the kitchen, would you?”

“I fucking hate you.”  She tied the bathrobe more tightly around herself and went into the kitchen.

Jim looked at me for the first time that morning and smiled: “What can you do?”

I shook my head.  I didn’t know what you could do.  First I was a drunk.  Then I was sober.  Now I was a drunk again.  The guilt hadn’t even started, but it was stalking me.  I could feel it.  It was being sportsmanlike, waiting for me to vomit a few times before it sprang on me in all its demonic fury.  I did vomit several times—but not in the wastebasket.  I weaved along the hallway and into the downstairs bathroom.  The act was painful when I got to it: a thin gray fluid hanging like a cloud in the center of the bowl and then the dry heaves.  For all the drinking I’d done in my short life, the day after never got any better, only worse. 

Half an hour later, I made my way back down the hallway, feeling like I was swimming through an underground cave to the light.  I stopped before entering the living room.  Darcy had shed her bathrobe and was straddling Jim, who hadn’t moved from his sitting position at the end of the couch.  Her cheeks were full of tears.  She whispered things and ran her fingers through his hair while she rode him.  He still had the top of his black pajamas on and his right arm stuck straight out to the side over the armrest.  One of them had put the ashtray on the floor beside the couch so Jim could ash in it while they did their thing.  I walked back to the bathroom, sat on the closed toilet, and put my face in my hands.

This was two and a half months before the millennium. 

Jim went to school to teach a class.  With nothing to do that day but wait until my appointment with Yugawara, I sat around in the coal-gray suit Jim had lent me, smoking and imagining how the world might end on New Years Eve.  I didn’t see any reason to go to the university early and have to explain my life to my former colleagues.  So I stayed on the leather couch and stared back at Darcy, who was wearing a pair of Jim’s shorts and one of his T-shirts.  All of her possessions were now packed in her car, but she wouldn’t go.  She sat in the wicker chair looking at me blankly.  Maybe she was looking through me.  There was an open Ziploc full of large pink horse-pills on the table between us.

“Christ,” she said.  “I’m getting so thin.  It’s like my bones are growing out of my skin.”  Darcy had a fake tan, but it looked good on her.  Her body wasn’t too thin; it was just right.  Her eyes were a pretty blue-gray, even though there was too much white around them at the moment and she was sweating.

“You look fine.”

“Look at my hands.  I’m a skeleton.  You can see the bones coming through.”

“What are you worried about?  You’re beautiful.  You got everything going for you.”  I handed her a cigarette, but she couldn’t keep the lighter’s flame on.  I lit it for her and sat back down.

“What am I worried about?”  Darcy puffed quickly, not inhaling, sending fat milky clouds into the air between us.  “Wow.  Yeah.  Wonderful.  That’s wonderful.”

We sat in silence, listening to her breathing.  I thought about taking one or two of those pills, just so we could be on the same planet, but I had no idea what would happen.  I wanted to stay straight for Yugawara and the high school kid’s parents who’d be there to interview me.  So I went behind the bar and made myself a whiskey sour.  Just one.  Just for steadiness.  Darcy watched me with a sick, detached expression—like those pills had made everything horrible, everything disgusting.

“Look,” I said, “you’re making me nervous.  Why don’t you have a drink.”

She half-nodded, so I brought her mine and made another.  But she let it sit on the coffee table in front of her, condensation puddling on one side of the glass.  I sat back on the couch and loosened Jim’s black silk tie.

“I’m gonna kill myself,” she said to the drink.  “You might want to leave.”

“How many of those pills did you eat?”

“Who the fuck are you?” 

I brought her over to the couch and put my arm around her.  She was shaking.

“Shit,” she said, hugging me and resting her head on my chest.  I held her tight and sipped my drink.

After enough whiskey, you forget you ever had problems.  You forget what a failure you are and how you’ve let everybody down.  I sat there holding Darcy, waiting for Jim to get back from teaching his class, and the only thing I could do was drink.  The first whiskey sour was my first mistake and, having made one mistake, it was all too easy to make another and another.

I laid Darcy down and got a blanket off Jim’s bed to cover her with.  Then I began to pace.  I paced around the living room for so long that soon pacing was all I could concentrate on.  After a while, I didn’t concentrate on anything.  I looked at my track in the carpet, walked around the room, looked out the windows, and sipped whiskey.

“You look like hell,” said Jim when he came in the front door.  “Even in an expensive suit, you look like a drunk.”

He was right.  I’d wrinkled his suit at some point and combed my hair over with some water, but it hadn’t done any good.

“Your girl.  I think she od’d.”

He went over and looked down at her.  “She’ll live.  She say she was going to kill herself?”

I nodded and the room tilted.  I steadied myself against the bar. 

“Happens all the time.”  Jim put his arms around her chest and dragged her off the couch.  We put her in the backseat of his Acura, then got two unopened bottles of Irish whiskey from behind the bar and took off down the street. 

I was drunk but I was wide awake—enough to know there was no way I could do an interview and not seem like an idiot.

“Yugawara.  I can’t see him.  I’m not up to it.”

“You’re a mess,” said Jim.  “Open this, would you?” He handed me one of the bottles.  Speeding up the I-50 felt like we were on a rollercoaster.  Misty, snow-covered mountains were all around, but the highway could have been going up, over the top of the world.  Jim kept one of the bottles between his legs and only slowed down when he wanted a drink.

“I heard about this kid up at the Black Creek Lodge.  People stick things in his body for money.”

“That’s where we’re going?”

“Shit,” he said, “what are you, a genius?”

“What about her?”  Darcy was in the middle of the back seat, head back, mouth open.

“Forget her.  She’s stoned.”

The road was covered in ice.  It made a sound like air escaping from a giant puncture.

By the time we got there, Jim had gotten drunk enough and I had gotten sober enough that we were both tired and quiet.  Before we left Darcy in the car, I took off my coal-gray suit jacket and covered her with it.  I couldn’t see why we’d brought her.  But I was sure that if we didn’t cover her, she’d freeze.

“Davis, you’re a saint,” Jim said.

At the Black Creek Lodge, there was an annual bull testicle eating festival of international repute, which made it a meeting place for freaks of all kinds year round.  But, on that day, the parking lot only had a few cars in it, and we both slipped twice.  I was shivering violently from the cold and almost dropped the unopened bottle of whiskey.  Jim held the opened one to his chest.

We walked through several large empty rooms, one that had been the inside of a barn.  Then we came to a lounge that had a full bar in it and large bay windows looking out on a pasture.  The pasture was covered in snow.  A cow stood in the middle of it, staring at the windows.  An old woman was waitressing and serving drinks behind the bar.  The low wooden tables looked just like her—brown, cracked, not long before they’d collapse.  In the corner sat the kid who got things stuck in him for money—bird-thin with a light blue sheet around him like a Roman senator.  His hair was shaved down a centimeter from his head and his face showed no emotion.  He sat completely straight in his chair.

A few locals were sitting in a semi-circle in front of him, laughing and drinking.  A man in a bowl-cut and two flannel shirts, missing his left index finger.  A blonde with a nasty puncture scar on the side of her neck.  And another woman with no teeth at all; though, she couldn’t have been more than 35.  A few others.  Everyone but the kid looked at us when we walked up and sat.

“Look at this.  Whiskey for everybody,” said a fat, bearded man in a thermal undershirt and jeans.  Jim smiled and toasted them with his bottle.  The men sitting there looked like loggers and so did their women.  I wondered if they’d come for this or if they just happened to be drinking here.

The old woman from behind the bar walked up.  “I’d ask you two what you want but it looks like you got that covered.”

I opened the full whiskey bottle and took a sip.  Jim asked the woman for cups and, when she brought a stack of plastic tumblers, he poured out whiskey for everybody, brightening spirits all around.  Jim even poured out one for the kid, but the fat bearded man held up a hand and said, “No, thanks.  He don’t drink.”  The kid didn’t do anything but blink.  He was completely still.

After everyone had some whiskey, the bearded man stood.  “This is Colter and he only does this once a day.”

Too much whiskey: I felt stupid, my thoughts dissolving in to Montana nothing, as if I were no different from that cow in the snow-gray pasture.

“Is he gonna scream?” asked one of the women.

The bearded man slapped Colter hard across the face and said, “See?  He don’t feel nothing.”  He took the sheet down and pooled it around Colter’s waist, leaving the boy’s upper body exposed.  The skin was pale and curiously unscarred.  Did it matter that he was sixteen or fifteen or fourteen?  He had nothing in his eyes, dead stare, vacant.  Then the bearded man brought out a black dish containing hatpins, a long thin paring knife, an assortment of thumbtacks and small pins. 

In San Diego, my parents’ yard would be covered with plum blossoms.  I thought of them and wished I was there.  California was a bright complex of light and heat that was beyond us here, in this place, after we’d given the bearded man ten dollars each—where we took turns silently pushing hatpins into the boy’s arms and chest—where even the snow looked like ashes.

When we finished, thin strings of blood ran down Colter’s torso where silver thumbtacks had been stuck between his ribs in graceful arcs.  The pearled plastic drops at the ends of the hatpins looked vaguely like peacock jewelry, an ancient beautification method, difficult and prized.

“Shit,” said one of the women, “I want a picture.”

“Five dollars,” said the bearded man, getting a Polaroid from behind the bar.

Like the lady bartender, this woman had nut-brown leathery skin, and it was hard to tell how old she was.  She leaned over Colter and did a 1950s-style cheesecake pose as if she were on a float—Miss October.  When she grinned, she was missing two of her teeth.

Jim had been drinking steadily from the bottle and staring at the boy, who was still expressionless with arms and chest full of pins.

The bearded man stood.  “Okay, that’s good.  We’re all done now.”

“Wait a second,” said Jim.  “What about that knife?”

“Oh,” said the bearded man, “the knife.  If you want to do that, it’s fifty dollars.”  He smiled and looked at Jim as if he were seeing him for the first time.

Jim inserted the paring knife sideways, right under Colter’s left nipple.  The kid hardly bled at all.  Everyone cheered—whether for Jim or for Colter was unclear—maybe just for the spectacle of the thing: the kid, a human pincushion, so much metal sticking out of him, and some drunk bastard adding that thin knife, as if it needed to be done to make the effort complete.  But I remember Colter’s exhalation, the sound of it—long and gradual as if from a great distance.

Darcy woke up, when we were half-way home, screaming as if someone had just jumpstarted her heart.

“Where the fuck am I?” she said.

“Don’t worry,” said Jim, squinting intensely through the snow coming down in thick, moth-gray sheets.  He gripped the wheel with both hands.  The engine made a steady whine and the wipers could barely keep up.  We were doing seventy, seventy-five, outrunning the distance as the car fishtailed and hissed.  He raised his eyebrows and flashed me a look as if he expected me to object.  But I looked out through the snow, thinking of Colter’s expression as the knife went under his nipple, when he slowly began to smile. 

Later, we’d drink until we both wept.  Jim would cut himself on a broken whiskey bottle, bleeding all over the top of his cherrywood bar.  He’d shoot his pistol off twice into the floor and scare us both.  The next day, he’d lend me another suit.  I’d make apologies to Yugawara and get the job tutoring a slow, yet very wealthy, fourteen-year-old girl with a vision problem.  And all that winter, I’d dream of plum blossoms that settle in the heat like parade confetti, making my parents’ back yard look covered in snow.  I’d step through the ice to the laundry at the corner, where I’d buy my parents postcards of blue mountains in summer and scrawl I love you on the back. 

“What’s going on?  Where we going?” hissed Darcy, holding onto the back of my seat for dear life.

“Don’t you worry,” said Jim.  “We’ve got you.  Nothing’s gonna happen.”

White men are horrible, straight men are horrible, white straight suburban women are especially horrible, oven cleaner is white adjacent, history is horrible, you are horrible, look at my dog.

Racism, hillbilly violence, iconoclasm, the anarchy must be put down, but isn’t it about time, anarchy is okay, anarchy in the UK, anarchy is not about you, anarchy is you not me, Antifa burned my house down, love me.

The media sucks, IQs are dropping, the virus is rising, white scientists suck, fake news, a febrile bodily stench, take your medicine, we can never go back.

Kellyanne got a face lift, replace the skeleton with surgical titanium, love dolls are the solution, blood from a 12-year-old injected daily, who are you to judge?

I won’t take a knee, why you should take a knee, liver damage, unemployment, poverty, citizen journalism, pepper spray is not a crime, unicorn riots, win this 18-bedroom smart home in Beirut, it’s hopeless.

Inject this insect paste into your knee if you want to live, admit that you are fragile like an Easter egg, will we really make it to Easter I don’t know, buy this jade spoon embossed with the face of Benjamin Franklin before they light it on fire, racial slur, it can’t be a racial slur, banking conspiracy, violence, Kellyanne put down that puppy.

Easter apocalypse up in your grill, every day, violence, violence, violence, disease, you deserve to suffer, you don’t deserve to suffer, you deserve violence, and disease, and this delicious curbside fruit delivery, buy an intimate massager, sterilize the poor, the worst week of Trump’s life is today.

Greta Thunberg? Don’t you say a goddamn thing about Greta Thunberg.

10 best novels by cave-dwelling anabaptists, Walmart, no-touch orgasm, we replaced her knees with industrial springs and now she jumps a lot higher, Kellyanne is why we can’t have nice things.

Trump, Trump, Trump, Trumpety, Trump, Trump, don’t touch me like that while I’m sedated, the left wants aliens in your sandwich, the right wants to kill art, do you know where your Easter eggs are being dipped, can we stop with all the Trump, Biden’s in the basement, space junk will rain down fiery Mayan death upon our children.

Cops with broken hearts, shit cops don’t know the meaning of heartbreak, white fragility, cop fragility, black fragility, heartbroken asian fragility, cops gone wild, Jim Henson was a Nazi, Kellyanne is why I wear this sailor suit, it’s not okay to say these 756 words, racist orgasms, systemic orgasms, systemic racist orgasms on the dark web, but who will pay reparations to the hundreds of undocumented sidhe living in Torrance, California, it won’t be North Korea this time.

I don’t want to visit North Korea, I need the New York Times like I’ve never needed it before, hold me Kellyanne like you did on Naboo, and bring the light inside the body, it’s not a riot if it don’t got that febrile bodily stench, don’t talk to me today, Kellyanne, I need a haircut.

Trump, please make it stop, just put me on the rocket ship, I don’t care, I just want to go.

A short story about voicemail, voyeurism, and stupidity.

Sea-Tac at high noon is a cold saucepan, everyone sitting in it and the burners waiting.  The occasional flash-boom of a jet outside.  Blue-white daylight through ceiling-high windows.  Static crackle of dust remover on plastic.  The burnished coffee stand curdling the air around it with sour French Roast.  Far away, someone shouts into a phone.  It’s always like this. 

Waiting for the next thing in the Seattle airport is like waiting for the saucepan to cook.  Major airport, major risk: one moment, cold metal emptiness; the next, shitfire and everybody burns.  Terror.  Screaming.  Bullets.  Anything could happen at any time.  Jim Fowler sat up in the black plastic seat and thought this as calmly and easily as he thought of anything, whether he should take a flight sedative, for instance, or whether to call his voicemail before boarding.

Today, Jim was wearing a coal-gray three-button DKNY, one of his traveling suits—really decent, actually, but not impressive.  The impressive suits, the ones he’d bought through a consultant, were too good to wear on the plane.  The two Jim had taken to Seattle were wrapped in plastic inside a reinforced Kevlar valise that could withstand a three-hundred-pound anvil dropped on it.  Jim knew this because he’d gone to the corporate demonstration where they’d dropped the anvil. 

So far, he’d noticed two other men in the airport wearing his same coal-gray suit, but that wasn’t why he was sitting in a desolate part of Sea-Tac, staring out a wall of windows.  Jim was three hours early for his flight and no one else had arrived at the gate.

He opened his cell and speed-dialed: his voice, There is no one here to receive your call, in sterile monotone.  Had he taken something before recording the outgoing message?  It was possible.  Something to make him sleep.  And then the permanently programmed machine girl sounding more human than Jim: You have . . . zero . . . messages.  He loved her voice: frowsy, smart, with just a touch of humor.  You have . . . zero . . . messages, as if it were a personal compliment.  They knew something over at that cell phone factory.  Or maybe they didn’t.  Maybe there was no girl like this on any other voicemail in the known world.

Girls.  The trouble with girls.  He never knew what to say.  They made him nervous, shaky.  Always judging, picking out his mistakes, noting the every hard swallow, every flat joke—always on record.  Jim kept his hands in his pockets and avoided eye contact: they’d see him again somewhere, sometime—and they’d know: he was the creepy one, the one with that look.  The windows rattled as a 757 shot down a runway.

That morning, Jim had woken up at 5:00, as always, unable to go back to sleep, and soon got bored with the Weather Channel loop from the edge of his hotel bed.  So he called a cab and wound up watching the sky over Seattle lighten from the inside of Sea-Tac. 

Jim had wandered for a while, glancing in the tourist stores and the lousy restaurants, at the determined expressions of people already in a hurry.  And he’d stopped to look up at a 15-foot steel sculpture of a praying mantis that had been temporarily installed by his gate.  It was burnished just like the coffee stand, the railings, the oblong strips of metal that had replaced whatever bland paintings used to line the jetways. 

Beside him, a little girl with rings around her eyes and a dirty-looking teddy bear stared up at the mantis as if it might suddenly bound off its circular metal platform.  Its front legs were pressed together in the classic mantis pose, sharp spines sticking out sideways from its body—hundreds of tiny daggers waiting for someone running late to trip and fall over the red velvet stanchion-ropes.

“What is it?” the girl asked, pointing at the mantis.

Jim squatted down beside her and looked up.  “That’s a sculpture.  Somebody made that and put it in here so we can look at it.”

“Did God make it?”

From the girl’s vantage point, the mantis seemed twice as big.  It’s blank stare passed through him and Jim imagined it springing to life, its steel claws ripping him in half.

“Yes,” he said.  “How did you know?”

“No,” said her mother, putting her hands on the girl’s shoulders from behind and staring down at him.  “It’s a bug, honey.  Just some bug.”

Jim stood and watched them go to a far gate.  He’d seen the mother in the leper smoking room, where the glassed-off air looked pale gray and so did the people sucking down their morning tobacco.  She had frosted hair, gold rings, and a faint desperation in how she’d crossed her arms and concentrated on her cigarette.  They’d made eye-contact as Jim passed by the room. 

She was pretty in a removed, angry sort of way, and he’d gotten ideas.  What were the chances of them being on the same flight, in the same row, sitting together?  He’d let the possibilities play out for a few moments, then forgot all about her.  And this is what it came to: Jim transformed to an insect, squashed under a forty-dollar pump.  How often could this sort of thing happen to one person?

Now, in the empty block of seats facing the windows, Jim didn’t have to speak to anyone.  If he stayed medicated for the flight, he’d be able to avoid any further human nastiness.  Of course, he didn’t always try to avoid people.  His real reason for coming to Seattle was to meet someone.  But, as usual, things didn’t work out that way.  The National Convention of Law Librarians had been something. 

Frenzy: everyone single paired-up immediately, then everyone married-but-open-minded, and then anyone else who got a randy thought toward the end of “Comparative Search Diagnostics” or “Alternate Systems of Citing Primary Authority.”  Unfortunately, there were a small number of people who always missed out on the librarian bacchanalia.  Jim had now been in this group two years in a row.

Bored, he watched a fuel truck creep like an orange beetle through tarmac heat wobbles.  The truck didn’t look like it was moving very fast but, if he aligned a wingtip in the foreground with a distant pole out on the airfield, he could measure the fuel truck’s progress.  Jim did that for a while, imagining how it would be if the truck suddenly exploded, how it would look from his position—the flames curling up around the tank in wreathes or maybe shooting around the truck in all directions, hanging in the air for a heartbeat, like a fiery octopus.

By expecting the worst, you’re prepared.  Lose all hope, lose all fear.  Jim wouldn’t mind losing fear.  He was turning thirty-five next month, had no family left, and the college girlfriend who had once come close to marrying him was now an interior decorator in Singapore and no longer returned his calls.  His hair was gray above the ears, which seemed to have already put him in the geriatric crowd.  When he looked at girls in their early twenties—long hair, midriff, belly button ring, little tattoo over delicate ankle—he saw worlds forever closed to him.  After thirty, he no longer showed up on their radar.  Or, if they had to deal with him, it was the thank-you-excuse-me, the pasty smile, the consolation laugh right before they escaped to the other side of the room.

But what to do.  Back home in Irvine, Jim tried to face it.  Mind over matter: he answered personal ads and went on nightmarish exploratory dates.  The single mother who left the pictures of her ex-husband face-up on the restaurant’s table like a challenge and spoke earnestly to him about becoming a lesbian.  A bird-thin waitress with strands of colored string braided into her hair who cried at Neruda’s love poems and had dreams about the devil.  A middle-aged professor of economics who said she’d never orgasmed and wanted to know what he thought about pissing. 

“Pissing?” he asked.

“It can be a lot sexier than you’d think,” she said.

In the end, they all seemed as disappointed with him as he was with them.  And now Jim had just wasted all three convention nights in his hotel room and voicemail was still his best friend.

Behind him, the girl had wandered back to the praying mantis, seemed fascinated with it, staring up into its metal face like it was about to tell her something.  Jim felt the urge to walk over and talk to her again, but he didn’t want a second encounter with the mother.  The girl was right at the edge of the red velvet ropes and was reaching out tentatively toward one of the mantis’s folded-down claws. 

Jim turned back toward the wall of windows.  It wasn’t his business if she cut herself.  When he looked again, she’d slipped under the ropes and was standing directly under the claws, looking up.  The sharp leg-spines pointed all around her, only an inch on either side of her face. 

Jim turned and vowed not to look anymore, staring at the fuel truck, now an orange speck in the distance.  He was sure that soon the screaming would start.  He fished a sedative out of the plastic pill case he always kept in his vest pocket and swallowed it dry.  His hands were shaking slightly so he crossed his arms and closed his eyes.  It would take a moment for the pill to kick in.

***

Irvine.  Yuppietopia of southern California.  Yet, there was something about it, thought Jim, something to love.  The palm trees were bio-engineered.  The streets were angled for maximum runoff.  There would never be a major septic horror.  There were no alligators in the sewers.  Or, if there were alligators, they were ecologically appropriate.  Maybe there were no sewers.  In Irvine, the sun was sunnier.  The kids were kiddier.  Birds cartwheeled through height-zoned eucalypti. 

Whatever wasn’t working was cavorting and every car came internet-ready.  Jim looked down from the 22nd floor and listened to the absolute silence of Gould, Dien, and Strunkmeyer’s law library, his library.  Mirrored office towers flashed in the new light and Newport Beach glittered in the distance, blue like a perfect sky.

Today, he was wearing a rust cardigan-slacks combo with pale cream button-down and burgundy Ungaro tie.  On the fashion e-calendar provided by his consultant, this ensemble was dedicated to putting a spin in June’s gloom with the earthy tones of fall.  Theoretically, one was supposed to stay just ahead of the season: when everybody was still wearing grays, you crept into the browns.  At this time, said the calendar, accessories with polka-dots are recommended.  Recommended but not required, thought Jim.  That was key.  Not everybody could get away with polka-dots.

Dark thoughts on this Monday morning: where was Scafandra, his assistant?  He got to work at 7:00; he expected her at 7:30.  Lateness was the devil, the root of all vice.  Jim was never late.  Even this morning: mesmerized by the Weather Channel again for a whole hour, then the sudden shock of lost time, the pressured zip down the 73 from his condo, Prussian blue Acura revving 80, barely making it, iced coffee through a straw, email on car-screen, no messages, no messages.  It was too soon to start calling his voicemail.  But now, sitting at his desk in the library, he felt like he’d left something back in Seattle.  His watch read 7:34.

The library’s holdings were extensive—as good as any public law library, in some respects better—and when Jim ascended from assistant to head librarian, he redesigned the floor plan: Federal Cases to the north, California Appellate Reports to the south, taxation, intellectual property, Uniform Commercial Code to the east, transactions, forms and business practices around the big window in the west. 

GDS rented a storage annex in the basement as big as a supermarket for everything else.  And in the center of the library: his oak desk on a raised dais flanked by both editions of the Annotated California Code.  If the lawyers needed to know the law of the land, they had to approach—supplicants at Jim’s altar, where a fat brass desk lamp made him glow like Moses fresh off the mountain. 

Then Scafandra came in through the library’s oak double-doors, her eyes already shrink-wrapped in tears, and Jim knew it would be like this.  He could have predicted it.  Forecasting Scafandra’s tears on a day she was late was about as hard as guessing rain after a week of darkness.

“You have no idea what I’ve gone through this morning.  It’s . . . I can’t even talk about it.”  She was a thin woman with delicate pale features and auburn hair, the sleeves of her mustard knit sweater rolled up into gigantic cuffs.  Her sweaters were psychic shields—always massive, always making her seem like she was dissolving into them, in need of assistance.

“Oh?” 

Scafandra Theory 101: any reaction at all will feed standard traumatic breakdown.  Any little cooing sounds that would normally mean sympathy and commiseration will cause one to be immediately sucked into 30-minute-long lateness-justifying vortex of pain.

“I was read-ended.  Rear-ended.  I don’t know what I’m gonna do.  I love that car.  That car is my life.”

“Oh?”

“My god.  What is this world coming to?  It’s just . . . life is just . . . sometimes, it’s too much.  Sometimes, I think I could, you know . . .”

“Rear-ended you say?”

Her cheeks were wet with tears.  Scafandra had skills, but there it was, the split-second glance, scanning Jim’s expression to see if she was making progress.

“Weren’t you listening?  It’s alright.  I don’t expect you to understand.  No one ever does.”

“You’re right,” said Jim.  “Some things are more important than being on time.”

Scafandra nodded, daubing her eyes with Kleenex from her purse.

He watched her go to her desk in the glass cubicle near the east wall, where the architects had originally meant the head librarian’s desk to be.  Jim knew that by lunch she’d be chipper again, tapping out messages to internet chat friends and humming to herself.  When he could see her sitting at her computer in the little glassed-off space, he unlocked a drawer and took out a sheet of GDS letterhead.  Below a long list of excuses, Jim made another entry complete with date, time, what she’d said, and how he’d responded. 

When he got to the bottom of the page (one more excuse to go—he hoped it would be good—lightning setting her dog on fire, all four tires blowing out spontaneously, abduction, smoking fissure opening beneath her straight to Hades) Jim would type a memo, circulate it to the partners of the firm, and that would be the end of Scafandra.  Until then, Jim would wait, serene, detached: 22nd floor law library bodhisattva.  Nothing bothered him.  Kung Fu.  The e-calendar’s icon, a radiant sun, smiled and winked at him from the corner of his computer screen.

It was strange the way he felt about Seattle.  Unpacking, he’d gone over everything.  All his bags had arrived, plastic-wrapped shirts layered and locked into place.  Nothing heavier than an anvil had been dropped on his valise.  Nothing lighter than socks came out.  No surprises.  No unsolved mysteries.  And yet, driving through Newport, Jim felt dreamy, detached, felt a nagging something in the back of his mind.  He called his voicemail.  You have . . . zero . . . messages

No emergency phone calls from the hotel or Sea-Tac about lost credit cards.  So . . . what?  Jim didn’t know.  But there was something going on here.  Something bothering him.  He called his voicemail again, as if the solution might have been in the beautiful scrollwork of her voice.  First, his own: There is no one here to receive your call.  The more Jim listened to it, the more it seemed like he had taken a sedative before recording the outgoing message.

Newport Center Drive was wide and full of BMWs.  Being on it was like docking at the galactic spaceport—everything huge, slowly pulling you in.  To the right, huge white office buildings like great latticeworks of bone with mirrors in the sockets.  To the left, a shopping center bigger than a city: Relax, we have you in a tractor beam.  The streets were full but traffic circulated with a low pulse.  People instinctively knew when it was their turn to glide.  They didn’t have to check.  At the light, a pigeon-haired man in a 745i gazed absently into his AC blast.  His face looked creamy tan like his leather interior.  He glanced at Jim, then shot ahead. 

Jim parked and walked into the mall—past the Towne Bistro that had waiters with white dinner jackets and its own domesticated tiger, past the koi pond, past the Venetian fountain with marble cherubs climbing over each other in a gigantic heap, the topmost one spitting up at a non-offensive slant, past the store that only sold toys guaranteed to raise a child’s IQ by a minimum of fifteen points.  It was Consumer Never-Never Land: Peter Pan, all grown up, buys a cell phone and a Bimmer, spends his time in boutiques with names like Anthropologie and Un Petit Cadeux

Jim didn’t mind the ambiance, always a faint tinkling in the air, a freshness, trellises of red Bougainvillea and tiny ornamental catwalks that only a cat could walk on.  But there were no cats, no birds, nothing that might offend.  Even the kids were well-behaved.  Something in the atmosphere weighed them down, made them walk dutifully, quietly beside their parents.  A group of them stood around the koi pond in silence, watching the thick golden fish swoop furiously back and forth without making the slightest ripple.

The shopping center was called Fashion Island, and it had one really great quality, one thing that made it different and better than most of the hulking malls of the world: Dream Houses.  Jim spent a hundred dollars there every time he visited.  Dream Houses was nestled on the other side of the rose atelier between Middle America and Anja’s Day Spa

He stopped at Middle America’s floor-to-ceiling window.  Inside, a fat, red-faced man in shirtsleeves was all smiles as he drove a pair of oxen across a plot of land.  Off to the side, his wife and son cheered.  He’d stop to wave and get his picture taken or have the attendant put new bandages on his hands—already bleeding from the wooden plow handles.  He loved it.  Off to the side, the manager, looking like she’d just stepped out of Anja’s in black Von Furstenberg chiffon, her hair at a wicked slant, sipped a cup of coffee and stared into infinity. 

People paid to help cultivate the land then got a gift basket later in the year full of the beets or turnips or kohlrabi they’d helped produce.  You could hear them happily going on about their crop in the Towne Bistro over a light wine and spanakopita, fresh white gauze across their hands.

But Dream Houses was different.  Ultimately, it was about people, about real life and its challenges.  Deep down, Jim liked to think of himself as a people person, and Dream Houses was where he interfaced with humanity.  This was the human condition.  And, for the price of a gold-plated sink faucet or a pair of high-toned brass knobs, it came dirt cheap. 

An extremely thin girl with burgundy hair sat at the DH front desk.  Her name was Leda.  In the year and a half he’d been a customer, Leda had never said more than two words to Jim, but those two words were enough.

“How long?”

“An hour would be good,” said Jim.

She smiled as if that was just right and gave a little Asian nod, even though she wasn’t Asian, tapping something into a computer that was part of the flat surface of her desk.   It looked like she was practicing scales, her purple-black nails ticking.

Jim walked past the desk and sat down on a twisted Sköna Hem sofa with green and white stripes.  This week was part of the Hide-a-Way Den series and the furnishings had a lush sink-into-me feeling, despite the pastel motif.  There were two sofas, a pale blue Italian divan, and a Yamakawa end-table engineered to slowly change its elevation as the wood aged.  Somehow, the designers had managed to sink the floor two steps down, and Jim wondered whether they’d built a whole new temporary level above the old one or simply exposed the original floor.  He stretched his legs and crossed them at the ankles. 

It started as a small home furnishings outlet with a different set interior every month.  But it grew into something more.  Now time inside was billed and there was a new interior every week.  One was expected to buy something, but that’s not why you came to Dream Houses

It was, quite simply, the best way to meet people.  Voyeurs and the occasional tourist excepted, DH had its regulars—people who appreciated style.  And the designers were gods.  Most of Dream Houses Online was dedicated to the twists and turns of their dramatic lives in exotic cities—Casablanca, Monte Carlo, Biarritz, St. Croix—one was cheating on his wife with a Finnish model; one might have been gay or a woman or a gay woman (10 gigs of posted speculation said the photos were fake); one had a club of Japanese schoolgirls dedicated to group suicide if he ever stopped cheating. 

Actors showed up at Dream Houses.  Rock stars got photographed in the secret exclusive DH franchise that operated by invitation only.  It wasn’t just a showroom, it was a way of life.  And, for one or two hours, you could become witty and graceful on your molded Italian chaise lounge; you could flirt provocatively over Ting dragon-cisterns filled with white roses and come away with a handsome mother-of-pearl sconce or an authentic Karastan throw as a memento.  The idea was to bring a little bit of it home with you every time.  Someday you’d reach perfection.

Jim knew he was far from perfect, but he also knew that the blonde on the other sofa was named Tiffany.  At least that was the name she used in Dream Houses. And, every week, they bridged the gap to perfection together.  Always, at their time, she’d be waiting—long straight hair, blue eyes, some cream Atsuko Kudo polymer shift that revealed just enough as it clung to her curves.  Was she married?  Did it matter?  Contact wasn’t allowed.  DH had its rules: no touching, no smoking, and no food—nothing that would jeopardize the merchandise.  It was that simple, and it was never a problem.

“You’re late,” said Tiffany.

“No.  You know that’s not true.”

“I’ve been waiting here forever.”  Her smile became a pout.  She tilted her head to smell roses in an onyx vase beside her without looking away.  “Where have you been?”

“Around,” said Jim.  “Why does it have to matter?”

“You know it matters.  It matters to me.”

“I’ve been at work.  Where else would I be?”  He folded his hands in his lap and looked down the long interior.  Beyond a silk partition of cranes in flight, a different couple was having a conversation, voices only murmurs in the stillness.

Tiffany and he had carried on this romance for nearly a year, and she was incredibly talented at keeping him interested.  One week, she’d be jealous, the next, bubbly and vivacious, the next, depressed.  The situation encouraged this behavior.  Relationships in Dream Houses depended on talking, on never letting things rest, never letting the conversation get predictable.  Boredom was a constant threat and mood swings, unlike in the outside world, were an asset here.  Tiffany was brilliant.  Sometimes Jim admired her ability so much he thought he actually was in love with her.

“Did you get my email?” 

Sometimes they sent each other email as a way to keep things going.  It was a good way to stay consistent or to let each other know of a time conflict.  But in her last message, Tiffany had very tentatively asked him out, said there was a mime who did the Rodney King beating to Japanese Butoh music.  He was exclusive.  She had tickets.  Did Jim want to go?  Et cetera.  She’d been off-hand, embedding it in a long discussion of DH’s bleached llama carpets and whether they were treating the llamas right. 

Jim was getting vaguely interested in the issue—whether Dream Houses ran clandestine llama farms, exporting glue and steaks to South America when the animals stopped putting out quality fiber—until she popped the question.  It sickened him.  Tiffany was willing to throw it all away, to violate the purity of what they had.  And for what?  Dinner and the usual?  She was missing the whole point.  He wrote her a long response, saying as much, then re-wrote it, then deleted it.  All he had to do was not respond, right?  He’d stay quiet, and things would continue.  Right?

“No,” he said.  “I haven’t checked.”

“You’re distant.”

“I am the way I’ve always been.  I don’t change.  I’m like the ocean, always there.”

“Like the distance, you mean.  Always over there.”

“Close your eyes.  You can sense me.”

“I’d rather feel you.”

“Don’t.”  He stared at the silk cranes.  The other couple’s conversation rose and fell like quiet tide.  Jim wished Tiffany and he could stop talking and just listen to it.  But she was changing.  Their situation was changing.  He tried to focus on a set of long black-dipped teak chimes that didn’t really chime, though they always looked about to.  And he knew that what had been good about Tiffany was drawing to an end.

“Well.”  She looked toward the lime-tinted storefront windows, where Leda was talking to what looked like three gigantic Swedes in jogging suits.  “I don’t know what I’m getting this time.”

“I’ve had my eye on that brass curtain-rod,” said Jim.

“I could say a lot . . . in response to that.”  Tiffany smirked—inappropriate on her porcelain features.  Women like her, thought Jim, should be cold and poised, removed, like high mountain snow that never melts.

And then, completely without warning, Tiffany did the unthinkable.  She sat down next to him and planted a wide warm kiss on the side of his neck.  It was a direct violation of the rules.  Jim froze.  They could both be permanently banned for something like this.

She had her arms around his neck and kissed him a second time before he thought to tell her to get back to the other sofa, that Leda might see them through the surveillance camera.

Leda was already standing there when he looked up.

“This has to stop,” Leda said, “right now.”

Tiffany sneered but let go of him and sat back.

“Wait.  It’s not what you think,” said Jim.

“I’m putting a violation in both of your accounts.  And I think your time is up.”  She stalked back to the front desk, her purple-black skirt swishing.

Jim sighed.  A violation meant no more discounts, no more updates, no more promotional offers or exclusive events.  Another violation and he’d be barred permanently, worldwide.

“I have to be somewhere,” he said and stood up.

Tiffany crossed one knee over the other and gave him a blank stare. 

Jim bought the brass curtain rod from Leda without looking at her.  He told himself he wouldn’t come back for a long, long time, but he knew that wasn’t true.  In the car, he started shaking, so he took a Hydrocodone from the plastic pill case in the glove-box.  One of the lawyers he worked with was a walking pharmacy and Jim helped bankroll his habit.  It was amazing how steady and calm he became with the help of synthetic opiates.

Voicemail told him he had zero messages; Jim stood in his darkened entryway and listened to the voice repeat a few times.  His apartment complex was shaped like a honeycomb—twelve-inch-thick cement walls, units angled so you didn’t have to look at anyone else.  Everyone had a balcony and could, in theory, see a shred of Newport Pacific; though, the apartments started on the fourth floor and went high enough that braving the balcony would have been a major undertaking for most of the retirees there. 

As far as Jim knew, he was the only resident under fifty.  His complex was always completely silent.  Everything was sound-proofed.  But tonight he couldn’t relax.  He kept thinking of Seattle.  What had he accomplished there?  He hadn’t met anyone—hadn’t even had the opportunity.  No one had paid any attention to him.  He’d passed through the convention like a heavily medicated ghost.

He went into the bedroom closet, took off his suede windbreaker, and hung it up.  It was half-past nine, almost time for bed.  Jim had let dinner drag out, sipping jasmine tea in Bao Voce—a new restaurant that served Vietnamese and Italian dishes together—and pretended to go over a research file from work, while eavesdropping on three drunk lawyers from Quill Collins, one of GDS’s rivals.  He hadn’t learned anything useful, but it helped pass the time.

He took off the rest of his clothes, folded them neatly, placing the stack in the sky-blue hamper at the back of the closet.  His apartment was completely dark except for the weak moonlight that glanced across the carpeting, making everything black or pale gray.  He never closed the drapes.  His unit was on the fifteenth floor.  Besides, the windows were an inch thick, didn’t open, and polarized automatically on sunny days.  He took down a shoebox from the closet’s top shelf and carried it out to the bed.

This wasn’t something Jim did every night, but he did it often enough that it had become like tacit punctuation at the end of a hard day.  He sat on the bed and took out a pair of Newcon NZT-22 hands-free night vision goggles.  They were SWAT issue from the 1980s: secured by a head strap, starlight technology, could be rotated up, away from one’s eyes along the canvass strap, which came down to Jim’s forehead and made his hair stick out to the sides like a cartoon scientist.  He clicked them on and the world turned bright green.  Jim looked strange in his bedroom mirror, naked and goggled with glowing green eyes, which, he knew, were being magnified by the starlight effect and were actually tiny points.

He’d bought them through a catalog years ago but hadn’t used them until he moved into this apartment.  Now he used them all the time because the old man who lived one unit down and two to the right was great entertainment at night.  Jim walked out onto his balcony.  It was warm, no wind.  Most of the other units were dark.  You could do anything on that balcony.  No one would see—commit murder, seal the body in the apartment; by the time anyone checked, it would be dust and teeth.

Jim had to stand at the very edge of the balcony and lean over in order to see into the old man’s unit, but it was a small price to pay for such good entertainment.  Jim didn’t know what the old man did during the day; no one ever saw anyone in the building coming or going. 

The dim hallways seemed to absorb all sound, and movement wasn’t easy—every floor required a numerical pass code, as did the elevator, the parking garage, the trash chutes.  Jim figured most of the residents simply stayed in their apartments, had their groceries delivered, kept their televisions turned up.  But the old man led a double life.  During the day, he did whatever he did, and at night he became a railroad magnate.

Without the night vision, Jim would still have been able to see the electric train moving through the hills and forests.  But he would have missed the important details: the small dog running beside the tracks while a boy called to it and waved his hands; the miner on a stretcher being carried out of an opening in a hill; a wooden bridge sagging and broken over the river; hobos hunched around a campfire behind the rock quarry. 

Above it all, the old man hovered in a tie and a pressed suit, keeping track of everything, wringing his hands, squinting through the gloom of his faintly lit apartment, talking to the train and then listening to it intently.  His entire living room had been turned into an electric set, and he noted all changes on a green chalkboard that was propped up at one end of the room—precipitation, supply and demand, date, time in fifteen-minute increments, profit, loss, employment, and “Projected Expenses for Next Fiscal Term.”

The train curved into other rooms where, Jim assumed, there were other wooden towns like the one in the corner of the living room—something like depression-era Kansas: old dirty buildings, drifters shuffling through the streets, shadowy train yards and tumbleweeds. 

The detail was astounding.  Jim was sure the ceiling of the living room was painted.  The walls were done as perfect three-dimensional extensions of the landscape, hills like the old man’s balding head sloped up from forests.  There were four bridges: two of wood, two of rusted iron.  And the river that ran beneath them went all over the landscape, widened where logs floated down toward the mill outside of town, and carried a boy on a small skiff.

The old man was deeply involved in the lives of his people.  He gestured dramatically to the hobos, gave advice to the boy on the skiff, moved the dog farther down the tracks and then consoled its owner as best he could.  He was the guardian spirit of the world he’d created.  The real entertainment wasn’t the train or the set.  It was the old man himself. 

When he’d turn the speed all the way up, the train would eventually derail, and he’d weep at the destruction—pine trees smashed, one of the drifters knocked to the other side of the mountain, the miner clattering down the slope with his stretcher-bearers.  The train would go over the half-broken wooden bridge and the old man would cover his mouth in worry.

Jim could watch him all night—how he held forth like Cato before the senate, making passionate speeches, gesturing, long unruly wisps of white at his temples and his fingers stained with chalk.  He’d been someone in his life, probably someone with a lot of responsibility, thought Jim.  And now he went through a full range of emotions every night. 

Buildings were destroyed and rebuilt the next day.  Hobos and drifters moved around the terrain, disappeared into other rooms, showed up days later at the edge of the trees or leaning against the wall of the train station.  Occasionally, the old man receded into the background so that, even with the night vision, Jim could only make out his silhouette, black-on-black, in the short hall that went to the other rooms.

And so it went: the old man in a pressed suit and the train circling through the rooms.  It did occur to Jim that he was equally ridiculous, perhaps more so, standing buck-naked on his balcony wearing night vision goggles.  But who cared?  A day in the life.  Jim only knew these things amused him.

This was a night when the old man wouldn’t stop the train to unload or link up new cars.  He just let it go and followed it around his apartment, drawing a hash mark in the corner of the chalkboard every time it made a complete circuit.  Jim wasn’t sure what the hash marks were supposed to accomplish, if they were building up to something or not. 

It didn’t matter.  The important thing was that the old man was there, doing what he loved, in deep conversation with the train.  Every so often, he’d gesture at it with an open hand, admonishing it, as if to say What did you expect?

Jim watched until he got his fill of smirking at the old man’s pained looks as he bent over the train and clasped his hands together, full of anxiety.  Jim leaned out over the balcony railing, enjoying every minute of it, the glowing green eyepoints of his goggles like tiny anonymous stars.

Of course, he was wearing a double-breasted Zegna with classic pleats today.  The e-calendar had laid it out in no uncertain terms: the moment is auspicious for Prada, Fendi, or Zegna as surely as Gladiolus blooms like the midday sun.  Jim was not completely sure what that meant, but his wardrobe Feng Shui was clear: Zegna in, everything else out.  The e-calendar’s radiant sun icon smiled and winked at him from the corner of his computer screen: friendly guardian spirit.  The ancients lit incense at the feet of icons, Jim double-clicked them.  It made sense.

The real question was why Scafandra had suddenly been possessed by the Daemon of Work.  She’d already cite-checked and proofed a 40-page pleading that one of the lawyers had left in the to-do tray the night before, and it didn’t look like she was even going to break for lunch.  This was not normal Scafandra behavior. 

Jim unlocked his desk drawer and looked at his List of Scafandra’s Excuses.  Had she picked the desk’s lock and found it or had she just reformed?  This morning, for the first time ever, she’d come in before Jim.  There she was behind the glass partition, eyes riveted on her computer screen, sections of the pleading in neat stacks across her desk.

But, of course, nothing ever changed; people certainly didn’t—always the same, whether cite-checking into the blurry gum-eyed afternoon, running only on coffee and the fear of getting axed, or banned from Dream Houses.  People, Jim knew, were as reliable as the California sky, static, dedicated body and soul to the usual—which presented certain fundamental truths about Scafandra, certain unquestionable realities.  Jim wondered if the stacks of paper on her desk were even real documents. 

Catlike, he made a long circuitous path through the oak-paneled stacks, suddenly pretending to be interested in California Real Estate Law 3d, then pirouetting through California Jurisprudence into the Federal Supplement shelves.  Pure stealth.  He snuck up behind her glass cubicle, walking only on the blades of his shoes so the carpet wouldn’t swish, and peered over her shoulder at the computer screen.

There was the pleading in all its tedious majesty.  Could it be that she was actually working?  Impossible.  He cleared his throat.

“Yes?”  Scafandra kept typing, didn’t turn, the day’s voluminous sweater making strands of her short auburn hair stick to her neck.  She’d had too much coffee and was sweating.  Jim stared at the back of her neck and imagined kissing it but banished the thought.  Scafandra was a problem.  One didn’t fantasize about kissing sweaty problems.

She stopped and swiveled.  “Yes?” 

“Aren’t you hot in that?”   

She cocked her head to the side.  “What do you need?” 

Jim hadn’t planned in advance.  “Well, I’ve been thinking.”  His mind raced. 

“That’s always good.”

“Right, well, do you eat?  Lunch?”

Scafandra glanced around the cubicle then back up at him.  “Is there a problem?”

Problem?  What did “problem” mean in this context?  Jim tried to focus.

“Are you alright?”  She crossed her arms and rolled back a few inches.

“No, I mean, are you going to take lunch?”  He noticed her eyes were the same light brown as her hair.

She frowned.

“Look,” he said, “I’ll buy you lunch.”

Scafandra seemed wary, half-shocked, like he’d just offered her a deal on some stolen TVs.  But she said okay and they were both suddenly relieved, each retreating back to their private spaces—Jim to his desk, furiously reading a random section of the California Code on dog bites, Scafandra making busy noises and clicking her mouse. 

How had this happened?  His nerves.  Suddenly Scafandra had morphed from irritating assistant to woman.  What did one do with a woman?  What would it mean to see her every day now that this had happened?  Jim thought: if I’m going to have a nervous breakdown, now would be the time.  A few minutes later, Scafandra sent him an email and disappeared with her purse in hand. 

Jim’s inbox bleeped just as the library’s double-doors closed silently behind her.  She said she’d meet him at Gordon Yow’s, an all-Hawaiian grill, just off Irvine Spectrum, where you could eat poi out of wooden bowls.  Jim made a mental note to surreptitiously check her car for rear-end damage when the moment presented itself.

He stared blankly at the email until the screensaver blinked on and passworded itself.  He was going to have to do this.  Any possible excuse Jim could have cooked up was now worthless.  There was no way she could be expected to check her email in the thirty minutes until they were supposed to meet. 

Jesus, he thought, spending social time with Scafandra . . . it was crazy, unthinkable.  Jim ordered his desk, locking his briefcase in a bottom cabinet.  He’d never been to Gordon Yow’s.  He didn’t know the terrain, possible distractions, possible escape routes.  At least at the Towne Bistro, they could watch the pet tiger and not speak.

He walked out of the library, between the glass-partitioned offices.  The world was busy sending faxes and barking into cell phones.  No one looked at him.  All internal walls were glass and Jim always got the feeling he was walking through a cross-section cutaway entitled “Law Firm.” 

One of the associates paced back and forth running his fingers through his hair over and over.  Another sat on the corner of his desk, gesturing at a webcam mounted on top of his computer screen, papers across desk and floor like a carpet of snow.  On the far side of the room, the smoked glass walls of the partners’ offices stood out like blackened teeth.  Jim saw the outline of someone leaning back in a chair, speaking to a silhouette on the other side of a desk.

Absolute truth: visiting the restaurants of Irvine is like visiting the smaller cities of eastern Europe one at a time.  You’re aware of the differences until you aren’t, until all the minarets and cathedrals look the same, until the soul-deadening sameness of the landscape signifies exactly that and nothing more. 

So: poi in wooden bowls.  There was a luau at Gordon Yow’s and Jim suddenly realized this wasn’t foreign terrain.  He knew everything about the place without ever having been there: the bartender, who he knew, knew, was named Chaz or Troy or Blair, who used to be a pro skater and now, you know, was, uh, trying to break into the entertainment business. 

The waitress in the silver ass-pants, just this side of whorish, who’d snap if you went a hair over her line—a line re-drawn so often she was practically occult.  But Jim didn’t want to flirt with her.  Jim didn’t want to flirt with anybody.  And, luau or not, lunch would have to be short and crisp with a straight shot clear back to the loading entrance if Scafandra started to make any sort of scene whatsoever.  Somewhere in the back, there would be a busboy willing to keep her busy for a twenty while Jim hit the freeway at speed.

He almost hoped it would come to that, peeking around an oversized fake palm at Scafandra, who was trying to do the same thing from a different palm ahead of him.  She hadn’t seen him yet.  Jim had arrived a half-minute before her and, instead of taking a table, he’d said he was meeting a friend.  The one who sat first would be the one who got observed, the one under the scope.  Hence this double-sneak, while grass-skirted Kanakahanaleya did a greased-up belly dance under a platter of roast pineapple and the coconut was flowing. 

But minarets, they keep pointing. 

And cathedral bells, they ring. 

And this landscape was never going to change.  Absolute truth.  Look at it forever, he’d see the same thing.  The sad part was that Jim knew it, maybe he’d always known it, like knowing burnished Sea-Tac in an upbust of fiery dawn when none of what happens is new and none of it any good.  Jim walked.  It was all too much.  He found three pills at the bottom of his pocket and swallowed them dry without looking. 

The energy was all wrong, nerves in his face twitching, hands getting cold like he was about to hyperventilate.  Wooden left-right, one step then another.  The glass doors, etched in gigantic Gordon Yow’s, opened to harsh parking lot light.  The moment was auspicious for escape as surely as Gladiolus dies in Orange County hardpan.  And his Acura: a glittering Prussian blue lifeboat amid all that space.

It was hot.  Shimmers reared up at the street’s vanishing point, making the distance look wet.  Jim pulled over.  He’d drifted across Irvine in a haze.  Somewhere along the way, his hands had started shaking bad.  Nerves.  Scafandra was back there under a latex palm, now hating him twice as much.  A parti-colored mass of University High students moved across the street.  In the shade of the tree-lined sidewalks, they looked like gumballs in a quarter machine, all the bright colors clumping through patches of light. 

Jim dialed his apartment: There is no one here to receive your call.  It felt like the vents were blowing hot air but the AC light was on.  Tiny fires kept starting inside his veins.  He didn’t know if it was nerves or pills.  Jim clicked the AC off and on, rolled down his window.  You have . . . zero . . . messages.  Someone a block over was pissed, beeping long streams of angry car horn into the air.  Jim got out, left his cell phone on the seat.  Now there would be a message to play back—a long sustained car horn.  It was something.

And then there was Hegemon: a store-front café, now owned by Starbucks, that was filled with loud furniture and no longer sold coffee.  He sat at the wooden counter and ordered a carbonated chocolate sundae.  It looked like normal ice-cream but, when you put it in your mouth, it had a faint fizz.  At least that’s what the little chalkboard over the register said. 

The pink-aproned woman behind the counter repeated a dollar amount for the third time, but Jim couldn’t focus.  He put down the loose bills that were in his pocket.  He wished he’d brought his phone.  It would’ve been really nice to hear her voice right then, to murmur something sweet back to her.  Yeah, baby, I know, I know.

The place was full of senior citizens.  In a puce loveseat, a skeletal grandmother spooned heaps of carbonated ice-cream into her mouth, mobile oxygen machine parked next to her like a robot companion.  On the stool beside Jim, an old man with wisps of white hair and a pressed blue suit sat down with a Register and a tumbler of peach frappe.

“Don’t I know you?” said Jim.

The old man unfolded his newspaper and scanned the front.  “Nope.”

Jim leaned toward him.  “No.  I do know you.  You live in my complex.”

“Nope.  Sorry,” said the old man, turning a page.

“You’ve got this incredible train—”

“Look, sport,” said the man, still not turning toward him, “I come in afternoons for a quiet frappe.  I don’t know what you’re on.”  He glanced quickly at the woman behind the counter.  “Excuse me,” he said, taking frappe and paper over to a purple velour sofa, where he sat between a cadaverous 80-year-old man in a straw hat and a fat woman in a sweat suit with an unlit pipe clamped between her lips.

I don’t know what I’m on.”  Jim thought: Valium, Xanax, Librax, Tranxene, baby-blue Vicadin, apple-green Hydrocodone.  The floor tilted when he stood up. 

The woman behind the counter stared at him.

Out front, the bus from the old folks’ home was still unloading.  Jim staggered around a woman’s walker toward his Acura.

Valium, Xanax, Tranxene, baby-blue Vicadin, apple-green Hydrocodone: the mantis was gone and Jim was stoned.  These are the facts of life in Sea-Tac at dawn when you don’t know what you’ve taken.  The pinwheel of memories behind him was still rolling through disjointed hours of the flight-time dark that put him here.  And nothing, nowhere, at no time would ever be auspicious again.

Jim had lost track.  He didn’t know how much of what he had taken pre-flight, during-flight, in what combinations.  Somewhere, in a medical reference, there was probably an entry for what was working inside him, but the mantis was gone so it didn’t matter.  He’d never know whether the little girl had blinded herself, impaled herself on the sculpture or not.  Or maybe there had never been a combination of chemicals like this in any person’s body in the known world.  Maybe he was beyond reference, off the map.  Maybe he’d become the map.  Jim staggered back a step, hugged himself.

He stood in front of the spot where the mantis had been.  The velvet stanchion ropes were still in place, cordoning-off a circle of empty carpet.  A passing janitor gave him a look.  His Zegna jacket had an ice cream stain up the right sleeve.  He’d gotten a few nosebleeds, and there were splotches of blood where he’d used his tie to wipe.  Jim’s shirt was out, left shoe undone.  He thought he should sit down; he had nowhere to go.  The familiar bulge of his wallet was missing from his pockets.  All he had left was his phone.

Jim walked to the same bank of plastic window seats he sat in before.  Had the mantis ever really been there?  If he turned around right now in his seat, would he see it again, all burnished chitinous mandibles and razor-sharp spines?  If the girl had killed herself, had tripped against it or gotten pushed back against the spines in his dream, would it have been any less tragic?  Jim would have asked someone, but there was nobody around—empty seats to vanishing points, black morning-dark windows—and words weren’t moving right in his mouth anyway. 

He speed-dialed home.  If this was all a drug hallucination, maybe this time she’d say something to him, something affectionate, understanding.  The phone slid out of his hand, down his wrinkled shirt as the peal of a miniature car horn came out of the speaker.  In the distance, the first flight of the day touched down.  And a fuel truck on an empty stretch of tarmac suddenly exploded: a marble-sized fireball from where Jim was sitting.  But he didn’t see it.  He was asleep.

Write seriously for any length of time and you learn that it’s a lonely business.  Whether you’re writing essays, stories, poems, scripts, or novels, it’s just you and the page every day with no guarantee that your enormous investment of time, emotion, and energy is ever going to reach a satisfying conclusion.  As Charles Bukowski wrote, you’re “betting on the muse.”  And the muse is a cruel mistress.

Even if she’s the love of your life, sometimes you find yourself wishing the two of you had never met.  Maybe, you think, if I hadn’t gotten addicted to writing, I might have made real progress in a day job.  I might even have reached a point where I could have moved out of my tiny apartment, started paying off my student loans, and bought a car less than 30 years old, a respectable adult at last.

Instead, I chose to take all that energy and put it into words.  When I’m lucky, when the muse deals me a good hand and I play it for all it’s worth, the words seem like they’ll never stop.  There’s no better feeling than that.  But no one can be lucky all the time.  And sometimes you just go bust.

It doesn’t matter whether writing is a hobby or the way you keep the lights on.  All writers have to face the same ups and downs, the same uncertainties, the same droughts, the same bad runs, the same unforgiving emptiness of a blank page with the muse nowhere to be found.  Even the most talented among us can feel like imposters when we bet it all on one hand, fold, and leave the table with nothing but pocket lint and remorse. 

But now we’re in a new abnormal.  There’s a virus and civil unrest in the streets.   Everything’s shuttered or broken.  And our homes have become sci-fi biodomes where we drift through the day in a weird online approximation of the lives we used to lead.  Lockdowns do that.  Pandemics can change everything, even our writing habits.   

Attending a poetry reading or just walking through a bookstore can feel like playing chess with the reaper.  Surgical gear is the new black.  And we can’t waste time in a coffee shop anymore, glowering at a blank screen over a latte with enough sugar to induce an intracranial coma in an elephant.  That was the old world, old rules, old normal.  Now everyone’s socially distanced and weird.  Now everyone’s living like a writer. 

We wait for life to reacquire some semblance of normalcy.  We grieve for those who’ve died and want to safeguard the lives of those who haven’t.  We keep in mind that all life is precious and that we’re in this together.  And we hope that those who are now unemployed or alone or going into debt because of COVID-19 can find a way forward.  We hope this for ourselves, too.

Yet, as with any pandemic, riot, or plague, there are darkly amusing dimensions.  As a friend of mine put it recently, “This can’t go on for much longer.  It’s just too stupid.”  I had to agree.  It is.  Then again, he’s not used to betting on the muse, to leading a solitary hidden life with no assurance that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t just an oncoming train.  Writers are especially poised to continue work through a pandemic.

 

State Dependency Writing Works in a Lockdown

Ever wonder why you can’t seem to get into a good flow state without your bagel and cup of coffee?  Why the little rituals and routines of settling down to write seem so essential?  When you look at them rationally, they’re really nothing—small mundane comforts, little observances in your personal space, that pink bathrobe with the embroidered toucan on the back you only wear when you write. 

Was it grandma’s?  Did you get it at a yard sale in 1993?  Or was it always waiting for you up there in the attic, waiting to become the key element that helped you finish your first novel manuscript?  You don’t want to think about it.  It’s your magic writing bathrobe.  If you look at it too closely, the magic might go away.

I understand.  I’m not here to gainsay your magic.  But I will suggest that memory and brain chemistry are part of it.  And this is why it still works when the rest of the world is stuck at home, day drinking and fantasizing about haircuts.  Therapist and licensed counselor, David Joel Miller, calls it “environmental context-dependent memory” or “situational memory.”  And it’s probably why I’ll be acknowledging Krispy Kreme when my third story collection gets taken.

Miller explains it as “an ability to remember information in one situation that you are unable to remember in another.”  It’s closely related to state-dependent memory, which has more to do with internal chemistry than with location.  Generally, we can say that both types of “state dependency” are invoked by our little magical writing habits. 

 

Are We Talking About Trance States?

Yes and no.  If “trance” is defined broadly as an altered mental state, then yes.  We go into trances all the time—driving our kids to school, washing the dishes, binging five seasons of a show we can barely remember a few days later.  When we do anything familiar enough that it becomes rote, we’re probably doing it in a light trance state.

This is not inducing a David Lynchian out-of-body dissociative episode where we have a conversation with a dead prophet on top of an Aztec pyramid and realize the existential meaning of our lives.  We’re awake.  We’re functional.  We’re just in the flow state that Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the founder of Positive Psychology, describes as a period of total absorption.

He calls flow “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”  That sounds like my compulsive writing habit, my ongoing love affair with the muse.  I also know that, when she deals me a bum hand, flow is impossible.

So just as a gambler will blow on the dice, keep a lucky talisman in a vest pocket, or say a quick prayer to Our Lady of the Full House, we fire up a triple espresso and get a chocolate iced glazed donut.  We creep up to the attic and put on our toucan bathrobe.  Because these invoke our situational memory of having written, of being in that enjoyable flow state.

 

Speaking of the Devil

Legendary writer and Iowa Writers Workshop professor, Madison Smartt Bell, recommends everything from post-hypnotic suggestion to binaural beats.  In a 2011 New Yorker interview about his novel, The Color of Night, he notes that  “Normally most writers don’t say, ‘I’m going into a mild hypnotic trance.’ Typically they don’t know how they do it. . . . Most people, when they have a good experience writing, they’re well placed in that state, which is also sometimes called a ‘flow state.’ If you don’t have trouble, you don’t have to think about it. But if for some reason you can’t get into that state, then you start to have writer’s block.” 

Most of my pragmatic fiction writing teachers didn’t like to talk about writer’s block.  Often, they denied its existence completely.  I think it was because they were superstitious.  Speak of the devil and he might appear.  The most instruction I ever got along these lines was in the last year of my MFA, when the leader of our advanced fiction workshop said: “Your job as a writer is to go into a trance such that, when you come out of it, there are words on the page.”

So here we are in this afraid new locked down world with non-writers drinking wine in our attic and sad news on television.  In times like this, writing is as essential as any form of art.  And we’re the ones to do it.  

We simply have to remember that even though the muse is fickle, even though sometimes we’ll hit a bad run, we can improve our odds by sticking to our rituals.  When we can forget what’s going on in the outside world and enter flow, we won’t be writing in spite of the lockdown.  We’ll just be writing.  And that’s a wonderful place to be.

A short short about interpretive horticulture.

 

Over lunch, Luke tells me about the murder, how he looked up and saw a black cow standing all by itself in the field.  And how that was what made him cry.  After everything.  The cow standing there all alone, completely black.

Luke says he’s not afraid anymore.

I look for a cigarette, then think I must be losing my mind since I’ve been quit for over a year.  Luke has switched to vaping.  So I can’t bum one off him.  Instead, I ask why he came to San Diego, but he only adjusts his sunglasses and shrugs.

Life fell apart, he says, when he quit drinking.  Marianne got promoted.  He couldn’t go out anymore.  His sponsor relapsed, disappeared.  He spent a lot of nights alone.

“So that’s why—it happened?”  I can’t bring myself to say it.

The waiter comes over and asks if we want anything else.  I order another beer.  Luke gets a club soda.

“That’s just it.  I don’t know.  It wasn’t me.”

The wind blows a plastic bag along the sidewalk by our table and we both look down at it instead of at each other.

“She was beautiful that day.”

Two blocks west, Pacific Beach rolls white static in the heat.  We can look down Chalcedony Street and see the thin line of the break coming in.  Everybody here is tan except Luke, who’s a waxy Missouri pale.  He got thin since I left Hauberk.  He grew his hair long, dyed it black.

“I don’t understand,” I say.

He looks at a waitress inside the cafe laughing at a table with three blond surfers.  “I don’t understand, either.”

But Luke says he remembers everything.  He’ll never forget how happy Marianne was when Bulldog moved her desk into his office.  Bulldog has a real name.  Everyone just calls him that out of affection, but everyone hates him.

“Marianne hated him.  But she was so happy.”

“She always seemed happy.”

Luke takes out his vape pen.  It’s chrome, has GOLIATH down the side in a space-age font.

“You met her twice,” he says.

She started going out after work with guys from the office.  To Nene’s, the Burmese Lounge, the Five Dimes.  He’d call around until he found her, ask her to come home.  Luke was never invited.  What was he going to do?  Sit there and drink 7-Up?  He tells me nobody liked him.  Bulldog made fun of him, called him Sauron.  Marianne thought it was funny.

“She didn’t really think it was funny.  She just said she did.”

“Is that why—”

Luke exhales a thick cloud that smells like a chocolate liqueur dissolved in alcohol.  “Stop.  Can you please?”

I feel embarrassed even though I didn’t do anything.  I don’t know where to put my hands now that I’m done with my salad.  So I put them in my pockets, which still feels awkward.  But Luke doesn’t notice.  He’s watching the waitress talk to the surfers inside.

I’ve never met Bulldog, but I’ve met Marianne and I can imagine: up goes her desk to the third floor right next to the Dog, who’s taking her out to Nene’s later with the lucky few who can’t say no.  And Sauron isn’t coming because, frankly, he’s embarrassing and uncomfortable and not too stable.  And what’s she doing with him anyway?

I picture Luke next to Marianne in the dark, eyes open, maybe whispering her name, maybe putting his hand on her arm.  That’s great, but their lives, like their stuff, are all mixed up together because they’ve been living with each other for three years.  Situations like that don’t get solved by calling around at bar time or touching someone’s arm in the middle of the night.  Maybe she says, “Luke, let’s get some sleep.”  And maybe that’s what they pretend to do.

He tells me how numb he feels.  “Like I’ve been away somewhere for a really long time.  Like I’m someone I don’t know.”

“That’s how you seem to me, too.  No offense.”

“None taken.”

He vapes.  He watches the waitress inside the cafe.  I look at the V of ocean down at the end of Chalcedony Street and think about how the water is pale jade but it looked gunmetal a week ago and how this is a lesson of some kind.

Luke could have learned to accept Bulldog in Marianne’s life.  “He has this five-story house in north Hauberk.  One of the old Victorians.  It used to be the girls’ school.  He has a refrigerator that plays music.  His wife, Kathy, she wears a lot of gold.  She’s a treasury.  That’s what he says, my baby’s a treasury.  But he means all the gold.”  And it could have been okay like that.  But the one time Luke and Marianne came over for dinner, Kathy’s old shih tzu pissed on Luke’s leg.  So Bulldog threw Luke out.

“Funny that he’s named Bulldog and he has a dog.”

“Marianne thought so.”

“Sorry.”

Luke looks at me.  I can’t see his eyes behind his black aviators.

“Nobody’s ever sorry,” he says.

He’s not the kid I knew in high school.  Piers Anthony novels at lunch and Judge Dredd comics and too much Black Sabbath and his dad on duty in Gavin Long Men’s Facility five nights a week.  His mom died before he got to know her.  Maybe that’s what we’ll say in the end—that’s what fucked Luke up.  But in the end no one will probably say anything.  Marianne’s dead.  I don’t know what it means.

“So I ran over the dog.  It’s name was Scruffy.  I ran over Scruffy.”

“Did you kill anything else?”

“No.  Just the dog.”

I nod, like, that’s good.  It’s good you only murdered one human and one dog.

“It didn’t suffer.”

Two years ago, I went back to Hauberk for my uncle’s farewell.  Luke came and it was good to see him.  He was quiet, stood in the back of the church, and tried not to stare when my aunt collapsed on the coffin.  Who will go to Marianne’s funeral?  Will Luke stand in the back and try not to stare?  Will I?

“Where are you going now?”

“Mexico, I think.  Maybe nowhere.  I stabbed her.  With a bread knife.”

“Jesus Christ, man.  I mean—”

“I stabbed her and she was wearing this Hawaiian sun dress.  It was white but it had huge red flowers on it.  You couldn’t see anything.  She didn’t suffer.  I promise.”

“Alright,” I whisper.  “I guess that’s good.”

Tears run down under his aviators, but his mouth stays flat, his voice level.  “You believe me, don’t you?  That she didn’t suffer?”

“I believe you.”

“We were having a picnic by this little stream.  It was a good place.  It was peaceful.  You could hear the water on the rocks.  Then I looked up at that black cow.  And it didn’t seem nice anymore.”

My throat’s too tight to speak.  I drink some beer.  Then I look at Luke and say, “Yes.  I understand.”

A letter story after Bret Easton Ellis.

The funeral was horrible.  And you want me to say it wasn’t.  And I want that, too.  But every time I lie, I feel worse.  I don’t blame you.

What to do.  Where to be.  What we should have done.  How it all might have been better.  Or different.  Or maybe just not so bad.  I think about this shit all the time.  I should stop thinking. 

So you’re out in Spain.  That’s cool.  Spain gets you away from all this.  It’s a good choice.  Seriously.  And I hope Patty’s making it.  At least, I hope she’s physically alright.  Have some gazpacho for me, okay?

This morning, early, I drove out to Mount Lee, hiked up behind the Hollywood sign, looked out between the L and the Y where it happened.  The air was pretty clear and I could see all the way to downtown.  Of course, Bella didn’t come.  She won’t even say Alisa’s name. 

Bella’s been drinking a lot more now.  She looks pissed off all the time.  But you understand, right?  I mean, you and Patty went to Spain.  Drunk is Bella’s Spain.

There’s nothing up there now.  No police tape.  Not even trash since it rained.  All gone.  I thought I’d put some flowers down, but I forgot to get any.  So I just stood there and thought about the funeral.  I can’t begin to explain how depressing it was.  Trust me, Spain was a good move.

One thing Bella said two weeks ago, when we had our first big relationship-defining fight that we’re still calling a conversation: “Alisa was a money-hungry talentless slut and this was about attention.”  That was Stupid Drunk Bella going on.  You know. 

I broke my hand that night after she took off.  I don’t know why because we weren’t even screaming.  I had some klonopin.  We were in the living room with the lights off, trying to talk about boundaries or some shit and whether I should get my own place.  It seemed like we were making progress for about 10 minutes.  But now the Toyota needs a new passenger window.  

I think about Alisa for no reason at all.  About all of us, really.  You two were hooking up and, no, you don’t have to deny it.  We’re beyond that and you’re in Spain.  So don’t worry.  Nobody’s going to tell Patty.  I think that’s why Bella hates Alisa.  I keep telling her it’s ridiculous to hate a dead person.

I was fucking Bella behind Alisa’s back and you were fucking Alisa behind Patty’s back.  And all we did was sneak around and fuck each other and lie to each other.  We were so much better when we were friends just living together and failing at life.  What happened?

They had an open casket.  It was a bad decision.  The bullet did things to Alisa’s face that makeup couldn’t fix.  I thought her cousin was going to puke when she walked up to view the body.  Alisa was too pretty to have an open casket like that.  I don’t know what the logic was there.  I can’t get it out of my head.

Bella and I are still together, even after everything, because I think it’s just easy.  It’s easier than sleeping in our old bedrooms and having to be polite and pretend.  I guess we’re sleeping in the same bed and doing that.  She’s auditioning all the time.  I think she’s in a commercial for some kind of bean dip.  You should google her.  She’s good.  But she doesn’t make me want to buy the bean dip.

I’m still waiting tables at Earth.  It’s boring, but I don’t have to be home a lot that way, which I know is a fucked up kind of therapy.  But I guess it works well enough.  I go up to Mount Lee a few times a week.  I can’t sleep.

I found the video of the camping trip we took last summer.  I’m attaching it in case you care.  I don’t recommend it unless you actually like feeling bad, but I looked at it a few days ago.  I was in the living room, playing it on my laptop and crying a little, when Bella came in.  She just got the lead in the new Mata Hari opening at the Vantage because someone poisoned the person ahead of her.  She was in a good mood for once, singing, twirling around the room, which made me break down in a complete mess.  Things didn’t really go anywhere that night in terms of human decency.  She says she still wants to be with me.  She just doesn’t want to live with me.  I don’t want to live with me, either.

If you were here, I guess I’d ask what you think, if you have an opinion on any of it.  But I seriously do not want you to write an email back to me like this one and talk about Alisa’s suicide.  I know you don’t want to.  I don’t even expect you to have read this far.  I wouldn’t.  Just enjoy Spain and be nice to Patty.  Drink a lot of beer.  Go to a museum.

I keep having this thought.  I keep thinking that I knew Alisa was going to do it, that I was watching her slip away, and I didn’t do anything.  Why?  I don’t understand how we could just let her get worse and worse.  Like when she didn’t get the part in Veracity and took all your valium.  I mean, what the actual fuck was that? 

Bella says it was  about attention, but why weren’t we paying attention?  It fucks me up.  And how did she get a gun?  Nobody knows a thing.  You want to guess about that one for me?  Because I know it wasn’t mine.  I’ve never owned one in my life.  We were up our own asses is the answer, which is no answer at all but still absolutely true.

Last week, I hiked Mount Lee just before dawn.  L.A. looked like a bunch of orange stars under a black sky.  I was thinking that more people have killed themselves in this town than all the lights you can see from there.  It’s morbid and it’s also beautiful.  Like Alisa.  We should start naming the lights the way we name the constellations.  I’m probably going to keep going there.  Because what else is there?  Maybe some morning I’ll be able to figure out which light is her. 

After years of teaching creative writing and going through many creative ups and downs of my own, I’ve developed a very simple philosophy to guide what I do: don’t think about it; just put it out there and move on to the next thing.  Or, as a professor of mine once liked to say, be quiet and take your lumps.  If you develop a regular writing habit, I believe this is what you absolutely have to do—that is, if you intend to stay sane.

Consider that any amount of time a reader spends on your work is a compliment and a gesture of implicit encouragement.  Got a bad review?  That’s a lot more than the 10,000 other writers standing behind you got waiting for theirs.  Got a magazine rejection telling you not to quit your day job?  Do you realize how many submitters just got the form rejection or nothing at all?  Many.  Got panned on Twitter by a journalist with a chip on her shoulder?  Great.  You wrote something compelling or irritating.  That’s very good.  She’s helping you out, amplifying your message. 

You broke out of the silent apoplexy that turns most writers to stone.  You made someone feel something for a change.  That’s the point.  No matter how hostile or kind, excited or blasé readers act, the end result is the same: they spent their precious time considering what you wrote when they could have been doing something else.  The more you think about that, the more it will seem like a remarkable gift.  The only real failure, in that sense, is to misunderstand what you’ve been given.

Many writers misunderstand.  They’re so busy flogging their platforms, soothing their fragile egos, and vehemently promoting themselves that they start to act entitled, even if they don’t truly feel that way deep down.  It gives them a brittle exterior.  They risk being crushed by a bad review or even an apathetic response from their audience, which is a shame.  When they started writing, it wasn’t for applause.  It was to find creative satisfaction.  But over the years, they forgot about that.  Now they’re like a raw nerve.

So it can be helpful to remember that indulging in self-entitlement is a very bad idea.  While talk is cheap, words happen to be your business.  You have to be a word factory, constantly producing, constantly submitting and posting.  And if you can do that, you will realize yourself through that consistency, not by appealing to the fickle vagaries of taste.  But this also means sometimes you will take a public beating.  This is the meaning of take your lumps.

Of course, you don’t have to submit everything you write.  Conventional wisdom tells us to sit on a draft until we get some distance and objectivity.  I did it that way until a few stories I thought would never get published got taken right away and a novella I’d slaved over and considered and re-drafted and polished remained in submission turnaround for several years.  It taught me a valuable, counterintuitive lesson.  I realized I’m the worst judge of my own work and so is everyone else.

We never know if we’re any good and no one else knows, either.  We know what we like.  We know what our aesthetic values tell us is and isn’t quality work.  But those values are arbitrary to culture and conditioning.  They’re not immutable Platonic forms.  There is no universal objective standard for quality in the creative arts.  There’s only what I’m seeing from where I’m standing and how I got there. 

Maybe I’m a library or an archive or the Pulitzer committee or an English department.  And so I have a certain amount of status and gatekeeping authority conferred on me by said culture and conditioning.  But that doesn’t change anything.  It means some writers will have their scrolls preserved in the basement of Cheops and others will see their words crumble on the wind.  The “test of time” is no test of quality.  There is only what is being spoken, written, and read in this moment by these eyes.  The rest is a dream of something written in that past or a vision of something to be written in the future.

What an upsetting idea!  If that’s true, why do we even have English studies?  The answer to that is what the legendary Dr. Richard Kroll gave me in his office at UC Irvine when, as a naïve undergraduate, I asked a version of that question: we study English to be able to read and write with clarity and intelligence.  The rest is work for archaeologists, curators, and antiquarians—good work, valuable work, but not the work of words themselves.  Writing exists in the reader right now or it doesn’t at all.

For people who write stories, poems, essays, and plays, this has radical implications.  One is that critical feedback, while sometimes interesting and useful, is more like a eulogy than a prescription.  The work has been read.  The moment has passed.  And whatever rhetorical effects have been created, whatever ideational structures rose up in the mind of the reader, either accomplished their work or didn’t.

Another implication is that taste—especially publishing taste and the marketing that oozes from it—is a creature of recent history, not really of the moment.  By the time you finish taking that class in commercial screenplay writing that guarantees you’ll be producing blockbuster scripts by the end, the gaze of the industry has already shifted.  Writers constantly producing derivative work in the service of whatever is supposed to be commercial are always playing catch-up.

The answer to this can be a bit scary: don’t worry about it.  Flying blind is the only real way to fly.  It means taking a horrendous risk with your time, emotions, and energy every time you sit down at the desk.  But you wanted to be a creative artist, not a scholar of other people’s past art, right?  Then shut your mouth and take your lumps.  There will be lumps, many and various, if you’re doing it right.

On the other hand, it’s a reason to be joyful.  If you’re committed to the idea that you cannot objectively judge your own work and neither can anyone else, you reach a point where it’s not about them.  It’s about you finding your subject matter and your voice.  It’s about pursuing the development of those things as a way to realize yourself.  This is incredibly freeing.

My mom, who was a brilliant painter and sculptor, put it like this: once you finish a work of art, it doesn’t belong to you.  It’s not your baby.  It’s separate from you.  Whether or not you formally submit it to others makes no difference.  In an existential sense, it has entered the world.  It’s now a syllable in the dialogue of creation, for better or worse.  So get over it.  Once the ritual is complete, the magic has been sent forth to cause change.  And it will.

A short short for Wynonie Harris.

 

It was then that he had a horrible moment of clarity, standing in the kitchen, listening to the clock.  Normally, he didn’t hear it or didn’t pay attention to what he heard.  But tonight, with only the soft whisper of rain against the roof, the second hand sounded terrible, like it was chipping away at something—inexorable, unconditional, tiny-but-relentless chipping.  And the horror of it, of everything it implied, rooted him to the spot.

Perhaps that was the only place he could have one of his moments of clarity, the only confluence of space and circumstance—breaking a glass in the sink three hours before; gulping the last bottle of red wine to get the hateful, spiteful, self-critical voice out of his head and promptly vomiting; lying awake beside his sleeping-pilled wife, administering the old self-accusatory review of all his failures back to age eight—which could open his mind now to the hard truth. 

One day he’d be too old.  One day he’d run out of ways to hustle up the meagre scratch that kept them going.  And then, when the juice ran out, it would be the street.  The small mercies of the little house owned by his in-laws, to which he and his wife had repaired when they both lost their jobs, would be long gone.  And then the street.  And all the street would entail.

He could already see the signs: gray streaks in his hair, his wife’s chronic pain, the litany of sacrifices they’d had to make increasing steadily, incrementally, over time.  His moment of clarity was a moment of dread so deep and profound and undeniable that he felt tears almost come.  But crying was something he never did.

Still, one might cry, all alone in a kitchen, thinking about the future to a ticking clock.  Daddy’s ghost wouldn’t bar his way to heaven for a transgression as small as that.  Would it?  Then again, if Daddy’s ghost were anything like Daddy, it would be a puffed-up, arrogant, critical, contemptuous sonofabitch.  So maybe yes, Daddy’s ghost would bar the way for shedding a tear.

As Daddy’s cruel voice had reminded him not long ago in bed, as he’d learned the hard way growing up, all failures are accounted for, all sins recorded, all capitulations and weaknesses tracked with Newtonian precision.  The world does not forgive.  The world does not forget.  And the only law the world has is that of Motion, of cause an effect, action and reaction, crime and punishment.  And then the street.  Where even this whispering rain, so quaint while one is safe indoors, becomes the executioner’s song.

This is why he drank, to stop that cruel voice and it’s precise accounting, to stop the dread.  This is why he drank a whole bottle of his father-in-law’s discount red, since the beer ran out days before, and the lockdown meant getting to the store entailed days of advance planning and a depressing conversation about expenses. 

But the voice didn’t care, that part of him that sounded like Daddy and hated him, that wanted him to suffer.  He had to drink it into submission.  And all he had now was the unopened fifth of Jim Beam he’d gotten for Christmas two years ago and was afraid to open.  If he drank that, then the voice would tell him about his stupid, crazy things, things that he’d regret for years, that his wife would be sure he never forgot.  Because he was weak.  Because he’d lost his job.  Because the Law of Motion.  Because consequences.

And the voice, the cruel presentiment that kept him awake on nights he gave in to thinking.  Its horrifying clarity about what would come.  His failure to find more work.  Their struggle to pay her strict disappointed parents the modest rent on this house and the sheer certainty that he and his wife would then be turned out of doors.  The juice running out.  Better, said the voice, not to think at all.  Better not to wake up and have to face the payments and punishments of another day.

He walked to the sink.  The razor-sharp Japanese paring knife was there, drying on a cloth towel.  Don’t think about the electric bill you can’t pay, about the choices you’ve made, about a virus in the streets, dead bodies piled in the morgue, the juice all gone.  Don’t think any of it is right or wrong—because you’re still going to pay, one way or another. Don’t think about Daddy’s ghost or the seven steps to heaven the song says are just too steep.  Don’t think about what will become of your wife.  Don’t think about the street.

Dead plants on the window sill over the sink.  Dark blacktop glistening from the amber streetlight at the corner.  The old willow just beyond, waving in the wind like it knows, dense with amber shadows.  Don’t think about the street, the relentless ticking of the clock.  And don’t cry.  The doorway to eternity resides in every moment.  Tell yourself that.  Pick up the knife.

A spontaneous short short, written at midnight.

One dreams of an enormous bird of night, shaped out of a cloud, its edges illuminated, because one saw it at midnight and remembered. 

A bloodstain above the horizon or a fume of ink, with surrounding moon and constellations, and the 12:40 freight to Gary, Indiana, pushing through the black landscape, its headlamp an angry earthbound star.

One dreams of the bird while sleeping on the dock of Vu-Tech Logistics—the only place it’s possible to sleep on such a hot night in Missouri—big spiders and moths up around the floods doing their dance and five more nightshift hours to dawn.

One guards nothing at Vu-Tech Logistics and gets paid for it, gets away with it, a job only a human could possibly have and only a robot could possibly do.  Someday, they’ll invent a machine that can process nothing, contemplate nothing, scan through vacant warehouse space on an algorithm of emptiness, accomplishing nothing. And they’ll love it. And then the world will truly end.  But until that time, nightshifts will pass hour-by-hour and fools will dream on loading docks in summer.

So why not dream?  Dream anything but a horrible bird of night. 

Dream the cloud of blood expanding, edges bright from a sodium-vapor sign above a dirt lot in Triton, Arizona—a landlocked town named for a sea monster, a town whose first mistake came long before its name and whose last would come long after it called its only bar, MOM’S. 

The dirt lot behind the bar.

The bar, a filthy violent place.

A place you might someday forget, along with the blood.

And the blinking sign above: EAT . . . AT . . . MOM’S.

You roll on your side and watch the train pass by, as you have many times before, as you will again, listening to the crickets beneath the dock’s crumbled lip.

One day, there will be no bird of night, no bird-shaped cloud, no cloud-shaped blood. No memories of a dead drunk in the sodium light. Only passing freight to wake you up. And no more MOM’S burning in your dreams, making the wings above glow red.

 

 

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/the-new-york-times-is-rotting-at-the-seams

Vintage circus photo sad clown antique photograph poster wall

 

If you’re a writer, you’ll live your life not knowing if you’re any good.  And you’ll die not knowing.  I think John Berryman said that. 

After Phil Levine published his first book of poems, people said, yeah, but can you do it again?  Then he did it again.  Then they said, yeah, but have you been featured in the New York Times Review of Books?  Then he got a review.  So they said, yeah, but have you won any major awards?  He won several.  Then they said, yeah, but we remember you back when you were broke in Detroit.  You’ll always be a bum

There is no escape.  Nobody from the old neighborhood wants to see you get ahead.  It’s a law of nature, the Bumfuck Reflexive Property.  You can ruin your life if you burn your emotional energy wondering whether they’re right.  Every moment you spend doing that is a waste.  But all writers do it.

Hang around with writers and artists and you realize they’ve got a particular tangible proficiency at their kind of art.  Maybe they were born with it or, more likely, they worked hard at developing what little gift they had into something presentable.  The gift, whatever it is, is real and observable.  But whether they’re mediocre or brilliant, derivative or original, a flash in the pan or someone whose art is set to be preserved in the basement of Cheops, you will never know.  More significantly, they will never know. 

If you like their work, great.  If you don’t, you can always recall the time they were broke and living in the projects across from Wayne State.  HA.  HA.  HA.  Let’s all laugh at the sad clown.  Some people and their lousy choices.  Am I right?  If they were any good people would want to pay them for their work.  I mean, that’s just common sense.

I suppose it’s sad when an artist hasn’t learned how to fail (or how to stubbornly and angrily reject failure), when she takes the Bumfuck to bed and makes love to it, when she’s covered in despair, when she finds herself thinking about her choices.  The rest of us chose to avoid that humiliation early.  We were smart and didn’t even try.  Or if we did, we never let anyone see it and gave up shortly thereafter.  And look at us today.  We just got back from our annual trip to Florida.  It’s a good life.

But she has to spend some nights staring at the wall, probing for answers that will never come.  Because her friends and family don’t know what to tell her, even though they have many strongly held opinions on her work and direction in life.  Her teachers didn’t know (even the ones who praised her back at clown school).  And ultimately, she doesn’t know, can’t know, even if she wins a Golden Bozo next year and gets to put “Genius” on her resume.  She might just be a lucky clown, a clown of the moment, a one clown wonder.  How do you ever really, truly know if you’re any good?

Genius.  Hell, she can barely afford lunch.  And so the questions: am I actually a no-talent, deluded ass-clown?  Was taking out a loan to go to clown school the worst decision of my life?  Should I have listened to my old high-school friend who went straight into an apprenticeship as a waste management professional and who is now debt-free, pumping out the city’s shit everyday for a middle-five-figure salary?  The dude owns his own house.  He loves reminding me how debt-free he is.  He loves it.

Can I say the same?  Do I love being a clown?  I thought I did.  But now that I’m out of clown school, I feel so alone.  At least back there I had a useful amount of social friction, mutually shared productive spite, the catty competitiveness of nervous art students to hold me up and distract me. 

Now I only have these four walls and the dirty mirror over the sink and the constant message that if it doesn’t make money, it’s a hobby, not a calling.  A life spent vacuuming out the municipal sewer, by that definition, would be the Grail Quest.  But that tract house and the vacation package in Florida speaks for itself.

How good do I have to be to take clowning seriously, to argue that it is my reason for living and not just a lukewarm pastime that regularly torments me.  Sometimes, I wonder what good is—if it is something metaphysical, some hidden imprimatur, some mysterious proof, like divine grace received only through predestination.  Do we know it when we see it?  Or do we see it because we only know what we’ve been told? 

How much telling is good?  How much showing?  If I get the emotional effect I want by the last line of my story, does that justify anything I do along the way, any narrative impropriety—like Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of the most structurally verfucked stories I have ever seen that nevertheless works?  It works because it moves me.  Me.  Not necessarily you. 

What’s more, when I get to the end, I know in the way that comes from having spent too much time with fellow ass-clowns, that “Hills Like White Elephants” would have never gotten a pass in clownshop.  Poor sad clownbear.  Put on your hardhat and gas mask.  There’s shit pumping needs to be done.

I read the New Yorker and The Paris Review.  For clowns, those are basically trade publications.  Those clowns really know how to do it.  They know what’s good, what’s right and wrong about art and culture, what should be published, what should be condemned.  The people they feature—man, that is some serious clown shit.  They really push the clownvelope.  In fact, they are so serious at times that their work transcends everyday clowning and enters the Mime Plane.  It’s a micro universe.  All the mimes who ever existed and who ever will exist live there in an eternal limbo that can fit on the head of a pin.  And yet it’s enormous.  Space and time.  You know.  Like warm bubble-gum.

But I stay away from the mimes, like Alice Mimero and Jonathan Mimezen and Jeffrey Eumimedies and Mimeberto Eco.  Their work is—I don’t even know how to describe it—it’s mysterious.  Like pushing the wind or the transparent box or juggling the invisible chainsaws.  Somehow, it’s supposed to seem dangerous or terrifying.  Risky.  But when an invisible chainsaw slips, there’s only invisible blood.  Hard to see.  You have to pretend it’s there.  Mime stuff, you know.  Everyone acts like they get it.

And yet they’re held up to us as the cultural elite.  How does that work?  Why are we still encouraged by the Big Six to think of these clowns as mysterious and compelling?  I guess only those who put out effort to remain mysterious will continue to be seen that way.  And perpetually wrapping yourself in a glamour of mystery is a lie.  Because no one is actually that.  But we lionize our artists.  The publishing industry runs a lion circus.  We want to believe they know something we don’t when they jump and roar.

Them lions is pathological.  All they know is that gazelles are tasty.  And us?  We don’t even know that much.

I might know that shit stinks and pumping it for a living is a bummer.  I know I’d give a hundred tract houses and a timeshare in Pensacola not to have that be the substance of my Grail Quest.  I’d rather squander my life writing, even if I am a no-talent ass-clown.

But you?  I’m not so sure about you.  Maybe you’re not one of the Cheops Basement All-Stars yet.  Maybe you’ll always be a bum somewhere in municipal Detroit, freezing in your bloodied clown suit.  But I can tell you one thing.  You’ll never really know if you’re any good.  And you won’t be able to look at others for the answer.  They’re all a bunch of ass-clowns, too.

All you can do is keep at it, day after day, hoping somebody somewhere sees what you see.  All you can do is show up.

Writers on the pain of hindsight in publishing: 'It's like a bad breakup – you have to move on ...

If I could tell you the number of stories and novels I’ve begun writing and not finished, we’d be here too long.  But “not finished” doesn’t mean “discarded.”  It means what it says. 

The difficulty comes when I’ve convinced myself that I’m one sort of writer (the consistent, cheerfully productive kind) as opposed the other, less glamorous (or, at least, less visible) sort—a slave to the vicissitudes of the moon or some shit, the guy with 25 ongoing projects and an inability to stop working on any of them. 

I know this about myself.  I tell myself that it’s all part of the bigger creative process.  I imagine all these incomplete pieces fermenting, cross-pollinating, mutating.  Nothing lost.  Everything in motion.  And I take refuge in those ideas and metaphors so I can keep working.  Being a writer, I tell myself a story.  But it might be bullshit self-deceit.

The Romantics smoked opium to get closer to the moon and further from the Victorian head trauma of  “productivity.”  And when my genre writer pals do highly Victorian social media posts that go, “Sigh.  Only 10 pages today,” I wonder whether they’re writing from inspiration or simply turning a lathe in some Dickensian word factory.  Productivity equals commercial success, while moonbeams are their own reward.  Still, I have word count envy no matter what I do. 

The problems of productivity and self-deceit are at the center of trying to write the hard thing.  They are the essential obstacles in making the fiction I came here to make instead of clocking in and lathing out a bunch of words to satisfy something or someone else.  I don’t want to produce that which has been assigned to me by industry, necessity, or convention.  I hate obeying.  But am I achieving anything in my disobedience?  For that matter, is achievement even the point?

When yet another publishing industry blog post comes out sounding like the vehement Alec Baldwin scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, I feel repulsed.  I don’t want to spend time creating a fucking audience platform.  Being an artist is not about “closing.”  Just doing the actual writing takes up all my energy.  I don’t want to frame pieces of my fiction as marketable units.  I want to sit in a moonbeam and make something that arises from my own unique imperatives and disposition.  I want the serendipity of inspiration.  I live for it.  And I resist the overtures of commercialism dedicated to consumption and to bullying artists into seeing themselves as part of a service industry.

Unfortunately, I also can’t avoid wanting the world to read my work and maybe give me some money so I can feed and clothe myself.  It’s terrifying sometimes.  Years ago, at an AWP conference, talking with a publisher after I put out Gravity, my first collection of stories, I felt like Nunez in “The Country of the Blind”—faced with the choice of getting what I loved if I voluntarily blinded myself or seeing clearly and climbing out of the hidden valley forever.  In the end, I chose to keep my eyes.

“If you want to get a second book out using the momentum of your first,” he said, “you need to complete the manuscript in less than a year.  More than that and people forget who you are.  You won’t be able to position it.  You’ll be starting over.”  Six years later, my second book was done.  And he was correct: from the marketing, word factory standpoint, I was starting over.  From a creative-process standpoint, those six years were predicated on the six that came before.  I wasn’t starting over.  I was writing something hard that had emerged from my ongoing creative process, something I couldn’t have written in under a year.

Finishing writing in one’s own time instead of in service to the word factory is difficult.  Discovering one’s limitations as an artist and then transcending them is very difficult.  Putting in the years is difficult.  Doing this up to and beyond age 30 is not only difficult but scary.  Nevertheless, all can be accomplished if one is willing to believe in something greater than the word count.  One says, it’s all part of my creative process and tries to calm down.  One decides not to read (or write) certain self-aggrandising Facebook posts.

Of course, there might not be a bigger process.  Maybe there is only Random House, Amazon, AWP conference ugliness, building a platform, positioning and branding, and Best American Monotony.  Maybe.  Maybe we exist in a world full of cynical anti-creative money-making ventures, cautious art, and nothing else.  It’s always possible.  The thought of it sometimes keeps me up at night, especially in those blocked periods of worrying and not writing.

It’s like reading about nuclear war or the earth dying from climate change: you have no agency, no option to mitigate the damage, soulless politicians are making horrible decisions, and there is only one way this can end.  Apocalypse.  Tragedy.  No one at the wheel.  Inhuman corporations controlling everything.  And death, ignominious and unnoticed, unless you get with the program and start churning out formulaic units. 

Capitalism wins.  It usually does.  But if there is a bigger process at work in your struggle to be an artist, it can’t have anything to do with metaphors of productivity on a factory timeline.  That is a reality you must not accept.

How does a writer know what’s real?  Is it moonbeam or production line?  Is it both?  Can it be both?  Andy Warhol, Ernest Hemingway, and David Bowie say yes.  For the rest of us, maybe not.  For every Warhol, Hemingway, and Bowie, there are multitudes who weren’t lucky enough to have their unique artistry coincide with commercial demand. 

Hugh Howey likes to write about Wool the way Elon Musk talks about launching a roadster into space: let me tell you about my unique genius and the origin of my success.  But self-publishing fame and running a car company have one thing in common that never gets discussed: they exist because they are timely.  So it is with any highly lucrative creative effort.  And that intersection has to do with luck.  Meanwhile, someone out there is no doubt making Peking opera, but they are unlikely to be buying villas on the Riviera anytime soon.  Nobody cares.  Their units don’t ship.  And yet they also have the favor of the moon.

Writers are especially predisposed to misunderstand what is real—what is objective versus just a moonbeam.  They spend a lot of time deliberately thinking in metaphors, some more useful than others.  And if they’re not paying attention to their minds, they can mistake such metaphors for objective reality (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with capitalist realism).  Over-absorption in a world of imaginative metaphors can become a source of anxiety when the non-make-believe world reaches out and reminds us that we can’t live totally in our imaginations.  Make your Peking opera, sure, but also accept that the six years you put into it mean nothing in terms of branding and positioning.

A writer will see something and begin to imagine things about it—everyone does this, but writers seem to do it with particular intensity—and before long the writer starts to feel like he or she knows it or, even worse, is it.  Then something from the world of physics and money communicates: no, you are not that.  You can’t imagine yourself to fame and fortune if you’re doing original work.  You might get lucky, yes, and I hope you (I hope I) do.  But commerce and true creativity exist in different spaces.

So I look at my 25 open projects with a bit of trepidation as the days go by.  I’m turning 46 this month.  I’ve published a lot of stories in magazines and two books.  These have been hard things.  Are they enough?  Will they ever be enough?

Don’t worry, I tell myself.  There’s bigger process at work.  There must be.

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/attacked-on-the-street

You Are Somewhere Else

There was something evil in the glow of the room’s blue lights.  I felt the weight of the man on top of me.  He could no longer move.  His eyes were closed.  I stared long into his face.  I realized that I wanted him.  I wanted the passion he had until a moment ago.  I wanted his shoulders, which were quite muscular for his age, and his naturally tan face.  I got out from under his body, sat in a chair, and lit a cigarette.  I had to wait like this until he fell into a deep sleep.

It was raining outside.

The Kingdom, Fuminori Nakamura (trans. Kalau Almony)

A recent short short of mine, “You Are Somewhere Else,” is forthcoming in Visitant and should be available online.  As usual, I will post the links when the story comes out. – M

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/on-campus/stem-scientism-and-the-decline-of-the-humanities

Read it at: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/the-nra-isn-t-the-problem

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

...

Early rendition of Alfred E. Neuman, 1908.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– “The Long Quiet Highway,” Natalie Goldberg

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

And, right then, so did I.

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

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

“You’re gonna stop calling me Percival.”

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

“What, you wanna go living a lie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two vacuum salesmen to my right were still grinning.

“Tough night, pal?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need to get home to my wife.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I might have had it once.”

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

“I’ll make it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philosopher with an Open Book by Salomon Coninck (1645)

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

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

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

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

The ivory tower covered in camouflage.

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

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

Enter: John, who also wanted to matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Green Muse by Albert Maignan (1895)

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

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

Listen. And seek the mysteries.

I’ve written three books of fiction to date, all story collections; though, only one of them has been published. This is not remarkable or typical in any sense, even if I do have the stereotypical writer’s voice in my head telling me that I should be submitting to more book contests, etc. My submission schedule results in about 2-3 stories placed in magazines every year, a process I actually enjoy, and I have no plans to stop doing that. Still, I sometimes wonder whether the world needs another immature literary magazine, another lousy e-book marketing campaign (what Chuck Wendig calls the “shit volcano”), or another mediocre career-building novel entering the flotsam. What does the world need?

Better: what do I need?

Books are not the only way to be published, even if they are the fiction writer’s holy grail—specifically novels, ideally lots of novels—because they sell and therefore build careers. Or, as an industry professional once said to me at an AWP conference, “You need to write at least a novel a year for the next five years if you want to be a contender.” He was an important person in the publishing world, had a red nose, a cigar in his lapel pocket, and I was completely intimidated by him at the time. So I nodded as if I understood. But I didn’t and should have asked, “A contender for what, exactly?”

Publishing only feels like boxing. In reality, it’s business, the alchemy of transforming things into money. When business and art collide, a volatile chain reaction usually takes place resulting in all sorts of monstrous transmogrifications, creeping morbidity, and a certain amount of screaming. Put simply, how many writers have you heard of who built a career out of publishing a book a year? I can think of maybe one or two and none writing outside strictly defined genres.

The only literary writer who may produce full-length books with that kind of regularity is Joyce Carol Oates, someone as great as she is prolific but who is entirely unique. So “a book a year” might not be the best advice if you’re in this to make art. If you’re in it to make money, why aren’t you running a brothel, flipping houses, developing apps, or managing a hedge fund? You can probably make an app a year. Brothels, I don’t know, but I imagine their schedules are a bit more eventful.

Every writer asks a version of this question, sometimes on a regular basis: should I be writing harder, faster, longer, mo betta? Should I be soaking down the meadow like a frustrated stallion on horse viagra? How much is too much and why is it that by asking this question I feel soiled? Of course, as with most questions writers ask themselves, there are no answers. There are only opinions and that vague soiled feeling. To be honest, there is only subjectivity in this context.

So how much? Stop asking. Stop thinking about it. Just write. And if you want to be a “contender,” find a different metric against which to measure your progress.

One of the many reasons I love pulp fiction from the early 20th century: writers like HP Lovecraft can have a line like, “the moon was gleaming vividly over the primeval ruins” (from “The Nameless City“) and actually get away with it. If I wrote something like “gleaming vividly,” my teachers would have beaten me publicly for about an hour. Is it gleaming? Really? Do you have any idea what that is? Vividly? What does “vividly” look like? Do you even know? If you know, how come you’re not showing it in concrete terms? If you don’t know, fuck you, why are you writing it? Oh, the beating would be vast and terrible.

Instead of telling the reader that the moon was gleaming vividly, the harder, more powerful, more evocative and immersive technique, is to show the gleam, show how it’s vivid, show how the ruins might look primeval using descriptive language. That’s the way I was taught. But HPL can get away with lines like this because he’s consistent. And this brings up a deeper lesson about fiction writing: stylistic consistency is more important than any given stylistic choice.

In other words, Lovecraft will write a line like “the moon was gleaming vividly” and we will have to either accept it or shut the book. If we accept it–okay, it’s pulp fiction or it’s HPL or we’re just feeling generous that day–then he hits us with “It poured madly out of the dark door, sighing uncannily as it ruffled the sand and spread about the weird ruins.” Wow. Take it or leave it. Do you want to enjoy the story or not? It’s no fun if you have to complain about the writing. So you take it. And then he’s got you: you’ve decided to let him have as many adverbs / vague adjectives as he wants. You’re going to let him tell you that the sigh was uncanny (what does “uncanny” sound like, eh?) and the ruins were weird (can you think of the last weird ruins you’ve seen?). He has trained you to read and appreciate *his* fiction rather than trying to meet your expectations.

Some great fiction writers can do both. F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, can write idiosyncratic prose and also ground those weird (!) choices in hard-edged concrete description. People think he learned this through his association with Hemingway, but that’s according to Hem in A Moveable Feasta great book but likely packed with exaggerations and a few outright lies. Hem might have learned it from Gertrude Stein, but the idiosyncratic flourish we’re talking about is less evident in his work probably because he had such a strong background in news writing. He *had* to make his prose acceptable to the reader (something that also helped him support himself by selling stories to LIFE and The Saturday Evening Post in an era when you could live that way).

Lovecraft is great in other ways. Still, when I read a passage like this, I have to smile: “In the darkness there flashed before my mind fragments of my cherished treasury of daemoniac lore; sentences from Alhazred the mad Arab, paragraphs from the apocryphal nightmares of Damascius, and infamous lines from the delirious Image du Monde of Gauthier de Metz. I repeated queer extracts, and muttered of Afrasiab and the daemons that floated with him down the Oxus.”

I know HPL sets himself the very difficult task of writing about states of consciousness that have only a tenuous connection to everyday life. So maybe that’s the reason for many of his writerly choices. I do take a certain daemoniac enjoyment of how he disregards certain modern conventions.

  • Set a word count goal. My minimum goal is 7 pages per week, which comes to about 2450 words.
  • Give yourself permission to write poorly. You are the worst judge of your own writing, especially in a first draft. You need to get around your hangups if you want to be productive.  The only way to do this is to stop caring what the world will think.
  • Meditate. I do it for 15-20 minutes before I start. I close my eyes, pay attention to my breathing, and still my mind. You can’t focus if you have a head full of burning spiders.
  • Never talk about what you’re currently writing. Talk about what you’ve already written if you must. Ideally, unless you need to be flogging your “platform” and self-promoting, don’t talk about your writing at all.  Put it out there and let others talk about how great or horrible you are.
  • Always talk about the craft of writing but only after you’ve done your writing for the day.
  • Program yourself by creating rituals and routines that inform your body and mind it’s time to write. I try to write at the same time every day.  After I meditate, I have coffee, light a little incense (which replaced a cigarette years ago), and disconnect from electronic media.
  • Always end with something more left to say in the scene. It will take far more energy tomorrow to start from zero than in media res.
  • Do not compare yourself to other writers, ever. You are a unique snowflake. Believe it.
  • Avoiding low blood sugar is one of the secret keys to intellectual productivity, especially for creative people. Have your donut, but be sure to also snack on fruit and seeds.
  • After you write and dump all your energy into your work, do a little exercise to avoid feeling exhausted for hours. I currently do yoga and chi gong, but a good swim or a jog would be just as effective, I think.

I once took a creative writing workshop from Richard Ford, in which he spent a lot of energy inveighing against the epiphany in short fiction. This must have been in 1997 or 1998. Little did any of us suspect at the time that his vehemence was probably a reaction to a single bad review that had come out for Women with Men by some no-name writer with an ax to grind. The review criticized Ford for being unwilling to let his characters change or realize very much as they suffocate though postmodern American decline.*

I’ve tried unsuccessfully over the years to find that review. It has mysteriously disappeared from the internet. Does that actually happen? Does the writer now swim with the fishes? Maybe it came out in Kirkus or in the AWP Chronicle; though, I tend to think it wouldn’t have been the Chronicle, given how careful they are with avoiding the faintest whiff of contentiousness toward the darlings of the Big Six in one of the most atavistic industries in the world. So probably Kirkus. Or Salon. I think people at Salon could still read at that point.

Anyway, the review was scathing. I remember it not because I necessarily agreed with it, but because at that time I was in awe of Ford in one of the most unproductive and frankly brutal workshops I’d ever experienced. The Xanax intake in our class went up precipitously after the second meeting, while the likelihood of dissent dropped to 1938 Great Purge levels. All heads were bowed. Everyone had joined the party. Dissidence was shown zero tolerance. And I felt that our instructor had gradually begun to resemble Frank Booth offering Jeffrey a ride in Blue Velvet as if we relived that scene in each critique.

Ford’s ability to craft fiction nevertheless spoke for itself. That was the problem: you might think the guy tuning your piano is a surly misanthrope until he starts playing Rachmaninoff. Then you decide you must have been wrong about everything. How much more do you think a highly accomplished yet incredibly acerbic celebrity could shock a group of young students just starting out? Several of my classmates quit writing fiction for good after sitting through critiques that took apart their 20-page stories sentence by sentence. The rest of us were intimidated yet determined not to seem that way. We wanted to be real writers. We would endure. Since then, I’ve come to believe I was more impressed with Ford’s craft and less with his worldview; though, young writers tend to conflate the two when under the influence of a particular teacher and I certainly did.

So when he talked about the epiphany in fiction as being largely an empty obsolete convention, we nodded and wrote it down. What the hell did we know? Besides, the term had religious overtones. That was an absolute no-no. The largely white, upper-middle class Breakfast Club of terrified 20-somethings in my shop immediately started to write gutless (and mostly bad) Ford-Carver imitations—pared-down realism in simple declarative sentences where nothing much happens beyond a .000001% change in the protagonist’s depression.

The theme of every piece became: please don’t hurt the writer of this story. Joan, a secretary at a Toyota dealership—who’d decided to take a story writing class through open university because she liked reading Stephen King—was the only student who’d had the guts to write a scene involving prayer. I remember her story. Though it was painful to read, she may have been the worst writer and the best human being in the room. After her second critique, she developed a facial tic, but she kept coming. I kept coming, too, and tried not to notice that my cigarette and coffee intake had almost tripled as I subconsciously girded myself for fiction fight club. And I also took multiple beatings. You don’t forget beatings like that. They qualify as formative experiences, not because they help you be a better writer but because they show you what not to do, what psychological damage feels like, and how unnecessary it is.

Class and money, of course, were part of the problem. This was at a state university in California, the program I was in before I applied to the MFA at the University of Montana and learned that not all writing programs are created equal. Maybe fortunately, I hadn’t yet seen how students in Ivy or near-Ivy writing programs are coddled and courted as long as they have connections. In Montana, several of my classmates had agents before they even started (or wrote anything). Famous visiting writers showed up twice a week and yawned through their workshops, occasionally meting out a beatdown to the group pariah—usually the kid on heavy student loans whose parents don’t happen to be international art dealers. It makes strategic sense to do this. You look like you’re doing your job and a bit of focused brutality keeps the others in line. Plus some kid without connections won’t likely be a problem in the future.

To his credit, this did not happen in Ford’s workshop. Everyone took a beatdown. Then again, no one had an evident future in creative writing. So he might have been shouting at a room full of corpses, professionally speaking. He seemed angry about having to teach the class in the first place. I think he was there as a personal favor, produced no doubt through the clandestine machinery of patronage and obligation that keeps the MFA Ponzi scheme up and running even in the lowliest regional colleges. Look at the list of visiting writers on any half-page AWP Writer’s Chronicle MFA program advertisement and compare this to the names consistently showing up in Best American Short Stories over the last 20 years. Then look up who’s publishing those people and where they’re teaching now. Who takes those classes? Who can qualify to enter those MFA programs? You’ll figure it out. It’s not hard. And, after that, I’d like you to sweep out the break room.

However, there is another difference between the finishing-school MFA and the one I was in at that time: lack of tact. Students in the highfalutin MFA programs, especially the students on big loans, have a very powerful sense that they must not argue too loudly. They are, after all, being taught by MacArthur fellows and the Pulitzer winners. But go down to a state college on the edge of a farm community where Animal Sciences gets more funding than English, Art, and History together. There you will encounter a type of student looking for an education and angry that she isn’t getting it. Already alienated, many of these kids will gravitate towards the arts, not because it’s a cool thing to talk about at daddy’s dinner parties, but because they have become true believers. Debt is going to be part of their lives forever, but maybe they’re still idealistic enough to want to become artists even though their future as parking lot attendants is pretty much locked in at that point. Every class matters to them. Every text is something that they’ve had to sacrifice for. And if they’re going to be publicly abused and their work put to the question, they want it to be for a good reason.

Thus it came to pass that on the day we were talking about publishing (such that it was clear none of us would ever publish a damn thing because, hey, look around), Karin** raised her hand. I knew it was coming. I could feel the barometer drop as Ford, in mid-sentence, looked over at her. She’d had a pissed-off look since the first day and, meeting by meeting, she seemed to be holding in the rage. I never got to know Karin very well, but I remember that she had a lot of piercings and bright carrot-orange hair which must have been dyed. She was gravely serious about becoming a writer. She was making it happen through loans and waitressing at Denny’s. Moreover, she had a two-year-old son. Karin did not lead an easy life. She led a determined one. And she was not impressed.

She asked a question: “Can you talk about how you first got published? I mean, isn’t it true that you’re so famous whatever you write can get automatically published at this point?” In the spirit of Mark Twain’s after-dinner speech at John Greenleaf Whittier’s birthday party, “the house’s attention continued, but the expression of interest in the faces turned to a sort of black frost.” The daffodils in the faculty club immediately turned to ash and crumbled. Dogs began to howl. The corner of Joan’s eye began to violently twitch.

The way I remember his response was that it was something acidic and dismissive. It was not altogether as harsh as I had expected and, to my surprise, he did not command her to commit ritual suicide then and there. But Karin never came back to class after that meeting. I may not recall his exact words because, in that moment, I was having what can only be described as a major epiphany. I realized it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if I came to the next meeting or went to a bar and got drunk or wrote 20 pages of the best possible prose. What mattered was my attitude to my own work, how sincere I was while remaining dedicated to learning the craft. That’s what being a real writer is. I have Ford’s workshop to thank for that.

It was the first big realization I had in the writing life: every act of writing is an act of defiance. All else is opinion, vanity, and marketing. If that sounds too extreme, let me respectfully suggest that you’re not expressing yourself as fully or as honestly as you could. Let me suggest that you write something that people will disagree with and that you also happen to believe. And let me suggest that you put it out there to publishers and learn to deal with the inevitable beatings. And then defy those and do it again.

 

 

* Kathy Knapp does an updated version of this critique in American Unexceptionalism: the Everyman and the Suburban Novel After 9/11 (2014).

** Not her actual name but close enough for those who might remember.

So the holidays are over. I spent mine reading obscure horror stories from the 19th century and the nonfiction writing of various friends, drinking too much Tetley’s tea, and enjoying myself at home. I mostly stayed in Oxford this year; though, I did have fun going to London on Christmas Eve. It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest places on earth to spend any amount of time. Since I am so close, I go there often. The City of London had a fairly spectacular fireworks display yesterday that can be seen here if you missed it.

Like most relatively sane people, I try to avoid making resolutions at the beginning of a year. Nevertheless, I did make one for 2016. This year I intend to follow through on some of my very long projects to an appreciable degree, putting forth my best effort possible to get some things completed and in the mail before 2017. I should note that I am getting close to completing my third book. However, I’ve been working on it for 6 years (including many painful revisions and reversals), which is how long it took me to write the first one.

Something tells me that I should be writing faster, but I’m convinced that whatever that something is, it isn’t the voice of a writer (or at least of a very good one). So I have decided to keep ignoring it. The good news is that several long projects of mine are probably going to reach completion this year, which will nevertheless be an enormous relief.

What I’m Not Doing Anymore

One thing I’m definitely not doing any more is giving free fiction writing advice to people who send questions via my old WordPress email address. I have not publicly listed that email for some time and now it is completely shut down with no forwarding.  Unfortunately, it was still accessible until very recently.

There are a few good reasons for me shutting down the Q/A portion of my website. I realize that operating a public site, even a WordPress blog like this, exposes a person to all kinds of craziness in addition to pleasant interactions with like-minded readers. You need to have a tough attitude to do anything public. And you need to be willing to block the assholes immediately. I do all those things. On the other hand, I can get so wrapped up in talking about writing that sometimes it uses the energy I need in order to do my own work. That’s where the situation gets hard.

There is no shortage of good writing instruction and advice out there. I remain a huge fan of the Gotham Writers Workshop, where I taught for seven years. I can’t say enough good things about the workshops there. But now I’m writing more than I ever have and I need to sustain this intensity for as long as I can.

Moreover, I should pose the obvious question: who the hell am I?  Just another guy with a few degrees in English who learned early in his career how to publish short fiction in magazines. That’s about it. And that, plus composition and research, is what I’ve taught for most of my career. Sure, I can teach you how to write a story and maybe give you some tips about how to get it into a magazine or lit. journal. But a lot of people can do that. Just because I’ve done it for a long time and maintain a blog about writing doesn’t make me super special.

More than a few talented writing instructors are teaching at Gotham, Lit Reactor, and in various MFA programs right now. If that’s what you’re wondering about, honestly what are you waiting for? There’s never / always time to start thinking seriously about fiction writing, right? Get a portfolio together and start researching a program or dig through the Gotham / LR websites and learn what you have to do to get into the next shop.  Do it and resolve that you will make the best of the experience and get everything you can out of it.

Still, I’ve enjoyed teaching writing, especially being able to meet so many interesting students along the way. But no one can write like me (for that matter, no one can write like you—which has always been the basis of my writing pedagogy: develop your own voice because, more than anything else in your creative life, it will belong to you). So I’ve realized that, at age 42 with perhaps 28 years left on this planet as a cohesive entity, I need to move more fully and deeply into my unique creative vision.

This means that unless you intend to offer me a serious job or decent freelance work (feel free to message me on Twitter about this and only this)—both of which go to supporting my writing—please save us both the trouble. The fact that I will continue to post thoughts on this website is not an offer of free advice, free content writing “for exposure,” or feedback / editing of your own work (which is something I do for pay).

The Next Thing

I travel a lot. It’s part of how I make a living as a freelancer. It’s fun in many ways, especially when I get to spend time with friends as part of my travel plans. It can also be an enormous headache. So now more than ever, I try to operate in places not just because I have to but because I’ve fallen in love with them. My short list includes Paris, Tallinn, London, Boston, San Francisco, Washington D.C., New Orleans, Portland, Prague and Copenhagen. These are the places which I find myself thinking about (and often returning to) again and again. Within a year to 18 months, depending on certain conditions and things that will fall shortly into place, I will be living in one of them, maybe for good.

I mention this because it goes along with the theme of positive change. Living light and never staying in one place for long has its appeal. Since 2010, I’ve lead that life in earnest, seeking experiences instead of things. But I’ve also realized a fundamental truth: there are many great experiences to be had when you get to know your neighborhood, when you become reasonably fluent in the local dialect, when you have a library card—the simple pleasures of being able to live somewhere for more than 6 months and actually make some non-online friends.

This is a change I will be making. And I’m looking forward to it immensely.

Trouble

You don’t live this kind of life without burning bridges. Graduate school, for example, is a lot like high school. No matter how much you achieve, people always remember you the way you were and deeply resent having to revise their opinions if you’ve actually done well for yourself. It’s part of what makes class reunions so painfully entertaining. But MFA and PhD programs don’t usually have reunions (except for the two official orgies of desperation and loathing we call AWP / MLA). Instead, they have enduring envy and the urge to send occasional passive-aggressive messages.

In 2016, I will also be saying goodbye to various acid-tongued lurkers from my past who can’t seem to accept the fact that—in spite of how much I bitch about the writing world—it is my home and I am fundamentally happy here. Yes, I criticize a lot of what I see as hypocritical or false in writing programs or publishing. But please note that I spend time on these things because I care about them very much. Isn’t it obvious?

So if you are one of these people, go ahead and live a little. Work on your own stuff / self and let me work on mine. We’ll all be happier that way.  Remember to be kind to yourself. And good luck to you.

Upcoming Projects

Of course, I’ll continue to write about writing and publishing here. I also intend to start a creative writing video project on YouTube soon with the same sort of focus. I’ll cross-post it with this. So if you are one of the 2654 people already actively RSSing this blog to date, you don’t need to add the YT subscription. It will all show up here, too.

I’m also going to start reviewing more books and magazines (sorry Aaron, it’s coming very soon, really), writing about critical theory (especially postcolonial theory, which is an interest) and about the writers I love. Right now, it’s Bret Easton Ellis, J.G. Ballard, Thomas Ligotti, Fuminori Nakamura, Isaac Babel, Shirley Jackson, Catherynne Valente, James Cain, Jim Thompson, Asa Nonami, Yoko Ogawa, and Henri Barbusse. But there will be others, many and various.

I will be representing the Thrown Free writer’s group more often and I hope to feature the visual art of some of my multi-talented writer-artist friends as well.

All these things make me happy, which is why I do them or intend to. If you’re one of my print readers and / or a reader here, I appreciate your time and hope that 2016 allows me to bring further interesting material to your attention.

Happy New Year.

Michael

It was the beginning of a time when it was almost as if the novel itself didn’t matter anymore. Publishing a shiny booklike object was simply an excuse for parties and glamour and goodlooking authors reading finely honed minimalism to students who would listen rapt with slack­jawed admiration, thinking, I could do that, I could be them. But of course if you weren’t photogenic enough, the sad truth was you couldn’t. – Bret Easton Ellis

John Berryman is supposed to have said that a writer never knows if he’s any good. He asks himself this throughout his life and dies without a satisfactory answer—no matter what prizes, money, publications, or objects of social approval have been tossed his way. It’s easy to conclude that this is just an egotistical hangup for celebrities with enough time and money to fish for validation. Am I good? Tell me. Really? Tell me again. But what Berryman didn’t say was that these doubts seem to come to every person in every field. And insofar as nothing in this world is ever finished or static, such questions must always remain open.

In fact, most things a writer may ask herself about writing (usually in a fallow time when she isn’t writing and feels hollow and dead inside) have no real answers. There is no objective standard for writerly success. You’re never going to know, quoth Berryman. Perhaps because of this, the path of a developing writer is fraught will all kinds of psychological pitfalls, uncertainties which emerge in the space between creation and judgment—writing the thing and then deciding whether it’s worthy.

Consider the luminous transcendent moment when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature. Let’s be honest: she fucking deserved it as well as anybody else. Do you mean to tell me she isn’t a skilled writer? That she hasn’t led the life? That she doesn’t deserve to get paid? Sure, the Nobel system is a politicized, public relations hype-sandwich. In that, it’s no different than the Pulitzer, the MacArthur Genius Grant, the Stegner, or any of the other smaller awards that function as patronage for writers.

Still, I had to laugh when Bret Easton Ellis—who is also great but very different—commented that “Alice Munro was always an overrated writer and now that she’s won The Nobel she always will be. The Nobel is a joke and has been for ages.” After the inevitable social media backlash, he added, “The sentimental hatred for me has made me want to re-read Munro, who I never really got, because now I feel like I’ve beaten-up Santa Claus.” That one kept me laughing for about a week. But the truth is a lot simpler than whether or not Ellis beat up Father Christmas: Munro might not be his cup of tea. But nobody can say definitively that she is “completely overrated” because nobody actually knows. Not even, I will venture to say, Alice.

Young writers (in years and / or in terms of artistic development) especially try to fill this gap with metrics designed to quantify success and banish their excruciating doubts. But most writers have to fight this battle, some throughout their entire careers. Over the course of many years in the writing life, one sees it all:

  • the hack machine who puts out a formulaic novel every three months like clockwork and points to this as the ultimate sign of achievement;
  • the bitter self-publisher, who has completely dismissed the Manhattan book industry as a hive of scum and villainy, and who now only writes direct-to-Lulu ebooks because nothing else matters anymore;
  • the one who can tell you any any minute of the day or night how much money his books are making and exactly why other writers are so jealous of his commercial prowess;
  • the defensive YA-ist (Young Adulterer? Young Adulterator?), who started out trying to be Pam Houston but after the first orgy of rejections turned to Harry Potter the way an abused housewife turns to brandy—it takes the edge off in the middle of the day, helps her convince herself that writing about fairy children with super powers is her true calling, and makes it possible for her to stop experiencing those week-long fugues of black existential dread in which she used to compare herself to Pam;
  • the lost soul in the MFA program, trying desperately to clone herself into Alice Munro or Donna Tartt or Jonathan Foer or Gary Shteyngart or whoever else is currently receiving the publishing industry’s golden shower du jour (Look how closely I can imitate X! Can I get a cookie? Do you love me? Why won’t anyone love me? You promised me a cookie. Where’s my cookie! I’ll be over there, cutting myself, until you bring me my cookie.);
  • the lost soul after the MFA program, trying desperately to justify himself to his drunk brother-in-law at Christmas dinner by mentioning all his literary journal publications (I just put a story in Bumfuck Quarterly! It’s my fifteenth publication! And fuck you, you philistine.);
  • the lost soul who got the two-book deal early on, enabling her to worm her way into a tenure track position at a small liberal arts college, and who behaves outwardly as if this validates every word she has written and will ever write (but who continually asks, Is this it? when she’s not buying cases of gin at the package store because maybe Gilbey’s is the only answer);
  • others, many and various.

I know. I’m being cruel. Although cruelty does come standard with the writing life, these are stereotypes and we all have a little of this inside us.  So pointing fingers is a bit hypocritical.  Call it the pathology of trying to be a writer in a system that presents itself as a meritocracy but functions via medieval power games and nepotism. And we can be as angry as we want. We can shake our little fists at the heavens or spend hours upbraiding ourselves in the mirror. But we’re never going to know how to be good. We’re only ever going to know that we want to be.

 

No reasons. No consistency or explanations. Just the frozen dark, the hiss, Marion snoring in the seat beside me, mouth open. And the thought of all that water below us. I try to remember getting on the plane. I look at my face in the black window. In the glass beside my reflection, I see Darius standing in the aisle, looking down at us.

She okay?”

His question makes no sense. I feel like it should, like he’s implying something I should understand. I force my eyes open, but he’s still blurry. “What?”

Is. She. O. Kay?” His jaw tightens. Blue lights in the ceiling glint on his bald head.

We look at Marion. She has drooled on her black satin neck pillow.

You never ask if I’m okay.”

Darius takes her pulse.

My heart is beating normally, you know. Respiration normal. Everything’s good. I’m in great health.”

He places Marion’s hand gently back in her lap and checks her seat belt. Then he looks at me for a moment. “Yeah. Fantastic.”

I’m so out of it that I have to force my eyes open, again.

Darius hands me a box of Altoids. “For when she wakes up.”

Don’t mind if I have a few as well?”

He sighs. “Fuck off, Charlie,” the ghost of his Essex accent emerging in the off.

I watch him make his way back to his seat in coach and imagine the plane crashing into the dark Pacific. Impact ripping off the wings. Explosions. Screaming. The water rushing in. What are the chances of it actually happening? Somewhere, there are statistics on this. But it could happen without warning just as easily as anything. This is the thought I have when I let my eyes close and I drift back to sleep.

La Maison Shibuya. Marion’s Tokyo residence. 25th floor. I wake up in the white leather chair perpendicular to the white leather sofa. Everything in the living room is white leather or silver or glass. The windows have polarized, turning the morning sun into a gray disk. A glass coffee table with a silver vase of reeds is directly in front of me. My left ankle is crossed over my right knee. A full martini is in my hand. Perfectly still. No sound at all. My eyes are open. Chockablock Shibuya skyline beyond the windows. Gray circuit board to the horizon.

I guess I didn’t make it to the bed. But there must have been a period of consciousness if I’d made myself a martini. Or pseudo-consciousness. Valium zombie consciousness. I don’t recall. Fragments. Emails I wrote on my phone that make no sense. Something emotional—crying in a bathroom, a collapse, wanting to explain something but not being able to. Nasty interludes with Darius, Marion’s guard dog, who knows karate and who will someday push me out a window the same way he handed me that box of Altoids. But Marion always has Valium. And it’s always like this when we fly. And we always fly.

The door to the bedroom stands open. Our suitcases sit in a perfect row beside it, the good work of Darius. Marion’s feet protrude over the bottom edge of the bed. The rest of her is hidden beneath an enormous white comforter that resembles a cloud bank. She wouldn’t have made it to the bed either, but for Darius the Karate Luggage Master. And I wonder, did he undress her, too? Isn’t that my job? When he finally sends me out the window, 25 floors down, maybe she’ll remember who I am. Then she’ll have to pay Darius more. Or pay him less. Or have someone send him out the window, too.

Her feet are straight, parallel, almost like she’s deliberately pointing her toes. Marion is 54, blonde, and she takes care of her body in ways most women don’t. CEO of the United Toy Company for 10 years, she takes care of her company in ways most women don’t. And she takes care of me, when she can remember. When she can’t remember, when she does drugs and sleeps too much; it gets quiet and I get wasted. Then maybe I get a little closer to Darius helping me take that big first step. T-minus defenestration, counting down. I set the martini on the coffee table and notice an enormous black horsefly floating in it. Then I realize it’s a design on the side of the glass. Who would buy such a thing? Marion has four residences. I wonder if she even knows what’s in them.

I walk into the kitchen. It’s brighter there. The windows don’t polarize. I place my forehead against the cool glass of the floor-to-ceiling window opposite the marble counter. The sky is crystal blue. The sun glints off Shibuya’s glass and steel. And for a moment, I feel suspended in the air over Tokyo, looking down at the mechanical life crawling through the city.

In the steel cabinet above the sink, I find a row of gray polycarbonate coffee mugs that look like they’ve never been used or even touched. I take one down, put it in the Keurig shaped like a chrome vacuum cleaner from the 1950s. On the counter beside the machine, an enormous Kakiemon bowl shows orange ducks in flight beneath a pale green sun. It’s heaped with coffee pods. I can’t read the kanji labels. So I pick a red one, hoping it’s the strongest, lock it in the chamber, as if it were some kind of anti-aircraft shell, and press the button. Milk fills a beaker and begins to froth in a completely silent whirlpool.

When I smell the coffee, I decide I’m almost feeling normal. But then I look back into the living room. A wet girl wrapped in a towel steps out of the bedroom and smiles. I’ve never seen her before. And I refuse to just accept this. My normal does not include people I don’t know just stepping out of the bedroom. No matter how weird Marion gets, no matter how drunk or high I may get, I refuse to let this be my normal. She’s dripping. She must be in her early 20s: Amerasian, pretty, defined the way one gets from Pilates or some kind of unfriendly aerobics. The towel covers most of her. What do I say? What is expected of me in this situation? I put on my sunglasses and look away until she walks right up to me.

Hiya.” She winks.

Hello.” I turn to the window. From the 25th floor, Shibuya in late morning seems like it should contain an answer to everything. But my mind isn’t working fast enough. I think of science fiction. I imagine we’re in a vast computer simulation. This girl isn’t really here, a pretty ghost, a hologram from my subconscious. “Were you always here?”

Always?” Quiet laugh. She thinks that’s funny. “I’m not always anywhere.”

You’re here with—Darius?”

Can I have some coffee?”

I step over to the Keurig without looking at her. The latte is finished. I take out the milk canister and hold it over the mug so the tiny servomotors in the bottom can blend it into the coffee along with the foam. I hand it to her and she gives me a big smile. Her teeth are small, even, whitened. I wonder if there is anything about her that isn’t perfectly formed to spec. The tips of her hair drip onto the counter top.

Are you always here?”

I get another mug, put another red pod in the howitzer, and start the process again. “I came in last night.”

I know. Why are you wearing sunglasses?” She licks off her foam mustache. “It’s good.”

This is a private residence. I’m sorry, but I don’t know you.”

Serious now, she bows. “Excuse me. I’m from Mister Lo. I was here for—”

Me? You’re here for me?”

Ah, no.” She turns toward the window.

Oh. For her.”

The girl takes another sip, nods once. Then, as if Shibuya has finally chosen to speak to her instead of me, her expression goes blank. She sets the mug on the counter with both hands. I watch her pad across the living room, enter the bedroom, and shut the door softly behind her.

This is not normal, but it is my life. All I can do is look at the miniature milk vortex frothing in the beaker, at silent Shibuya circuit board, until I hear the front door open and click shut. A distant helicopter threads its way between chrome and glass office towers, a tiny black wasp, green pinlights winking on its tail. I decide this proves there is life out there, beyond the window.

Early afternoon. Yoyogi Park. A short walk from the condo and Shibuya Station. Before I left, I checked in on Marion, but she was still not up. I think about texting her. Instead, I stare at the children playing by the edge of the fountain pond. Above them, the tall jet of water creates a thin rainbow in the mist.

The last time we were in Japan, I did things, went places, spent money, hung out with people I hardly remember. It’s hazy. I was with Marion and the guys from Play Asia, a toy distributor. There were prostitutes—or girls getting paid to shop with us or paid to shop and have sex with someone or paid to seem that way and do something else altogether. It’s unclear what most of Marion’s entourage was or why they were there, but they were all getting paid for something.

Now I have more questions: why the girl; why a martini and going to sleep in that chair. How long did we all stay up? And where was Darius through all this? He evidently slipped his chain and went barking through the neighborhood, pissing on fire hydrants and running after cars. I know I might have jet lag or something-else-lag, but I can’t stop thinking that the girl never told me her name. She was just “the Girl from Mister Lo.” I don’t know why Marion does these things. Or if she was even awake last night. And what could I have said to the girl in my post-flight zombie state? She seemed to know more about me than I know about her. Maybe it’s all irrelevant.

The Tokyo Toy Show starts tomorrow. This is a big thing for Marion. So it’s a big thing for me. But I know very little about the business. I draw a salary from the company. I’m her personal assistant, but I know nothing. On days like today, when I’m alone and everyone else is unconscious, I sit in parks like Yoyogi Park with a steno pad and a pen trying to write short stories. I’ve got one almost done, which used to be a turn-on for Marion. But now it doesn’t matter much to me. When we discard our habits, what’s left? Just that long first step out the window. An Akita puppy yaps beside the children at the water’s edge, stomping its paws, running around in circles. Happy dog. We should all be like that. None of us should be from Mister Lo.

No one in Japan pays attention to a vacant-looking gaijin scribbling on a steno pad in the park. I’m on a bench with the latte. And I’m looking at my last scene, the one where the old man walks out on his front porch in Missouri. He looks at the rolling plains of grass and realizes he doesn’t care if his son ever comes home again. He doesn’t need to worry about his daughter, either. They’ve got their own lives, and he’s content with his. That’s how the story ends, but I can’t quite get the last paragraph the way it needs to be, can’t get the emotion right. And that Akita puppy keeps yapping, far too joyful for a world with Marion and Darius, Mister Lo and me. And I know that, before long, I’ll give up and wander through the park. I’ll go up through Shibuya Ward and get on the Tokyo no Chikatetsu and ride it out to a distant stop.

I get as far as Ikebukuro, and Ikebukuro is enough. On crowded Platform 6, I wait for the train back to Shibuya Station. It’s December 18th and people are dressed for the possibility of snow; though, snow is rare in Tokyo. A yellow sun reigns in a cloudless sky between the awnings of the platform. A white octagonal apartment block with red stripes like a candy cane looms in the distance.

I listen to the subdued conversations around me, my lousy Japanese comprehension made worse by the need for those nearby to be polite and not draw attention to themselves. And I feel ridiculous yet again, the gaijin in his gaijin place. Riding the metro can be a pointless exercise when it fails to calm me down—as pointless and purposeless as trying to make sense of a whirlpool of milk or a dripping girl without a name. Such times are the worst, when I can’t outrun my anxiety, when it builds like a wave and crashes over me. And then there’s invariably some candy-cane building standing over me, communicating in no uncertain terms: this is absurd and you are absurd and absurdity is your prison and this prison is your life.

So I take the Chikatetsu back to the condo. The luggage still stands at attention by the bedroom door. I’m half-expecting the Girl from Mister Lo to be sitting there, wrapped in a towel, on the white leather sofa. Or Darius, waiting to torture me with some kind of medieval, inquisitorial truth-seeking device. Or even Marion, awake at last. But she isn’t awake. Or, rather, she has been, but she isn’t now. Marion has, at some point, gotten out of bed. She filled the bathtub so that it overflowed. Now there’s an inch of water pooled on the bathroom floor. The bedroom’s white neoprene shag squishes underfoot. After her bath, she apparently got in bed again and wrapped herself in her comforter cloud bank. But the Girl from Mister Lo is definitely gone. I sit down on the bed beside Marion and touch her arm—still damp, her honey-blonde hair matted against her face. How does the CEO of a corporation live like this? Every time I ask the question, I think of all the other times I’ve asked it.

I take out my phone and call Darius, as much as I hate to do it. He answers with the din of an arcade behind him. Moshi moshi? Kore wa daredesu ka? His Japanese is impeccable, but since he must see that it’s me, I wonder why he bothers.

Hey. Look, she’s still not awake.”

I hear dinging, high-pitched girl laughter. Someone says, koto o furenaide kudasai, in a voice deeper than Darius’.

Then his voice: “What?”

Marion. I’m wondering how much she took.”

Stop wondering.”

You were the one asking if she was okay, alright? Now I’m asking.”

He hangs up on me. The nicest man in the world hangs up on me. I put my hand on her forehead. I listen to her breathe slow and soft. And I decide she must be okay. Marion knows what she’s doing. This is how she recovers, how I don’t, why there’s a girl waiting from Mister Lo, why I get lost in the park. Later, if I ask her how much she took before the flight, she’ll say something like Darius: don’t ask. Marion doesn’t pay me to ask. I walk back into the pristine living room—a place I despise for its sterile, symmetrical perfection. The windows have de-polarized. The coffee cup I gave to the girl still sits on the kitchen counter.

On days I can’t bear to walk outside, I think I might need a doctor or at least a prescription. Marion hasn’t bothered to leave me the address of the convention center; though, she knows I was looking forward to going with her and seeing all the new toys from around the world. Likewise, I can’t summon the massive energy it will take to find this out for myself, go there, and explain that I’m with her. Instead, I choose to sit in the white leather chair for an indeterminate length of time.

Same old silence. I haven’t spoken to my parents in what seems like a decade. Might be. I don’t think any of us are counting. Then there’s my sister, Linda, who I call maybe every other year. The few college friends I had back in Los Angeles—what, two? three?—never responded to my emails after I dropped out. Radio silence. Global silence. Silence to the end of the universe.

When I met Marion two years ago, I went from a one-room efficiency in North Hollywood to chrome and white leather. Still, I don’t get a thrill when I think about my bank account anymore. And really, I don’t need to think about it at all because I don’t have to spend any of the money. If I want something, I tell Darius or just order it with Marion’s credit card. Everything is available, all the time. The only thing I have to do is stay in shape and deal with black oceans of silence between the times I spend with Marion. Eventually, I know the plane will crash. Impact. Screaming. The water rushing in. Somewhere, there are statistics on this.

I go down six floors to the gym, which is deserted, and work every muscle group until my body hurts. Then I run five miles on the treadmill as the poisons I’ve consumed leech out in my sweat, which has lately begun to take on a hint of cheap floral perfume. It’s something I’m eating. Some plane food never meant to be digested by hominids. I tell myself: less fruit, more bread. More bread is nearly always the solution. That’s life wisdom, my son—deep knowledge from college. I look at the red digits on the treadmill, at the news loop playing on the flat screen, and try not to think.

Los Angeles, before. Living 45 minutes away from Linda—before she met Ad Exec Larry and cashed out, moved to Seattle, got a Lexus, had a kid for all the wrong reasons, decided that pursuing a career as a graphic designer was, well, stupid. But at least she graduated from Saddleback Community down in the OC. Most of the students there look like Justin Bieber after a scrub down. The girls have blonde hair down to their asses. Everyone dresses well. Everyone there seems to be waiting for the universe to tell them they’re sexy. You might see some tats and that pigpen student with a weight problem who’s on the wrong meds in the eighth year of his two-year degree. But he’ll be rare. A lot of great hairdressers come out of Saddleback. Highly articulate waiters. Telecommunications specialists. Hotel management professionals. I’m not passing judgment. It’s more than I’ve done.

The day I interviewed to be Marion’s personal assistant, I did not attend O-Chem and Literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Linda drove me over to the temporary office at Irvine Spectrum in her black and brown Acura Legend. She’d been laying out at Huntington Beach and she smelled like coconuts, her skin a perfect creamy brown. Her hair had tiny waves in it. Green contacts. Black bikini with cut-off Daisy Dukes. A four-year-old boob job that seemed to be holding up well. Even among the beautiful people, my sister had the Command to Look, always confident, in the zone.

The volume is all the way down on the flat screen. It’s set in the middle of the floor-to-ceiling gym window. A window in a window. While you exercise, you can stare at Shibuya or at the news or at the news-as-Shibuya. There’s a section on the Tokyo Toy Show. Marion in her navy business suit with pearls. Darius’ shoulder at the edge of the picture. I close my eyes and listen to my footfalls on the treadmill, counting steps the way I sometimes do.

You’ve got this,” Linda said, when we pulled into the lot, sharp midday sun glaring white on all the windshields.

I shook my head. “I don’t even know what a personal assistant does.”

Linda’s smile was a sunburst and I wondered how we could share the same DNA. “Doesn’t matter,” she said. “People are all the same.”

The great world spins and I dream. Marion’s prescription sleeping meds. No safer than any other thing in her narcotic arsenal. But the world can spin. Let it. Depressed after a day of working out in silence, white leather furniture, and Japanese television, I take her little green pills at random just to see what will happen. And then I’m floating in the black ocean. Nothing but wind, water, the fixed incomprehensible stars, the cold machinery of night. I know this is a dream, what they call a lucid dream, the kind you’re supposed to be able to control. But I’m not flying over Everest or visiting the rings of Saturn. There’s only me in the wind and waves, the constellations I don’t know.

I wake up, bedroom spinning. I’m making out with Marion in the dark, my hands on her body, hers on mine. We’re breathing hard and I’m half on top of her. But I can still feel the ocean on my skin. For the briefest moment above the bed, there is no ceiling. I look up at the pinlight stars, cruel and endless in the night sky. It should feel strange that my body is trying to have sex while my mind is elsewhere. But nothing is strange anymore. She opens her legs and I’m fully on top of her, moving against her, but my cock is limp and I’m thinking about plane crashes and drowning and the possibility of gravity failing, such that I float up from the 25th floor of La Maison Shibuya past the moon, and no amount of trying is going to get me hard at that point.

Marion pushes me off, turns her back to me. Would you believe me if I told you that I fell in love with her at a time when I should have been taking road trips with friends and getting my anthro requirement out of the way? I roll in the opposite direction and vomit quickly, painfully over the edge of the bed. The last of the floral whatever that I think probably came from the Hello Kitty Gin I got from a vending machine comes up like acid stripping the flesh off my throat. Then I’m on my back again and the ceiling has returned but everything’s still spinning. It takes me a full minute to realize Marion is moaning. The Girl from Mister Lo has her face between Marion’s legs. I close my eyes.

The windows in the condo are already polarized. The sun is already up. Marion’s gone and the bedroom smells like sex. It’s not a bad smell. My eyelids make a tiny pop when I blink. My eyes were so crusted shut that they could make a popping sound. Amazing. Was I crying again in my sleep? Still dizzy, I make my way carefully into Marion’s bathroom, where her various business suits are draped over the chrome vanity table, her white silk blouses crumpled in little mounds on the floor. Her jewelry case is old-fashioned, belonged to her grandmother, looks like a small powder-blue suitcase from the 1930s with fold-out mother-of-pearl trays. I put my face under the faucet and let the water run across my cheek, down my neck, thinking of how Marion’s life used to seem like an incredibly fascinating archaeological dig, layer upon layer of detail, history, meaning, pain. She wasn’t like the few girlfriends I’d had in college—into nail art and taking their shirts off at concerts. Marion had depth and she had heart and sometimes there were little things, like the jewelry case, which reminded me the she was different, thoughtful. Now the first thought I have when I see the folded-out trays with their little square compartments is that the thing looks like a tackle box.

In the living room, the Girl from Mister Lo is wearing a purple velour two-piece track suit with the monogram of La Maison Shibuya in gold thread on the left front. She’s unzipped the top to between her breasts and it’s clear she isn’t wearing anything underneath. Even though I saw her naked last night, going down on Marion, that triangle of pale skin makes me look away.

Hi.” She turns down the volume. It’s some kind of sketch comedy show with a laugh track and sound effects. The Girl from Mister Lo glances at me, then back at the show and laughs. “It’s so funny. Have you seen this? It’s called Silent Library. They have to be quiet or they get punished.” The comedians can’t be quiet. One eats noisy potato chips. Another has a digital watch that beeps and he doesn’t know how to turn it off. Close-ups on their worried expressions. Sweat beaded on their foreheads. Canned laughter off screen.

Cool.”

She looks at me, then back at the show, then turns it off. “Okay. Want to go do something?” She’s smiling. Pretty almond eyes. Whitened teeth.

Do something?”

Her smile fades. “I’m sorry. She told me to be here when she comes back.”

Her name is Marion.”

Yes.” Serious now. She nods once and looks down to the side. “Marion.”

What’s your name?”

Akina.”

Fuck you, Akina.” I walk into the bathroom and turn on the shower. When I come out, naked and dripping, thinking I should apologize, she’s gone.

When Marion returns, it’s like a spatial anomaly. She isn’t there. Then she is. And she materializes without ceremony, without even being noticeable. I come out of the bedroom and I’m shocked to see her standing in the kitchen, dressed in a conservative dark green business suit with matching earrings. She’s eating a croissant and reading the Arts page of the Asahi Shimbun.

“Shouldn’t you be making friends and influencing people at the expo?”

Marion doesn’t look up. I repeat myself to be sure that she heard me and is actually ignoring me.

She chews, swallows, folds the back page.

“Marion.”

“Yes?” she asks without looking up.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Don’t you have some drugs to be doing or some cynical little story to be writing?”

“Drugs? You’re pissed that I’m doing your drugs?”

Marion gives me an icy smile, and walks into the bedroom. I hear the lock click.

“Wait a second,” I say through the door.

Nothing. Then the sound of the shower.

“Hold on a second, goddammit.” I pound on the door, but it’s a good one. Solid. “You can’t just take a shower on me.” I pound some more.

My hand hurts, but I beat on the door until some invisible arbiter on a celestial throne hears and acknowledges my right to be pissed off—the ghost-satrap of all sad self-righteous cases betrayed and accused by their women. Because Marion is that to me. Right?

What about last night, huh? What about Akina?”

The shower goes off and the condo is silent again. I know she can hear me. The door might be fancy but the walls are paper-thin.

I look in the fridge for booze but find only a half-empty, expired carton of milk. So I make another coffee with the space-age bullet machine and stare at the city some more. I should be feeling anxious and, on some level, I guess I am. But in my front brain—the place I should be resolving things and drawing conclusions—I’m slow. I’m sipping a sour latte while I stare dumbly at science-fiction Shibuya ward in all its gray majesty. I’m not thinking or feeling very much. I wonder if it’s like this for people about to suffer horribly—a moment of free fall before the impact.

I don’t speak Japanese. I tried once, took an online class, stuck with it for a few months. But, like most things in my life . . . . I guess I can say Hello. Goodbye. Where is the bathroom? Can I have a crepe for my spotted dog? The crepe thing because it was in the tiny course booklet they sent in the mail. Marion and I had a good laugh about that one. I’d text it to her during the day. And she’d text back something funny. But you can’t retell an inside joke. It’s pointless. I wonder what she’d do if I texted it to her now. We haven’t had a good conversation since before we left L.A.

It’s afternoon on the third day of the Toy Show, but it feels like I’ve been here for weeks. I put on jeans and a T-shirt from my suitcase, find a pinstriped button-down still folded in its cellophane wrapper in one of the closets. Instead of the train, I get a taxi to Shinjuku, where I buy pink doughnuts. I sit and eat them by a koi pond in front of a store that sells console video games and luck cats with their paws waving up and down. Green plastic irises. Clown grins. Golden aliens come to our world in the shape of small pudgy cats. Twenty sets of dead eyes stare at me through the glass. I can’t look at them.

I think of texting Marion, even calling her, though I know she won’t answer. Strange how this feels, all the pressure that seems built up around her, how the prospect of just having another conversation with her makes me nervous. This, even though I was in bed with her last night, even though, at some point, I started to think of her as my girlfriend—as absurd as the term may be when applied to a 54-year-old woman.

The koi are enormous, gliding slowly around the artificial pond made to look something like a tide pool. Foreigners have thrown coins in the water. I make out a few US quarters, some British pence, others less recognizable, maybe Korean. There had to be a point where those koi were having yet another languid, liquid day and suddenly warped grinning giants were tossing pieces of metal all around them. Koi stress. What passes for a bad day in the pond of the universe. Watching the koi—before I can talk myself out of it—I take out my phone and call Marion.

Darius answers. “Don’t call this number.”

Where is she?”

He hangs up.

What the fuck!” I scream it so loudly and suddenly that an old man in a suit drops his briefcase on the sidewalk. He picks it up, gives me a disapproving look, and wags his finger. “Bad,” he says.

I call back but it goes straight to voice mail. The man continues down the sidewalk. I’m bad. The alien cats grin and wave. Don’t grin at me, you ghastly fuckers.

The toy expo is at the main convention center called Tokyo Big Sight. “Sight” might be a play on words or a mistake that no one caught in time. Its other name, the one you see on the maps, is the Tokyo International Exhibition Center, situated right on the bay.

The structure itself resembles a square of four inverted pyramids, their tips extending to the ground in great oblong columns, all of it covered in shiny titanium, a New Age Egyptophile mothership. Right now, it’s probably full to the ceiling with grinning luck cats, paws waving, eyes glittering.

These are the things that stand out to me here, things that emanate from some pure, ancient, eternal soul-energy but have to bubble up through Tokyo’s various shales of politeness and hardpan conservatism to the caliche where all good people have to linger and smile and pretend beneath a gigantic Hello Kitty sign. When I think about it, Tokyo is perfect for the toy industry, being a simulation of something an emperor once dreamed. But it’s out of control now, electrified, nuclear, pulsing, grinning, waiting for you to arrive at the toy mothership so it can do a dance and take off into the impossible future.

But I don’t go where I haven’t been invited. And maybe I just feel like hell. That old man was right when he wagged his finger at me. Son, you got a problem. Instead of the old man, I keep seeing the Captain from Cool Hand Luke saying this to me. My father loved that movie. He owned it and, whenever he’d watch it, he’d quote the Captain as if I were Luke. What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate. I grew up hearing that line.

The dogs on this street are either huge or tiny and they’re all accessorized with rhinestones, steel fetish spikes, tiny gold paw pendants hanging below their jowls. But the teenage girls prefer kittens. Three girls in black hoodies covered with patches walk past, each holding a different-colored cat. The patches are unicorns, explosions, One Direction, Taylor Swift’s face bigger than a dinner plate in the center of one girl’s back. Someone somewhere—probably in Tokyo—has that as a tattoo and is proud of it and can never go home again.

And whenever I think of why I left home the way I did—why I started at a Cal State L.A., near my sister but never going back to visit my parents in Palos Verdes; all the shitty jobs I took that had nothing to do with finance or anything remotely associated with my father’s world; why I decided I would never get married or have children of my own; and how I’ve never been interested in acquiring the various status symbols necessary for becoming a puffed-up self-important asshole like him—I think of that part where the Captain says, You gonna get used to wearing them chains after a while, Luke. Don’t you never stop listening to them clinking. Because here I am with a woman almost my father’s age, who, I guess, doesn’t love me and never did, who texts me while I’m staring into the koi pond: Dinner tomorrow night. Buy a suit. Don’t get high.

I have the Louis Vuitton three-piece I brought with me. What she means is: buy a better suit. And “don’t get high” just means I’ll need to be in stealth mode all night—not her boyfriend (or whatever I may be). I’ll be back in personal assistant mode. I have a very thin herculon shoulder bag with an iPad in it for this. I think I’ve turned the iPad on twice. I don’t really know how to use it. But stealth mode means dignitaries or the veiny cadavers who rise from their crypts every year for the occasion of her husband’s birthday. His name is Bob. Technically, Bob still owns the company. But, after five strokes, his leadership has declined somewhat. They roll him out about once a year so everyone can see him waving from one of the factory balconies: His Holiness Bob, Pope of the Toys.

Maybe I’m sick of pretending. Maybe I’d better watch my back whenever Darius is around and I’m standing near a window. Them chains. I text her back: Thanks for being so real. You complete me. And then maybe I have a small sobbing breakdown, making the nearby Japanese foot traffic highly uncomfortable for the two seconds it takes to pass through my area of effect. I don’t want to live on this planet anymore. I want to fly up past the stars. Crash in the black ocean. Swim with the koi.

Small breakdowns” sounds like a Japanese reality show: you fail to be silent in the library. Then they do horrible things to you or maybe you just feel horrible and they film it. You sit by a koi pond and cry in the middle of the day; they film the fish reacting to your tears; someone off-screen is laughing; there are sound effects; you’ve served your purpose. Just like in the States or 37, 000 feet above the Pacific Ocean at night, nothing comes without some kind of price. Everything is a transaction, even hard-to-appraise human things like friendship or trust. You think money can’t buy you love, but you’re wrong about that. In most ways, it can. I get back on the Tokyo no Chikatetsu and think: I have no family to speak of, nothing ahead of me. My only friend in Tokyo is Reymund Torneau the Saucier, but I know Reymund won’t remember me.

Despondent after my small breakdown, I ride the train as it threads its way through the Tokyo sprawl, urban blocks of the city center, traffic tunnels, suburbs. Tochomae. Yotsuya. Takadanobaba. Station after station. Billboard anime sexbots holding persimmons. Robot crane garages. Tiny parks with cherry trees. Whitewashed Buddhist shrines trimmed in gold. Bronze statues of statesmen and gods. Everything that can be plugged in, is. Not all of Tokyo is electrified, just most of it—Akihabara Electric Town passing in a profusion of crackling signs, pulsing neon, particolored light and glass even in the middle of the day. It’s a red-green blur when the train accelerates. High-voltage pea soup.

So, my best and only friend, Reymund the Saucier. He, too, is electric. And though he will not remember me, at least I remember him. His small storefront cafe, Merveilleux Goûts, sells French sauces in fancy glass jars. フランスの ソース, Furansu no so-su, on every label, even on the Cajun hot sauce. Reymund is French. Therefore, all of his so-su must be Furansu. I step off the train at Nishi Station in Toshima. And, after a short stroll, I’m there—a little bit of Furansu on a gray street opposite a baseball field.

Since my last visit, two vending machines have been installed on the sidewalk to the right of the shop. One sells scarves. The other, dog whistles. Things you might need in France. And to the left of Merveilleux Goûts, a spotless, empty Kentucky Fried Chicken, the employees leaning, snapping rags at each other. The street itself looks dirtier, older, and grayer than I remember. Almost like something you’d see in Hamtramck or Scranton. Not so Japanese looking. I might convince myself I’m back home as long as I don’t look down past the parked cars to the vanishing point, where circuit-board highrises, thinner and more imposing than anything in the States, push into the sky. But where’s home? Tell me. I want to know.

Merveilleux Goûts is crowded. I walk in and take a seat at the counter, which is like the counter in an American diner—only everything, even the cutlery, is white. Reymund and his three Japanese assistants work as quickly as chefs in a four-star restaurant. And they look the part in their dress whites and straight Careme 50-pleat hats. Reymund paces the open kitchen, barking orders in Japanese while cooking multiple things in multiple locations. His assistants frown, concentrating intensely. It’s fascinating to watch, a malicious ballet that uses misery to produce excellent food. Merveilleux Goûts offers a brasserie menu with 15 different kinds of sauces, any of which can be sampled from small tasting bowls. Along the left side of the dining room, there are shelves of plastic dome containers filled with various entrees, pastries, even a rabbit ragout with pappardelle, all with a small container of appropriate so-su, Reymund’s specialty.

A young girl, who could be working for Mister Lo, but who is instead serving excellent European misery food, walks up with a small white plastic tray. Fair skin. Shoulder-length hair with a salon curl. On her tray there are tiny sauce cups. People are encouraged to take a miniature spoon from one of the dispensers located along the counter and have a taste. A man in a double-breasted Chinese suit beside me does exactly that, makes an appreciative sound and bows to the girl, who bows in return. When she comes up to me, I wave her off.

Reymund looks right at me without recognition, as expected. We met at a lunch with Marion, Darius, a translator, and two Korean businessmen who owned a corporation that made self-assembling toy robots—toys that essentially played with themselves, removing the human element. The whole time, Marion and Darius traded racist jokes about Koreans, while the translator composed statements that seemed possibly neutral and pleasant.

We ate in one of the rooms above Merveilleux Goûts, and all of it was served to us by Reymund personally. Though, at the time, I couldn’t figure out whether he and Marion were friends or whether he secretly despised her and was serving her due to some arcane geis placed on him through a business connection that he had to honor or else. Knowing Marion, I suspect the latter. But I can remember holding the first decent human conversation I’d had in months with Reymund downstairs at the doorway to his kitchen, while everyone upstairs was still eating. The man was capable of cracking jokes while delivering extremely hostile drill-sergeant commands to his underlings. He was a brilliant kitchen schizophrenic, and he had me laughing in spite of myself. Reymund seemed to understand why I lingered down there instead of returning immediately from the restroom.

But today clouds of steam billow in the open kitchen as he commands his forces with a degree of irritation one only sees in kitchens of fancy restaurants or in potential crime scenes. I half-stand and wave when he glances into the dining area, only to see him turn, lift up a bowl of what could be custard but which is probably something far more exotic, and toss it unceremoniously to one of his assistants, a young Japanese man with a terror-stricken look on his face. The assistant bows and runs through a side door. I sit at the counter in Merveilleux Goûts for 90 minutes. In that time, I taste seven different kinds of gravy with seven different miniature spoons.

Eventually, the young girl returns but without the tray. She says something in Japanese that I barely understand. I think she’s asking me what I’m doing there—but in a roundabout way, like, can she help me, one way or another, find what I’m seeking or find the exit.

You can’t help me,” I say. “Anata wa watashi o tasukeru koto wa dekimasen. I do not need assistance.” Or maybe what I say is that I’m beyond help.

She looks at me as if I just said I have a terminal disease, then offers a tight insincere smile, bows, and walks away. She cannot help me. I do not need assistance. I am beyond help.

Out on the street, the sky is overcast. It’s cold. December weather. The front page of the Asahi Shimbun tumbles down the gray sidewalk. The drivers in cars notice me as they pass. But they are perhaps less surprised than they would be in a ward that isn’t as international as Toshima. Still, I am a gaijin. I am a Russian in the synagogue. These little circuits of supposed European high culture overdone with French names and ridiculous marketing cannot help me.

Instead of going directly back to the train station, I decide to walk for a while in the general direction of Shibuya. Looking into the faces of people driving by, I think of my one true friend in Tokyo, who no longer remembers me or who perhaps no longer wishes to. Watashi wa watashi no hanten inu no tame no kurēpu o motsu koto ga dekimasu ka. Can I have a crepe for my spotted dog? No, evidently I can’t.

So the great world spins. I get off at Kōrakuen Station and walk past Tokyo Dome. Five stark white gulls jerk into flight from a mirror-still puddle in front of the entry gate. Traffic crawls down Sotobori-dori. People on the sidewalk open umbrellas and look down as they go by. I stare at an iron manhole covered with writing I can’t understand. A wooden truck carrying street food backfires like a muffled fart. And, for a moment, my perceptual field widens enough that I become aware of everything moving around me at once. Variables in an enormous equation that has nothing to do with me.

I have attained perfect invisibility, a stone in the river. I’m not completely cognizant of where I’m headed, but when I arrive at my destination, it seems that I may have subconsciously intended this route all along. Tokyo Blue Light. A private club in Bunkyō Ward, open all the time. We stopped here that day after having lunch at Reymund’s. Of course, by the time we arrived, we were incredibly high. But I still remember. Bamboo everywhere. A whole forest of it. Low carved tables and furniture. Purple twilight from recessed blue and red ceiling lights. Add cigarette and hookah smoke and the club is disrecognized, de-timed, a non-place gone fully sideways from the traffic out on the sidewalk streaming past its blue-frosted windows. This is where I go.

Greeted at the door by a geisha in an electric blue kimono. S/he runs Marion’s Platinum MasterCard for the ¥120,000 cover. I leave my shoes on a black steel shelf by the door. Then through the black-carpeted bamboo forest to plush cushions by an ebony table inlaid with mother-of-pearl kanji. I suspect all the “geishas” here are men, but there is no way to be sure. The girls in short skirts come later, with hookahs, booze, whatever else. I sit down on the cushion and the geisha host/ess towers above me, expression unreadable behind thick white makeup. Two very thin young men dressed in black pants and button downs bring a bottle of shochu on ice and two glasses, a silver box of the Tekel cigarettes Marion likes, crystal ash trays, a heavy silver lighter.

When the host/ess ran the card, Marion’s information must have come up. That or the geisha has an eidetic memory. It could be either, both, something else. Is it necessary to understand why things happen? Following the plan from last time means there will probably be Jack Daniels and a mirror for Marion’s cocaine. There will be a girl for her and one for me, both fluent in English and willing to sit very close and find everything fascinating.

But today, when they come—two stunning Chinese girls with glazed smiles, their hair in glossy braids—I wave them off. They pivot and disappear just as easily as they came. And then it’s soft voices in Arabic somewhere off in the bamboo forest to my right, a mist of hookah smoke drifting in, and those twin red and blue suns high above. The bourbon arrives when I finish the shochu and I start to feel a little better. I smoke cigarette after cigarette, give my bourbon a jolt from the heavy glass soda bottle they brought with it, and listen to clipped Japanese mix with the Arabic. This is better than humanity—sitting in the purple light, getting displaced. I’d move into Tokyo Blue Light if it were a hotel. Sadly, the best I can do today (tonight?) is ¥80,000 bottles of liquor and high tar.

With Jack Daniels, I want to talk to someone other than myself. But the wait staff is giving me my privacy and, what, I should call Darius? I do call the number he said I’m never supposed to call, Marion’s, about 20 times, clicking off every time it goes to voice mail, which happens immediately from the second time I call to the 20th. Then I call the time in Porterville, California, the town my high school girlfriend was from. 13 digits. At the tone, the time will be 3:16 A.M. Thank you. Then I call my sister in Seattle.

She drops the phone, picks it up, says, “Uh, hello?”

You weren’t sleeping, were you?”

Who is this?” The TV in the background is turned up so loud that it hurts my ear through the phone, CNN, going to an ad.

It’s Charles. You can’t tell my voice anymore?”

Charlie? Oh my god.” The sound of a door muffles the TV one degree. The sound of a second door muffles it again.

Where are you?”

Hold on.” The noise gets softer until it sounds like a normal TV in the next room. “I’m in the closet.”

In your bedroom?”

Yeah. The shoe section. It’s a big closet.”

Guess I should see it someday.”

She doesn’t say anything. The CNN anchor is talking about Michael Jordan starting a foundation for newborns with bicephalous mutations. I imagine Linda sitting in a room full of shoes.

What’s with the TV?”

I just keep it on, like, for noise. I don’t sleep.”

What about Sunny?”

Michael Jordan’s spokesman is a father whose two-headed son is now 12 years old and doing fine. And a malfunctioning drone carrying military armaments on a test flight outside the Camp Pendleton Marine Base, demolished a segment of Interstate 5, resulting in four civilian deaths. Caltrans is clearing the wreckage. Updates as the situation develops.

Sunny . . . she’s with Larry’s mom in Pittsburgh.”

In fucking Pennsylvania? Jesus Christ, Linda. Where’s Larry?”

The sound of a lighter. She coughs for a full minute. The Lakers still have a shot at second place.

I don’t know.” She laughs. The controversial new cookbook smuggled out of Afghanistan has sold more copies than any cookbook in history. “He hates it when I smoke near his shoes.”

Smoking, Linda? Really? I’m in Japan. Want to come out here for a while? I’ll buy you a ticket, have a car come get you. It would be good, right?”

I don’t know. I’m kind of busy. I’ve got a lot . . . going on. But thanks.”

I miss you.”

I hear her exhale smoke. There’s an ad for some drug in the background. Ask your doctor if it’s right for you.

Bye, Charlie. Take care.”

I look up at the twin suns, light another cigarette of my own, and listen to the emptiness on the other end of the line. I’ve never actually met my niece, Sunny, but I have seen pictures. I think I’ve got one somewhere in my luggage. Or I did at one point.

The plan is to finish the bottle of Jack and stagger through the warped streets of Bunkyō Ward around the Dome. But after talking to my sister and thinking about my niece getting shipped off to Pittsburgh and what that probably means, I get lost in the bamboo forest and the geisha host/ess has to lead me to the door. After Tokyo Blue Light, the evening outside seems bright, lights on the stadium, the fan of a small fountain illuminated behind a courtyard gate, the gentle swoosh of cars down Tōkyō-to. My phone tells me it’s 8:10 PM. I’m drunk. If I adopted my niece, where would I take her? The thought of Marion and me as parents is alien enough to make me laugh out loud when I step back on the Chikatetsu. It’s empty, which is good.

It has occurred to me that maybe I protest too much. There are starving people, broke-ass people, guys who fantasize about situations just like mine. But I wanted something else. The elevator on the outside of La Maison Shibuya is made of glass. Riding up to the 25th floor, I get the grand view of Tokyo at night, pinlight helicopter comets moving through glowing constellations, pale blue banks of office windows floating in the dark below HITACHI, REMBRANDT HOTEL, エレクトリックラブ, FUDO MYO LTD. The new gods of this age, their names glowing pridefully in the darkness.

By the time I open the door to Marion’s place, I’m half-sober again. I have an anxious thought that maybe my key card won’t work, that I should have stayed closer to home. But then the light and air-conditioning hit me and I see Akina and Darius have set up an all-white Ping-Pong table in the center of the leather, silver, and glass living room. Even a ping pong table must be stylish and integrated.

I stand in the doorway with my hands in my pockets and watch them play, wishing I was still drunk. Akina is in pale blue negligée. She’s laughing. Darius has camouflage sweatpants beneath his long-sleeved dress shirt, his conservative red tie loosened but still in place. Marion sits in one of the white leather chairs, texting on her phone, three empty martini glasses by her foot. She’s wearing a pair of men’s blue cargo shorts, one of Darius’ Chang Beer T-shirts, and she seems to have gotten tanner since I last saw her. But none of it matters. Not even the fleeting thought that she might be sleeping with Darius, too. Maybe we’re all just a traveling harem for Marion, who—let’s be real for a moment—would never, could never be my girlfriend. The term seems as ridiculous as that Chang Beer T-shirt, something that doesn’t fit with a woman like her. Pearls, yes. T-shirts and cargo shorts and a college dropout going nowhere, hardly. This. This is my life.

A rolling steel bar cart has been positioned near the kitchen area. A middle-aged Japanese man in a tuxedo stands behind it, polishing glasses, pretending not to look at anything. The ping pong ball caroms off Akina’s shoulder and hits the bartender in the forehead. He doesn’t react and neither Akina nor Darius apologizes or even acknowledges his presence. She scoops the ball off the carpet and they continue.

Hello?”

Darius has some kind of fancy reverse grip on his ping pong paddle and he looks like he knows what he’s doing, which in itself is bizarre, his laughing adding to the strangeness. He serves. He jumps up like a professional and returns, red tie flapping. Akina also seems quite good. A full ping pong tournament is going on in the suite. Apparently, this makes everything hilarious.

Hello?” No one looks at me. Not even the bartender.

Marion stops texting and takes a call. “Oh, hi, Daisuke.”

I knock on the door jamb and think: this is my door, too. So why am I knocking? “Hello?”

No, we can do the plushy line and the macro fitting at the same time. It won’t be a problem.”

Darius misses a return and Akina yells, “Yatta!” Then she poses, winking and giving him a thumbs up. Darius bows from the waist and they both start laughing again.

I’m absolutely serious,” Marion says. “Really. I love it.” She drums four fingers on her knee. Her knee is so tan and smooth that the light gleams on her skin and I notice it all the way across the room.

Ready!” Darius serves the ball and I watch them hit it back and forth until he scores another point.

Darius,” I say, but he won’t turn around. I’m still standing in the doorway. I look down at my scuffed black shoes. The tips are exactly perpendicular to the edge of the beige neoprene shag carpet. It’s supposed to feel like fabric, clean itself, and never get threadbare. But going barefoot on it makes me think of AstroTurf and lousy nylon carpets in small insurance offices.

Akina serves. The bartender smiles at me from across the room, no doubt wondering who I am, why I don’t come in.

Darius.”

Marion lowers the phone and says to the bartender: “I’ll have a Captain Seven.” The bartender smiles, nods.

Ha!” Darius with an overhand smash. The ball hits the table, goes well over Akina’s outstretched paddle, and bounces off Marion’s shoulder.

That’s why I already approved them.” Marion’s still on the phone. She smiles at the carpet.

Darius.”

The bartender walks five feet to Marion and presents her drink on a silver tray. She takes it, stands and, phone to her ear, walks in the bedroom shutting the door behind her.

Akina holds up the ping pong ball and smirks. “Backspin!” She serves the ball and Darius grunts, jumping to the side just in time to return it.

I drift in, forgetting to take off my shoes before stepping on the neoprene. I could be floating. Whether from exhaustion, drinks, too many Tekels, or emotion, I’m out of phase. I settle into Marion’s seat, staring at Akina’s back as it twists in her blue negligée—a pale inner skin that will eventually slide free in Marion’s bedroom. The white leather still holds Marion’s warmth and I can feel it through my pants. I know that warmth well and I consider, for a brief moment, how things could get better. But Akina makes another return and yells, “Yatta!” I think of how warmth fades over time. In the end, there’s just this cold leather.

I’m so lost in my self-pity that I don’t notice Darius standing over me.

Take your shoes off.”

I look down at my shoes. They’re scuffed. There’s a thin line of gray mud along the outside edge of the right one. The left one is about to come untied. And I think: when was the last time I bought shoes? I mean, in a proper way, going to a shoe store and trying on a few pairs—not simply giving specifications to some grinning flunky who comes back with eight different pairs. How distanced have I become from anything real? What is this space I’ve entered?

Your shoes. Take them off.” Darius is sweating. The top of his bald head glistens. He has a damp spot on his tie, which I suddenly realize is some kind of crested college tie from the U.K.

Did you go to college in England?”

He kicks my foot. “Show some respect. Now.”

Cambridge? Oxford?”

Then he hits me with the ping pong paddle and Akina starts screaming. The paddle is relatively light, but the wood is solid and Darius has a good angle on me. He holds the blade of the paddle in his hand and drives the edge into the corner of my eye. I try to stand up but he hits me again and I land back in the seat. The front of my powder-blue button down is speckled with blood after the third hit and I’m having trouble seeing out of my left eye. I want to get up, tackle him or something, fight back. But that’s the thing about being hit repeatedly, savagely, by a large man using the edge of a wooden ping pong paddle as a wedge to open up the side of your face—it takes your energy.

Darius sniffs and says, “Now take your shoes off.” But when I don’t do anything, he just shakes his head and walks out, around the ping pong table, still holding the bloody paddle.

I spit out a tooth, which I guess means he also hit me in the mouth. And it seems the region of my brain that controls pain has shut a lot of it down—the left side of my face feels like it’s had an injection of concrete. And my hands shake on the armrests, even though I’m not using my hands for anything in particular at the moment. I also seem to have pissed myself.

Akina and the bartender have run away. I’m sure there’s something wrong with me because, when I try to stand up, I have no sense of how long I’ve been sitting there, staring at the white regulation ping pong table with its stark green sidelines. It takes me years to rise from the seat and move to the closed bedroom door. When I try the handle, it’s locked.

Marion?” Speaking is difficult. Only the right side of my mouth moves and I’m still bleeding onto my chest, creating a long dark slick of blood like something out of a horror movie.

No answer.

I knock again. “For chrissakes, Marion, open the door. I’m hurt.”

The living room looks like a crime scene—because it is. I leave a bloody palm print on the bedroom door, bloody smears on the armrests of the white leather chair. My two suitcases stand inside the front door. I remember pushing them into Marion’s bedroom. I guess someone removed them—probably Darius; though, at this point, any of my dear friends here could have believably done it. By the time I step onto the glass elevator with my luggage, I’ve recovered enough to see through the red film coating my left eye. I try not to lean against the chrome railing. Someone will immediately have to scurry around with a spray bottle and a rag, and I can’t bear to think of it being my blood that they have to clean. A strange thought, all things considered.

The janitor at Hiroo Hospital is kind enough to bring some paper towels. We wipe the blood off my suitcase handles and he disinfects everything with an antibacterial gel. 20 people watch this in silence from a bank of plastic seats. When I emerge with 13 miniature staples in my face, the sun is coming up. My taxi driver is waiting by the curb. He asks me in perfect English if I need to go back to where he picked me up. I say no. “Kūkō ni watashi o toru.” Take me to the airport.

I’m sitting on a steel bench in the airport, looking up at a screen showing arrivals and departures. To my left: a duty free shop featuring bottles of Johnny Walker under a heavy copper sign that reads, House of Walker. To my right: the moldy wall, carpeted all the way up to the ceiling in blue and pink argyle. I haven’t bought a ticket. I’m having trouble concentrating and my face aches like it wants to give birth.

In the cab, I texted the forbidden number: I’m leaving. My other suitcase has some things I actually want. I’ll send you an address. After 30 minutes of staring at the flight times on the screen, my phone beeps. Marion.

Charlie. Where are you? I’ll send a car.”

I’m leaving.”

You can’t. We have dinner. It’s all set. I need you here.”

A fat gaijin in a Hawaiian shirt and a suede Australian bush hat walks out of the duty free shop, stops, and looks at me for a moment.

I ordered you a suit. It’s really nice.”

Marion,” I’m saying, “Marion. Listen to me. I’m—burned out.”

The fat man whistles. “Hey. What happened to you? You need medical?”

I turn toward the wall.

If this is about the thing with Darius, I already talked to him.”

Yeah? The thing with Darius? I’ve got 13 staples in my face.”

We’ll fix it,” she says. “We can overcome this.”

I turn back and see the fat man already far away, walking toward the departure gates, his bright red Hawaiian shirt a tiny lick of flame.

No,” I whisper. “We can’t.”

Charlie? You still there? Can you hear me?”

14 hours later, I step off the plane at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. It’s the middle of the night. I slept most of the way, high on the pain pills for my face, and now I’m on a different planet. St. Louis was the soonest departing flight to the States. I have no other reason for coming here. Within an hour, I have a room at the enormous empty Hilton downtown. I go out on the balcony and look at the glowing blue-green pool 20 floors below.

In the distance, headlights float past an illuminated fountain that reminds me of the one in Yoyogi Park. I can’t imagine what Marion is doing, who she’s with, whether any of this even matters to her. I can’t imagine where I’ll be tomorrow, what I’ll be doing. The bottom lights of a plane turn against the sky. I start a cigarette, leave the balcony door open, switch off the lamp by the bed. Then I lie down with an ash tray so I can watch the planes take off.

I’m watching my father from the mezzanine of the Chicago Hilton. He’s sitting in the lobby with a prostitute and they’re both drunk. She looks like she’s providing a GFE, a “girlfriend experience”—what passes for one in her price range. Laughing, poached beet red from booze and sun, she sits on his lap, slips off, lands on the floor, hauls herself up, tries again. He glances around, as if he can sense someone watching. But he’s too far gone to think about looking up at the entresol, where I’ve been sitting now for 15 minutes. It’s Christmas Eve.

I don’t really know if she’s a prostitute. But maybe I do know. Or I know enough—that my father now only engages in transactional relationships with women; that she’s wearing huge plastic bangles, has runs in her nylons, a sloppy stain on her blouse. Tangled, white-blonde hair. Large injected lips. A smoker’s laugh like a hatchet splitting wood. Just his type. He took her to Bora Bora for three days. Now they’re waiting for a room.

“That’s FUNNY,” she says, and they both crack up. He said something hysterical. Something really funny.

I tailed my father and his new friend here from O’Hare, brushed through their vodka cloud without being recognized, went up to the armchairs on the mezzanine, then got a call from Frankie Lum.

Frankie’s voice in my ear. He’s talking about putting a tracker on his wife’s Civic. He can follow her on his smart phone. Wants to know what I think about that, but I’m not really participating in the conversation. He says that tomorrow he might take his kid to Disneyland and wants to know if I’d like to come or is it too weird?

“I don’t know. Should it be?

He doesn’t say anything and, for a moment, I forget he’s there. Then: “You mean Disneyland’s weird or it’s like we’re gay for each other and Manny’s our kid?”

“It’s your son, Frankie. I don’t know how gayness comes into it. But now it is weird.”

Why does my father do this? Maybe I know why. Maybe I consider smoking a cigarette, even though I quit 4 years ago. I’d have one if I could walk through the lobby without being noticed. I’d feel better in some ways that probably don’t matter.

“That fucking sadist. I know what she does during the day. Like I even need to track her down.” Frankie has been cheating on his wife with women he meets online for years. Somehow, this makes no difference. Bonnie does it once in a while and she’s lying, cheating, vicious, while Frankie’s the victim.

I tell him that I couldn’t go to Disneyland even if it wasn’t weird. I have to visit my mother’s grave with my father tomorrow since she died two years ago on Christmas morning.

“She says she has to work. On Christmas? You have no idea what this is doing to me.”

A waiter from the bar brings them a bottle of Absolut in a champagne bucket shaped like a loving cup, glasses, tonic water in a vintage fluted carafe. My father says something and her OH MY GAWD draws stares around the lobby. The two women at the front desk giggle. My father—red-faced, sweating in his wrinkled Valentino pinstripe and Montecristi Panama hat—looks very much like Minnesota Fats inflated by hot gas. Like he might float up and pop.

The possibility that this woman is actually his girlfriend and not being paid flickers through my mind. I dismiss it immediately when she calls him DADDY and falls out of her chair for the fifth time.

The concierge stalks over, whispers in my father’s ear. The concierge is a short man in a cheap blue suit. He has a mustache and perfectly squared, sprayed hair. My father nods and then he and the girl start laughing all over again. My father offers him a drink. The concierge straightens his tie and looks down at my father the way one looks a bum jingling a cup from a doorway.

Frankie asks if I’m listening to him. I tell him the truth.

“You’re not paying attention to me? What the fuck, James? I don’t even know if we’re friends anymore. Can I trust you?”

“Sure.”

“What’s that mean? Sure? Like I’m asking if you want to hit a movie? I’m saying can I trust you?”

I ask him why and immediately regret it.

“Illinois law. This state’s fucking law says, and I quote: grounds for marital dissolution exist if, without cause or provocation by the petitioner, the respondent has committed adultery subsequent to the marriage. That’s compiled statues 750, chapter 5, section 401, bitch.”

They’ve found my father a room. An entourage has assembled in the lobby: a guy to load their 10 suitcases on a rolling cart; a guy to carry the bottle of vodka, tonic carafe, and glasses on a silver tray; another guy to help the lady walk; and the concierge, overseeing everything, with dead eyes and a key card. Back to Bora Bora: a mountain caravan replete with porters and shitfaced great white hunter in Panama hat. They move slowly through the lobby, the lady stumbling on her heels and shouting FUCK every time.

“You think it’s weird to come with me and Manny to Disneyland? That’s fine. Cause my son and me are gonna be busy photographing his mother breaking the law. Thanks for nothing. See you on Monday.”

Frankie clicks off. He gets emotional like that. He’ll come away with a flash drive full of photos of Bonnie in flagrante delicto with the pool boy or another yoga teacher. They’ll fight and go somewhere for the weekend to straighten things out. Then Frankie will hook up with a morbidly obese woman named Jolene or a sex-addict cutter or a bipolar divorcee or a leathery women’s volleyball coach in the back office of the high school gym.

Always the same: he’ll come over to my desk at work to confess. He’ll ask me if I think he’s got a problem, if I think he’s a bad person. And I’ll say if he’s into Jolene and she’s into him and they want to do it in the master bedroom of the house she’s supposed to be cleaning that day, then that’s their business. I’ll tell him good and bad don’t come into it, which is what he wants to hear. Then all will be right in the world. Except, I guess, with Manny. Nothing’s ever going to be right with that kid. But you can’t pick your parents.

After the entourage departs, a certain calm descends on the lobby. 1 AM. Lights wink on the enormous fake Christmas tree over by the doors. The girls at the front desk lean against the wall beneath eight brass clocks that show times from around the world. The concierge passes me as I pass through towards the entrance. He’s loosened his tie. He walks forward with his hands in his pockets, staring at the carpet.

Outside, snow along Michigan Avenue is three feet high. I ask one of the valets for a smoke. He gives me a Marlboro Light. I don’t cough. It doesn’t make me sick after four years of Puritanism. I spend a long time slowly smoking it, watching the flakes come down in the headlights of cars.

Bora Bora is one of the Leeward Islands of French Polynesia. It’s surrounded by a lagoon and a barrier reef. The island is completely supported by tourism. There are 18 hotels, but my father always stays in the Herenui Suite at the Four Seasons. The biggest town is named Vaitape. It’s on the west side of the island, opposite a lagoon. Somewhere inland, there’s a dormant volcano. And there are many coconut trees. Coconut trees are everywhere. You could close your eyes and point and you’d be pointing at a bunch of coconut trees. At least, this is what I’ve read. I’ve never been there. In 45 years of marriage, my father took my mother on one vacation to New Mexico. Now he goes to Bora Bora and stays in the Herenui Suite twice a year.

I should eat something, but I don’t have an appetite. I trudge over to 7-11 and buy a pack of Marlboro Lights, a blue plastic lighter. Then I go back to the valet, hand him two cigarettes, say thanks, and he looks at me like I’m a psychopath.

I’m not crazy, but I do hear my mother telling me I need to eat. I hear her voice all the time from out of the past, from my memories. And I know it’s not a psychopath thing. It’s a grief thing. When you’re a kid, it’s enough to know there is such a thing as grief. If you’re lucky, that’s the extent of your knowledge for at least a decade or two. But you learn. Everybody learns. So fuck the valet. I paid him back with interest out of gratitude and this is how he acts. I hope his lungs turn black.

The All-American Diner is open on Christmas Eve. It’s half-full of sad-looking old men in wrinkled clothing, the ones who can’t afford or who can’t bring themselves to pay for some company. My Denver omelet tastes like corn oil. The wind picks up and the lights of the Hilton across the street make gauzy halos in the snow.

I could go home to my studio apartment in Westmont, smoke a few more, fall asleep in front of the TV. But the same thing that motivated me to tail my father and his unfortunate new friend from the airport is what keeps me in the diner booth. I can’t go home. And I can’t say exactly why, but it feels like giving up on mom.

The last time I spoke with her, the cancer had reached her brain. She talked gibberish half the time. But you could see, deep down, that she was still in there. It had been a bad day, a messy, humiliating day for her in which the nurse had to be called multiple times. But there was a moment when she turned to me and said, “Don’t blame your father. He won’t know how to take care of himself.”

At the time, it was okay. Anything she said was. But now it breaks my heart to think she’s looking down at all this. At me, here. At my father up in the room, sweating out Citron and Viagra while he grunts and strains through the last night of his Girlfriend Experience. We should be sitting in the living room, having a drink together on Christmas Eve. We should be doing the things families do.

Frankie calls and I let it go to voicemail. I’ve had just about enough of Frankie Lum for one day. I finish my omelet and eat a piece of toast to soak up the grease. After four refills of coffee, I start feeling like a jerk for taking up the booth so long. New gray-faced men keep coming in, their trench coats and umbrellas caked with snow.

It’s a strange sight on Christmas Eve, but the lone Russian waitress keeps the glasnost fish eye of hate trained on everyone in equal measure. I tip 25% because no one should have to work in the All-American Diner on the night before Christmas. Or ever. There is no Russian word for “table service on Christmas Eve in Chicago.” The waitress scoops up the money before I’m fully out of the booth. I don’t look at her.

I wander back into the lobby of the Hilton and leave a message for my sister, Elsa—who said no straight out when I suggested a family memorial service for mom. But she said she’d be coming to town with her husband Johann and to give her a call. So I do, even though I told myself I wouldn’t.

Her voicemail’s tinny robot message expels a burst of German, then her name in her own voice, slow and clear, the way she might enunciate it for a two-year-old. I can’t bring myself to describe what I’ve been going through. So I just say, “It’s your brother. I’m at the Hilton. Dad’s here.” And I leave my number to prevent her from being able to claim she lost it. She loses it every time I give it to her. In this era of cell phones and caller ID, there’s only one way that’s possible.

“Can I help you?”

Ah. One of the girls from the desk. Heavy glasses, brown Velma hair in a bob. Freckles. Big mean stare. She’s had her nightly snigger and now must deal with the vagrant dripping on the upholstery.

“I don’t think so.”

“Are you staying here, sir?”

“I’m James Garrit. My father, Trevor Garrit, is staying here.”

“Do you want to ring his room or leave him a message?”

“No.”

“Then can I help you?”

“Not really.”

“Then why are you sitting here?”

“Don’t you think it’s a little late for philosophical questions?”

“I’ll be back.”

“I’m sure you will.”

The trouble with Bora Bora isn’t that the volcano might wake up some day and turn the place into a burning hellscape sinking beneath the waves or, even worse, that the entire economy depends on wrinkly divorcees like my father. It’s that the island has exploitation threaded into its soil. Polynesian settlers took over in the 4th century. Then Captain Cook arrived. Then missionaries from England built a church. And once that happens, as my grandmother used to say, it’s all over but the shouting.

In 1888, Queen Teriimaevarua abdicated as supreme ruler over the island. Henceforth, Bora Bora would be a French colony. Baguettes. Wine in the afternoon. Tennis. A vacation spot for Legionnaires on furlough and a place to take your mistress when that dusty little nid d’amour in Lyon starts to seem confining.

My phone vibrates and I make the mistake of answering without checking. I expect Elsa. But no. Frankie.

“You still staking out your dad?”

“You live in a world of stakeouts and mistrust, don’t you, Frankie.”

“Screw you.” He hangs up.

No, I am not surprised that he does this. Yes, this is my life.

The desk girl returneth. “Sir, if your party isn’t expecting you, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“I thought this was a lounge.”

“No, sir, this is the lobby.”

“But people sit here and order drinks here from the bar, right?”

“No one sits here, sir. This is just the lobby.”

“Does the lobby have a function?”

“People walk through it.”

So Bora Bora. One cannot nurture expectations contrary to the nature of a place. But since I’ve never visited the island, it exists only in my imagination. And therefore it exists only for my father, only as a symbol of his treatment of my mother, especially while she was dying. There it really is a ghostly hell where lobster-red tourists marinate their organs in loving cups filled with Vodka and the Girlfriend Experience is compulsory.

Frankie texts me: Apologies. Under stress. Forget Disneyland. You need to be the one to follow Bonnie. I just can’t do it. Text YES if you understand.

The weirdness never stops, does it?

Is that a no?

“So you’re saying no drinks?”

“I’m calling security.”

The sun comes up and I’m still in the lobby-lounge-place people walk through with no drinks. I did nap a bit. Velma the desk girl eventually called the concierge, not security. But perhaps because of the earlier difficulty with my father, nothing was done. She wouldn’t look in my direction. Then she went home. And I remain. Like Gibraltar. Like the Great Sphinx. Like the brooding volcano at the center of Bora Bora, which the natives call Otemanu.

But there is a moment when the gravity shifts, when the barometric pressure rises and I don’t feel so certain. It’s a familiar feeling. Even before I see Else standing over me with her hands on her hips, I know it’s her.

“You look like shit.”

“Good to see you, too.”

She looks down at me and, for a moment, I get the impression that she really does see me as an enormous glistening turd.

“Why don’t you just get a room if you can’t bear to go home?”

“Have you seen what they charge for rooms here on Christmas?”

“Don’t poor-mouth me. It’s disgusting.”

I follow my sister out of the lobby and compliment her on her silver Bentley Continental.

“I’m selling it.”

I know that if I ask why, she will tell me she doesn’t like the curvature of the dash board or how the back seat ashtrays vacuum her cigarette smoke too directly. Asking questions pisses Else off. Her driver’s name is Howard. But she doesn’t have to say a word to him. Howard knows not to ask. We get into the back seat and the car slips down Michigan Avenue. It’s perfectly silent. No snow crunch under the tires. No rattle from the heater. The first thing I hear is the flitch of my sister’s lighter.

“So you’re here to spend the holidays crying in a graveyard.”

“I just thought it would be nice to have a memorial.”

Else exhales smoke and it’s immediately snatched apart by air currents, vents, suctions, the hidden impedimenta of flawless climate control designed to keep the interior of the Bentley throne-room perfect.

“It’s morbid and useless. You’re smart enough to know that. This is really about the fund, isn’t it.”

“I don’t want your money, Else.”

“SHUT UP YOU FUCKING LIAR!” She slams her cigarette into the ashtray built into the door. “You know it’s about money. It’s ALWAYS about money. I should kick you out into the snow right here.”

“No,” I whisper. “It’s never been about the money.”

Howard changes lanes. We cross the Chicago River. Traffic floats past outside, heading downtown for morning services or home or far, far away from whatever home has come to mean.

So much rage in her little body. Else lights another and we listen to the ashtray whir as it opens and takes her previous cigarette down into its mechanical bowels. Else came into the world as a mistake. That’s what our parents used to say. They never stopped saying it.

When she was 14, they sent her to a convent school in Frankfurt. She spent her holidays there, too. Like she didn’t exist as part of the family. Like the cigarette: whir, click, gone into some fancy garbage disposal.

Four years later, she appeared at the New Years celebration my father’s magazine was throwing in Brooklyn. Else, all grown up, dressed in black, weaaring immaculate boots, a smoker of fine cigarettes, and a lesbian. Three years after that, she married Johann Moll and moved to Geneva. She’s still married to Johann. But why, how, and in what capacity I do not know.

When it comes to my sister, the only thing I can be sure of is that she thinks her trust fund should have been larger—that I received preferential treatment yet again, that I somehow cajoled a chunk of her inheritance away while mom was on her deathbed, and that I’m angling for the rest of it.

Actually, I received nothing. Instead of a trust fund, my mother had intended the family gold—a substantial number of heirlooms that had been in her family since before the Renaissance—to come to me. My father made off with that before the ink was dry on the death certificate.

I had no way to prove anything. But I never complained. I never threatened to kick someone out into the snow. In any ten of Else’s thoughts, eight are invariably about money and one is about something she hates. I like to imagine that the remaining tenth thought might be about art or music or kittens, but it’s probably just about selling her Bentley. In an earlier age, she’d be a cruel Cleopatra, a Lucrezia Borgia, a young Roman matrona rooting for the lions.

Antipater of Sidon is supposed to have written the following in 140 BCE:

I have gazed on the walls of impregnable Babylon along which chariots may race, and on the Zeus by the banks of the Alpheus. I have seen the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Helios, the great man-made mountains of the lofty pyramids, and the gigantic tomb of Mausolus. But when I saw the sacred house of Artemis that towers to the clouds, the others were placed in the shade, for the sun himself has never looked upon its equal outside Olympus.

I have enjoyed that passage ever since I was forced to read it in high school. Antipater of Sidon is the prototypical sidewalk pitchman, the classical version of: Hey buddy, you thought you seen wonders? You ain’t seen wonders. Back here in the tent, shit, I got some wonders. Only five bucks for a look at the sacred house of Artemis. But how might he describe Else’s arrival in Bora Bora?

I have gazed on the 32-karat gold shingles of Johann Moll’s house along which chariots may race, and on Herr Moll dressed as Zeus by the banks of Rhône. I have seen the lingering bad attitude of his wife and her colossal resentment towards her brother, the groundless mountain of irrationality that props up her lofty opinion of herself, and her gigantic ego. But when I saw Else Moll arrive, smoking Gitanes in a diamond palanquin, I knew Bora Bora might never recover, and Otemanu himself might be so offended as to erupt after four million years.

Or something like that. The point is, we travel all the way to her empty Victorian on West Armitage without another word between us. Just cigarette smoke getting suctioned away and Howard engaging the turn signal with silent dignity. The whir of the ashtrays. Dirty snow. Bleak white-gray Chicago Christmas morning beyond the tinted glass. I have all the time I need to speculate about Antipater of Sidon and offending the volcano and how sad my mom must be that we all turned out like this.

The interior of Else’s house is a time capsule of late Victoriana—not because she is in any way enthusiastic about Favrile glass or Morris wallpapers, but because Johann bought the place along with its contents in a single consumerist ejaculation. I have no idea if either of them have spent one night in the house since they signed the papers last year, but I tend to doubt it.

“You can sleep here tonight.” She puts a glass ashtray on the Louis XV rococo coffee table polished to a museum sheen. “But don’t think you’re moving in.”

I imagine how the house cleaners must feel, coming here to dust once a week, nothing ever moved, nothing changed. “I’m not homeless, Else. I actually have a job, a life.”

She smiles, raises an eyebrow. “You’re obsessed with our dead mother. Any woman attracted to you is either stupid or thinks you’re a chump. Or both. You have no life.”

“Speaking of that, I think dad just got back from Bora Bora with a hooker.”

Else walks over to the baroque drink trolley that looks like two brass flamingos having sex while falling to earth. It’s fully stocked. None of the bottles have been opened. The whole room disturbs me. Red Persian rug. Tasseled drapes. The tall stained-glass windows glare with late morning light.

“Who cares. Martini?”

“It’s ten in the morning.”

“It’s Christmas.”

“I’ll pass.”

She shrugs without turning around and makes her drink. “If he wants AIDS, that’s his business.”

Calling Else was dumb. I knew it was. Why did I do it?

“I think I should go.”

“Yeah,” Else says. “Maybe you should.”

She takes a sip of her drink and stares up at the tall window, a blinding red, green, and yellow mosaic showing a saint blessing a pack of dogs. If it was taken from a church, what kind of church? If it was made to order, who would want to look at that every day? Johann?

“Why did you want me to come here? Just to see the inside of the place?”

“This house means nothing to me.”

“Sure.” I stand up to go.

“You don’t understand a thing, do you. You’re completely clueless. My clueless brother.”

She follows me to the door, smoking furiously, then holding her cigarette and drink in one hand and cupping her elbow with the other.

I open the door. Tiny snowflakes swirl around us. “Don’t forget,” I say over my shoulder. “You were a mistake.”

Try to get a taxi in Chicago on Christmas day. I dare you. It’s not impossible. Nothing is impossible. It’s just highly improbable—like every other thing we want. What should take me 30 minutes takes 4 hours and it’s nobody’s fault but mine for letting Else do her number on me yet again.

Somewhere between the house that means nothing and the Hilton, Frankie updates me on his situation.

Manny’s in the car. Okay? When they ask you where he was, you know I said he was in the car.

What?

I’m doing this. It’s the only way. Not for me. For my son.

Don’t talk crazy.

I always liked you, James. But someone has to put a stop to her. She’s evil. She’s fucking up my son’s childhood.

You don’t sound rational, Frankie.

Good-bye.

Hey. Don’t be like that.

And this, too, is Frankie. The last time he got this upset about Bonnie, he threatened to burn down his house. I’m guessing that’s what he has in mind today. Always the same. Good old Frankie Lum, creature of habit.

Only I do not believe—not even in all worlds and all times while infinite monkeys type ad infinitum on infinite keyboards and the means and will and opportunity recur in Frankie’s life like the tide—that he would ever burn his own house down. Had he but world enough and time, he might find the proper expression for his inner turmoil. He might be able to actually say what he signifies by threatening arson. But he doesn’t. And so. And so.

Okay, Frankie. You want to get a beer?

My $67 Christmas cab ride through the most circuitous route known to the driver brings me right up to the front of the Hilton before Frankie responds: okay. Because nobody wants to be alone on Christmas. Of course, he and Bonnie could decide to spend the holidays with each other like a family, but I guess Frankie prefers to work it out by threatening to commit felonies.

I tell him I’ll call him after I go to the graveyard with my father. I’ve already Christmas-guilted the new front desk girl into telling me my father’s room number by the time Frankie texts me back one last time: okay. It’ll give him time to think up a face-saving excuse for not torching his house after all. And whatever he says, I’ll make sure to believe it.

The elevator plays all of The Partridge Family’s “My Christmas Card to You” by the time it gets up to the 17th floor. The music makes me want to shoot myself and does nothing to improve my disposition when I knock on my father’s door.

I’m thinking about Else saying so you’re here to spend the holidays crying in a graveyard, about Frankie standing in front of his house with a gas can and some rags just so the world will take him seriously, and about mom—feeling like I should be somewhere making an apology for my family, burning incense, praying for her soul and her forgiveness. I don’t consider myself particularly religious. But I was raised Catholic. And we know how to do all kinds of guilt.

My father answers the door, still drunk, his black silk bathrobe hanging open. White pubic hair. His enormous belly. He’s got a red fez on his head with a golden tassel and his face is painted like a clown. He looks at me for a moment before realizing who I am.

I resist the urge to walk back down the hall to the elevator. Instead, I put my hands in my pockets.

“What’s with the clown makeup?”

“Hello, Jim. How’d you know I was here?”

“Come BAAACK,” his friend calls from somewhere behind him in the room. “We ain’t done yet.”

He wobbles and holds onto the door frame. “What’re you doing here? You staying here, too?”

“I called you about ten times. I had to follow you here from the airport. It’s Christmas day, dad.”

“No shit.” Then, over his shoulder: “Hey, Carla, didja know it’s Christmas?”

“Today? Wow. Time flies. Hey, who’ya talkin’ to, daddy?”

“Nobody, hun.” He looks at me and thinks. “You need some money? Is that it?”

“I thought we might go over to mom’s grave. You know, just for a few minutes. Put down some roses.”

“I got this party thing later. But let me give you some money, Jim. For Christmas.” He turns back into the room and Carla takes his place. She’s dressed in a green fishnets, a green vinyl babydoll one-piece, green platforms with a big costume emerald on the top of each.

“He’s a sad clown and I’m Poison Ivy. Who’re you?”

“I’m just leaving.”

“Yeah. Okay.” She stifles a burp. “Good.” And she shuts the door.

I’m halfway to the elevator when my father catches up with me. He’s got a vodka tonic in his right hand and a roll of bills in his left. A gangster roll. Living large, my dad.

“Take it. Five-hundred bucks. For Christmas, you know?”

When I don’t reach out and take it, he tosses the roll to me. Reflexively, I catch it. He grins and I feel like an asshole.

“Good,” he drains the rest of his drink. “Gimmie a call next week, okay?”

I toss the roll back at him. It bounces off his belly and lands on the carpet between us.

“Go fuck yourself.”

“Hey.” He bends down to pick up the roll and almost falls on his face. “That’s not right. That’s no way to treat me.”

He doesn’t follow me down to the elevator. He just stands in the middle of the hallway watching me, repeating, “That’s not right, Jim. That’s no way to be,” over and over. The elevator closes and a moment later I can’t hear him anymore. I wonder if he’ll remember that I came by at all. Something tells me Carla won’t mention it.

The lobby is full of happy, smiling families—people visiting relatives in Chicago, people from the west coast, from New York City, from Austria, from North Dakota. I sit in a plush chair in the center and listen to their conversations. I pay attention to my breathing.

Frankie texts me: Look, I need a favor.

Another one?

You didn’t do the last one.

Which should tell you something.

I need you to take Manny until tomorrow night. Is that too gay for words?

Frankie. Gay is okay, you know? You use the word like a 14-year-old. What are you going to do when Manny starts saying things are “so gay”?

Are you really asking me that right now? I’m calling out for help.

It’s the middle of the day and bright, but large flakes drift past the front windows. The Canadian father of three next to me calls it the “polar vortex.”

Did you know it’s never snowed in Bora Bora?

WTF are you talking about? Something’s happened. I need to

There’s a long pause in which I imagine Frankie is trying to come up with a way to seem not so predictable, not so much like an overly dramatic fool.

spend some time with Bonnie. Set her straight about a few things.

You flying to Palm Springs this time?

No. What makes you think that? We’re going to Niagara Falls. But hey we need to take a rain check on that beer. Can you come get Manny ASAP?

He’s forgotten all about me saying I had to go visit my mom’s grave. The dead don’t compute. They don’t exist. They don’t matter when it’s time to go to a casino in Niagara Falls to fall in love all over again or to a costume ball dressed like a mime version of Kasper Gutman. Who’s going to take care of the dead if not us? If not those of us who can still remember them? Staring at my phone, my thumb poised above the little keypad, I ask these questions again for the thousandth time since my mother died on the worst Christmas of my life. Still, in the end, maybe family—any family with a chance to be more than a rabid bunch of animals snapping at each other’s throats—matters more than the dead.

So: Yeah. Okay. We can go to a movie or something.

Cool, man. Can you come right now?

I tell him sure. I’m not doing anything special.

When I go outside to have a cigarette, Else’s driver, Howard, is waiting in the snow, standing by the silver Bentley, with a cardboard sign that reads, JAMES GARRIT. He looks at me as if he’s never seen me before.

“Greetings. Mrs. Moll has told me to take you wherever you need to go today.”

“Has she. Howard, right? I met you earlier.”

“I have no recollection of that, sir.”

I shrug and let him open the car door for me. We pull away from the curb. I imagine I could say nothing and Howard would still know to take me Mount Olivet Cemetery then to Frankie’s house. But I tell him anyway and he simply nods. Beside me on the backseat is a bouquet of 36 large roses. I count them as we go and think about my sister sitting in that house, drinking, looking at the stained-glass saint blessing the dogs.

My cell phone tells me that in Vaitape, it’s 77-degrees, partly cloudy, with a 20% chance of rain. Today, Bora Bora is silent. Otemanu broods, shrouded in mist, knowing nothing of Christmas, while tiny yellow butterfly clouds twist above the jungle. I picture this as the snow falls silently over Chicagoland, over the sidewalks, the river, the Eisenhower Expressway, and my mother’s grave.

Your eyes are closed. And a voice repeats itself: if you can’t eat, you need to sleep. “If you can’t sleep, you need to build something. Something edifying and engrossing. A sculpture. A sculpture that will take you out of yourself and release your attachments.” The voice of Dr. Bentley Philips, your wife’s psychiatrist. He arrived an hour ago, claiming that you called him. It’s possible that you did.

“But that’s only if you can’t sleep,” he says.

Sitting under the chandelier on the white shag of your unfurnished dining room, your new two-story house seems enormous and the night endless. None of the windows have curtains. Through the large bay window in the dining room, the desolation of the new housing development is clear: empty asphalt drives, vacant yards, half-built skeletons of houses. You see the silhouettes of transplanted midget palms waving in the orange glow of sodium vapor lamps around your circular driveway. Evil midget palms with fronds like sword blades. The chandelier is large and electric. It blazes like an alien mothership.

“Can’t you give me something?”

“You mean a fat pill that’ll knock you into next Tuesday?”

Bentley is a Buddhist, does Buddhist psychotherapy. He uses terms like “satori” and “blissful illumination” and talks about “exploding supernovas of joy in the meninges of the skull.”

“You’re an addict, Ed.” He tamps the bowl of his bong with his thumb. “Say, ‘I’m an addict,’ and I’ll write you a script right now.”

It’s possible that you’re an addict. But it’s a fact that, due to meth and despair, you haven’t been sleeping. You’ve been seeing mice at the edges of your vision. Your conversations with yourself in the bathroom mirror have grown cryptic and obscure—as have your talks with the cast of Battlestar Galactica.

“What if I say, ‘Fuck off,’ and punch you in the mouth?” You may be delusional and talking to television characters through the bathroom mirror, but unfortunately you’re not imagining Bentley. You’ve always hated your wife’s psychiatrist.

He shrugs and takes a long draw, tiny wisps of smoke rising from the bowl. The fact that you might have called him in a meth-addled stupor doesn’t make him any less of an asshole. You remind yourself that Bentley, too, shall pass. He coughs out used smoke and tells you to blame yourself, not the drugs. He says you need to admit what you are.

You put on the Sounds of the Humpback Whales CD he has in his boom box, the one he always brings with him to play chants and guided meditations and shit like that. Then, over the sounds of whale fin slapping the water, you tell him he’s a worthless pot-head.

What you don’t say is that you feel worried when you look through the front windows—the opaque, mirror-black world waiting to eat you, the wide circular drive illuminated in the middle of the glass. You watch the midget palms standing around the drive as if engaged in ritual, their fronds fronding the wind as the chandelier waits above, its monstrous mandibular arms glowing with the fires of perdition.

Bentley wants you to hit the bong. He nods and smirks when you wave it off as if he was testing you. There’s no way to blame drugs for this situation. Drugs are innocent. You blame Paula, your ex-wife. Fucking Paula, who abducted all the furniture en route and disappeared.

So if squinting Commander Adama appears in the dark dining room window or behind you in the bathroom mirror and starts telling you you have to roll the hard six just like in the series, you’ll ignore him as a rule. You’ll tell yourself there’s more than enough time to fix his geriatric bullshitty hallucinatory ass. If you see a mouse doing the Macarena across the back of the toilet tank, you’ll blink it gone. You’ll listen to the whales and tell yourself this is not psychosis. This is the necessary meth, the straight dope. Emotional life support. Beyond question. Only meth will save you from a violent probing on the alien mothership, which you feel will be more or less inevitable once the chandelier reveals itself.

The doctor’s triple-chambered bong bubbles as he initiates an herbal satori. The bong is bright orange, as long as Bentley’s arm, with pointillist green arabesques on the side. It’s enormous, faintly penile, slick-looking. The arabesques seem like sequins formed out of abjad. You imagine a woman with needles sticking out of her tongue licking designs into the bong—all about the unpronounceable name of god and forgiveness and how you must turn away from foolishness. Indeed.

The midget palms are right outside the window now. They wave and dip their fronds. Standing between them, Commander Adama beckons. You give him the finger and Bentley laughs. “Hallucinational are we?”

“I’m cold.”

“You’re sweating. Say you’re an addict, Ed. Just say it.”

The necessary meth, the straight dope: if you’re going to be completely honest, you’ll admit that the meninges of the skull cannot withstand more than 72 hours of racing heart and no sleep before acute psychosis sets in.

Psychosis. The big chosis.

This is not something other drugs can prevent, not even satori weed from the good doctor’s bong of enlightenment. Rather, amphetamine psychosis is a Daisy Duke Moment, a stretchy atemporal hiccup of severe disidentification in which you realize that you are now and always have been, say, the Antichrist or a tawny pug that was once shot into space by Soviet physicists or the sexy hillbilly cousin of Bo and Luke Duke for 6 full seasons.

But if you admit to yourself that Commander Adama is actually just a palm tree outside the window, then you must confront the unsettling question: what are palm trees?

“Look at you with your cock bong,” you say. “Have I ever seen you without a bong?”

“Paula has.”

Meth psychosis would constitute a total break in the reality piñata. It would constitute a new state of being in which you’re blindfolded, weeping on the ground, and all the candies of the world will have razorblades in them forevermore. Death Piñata. It’s the Winchester Mystery House on acid. It’s Daisy Duke. It’s Mitt Romney having won instead with plagues of locusts, the death of the firstborn, the Tower of Babel falling down all over again. It’s the chosis that makes the rest of society’s piñata-beaters want to tie you up and throw you in a hole. Daisy Duke? Oh my sweet lord, yes.

“You know, there’s nothing wrong with fucking a psychiatrist up, Bentley. People will probably like me for it. The police will. I could fuck you up right now.”

“With every threat you make, Ed, I grow stronger. You know why? Because I’m a Jedi knight and you’re an addict. That’s why.”

And a voice repeats itself: if you can’t eat, you need to sleep. If you can’t sleep, you need to build something. Something to distract you. Something to relieve you and bless you. Something sacramental. Something to initiate satori. And therefore, you know the only relief possible lies in the construction of an utterly enlightening machine dedicated completely to personal bliss, covered in knobs and cranks, and weighing more than a gun safe from the 1930s. One must build a beautiful, interactive sculpture. A machine, yes, but one that would connect you to the infinite.

“That’s the spirit,” Bentley says. And you realize you’ve been talking out loud, but it doesn’t make the idea any less brilliant. So this is what you do. Infused with the unstable and perhaps inbred hillbilly energy of an impending Daisy Duke Moment, you know you have to roll the hard six. You watch yourself get out some tools, a squirt-can of 3-in1 oil, and the box of machine parts someone left in the front closet. You watch yourself scream incoherently at Bentley like some kind of bloodthirsty pterodactyl. You dance in circles and stamp your feet until he helps you carry in the enormous moldy butcher block you found in the storm drain below the housing development. Then you listen to the whales and start to superglue the parts on.

It takes forever.

It only takes a little while.

It makes you want to gouge your eyes out with a screwdriver.

It makes you giggle like a little girl.

You’re not hallucinating. Those aren’t palm fronds swishing scissor-like beside your ears. That’s not Commander Adama in the foyer with his uniform pants around his ankles. He’s putting Daisy Duke and the new girl-Starbuck through a lesbian bondage routine with ball gags and chains and a stuffed puglet. They’re surrounded by midget palms, but you don’t have time to watch the fronding. You’re at the gound-zero-eleventh-hour-apocalyptic-meltdown-trigger-point-of-all-creation and there’s no time to be a tourist with the whole reality piñata hanging in the balance.

It looks like a chunk of Watts Towers when you finish, an amazing machine bristling with buttons and levers, knobs, cranks. You turn the knobs. You push the buttons.

You do feel slightly better.

“That sculpture you made has focused your thoughts. That’s good, my son,” Bentley says.

“This is a machine that creates satoris, bitch. Drug free. None of your Jedi bullshit. No psychobabble. Just pure, sweet, extra-virgin distractive bliss. Better, by far, than your cock bong. You better recognize.”

Bentley nods, smiles, his eyes nothing but slits. “It’s good that you took my advice, Ed. But remember, those levers don’t actually do anything. They’re just a placebo. They won’t keep you from diving head-first into a drained swimming pool or running over yourself with a car. You will eventually do something like that, you know.”

The thought of running over yourself with a car is terrifying. “Screw that. It’s about focus. You think I’m a meth addict, but you’re high and wrong. I made this machine before you told me to. I made this fucking years ago. I’m ancient like the hills.”

“Addict. That’s what I think. That’s what Paula thinks.”

“Paula has no philosophy and neither do you.”

Bentley’s cackles turn into coughs. He lies back and stares at the mothership chandelier, puts his hands behind his head. “Bliss machine. I like that. Bliss is nice. Machines are nice.”

In the menagerie of lethal street drugs, methamphetamine has had a short yet astonishing history. It is everywhere and nowhere, the redneck grail. It can be made from various combinations of iodine, battery acid, cold pills, acetone, paint thinner, white gasoline, wood ester, fiberglass resin, grain alcohol, liquid ether, and Bisquick. Moreover, it’s frisky and it wants to bring you the paper in the morning. It’s coat has a glossy sheen and it’s just so cute the way it wags its tail. Cute as a button. Meth is a pug that loves you. And it’s never, ever going away.

So let’s say at least some of what you’ve been experiencing has been due to blown-out meninges and perhaps to the sheer stuporous exhaustion that comes from overclocking the bodymind with such chemical puggy goodness. Before you left Gainesville, you had quite the little laboratory in your garage. But you were not a drug dealer. You were a married man with equity and a Prius, a fan of whimsical Rube Goldberg inventions, minor league baseball, and space opera. You recycled. You had a job as a chemical engineer for a company that produces one thing: synthetic lube oil for the nose cones of ICBMs—lube oil that used to come from whale blubber. This was good work you were doing. Yes, Daisy, you were saving the fucking whales. You were saving Free Willy. Sing with them, Daisy. Sing.

In fact, all the drugs you made were for personal use. Contrary to popular belief, meth did not turn you in to a raving, flesh eating werewolf. Rather, it made you more efficient and aware at work while providing an excellent hobby interest. And now, after ten faithful years of whale conservation and making it possible for the United States to turn North Korea into glowing maple syrup for 20 centuries, you don’t even own a bed.

So let’s say you’ve taken up chain smoking as both protest and comfort, sitting against the dining room wall in your boxer shorts, contemplating the mournful song of the humpback whale and pug dogs and battlestars and why Paula is so wrong about everything. Let’s say you’ve been compulsively applying ChapStick and snorting rails of homemade powdered meth at the rate of 250mg every three to four hours for the last 48 consecutive hours. Let’s say you’ve started to twitch. Let’s say a raindrop that got caught on the windowpane made you cry. Nobody loves you. The whales are singing. The house has no furniture.

Bentley’s finishing another bowl. Let’s also say you’re alright with despising him enough to choke him unconscious with one hand if he gets too close.

“Why did I call you? There’s no way I could have called you.”

“Because you need my help,” Bentley says.

And let ‘s admit that your obsession with Battlestar Galactica has also played a role in this—that you are powerless over Battlestar Galactica and that your life has become unmanageable. You look over at the machine you built, the Blissful Illumination Machine (BIM). It’s now covered by an old T-shirt. It’s sitting on the carpet where the dining room table should be.

“I need furniture is what I need.”

“Yeah.” Bentley nods. “That’s true.”

The current meninges-frying meth binge started 48.5 hours ago with a call in the deep end of the night, the phone squealing like a child shocked out of a dream. It’s alright, you said half-sleep, daddy’ll take care of everything. But you don’t know why you said that because you don’t have kids. You were holding the phone upside-down in the dark.

“What did you call me?” said the little voice.

“Are you the movers?” you asked. “I told you not to call me at night. For chrissake, it’s the middle of the night. This is unacceptable.”

“Ed Tiller? There’s an end table here with your name on it, Mr. Tiller. We thought you’d want to know.”

“It’s almost midnight. You should have been here last week.”

Creeping death: you knew exactly why they were late, why you’d been sleeping on a blanket for days under a sinister chandelier in the dining room—the only room with carpet and therefore the warmest place in the house since the heaters didn’t work.

“We’re in Lubbock,” he said. “I’m sorry. We’re in Lubbock.”

But that was 48.5 hours ago when you were psychologically defenseless. Now you’re higher than Luke Skywalker and you’ve got the BIM finished and you don’t have to dwell on Lubbock or calls in the middle of the night letting you know your soon-to-be-ex-wife had the movers divide your possessions in a truck stop parking lot.

Under the T-shirt, the levers and protrusions of the BIM resemble a jumble of bones under a shroud, a fat pug skeleton. Could the image of a skeletal pug bring enlightenment under a shirt? Why not? Dipping a pug in acid and wrapping up the bones is not something Rube Goldberg would kick you out of heaven for. Saint Rube, patron of over-engineered machines and useless gestures. Ave Sanctus Rubius, hear our prayer.

“I’m hungry. Big surprise there.” Bentley laughs at his own wit. You notice Captain Starbuck and Commander Adama making out over in the foyer. They’re sloppy, loud. It’s horrible.

“I’ve got some instant coffee in the kitchen,” you say. “That’s it.”

You focus on the BIM with all your power, trying to block out the slurping, smacking noises.

“You should switch to xenadrine, Ed. Contains ephedrine, caffeine, aspirin. Best legal speed there is, actually. You could crush it up.” Something mocking in Bentley’s voice.

“You’re the worst doctor I’ve ever met. What did you ever do for Paula anyway?”

“I freed her from the illusion of separation, Ed. And I made sweet love to her vagina. Say you’re an addict, Ed. Say it.”

Hideous. But you’re not coming down to his level. You’re not down with killing pugs yet. There’s one last episode of Battlestar Galactica: the Reimagined Series waiting. One. Only one. And if you can get over the image of Starbuck and Commander Adama going at it, maybe you can finally get closure. The dvd has been sitting on your laptop, looking at you. But you have approximately 25 minutes left on the laptop battery and, thanks to Paula, no power cord—no way to recharge without leaving the house for Radio Shack. Is it even possible to leave the house? No. It isn’t.

Bentley has the munchies. He goes to look for the instant coffee, which he says he’s going to eat. But he’ll never find it because you actually taped the packets under the sink, realizing, in one of your more precognitive moments, that otherwise anyone could take them. You start to chuckle. You hold your hand out and can’t stop it from shaking.

No, it’s not possible to go anywhere outside. You’d wind up in the drunk tank, spread-eagled over a fender, tortured in a basement. Nothing good ever happens in a basement. And you’re sure nothing good is exactly what would happen to you. The world beyond the house’s airlock is the cold vacuum of space, the cruel stars waiting, and no luscious Captain Starbuck to love you and make it alright.

“Where the hell is it?” Bentley’s voice is hollow and slightly lower coming from the kitchen. Commander Adama and Starbuck have reverted to their natural midget palm state. The foyer is now a tropical island. Toucans. The dulcet tones of a ukulele. Turn the cranks of the BIM. Pull the levers. Ave Sanctus Rubius.

“What? Bentley you fuck? Munchies? Feeling a drug craving? Wishing you had a plate of chimichangas, perhaps? Pizza? A big bowl of buttered popcorn? Say you’re an addict, Bentley. Say it. Then maybe I’ll tell you where I had the—sandwiches.”

He’s back in a flash, standing over you, hands balled into fists. “You’re mentally ill,” he says. “You’re addicted to illegal narcotics. That’s why you’re so cruel.”

“A whole cooler of sandwiches straight from Safeway, Bentley. Just think about it.”

“It’s not you, Ed. It’s the horrible disease of chemical dependency in you.”

“Turkey. Pastrami. Tomato basil. Lightly drizzled with olive oil.”

“You sick bastard.”

“Chipotle antipasto on rosemary flat bread with capers and chicken remoulade.”

For a moment, he looks like he’s going to cry, which is good.

“Caramelized onions, Bentley. Hear me? Caramelized.”

Then he does, a single tear rolling down his cheek. “You know, I never doubted what Paula said about you. But I never understood how deep your sickness goes.”

“Paula snorted Xanax on a nightly basis and couldn’t get off unless I choked her. Welcome to my world, Bentley.”

“So.” He wipes his cheek, takes a deep breath and tries to smile but now he’s twitching, too. “Were you just kidding about the sandwiches?”

In the course of watching the entire Battlestar Galactica series 13 consecutive times—always high and always stopping short of the Final Episode—you have come to believe that a power greater than yourself could restore you to sanity. You said as much to Paula when you were still living with her back in Florida and she was complaining about your nightly viewings. “Honey,” you said, “I think there’s something encoded here. Something metaphysical. I think Captain Starbuck might be talking to me. I mean, really talking to me.”

“Starbuck is talking to the camera, Ed.”

“I think I believe in god. A numinous reality. The communion of saints. The forgiveness of sins. The whole fucking thing. It’s there. It’s right there. I think I’ve finally got religion.”

And then she pointed to the sign she’d made a week before, the sheet of printer paper taped over your desk that read: “CAPTAIN STARBUCK ISN’T REAL. SHE IS AN ACTRESS NAMED KATEE SACKHOFF IN A TV SHOW THAT ENDED. YOU ARE AN IDIOT.” Paula’s pointing nail was a bloody claw and her eyes were dead moons of resentment. Maybe she was right and you are an idiot. But there can be no denying that the words Captain Starbuck speaks are oracular in nature, that Battlestar Galactica might have ruined your marriage but it might also have saved your soul. And, yes, it is possible that Paula resembled a Cylon.

In fact, it would not be untoward to say that in spite of saving the whales from nuclear nose cones, faithfully sorting bottles from cans, and pulling down six figures to keep dear Paula in gold rings and Gucci, there was never a time when married life seemed right and stable. That is, except for said moments of chemical methamphetamine communion with the words of Captain Starbuck, whose wisdom yet warms the cockles of your heart.

Paula was no Captain Starbuck. She knew it, too. And hell hath no fury like a woman scorned for a television show. But please. Paula owned enough handbags to kill a normal human. Handbag overdose: Gucci, Melli Blanco, Prada, Dolce and Gabbana, DKNY, House of Florence, even one made of pure black goat. Open her closet and there they were—leather-smelling, ruby studded, chained with nubbins of white gold and clasps and little symbols. A Babylon of bags. And a hanging garden of shoes. And Paula with her cartons of Virginia Slims and five different groups of friends you didn’t even know about for the longest time and were never allowed to meet.

Paula’s calves were cut like rocks and the fake breasts she got from Husband Number One were hanging in there strong at a generous C. She had her own bedroom. But you always had breakfast together. Damn those breakfasts were good. You could feel the love bubbling in the bacon. And she didn’t mind that you had a laboratory in the garage. She didn’t even notice if for months or didn’t care until you spoke for 17 hours—couldn’t stop speaking—about mysteries, Cylons, oracles, galactic sorcery. She made you dump the beakers before you moved and that should have told you.

Her brown hair was always in a twist. Her cellie blew up nightly. Callers with names like J-Dub, Rickkie, Kayreesha, Fabian d’Alonzo. Who’s named Fabian in this day and age, you wanted to know, but that was part of the You Don’t Ask and I Won’t Tell part of the marriage, the biggest part, and Paula wasn’t telling. Your obsession with Battlestar Galactica tore it. Maybe it meant you’d never assimilate and take a name like Rock-D and start wearing shiny tight-fitting shirts to clubs with one-syllable names. In your defense, Paula had no ear for the oracular.

Between man and wife, man and Daisy Duke, or man and pug dog, there can be a great sadness. But there comes a time when man and dog must reconcile. Dog is dead, says man’s wife. Man is dead, says dog. But you could imagine a better way. In a world gone mad, space opera is the ultimate anodyne. You quit reading scripture years ago. You went through a poetry phase. Sure you read Flowers of Evil and it seemed to mean something at the time, but Paris imagined as a bloated whore doesn’t uplift. And, in the end, the best that you could say for Baudelaire was that he liked cats. As for “Tintern Abbey,” don’t even bother. You got “Ozymandias” and most of William Carlos Williams and the jokes of Billy Collins and Howl and Leaves of Grass but whatever the leaves meant didn’t catch and, after all, you couldn’t smoke them. There was no Burning Bush Effect, no Daisy Duke Moment, no divine revelation from the mouths of the gods. This you got from Captain Starbuck, her voice flowing like Hecate’s fountain: Gorgo, Mormo, Moon of a Thousand Forms. Yes.

So you made a decision to turn your will and life over to the care of Captain Starbuck as you understood her. It wasn’t wrong. It was following your bliss. And that can’t be wrong. Even if your wife has not left you and there’s an end table with “Ed Tiller” on it sitting in a parking lot in Lubbock, Texas.

The only thing keeping you from ending it all is the BIM and the Final Episode. You lost your job. You lost your marriage. You lost the whales you should have been saving from nose cones. And you lost all the clothing you’d had in your drawers. All you’ve got left is this two-story tract house in Santa Monica, two boxes of shirts, a laptop, a psychiatrist baked out of his mind, and sorrow. And after the Final Episode, you can die as you’ve lived: a nothing, a failure, a no one. A zero. An empty crying thing, blown out of the Battlestar airlock and falling up into the big dark.

You wake up listening to your breathing. The side of your face is bonded to the shag with vomit. The whales are still singing. You’re fairly certain it’s your vomit. You take the T-shirt off the BIM and look at it, inhaling it’s 3-in-1 oil, turning its cranks. The base is solid wood—the butcher block, moldy and unlegged. On its surface, you have affixed rubberized red knobs, lathe handle, stippled cranks, link arms, handle washers, index sprockets, casefeed arm stop pins, an assortment of jam nuts, a camming pin, and a variety of other components which were unlabeled and which will now never need labels. From the same cardboard box you found in the front closet, you obtained the plastic spout bottle of 3-in-1 oil with a skull on the back and WARNING: HARMFUL IF SWALLOWED in bright red. But not harmful to the BIM. To the BIM, it’s holy anointing oil. And as you manipulate the parts, you breathe in the scent of the mechanical world and sigh.

Bentley must have left earlier. He’s back now, cooking lamb chops. He’s got a plastic bottle of vodka, which he alternately drinks from and pours into the frying pan. He took his pants off at some point. He’s dancing from foot to foot in pale yellow boxers, singing Bye-Bye Miss American Pie while he fries up the chops. The question as to whether Bentley has anything beyond pot and booze in his system is now moot. High or crazy stops mattering after a while. Doctor Bentley. Mr. Rational. God’s gift to the psychiatric profession and mental health everywhere is singing at the top of his voice and frying lamb chops in your kitchen for reasons you cannot fathom, shatterproof plastic gallon of vodka notwithstanding.

You un-skitch your face from the shag and wobble upright.

“Bentley? Bentley-poo? What are you doing, Bentley-poo?”

You feel like a child walking for the first time. A new world on stilts. Everything tilting. A sudden great pure-hearted sense of accomplishment. You did it! Look, honey, junior’s walking. But as for the hideous pulsing agony in your meninges? Ignore it. Ignore the sudden anxiety you feel, realizing that the BIM will be back in the dining room and therefore out of arm’s reach if you walk into the kitchen. Banish it. There’s a psychiatrist present. The psychiatrist who had everything to do with the abduction of your furniture and the dematerialization of your wife into the post-marital vapor of Lubbock, Texas.

Bentley dances and sings like some stubbly lamb-chop-frying satyr, raising up and fluttering his hands at key points in the song as if to say, Hallelujah! I’ve been saved by lamb meat! Instead, he sings, Them good old boys are drinking whiskey and rye and flips the chops as if they were pancakes. Hot oil splatters.

“Bentley? Are you alright, my little friend? What are you doing, Bentley-poo? Did you get into your medicine bag?”

The aroma of lamb chops and cheap vodka is repellent, but you will not be repelled from your own kitchen, even if the only pan in it is the Teflon fryer he must have bought along with the booze. Your head pounds with each step forward.

“Come on, now. Let’s come back to Earth. It’s a Class M planet with gravity and an atmosphere. You’ll like it on Earth.”

Singin’ this will be the day that I die. He does a Michael Jackson spin but shrieks when he sees you in the kitchen doorway and drops the vodka. True to its design, the bottle does not break, the plastic stopper at the mouth preventing all spillage. Some bottle designer out there understands the health principle of keeping one’s vodka wet and one’s powder dry. Momentarily distracted, maybe hypnotized, you notice the tide of the vodka in the bottle. But with every rise and fall, the agony in your head grows worse. There’s no preventing that. You cover your face with your palms and breathe. When you take your hands away, Bentley has backed up against the far wall, staring at you, holding the frying pan out as if it were some holy relic against evil.

“Stay the fuck away from me.” His eyes are big and terrified. He jabs at you with the pan, the lamb chops in it sizzling. You notice the entire left side of his body is covered in blood.

“What did you do, Bentley? Is that your blood?”

“Blood? What the fuck do you want with my blood?” He looks left and right. He’s cornered. To his left stands the enormous empty refrigerator that came with the house. To his right, a wall. “You want my fucking blood. You’re a fucking vampire. I knew it.”

“Bentley. I’m not a vampire. Now put down the chops.”

“You’re a vampire and if you don’t step away from me, I’m gonna use this on you. I mean it.”

Holding the side of your head, you step past the vodka bottle and reach out to take the frying pan, which in retrospect, you should not have done. Bentley screams the impassioned death cry of a small mammal about to be snapped up for dinner and throws the entire contents of the frying pan—vodka, hot oil, and two medium-well lamb chops—at your face. You duck just in time to get a spray of searing oil across your back, burning through your T-shirt.

Bentley follows the hot oil over you, diving head-first, and hits the floor hard. He slips but gets up and disappears out the kitchen. You also slip—on a lamb chop—and land flat on your back. Your head hurts too much for you to get right back up. Your back is burned. However, you do have the energy to scream, “Goddamn you, Bentley, I am not a fucking vampire. I’m a werewolf and when I find you, I’m gonna make you my werewolf bitch and burn you with fucking cooking oil you fucker.”

But by the time you find him, you feel you understand him.

The BIM brought you back and the chops were good. Proximity breeds tolerance, maybe even complacency. Moving through the house, frying pan dripping warm oil onto your hand, you revert from murderous to melancholy. What, for example, was more important: caving in the skull of your wife’s psychiatrist or watching the Final Episode? If sitting for a moment beside your Blissful Illumination Machine could bring you back, where were you? What does it really mean to want immediate and brutal vengeance on a wife-stealing psychiatrist when the cruel stars wait in the trackless void? When you finish turning the cranks and inhaling the scent of the BIM’s holy oil, you realize that these were the sort of questions Paula could have asked herself before deciding to leave you without furniture or hope.

By the time you decide to ask Bentley about his role in this, you’re standing outside the bathroom door, listening to him scream: “It’s locked! It’s locked, okay? Locked. And when the sun comes up, I’m gonna find your coffin!”

“You got into the meth and you’re paranoid, my brother. Paranoia. Shouldn’t you know about that?”

A dedicated meth addict will develop an extrasensory understanding of the drug at some point, made from one part intuition and three parts memory of previous bad decisions. It comes with the territory and it can calm you down in the throes of a bad run that’s otherwise putting a pressure cooker death clamp on your meninges. What once was an army of brain-sucking, face-eating ghouls climbing up towards your bedroom window can be attributed to inchoate fears attributed to possessed midget palms in the drive or some other fearful agency. And gods willing, you may tell yourself: yes, that might be an octopus tentacle sticking out of the mouth of my dead third-grade teacher standing in the other room, but I understand that if I sit very still and operate the dials on this BIM, she will not notice me.

Bentley pounds on the bathroom door and tells you he knows you’re undead. “I should have staked your heart when I had the chance,” he says. What he hasn’t learned yet is that running only encourages the monsters.

“Dr. Philips, my good friend, you snorted a pile of meth from the big jar in the pantry. You were not ready for this. Magic meth, Bentley. Makes you think everyone’s a vampire. Gives you a nosebleed and a lust for lamb meat.”

Now he’s weeping, saying “Paula” over and over. You sit down against the bathroom door and hold up the frying pan: no oil, a yellow-brown drip trail leading down the hallway toward the stairs.

“What about Paula? What did you do to her?”

He slumps against the other side of the door. “You think you’re the only one who hurts, Ed? I hurt.” The pain in his voice. The remorse. Only one woman could inspire those feelings. But you can’t see your former wife and Bentley as any kind of item. Paula, the dance club going, fake Florida tan having, Prada wearing, hip-hop-hit-me-on-my-two-way no-you-can’t-meet-my-friends diva of the universe getting together with rail-thin, balding Bentley? Inconceivable.

“You’re telling me you had an affair with my wife? Or are you just high and delusional? I think what you want to be is high and delusional.”

“She married you didn’t she? You don’t think she’d step out? You don’t think she ever did? She told me she had five affairs you knew about. And then there were the ones that you didn’t know about.”

“Bentley, tell me I’m not going to have to beat the fuck out of you with this frying pan.”

There’s scuffling, some thuds, and grunting from within the bathroom.

“You’re destroying my new house.”

“It’s not your house! Paula owns it all now!” Then the sound of breaking glass—the small bathroom window being punched out since he couldn’t get it to slide up on its casement. You listen to him grunt and strain. Eventually, he returns and slumps back against the door, exhausted.

“Bentley?”

“I don’t speak to vampires.”

And that’s where things stand, philosophically. You ask Bentley to unlock the door a few more times, but he’s determined to make good on his no vampire communication policy. That and maybe he’s forgotten how the lock works, which is also a very real possibility. In order to clean his wounds or because he has recalled the legend that vampires cannot cross running water, he turns on all the taps and begins flushing the toilet repeatedly.

When the water seeps underneath the door and wets your shorts, you stand and wander through the upstairs rooms, the pain in your head lessening somewhat but still undeniably there. The empty unfurnished bedrooms. The barren inset shelves of the study. Slanting orange bars of light through vertical blinds. All the space, empty, useless, made for occupants leading more abundant lives with jobs and books and the unnamed end tables of domestic bliss. With such space, it’s no wonder that you’ve been under high levels of strain. When one reaches out in the darkness and touches nothing, what makes sense? When one’s wife says she’ll be there but spirits the furniture away to Lubbock, what is normal?

Standing at the top of the stairs, looking through the window over the circular drive, you banish the thought that the midget palms are still waiting for you out there. That’s just drug shit, paranoia. If you’d gone the distance and actually paid for some high-class metallic sodium instead of being lazy and using the more readily available ammonia and battery acid, none of this would have happened. You’d have gotten Ye Goode Oulde Dependable High, mild euphoria, perhaps a hard-on. But this: tremors, visions, agonizing headache, heartbroken terrified psychiatrist flooding your house, nervous breakdowns, grief, Saint Rube Goldberg shaking his head in dismay while incoherent screaming and splashing comes from the bathroom.

Or not a nervous breakdown. Maybe just a Goldberg Variation—like St. Goldberg’s Self-Operating Napkin, which raises a string, jerks a table, pours seeds into a cup, and sets off a tiny rocket that will cause the napkin to wipe one’s chin—a small chain reaction, an invention meant to play between the acts, meant to keep you sufficiently amused as you move through disrecognized domestic space, from having to having not, from end table to absence in the big bad dark.

Or your beloved Daisy Duke Moment: one moment, you’re a mildly depressed, slightly drug-addicted chemical engineer living beyond your means in Gainesville with a wife named Paula and the next moment you’re here, looking at your reflection in a window at night, hallucinating a tawny pug head in the place of your own. A few hours ago, battery acid having its filthy way with your meninges, you’d have believed a pug reflection—floppy little ears, watery soulful eyes, a certain Cosmonaut fervor in the seriousness of the expression.

By your watch calculator, it’s now been 50.7 hours since the movers called, 48.4 hours since you realized Paula never had any intention of arriving with the furniture to “talk things out.” Talk. Shit. Without furniture, all other marital issues are irrelevant. At this point, the only intelligent response is to huff, sniff the air, and yowl at the chandelier in socialist pug sorrow. And only Captain Starbuck has the answers. Soon you will play the Final Episode on your laptop while you make a searching and fearless moral inventory. Soon the Oracle will whisper to the maelstrom of your soul. And you will, at last and for all time, find release.

Your eyes are closed. And a voice repeats itself: I’m dying. Can’t you see that? It’s dark. I’m slipping away.

“No you’re not,” you say to the wall outside the bathroom. “You’re just a little upset, man.”

At some point, Bentley turned off the faucets. The water stopped seeping under the door and dripping through to the pantry and rooms on the ground floor. The voice sounds like it belongs to Bentley. Then again, you would be crazy to attribute everything to him when you have been so hallucinatory in the timeless Daisy Duke moment of all bad drugs—when the meninges try and fail to reassemble themselves on the brainpan and all assumptions about what’s real and what’s a hallucination must pass away. Your head continues to pound, to throb with each heartbeat, and you decide the voice is not coming from Bentley after all. Everything is quiet. The dark hallway. The locked bathroom door. Maybe’ while you’ve been holding a hallucinatory dialogue with yourself, something has actually happened to the good doctor. You reach up and try the door again. It’s still locked.

I’m dying, the voice says. Can’t you see that?

You’re not dying, Bentley. Nobody’s dying. I’m suffering from hallucinations brought on by sustained sleep deprivation and methamphetamine use.

Don’t you want to talk about it?

“There is no talk. Talk doesn’t work. There’s only: unlock the bathroom door. There’s only: eject Bentley from the house. There’s only: plug in the laptop and watch the Final Episode.”

And get Paula back?

“Paula’s never coming back, Bentley. I know that.”

Which may be the truest thing you’ve said to yourself all night. Because you are talking to yourself, aren’t you?

Aren’t you?

You try the bathroom door again and kick it a few times, screaming at Bentley for being such a worthless asshole. Because he is that, isn’t he? He’s that above all else.

You’ve replaced Sounds of the Humpback Whales with R.E.M.’s Eponymous. Drifting through the rooms to the third complete cycle of the album, you wonder exactly how long it’s going to take for this shitty album to make you hurt yourself. For that matter, how long can a psychiatrist withstand R.E.M. after a night of humpback whales in heat? Not long. With meth, less so. Traipsing through the house, doing little ballet pirouettes, you sing along with “Talk About the Passion” at the top of your voice—off-key maybe, but is there really a key? And besides, the whole point is to get Bentley to come out of the bathroom, possibly so you can kill him and certainly so you can urinate.

You discovered that the power cord to the laptop wasn’t missing after all—an incredible relief. You had no memory of tying it with a rubber band and hiding it between the shirts in your suitcase. Finding it there made you wonder what else you might have hidden away while high or blacked out. Gangster rolls of fifties? The house keys you misplaced shortly after arriving, sweaty and trembling from the airport? Yet more meth?

Bentley wasn’t careful with your current dope storage jar. You find it in the pantry, open on its side, a long yellow-white drift from the mouth of the jar to the edge of the wooden shelf. And if you were a desperate wild-eyed junkie in the classic Hollywood sense, if you’d bought the meth to use because you needed it, if that were your lifestyle, Bentley’s carelessness might have sent you over the edge into a murderous werewolf fever of spitting and cursing and hammering the bathroom door with an oily frying pan. Instead, you know you can just make more.

As Michael Stipe starts up with “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,” you consider the fact that you have resources. A BIM for stability. A house. Access to an Oracle of the Gods. A psychiatrist locked in your bathroom. To say nothing of all the drugs you want and the knowledge of how to make more.

You consider the possibility that doing one more rail of meth, just as a fortifying measure, wouldn’t hurt at all. Just one rail. One for old time’s sake. One for Commander Adama. One for the Gipper. One for Daisy Duke, Captain Starbuck, JFK, and Yanni. One for the fucking whales. One for sadness and alliteration, disorientation, disrecognition, distention, and the patent disregard of everything displeasing.

Yeah, disidentification. Right before the Soviet physicists initialize the launch sequence and your tawny pug ass goes sky-high along with casefeeds and camming pins, the mechanical universe squealing into space like battlestars gone wild. The BIM—you’ve got your beautiful, impractical bliss machine at least—a calming vector of predictability if you can just keep cranking the cranks.

So you do another line and the meninges start to sizzle.

The movers might not be coming west of Lubbock after all, of course. Santa Monica might not be on their itinerary. But you’ve got their number. And you can find them. And they know it. At least there’s that. At least you’ve got Captain Starbuck and an enormous jar of home-cooked methamphetamine hydrochloride and the Final Episode. Another rail and another smoke, lighter jumping around so much that you have to press your hand against the wall to hold it steady. You dial the movers, but they don’t answer and you’ll be damned if you’re going to start leaving them messages.

Disidentification of disrecognized space: this house could be a beautiful meth lab. A lab and a shrine. Statues to Jesus Malverde, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Saint Rube. Prayer beads, candles, and incense. An enormous day-glow poster of Captain Starbuck and Daisy Duke healing the sick of Calcutta. And all around it: separatory funnels, Bunsen burners, reaction vessels, plastic storage containers, large glass beakers, Mason jars, Pyrex, plastic Igloo coolers. Even the BIM would be wired in. A Rube Goldberg meth machine to reflect the hideous spirit of the times, putting out pounds of meth with no other purpose than to get you high and keep you there. Meth for meth’s sake. But Paula made you get rid of all your beakers before the move. Where are the goddamn Soviet physicists to shoot you into space now? Asking is pointless. Nobody cares. The pug weeps crystal tears.

The phone rings. Surprise. It’s the movers.

“I thought you were in Lubbock,” you say, yowling a little like a pug for emphasis before you shake off the Daisy Duke Moment and feel ready to communicate the full and proper extent of your indignation about your furniture being abducted.

“We were. There’s still the matter of the end table, sir.”

“There’s a lot more at stake here than just an end table, fucker. There’s a Malm and a Stolmen, an Elgå, a Brimnes, an Aspvik, and Expedit, and, yes, a Framstå. That’s all high-end Swedish shit, purchased at great difficulty and expense from the international importer, Ikea. I don’t expect you people to know about that or appreciate it, but it means a lot to me.”

“We don’t have anything like that.”

“You LIE! You’ve stolen my Aspvik!” Yes and then you hang up.

Taken intranasally in powder form, quality methamphetamine will produce a reasonable euphoria, a gentleman’s euphoria, not an all-encompassing derangement of the senses. It won’t come on like a freight train. Not a screaming bondage snuff film with ball gag and bodily fluids flying through the air, but rather like fantasy night with Sue Ellen Ellen, pristine captainette of the cheer team after the big game—soft-core and blushing with all kinds of muted pink goodness you want to keep and hold tight in the warm center of your center. So some fuck dumps your Aspvik in Lubbock and you decide it’s time for another rail because what the hell else are you going to do? What would Captain Starbuck do sans Aspvik?

You are now perfectly and completely ready to have Captain Starbuck remove all defects from your character. This is how you intend to make amends to those you may have hurt—what you intend to admit to Bentley, to yourself, and to Paula if she ever talks to you again. You will admit the precise nature of your wrongs. Because, as much as Paula has wrecked your life, can you really blame her?

It’s still dark outside and it has begun to rain. How much time has passed tonight? Aeons. Minutes. The cold vault of the heavens wheeling through the centuries. The midget palms creeping a little bit closer in the fronding of a moment. Those cruel stars.

If you can’t eat, you need to sleep. If you can’t sleep, you need to build something. Something edifying an engrossing. But how engrossing can a therapeutically Buddhist invention be if it spontaneously disintegrates? The fact that you do not see the BIM when you return to the dining room could mean that it has actually disappeared or that it is now invisible.

You close your eyes and try to get steady. Walk home to an empty house, sit around all by yourself / I know it might sound strange, / but I believe / You’ll be coming back before too long sings Michael Stipe. And, at least for the moment, you are inclined to agree. Screw Rockville—never go back! And screw Paula and screw Bentley sneaking around with his Freudian penis bong and all his Buddhist drama. So you’re having difficulties with reality. Who isn’t?

Yes?

Well, just consider where you are.

That’s the problem. I’m beginning to have doubts.

Lack of certainty is not certainty of lack. Quack. Quack.

Are you on drugs?

Yes, as a matter of fact, I am. What’s that got to do with anything?

Everything.

Something better happen soon, sings Michael, or it’s gonna be too late to bring you back. You feel he’s singing directly to you. How could he not be singing directly to you? You’re the only one here. The only other option is Bentley. And where is Bentley?

Your wife’s psychiatrist is not here being sung to. That’s one thing you know. And yet, the BIM hasn’t re-materialized. You make a searching inventory:

  1. The Rooms: empty.
  2. Bentley: gone as gone gets. Bathroom door open now. Tentacles of mist from shower hanging in the still air of the hall. It’s important to be clean. But still. Where is a psychiatrist liable to hide?
  3. The BIM: also gone. Maybe even gonner than Bentley-gone. Was it ever actually there? Were you? Stop that.
  4. Depression: everywhere but where the BIM used to be. You’re not coming down, but you’re not high, either. More like you’re sideways, as they say, stepping sideways. Things apporting hither and thither around the property. The midget palms once again inching their way up the drive. You can see those bastards with their bastard fronds. You know what they’re up to.
  5. The Whales: safe, for now.

In the kitchen, almost as if through some kind of demonic punctuation, some kind of horrible inevitability, your hand comes away from your mouth slick with blood. Bentley’s? Terrible possibilities snap and crackle across the meninges. Horror of horrors: Bentley left a perfect bloody hand print right at the place where he caromed against the white kitchen wall. The print is crusted burgundy with palm lines so clear and fine that a fortune teller could read his destiny. And double-horror: the print fits your hand perfectly. You’ve murdered Dr. Bentley.

Screaming wordlessly, your hand stuck to the print, magnetized there, you know you killed him and drank his blood. You are a vampire. And so it makes sense that you’re now condemned to die with your own hand fitted in the print, stuck forever to the evidence of your guilt. Poetic justice. No Buddhist therapy for something like this. No Blissful Illumination Machine. No love. No drugs. No Aspvik to soothe the meninges of the skull.

If you can’t eat, you need to sleep. Remember the blood on your face. It’s your blood, the mother of all nosebleeds covering your mouth and chin. You stop screaming. Michael Stipe tells you that Everybody else in town only wants to bring you down / and that’s not how it ought to be. But you’ve seen R.E.M.’s music actually make cats vomit. So you can’t be bothered by Michael Stipe’s senseless infantile puling. Especially when you’re bleeding and stuck. Then again, maybe all this blood is yours and none of it comes from Bentley.

Would that make you feel better?

I’m not sure.

You’re bleeding to death, you know.

Nobody dies of a nosebleed.

Look at your shoes.

They’re squishy, filled with blood. You wonder how all that blood got from your nose to your feet without getting on your pants. You really need to find a way to unstick your hand from the wall. The blood has attracted the midget palms. They crowd into the kitchen, Commander Adama walking behind. His face is a skull. He’s wearing a cowboy hat. He cracks a bullwhip, driving them forward.

“The hard six!” he screams. “The hard six!”

And you go down, screaming, vomiting, into the fronding dark.

The sun rises without event.

The midget palms are gone and it appears you are alive. Moreover, your hand is unstuck from the wall. Even the hand print is gone. After searching the entire house and silencing Michael Stipe, you realize there is only one place you haven’t looked for Bentley.

It takes you 15 minutes to climb the back trellis and onto the peaked roof. As soon as you stand up, you see Bentley, sitting on the edge of the peak that looks out over the empty swimming pool filled with dead leaves, the back yard with artificial grass, the drainage ditch. Beyond that: the housing development, gridlock on the I-5, morning haze over Los Angeles.

Bentley’s been up here all along, using the BIM as a back support. No blood. Yellow polo. Brown khakis. He shaved and smells like gardenia.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” he says when you walk up and sit beside him.

“We?” The lights of downtown are still winking in the deep haze like a fallen constellation. The half-developed housing project is speckled with pools of shadow around the inner frames of unfinished homes.

“Me and Paula.”

You look behind, but the roof is empty except for you and Bentley.

“Paula isn’t here.”

Bentley glances at you and smiles. “Well, perhaps not; though there is always the possibility that you can’t see her.”

“I can see you well enough.”

“Can you?”

He stands and moves the BIM so that its dials and cranks face you. You turn the dials and crank the cranks.

“I feel better. Thanks.”

“It really works, doesn’t it?” He smiles again. “Now do you trust me?”

Behind him, the sky has already changed from faint violet to pale blue. The stars have faded. The distant lights of the city are almost all gone now. Somewhere close by, two cats shriek at each other, about to fight.

“I didn’t kill you after all.”

“No, Ed, you didn’t. It’s not possible for you to kill me.”

“I think I’m sick, Bentley.”

“You’re an addict, Ed. Just say it. Say it and I’ll show you how to be free.”

At the other end of the roof, Captain Starbuck is trying to set fire to the house with a fistful of burning rags while blue uniformed Commander Adama looks on and smiles. He no longer has a skull face, but he’s still wearing the cowboy hat. A naked Daisy Duke covered in spiders with medusa-like palm fronds sticking out of her head crawls up over the edge of the roof on all fours like a lizard. She has a knife in her teeth. You can’t bear the sight and have to look away. Fresh blood drips out of your nose, making the old bloodstains on your shirt glisten.

“Just say it. Say I’m an addict.

“I’m an addict.”

Bentley’s smile gets wider. He holds up a Styrofoam cup and squirts the BIM’s holy 3-in-1 oil into it, then hands it to you. “Bottoms up,” he says.

“Won’t that mess me up?”

“You’re an addict. You said it yourself.”

In a way beyond words, that makes perfect sense. You nod and Bentley nods back. On the tip of the roof, you knock back a full cup of machine oil. It tastes surprisingly good before you feel your stomach seize and twist with a pain you’ve never felt before.

“Now do the right thing,” he whispers in your ear.

And you realize that you never saw the Final Episode and now you never will.

Captain Starbuck is behind you. She speaks with Paula’s voice. “Do the right thing, Ed.”

You nod, spread your arms, and dive into the empty backyard pool, knowing that it will open and you will fly through, at last free and blissful, into the big dark.

 

“Anyway, I think if we route the grant money into the primary fund we’ll be alright. Actually, we’ll be more than alright as long as we don’t spend another dime before fall.” Merton Swinn, the English department’s most recent acquisition, took a measured sip of brandy without blinking or looking away from Van Adler, the department chair.

Van Adler sighed and stared into the mouth of his empty beer bottle. His suit jacket was wrinkled and his feet already hurt. He’d been at the faculty party now for 45 minutes—15 minutes more than he normally preferred to spend at these things. But sometimes escape was impossible. He wished, above all else, that he were at home having a bath while his wife, Myra, blasted the Late Show downstairs in the den and laughed out loud.

He tried to smile at Swinn, but the effort felt unnatural. Lately he’d caught himself grimacing even when he was not upset, as if his face had become perpetually fixed in a transition between dismay and rage. Moreover, his hands ached horribly. Van Adler could no longer ignore the arthritis that had announced itself two semesters before and now visited him regularly with sudden jolts of pain from wrists to fingertips.

Van Adler looked at Swinn, who was starting to purse his lips, and said, “Right. But how will we account for the fact that we now have only seven tenure-track lines? Are you recommending that we forego the new one opening up? Missouri mandates at least eight full-timers in an academic department.”

Swinn’s eyes darted to Van Adler’s face, down to his brandy, over the crowd of graduate students and professors, and then to the carpet. “Well,” he said, “is that so monstrous in a recession? We have the adjuncts. And we’re not being evaluated for another two years. Who’ll complain?” He was a short, compact man who wore heavy multi-colored sweaters and round rimless glasses. At age 35, Swinn was already balding with a wispy tonsure of blonde over his ears. His eyes moved with his thoughts, which were quick and numerous.

Swinn’s dissertation at Rutgers, which he’d published shortly before being hired by Hauberk College, had been a study correlating the rise of the novel with the expansion of private leisure space in middle class English homes. Everyone on the hiring committee had agreed that it was inoffensive and at least mildly interesting. But for an expert on the literature of leisure, he seemed rather consistently ill at ease. Which was understandable, thought Van Adler, seeing that Swinn did not yet have tenure.

Van Adler sighed, shook his head, and again tried to smile. “Do you want a riot, my friend? We’ve announced the position. There’s no un-announcing it. The part-timers are already massing like flies.”

“That’s another thing,” Swinn said, following Van Adler’s gaze around the room. “We have 32 adjuncts. With a distance learning component in place, we could do with about half that.”

Swinn put his empty snifter down on the piano behind him. It was a baby Mason and Hamlin and it, along with the rest of the two-story Victorian townhouse, belonged to Juliette Lezerski’s, the department’s resident medievalist. She’d held her graduate classes in Chaucer and the bi-annual departmental get together in her large sitting room for over 30 years. Most of the furnishings in the house were historically accurate to mid-nineteenth-century Missouri, except for the piano, which Juliette tuned herself and otherwise kept in a state of factory perfection. She also played beautifully and, being slightly deaf, very loudly—always a miraculous respite at these functions. Van Adler turned, but didn’t see her. He wished Juliette would come over and start playing right now.

“There is something to be said for departmental morale, Merton. How many composition classes would you like to teach?”

“I’m teaching three at the moment.” Swinn crossed his arms, then caught himself and relaxed, clasping his hands at waist level like a boy heading to communion. Then he also smiled. Van Adler thought Swinn did a better job at smiling; though, Swinn’s eyes stayed level and his smile was nervous and tight in the bottom half of his face.

Van Adler could remember being like that years ago (before tenure), practicing a “warm, humane yet humble” smile in the mirror when Myra wasn’t around. It was something he eventually programmed into himself to an exact degree as if he’d carved it out of wood. And he held that wooden smile in reserve for those unforeseeable moments when true feeling threatened to rise and lay waste to his carefully sculpted professional image.

But that was years ago. Times were different when Van Adler had been a young assistant professor, teaching four to five sections a semester and spending the weekends writing in the humanities research library. There’d been 16 full-time lines back then and only a handful of adjuncts. Still, he’d served on more committees than he could easily count. This was his second and thankfully final term as department chair, since he planned to retire in two or three years. And Van Adler felt he had nothing left to prove to anyone. In fact, he was thinking of buying a boat.

“I know how hard you’re working.” He patted Swinn lightly on the shoulder. “And everyone thinks you’re doing a really fantastic job.”

Swinn raised his eyebrows, a flicker of anxiety and contempt in his face. Then the smile returned. “Well, thank you, Jim. It’s only been a year, but I already feel at home.”

“That’s great, Merton. That’s just what we want.” Van Adler flexed his left hand. He felt a hideous electric current dig into his knuckles and shoot down his fingers. He supposed it was time to take Doctor Whitehurst up on that prescription. He didn’t want to. It felt like giving in, like he’d lost. But maybe this kind of pain meant he already had. That’s how it was with everything, he thought. You didn’t know what you’d lost until it was gone and then your only recourse was to numb yourself and wait for the next catastrophe, the next unavoidable disappointment.

When Swinn left to get another brandy, Van Adler saw an opening. There was a small servant’s door in the pantry where a housekeeper could discreetly bring in supplies without disturbing anyone in the other parts of the house. And the door between the sitting room and the dining room had been propped open, revealing a straight unobstructed shot into the kitchen. Such moments of grace were few and far between. He felt that it would be the essence of hubris, an affront to all the gods of fortune, if he didn’t capitalize on the opportunity. No one would blame him for cutting out after an hour of fielding meaningless pleasantries and enduring Merton Swinn’s considerable angst.

And he was almost successful. He shuffled around the baby grand slowly, keeping his gaze on the fringe of Juliette’s authentic Boston Sego Bicentennial piano rug. There was a technique to fleeing a party: one walked easily yet quickly, avoiding all eye-contact, stepping cautiously as if barefoot in a room of scorpions. One kept a Zen mind, blank and empty, and did not congratulate oneself until safely in the car and away. Such was the discipline. But Sheila Barnhof-Canterbury emerged from across the sitting room at the last moment, sealing off his route to the kitchen and the pantry. Sheila was an adjunct with two kids and a husband who was out of work, and she radiated desperation in the best of times. When she saw Van Adler, her eyes lit up and he knew there would be no escape.

“Oh Jim! How wonderful to see you. Did you get my emails?”

“I’m sure I did, Sheila, but you’ll have to excuse me. I’m on my way—.”

“That’s fantastic. Then you know I’m planning on applying to the new full-time position everyone’s talking about. There is a new opening, right? It’s not just a rumor?”

He tried to flank her to the right, but she adjusted, holding her glass of chablis to the side for extra blocking width.

“Well,” he said, “it’s been advertised nationally. You can find it on the MLA job list, for example.” He put his hands in his pockets and glanced over her shoulder through the dining room. Apart from Sheila, the way was still open. But this was now a bad situation. They were very visible. And, not unlike flies, one adjunct talking about job prospects attracted others. An accurate, if unfortunate, analogy, Van Adler thought to himself, given what usually causes flies to swarm. Before long, he would have to start lying and prevaricating, making him the proverbial turd. It could get bad. It had before.

“My goodness.” Her knuckles turned white around the stem of her wine glass. Van Adler thought it might explode in her hand unless she did first. “How many applicants do you think there will be?”

“Sheila, I really—there’s no way to be accurate about something like that. Those things go up and down year to year. You know. Many factors. Hard to say.” But no less than 100, he thought, 100 if there’s one and potentially twice that many. Swinn’s job search had been a nightmare. They’d begun with 233 applications—an impossible number for a hiring committee of six professors with full teaching loads and other administrative duties. And so they’d made wide cuts, rejecting off-hand anyone who didn’t have multiple publications or an impressive pedigree. That brought it down to 50, which was where the hard work of actually reading the applications began. And there was nothing to indicate this process would be any less brutal. Sheila had a MA in English from Northern Missouri State University. What could he tell her that she shouldn’t have realized already?

She grasped his arm lightly, just above the elbow, and leaned into him. “Are you going to your car? Can I walk you out? I have a few more questions.”

Van Adler scanned the room. Three creative writing students had cornered Swinn, eliminating the possibility that he’d want to come back and revisit the budget apocalypse for another hour. But two adjuncts, whose names escaped him, were starting to move through the crowd in his direction. He had a vague memory of them. Former graduate students at Hauberk, now husband and wife. They certainly looked like adjuncts—Walmart wardrobe, disheveled hair, and a certain air of exhaustion, maybe exasperation. They must have had kids, he thought. The ones with kids were the worst off—the most scared, the most desperate, the most likely to have a psychotic episode at a faculty party. If there were a universal handbook for temporary academic employees with no benefits and no future, Van Adler felt the first line should be: if you’re going to lead that life, get sterilized early. Sadly, the best advice was always hard to give and even harder to hear. He’d definitely be calling Dr. Whitehurst about those pills.

“Jim? Are you alright?” Sheila looked up at him with her big blue eyes. She had set her wine glass down so she could hold onto his arm with both hands.

“I’m fine,” he said. “But I really have to go.”

“Sure. Of course. I’ll come with you.” She tightened her grip.

“Whatever. Just please let go of me.”

“Oh. Sorry. Yes. Absolutely.”

Juliette had appeared at the piano and began a baroque interpretation of “Blue Hawaii” loudly enough to draw everyone’s attention and prevent all conversation. The perfect diversion. Without another word, Van Adler turned, went through the dining room, and into the kitchen as quickly as possible with Sheila right behind. He unlatched the pantry door and pulled the little metal chain on the overhead bulb. It hung down at eye level on a green safety cord.

The pantry was well-stocked and looked like a cave of canned food with wicker baskets of onions and potatoes lining the bottom shelves. The door at the far end was made from polished oak planks with black metal bands. Its top rose to a minaret peak, making it look like a hobbit door or something out of the The Thief of Bagdad. It had a simple tumbler lock set in an ornate black face with an inlaid leaf design. And its shiny brass key hung from a loop of red yarn beside it.

Van Adler realized that there had never been a time when the key hadn’t looked perfectly new. Juliette must have polished it regularly. But who polishes their house keys? Only a medievalist who plays Elvis standards as if they’d been written by Antonio Scarlatti and who lives in a house on the National Register of Historical Places—someone interesting to know about but someone you didn’t want to get stuck next to on the plane.

That realization, plus the roar of graduate student cheering when she finished “Blue Hawaii” with a trill and two motets, made him feel slightly unsettled. The normal degree of strangeness was heightened tonight. There was more than the usual morose faculty party energy in the air. It was as if the impending job search had fueled a frenetic current, a wild, wavering voltage that might quadruple into something very unpleasant for the chair of the department if he were cornered by a group of drunken angry part-time instructors.

He was wiggling the key into the lock when Sheila closed the door behind them and laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Jim,” she said, “hear me out.”

She was wearing a white long-sleeved blouse designed like a man’s button-down with tails out over jeans and scuffed brown flats. One more of the buttons on her shirt was undone, plunging her neckline lower than it had been a few minutes before. He looked at the V of smooth white skin there between the slopes of her breasts. She caught him looking and smiled.

“Jim. I know you’re going to go out that door and get in your car. And you’re never going to respond to my emails.”

He opened his mouth, but she held up a hand and let it drift down to rest lightly on the front of his shirt as if she were radiating a magnetic force through her palm that held him in place.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, moving closer to him, almost whispering. “I know everybody wants this job. But it would really, really mean a lot to me, I mean, I’d be so grateful if you could help me out.”

Van Adler could feel her breath on his lips. It smelled like the cheap white wine Juliette provided at the faculty parties. He wasn’t a young man anymore. It seemed like he’d stopped being a young man earlier than most—maybe sometime in his PhD—where, like Swinn, he’d decided to get serious about his future and quit playing around. Marriage to Myra had been an advantage, solid closure on the question of romance and loneliness. He’d gotten that handled with alacrity and moved on to more important things. But Sheila Barnhof-Canterbury was a good looking woman. Was there anything he could do for her?

“I don’t think—“

“I’m not asking for a miracle.” She pushed him against the door and slid her hands up around the back of his neck. “But, you know, I find you very attractive.”

She was lying, of course. But did that matter? How many lies had he already told this evening alone? How many half-truths, evasions, duplicitous omissions? How many lies was he obliged to tell in a standard academic week—as chair, as a professor of American lit., as a mentor to a group of neurotic, hopeless graduate students, half of whom needed prescription mood stabilizers to get through the day?

“It doesn’t work that way. I’m not even on the hiring committee.”

“But you could be on it if you wanted. Isn’t that right?”

It was there, at age 65, in Juliette Lezerski’s pantry, with the light bulb swinging back and forth at the end of its green safety cord, that James Van Adler was kissed by the first woman since he’d married his wife, Myra Chambers, 33 years earlier. Kissed, that is, by a desperate woman two-and-a-half decades younger than him, who had a son and a daughter and a husband who used to be a dispatcher for a garbage truck company and who, rumor had it, now spent most nights with a bottle instead of his wife. Moreover, Van Adler sensed that Sheila Barnhof-Canterbury found kissing him vaguely repulsive, which, in a strange non-personal way, he could understand. Some days, actually most days, he felt the same way about himself.

“Sheila. Honey. There’s nothing I could do for you that you can’t do for yourself by applying. I’d be glad to write you a letter of reference if you need one. I could be honest and say you do good work. Because you do.”

She pushed him hard with both hands. He’d moved forward, away from the door about two inches, when she’d kissed him. And now he connected with the surface again, exhaling a sharp burst. A jolt of agony went through Van Adler’s hands and he cried out softly.

“You have no idea what it’s like,” she said, stepping back and sizing him up. The light bulb bounced against the back of her head. “You have health insurance. You can get your teeth fixed. When my son needs the doctor, what do I do? We’re on fucking food stamps.”

He nodded, turning the key behind him with his right hand. The situation that moments ago had seemed quite pleasant was now scandal-worthy. An intoxicated tirade by Sheila in the pantry and the rumors would reach Myra in less than a day. Above all else, Myra hated being talked about. It was what made her the perfect faculty wife. It would also be what made her perfectly insane when Bethany Lyon called to lay it on and enjoy her suffering.

“But I do know what it’s like, Sheila. I was an adjunct for years.” Actually one year. “I paid my dues in a time when there were no social programs in place to help me lead the academic life.” Actually, Myra’s income as a CPA would have disqualified them for state aid had they looked into it.

Van Adler’s hand complained horribly as he turned the key and pushed the little pantry door open. He put one foot on the pebble walk outside. The walk ran through Juliette’s rose garden to a small wrought iron gate in the six-foot hedge that went along the sides and back of the house. It was a windy night in Hauberk, Missouri. The trees wagged and swished, their shadows dancing through rectangles of light. Next door, a dog started barking. And inside, Juliette had started playing a mashup of “Flight of the Bumblebee”, “Blue Suede Shoes” and Beethoven’s 5th symphony.

He looked back at Sheila. She was standing in the center of the pantry, arms at her sides and the light bulb hanging down behind her head. She was about to start weeping. And the radiance from the bulb made it seem as though she had a halo—a white-shirted wingless angel with blue eyes who’d lost her way.

“I have two children,” she said.

He smiled. “They’re very lucky.” And he stepped outside, closing the pantry door behind him. He took a deep breath. When he got around to the front of the house, Juliette had segued into “Great Balls of Fire.”

Van Adler looked up at her grinning and pounding away at the keys. Her trifocals had slid down to the tip of her nose and the strap of her glittery blue dress had slipped off her left shoulder. A group of drunken graduate students pressed in around her, singing and egging her on. In another window, Swinn concentrated on his Blackberry, a concerned look on his face, texting with both thumbs.

It was only after Van Alder was halfway home that he realized he was still smiling and that it was the old wooden smile he’d developed years ago to get out of bad situations. His face seemed to be stuck like that, the muscles overtaxed and somehow charlie-horsed in place. And he couldn’t, for the life of him, stop.

1. Veritas vos Liberabit

Karl Lessing and I decided to finish the five gallon jugs of flat Michelob his little brother had liberated from a frat party. It felt like a big decision. This was 1993. We were sitting in Karl’s parents’ garage, watching old footage of Tower of Power’s “What is Hip?” on Soul Train. And it all seemed to go together—the cheap plastic folding chairs, the Everlast heavy bag bandaged with silver electrical tape, the beat-to-shit Zenith with a wire hanger for rabbit ears, the VHS player I got at Kobey’s Swap Meet for $12, the incense cones Karl’s sister made out of ganja and cinnamon burning on a dinner plate. Nothing had changed since high school. We were two years older and both felt that because we hadn’t yet become wealthy, famous, and adored, we were obviously has-beens.

We didn’t talk much. We were better at being self-absorbed and sullen, experts actually. The way I remember it, it was a Saturday night and neither of us had girlfriends or anything interesting to do other than sit there and make the occasional comment about how much of a badass Lenny Willams was or how Mic Gilette had them chops. One thing I’d learned how to do since high school was get good grades. And, as a sophomore at San Diego State, that meant I had a lot of free time on my hands to think about music when I wasn’t feeling like a loser.

People our age were fixated on Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but Karl and I were heavily into jazz and 70s funk. That was our main obsession—Tower of Power, Brass Construction, Average White Band, Graham Central Station, Chaka Khan, Sly and the Family Stone, The Gap Band, Sun Ra, Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, Coltrane, on and on. In truth, we listened to all kinds of music when we weren’t playing it, but because Karl was one of my best friends and happened to have three bookcases of CDs, I got exposed to a lot of styles I would not otherwise have known about. I never took world music or music appreciation. I was a double major, music and English, and apart from what I learned from Karl, the trajectory of my influences was limited to what I did in my classes. Karl was also a music major. The difference between us was that, while Karl was already an accomplished jazz saxophonist from a family of professional musicians, I was just a lost soul.

But that’s not precisely true. Looking at the 20-year-old boy I was then, I can see that I was just a writer who just didn’t know it yet, not unlike a lot of the students I’ve taught over the years. At the time, I thought I was going to be a classical pianist, but I was doing exactly what a writer does—getting absorbed in other people’s lives, details, energies, seeing the world through their eyes. Not all creative people do this but I’ve recognized the tendency in many of the writers, actors, and assorted soulless vampires I’ve met along the way. And to be perfectly honest, I had the affinity and intellectual capacity for classical music but not the temperament. Temperament might be everything.

Even with all of these influences, tendencies, fears, and assumptions swirling around us in that garage like fate, the Michelob didn’t taste any better. That said, when you’re 20 and frustrated, flat stolen beer is there for you. And we were halfway to our sworn goal when something amazing happened. Maybe it was right around the moment when Lenny in all his green velour majesty, goes, Do you think it’s drivin’ a big fine car? Have you heard, it’s tryin’ to be a star?—though that would have been too perfect—that Karl had a moment of profound wisdom which has stayed with me all my life. He looked at the gallon jug balanced on his thigh, then at me, and said, “Davis, some people get everything they want in life. The rest of us become philosophers.”

2. My Life as a Philosopher

“I know the many disguises of that monster, Fortune, and the extent to which she seduces with friendship the very people she is striving to cheat, until she overwhelms them with unbearable grief at the suddenness of her desertion.”  ― Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

17 years after Karl’s moment of Michelob profundity in the garage, I was sitting in a conference room at Western Michigan University looking at a class of creative writing students, all in their early 20s, all lost souls. It was the last year of my PhD. And in my private life, something I am not inclined to casually discuss with students, I had suffered immense personal losses by then—death, estrangement, betrayal, and disappointment. But what else is new? One still has to get up in the morning and put on one’s pants.

Unfortunately, the only way to earn the putting-on-one’s-pants insight is to suffer and then choose to become a philosopher, a choice these kids hadn’t faced yet. A lot of them looked at me and thought, this guy has it made. How do I do what he’s doing? Some of them actually said as much to me in my office hours, peering across the desk in a kind of half-disbelief that I could lead the writing life, the idyllic life they imagined they wanted but felt was forever beyond their reach. In other words, they were 20 and thought they were already losers.

The key ideas in my beginning workshop were simple: you have to read like a writer in order to teach yourself about what can be done. You have to learn how to evaluate your writing on its own terms. And you need to develop discipline, which includes an ability to survive criticism and make it work for you. Most students can emotionally grasp these things after a 15-week semester, but it usually takes about that long. The problem is that the most gifted ones, the ones with that extra something—that divine spark of talent given to them by the muse or an angel or the Prince of Darkness—are usually the ones who take a lot longer to get over themselves. They’re so busy trying to sort out the fact that they’ve internalized materialistic social values at odds with who they are, that they ignore the practical side of the work.

Just as I absorbed Karl Lessing’s love of music and the aura of professional musicianship that always surrounded him, my own students absorbed similar energies from me. Even the most gifted writers over the years were not insightful enough to see that it wasn’t me they were absorbing. Rather, they were admiring some eidolon, some mirage of ideal qualities they imagined I must have in order to do what I was doing. If I’d told them what Karl had said that night it the garage, would it have mattered? No. Because they hadn’t suffered enough to understand. You can’t tell someone who has been searching for the lost city of gold that the glimmer they think they see isn’t El Dorado. They don’t want to face reality and become philosophers. They want to be on Soul Train with Lenny Williams covered in green velour. And I don’t blame them.

One young man that semester, Paul, who stands out in my memory as having seemed broken and gifted in equal parts, came into my office hour looking pale and severe. And as soon as I looked up at him, I knew we were going to have one of those conversations—the kind that start off about writing and segue quickly into What do I do about my difficult life? To honor the teachers who put up with me when I was the one asking such things, I never slither away; though, I’m often tempted. It’s draining to talk with depressed, frustrated people. But it’s a small act of kindness, which is the only sort of kindness that really matters.

So he sat down and unleashed the kraken. He’d taken a beating in workshop the day before for his fairly chauvinistic first-person story about a guy who uses a pickup artist system to seduce a barista in some nameless college town. After using her sexually, he tells her to take a hike and she’s crushed. And that was the story. I still remember it, not only because Paul seemed to have that stricken shell-shocked look of someone who’d just gone through an Inquisition-style critique, but because the story really was tremendously bad. Also because Paul was generally talented as a fiction writer and it was unlike his other work.

After going on about various things and people he disagreed with in his critique, he stopped, deflated, and said, “This is mostly nonfiction. I don’t know if you’ve realized that.”

I nodded. “I think most of the class did.”

Then Paul turned red, stood up, and thanked me for my time. I watched him through my open door as he went down the hall. I felt a little sad for him. But I didn’t feel sad for the girl in the story, who I was pretty sure didn’t exist. Did Young Paul apprentice himself to a “How to Get Girls” system? I didn’t doubt it—as much as I didn’t doubt that he was girlfriendless and powerfully, elementally lonely.

The last scene of his story went something like this: the protagonist and the girl are standing under a streetlight or something. She’s clinging to him and he says it’s not going to work out because he just doesn’t feel things like normal people. He has a cold heart. And then he walks away and she collapses in tears. Everyone in the workshop thought (rightly) that it was an ending that resolved / showed nothing. Plus, it was melodramatic. Plus, Paul seemed completely immersed in what he called the “pickup artist movement” and the other students were sick of his critiques always somehow incorporating that material.

But what I saw (and didn’t say) was that Paul wasn’t the two-dimensional womanizing protagonist in his story; he was the girl left sad and alone under a streetlight. The protagonist was who he told himself he needed to be—someone with a cold heart who doesn’t get kicked around anymore. Though there was no world, no permutation of reality, in which he could be that. He was too much in love with love and didn’t even know it. All he’d done was absorb the “pickup artist” ideology for a time—like a writer tends to do.

In the practice of philosophy, which often comes down to a single question—What is good and how do I know?—personal truth sets us free. The lost city of gold is lost for a reason. In seeking it, we learn how to live. We don’t get what we think we want, but we become philosophers inured to the vicissitudes of fortune. It is only through this that later in life we are able to resist death’s constant alluring invitations.

3. Death Pact

In 1700, Lord Nabeshima Mitsushige, ruler of the Hizen Provence, died. Tsunetomo Yamamoto was one of his loyal samurai, but he did not follow his lord in death because Mitsushige had expressed a dislike of the practice. Instead Yamamoto traveled into the mountains to spend the rest of his life as a hermit. Nine years later, he narrated a book of thoughts and parables about the samurai life to a fellow warrior, which became known as The Hagakure or In the Shadow of the Leaves. It is a powerful book, not only because it teaches us about the historical reality of the samurai, but because one of its principle themes is that much of what the samurai thinks, does, and feels is hidden from public view.

The purest expression of this was accepting death to the deepest extent possible, essentially embodying an “already dead” perspective. One is so dedicated to one’s mission that life itself is secondary. He writes that “even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams.”

By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams. I have thought deeply about this passage over the years. In my current understanding, this “dream” is a dream of the self—the self-centered fairy tale each of us carries in our hearts about what we wish our lives could be. We’ve spent so much of our time, as writers, absorbing the energies and beliefs of others that it can be hard to wake up. But if we are to become philosophers, our fairy tale dream cannot have a happy ending. In the words of Karl Lessing, we don’t get what we want. Instead, we start asking questions.

We’re shocked awake, in media res, and we realize that we’re running towards an irrational death. We didn’t plan any of it. It’s not logical. We were busy dreaming about winning and losing, success and failure, fortune and misfortune. Everything that used to make sense doesn’t anymore. Death is waiting. It’s inevitable. And nobody wins.

At this point, the writer, if he’s honest, says to himself, my mission is more important than my dream. I know I’m going to die. But I have to try to make art until that happens. This is the pact every creative person makes with death. It’s the moment we can answer the philosophical question, What is good and how do I know? It’s the moment we look back at our 20-year-old selves—those depressed narcissists already willing to concede and accept defeat because everything at that point is cast in terms of winners and losers—and smile. The lost city of gold must remain lost to mean anything. The gold is incidental.

I first noticed the wolf in East Africa. Heard of brothers fighting and killing each other outside Makamba, daughters poisoning fathers in Goma, laughing while their houses burned, and everywhere the ritual of suffering enacted with a kind of desperate abandon. So I knew it had come around to this once again: an axe age, a sword age, a wind age, a wolf age. An age of bullets. An age of scorn, of grief, of fire and ice and tongues of rust filthy with blood. In such times, no one has mercy or even remembers it. Instinct rules. Understanding is rare. And few hear the wolf creeping up behind.

I knew Bujumbura waited to impart such knowledge to me when I saw the catherine wheel in a stand of trees beyond the airfield—a frame for breaking and burning witches—with an empty metal folding chair waiting beside it. I stepped away from the plane and stared at purple thunderheads hanging low over the steaming hills. I’d arrived during the rainy season, prop wash of the Dornier 228 twisting bits of paper and plastic bags over fields of grass and ochre mud. Then into town on the back of a piki-piki, plumes of brown water shooting up behind the wheels into the rain.

Streets with broken ditches, piles of burning garbage that smelled like shit and rubber. And everywhere: singing, chanting, drumming, sirens, heavy bass, the crackle of French radio through the wet dark as we passed yellow rectangles of light cut by barbed wire, spiked security bars, the black silhouettes of branches waving in the storm.

Arrived at crumbling plaster villa with collapsed third floor, brooding and dark and unoccupied for months—the best the company could get me on short notice. Two blocks down the hillside from the President’s mansion, the house had its own water cistern on stilts, gate guards, and a cadaverous German Shepherd, who sat beside the front door and frowned at me as I carried my suitcase in. Rusted rebar lattices over the windows. The outer wall pitted by bullet holes and topped with broken glass. The bedroom ceiling covered with spiders. My home for a month.

In the morning: Laurent Nzikobanyanka pulls the outside bell rope. Bald, smiling, gold Masonic ring, pressed blue suit and cream tie, long handshake. Regional supervisor for the company—a man in love with absurdity and beer and the absurdity of beer. Straight to Ubuntu Résidence for pizza with bitter Goma cheese and 40oz bottles of the local Primus for hours.

Then slow, the ground tilting, we walk the Public Gardens while jogging clubs in identical berets run around us, three gravely serious men in yellow track suits do Tai Chi on the wet grass, and a laughing girl flips somersaults on her roller blades. A passing woman nods at Laurent. Ça va? Ça va bien. It starts to rain. People look up and laugh at the rain. And this, too, is Africa.

The report I’m supposed to write for Laurent—what report am I supposed to write? I take the Lariam I brought with me to keep off the malaria and have bad dreams, wake up in the middle of the day with cockroaches on my belly, kill them, go back to bed and have bad dreams of cockroaches. Laurent comes by and pulls the bell rope, but I don’t go to the door. Three days in, and I’m pale and trembling. I’ve started vomiting and shitting uncontrollably. I worry I might have typhoid. So I add Cipro to the Lariam and spend ten days going from bed to toilet. Ça va? Ça va bien.

On the eleventh day, I rise again, thinner, with clean intestines and more circumspection. Before dawn, dogs are howling all across the city at a WWII air raid siren being cranked for no discernable reason. The house German Shepherd, who I have learned is named Jean-Pierre, howls back one raspy and exasperated howl, his duty as a dog. But he’s heard it all before. I lean out the back door and give him an ancient withered galette from the tin I found over the sink. The dogs in the distance begin again. He holds the end of the flat cake in his mouth and looks up at me with something like sympathy. “Good boy,” I say. “Fucking eat it or I’ll take it back.” He growls a little, but he doesn’t put it down. When I close the door, I hear him whimper. Growl or whimper: life is simple until you need to do both at once.

Laurent takes me to meet Father Martin, a Catholic priest, a descendent of a Tutsi king, and an initiate of Imana, the old creator god. Father Martin has no problems with this. We walk through his small, crumbling Église de l’Ascension while he talks to us about water issues, the rebels, the Evangelical Christian missionaries defacing ancestor shrines outside Gitega. Half-burned pillar candles in wrought iron stands line the bare walls. Spiderwebs over everything. The tiny arched windows have no glass, only black bars set deep into the frames. A breeze twists down, guttering the candles, lifting the webs like an invisible hand.

That night, there is mass and then, in a tent behind the church, the worship of Imana. Drumming. Singing. I pass out on a bench and no one notices, not even me. When I come to, Laurent is gone. Covered in sweat and smelling like incense, I walk through silent black streets until I find my way home, where I drink and smoke cigarettes and talk to Imana in the dark of my bedroom.

Day fifteen, halfway through the report, chain smoking, writing what the company wants me to write to calm the investors: emerging technologies, very good, country is on the upswing, great opportunity for development, everything is wonderful, god is in his heaven, all is right with the world.

I don’t mention the child who’d been thrown in a pool of acid when he was three, who is now eighteen and assigned to guard my front gate in a blue uniform with only half a face. I don’t mention the woman who weeps every night somewhere nearby or that I heard the catherine wheel was used a month before I arrived to break every bone in a woman’s body. They said she used sorcery to make her boyfriend impotent. Grenade attacks at gas stations. Shootings in the central market. The Muslim Brotherhood taking revenge for someone taking revenge for something another group did in some other country at an earlier date. A rebel general in the hills above Kigali, raping and murdering villagers, mounting their heads on spikes by the side of the road. The wolf age. The wheel of iron, come back around for its bloody payment.

Sicker than five dogs, but no time to relax. I stop writing only when Laurent insists that I get out of the house for my health. I stink and speak incoherently and sweat and grope for a cigarette every few minutes. But Laurent is determined. We have lunch at New Parador with Jessica Stanley, a functionary from the U.S. Embassy so far up or down in the hierarchy she doesn’t have a job title. Blonde, early fifties, stick thin with a pearl necklace and a pained squint. “What do you do?” I ask. “I work at the embassy.” “And what does that involve?” “It involves embassy work.”

Laurent smiles broadly and orders three big beers.

She goes thirty minutes later, her Primus untouched. Laurent drinks it slowly and sighs. “An unfortunate woman, but someone I thought you should meet.” I don’t ask him why. The interior of the New Parador dining room is covered in chipped gold leaf. The ceiling drips water into a plastic bucket. I decide Laurent is too sincere to be putting me on.

With the month almost up, I write continuously, pausing only to feed galettes to Jean-Pierre and drink filtered water that smells like an unwrapped condom. Before I can finish, I’m visited by Reverend Moonstar, an old high school friend who used to be named Sean Roberts. He got rich importing wicker things from the Congo and selling them in Manhattan. Now he practices polyamory and runs a coven of divorced Wiccans in Italy.

Reverend Moonstar has become pale and obese. He tells me Wiccan bitches are all succubi while he mixes a pitcher of martinis in the kitchen. “You know, this light in here, I think it’s flickering ‘cause it’s broken, Mikey. And, uh, you’re not living here permanently, are you? You’ve got a serious fucking roach problem.” I tell him he’s got a dirty mouth for a man of the cloth. The reverend offers a martini to Jean-Pierre, but the dog nips his hand. Even this doesn’t bother him. He laughs and sips his martini while I bandage him up. In the morning, I open my eyes to see Jean-Pierre snap a cockroach off my shirt, bite it in half, spit it out, and lie down again with his head on my body. I don’t know how he got inside, but I decide he gets double galettes later.

I finish the paper and Laurent is pleased. He pats me on the shoulder and hopes I get over my chronic cough, trembling, and fever. I have started to sweat profusely and I’m out of Cipro. The Lariam gives me dreams of my dead mother, memories of my father on one of his two-week whiskey benders where he called the house and told us he’d been elected governor of Alaska, dreams of a man-sized cockroach kneeling by the bed, hissing terrible things into my ear.

I’ve got an extra week paid for if I want to stay and Father Martin has invited me to another service. The Public Gardens are empty and covered in mist. I walk through them in the morning, feeling like the mist is more solid than my body, like I could hike up the side of the mist to heaven where Imana waits to explain Burundi to me, the wolf age, the twilight of the gods. I realize I know nothing. I have learned nothing. And, at best, I am seriously ill.

So I take a moto-taxi out to the airport where the catherine wheel is now soot black. They have broken and burned another witch since I arrived—always a poor village woman or a rape victim. Never someone like our Reverend Moonstar, who can wear pentagrams and talk about spells and Wiccan bitch-succubi all he wants. I vomit twice in the airport bathroom and pay the attendant 500 BIF for the trouble. A mustard yellow gecko crawls out of my laptop bag before I board the plane.

Brussels. I miss my connecting flight to London and get a closet room at the Hotel Friederiksborg instead. Too weak to get to a clinic, I soak the bed with sweat and think about dying. I think about Jean-Pierre, my best and only friend, and that I should have taken him with me. Room service leaves bottles of carbonated Spa outside my door with dry toast. The conceirge is understanding and discrete; though he is clearly worried about what to do with my corpse should I kick off in the middle of the night. I live on bread and mineral water for a week until I can keep it down and am strong enough to bathe myself and walk outside.

I look up friends of friends who live on Rue de Lakenstraat—three Estonian girls who give me tea, wine, and chocolate. In my lingering dizzy exhaustion, they seem to me like creatures of pure air and fire, filling up my glass, laughing, wanting to know—everything—how many people there are in Burundi; what the climate is like; why I went there; whether I have read a certain Polish travel writer; what I think of Belgium; what I think of Obama’s administration relative to the Bush administration and if there is much pro-American sentiment in Burundi; if anyone I know has been a victim of the grenade attacks; what my dissertation was on; what they should see if they visit Rwanda other than the gorillas; and whether I am a vegetarian. I look around and tell myself none of it is real. Any moment, a man-sized cockroach will sit down next to me and raise his glass. Cheers.

When I leave I feel I’ve spent time with the fairy court in the kingdom of the Shining Ones. But when I walk along a canal into a bad part of town I see dull-eyed prostitutes leaning against the buildings and the primered chassis of an Audi up on blocks behind a chainlink fence. And I remember the catherine wheel and decide that I am somewhere on the earth after all.

In the morning, the money comes through. Job well-done. Everyone is happy. Glowing praise from Laurent. In the unfathomable machinery of coincidence, I am offered a small part-time position at the university in Tallinn, Estonia.

Sure, I think, why not? I can spend some more time with the Shining Ones in a beautiful European city. But, of course, it’s not that easy. Even now, in my dreams, the empty roads are still and silent under windows painted with the brown of old gore. And the ragged lines of cities have given way to sand and weeds. And no one cares about the trash in vacant lots or whose bones lie there, warm and pale in the sun. Of these things, only those with eyes to see can recognize the Ouroboros coming full circle again. The blackened catherine wheel. The rows of heads by the side of the road. Only those with ears to hear will notice the wolf sniffing at the door in the dead of night or recognize the riddle of our beginnings tied to the wheel and broken by the ignominy of our end.

 

 

* Note: this story originally appeared in The Painted Bride Quarterly, Print Annual 6 (2013)

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Rundetaarn

I was sitting in a cafe across the street from Rundetaarn, a Masonic dragon tower in Copenhagen, trying to make progress with William Gibson’s novel, The Peripheral, when I realized it’s constipated with words and it wasn’t going to get any more regular after 100 pages. It’s so self-referential, so overwrought and self-conscious that it broke my heart a little bit. This is not a realization one wants to have in a city so far from home, even if the concept of home no longer makes sense. Consider the beginning of chapter 8, “Double Dickage”:

The boss patcher, unless he wore some carnival helmet fashioned from keratotic skin, had no neck, the approximate features of a bullfrog, and two penises.

“Nauseating,” Netherton said, expecting no reply from Rainey.

Perhaps a little over two meters tall, with disproportionately long arms, the boss had arrived atop a transparent penny farthing, the large wheel’s hollow spokes patterned after the bones of an albatross. He wore a ragged tutu of UV-frayed sheet-plastic flotsam, through whose crumbling frills could be glimpsed what Rainey called his double dickage. The upper and smaller of the two, if in fact it was a penis, was erect, perhaps perpetually, and topped with what looked to be a party hat of rough gray horn. The other, seemingly more conventional, though supersized, depended slackly below.

When you read something like this, unless hard work has already been done to make it clear, all you can do is give the book the benefit of the doubt and hope. Maybe in 50 pages, bullfrog dicks and frills will make sense in a way that allows suspension of disbelief. Maybe in 150.

To be fair, sometimes this actually does happen. A novel reaches a point at which its unique terms and weird settings stabilize in a comprehensible way, allowing the reader to orient herself and understand what matters in the world of the story. This is especially true in books written in a 1970s sci-fi prose style, where sensory and linguistic overload establishes a specialized language in which author, text, and reader can identify as a discourse community (cf. Tvtropes.org’s definition of “Fan Speak”). For example, when I first read Samuel Delaney, I had the experience of feeling completely overwhelmed by an alien prose style that seemed to function in performative resonance with the subject matter. I felt like I had to assimilate to this world. I was the alien.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one who had this experience. Jo Walton writes about that same feeling on the Tor.com website, in “Overloading the Senses: Samuel Delaney’s Nova.” But if the language and settings of a novel can’t become the new normal, if there is no way for the reader to orient himself, there can be no suspension of disbelief. Overload becomes noise instead of a communal bonding experience. And the reader loses interest because there is no way to become emotionally involved. There reader is shut out. It’s like peering into the murky waters of an aquarium, unsure what exactly is supposed to be on display.

Nevertheless, this is William Gibson, one of the great sci-fi writers of the late 20th century, someone I grew up reading, admiring, and trusting, which I suppose exacerbates the tragedy of the double dickage on the reader. At least, I felt doubly dicked over. Compare the above, to the opening chapter of Mona Lisa Overdrive, “The Smoke,” which is lyrically beautiful and which exemplifies everything I love about Gibson’s sensibilities:

The ghost was her father’s parting gift, presented by a black-clad secretary in a departure lounge at Narita. For the first two hours of the flight to London it lay forgotten in her purse, a smooth dark oblong, one side impressed with the ubiquitous Maas-Neotek logo, the other gently curved to fit the user’s palm. She sat up very straight in her seat in the first-class cabin, her features composed in a small cold mask modeled after her dead mother’s most characteristic expression. The surrounding seats were empty; her father had purchased the space. She refused the meal the nervous steward offered. The vacant seats frightened him, evidence of her father’s wealth and power. The man hesitated, then bowed and withdrew.

Very briefly, she allowed the mask her mother’s smile.

Ghosts, she thought later, somewhere over Germany, staring at the upholstery of the seat beside her. How well her father treated his ghosts. There were ghosts beyond the window, too, ghosts in the stratosphere of Europe’s winter, partial images that began to form if she let her eyes drift out of focus. Her mother in Ueno Park, face fragile in September sunlight. “The cranes, Kumi! Look at the cranes!” And Kumiko looked across Shinobazu Pond and saw nothing, no cranes at all, only a few hopping black dots that surely were crows. The water was smooth as silk, the color of lead, and pale holograms flickered indistinctly above a distant line of archery stalls. But Kumiko would see the cranes later, many times, in dreams; they were origami, angular things folded from sheets of neon, bright stiff birds sailing the moonscape of her mother’s madness.

The difference is striking. Here, the immersion is immediate, the images are beautiful, and there is still enough weird dramatic tension for us to understand that this is not the world we take for granted when we get on a plane to Big Smoke.

Now I’m living in England again; though, I’m back in Oxford instead of the Smoke. I wish I had something like Gibson’s Pattern Recognition or All Tomorrow’s Parties to carry with me, to help me contextualize the inherent (sometimes pleasant) weirdness of this place, which, on a good day, can seem a bit like home. I learned so much from him when I was just starting to read like a writer. And on those rare occasions when I find myself teaching a creative writing class, I still assign his cinematic vignette, “Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City,” as an example of how prose can be minimalist and immersive at the same time—especially when the students seem to have developed an unhealthy Raymond Carver fetish.

You can only read lines like, Randy, she said, I can’t do this anymore. Randy poured another glass of scotch. They looked out at the empty parking lot, before you start longing for more adjectives. (Yes, I know Carver is great. He is actually one of my favorite writers. And, yes, I can see my father right now, sneering at me, saying, Raymond Carver you ain’t. And I have to agree with him. Carver is a truly great writer and maybe by saying “Raymond Carver fetish,” I’m dismissing him unfairly. But in the neurotic, self-castigating, New Critical environment of most MFA programs, Carverian minimalism is as much a problem as it is a protection. Writing outside the boundaries of late 20th century minimalism takes courage. Description makes us vulnerable. And being willing to make oneself vulnerable is one of the hardest and most valuable lessons to learn as a creative writer. So, yes, Carver I ain’t. And Carver you ain’t, either.)

So back to the dragon tower. The Peripheral was killing me. I was doing my best, trying hard to find some way into the story, but I was failing. And it didn’t help that I had come to Denmark for a variety of reasons, none of them having to do with science fiction or reading. One reason I was there had to do with a kind of spiritual journey. I do this. I set a destination, sometimes with friends, sometimes just for me, and I go there, trying to realize / recognize another part of myself.

I once read a short story in OMNI magazine—I must have been ten or eleven years old—about people living on a space station that had somehow been stabilized at the edge of a wormhole. They would go on space walks into the anomaly and return with cures to diseases, ancient historical artifacts lost to time, new mathematical theories, answers to the great unsolvable questions. The only catch was that anyone who went out came back a little more suicidally insane. Eventually, if they went out too many times, they’d carve themselves up with surgical scalpels or blow themselves out the air lock or something equally horrible. The question for the main character was how far she was willing to go, how much of herself she was willing to sacrifice. I’ve never forgotten the story because I have always felt that I, like her, would give it all in the end—not because I care so much about humanity or so little for myself, but because the opportunity to experience what might be on the “other side” and come back would be worth anything, even if it ultimately consumed me. My spiritual journeys around the world are like that, only I come back with more of myself instead of less.

There always has to be a way to fund the trip, some work tie-in or set amount of money I know I can spend. But once I have things locked in, wherever I happen to be, I go looking immediately for the dragon tower. I go looking for those places—like Stonehenge or the Ha’penny Bridge or the Russalka Memorial—that speak to me about myself. This is entirely subjective and often inexplicable, but that’s the whole point. I don’t make these journeys for other people. I go because there are things I need to understand. I have my own “great unsolvable questions.” Maybe I never solve them completely, but every time I go, I have at least one moment like Kumiko where I see the cranes, tiny origami mysteries that unfold the corners of who I am, which makes the space walk worthwhile.

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The walk up to the top of the tower.

Rundetaarn is beautiful, symmetrical, solid, powerful—all things pleasing to the eye that carry a sense of divine perfection. I have visited it many times in dreams since then. But that day in particular, sitting in the window across the street, I wasn’t thinking about spiritual things as much as the past. The Peripheral was depressing. So I reread the postcard I was using as a bookmark. It was from Kurt, a friend who went to graduate school with me. We don’t see each other much. But every now and then, we’ll send emails or postcards or a Facebook message. He’s a painter and a poet, gifted and serious, and one of the best people I know. His note covered a lot of things but what really stuck with me was the observation he made that so few who got MFAs with us are still writing after more than a decade. He’s right and I’ve wondered about that, too.

So I was sitting there, looking up at Rundetaarn, and thinking about how the past never squares with the present. Life always seems better before. We were always saner, more prolific, healthier, more blissfully ignorant. Is this why I couldn’t connect with Gibson’s novel? Was I clinging, like a brittle fanboy, to an idiom that the writer already transcended without me noticing? Was I clinging to the idea of what it was to be an MFA student back at the University of Montana when I should just accept that not everyone wants to die in loveless penury? Was this the part of myself I was meant to bring back from my space walk—the realization that obsessing about the past is double dickage I don’t need?

(Possible corollary: obsessing about the past is actually obsessing about the present; it’s all the same space walk. It just seems different because our linear presuppositions about the nature of change blind us to the reality that everything is taking place all at once. We just see experience from progressively different angles because our perceptions are bound to what we consider the “physical world” and therefore receive the impression that things are constantly degenerating. All things change. All things are subject to cycles of entropy. But change itself is eternal, apart from our flawed conventional idea of time.)

After thinking about these things, watching tourists go in and out of the tower, I finally wrote a response to Kurt. I said:

I don’t understand why so many of the talented people we knew stopped writing because I don’t really understand the Manhattan publishing industry. I think there’s a strong connection. . . . What I am is tired of gatekeepers so worried about their careers that they only think in categories. Barton Fink comes to mind a lot. Maybe people stop writing post-MFA because they get worn out, some sooner than others. People are wired to be social and run on interpersonal feedback. Ignore them long enough and they will lose their happy thoughts. Then there are the weirdos like us who keep doing it anyway. It sometimes feels like I’m sitting in a dark room, talking to no one in particular and yet hoping someone is standing there listening. I don’t actually believe someone is there in the dark, though. That’s the problem. I can’t make myself believe it. There must be another reason. Compulsion? Obsession? I don’t know. I wrestle with this stuff a lot.

I wrote it in my journal and then emailed it to him a few weeks after getting back to Oxford. But I’m still thinking about it. And I suspect that Gibson wrote The Peripheral because it was simply time for him to write another novel—because he, being commercially successful, explicitly does not have the problem I’m talking about. The problem of dying cold, alone, unrecognized, and broke that most artists have to face. Moreover, I’m glad he’s written what he has. His recent novel might not be my cup of tea, but I suppose I am still a Gibson fan despite the double dickage.

Still, I had to wonder what it was that I was supposed to find in Copenhagen. I did a lot of different things while I was there. I had many important insights. But it wasn’t until a few days ago, when I read Felicia Day’s memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), that it all came together for me. I’m not much of a fan when it comes to celebrities. To be honest, the only other celebrity autobiography I’ve read is David Carradine’s Endless Highway. Unlike many famous people, Carradine could write. And I think Day can write as well. She’s funny, smart, and reminds me a lot of her character on Supernatural that way. It was an easy read with some very interesting parts—chapters on Gamergate and her experience as a double major in violin performance and math at UT Austin. She reminds me of a lot of people I was friends with in college—people more interested in how things work than in how much they’re going to make after graduation.

There is one passage in her book that clicked everything into place and brought me back to that day in Denmark when I was sitting by the tower. In her chapter about struggling to make it in Hollywood, Day writes:

No one had a place for my geeky, weird, homeschooled, video-game-loving inner self. They could only see me as an extremely clean but neurotic secretary. . . . . I painted myself into a tiny corner, so I could be simpler and cleaner and more hirable by Hollywood. I was rewarded for it, but it made me miserable, and I didn’t even realize it. When the system you want to be a part of so badly turns you into someone you’re unhappy with and you lose sight of yourself, is it worth it? Er . . . probably not. But self-reflection wasn’t my strong suit at the time. I just knew that I kept getting opportunities that I couldn’t turn down, that I would have killed to have in the dry years before. I never stopped to wonder, Why am I so depressed all the time after all this success?

  • Because playing a two-dimensional background stereotype of a secretary wasn’t fulfilling her as an artist.
  • Because publishing a constipated inaccessible science fiction novel by virtue of an author’s pre-existing fame is nothing more than a cynical publishing industry gesture.
  • Because giving up your art after getting an MFA is a crime against yourself committed from a place of despair and futility.
  • Because the part of me that I retrieved from my space walk was simply this: there is art and there is the business of selling it. I am and always will be invested in the former to the detriment of the latter. It’s so easy to conflate the two. And people who don’t know do this all the time—You’re a writer? So how come you’re not living in New York? How come I’ve never heard of you? There is no way to answer questions like that without sounding defensive about not “making it.” But the truth is very simple: the person courting fame is not focusing on her art. There is often a difference between what is salable / commercial and what you have to personally do as a creator.

Sometimes these things come together, like when Day’s web series, The Guild, got attention on YouTube, helping her circumvent the Hollywood gatekeepers and advance her acting career. There are many examples of this in self-publishing as well. But the point is not to find a new clever way of climbing the ladder to commercial bankability. The point is to express yourself through your work. The rest is incidental. What you find when you step through the wormhole is ultimately yourself. You climb the dragon tower and see the cranes—origami, angular things, the stuff of your dreams, unfolding.

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I finished the first draft of my novella last night. But I don’t feel anything except that same old sense of loss and emptiness. The only time I ever enjoy writing is when I’m in the middle of it. Once I finish–and I mean like 10 minutes after I write the last word of the first draft–I feel like I just got back from a friend’s funeral and all that’s left is some absurd memory of something they did.

The act of submitting my work for publication is a mechanical afterthought. It’s necessary, at least in how I choose to lead my life, but it’s not the reason I write. Put me in a box with all my manuscripts and drop me in the ocean. Never read a word I’ve written or speak of me again. Grind me into dust. Throw every trace of me into a furnace. And nothing will have changed. The process will still have mattered as much to me as it does right now. It’s the process, the act, the engagement, the work–always changing, always the same. And when it’s finished, I need it to start again. Immediately.

On the second day of the third week of the fifth month of her marriage, she already wanted to kill him. It was after the pills, after the night cab to the airport, after the restaurant fit. He didn’t give a damn. It was November.

She bought a whip. She started smoking. She changed her wardrobe to blacks, leather, reds, PVC, nothing. Some of it worked. Some of it made her think of something else. But she was all alone. She had an allowance, a gold Rolex, an eight bedroom house in La Jolla by the water. Fuck all that. She tried to burn the house down but stucco doesn’t burn. And as hard as Andy tried, she couldn’t cry.

She told people her name was Condra, but they called her Anaconda at the Sports Club, even though she didn’t touch anyone and no one touched her. No one got close. She wore silk on Thursdays. What was life for? She didn’t know. The bitches at the club all hated her when she walked in. $2000 got the burns on the house removed before Conrad got back from Japan.

He was on tour when he wasn’t composing, teaching, rubbing his tired eyes at the piano. She walked across the carpet naked like the mechanical duck that comes out of a clock when the little door opens at noon. Automated. Ignored. Displaying her body. But she might as well have been dead. Corpse porn. Conrad was killing her. He was there, playing Mahler. She knew Mahler. Mahler was dead. And so was she.

She looked at him.

He stopped playing and said, “Yes?”

Her hand twitched. “Fuck Mahler.”

He resumed playing.

***

Her gossipy, mouthy friend, Dimitria: “Just have an affair, Andy. Just get it out of your system, you know?” Dimitria wore a lot of purple. She was divorced and fantasized about Conrad. He was so sensitive; he had beautiful hair; he’d done a classical performance on PBS and wasn’t it brilliant? She’d saved the piece in TIME where he’d sat on the leather couch and talked about his muse. Andy stopped inviting Dimitria over a long time ago. Dimitria had a kid and lived in a sad bachelor apartment in Brea. She was a secretary in an insurance office.

“Just do it. Fair is fair. You’re not getting any younger? Am I right?”

“They call me Anaconda at The Sports Club. They think I’m a dominatrix.”

Dimitria lit a thin cigarette and rolled her eyes. “Please.” Purple lipstick on the filter. “You want one?”

Andy took the Whopper while Dimitria ordered another through the drive-up window. Andy blew smoke over the orange carpet that ran across the top of the dashboard.

“Your car’s a box of shit.”

“It’s a Corolla, Andy. Of course it’s shit. Eat.”

Andy ate.

“Remember that Chevy Nova I had in high school?” Dimitria laughed. Dimitria always asked Andy if she remembered the Nova. And then Dimitria always laughed. Andy looked at her with a mouthful of burger and sighed through her nose.

Dimitria dropped her off at a shoe boutique on Rodeo. Then Andy walked 15 blocks back to the Burger King and ordered another Whopper. And another. Then she vomited behind the dumpster on the other side of the parking lot and rode the 3:15 bus to the Amtrak depot at Union Station. She bought a ticket back to San Diego and sat down on a wooden bench to wait for her train.

A bum said, “Hey Vamparella, how about a dollar?” She gave him three fifties and the ticket for her return flight to San Diego that she wasn’t going to use. He handed the ticket back and said, “Baby, I don’t fly.”

It was the funniest thing she’d heard in a long, long time and she said so. He said, “Blow me” and shuffled off.

Right, she thought, everybody but Conrad. Her train boarded thirty minutes later. She got on and watched the tracks speed past. Then she slept.

Anaconda. What did it mean? It was a snake. Woman becomes snake. Was that sexy? All those pictures of Nastassja Kinski. Everyone agreed Nastassja Kinski had been very sexy. But why? Andy had a framed poster of Richard Avedon’s “Nastassja Kinski and the Serpent” in black and white over her bed. It was a mystery. Andy lay upside-down with her feet on the pillows, and stared at Nastassja, the serpent wrapped around her, emerging from between her legs. Nastassja had a belly and the snake was a boa constrictor, not an anaconda. But still. Nastassja’s belly was small. But still. What was it about her? She tried to imagine Conrad staring at that belly and masturbating, but she couldn’t.

A horn honked down in the circular drive. That would be his cab to the airport. A week with the Boston Symphony. He’d been practicing for it all year. They’d said their good-byes the night before at The Marine Room. He’d ordered the Brandt Farm beef carpaccio with chowder. She’d had the free range veal tenderloin and two martinis.

“I’m going tomorrow,” he said. “I’d invite you, but I know how you hate Boston.”

He looked like an alien masquerading as a human. Or a mock-up of a man done in white porcelain with stylish hair to his shoulders and Armani glasses. Or maybe fine china. She could knock him backwards and he’d shatter.

“You could say good-bye.” He blew on a spoon of chowder. “Do you have emotions anymore, Andrea? Really. If it’s the meds, we can change them, I’m sure.”

She stood. “Blow me, Conrad.” He flinched. That was something, but she knew it was just because there were people sitting all around them, looking. She was wearing a black latex Oscar de la Renta minidress with a vintage white Members Only jacket over it. She slapped her thigh. It went SPACK!

“I’ll call Dr. Bundt from Cambridge and get your prescription adjusted.” He ate his spoon of chowder.

Now he was gone. The sound of the cab faded. But still. A snake like that. It didn’t look like a penis. More like a limp fire hose. Was that it? Limp dicks to put out the fire?

That night, she went to The Sports Club in one of Conrad’s winter suits. It’s wasn’t Thursday and his suit wasn’t silk. It was a Herringbone Stanwyck Stripe Navy, the pants and the jacket. She had to cinch his belt to the last hole. Would he miss it if she pushed it into a trash can and walked home at the end of the night in her red thong? Had he worn the suit even once? The coat smelled like closet. She hadn’t taken her meds in over a month, even though her mother called every Sunday to ask if she had. She always said yes.

“So, you a dyke or what?” Blond. Say, twenty-two or twenty-three. Rugby shirt. Stupid. Not even sharp enough to be president of his fraternity, but fraternity was all over him.

“Probably more of the what.”

“You want a drink, don’t you?” His friends across the room, making faces at him.

“Drink is good. Go ahead.”

“What do you drink? The weird shit? You always slick your hair back like a dude? You want an Obsidian Death March? I can’t believe I just said that. Obsidian Death March.” He had trouble with the words, laughed at his own cleverness, one hand on the bar.

“Sure.”

Then the inevitable question: “So what’s your name?”

“Conde Nast.”

“Like nasty? You like it nasty?” Loud enough for his friends to hear. Somebody whistled, hooted.

“Contrara Nosferatu. You like that? You like it nasty? What’s your name? Brad?”

“Yeah. I like a nasty bitch. My name’s Penguin.”

Two Obsidian Death Marches. Purple black cough syrup. Jaegermeister base. $60. His wallet had an inch of bills.

“Bottoms up, Penguin.”

“You’re not even fuckin drunk.”

“Oh, I’m wasted.”

“I knew it,” he said. “You’re a dyke.”

“Look at this.” The whip. Conrad’s coat had hidden it well. Andy drew it out with an air of mystery and a smile.

“That’s a fuckin bullwhip.”

“Yeah, Penguin. It’s a fucking bullwhip. What’s wrong? I thought you liked it nasty. You want some of my nasty?”

He got pale, took a step back. “Fuck you, you fuckin dyke.”

“Come on, Brad, how about another drink? Let’s talk about your feelings.”

She could live or she could die. She felt like he could hit her and she might feel better. Andy tried to imagine what it would be like. It wouldn’t feel good. But what felt good? Maybe bad was good. Or better. She left him by the bar, staring at her, and went to the ladies’ room, where she purged the Obsidian Death March with two fingers just like mom taught her when she was 15. It burned like white fire. Blurry octopus cloud in the toilet. The phone number on the stall had the name ELIAS over it in black Sharpie. She called it on her cell. No such number. No such Elias. Poor Elias.

Andy uncoiled the whip and let it drag on the floor as she walked out of the restroom. Brad the Penguin was back at the fraternity table. She could live. She could die. She could die twice. Maybe bad was better. What would Conrad do if BP and friends killed her? He’d play Mahler. He’d buy her a tasteful casket. The upscale crowd didn’t come to The Sports Club on Monday nights. Just knucklehead frat boys living it up in the posh wood-paneled booths and paying $15 a beer.

“So Brad. How are you feeling now? You get it touch with your inner pussyboy? You still want the strap-on? It’s gonna cost you, Brad. I got an eight-inch dick out in the trunk. Come on, Brad. Fuck these guys. Let’s go.”

Uproarious laughter. The other three: two blonds like The Penguin with fake tans and whitened grins. One dark-haired boy who needed a shave. Sweatshirts. K ball caps on sideways. Teasing: Come on, P. You know you want the input. Don’t say no. We won’t tell. No blood left in the Penguin’s cheeks. Bitten by the Vamparella.

“Fuck you,” he said and threw a crumpled napkin at her.

“Fuck me? Fuck me?” The bullwhip took one of the tall beer glasses off the table. The glass shattered behind her. They all tried to stand. But it’s hard to stand up in a booth with an oak table that’s bolted to the floor. And, anyway, she’d been whipping cigarettes off the edges of brandy snifters for three weeks. A hat came off. A bloody strip across a face. Screams. The dark-haired one—she whipped him as he climbed over the back of the booth, cut straight into his ass through his jeans. A bullwhip could be incredibly precise and satisfying instrument of destruction. But you had to practice. Andy shook her head. It was all about self-discipline and practice, precision, and lots of wrist. The Penguin was screaming the long distorted scream of the terrified and the damned. He had pissed his khakis. Andy whipped him hard around the neck and he dropped to his knees, fumbling to undo it.

26 hours later, she was released by the SDPD with a citation. A notice to appear would be coming in the mail. The duty officer was in his fifties. He had a long head and dimples from smiling too much. But he wasn’t smiling.

“You can’t go whipping assholes in bars, honey. You could put someone’s eye out.”

“Actually you could kill someone with a thing like that.”

“Yeah. That, too. But they’re not pressing charges and whips aren’t classified as deadly weapons no more in the State of California. And those four dumbshits were high as hell. You got lucky.”

“I have problems with how I express my emotions, officer. I’ve got medication, but I haven’t been taking it.”

“You’re just like my daughter,” he said. “But she’s in the Army.”

They did not return her whip. Andy wandered through downtown San Diego to Seaport Village and then up to the port. She sat on a shipway and watched a rusted trash barge spackled with arrows of white bird shit carry its load south to Mexico. She imagined what it would be like if she swam out to it and climbed in, riding it all the way down to Jalisco. At dusk, she called a cab and threw Conrad’s suit jacket in the water.

She didn’t see anyone for four days. This, too, was part of her discipline. She shaved her head with a Norelco electric razor from Rite-Aid, listing to Sweet Dreams on repeat, so loud the walls of the house vibrated and a painting fell in Conrad’s bedroom. Then she lathered her head with shaving cream and Bicced it down to the skin.

On the second day, she shaved her eyebrows and her bush and her legs and under her arms.

On the third day, she drank a bottle of Grey Goose and shat herself in the bathtub.

The fourth day was for mourning. She wore a black veil and walked through the neighborhood feeding pigeons. She placed an ad in the San Diego Reader: “Cheap Castrations – Outpatient Only.” She placed another with a different credit card and phone number: “Thank you, Saint Oedipus, for Mommy.” She thought about the randomness of the world. She told herself she was Shiva, God of Death.

When had she eaten? She was dangerously thin. Her pelvis could be seen from space. She had no hair. She looked like a prisoner of war. The shag carpet was growing into the bottoms of her feet. The stars were winking at her. The universe had a Morse Code and she was receiving it. She was melding with the rocks. She had creeks and valleys. Andy looked at her naked body for hours in the bathroom mirror. She was an A-cup and had never cared about being anything other than an A-cup. But what if the universe wanted her to be a C-cup or a D? You don’t get breast implants just because the universe is horny. But fucking the universe would be amazing. Nastassja Kinski had fucked the universe, was fucking it eternally in that picture with the snake. You could see it on her face. She had a little belly. But it was there. It was definitely a belly.

On the fourth day of the second week of the sixth month of her marriage, Andy called Dimitria. “I’m taking you on a trip. Pack your suitcase.”

“I can’t. Some of us have to work, doll.”

“I’ll pay your salary.”

“But I won’t have a job when I come back.”

“Goddammit, I’ll pay your stupid fucking salary for the rest of your sad fucking life, you whore. Now get ready.”

“Okay.” Dimitria sounded very small.

Andy didn’t care. They were going to fuck the world. Both of them together. Like a road trip back in high school. But, of course, Dimitria had her job and her 8-year-old boy named Chris and her fantasies about Conrad. She weaseled out of it with a text message. It was just like her. Mouthy. Weasely. Texty. The trip never happened. What could you do with someone like that? Andy bought a blond wig with pigtails for $700 and a special hypo-allergenic adhesive to stick it to the top of her head. She bought salmon-colored lipstick and a red PVC corset with lace-ups from House of Harlot. It was a 4, the smallest they had. It was uncomfortably roomy. What could you do?

She could have called Dr. Bundt, her cheerful roly-poly psychiatrist with the special pills. Pills that compressed her emotions into crystal spheres that floated hither and thither through her brain. Hideous: knowing that she was feeling emotions without feeling them, looking at Conrad behind his piano every day he was home, thinking, I hate him; I really hate his fucking Mahler ass, while smiling pleasantly on her morning corpse walk across the den. Andy did the walk every morning when he was home. Next time, she’d wear a snake.

Sometimes, if he were feeling magnanimous, he would smile, back—the dreamy smile of a musician occupied with his music or thoughts of beautiful raven-haired Danica Gepura, who taught vocal performance at the university and who he’d been sleeping with for two months. Danica didn’t have a snake, either. Or did she?

Sticks and stones. You can’t fuck the world when your emotions are floating away in crystal spheres. She bought a past life regression cd and booked a weekend at the Disneyland Hotel. When the cab came, she left the front door of the house open, the alarm off.

“I need a whip is what I need. I had one before but the cops took it.”

The cab driver eyed her in the mirror as they pulled onto Mission Boulevard. “For reals?”

“For reals.” Under her white fox fur coat, Andy was wearing the PVC corset and a navy thong, matching navy heels with diamonds on them.

He adjusted the rearview and swerved when a car merged in front of him. His eyes took up the whole mirror. “Shit, I been waiting for you my whole life.”

She smiled. “Just drive.” Her lips were very red.

Andy did all the old rides. She did Tomorrowland with a pint of peppermint schnapps. Small World depressed her. She opened her legs and the paunchy father of three almost fell out of his teacup when his wife wasn’t looking. She bought a novelty whip and broke it trying to lash the receiver of the Mickey Mouse telephone in her suite. She hated Mickey. And Goofy always seemed high. Minnie was just mousy eye candy with polka dots. Three college girls with too much makeup flipped her off in line for the Matterhorn and screamed at her because she was wearing fur. She blew them a kiss and laughed when all three of them turned around and started whispering to each other. She fantasized about whipping them bloody. She felt she understood Charles Manson.

Past life regression was all about reclaiming your cycle of reincarnation, working back through your memories until you bumped against your mother’s vagina. And then farther. Going back up the birth canal. Back to the moment of your previous death. Then getting over that and going even farther. You were supposed to learn things about why you were here now. She did a few of the guided meditations sitting cross-legged on the king-sized waterbed shaped like a giant Mickey head. All she got was mom slapping her when she couldn’t vomit, the weekly weigh-ins, the feeling terrified about gaining a pound.

Her father was a blur. She could barely remember him, barely knew him as a child before the acrimonious divorce that turned mom into a fire-breathing lizard. Her father never visited. He was management in a company that made ships and he lived somewhere in Rome. When he left, her mother started dieting more heavily, tanning, wearing more gold. Now, as an adult, Andy would have foreseen that you couldn’t go down that road without encountering collagen. But back then she was just a kid and collagen injections were still experimental science.

You could only get the injections in Europe, which her mom did, which lead to the collagen accident—the swelling of her lips and cheeks to monstrous proportions. Hospitalization. Four years of psychotherapy and a lot of plastic surgery. Hideous allergies. A suicide attempt in their Park Slope condominium. But you can’t kill yourself with a vacuum cord from a chandelier. Even someone as light as her mother. Now, at age 68, she was very calm. She knitted. She lived alone and dreamed about the days her husband would pick her up in a forest green MG and take her out to the best clubs in New York.

Andy wore jeans. She wore baggy boy shorts. She wore a cream linen blouse and a sweater set that made her look like Barbara Billingsley. She got sick of Disneyland and wandered around Anaheim in Chanel glasses that hid half her face. In the Cathedral Bar on 4th Street, she met a short fat guy, named Wilson, who wore a white track suit with a yellow stripe down each leg.

“You repulse me,” she said, after he’d bought her a second vodka tonic.

“Yeah, I’m fat. I gotta do something about that. But I got too much life to live. You know? Who has time?”

“Take me somewhere. I have to get out of here. Let’s go to a concert.”

“Okay. Let’s go to a concert. I don’t give a shit. I can go to a concert. What do you like? Kenny G? Metal? Violins? Let’s do it.”

Wilson said he was going to the bathroom to smoke a rock and he’d be right back. When he returned, he didn’t look any different. He was a little sweaty. “Let’s go. Let’s ride. I don’t got a car. You got a car? I can probably get a car.”

They took a cab to a mall where Wilson said there was a Ticketmaster. But there was nothing but an organic market, a Starbucks, a massive gray Home Depot sprawling to infinity.

“I gotta piss,” he said. “Wait here. Don’t go away. Just wait here. Really. I gotta piss.”

He went into Home Depot and she walked down the street. She went into a diner and sat at the counter. Outside, two men with torn clothes and ruddy skin were trying unsuccessfully to take the rim off a truck tire with a small crowbar. She took her coffee outside and watched them.

One of them stopped and straightened up. He looked at her jeans, her cream blouse, the beige sweater tied around her shoulders.

“What do you want?”

“I’ll give each of you $100 to throw that tire through the window.”

His friend put his hands in his pockets and looked at her. “Bullshit,” he said.

Andy took the money out of her little black purse and showed it to them.

“Why?” The first one was a little rougher looking. Blond. Paint-stained T-shirt. Pants that had never been washed. A moustache straight out of the Old West.

“I don’t need reasons. Take it or leave it.”

The second one grinned. He was missing his front teeth. “Okay, your highness. Money first.”

Andy handed each of them a bill. They did a test-heave with the tire but they couldn’t coordinate enough to do it together. So the first one said, “Somebody might get hurt. We better create a diversion.”

“A what?”

“Just do your thing and act stupid.”

The toothless man understood that. He grinned, nodded. They calculated. They walked up to the window then back to the tire.

The man with the moustache sighed and shrugged. “This ain’t never gonna work. We don’t got enough torque.”

“What the fuck is torque?” asked the man with no front teeth.

Andy put her hand on her hip.

“Like, am I gonna throw this discus style? I’d have to stand in the street.”

“So stand in the street,” Andy said.

“It’s dangerous. There might be oncoming traffic.”

“That’s true,” the toothless one said. He took a watch cap out of his back pocket and pulled it over his wild pepper-gray hair. “Well, maybe her highnessness could keep an eye on the street and give a holler if there’s like a truck coming or something.”

“Whatever,” said Andy. She set her coffee cup beside her foot on the sidewalk.

“Yeah.” The blond man leaned the tire against his leg and folded his arms. “What do you want us to do this for anyway? We could go to jail. I hate jail.”

“I hate jail, too,” the toothless man said. “I been there half my life. What, are you mad at the folks that run this place? It’s a good café.”

His friend nodded. “Good warm coffee. Good pepper steak.”

“They got a wicked chili bowl. You ever try that?”

“Yeah, man, like every day of my life. They put that cheese on it. I love that fuckin’ chili bowl.”

“You remember when Armando used to work here? I ate here all the time back then. I had that job down at Liviccio’s flipping pizzas.”

“Right. And we all got those free Rams tickets that one time? What was that, like 1988?”

Toothless nodded. “That was a long-ass time ago.”

“Look, I don’t have all day,” Andy said.

They both looked at her. The blond man handed his $100 bill back to her. His friend sighed and did the same. She looked at the bills, then back at them. “I thought we had a deal.”

“You thought wrong,” said the blond man.

“Yeah,” said the other, “wouldn’t be ethical. Wouldn’t be good for the neighborhood.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“Believe it.” The blond man lay the tire down on its side and picked up his crowbar. “We’re union. Machinist’s Local 173.”

“United Food and Commercial Workers, 312, out of Pasadena,” Toothless said, pointing at his chest with his thumb. “And I voted for Obama.” He said it and smiled as if he’d just beaten Andy at cards.

“Oh,” she said. “I see. Well, give this to Obama.” She tore up the bills in front of them and sprinkled the pieces on the sidewalk.

“That’s very wasteful,” the blond man said.

Andy turned away and started walking down the street. They called out something else, but she wouldn’t turn around. Her face was twitching.

Wilson caught up with her at a bus stop four blocks away. “What’s with you? What’s wrong? I said don’t go anywhere and you walked away. I thought we were gonna have fun. I thought we were going to a concert.”

“Give me some rock. I want to smoke it.”

“You’re not a rock smoker, girl. You’re not a rock smoker. It’ll ruin your looks. You don’t want that. You have beautiful hair. You’ve got good looks. I mean, damn, you’re good-looking.”

“It’s a wig. My hair. I’m dying of cancer.”

“That’s not a wig. That’s bullshit. You’re a natural blonde. I know a natural blonde when I see a natural blonde. And you are. I mean, it’s obvious.”

“Nothing’s obvious.”

“Nothing’s obvious? You’re obvious. I mean, you’re very obviously fucked up over a guy.”

She looked at him. Wilson’s brown hair was stuck to his forehead. Pale. He smelled like an old locker room. His smile looked gray like fish scales, like rainclouds.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m a crack addict. But it makes me feel better. So who’s the guy?”

“My husband.”

“I should’ve guessed it. A rich bitch with a cheating husband. You got it written all over you. And you’re a natural blonde. He’s stupid, n’est-ce pas? That’s French. See? I know my shit.”

She smiled. “Yes, you do know your shit.” She took his hand and pressed it against the inside of her thigh. His hand was limp as if he were afraid that if he gripped her thigh something horrible might happen.

“Let’s go to a concert,” she said. “Fly with me to Boston tonight.”

The bus stopped and the driver opened the door. There was no one on the bus. The driver wore black aviators. He looked at them sitting there, Andy holding Wilson’s hand against her thigh, and shut the door to the bus. His face registered nothing. The bus pulled away.

Then Wilson said, slowly and clearly, “I would be honored to accompany you.” A drop of sweat fell off the tip of his nose and she kissed him on the mouth.

Symphony Hall was on Massachusetts Avenue. When she called the concert director’s office and identified herself, the director’s secretary immediately booked her into the Presidential Suite at the Back Bay Hilton three blocks away. Andy used the voice of the pearl-wearing society women who frequented the university concert series at UCSD. She told the secretary not to inform Conrad. Her arrival was a surprise and she didn’t want to disturb her husband on the first night. The same concert—Mahler’s Symphony Number Five, Grieg’s Piano Concerto, and Sibelius’ Finlandia—would be given for three consecutive days. But the first night was always the most tense. Everybody knew that.

Meanwhile, Wilson was out scoring more rock. She’d bought him a gray Burberry suit with Italian shoes and a wool tweed belted topcoat. And when he returned from his quest, shaking and wet from the snow, Wilson looked like a well-to-do middle-aged businessman coming home after a long day at the office.

He went into the bathroom and, when he came out, his pupils were enormous. A dark gleam radiated from his face and his smile reminded her of a shark. He poured them whiskey from the wet bar and shook his head. “Boston rock is intense rock. Quality shit. You don’t get quality shit like this back on the west coast. No way. You just don’t. This is—this is ghetto fabulous.”

After handing her the drink, he added, “And this, for a classy lady with great pigtails.” From under his coat, he drew out a new bullwhip. Andy gasped and held it to her chest like a baby. Fragrant leather, cured and woven the way it should be, the handle widening out into an evil-looking knot.

“How did you get this at 7 PM on a Friday night?”

Wilson winked. “I have my ways. I’m magic.”

So they went: Wilson in the suit she’d bought for him and a tastefully muted black and gray tie and Andy in a crimson Terani Coture cocktail dress with white nails, white eye shadow and lipstick, and her blonde pigtailed wig. She had black-toned stockings and red heels and when they walked through the lobby, everyone in the building seemed to be offended. Nearly all the men wore tuxedos and the women were in black evening gowns.

The concert director met them at the inner door—a reedy man in a white tuxedo with nervous eyes and a deliberately tousled black mop of hair. He began to perspire the minute he laid eyes on them, handing them off to an usher and putting as much distance between them and himself as possible. Andy and Wilson were placed in the second row, center, right behind Danica Gepura—in her black evening gown and sapphire earrings. The sapphires looked like deep blue stars against her fair skin.

When Conrad walked out on stage, Danica looked up adoringly and Andy imagined Danica was made of porcelain or find bone china—brittle, delicately wrought in white, blue, and black. So in need of protection, of nurturing. Danica needed a glass display case, not a snake. Andy imagined strangling her from behind.

After the orchestra began—the first movement of Mahler’s fifth—Wilson started to shake uncontrollably. He put his head between his legs and began to retch sharply and prodigiously. The white-haired woman sitting directly in front of Wilson shrieked as the violins rose, and the distinguished-looking old man on the other side of Danica half-stood, staring down at his feet. That’s when Danica interrupted her trance of musical rapture to turn around in her seat and look straight into Andy’s eyes. They’d met before. As soon as Danica recognized her, a look of such profound shock crossed her face that Andy felt it was almost better than strangulation.

Then Danica turned back around, double-triple waves of horror washing over her, and the first movement continued as planned—except that, for a while, everyone around them could hear Wilson choking and groaning when the volume of the music went down. Did Conrad notice, enveloped in his bubble of Zen musician concentration? A spotlight was directly above him. When he played, the Steinway resonated like a force of nature, like the musical part of god. People had said he was the greatest concert pianist in the world.

Andy called Dimitria and, when she answered, Andy just held the phone so they could both listen. Conrad was a boorish, self-obsessed prick, but when he played—played for real, with an orchestra, with a crowd—even Andy couldn’t deny that he was beautiful. She watched his calm expression, his white cuffs glowing in the spotlight. And, for a time, Andy forgot all about snakes and bullwhips, about her corpse walk and why she wanted to die and even about her meds. She only listened, even if the truth was that she hated, hated, fucking hated Mahler.

When Danica looked back again and opened her mouth to say something, Andy said, “I voted for Obama” and gave Danica the finger. Andy thought she now understood what the toothless guy in front of the diner had meant. Danica shook her head. She turned to say something to the old man in the seat next to her.

Wilson tapped Andy on the shoulder. “You gonna fight?” Vomit-putrid breath, but he still smiled.

“I’m gonna slap a bitch.”

He nodded. “Thought so. I got your back.” And he handed her the whip.

That Wilson, wasn’t he just a precious wonder? She stood and bunched the whip in her hand. Danica looked up.

And it was on.

 

* Note: this story originally appeared in The Atticus Review (2013).

Oh no. She’d send you there, wouldn’t she? She’d transport you there just so she could feel your pain and write about it. But you’re not going. You’re never going back to Texas. Not for fame. Not for money. Not for the glory of Victoria Volt. Not for that article she wants you to outline. Not for anything. Not on your life.

Sure. You check your bags in at SFO and get on the plane. You hate everything about yourself as far as Nevada. You can’t imagine the number of things Victoria demands, all the things she wants from you. You don’t want any of them back. There might have been a time when the deal could have been reciprocal. But now, no. Now you’re lost in lackeyland. If you had a personal life, it’s dead. Working for Victoria kills.

While you’re cursing and grinding Delta peanuts and hating yourself for giving in again, the perfect date is going on two blocks east of Coit Tower back in San Francisco at a little café called Nunu’s—where the perfect couple is getting together under a Tiffany lamp with carpets on the floor and drinks and everything good. There’s no weird. There’s no crazy. No pretend happy. No dull-eyed shrugs. No lying. No flight to DFW. Your boyfriend, Dane, and his new girlfriend, Adriana, will have their perfect date and then get married and live the rest of their lives together and die on the same day and be buried in the same grave and everyone will talk about how right and how beautiful it all was.

None of that will ever happen in or anywhere near Texas. The last time you were there, you saw a house out in the desert half-full of sand, a dead horse by the side of the road, a coyote wandering in circles because it drank from a poisoned spring. Years ago, your older brother, Stevie, dead in a Lubbock parking lot. The Klan and rancid TexMex and border towns that look like the zombie apocalypse. There’s a vein of spite flowing up in the contrails of the sky and blocked up anger in bowels of the earth. Texas is a tragedy. It hates you and maybe your dog and the President. It isn’t a state of the Union; it’s a state of disunion, a wretched state of mind, of being in a rotten place at a lousy time with locusts and bad Santeria and guns. To hell with Texas. But that’s redundant.

Victoria doesn’t believe in direct flights and always sends you coach. The plane is packed and smells of all the drama and passion of the Lone Star State. You can’t get away from it. The guy sitting next to you once had curly brown hair but now it’s gray and his name is, in fact, Curly. Dark blue jeans, plaid long-sleeved shirt, suede blazer, his fingers covered in silver and turquoise. Curly introduces himself at pushback, shaking your hand a little too long, grinning a little too much. He drinks beer after beer, telling you about his life in San Antonio and asking too-personal questions when you’d prefer to brood in silence.

“Little lady, whatcha got there? What do you do for a living? You married?”

“No.”

“Got a boyfriend?”

“Yes.” No hesitation. Because you do, right?

“You live in San Francisco, don’tcha? I can tell. You got a San Francisco accent.”

He tells you he owns a chain of vegetarian restaurants and he figures that being from San Francisco, you’d be into that. You look at Curly and think, yes, he looks like Texas. He drinks beer like Texas. His name is Texas. And you’re thinking that everything about him comes straight out of the old stereotype you knew as a girl, when your dad would make you drive part of the way, long distance from Bakersfield to his refrigerator factory in Lubbock. You hated Texas for that reason alone. On some other level, you knew it was your father’s attempt to spend some quality time. But it didn’t feel like anything but a rolling prison to your 12-year-old self, forced to drive the truck while your father read the paper or slept in the passenger seat. That drive from Bakersfield to Texas. It was shit. And then your brother died.

Still, you’re thinking that this Curly might actually be okay. Slightly unstable—but who doesn’t seem slightly unstable if you look closely enough—an affable old coot. And when it comes to men from Texas it might not get much better than “old coot.” Old coot might be the best that Texas ever has to offer. So you think: maybe. Maybe the odds are getting better. Maybe, on this trip, Texas won’t be what it has always been, a depressing, disturbing bout of alienation and repugnance.

Then he starts talking about his restaurants. “Are you a vegetarian, little lady?”

“Yes.”

“Well shit you have to come to my restaurant in Houston. I own about 15 of the fuckers.” He gives you his card. It says Silver Star Vegetable HouseCurly Morgan, CEO. A white card with an embossed star in the middle, shaped out of silver leaves.

“Really? Texan vegetarian cuisine?”

“We grow all our own produce. Science is amazing. I can grow a bell pepper half as big as a Volvo. Have you ever eaten a mutant bell pepper just for dinner? A stuffed bell pepper? We put sour cream in those fuckers. Shredded cheese? Fake tofu bacon chips? Just dump it in there. I got some of them bigger than a plate. They look like small dogs. It’s amazing. People love it. And you know what? You don’t have to eat meat to have food that good.” He pounds the arm rest, takes a fierce gulp of beer. Curly really cares about his mutant peppers.

“That’s interesting.” What else are you going to say? You’re stuck with the mutant vegetable restaurant tycoon of the universe for the next three hours.

“Yeah, and it’s real popular with the tourists who come from, you know, California.” He winks. “A lot of tourists come in terrified, traumatized, because they think Texas is all just steer and beer. But we grow our own stuff.”

At this point, you’re fighting a flashback, thinking of Jim Logue, your father’s partner. Creepy Uncle Logue, who always came by for dinner whenever you and your father got into Lubbock. He managed the refrigerator factory and did everything while your father was home in California. Uncle Logue used to poke you in the shoulder and say you were growing up to be a sexy little thing and to call him in 5 years.

That creepy-crawly feeling you’d get from Uncle Logue—that’s what Curly’s giving off. Only he’s not thinking about you. He’s thinking about a Honcho bell pepper as big as a small dog. It makes you wonder what Curly gets up to with his mutant bell peppers at night when nobody’s around. And suddenly, all the possible ideas you have about what Texas could be, vanish into what it clearly is. You look around the plane and realize that nothing changes—that every city in Texas has a different permutation of the same dysfunctional human blight. Uncle Logue was supposed to teach Stevie the business. But Stevie got killed. He’d only been in Texas for a few months.

“People need it big. They want it now, you know? And if it moves, we can kill it dead. And if it don’t move, we can cook it,” Curly says with his vegephile grin. That’s how it is. People need it big.

Why you choose to live in California: everybody who hasn’t been to California says Los Angeles, fires, crazies, gangs, riots, San Francisco, godless homosexuals, cults, earthquakes, falling into the ocean, weirdo freak Democrat liberals. But maybe that’s okay. And even if that’s all there is, you’ll take it any day. In fact, the perfect day in San Francisco goes like this. You’ll get up late and you’ll take the BART from Hayward into the City. You’ll have a crepe at Tart-to-Tart and walk down 7th Street pleased with the world. Then you’ll go by the Japanese garden in Golden Gate Park and look at the dogs playing on the grass and at the wandering peacocks and the Korean girls trying to make sense of tourist maps on rented bicycles.

The sky will be blue. And someone will be doing Tai Chi beside a pond. The disc golfers will be laughing. You’ll pause to watch a mime do the entire second act of Hamlet, playing all the characters himself. And then you’ll go sit by the stone lion in front of the de Young museum, where there’s an Andy Goldsworthy installation that’s just a crack that runs down the center of the entryway. You’ll wait and nobody will notice it, thinking it’s just a crack in the concrete. And you’ll enjoy watching everyone, until a crowd of extremely self-conscious tourists in electric blue jumpsuits arrives on Segways. And then you’ll go in and look at the art. And this will be your day.

Curly’s ordering another Amstel, flirting with the flight attendant. You’ve bored him. You put his card in your pocket and close your eyes. You’d give anything to have a job that’s stable, that would allow you to pay your bills and live back in the City. And then Dane would realize that you are around and that he really does love you. But life isn’t like that. It would be too perfect. That perfect couple on their perfect date back in San Francisco are as far from Texas as Texas is from anything good.

Knowing this, you also know the fault is yours. You’re the one that got on the plane, telling yourself you had to. Your last experience in Houston (fiancée George, dentist, mistake) was as horrific as your first experience in Waco (12 years old, on a trip with dad, thrown from a horse, six weeks in bed). Sitting in the factory office in Lubbock for hours with nothing to do but watch the workers load refrigerator shells into the backs of trucks. Stevie in his coffin, laid out in a black suit that he’d never worn while he was alive, the deep cuts in his cheeks spackled and rouged. Texas has enough bad memories and ghosts for you to fill the back end of a horror story—when all you want is to make up with Dane, at least to break even as friends, at least to walk with him down Embarcadero one more time and look at the bay. But here you are.

So you touch down in the mutant cyclops state that only gets one star. DFW’s full of idiots in cowboy hats, morons in mongoose, monitor lizards in Durango dusters. And you’re going to get on that connecting Fokker F-27 and it’s going up in the sky and coming down in Houston. Blind date in Texas? Oh yes, motherfucker, you’re all about it. You’re doing it for Victoria. You’re doing it to get paid. You’re doing it because she forces you to do things like this. And then she’ll write about it as if she did it herself and you’ll fade into freelance vapor. You’ll try to recover, curling up in your studio apartment in Hayward, feeling like a beaten animal, nursing your wounds. Blind date in Texas? Shit, you’re helping Victoria Volt get famous. You’re fueling her image, doing what she’s supposed to be doing instead of raising her son on 7 acres in upstate New York, eating vegan, and going to yoga twice a day. Research assistant? There’s no such thing in Texas. You’re going to wind up skinned in a barn, tied up on a farm, overwhelmed by locusts, lynched by rednecks.

You get off the plane and avoid the urban cowboys, the dudes with handlebar moustaches trying desperately to look like Sam Elliott. You sit in a small bank of chairs far away from everyone between the boutique that offers bells and little glass angel chimes and the food court with four varieties of Authentic Texas Bar-B-Que. It’s a trade-off. You have to smell the meat, sauce on a slab of death, but it’s far enough from the gates to discourage new cowboy friends.

The first thing you have to do before you read the files Victoria sent is check your email—the special account you have just for messages from She Who Must Be Obeyed. You open your laptop and go through the motions. There she is. She’s left you the usual video message. She has the clearest skin of any woman you’ve ever seen. Short brown hair in a bob and a radiant white smile—so constructed, so perfectly put together that it makes you think of an artificial sun. She wears blue contacts, does Yogalates multiple times a day. She has an obese 10-year-old boy named Frederick, but there isn’t an ounce of fat on her body. In fact, Victoria has biceps cut so severely you can see them ripple.

Her face is frozen on the screen in that perfect smile, ready to deliver the usual instructions, veiled threats, and warnings about spending any unnecessary money. You plug your headphones into the computer and notice Curly embracing a tall Asian man, dressed in a black suit, black Stetson, and a clear glass bolo tie with a spider encased in it. They’re standing right in front of you, but Curly doesn’t notice.

Curly says, “Well, shit, Robbie, what the hell have you been doin’ with your life?”

Robbie bows. “Do you want me to get your bags, Mr. Morgan?”

Then you hit play and your patron and mentor, Victoria Volt, begins her pronunciamento, which will regulate and define all things for the next minute and 38 seconds of your life: “Hi Allison,” she says, losing her smile a little as if your name were a term for something necessary yet disappointing. “I hope you’re well. By now, I’m sure you’re already either on the plane or touching down in my favorite state. I understand it’s not your favorite state, but let’s not forget this is a job I need you to do. You’re going on a blind date, Allison! This should make you happy. Does it make you happy? It makes me happy thinking that you’ll be getting out for a change with an eligible guy. This is as much for you as it is for me. You need to get out more, you know. By sending you on this trip, I’m doing my part to help you out. And if writing comes out of it, then all the better, right? Think of it as a paid vacation. I’m paying you to go out on a date. How much better could it be? And this guy, Harley Winslow, he’s perfect for a human interest piece. I discovered him through a friend of mine at the Houston Chronicle. Harley’s amazing. He used to be a travelling preacher, but now he raises alpacas on a farm and it’s really fantastic because he wrote a book. Would you believe it? It’s a book about dating.”

She holds the book too close to the camera then pulls it back and the image of a glowing white crucifix on a hill comes into view with a man and a woman holding hands and kneeling before it. “It’s called Sacred Love: the Words of Jesus as the Ultimate Guide to Life and Romance. How about that? I think he might be an idiot, which would be perfect.” She puts down the book and raises her eyebrows. Directive number one: make sure you note any details that would make him seem like a fool.

“Anyway, he’s not very attractive. Not too hunky. At least by my standards. But he’s certainly interesting. You need to find out all about him. I think he’s human interest gold. Magazine readers would find him very entertaining. Don’t you think so? I hope you do. You’d better.” Victoria smiles—not at you, but beyond the webcam lens at the Universe, with whom she shares various running jokes. You watch the video a second time with a certain Zen detachment.

Victoria’s real last name, her maiden name, is Vichinsky. You have no idea what her husband’s last name is. Victoria would send you into a swamp to investigate alligators. But she’d do it with a wink and her supernova smile. Every time she sends you on a job, which is about once every three weeks according to her writing schedule, she frames it as something that’s good for you, something that can make you better and more like her. If you thought in such terms, you might be flattered, since she’s the most attractive competent woman you know; though, you suspect she spends hours a day on her appearance. You also suspect she’s OCD, a hypochondriac, and very possibly an agoraphobe.

But that’s all beside the point. The point is: you have a job to do. As you watch people from the plane drift into Authentic Texas Bar-B-Que and drift out, looking slightly bilious and poisoned, you realize that part of Victoria’s success and beauty lies in the fact that she hardly ever leaves home or deviates from her schedule. She lives on several acres of old farm land in upstate New York in a barn that has its own air purification system and is riot-proof. It’s even got a moat. On those rare occasions that she does go out, she checks the driving routes in case everything hits the fan while she’s on the highway. Her husband carries a gun to protect her.

She has only granted an in-person audience to you once—when she hired you. And, even then, there was a certain skittishness about her, the sense that you might, in fact, be a vector for some kind of bacteria that would eventually kill her and her entire family. These are things the world doesn’t know about Victoria Volt, columnist, celebrity, who has appeared on Oprah, Doctor Phil, The O’Reilly Factor, and even Charlie Rose. Radiant avatar of failed marriage and doomed romance, hidden away in her secret temple in Saugerties, New York, who has written many books, who is everywhere and yet nowhere. The times she has to do a show or an interview are periods of great stress and there’s always a blackout interim before and after in which she speaks to no one—probably doing Yogalates.

You open the Word file that Victoria sent. It gives contact details, your motel, what she wants you to do. Victoria writes that Harley calls himself Lord Harold sometimes, which is his bowling club nickname. He was an itinerant preacher on the old chitlin circuit. He went to Hosanna Bible College of North Texas and drove around in a 1972 Winnebago with a box full of Gideon Bibles, sanctified nails, and gallon milk jugs of holy water. He was casting out devils, exorcising the peoples—until he had a faith crisis and became a Unitarian. Then the Longree Pentecostal Sanctuary in Bethel kicked him out. He started selling power tools door-to-door, but that didn’t work, either, because he was more interested in talking about the Lord. So now what does he do? Now he’s a cell phone salesman at The Galleria in Houston and he raises alpacas. He does Christian Star Wars reenactments in his spare time. This is the guy she wants you to go out with—the embodiment of everything Curly could have been had he made slightly different decisions and not had a fetish for oversized Honcho peppers.

There’s a small photograph embedded in the Word document. Harley’s details: 6’2” tall; sunburned pink scalp under sparse blond hair; blue eyes; small nose; thin lips, but a prominent chin with a cleft. In the picture, he’s wearing a western shirt with pearled snaps. And you think he isn’t attractive, but he doesn’t look that bad. More like an extra in a cowboy movie. Someone you take for granted as you’re watching a young Clint Eastwood put a steel plate under his poncho to stop bullets before a gunfight. Victoria has set you up on a date with this man in order to vicariously live it and write about it. Yes. Okay. You can do this. You’re a professional. But dating for money sounds like something else—something that almost came up before. What if Victoria decides to write about what it’s like to be a hooker again? Does she send you out to some guy’s apartment and tell you it’s going to be good for you? Every now and then, she tries to broach the subject.

You’ve got 20 minutes before boarding starts for the short flight to Houston. So you wander around the airport. There’s a kiosk with shelves of tiny ceramic dogs. Serapes are hanging everywhere for sale, more serapes than in all of Mexico. And DFW smells like dust. The hot dust of Texas. Even in the hermetically sealed biodome of an airport, the outside world will seep in over time. And this is true even here at Dallas-Fort Worth. The airport resembles a dystopian bubble city from bad 70s science fiction—with its own rail system and outlying terminals designed to contain a terrorist blast. You think DFW probably has machines in the basement that could independently support it as a city-state in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Logan’s Cattle Run. You can even see the dust on some of the people just in through security. You wonder if you’re going to smell like Texas when you get back and how many showers it will take to get it off you. This is something Victoria would know.

In the restroom, you look at yourself in the mirror, your brown hair has streaks of gray in it like little lightning bolts of death. Gray already at 31. You keep your hair tied back most of the time. It’s easier that way. You haven’t worn nail polish or lipstick in a dog’s age and why would you? All you do is work. And the type of work you do doesn’t require you to look like Victoria Volt. It requires a laptop, focus, and self-discipline most days. When you have to meet with someone, you have the basic ensemble ready—a black two-piece Donna Karin business suit, a few silk blouses.

But right now, you’re wearing the blue Cal sweatshirt that belonged to Dane. You kept it because giving it back would have been like giving him back to the world. And that isn’t on the docket. He’s still your boyfriend. Looking at yourself, at your gray in the mirror, you feel a wave of sadness rise up through the center of your being. But nothing’s changed. Everything’s on track. You’re going to do this job, make 2 gs. You’re going to go back to the bay area and call Dane and he’ll actually answer the phone and you’ll go out and have dinner at the aforesaid chic little café called Nunu’s, his favorite.

If you don’t call him your ex, he’s not really your ex—Dane now has Adriana and, yes, she’s from Brazil. But it’s because you’re never around. And really, let’s not kid ourselves, it’s because of Victoria. Adriana’s a model who doesn’t shower. And even though she stinks, she’s possibly the most well-put-together woman you’ve ever seen in real life other than Victoria. Her father owns a villa in Belo Horizonte, which you know because Dane has a framed picture of it on his wall. And when you come by his place to check on all your things still in his closets, Adriana’s always there and you leave faster than you arrive. Victoria wants you to write about that, too—at least to make an outline for her as usual and work “frenemy” into the title.

The crowd on the Fokker F-27 is sparse, which is strange because the trip from DFW to Houston is popular, but today there’s hardly anyone on the plane. You have an entire row to yourself. Below, the tawny lion hide of Texas goes past as the plane reaches 37,000 feet. The flight attendants are all female, blonde, and look vaguely porny. Centerfold material. They have a festive air. They’re telling jokes to each other, imitating people they know and laughing hysterically. The few passengers consist of a South Asian gentleman who goes to sleep immediately, three old ladies sharing a crochet bag, a business man on his day off in an Izod polo and a baseball cap, reading the Wall Street Journal, and you.

It will be a short flight. You consider watching Victoria’s message again. But you know Harley’s waiting for you. He told Victoria he’d pick you up at the terminal. You won’t have a chance to put yourself together. He’s going to be there from the minute you set foot in Houston—another thing you don’t like. But you’re not being paid to look good for Harley Winslow or even to like him. You are a prosthetic eye that will not be touched and that’s how it’s going to be. You are the agent, representative, and sometimes ghost writer for a famous author. So you put your laptop back in its leather shoulder bag, drink the 7-Up that Miss November just brought you and close your eyes, listening to the hiss and rumble of the plane. Someone had too much Authentic Texas Bar-B-Que and it’s evident. Your seat is up against the restroom bulkhead. You close your eyes and try to ignore the smells and sounds of air sickness coming through the wall.

This is your life. You had a Confucian exit strategy as recent as last year—the cheerful retreat, the thank-you-for-teaching-me-so-much-master, the take-care-can-I-use-you-as-a-reference sort of thing. But reality: you don’t know how to operate a hydro-encephelator or manage IT security for an auto parts chain or give MRIs. You could apply to wash dishes at Golden Wok across from the library in Hayward. You could maybe get a job selling shoes at the mall. Instead, Victoria pays you $2,000 to spend the weekend riding along to meth labs with the LAPD. She then sells the article to Vogue, “Dark Days: Victoria Volt goes Undercover in the Inland Empire.” Your title.

She acts like she’s your mentor, like she’s grooming you to be her. But you’re already Victoria in many ways, her muse, her lackey. She supports herself with blogs and pastel-colored books on divorce. She’s the divorce queen. The diva of despair. Five Things I Learned from Divorce. Vengeance and the Abandoned Spouse. Things You Should Never Do After a Divorce. Men: Do we Need Them? Seven Things About Me You Didn’t Learn Until You Divorced Me. You Haven’t Divorced Me…Yet! Maybe You Haven’t Divorced Me But It’s Like We’re Already Married So Maybe You Could. And What I Hate About You: A Book of Holiday Lists.

Victoria has a problem. But it isn’t divorce. She’s married to a guy she calls “The Plumber” because he’s a plumber. But there’s supposed to be a double meaning in that. He doesn’t get a name. He’s just The Plumber. She has attempted to castrate him 17 times with a wood chisel. It’s an ongoing project. And she writes about it, about how he’s distantly amused by it: The Plumber comes into the room and says, “Tried to use the chisel on me last night, eh?”

She has written that the Plumber sleeps in a different bedroom. She needs to pick the lock every time she wants in. But he’s always one step ahead of her. He leaves crumpled up newspapers around his bed. He has pepper spray stashed everywhere. He doesn’t talk much, this plumber. But they communicate in absolutes, in physical essentials, like: “Did you try to castrate me with a wood chisel again?” or “Did you lock me out last night?” According to Victoria, she hasn’t had sex in seven months, 22 days, and 7 hours. She has some scheduled for around Christmas Eve—when she’ll put down the chisel and he’ll unlock the door and first they’ll go have prime rib in some restaurant in Saugerties and she’ll blog about it later.

But you’ll be shivering in someone’s basement with a can of pork and beans, even though you’re a vegetarian and you hate pork and beans. You’ll be eating it anyway for some kind of experiment of Victoria’s—because she’ll want to know what it’s like to spend Christmas alone in a cold basement and eat pork and beans out of a can. And that would be the lesser of evils. You’ve dug out latrines and spent the night in subways and halfway houses and bungee corded into rivers and all sorts of other things that Victoria wanted to pretend she’d done. Only Victoria and The Plumber know about you. Whenever you narrowly escape something awful, she says, “I think your reportage is really coming along.”

And how much is she paying you and why do you do it? It’s because you majored in English. That’s why. Because there are no jobs. Because you’re not good at poker and you couldn’t afford the gas to Vegas anyway. You answered the ad in your last year of grad school: Research Assistant for Nationally Recognized Columnist. Must be obedient, smart, and hard working. Victoria said you got two out of three, but it was enough. She liked the fact that you didn’t know how to dress yourself when you flew out for the interview and she offered to teach you how to write because people don’t learn anything in graduate school. “I’m absolutely willing to learn” you said, which was code for: soon I will have a MA in Victorian lit., which is to say, soon I will have nothing. I have massive student loans. And I need a job like I need the air. “Breathe,” Victoria said.

Harley drove 47 miles from Bethel, Texas, to pick you up. Harley opens the trunk of his white Crown Vic in the airport parking lot and points everything out because he thinks you’ll want to write about it. In his trunk: a rubber tourniquet, a box of spoiled Taco Bell chalupas, duct tape, a bag of shriveled biscuits, a Taser gun, a Dragunov SVD sniper rifle, and an enormous fucking jar of Metamucil.

You wonder what Victoria told him about you. He’s a lost tumbleweed that blew up against your door. The last thing anyone wants to do is take something like that in, break it open, and see what kind of strange sick thing is curled up inside. The whole research project has felony murder potential. It’s the tumbleweed of death. It’s a tractor wheel rolling downhill and killing an old lady at a bus stop. A random bolt of lightning. The zombie apocalypse. It’s the end times. You look at the rifle—DRAGUNOV SVD on the stock in slanted black letters—and decide that going on a date with Harley just so Victoria can write about it isn’t even a real job. It’s a tragedy. You tell yourself this won’t become a felony murder. And the sky won’t be filled with bullets. You tell yourself it’s just another research project. But you’re not stupid. You can’t deny your sense that the excrement is heading for the air conditioning. And Texas is where it’s at.

“I collect all kinds of stuff. I just keep it all in my trunk. You ever heard of Watts Towers?”

“I’m from California, Harley.”

“Watts Towers is a beautiful thing, man. I got five books on it.”

“I’m not a man, Harley.”

“Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior, Allison?”

“No.”

“I realize that this is some sort of test tube experiment for that writer. But could we at least try to make the best of it and be friends?”

“You’ve got a rifle and a tourniquet in your trunk.”

“Sniper rifle, honey. And that’s actually a hospital grade medical tourniquet.”

“Are you a junkie or a juicer of some kind?”

“I have been known to make a mean banana-guava smoothie.”

“What’s a former preacher doing with a Taser?”

“Technically, it’s a stun gun. Don’t tase my balls, bro! You see that video? That was funny. Internet. It’s on the internet.”

“I’m going, Harley. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“Don’t you want a ride?”

“I’ll get a cab.”

It was supposed to be a date that lasted three days. The first day lasted three minutes. After a year of working for Victoria, of coming up with ideas and outlines for chapters of books and magazine columns, there’s one thing you know for sure: as long as you get her a nice article to write—not too serious, not, as she says, “offensively smart”—she’ll love you long time. You’ll get paid. Victoria will get the credit. Life will continue.

It’s 7:00 PM in room 14b at the Roundup Motel when you decide to call Dane again. His cell phone rings and rings. Sometimes it’s good just to hear his voice on the outgoing message. You used to leave messages for him, trying to sound casual:

It’s me. Just checking in. Just want to see how you’re doing.

Hey, I saw this funny thing on Facebook and I thought—hey, are you online?

Hey, I thought maybe you and—your friend—want to catch a movie. Or maybe just you.

Hi, it’s me—wondering what you’re up to. It’s so weird. I’m going to be in the neighborhood again.

Hey you! Thinking maybe we could meet up if you want to get a cup of coffee, may at that café down by the tower. What was it called?

Everything in room 14b is vinyl. It has a Bates Motel lamp hanging loose by a cord from the ceiling—something to send shadows all around the room while an occupant gets knifed. The motel is outside the city on Highway 35. Victoria’s all about the work and never about luxury. You can’t count the number of roadside motels you’ve stayed in—Motel 6s, Super 8s, Red Roof Inns, Budget Suites. Truckers welcome. Once, she sent you to Osaka for two days and you stayed in a coffin hotel—which, although creepy and uncomfortable, was still infinitely cleaner and better put together than any American low-budget motel you’ve used.

The smell of the dust is here, too. But this time, it’s not Texas dust per se, just motel dust. Still, you unroll your sleeping bag on the bed because there’s no way in hell you’re getting in those sheets. At this point, you feel you know about motels. The only vegetarian fare on the menu is a small apple and a bottle of water. You have suspicions about the water. Somehow, Texas would find a way to put meat in it.

So you sit there in the mustard colored bank chair with cigarette burns in the wooden armrests, looking into the mouthpiece of the ancient room phone. It’s holes are crusted with the creeping crud of the ages. You listen to Dane’s outgoing message: Hi. You’ve reached Dane Robbins. Leave a message, okay? He doesn’t mean it. You call back and listen to it three times. His voice is beautiful. Like him. At the beep, you always hesitate. What do you say? Dane, I’m in Houston but I’ll be back in a few days. (Would you be interested in leaving that stinking bitch from Brazil? Moving in with me? Getting married? Having 2.3 children? Changing our names and moving up to Pacific Heights where we’ll have perfect jobs, perfect happiness, and relief from the horrors of life?). But you just listen and hang up.

For some reason, your cell phone can’t connect whenever you call Dane, but you won’t believe he blocked you. When you call him, you always have to do it from hotel phones. You wonder if Victoria has paid attention to those charges because she always requests the motel receipts. She knows you have no living family. What does she think about the fact that you call the same San Francisco number every time? She has to wonder. But she’s never brought it up. Hopefully, she never will.

The psycho killer lamp, the single light source in room 14b, is dim. Not enough light to read. The TV is a Zenith. Its screen is a dark 1970s olive green. You turn it on and get the agricultural channel, three channels of Spanish news, and Doctor Phil. Tonight, he’s featuring real life vampires and the people who love them. You turn it off. Outside the hotel, there’s a truck stop gas station and a Burger King. You’re scheduled to be picked up by Harley at 4:00 PM tomorrow, when he will take you on a tour of his alpaca farm and then buy you dinner. That’s the plan.

You take a shower and get back in your sleeping bag, but you can’t stand the buzzing of the gas station floodlights, enormous orange sodium vapor floods that cast a flat matrix of light and shadow around the motel. The 16-wheelers are giant rumbling monsters blinking their headlights and hissing in the dark. It will be a long night. So you hop over to the TV in the sleeping bag and turn on the Doctor. It’s the middle of the show. A very large pale man with purple streaks in his long black hair and a silver stud below his lower lip holds hands with a heavyset woman in an orange sundress. Doctor Phil says, “Really? And you go to these clubs and you never have any trouble with him getting together—”

They both start talking at once. Then the woman holds up a hand and says, “It’s a lifestyle thing. This isn’t like cheating.”

The crowd boos.

“I’m not being unfaithful,” the man says. “It’s just part of our vampire culture. We’re predatory. We need to hunt.”

“Yes.” The woman nods. “It’s a need.”

“And you’re okay with this? You take precautions? Isn’t this sexually dangerous?”

This time, the man holds up a hand bedecked with steel rings. “Being a sexual outlaw is part of it. You take a chance in your life walking across the street. But, you know, it’s like playing roulette. We don’t expect the mundanes to understand.”

Everyone laughs.

Doctor Phil raises an eyebrow the way Victoria might if she were proposing that you walk naked through Times Square just so she could learn what it feels like. “Sexual roulette? You’re sexually gambling?”

The woman grips the armrest of the chair with her free hand and leans forward, displeased. Then she says, “It’s not random like that. He has this ability.”

“Yes,” the man says. “I can sense my prey. I can sense when someone wants it. Can’t you, Doctor Phil?”

Silence and then a few tentative boos from the audience. The camera pans over the faces—people straight out of middle America. Weight problems. Bifocals. Chunky sweaters and bad haircuts. The disapproving frowns of suburbia. Doctor Phil makes an interested face with an under layer of extreme boredom. He says that after commercial they’ll be back to talk to someone who claims she must drink blood in order to survive.

You fall asleep with that thought: some people have to drink blood to survive. And you dream that you’re in China in the Forbidden City. And Sun Yat Sen, dressed in saffron robes, is giving you a tour through its empty rooms. And then he’s sitting at the foot of your bed, smiling and nodding and telling you the location of the emperor’s silverware that he hid many years ago—a treasure room of such vast proportions that it’s amazing it has never been found by the government. A treasure room cunningly hidden far below the Forbidden City. And even in your dream, you’re putting together an outline on this for Victoria.

You eat a greasy truck stop breakfast and drink a small chemical orange juice. Then you call a cab and take it into downtown Houston and walk around, feeling lost, feeling like a ghost, a Sun Yat Sen poltergeist. You snap some photos with your cell phone for Victoria so she can write more convincingly about what the place looks like. She wants photos, video, sounds of people talking, images of food, descriptions of the weather, major landmarks. It works quite well. The final copy of her articles read as if she were really there. She always wants you to start with downtown—places, she says, that the rednecks might avoid, even in Texas, because she hates rednecks. This takes you several hours, as always, before you go to Starbucks to email it all.

While there, you look at Victoria’s latest blog post. It reads like straight fiction. “The Chisel Report: How to Know What You Need in a Man.” It describes her latest attempt to overpower The Plumber while he slept. This time, she picked the lock early and waited all day in the closet, razor-sharp chisel, mallet, latex gloves, coffee, bag of doughnuts, penlight, the question: Does he really need his balls to be my husband? circling through her thoughts. But Victoria fell asleep.

Four or five paragraphs into the post, she speculates: was it was the extra cruller? Too much milk in the coffee? The lack of movement and light? The warm closeness of The Plumber’s overcoats and suits around her like a comforting wooly uterus? Victoria admits that she doesn’t know exactly why she drifted off. When she awoke it was the middle of the night. She crept out into the dark bedroom, feeling a sense of triumph, tasting victory at last.

However, when she drew back the comforter, she saw that he had anticipated all of it. He’d shaped an outline of himself with pillows under the blankets and left her a note that said he’d been living at the Holiday Inn Express in Tannersville for the past week. Toward the end of the post, Victoria admits that she hadn’t noticed his absence.

In the last paragraph, she writes, This is what I need in a partner instead of husband-ballast, dead weight, a man who brings nothing to the table. I need a man sharp enough to stay one step ahead. This is what we all need in a partner if it’s going to last and I know I’m a fortunate girl. This is love in case you were wondering. Are you lucky in love?

You think this might be one of the worst pieces of writing you’ve ever seen from Victoria. It’s surprising. But she’s told so many lies about her life and herself at this point—her participation in Viet Nam protests as a toddler; beating and making a citizens arrest of a potential rapist in Central Park using only a rolled-up magazine and Krav Maga techniques; turning down an invitation to MENSA. The Victoria Volt image, brittle and constructed, a gilded eggshell.

During a Skype call in which you were waiting for Victoria to come back from the restroom, The Plumber once paused on his way past the computer to ask you how you were. He’s a short paunchy man who wears baseball caps and has a pencil-thin moustache. And, as he stooped over the webcam, he seemed like someone from a different era, maybe the 1930s—the sort of man who’d peer carefully through a peephole before opening the door to a speakeasy. He wiggled his fingertips at you and said, “I admire your skills and so does Victoria. We’ve got a lot to thank you for.” At the time, you didn’t know what to say. Now, if you could relive that moment, you might say, “No, actually you don’t.”

Doctor Phil is always on. You return to Room 14b and watch a rerun of an earlier broadcast. No vampires this time. Now it’s people who secretly try to make their spouses obese. The panel members on stage are very large and very unhappy. They speak over each other, a certain dark luster in their eyes. You picture them skinny under their voluminous T-shirts and muumuus with pillows strapped to themselves so they could be on TV. You try to imagine the hidden world of such people, delighted, desperate, depressed, full of the need to be on television, to be seen.

The sun goes down and Harley never shows. Once again, you watch the telephone, imagining the best worst Dr. Phil episode: Ex-Girlfriends in Denial Who Call from Texas. Some of them are sad and desperate. Some of them will drink your blood. It’s easy to be in denial when you don’t know what went wrong. You have four pictures of Dane in your wallet and you lay them out on the bed like Tarot cards: Dane playing water polo with his headgear pushed slightly back, his arm in mid-throw. Dane in his living room trying to play a didgeridoo. Dane riding his father’s horse, Sugar, in Connecticut. Dane laughing at the Gypsy palm reader that day in Berkeley.

You shut off the TV and the room is silent. You think of the last time you saw him. You’d gone out for a drink to celebrate his acceptance by Hastings. You said congratulations and he just shrugged. “I’m so dedicated to life,” he said, “that I can’t tolerate weakness in others for very long. It gets disgusting waiting for the world to catch up.” But Dane had cried like a baby when he didn’t get into Boalt Hall and stayed drunk for a week. He’d hired a ringer to impersonate him and take the LSAT again. You didn’t bring these things up. Why would you?

It’s then that you see the procession beyond the curtains of Room 14b and you forget about Dane completely. Maybe you notice it out of sheer luck or fate. Or maybe it’s just something randomly ejected from the great machinery of happenstance that turns beneath the sodium floods outside all one-horse motels. It doesn’t surprise you at first because you’ve heard about the kinds of things people have seen in Texas: ghost caravans emerging out of the fog, a semi-transparent circus, a silent menagerie floating north toward Nacogdoches, invisible by dawn.

A heavy mist, maybe a fog, has risen six feet above the ground. A ghost mist from which anything might emerge. But you’re not prepared for a night procession, cars rolling past, a hearse covered in flowers, various old convertibles driven by skeletons, and at least 50 mourners afoot, each carrying 7-day vigil lights, little sugar skulls. Some are dressed as the Grim Reaper. Some carry statues of saints. Some have burlap bags over their heads, inching forward in prayer. All in perfect silence.

You stand in the doorway to your room and close your mouth. If there is anyone else staying at the motel, their cars are gone from the parking lot, their windows dark, curtains drawn. Maybe they’re terrified of this. You look at your long shadow stretched out before you in the light from the room. Then you look at the procession still going by and take picture after picture with your phone. No one looks at you.

What are you now? Are you the ghost? The ghostwriter? Are you a journalist? Are you still that prosthetic eye and is this something that the eye should see? Is this something you could tell Dane about? Maybe it’s not something you could describe to anyone. It’s not something Victoria would ever write about. It’s not something Doctor Phil would want on his show, five kinds of Grim Reaper sitting on the stage and an audience in skeleton drag.

Taking a step backward, you almost fall. You’re dizzy with surprise and unsure whether to shut the door. You could zip yourself all the way into your sleeping bag, like a body bag, and pretend that you, too, are part of it somehow in the dust and vinyl of Room 14b. Or you could walk out and take more pictures and follow this strange parade.

You run back into the room, pull on your jeans, Nikes, a T-shirt and the Cal sweatshirt. Then you lock the door behind you and fall in with the mourners, your heart triphammering in your chest. No one speaks to you or looks your way, except for an old woman who hands you one of her candles—a white taper with a paper guard to keep hot wax off your hand.

Silent, you walk for over an hour according to the clock on your phone. And when you reach the graveyard hidden from the highway by buttes on either side, it’s a quarter past midnight. When the hearse rolls down a dirt path and stops at an open grave, you realize it’s November 1st, the Day of the Dead. This is someone’s funeral mass. You make your way to the front of the crowd and kneel with the family by the mound of fresh earth as the coffin is lowered.

The priest is all in white with a green stole. And the graveyard is already full of burning candles like a fairy metropolis, pinwheels, tiny chimes tinkling in the wind. The priest says, “Oremos” and everybody bows their heads. You do, too, even though you were raised atheist and have never been to a religious service in your life.

Escuchanos, Señor,” the priest says.

“Amen,” responds the congregation.

A woman beside you collapses forward, wailing. No one touches her. She drops her candle on the mound of fresh dirt, digs in it with her hands. She pulls on her hair and moans and says things not in English or Spanish but in the special language of grief that everyone eventually learns. And part of you feels you should take a picture of this, if not for Victoria, then for yourself. But it wouldn’t come out or make sense if it did.

The image of your brother beaten to death by someone you’ll never know. He’d had an open casket and you were not grateful for that. No embalmer’s art could completely obscure the lacerations or reconstruct the extent to which Stevie’s cheekbones had been crushed, shattered, they thought, by a metal bar. Hit by a bar repeatedly, they said, in the restaurant parking lot.

Then you’re crying, too. You’re looking down at Stevie laid out in the bottom of the grave in his cheap black suit. His eyes are open, staring at you. Dizzy, you can feel the tendrils of the mist on your neck as you listen to “Bendito seas por siempre.” And the great world seems hollow, the great gilded eggshell world—a fragile empty thing made to seem fine and rare but secretly thin, as brittle as bone, and capable of shattering in an instant.

Hit by a bar.

You think of all those years back and forth to Lubbock with your father, who has now also passed on. And a great terrifying knowledge rises up inside you where before there has been merely an empty space that sometimes filled with longing. This knowledge, like the rising mist, like the body now in its coffin, like Stevie’s broken face staring up: the knowledge that you will return to Hayward, that the sun will come up, and that these moments will be hidden by the lying, prevaricating customs of the daylit world. You will submit your outline and materials to Victoria, carrying on the gilded fairy tale that everything is fine, that Victoria Volt is a brilliant journalist. You will continue to think of your brother as the victim of an impersonal tragedy—as if he’d been caught in an earthquake or drowned at sea instead of being beaten to death in Texas by someone he knew holding a metal bar. Beaten repeatedly. The heart of things, the truth, will sink back into the rotten shell of the earth where no one wants to look. But you will have seen the Forbidden City, at least in your dreams.

This is how you spend your night, crying silently with a Mexican woman dressed in black with dirt in her hair, watching, listening, kneeling. They take communion by the open grave. And by the end of the service, people start drifting back toward the road. You follow, feeling that you’ve left your body, that you’ve seen something hidden, horrible, beautiful—something that you shouldn’t have seen, something that cannot exist after sunrise, that could not be true in the same universe as Victoria Volt, that has never existed anywhere near Coit Tower or Dane Robbins or a chic little café named Nunu’s.

When you reach Room 14b, the sun is rising from the middle of the road beyond the Roundup Motel. The mist is gone. Your TV shows the morning news. They’re talking about a Day of the Dead gun battle between rival gangs in downtown Houston.

Later, as you doze, Sun Yat Sen comes to you again in a dream, dressed as a Buddhist monk. He takes you by the hand and leads you through hallways of filigreed gold, down red carpets with embroidered dragons, through hidden doors beneath Fou dogs. You travel far beneath the Forbidden City into the caves, through waterfalls in caverns as big as football stadiums. You follow him down a twisting stair into a darkness, where his torch shines like a lingering candle flame in a hidden graveyard. And when you reach the bottom, he’s no longer there. But you do see the Emperor’s silverware—enormous mounds of it, forks, spoons, knives, chopsticks shaped like dragon claws, like tiny Dragunovs, like the mandibles of great golden scarabs. And there are horses made of rubies. And there are mountains of inlaid plates and loving cups and jade bowls. And even a mountain of brass bullet casings, smoking in the torchlight. You wake up covered in sweat, your sleeping bag stuck to your bare skin. And you breathe the dust of the motel and you still want to cry but you tell yourself there’s nothing to cry about.

A few hours later, you wake up and listen to Dane’s outgoing message again. The connection picks up but there’s nothing on the other side other than the sound of whistling air, a series of clicks, a weird insectoid trill. What does this mean? You know it should upset you. You should take it as a sign. But something is different. You can’t say, Hi! I’m just up the street! because you aren’t. You can’t say, I just attended a midnight mass and saw the ghost of my dead brother. It seems that those clicks, that empty whistling, that computerized insect song is fitting—wind through an empty shell. You hang up, dial again, and then hang up before it connects.

There was that day after you both had class. You walked down Telegraph with Dane and saw the Psychic Hoodoo Palm Reader. You both went in just for fun, Dane repeating that he didn’t believe that horseshit and you daring him. “What’s the problem, then?” you said, winking, happy, laughing.

An older woman dressed in stereotypical Gypsy silks, as if she were in a perfectly arranged Gypsy Halloween costume, with a head scarf and big silver hoop earrings and electric blue eye shadow and blood red nails. All part of the fun. You sat in what used to be the living room of a house but was now done up in purple velvet. Her name was Madam Philomena. The requisite crystal ball was in the middle of the table. She held Dane’s right hand in both of hers as if it were made of fine china.

You remember that moment when he couldn’t control the muscles around his mouth and she said, “A dark-haired man with blue eyes. Your uncle has an evil cloud over his head. He’s addicted. He’s speaking Spanish to a policeman. He has a message for you.”

And Dane looked sick and terrified. “Where is that in my palm?”

“It’s not in you palm,” she said. “It’s in your face.”

“My uncle has blonde hair.” He stood up and threw down a twenty. But what he didn’t say was that the rest was exactly right. His uncle died a few months before, trying to bring cocaine over the border.

As he walked out, you took his picture, laughing again, ha ha, what a joke.

He grinned. “The stupidest twenty dollars I ever spent.”

Neither of you brought it up again. You held onto the picture of Dane you took that day because he didn’t want it. His family told everyone that his uncle got framed by corrupt Mexican police, that he was a victim. That it just happened like a rainstorm or a flood, another innocent American victimized south of the border, shot for being in the wrong place. In time, even his family believed it.

You dial his number again by heart, one last time, and this time it doesn’t even ring. There’s only that whistling sound, that black space, as if the wind is twisting through a hole in a window that no one cares to replace.

Your hands won’t stop shaking. So you buy a pack of Marlboro Lights at the truck stop, even though you haven’t smoked in months. You’re halfway through it when Harley knocks on the door.

He looks you up and down. “Rough night?”

“You could say that.”

“Yeah,” he nods. “For me, too. But I guess we gotta do this. I promised.”

“Let me get in the shower before we go. Do you mind waiting?”

“Not at all.” Harley bows slightly. “I’ll be in the car.”

When you come out, you’re almost awake. But you bring the cigarettes in your purse. As soon as Harley pulls away from the motel, you ask him if he minds.

“Just roll down the window,” he says. “I personally have never smoked, but it doesn’t bother me.” You go through two cigarettes before he gives you a sideways look. “I guess you’re supposed to be interviewing me or something. But maybe you want me to ask a few questions like, what happened to you last night?”

“I went to midnight mass.”

“You mean the graveyard mass they have sometimes back down the road? They do it for Day of the Dead if somebody’s died around that time. I hear there was some pretty bad stuff back in the city.”

“What do you really do, Harley? You don’t sell phones in the mall.”

The highway opens up and every now and then when a car or truck passes, heading in the opposite direction, people raise their hands in salute. Harley does the same.

“What do I do? Well, I suppose you’re asking because I stood you up yesterday. I suppose I owe you an explanation.”

“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

“I’m a known exorcist, Allison. You know what that is?”

“I read something—you travelling around with holy water. Something like that.”

“Something like that.”

He turns right onto a dirt access road and everything gets bumpy. You still feel like you’re not completely in your body, not completely present, like part of you is back at that service the night before, kneeling on a grave with candles all around. If asked, you might have considered trading the experience for more of Curly and his Honcho peppers. That you can understand, expect, laugh at. But this? You can’t shake the image of your brother, of those candles amid the headstones, of the priest like a ghost floating above the grave, and the mourners drifting by the motel—a secret parade that only appears on the night of the Day of the Dead.

“Here we are,” Harley says. “My place.”

It’s a nice one-story ranch house. A big affair with two backyard pools and a guest house done up in Western-brick-fireplace grandeur. But he doesn’t take you inside. And you don’t want to go in anyway.

“I was going to show you the ’pacas, but quite frankly, I hope you don’t mind if I just go to the range.”

“The range?”

“The firing range. I hope that doesn’t bother you.”

You light your 15th cigarette off the butt of the 14th with slightly trembling hands and shake your head. “Whatever. It’s all for Victoria.”

Harley coughs and squints at you. “Right.”

His trunk, in addition to the Dragunov SVD sniper rifle and the various other items he showed you before, now contains a large box of assorted melons. He places them at periodic intervals of 900 feet, head high along a wall of square hay bales. Beneath every melon, he tacks a fresh black-and-white bull’s-eye target with numbers on the rings. Then he comes back.

“You ever shoot a rifle?”

“No. You?”

He laughs. “You got quite a mouth on you. I’ll give you that. But that’s okay. I guess I deserve it 90% of the time.”

Harley unrolls a felt blanket on a slight rise of earth. He puts a clip into the rifle. He chambers a round and adjusts the scope. “Stay behind me.”

DRAGUNOV SVD is written on the stock, but you might have guessed a name like that. It looks like a long black mandible, a sleek dark stinger with nothing on it that would glint in the sun. When he takes a shot, a cantaloupe vanishes in a mist.

“Marine sniper school,” he says. “That was my real job.” The brass casing ejected from the gun smokes on the ground beside him. “You can take the man out of the Corps, but, well, you know how the saying goes.”

A loud pop like five balloons punctured at once. And what used to be a honeydew melon is no more.

“Nothing I have says you were a military sniper.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not something I necessarily put on my resume anymore. I like to think of myself as a godly man.”

Pop. Another melon down.

“How do you justify it?”

Pop.

“Justify it? I know it’s a waste of good melons, but you gotta pick your battles.”

Pop.

“No, being a sniper and being, you know, a preacher.”

“I did two turns in Iraq. I gotta believe in god, honey. If not, what was all that killing for?”

“I never accused you of wasting melons.” You’re thinking of that midnight mass, the woman on hands and knees clawing the dirt from the open grave, the carpet of candle lights between the headstones in the darkness, the priest with his hands outstretched. You’re thinking about Harley as a young man somewhere in Iraq, dug in with a rifle just like this one, sighting into a building, saying the Lord’s Prayer. You’re thinking of your vision of your brother in a black suit, staring up at you from the bottom of the grave.

Pop.

“I guess this isn’t much fun for you and for that I apologize. But exorcisms will change a man. They leave a spiritual taint. And you don’t get that off you for a couple days. I’m afraid it sours my disposition.”

Pop.

“When the devil gets up in someone, you gotta pull him out. It can go on for hours. It can go for a whole week. And you better pray hard.”

“You want to tell me about how you do it?”

“Not particularly, Allison. I understand you came here to parody me. Well, I can be parodied and that’s fine. Most of my life is a bad joke. But I’d prefer that my spiritual beliefs not be made fun of by some New York writer.”

“I can understand that.”

“Thought you might.”

He kills two rows of melons in silence with only the pops and the mist of melon juice as punctuation. Then he does a round of wine bottles. And then he starts on the paper targets. 90 minutes later, you’re back in the truck. He hands you the targets and you hold them up so you can look through the bullet holes.

“You can have ’em,” he says as he pulls up outside Room 14b. “I suppose that will give your boss something to write about.”

“I think it will, Harley.” You extend your hand. He takes it and kisses the back.

“I’m honored to have made your acquaintance, Allison. And I hope that someday our paths may cross again, if only for the pleasure of seeing you once more.”

You’ve smoked all your cigarettes. When the white Crown Victoria pulls away, you stand in the parking lot of the hotel and think of Stevie buried up in Lubbock and that you might go find him sometime.

Your flight leaves at noon. Before the cab arrives, there’s time to walk out to the hidden graveyard. You leave Dane’s four pictures beside a burned-down vigil candle. You look around the graveyard at all the drippings, wax spilled onto headstones, wrought iron fences tilting into the dirt over forgotten graves, tall glass holders lying on their sides, flowers and an ornate black and white cross made of sugar laid on the freshly filled plot. It’s here that you will put your love for Dane to rest and let the sun bleach the pictures. You will never come here again. It will be as if you had never visited this secret place. No one for a thousand years will discover your path to the emperor’s silver.

Waiting in the room for the cab to come, you see the same things on television, the agricultural channel, the news, the temperature at the Alamo, Dr. Phil coming on in 14 minutes. Then you go back to the parking lot with your suitcase and breathe the hot dust of a Texas afternoon, composing your letter of resignation to Victoria. It will say, Dear Victoria, I appreciate everything. I’ll remember everything. But the time has come to lay our relationship to rest. Harley Winslow might be insane. But even if he is, he’s still too good for you. Come meet him yourself. She’ll be furious. She won’t say that your reportage is coming along. She’ll say she’s going to bury you, that you’ll never work again, that she’ll hound you to the ends of the earth. But none of that will be real.

* Note: this story first appeared in Forge 8.4, April 2015.

There is an emotional truth or reality at the center of a story I may be writing.  I have a fleeting sense of it and then I start off by trying to explore it, trying to get to the center.  Then I always stop.  Sometimes it’s because I’ve forgotten that “fleeting sense” and consequently do not know how to proceed (a kind of amnesia in which I know that I had the emotion, but I can’t feel it or understand how to be guided by it anymore).  Sometimes, it’s because I can’t face what I’ve discovered–conditions in my life have made such an emotional realization too painful or too difficult in some way.  But if I can realize the truth of that emotional center deeply in myself, if I can come to terms with it in the deepest possible way, then I can move the story toward completion.  The end of the story is always a revelation because it remains hidden for most of the process.

In this sense, many of my “story fragments” are still waiting for me to come around to that place where I can recognize what they are and what they mean.  A fragment waiting to be finished is a piece of me waiting to be recognized and realized.

This goes further.  As with stories, so with certain themes in life, certain personal relationships, certain avenues of self-work.  Everything is ultimately and inherently a story, which is to say, an unfolding emotional self-realization.  This is mysterious.  This is why it takes endurance to write outside of outlines and formulas.  And this is the difference between making art and telling someone else’s story–which is something you haven’t lived and are not.  This is also why no one can tell you what your creative project should be.  No one can know what you need to realize.  No one can see that far into you.  Only you can seek this mystery.  And it begins in that painful moment when you are entirely alone before the blank page, which is to say, before the mirror, asking, “Who am I becoming?”

Miss Tomoike can’t pronounce the German for money. The problem is, neither can I.

I am in love with Miss Tomoike.

I say, Ich habe kein Geld. I have no money. And the class responds, Wir haben kein Geld. We have no money. In my world, the world of German 2A, no one ever has any money. But I am still in love with Miss Tomoike.

Problems.

She is sixteen years old. I am thirty-one. It is a clichéd, old story—probably as clichéd and old as having no money. Miss Tomoike’s d’s sound like t’s. If I’m not careful, mine do too: “Wir haben kein Gelt.”

Nein.

Nein, nein, nein.

I dance around the room for no reason at all and the class snickers. Geld: gay-aey-elle-day. The class repeats. They are patient, indulgent. They see my lighthearted antics and raise me my lack of correct pronunciation despite the fact that every day, at 9:10 AM in room 22, I am barely in the game.

My feelings for Miss Tomoike endure. They torment me from her wonderfully messy homework, the lopsided A’s, the undotted i‘s. I’ve bought a pack of the pens she uses: Pilot Precise V5 Rolling Ball, blue (extra fine). Sometimes I copy her signature over and over. I am a sad, sad man.

Jeremy Hoff raises his hand. Both of his parents are from Augsburg, directly from Augsburg. He could teach my class, and he makes sure I know this every day. Jeremy Hoff is the worst thing in my life.

He reminds me: “We did this yesterday.”

“Yes,” I say, “yes,” and retreat to the table at the front of the room where the teacher’s answer book is open to the lesson I almost understand.

Jeremy laces his fingers behind his head and leans back in his desk. He’s wearing western boots. He crosses his legs straight out at the ankles and the boots make a thok-thok on the hardwood. “What did you do before you were a teacher?” he asks.

I tell them to open their books.

He says something in a complex Bavarian slang I don’t understand, and the class snickers again. I ignore him. Miss Tomoike has beautiful eyes. Her short black hair is meticulously clean. She smiles up at me and I move on to verbs. Verbs are good. One can depend on verbs. I say, “sprechen,” and try not to stare as she conjugates.

I took it as the innate goodness and simplicity of small town folk that Claire Dunlop, the principal of Alexander Weiskopf H. S., offered to rent me a room until I could find a place of my own. Now we have a different principal and Claire Dunlop is gone. Two years have passed, but I am a hundred years older and I think back to my arrival as if it happened in a different era. I was in the last group of teachers to live in her house on Main Street, equidistant from the gas station and the school.

Hired by Claire right out of college, I moved from California so I could teach English and wouldn’t have to be a jeweler like every other member of my family. I would have gone just about anywhere. And Hauberk, Missouri, seemed okay even though tornados ripped across the state every year and the Hauberkians didn’t appear to care as long as their own, personal houses still had roofs when they got home from work. Sometimes entire barns were razed, animals carried for miles, tumbleweeds, bushes, and dirt pulverized into clumps by the road or rising out of the blasted cornfields in lopsided columns—messages in the great symbolic language of creation: DON’T STAY HERE. I didn’t listen.

Claire sent the algebra teacher, Henry Barber, to pick me up at the Greyhound one county over. He was a thin-lipped man, completely bald, with high cheekbones and a heaviness around him as if he traveled in his own pocket of dense air. He drove an old mint Packard in mint condition, which made me want to like him. But neither of us spoke much on the drive back to Hauberk.

Henry. What is there to say about him? He had the stick-to-itiveness of Midwestern farm culture all over him, the implicit understanding that anything worth being done was worth the time necessary to do it. Consequently, he didn’t drive over forty m.p.h. and I spent most of the trip doing what I’d been doing on the bus. I watched the geometry of the fields, haystacks, distant crows fluttering up in bursts, how the sky bent into the earth at the edge of sight and seemed to get darker there, as if an end really did exist beyond which all Missouri would disappear. Winter was coming. Later that day, I’d see blue run into gray, clouds like dead chunks, clotted and falling. I’d get used to seeing the sky as a dour, unfriendly predictor: tinged green for tornados, red for heavy wind, blue for dense humidity, gray for everything else. And, like the Midwestern sky, Henry Barber’s face was bland and serious, both long and compressed at the same time with a set expression and flat hazel eyes that seemed to be looking at the horizon even when they were looking at you.

“Yep, here we are, I guess,” he said. His voice startled me after the long silence.

There were only eight streets in Hauberk, and I hadn’t noticed that we’d come in. Though we were supposedly in the heart of the “downtown” area, it seemed like we’d entered a slightly more versatile truck stop. We got out and Henry put some quarters in an ancient parking meter.

It was the biggest house in this part of the world. If Claire Dunlop hadn’t been waiting at the top of her front steps, I would have thought we’d stopped at the county courthouse. As it turned out, the courthouse was one block away on the other side of the street. And it was smaller. Henry leaned against the car and sighed. Claire was looking down from the porch, raising her arms like Christ over Rio, embracing us, the town, the sacred perfection of everything that led up to her door.

Her T-shirt is tight and pink, says Love Kitten over a gray cartoon cat with hearts for eyes. She hands me her Midterm Progress Report and smiles. Ice glittering on the frosted window makes a pinwheel of light on her neck. I look at it and smile back, feeling just like that gray love kitten curled up in the sun. The students press out of my classroom—all but Jeremy Hoff glaring from the door.

There are only a few reports left for me to sign. In the totalitarian world of high school, a report of “Not Satisfactory” results in the victim being sent to the school psychologist and an emergency conference with parents and teachers. A “Poor” means regular therapy, tutoring every day, and a grand jury investigation. Probably electro-shock. There are no “Poor” students at Alexander Weiskopf High School.

“How are you?” asks Miss Tomoike, still smiling, beaming out ten-thousand gigavolts of Love Kitten all over me.

I grin like a boy and mark the “Very Good” box.

“Okay,” she says. “Thank you. Have a good day.” A few more bonus volts before the smile disappears and she’s out the door with Jeremy, who’s been having a desperate power shortage—blackouts, failures, exploding circuits. He hates me, yes, but that’s nothing compared to how much I hate him. I step into the hall, hands clasped behind my back, and watch them go to her locker.

Miss Tomoike’s American name is Lydia. And, of all the Lydias I’ve known, she is the most un-Lydia, which makes me love her even more. Her real name is Aniko, but everyone must call her Lydia, the name of three of my ex-girlfriends. I am cursed by that name.

First there was Lydia MacLeod: tall, redhead, hated father, abortion at fifteen, moved to Canada then hated Canada, made me bleach my hair, left me for a bouncer.

Then there was Lydia Horton: med student, chess and bowling, eating disorder, hated father, moved to Sri Lanka to build huts for the blind.

And Lydia Ründegaard: married to textile magnate, bisexual, abstract photographer, chain smoker, hated father, broke my television.

Now I no longer own a television and Miss Tomoike doesn’t bowl. She is an exchange student. Her parents live in Tokyo—bankers, businessmen, important people of commerce. I imagine sitting down with them. She’ll bring me home to meet them. Finally, yes, things will work out. An unconventional match? Of course, but aren’t all the great ones unconventional? I’ll sit down over awabi and twig tea with eight-thousand-year-old grandfather, exchanging deep existential truths in the form of short poems that seem like politeness. I’m preparing for it. I’ve learned three expressions from my Japanese On One Word-a-Day: Gaido-san desu-ka? Are you a guide? Saiko sokudo hyaku kiro. Maximum speed one-hundred kilometers. Iro, iro domo arigato. Thank you for everything.

When Henry and I drove up, she emerged in state. There was James Reid, music teacher, to her left, and coach Spinadella on her right. She’d wrapped herself in gauzy yellow cotton, something between Cleopatra and Glenda the Good Witch of the North. And she seemed to radiate, if not beauty, then a certain conviction of her own seductiveness, trying to flow down her whitewashed steps but having to go very deliberately so as not to trip on the hem of her dress. This was a different Claire Dunlop than the person I’d met at the interview, sitting in the Oleander Room at the Day’s Inn outside Saint Louis, where she was all polyester angles and sobriety, black coffee and the students and educational theory and what we expect. Henry, I noticed, had already become steam, blowing away so quietly I hadn’t had time to thank him for the ride. So I left my bags in the Packard and met Claire’s hand half-way up the steps. Everyone tried to smile.

“Would you?” she said. It was a question, but the flick of her hand toward my bags said Go and Spinadella went. That was the beginning. A more intelligent person would have seen past, present, and future all phenotyped at once in that gesture. A more intelligent person would have jumped back in the Packard, punched it, shot the covered wood bridge over the dry creek outside of town and been down the I-44 before any of them had a chance to say what. But I wasn’t that smart and Packards don’t go very fast and I was constrained by all the usual human courtesies.

It might have been the awe I felt at Spinadella’s thirteen-inch biceps that made me go along. His blond hair was so clean it gleamed: the first Italian Viking. We watched him open the Packard, scoop up my suitcase and backpack in one gesture, and lumber up into the house without a word.

“We’re so very, very happy you’re here,” said Claire, putting her arm around my shoulders and leading me up the steps, while James Reid smiled behind us like someone in her livery waiting for an order or maybe just waiting to catch her if she tripped and fell backwards.

I was amazed at the house. Safavid rugs, crystal chandeliers, authentic Victorian chic right down to cloth tubes over the chair legs. It was in the National Register of Historic Places. An ante-bellum plantation two-story, replete with Corinthian columns, domed pergola in the back yard, and two-hundred years of whitewash—one of the few buildings left from Missouri’s time as a slave state. The whole town took a certain pride in it. Carolers began there every Christmas. The Lutheran youth group whitewashed it once a year. People got married on its wide front lawn.

“We have no electricity here.” She smiled with an air of confidence and secrecy that told me she could see I was down for whatever. “We preserve our traditions here just as they have always been preserved, meaning a respect for the past.”

I nodded. Of course.

Claire was no stranger to history. She taught the European variety to juniors every semester. And, though she’d never been outside Missouri, her subject and her position as principal made her the local sage. In the deep, violating humidity of the Missouri summer, the mayor could often be seen conferring with her in the shade of the pergola, sipping fortified punch and hiding from the brutal realities of the political life.

She took me up the grand staircase into my room at the top. It was small and the ceiling was low, but it was very clean and white. Spinadella had left my bags on the bed. There was a wash-basin and a bureau with a small round mirror, a free-standing oak closet, throw-rug alongside the bed, writing table with a candelabra, and an oversized crucifix on the wall above it. Jesus’ wounds were bright and dripping. Dinner was at five. The housekeeper’s name was Pattie.

After class, I go to the cafeteria for coffee and a pudding. Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson is there sucking on a toothpick, plotting, squinting into the suspect distance. He looks me over and nods. I nod back and focus on the pudding. Pudding might be one of the last good things in life. Pudding is innocent, beyond reproach. Pudding would never get you accused of making someone disappear. Nor would eating it make you want to disappear anyone. If I were Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson staring at me eating pudding, I’d know right away that I was not a disappearer. But he is not so perceptive. He blames me for Claire Dunlop’s untimely vanishing act two years ago.

Jorge and his wife are from Kansas City. He teaches health and English lit., has always taught health and English lit., will always teach health and English lit. I was supposed to have been hired to replace him. If anyone should be suspect for her disappearance, it should be him. Still, he blames me. He is a Marxist.

He has a Marxist righteousness, a Marxist nose for sniffing out iniquity. He has channeled Karl Marx for so long that he has come to look like him: the jowly frown, the intensity in the eyes. At the first faculty party, I wandered into his study—a veritable Marxist bacchanalia—three complete editions of Kapital in different leathers, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts leaning provocatively against a marble book-end, Grundrisse, A Critique of Political Economy, the whole sticky tangle in both German and English. A framed picture of Marx over the writing table. There was a Marxist tinge to everything in the house, a certain alien consciousness at work, even in his wife, who’d arch her eyebrows as if all the things she’d heard about me were coming true in front of her.

He twirls the toothpick in the corner of his mouth and looks away a split-second before I look at him. Feeling him about to turn his head, I glance up at the water stain shaped like a coffee ring on the ceiling. I know he’s scanning my face. The three girls at the table behind me hiss angrily about hair. The janitor over in the corner stares into his chicken soup as if it were saying something remarkable. Jorge, no doubt, is recording everything, memorizing it for some future testimony.

When I asked other faculty about his politics, they looked like I’d said something dirty. Decent folk don’t bring up things like that. So okay. So Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson and his squinting and his contempt. He’ll never stop hunting me for crimes against humanity. And if I breathe the smallest sigh for Miss Tomoike, if the smallest, helpless human emotion slips out, he’ll be on me—chains and culpability, scandal, perversion. I can see myself behind bars. I can see myself lynched in a field. Missouri: where the great Confederate rebels went criminal, knocking over banks, Jesse James, heads blown off, segregation, Indian slaughter. It’s in the people’s blood. You can see it bubbling under their skin when the proletarian in the truck next to you looks at you like you just felt up his mother. Missouri’s angry. Missouri wants revenge for whatever you’re about to do, and Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson’s watching. I can’t let myself even think of Miss Tomoike when he’s around. He can sense a certain furtiveness in me. He’d like to put me under a harsh smoking light, ask me angry questions, write my name on the floor in chalk. He knows dirty when he sees it.

I get up to leave and he makes an inquisitive face, “Finished so soon?”

“Uh, yes, pudding, you know.”

“Oh?”

“It’s easy to eat.”

“Is that right. Easy to eat.”

I move toward the cafeteria’s double-doors, slowly, casually.

Days and dinners came and went, and everyone was polite. Barber, Spinadella, Reid, and I shared the bathroom at the end of the hall with absolute maturity. We passed the salt down the table when someone wanted it and stayed off the third floor, which was Claire’s.

If she was in a good mood, she’d be vampy, fluttering and quick and trying to flirt with sudden meaningful looks designed to smolder. If she was in a bad mood, the looks grew heavy, the dark around her eyes got that way without makeup, and a pall hung over dinner. Barber would do his steam routine. And coach Spinadella wasn’t very articulate in the first place—whether from that last stubborn Viking chromosome or from the horse-juice he’d probably done as a bodybuilder. He was Claire’s barometer. If she was in a funk, then so was Spinadella. He’d beam ultra-hostile glances at everyone, like he was about to chop the table in half, then eat another spoon of peas.

Only Reid kept a cheerful face no matter what. Claire would have a mausoleum death-spell hanging over the table, and Reid would be shoveling food into his mouth as if he’d just been paroled, saying, “Hey, anybody watching the Chiefs tonight?”

Nobody was even if they were.

At first, I took it as passive resistance, aggressive cheerfulness. Then it seemed that Reid was inherently happy—one of those rare individuals at peace with himself and his life. But, ultimately, I understood that he was just plain insensitive. He didn’t focus on anything beyond himself and so was completely content. James Reid remains for me, at least in this sense, one of history’s unacknowledged geniuses.

School started and I began to teach freshmen and sophomore English under the supervision of Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson, who sat at the back of my room every day to make sure I was using his lesson plans. Assignments full of nutritious Marxism that I, with my degraded bourgeois ideology . . .

Question: How does Kent’s vehemence towards Oswald in Act II, Scene ii, help portray Oswald as a capitalist prototype? (Skipped in favor of What kind of a guy do you think Lear is?)

Question: How does personification of The Red Death symbolize the embodiment of false consciousness and the effects of aristocratic exclusivity? (Skipped in favor of Describe the big moment in the story.)

Question: How does the willingness of the indigenous Africans to be exploited by Kurtz reflect the function(s) of an internalized ideological state apparatus? (Skipped in favor of Did you like Heart of Darkness?)

The revolution was put down in all of my classes. Satanic capitalist ideology prevailed despite baleful looks from the political officer at the back of the room. I imagined Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson’s Health 2 students marching through the quad in olive uniforms, his AP English politburo lecturing their parents after grace about the opiate of the masses.

Still, at first, things seemed okay, seemed doable until the heavens opened up on my head. I was two weeks into my first semester at Alexander Weiskopf when it hit. It came on like one of the local twisters I’d heard about, the kind where you’re supposed to jump in the bathtub and hold a mattress over your head while cows from the next county are hurdling through the air. A death in the faculty. No one to teach German. Horror. And I was the only one who could fix it. Could I substitute maybe? Could I teach a few lessons until they found someone else? It wouldn’t be hard. I’d had a few years as an undergraduate. Sure, of course, I wanted to get along. Old Mr. Jürgen—who lived with his mother thirty miles outside town and only spoke Hochdeutsch, who’d been learning English his whole life and never quite got it down so that it pained him to speak it—had choked on phlegm and left me alone with his Kulturspiegel, his Arbeitsplan, and his fifty students, each secretly suspecting what I knew to be true: I was planlos, without plan. I was cluelos.

Later, I’d come to believe Claire had hired me just for this, that she’d foreseen it. There was no bathtub to shield me from the twister. There was no mattress. The winds had picked me up with the livestock and dropped me in Germany. And everything took on sinister proportions. The vicious underbelly of Claire’s flirtiness: was I expected to flirt back? If I did, would she let me return to just teaching English? I had one-hundred and fifteen dollars in the bank, enough for a one-way ticket to nowhere. My family back in Los Angeles had disowned me: two generations of angry jewelers with no faith in education. Grandpa Gordon had been an anarchist. Dad left when I was twelve. Draft-dodgers. Vehement, non-conforming Welshmen with an uncle still doing time in Mount Joy for polygamy. They’d laugh me into the street. I had nothing to go back to.

“What do you mean by ‘big moment’?” asked one of my brighter sophomores.

The problem with Pandora wasn’t her curiosity as most people think. It was that Zeus gave her the box in the first place. Come on, people, let’s have a little sensitivity for the Pandoras of the world. I’m thinking this—meditating on it, sympathizing with all the misunderstood little destroyers of creation—on the corner of Main and Shelly, staring into the Main Street Diner, while beside me James Reid squeaks bad saxophone at the falling snow. Reid was originally a drummer not a sax player. And, even though he teaches everything from horns to strings, drums are the only things he can play correctly.

My feet are damp. Reid has enough air in his lungs to kill everything within a six-block radius. And I’ll count myself lucky if the next time he squeaks up that b-flat it’ll disconnect my heart, blast me to a pile of dust, scatter my molecules into gray gutter snow. Make it quick and make it final. But that would be too easy. Tonight, my very own Pandora is on a dream date with Jeremy Hoff, and I’m destined to watch.

Yeah. Didn’t Norman Rockwell paint something like this? Johnny and Jenny sharing a malt in a brightly lit diner while fluffy snowflakes glide down outside and God is in his heaven and all is right with the world? Norman never painted me. I’m freezing and I still can’t figure out how Reid can play in these conditions.

He stops for a blessed moment to say, “Hey there, are you asleep?” And then his Chic Corea version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen starts up again like large pieces of metal crumpling into each other. Jazz, dig?

It’s my job to scoop snow out of the taupe fedora on the sidewalk in front of us. James does this two nights a month for pocket money, but this is the first time I’ve helped him. Usually, it’s his sister scooping snow out of the fedora, but she has pneumonia. He’s in his forties but looks about seventy-eight—stooped, wrinkled, completely gray. It’s a Friday night. Our students walk by, bored in Hauberk’s tiny downtown, on their way no doubt to drunken naked pleasures neither James Reid nor I will ever know. They drop a few pity-dollars in the hat when they pass, faces blank, embarrassed for us.

Dreamy: let’s have a cultural exchange. Jeremy Hoff can be second-generation German-American corn-fed Romeo from the heart of the heart of the country. And Miss Tomoike can be happy optimistic Asian beauty, who cares about the environment and wants everyone to live well. Together, they’ll be a force so powerful it will blow the glass of the diner into the street, rip the space-time continuum, end reality as we know it—true enlightenment, no more pain and suffering, human evolution advanced to the next stage because of this most sacred and perfect union, Amen.

Only that’s not happening, is it?

Jeremy Hoff’s putting his high school moves on her as only an adolescent lizard like he can. Pure reptile: the sort of seduction that makes young girls think it’s true love forever. It’ll never be true love. Lizards don’t fall in love. It’s a constitutional fact. And it’s never been Pandora’s fault. All Zeus: the prototype, the lying, cheating, seducing sky-lizard.

Maybe Jeremy got “hurt” a little in the past. He looks down, smiles. He’s shy but he might let his “true feelings” show through his “confidence” because Miss Tomoike and he “really click” and they’ve got, like, “something special.” I realize I’ve walked forward and am standing in the middle of Main, staring at them in their window seat. Ah, acid jealousy, burn, work your evil.

Reid stops playing. “What are you doing? My hat’s full of snow.”

Of course, there’s a job to be done. When I clean the hat out, there’s a dollar-fifty in it. I slip the money into his trench coat and walk up the street towards my car.

“Hey,” he yells. “Wait. Where you goin’?”

Good question.

My bad situation couldn’t have been more perfect for Claire, who drifted through the rooms at night like a wraith. She could be as eccentric as she wanted in the House for Orphaned Teachers. Claire never slept and neither did I, hours of stay-ahead German in my brain like a nightly violation. I’d be heating a pan of water in the kitchen for my midnight don’t-worry-everything’s-going-to-be-okay tea and see her drift soundlessly through the next room, stopping briefly to touch something on an end-table or run her fingers along the curtains.

I’d ask myself whether she meant for me to see her. Was it all part of some preternatural courting ritual for high school faculty? Was Reid involved? Spinadella? Barber? Was I paranoid or had the deciding factor in hiring me been that I’d have nowhere to run? Today, German. Tomorrow, physics, calculus, organic chemistry. I could see my future forming in all its nasty glory. She could make me do anything. And what would I be able to do about it? Just nod and start reading the textbooks. After the rent deduction, there was no way for me to afford utilities and pay Claire for my portion of the dinner budget. I already owed her. If I ran, I knew she’d send Spinadella to collect.

He was the perfect leg-breaker. Spinadella and his linemen regularly growled at the top of their lungs in the tiny weight room attached to the gym. They’d scream out blood-death calls in some language invented by the Frankensteins, Albertus Magnuses, Doctor Moreaus of the world—mastermind handlers who knew how to control the beasts. But now the creatures were loose and in high school, free to shave their heads and pump as much iron as they wanted, free to flex their way through any class—untouchable, terrifying, and hog-dumb. They stood at least a foot taller than the other students and had the same slow contempt for other life forms that one has for ants trying desperately to avoid the shoe.

Their shrieks and grunts played out in echoes over the quad, knocking between the buildings as if the linebackers had mated, multiplied, and had finally broken their cage locks. Free at last. Fresh meat. Like their coach, they always seemed to be wavering on the edge of a steroid berserk. Teachers passed them partly out of pressure to keep the football team intact, partly out of self-preservation. Françoise, the bulimic French instructor from Lyons, would run to the bathroom and vomit after first period—not for her usual bulimic reasons but because she was shaking from fear. Unnamed persons had once held her upside down and pinched her nose shut while she counted backwards from cent.

I should have felt lucky not to have gotten any of them in German. But I would have gladly vomited every day in exchange for not having to live with Spinadella, who’d openly stare at me like he wanted to kill me. On the surface, he respected my personal space, a clear-cut DMZ that he wouldn’t violate. But there were stray shots: the hard looks, the collision in the hall that left a baseball-sized bruise above my bottom rib. I didn’t know what he had against me. I went over everything, searching for a slight, a stupid joke, an off-color word skewed to an insult when I wasn’t looking. But, of course, I had no idea. I avoided him in the cafeteria, made no eye contact at dinner, kept to myself, afraid for my life.

Borges’ parable: Dante, exiled in Ravenna, dreams of a tiger dreaming in a cage below the Coliseum and then realizes that he is dreaming about himself. He is the tiger; Ravenna is the cage. He and the tiger share a blessed unity in the dream-state. I wonder why I haven’t had a similar dream. All the greats had a guiding star—Constantine’s floating cross, Hemingway’s bull fights, Blake’s demons giggling in his shop. I have nothing but Miss Tomoike.

Looking through black branches at her studying on her bed, I realize that this parable stinks: alone in the darkness under a dead maple tree, the pathetic exile nurses a broken heart without the luxury of tigers. And in the end—every parable needs a twist—is he redeemed? Is he relieved? Or does he wake up in Ravenna?

She’s not looking out the window. And, if she did, what would she expect to see? Twenty squares of beveled darkness. People don’t bother curtaining their windows because Hauberk has never had a peeper. Not until now. I walk up and press my palms against the warm glass. My breath makes crystals on the pane before interior heat turns them to droplets that freeze half-way down.

A strand of her hair is caught in the corner of her mouth. She’s wearing black overalls and a T-shirt. I can’t tell what she’s reading. It’s not German. Good for her. Miss Tomoike’s English is so good that she can take German in America; she’s brilliant. The glass is warm, comforting in the cold like touching a living thing.

How could someone so beautiful and intelligent fall in love with a kid like Jeremy Hoff? It’s the question I’d really like to ask. If I were her father, I’d ask it. If I were her friend. Anyone but me. Nothing to do but spread my palms on the glass and ask myself: how could she?

I walk away slowly, pulling a branch off the maple tree with a hard crack. I don’t care if she looks out. Let her see me swinging gashes in the snow, splintering the branch against a wooden post. My hands are cold and I don’t feel the splinters, cutting diagonally across a hard-packed snowfield, hitting any lump or post until I’m holding a wooden fragment. I’ll bet Miss Tomoike didn’t even get up. If she did, she didn’t think of me. She saw part of a handprint, the residue of breath, and thought of Jeremy Hoff or maybe thought of nothing, not so brilliant after all.

The sight of a distant car, however, gives me pause. It’s Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson’s brown Škoda. How many other people in Hauberk drive a brown Škoda? I walk straight towards it, but it takes off before I can make out who the driver is through the new snowfall. I tell myself I am not an offender. I repeat.

Claire had been leaning in the doorway to my room, staring at me. I was studying. The German had blunted my senses and I’d forgotten the door ajar.

“Yes?” I cleared my throat and made an unintimidated face.

Her eyes flicked to the cross-shaped bright spot on the wall above my desk where the crucifix was supposed to be. Every night, I took it down and hid it because Jesus’ gaze would follow me in the flickering candlelight. Every day, the housekeeper would find it and put it back. In the interview, Claire had asked if I was a Lutheran. I told her I’d been a devout Lutheran my whole life, making a mental note to learn what that was. And now she’d caught me, but Claire only smiled. She was in her nightgown.

“Just looking at you.” Her voice was even-toned, but I could see a distant, glazed look in her eyes. Had she just taken her medication or did she need some? The door closed. The nightgown came off. Claire’s body was shaped like a large white thumb. She walked to the bed and looked at me.

“Get over here,” she said.

I closed my notebook and quietly laid my pen down on the desk. I felt detached; the sight of Claire’s body had shocked me into some basic motor-survival mode. I thought I might go downstairs and take a walk. The fact that I was in my pajamas and slippers did not occur to me. When I opened the door, Spinadella glared at me from the end of the hall, all bulging six-three, two-hundred and fifty pounds of him.

I thought of my job and of how the one-hundred and fifteen dollars I had wouldn’t cover a new set of teeth. Claire was waiting behind me, hands on hips, mouth in a tight knowing smile. She grabbed my crotch and backed me onto the bed.

“Tell me you love me,” she said.

The word for the day is Gewissensbisse. The phrase for the day is Gewissensbisse haben: remorse, to have remorse, to feel remorseful.

Here’s Miss Tomoike with her big brown eyes.

Her midterm looks like an execution. I emptied the red pen. Invented new criticisms on the spot. Large heaps of teacherly lash. And for what? Vengeance. If I could have nailed Jeremy Hoff, I would have, but his work is untouchably good. Deep, in the inner darkness of my being, I have sometimes prayed for him to fail an assignment. Yes, a cardinal sin—paradise lost, lake of fire, burning, gnashing of teeth, no teacher heaven when I die.

She’s the last student left in the room. She’s trying not to break down. I half-sit on the table up front, just like an adult, waiting, as if to say, That’s life, honey. And the sad thing is I’m right. There are a lot of pathetic, vindictive, lonely people out there, Miss Tomoike (can I call you Lydia?), and you just got yourself one.

“I tried . . . hard.” Pristine, angelic teardrop down cheek.

“I know,” I say. “I understand.”

Now she’s weeping. She’s letting it all out. Sobs. Even a few wails, moans. Miss Tomoike looks down at her paper as if she still can’t believe it. Actually, it’s not that bad. I don’t tell her that after seeing her on a date with Jeremy Hoff my standards for her work went up five-hundred percent. And the part of me that wants to burn down the children’s hospital, spray the petting zoo with toxic waste, see all privileged sniffling little flowers broken under boots—that part is completely satisfied. That’s right: suffer, suffer, suffer.

“Am I going to fail? Is there anything I can do?” The skin under her eyes is extra red where she’s viciously attacked her tears with the sleeve of her sweater. Miss Tomoike hates her tears. She sits very straight in her desk.

“Of course, there’s always something you can do. Failure is pretty far off, I think, if you want to put out some extra effort.”

“Yes.” Smiling, nodding, wiping her eyes.

“Why don’t you meet me here after school tomorrow and we’ll go through your paper, maybe talk about re-writing it.” That’s reasonable, isn’t it? She thinks so. I picture what she’ll be wearing tomorrow after school and smile benevolently.

Miss Tomoike is now incredibly happy: good people do exist, forgiveness is a beautiful thing. Teacher wants you to learn. He’ll correct your faults. She thanks me profusely, but I wave it off. “Don’t mention it,” I say and watch Love Kitten No. 1 walk out of my room.

I tried to laugh it off, but I didn’t have any more energy. I’d been too accommodating. I’d hesitated, there, in the kitchen, watching her drift through the rooms. Was it the hesitation? How does a man put this into words? We have no language for it.

After a while, Claire no longer needed the threat of Spinadella to force me into it. She had her own key and entered at night. We never talked. Her nightgown came off and my body did what it did while my mind was on a beach in California, contemplating the waves or how wind takes root in the palms and seems to live there for a time. In the morning, I’d stare at the dark ceiling over my bed and think: why did I have to wake up? I’d think: there must be a logic to this. I’ve always believed there’s a logic to everything.

Tired. Days muted to their lowest setting. I’d walk through the halls and look at the students as if they were fish in an aquarium. When had all adolescents begun to look exactly the same—drifting down the halls in groups, quietly glassed-off from existence, unaware of anything beyond themselves? Had they always been like this? And my life too: a different kind of fish but equally distant or maybe just an empty tank thrown open to the sun—yellow-green depth, sediment lit from above, where you might stop to wait for a fish and, when it didn’t appear, feel ridiculous for staring into empty water.

Claire owned me. What objection could I make that anyone would take seriously? What hold did she have on Spinadella, on Reid and Barber? No one talked about it. There was no resistance, no underground railroad, no solidarity. I looked for a sign, a bent word, a wink, any kind of acknowledgement, code tapped on the pipes at night. But nothing. Dinner remained dinner, light pitter-patter, long protracted silences. Claire would be having an up day or a down day. Reid would be gently oblivious, Barber impersonating a distant cloud formation, and Spinadella beaming out hostility like hell’s only lighthouse. With my inner volume turned down, I had nothing to say. I was the Quiet One. It was all I could do to keep the candelabra lit on my study-desk at night after hiding the crucifix someplace new.

I never heard steps on the thick rugs, but her weight made the floorboards creak. In the middle of the night, I’d listen to Claire pace and stop, pace and stop for hours, and sometimes, a much heavier person—Spinadella—faint dancehall music from the thirties filtering down through the wood. The thought of them dancing above me seemed terrifying and obtuse the way the reenactment of a battle leaves corpses in the landscape that aren’t dead. Undead. One word and the corpses stand up grinning, a pantomime of life.

Love maketh men do strange things, Horatio.

The day is all anticipation. Am I too pale? Is the gut showing? Is my hair out of whack? It feels like prom. I never went to prom, spending the night instead on the roof of the Imperial Toy Company in downtown L.A., reading Camus, hoping that the girl I’d casually mentioned it to would find me mysterious enough to follow. She never showed up. I went home when it started to rain.

But Miss Tomoike, she’ll be here. Seduction of the innocent. The predator doesn’t worry about the baby giraffe. If he did, how would he eat? There’s no blame in nature, no blame when you’re starving for some giraffe. Come not betwixt the dragon and his wrath, says Lear. That’s right. Come not. And if you do come, well, that’s fate isn’t it.

I go to the men’s room between classes and stare at my face in the mirror. I don’t look like the dragon and his wrath. More like the baby giraffe. Not even that good. Sallow. Sunken eyes. Wrinkles around the mouth. More like the aging Komodo dragon. At thirty-one, I’m already a half-gray, wrinkled, German-teaching Komodo. It’s ridiculous to think I could seduce her. But here I am.

Miss Tomoike’s class is its old ugly self. Twenty-five separate shades of contempt looking back at me. Jeremy Hoff’s work, no doubt. The phrase list we’re on deals with a trip to the dentist. I say X and the students answer Y. It’s not supposed to be hard.

Ist es ein Abszeß? Is it an abscess? I manage to pronounce the sentence pretty well, I think, but a wave of sniggering goes around the room.

Ja, they answer, es ist ein Absezß.

Jeremy Hoff is participating today, still riding the glory of having thrown the winning pass against Rigg County last night. He and Miss Tomoike exchange glances when they think I’m not looking.

Können Sie mir eine Spritze geben? Can you give me anesthetic?

Nein, they say, nein, wir haben keine Spritze. We have no anesthetic.

Ich kann nicht schlafen. I can’t sleep.

Ja, they answer. No more sniggering.

Ich kann nicht essen. I can’t eat.

Ja. Some of the students nod or look away.

Ich habe Schmerzen. I’m in pain.

No one says anything. Maybe it’s my tone.

“Come on.” I grip the edges of the table, lean towards them. Wiederholen Sie. Repeat.

The clock’s broken hands spasm and click. Wir haben Schmerzen, Jeremy says.

We look at each other.

Outside, the sophomore girls are shrieking by their lockers. A boy is laughing the long, high, mean-spirited laugh of the adolescent. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA-HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH. The kind of laugh that comes with pointing, that’s serrated, that leaves one bleeding, with an Abszeß, in need of immediate attention. Someone at the back of the room coughs. I look down at the last phrase on the list.

Wieviel bin ich Ihnen schuldig? I ask. How much do I owe?

Claire’s sudden disappearance, when it came, had far less tragedy for those of us who lived with her every day than for greater Hauberk, suddenly buzzing with the hint of scandal. I wasn’t going to miss her.

They found her clothes laid out on a chair. Everything up on the third floor was as it had always been, Victorian tea furniture unbroken, crystal figurines of ballet dancers perfectly arranged in their wall case, her gigantic lace doilies unrumpled, no psychopathic messages in lipstick on her gilded bathroom mirror, no bloody prints in the porcelain tub. Nothing. Just poof and gone. Claire’s British history class had been the last to see her. According to them, there had been nothing exceptional in her behavior that day. God save the Queen.

Dinner on that first Clairless night had been extra awkward. Very little was said. We were stunned. It was the first dinner Claire had ever missed. And, for many dinners after, we would still be unsure what to say to each other. We’d become like medieval prisoners blinking suddenly into daylight, our new liberty glaring and unwieldy.

The sheriff came sniffing around as sheriffs are supposed to, but he didn’t sniff too vigorously. The farmland outside Hauberk was searched. The house’s basement was dug up and found to be no dirtier than dirt. There were no newly cultivated mounds in the backyard. No telling piles of ash and fillings in the snowfield behind the graveyard. In short, she’d left the earth without a trace. And I felt like dancing a moonlight samba. I felt like having cases of burgundy delivered to all inbred schizophrenic killers hiding in barn lofts for a hundred miles. At night, I heard the patter of little feet—my own. I was even dancing in my sleep.

Of course, there was Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson: all suspicion, that toothpick in the corner of his mouth. But the life of Hauberk, Missouri, continued. People got tired of speculating, inventing theories. The paper stopped running her picture. A tornado had taken out a village to the east. Drought was expected that summer. A graduate student at the University of Missouri had committed suicide. These things were news, not Claire’s disappearance, which became uninteresting and thus faded out of the collective consciousness as if it had never happened.

Hulking Spinadella, at least for me, was the prime suspect. But he went crazy on one of his halfbacks during a scrimmage and crippled the boy with his fists. He’s still in jail. Reid moved in with his sister and I found my cottage outside town. Only Barber remained. Claire had willed the house to the mayor, who became the new landlord, and the space suited Henry just fine. I dropped by to visit him a few months later, but he didn’t ask me in. We stood on the porch and stared into the darkened Jiffy Lube across the street. He kept his hands in his pockets, and I could see that the solitude had not made him any more pleasant.

“Well,” he said, “I guess she’s gone.”

“Guess so.”

“I guess you’ll miss her.”

I looked at him, but he was staring into Jiffy Lube like he might learn something important if only he didn’t blink. We listened to the night. Crickets were chirping somewhere far away, somewhere I wanted to be.

“Henry?”

“Yeah?”

“Fuck off, okay?”

If there’s a time I can meet with you off-campus, maybe, with just a little more help, instruction, tutoring, supervision thinks the old Komodo. But her midterm sits on the table between us like a chessboard, and what was so simple in my fantasies seems Byzantinely complex now. Checkmate in three? I don’t think so. Miss Tomoike’s arms are crossed. She’s looking down, her aura dark. What did I expect? She’s assimilating. Ten minutes ago, like a loose American girl, she was kissing Jeremy Hoff by his locker and then they walked, hand-in-hand, toward my room—slowly, as if one of them were about to be executed. “I’ll be right outside,” he said too loudly. Her protector.

We sit in silence for a few moments, both of us staring at her exam. I imagine Jeremy in the hall listening, his ear to my door. In a samurai film, I would hear his heartbeat, firing arrow suddenly through paper partition into chest of interloping spy. Just so. Impudent Romeo dispatched with alacrity by old arrow-shooting Komodo.

She uncrosses her arms and I notice her fingers are stained with ink. She’s been writing: love notes to Jeremy, letters of discontent to Tokyo. Japanese in ballpoint, such a waste. One requires a brush, a straight back, high virgin-white vellum that takes the ink like a momentous event. The paper loses a certain innocence but gains the character of the writing, bringing the female-yin-black letters together with the male-yang-white sheet—the unification of all duality. That’s the sort of writing instruction I’ve had in mind for Miss Tomoike (segue to Confucius: “It furthers one to undertake an affair with an older man. No blame.”). More likely: Mother, Father, the teachers here are horrible. There is this one monster in particular. He looks like a lizard.

“I’m sorry, but could you tell me how this is wrong?” Tentative, polite, sincerely worried, but with an undercurrent. Resentment? No. Coaching. I can hear Jeremy telling her to question me, telling her I don’t know what I’m talking about. The truth is that her answers are fine. The questions were short-answer, interpretive. I look at my red Xs, where I pressed so hard the pen left furrows in the page, and feel ridiculous.

“Well,” I say, “the questions were pretty open-ended.”

She nods, her expression blank.

“And there’s a certain degree of subjectivity . . .”

“I don’t understand.” More forcefully now. Jeremy Hoff in ballpoint all over her. All she’s missing is his regulation sneer. The truth is that her answers are probably better than what I might have written. The truth is that I’m an apprentice molester and Confucius was Chinese.

Bright hot reality: Miss Tomoike is a child. Love Kitten doesn’t even factor in. I’m horrified at the sudden clear vision of myself as Claire. I hear Jeremy clear his throat loudly outside my door.

“The truth is, Miss Tomoike, I’ve called you here to tell you that I’ve re-evaluated your work. I’m changing your grade.”

A thousand thank-yous. She doesn’t ask why. And she’s out the door before I can find the inner pulleys that make my face smile. The Christmas cologne I never wear sickens me. I go to the window and stare out over a runny snowfield at my home—the worthless, never-ending latitude of Missouri.

All this happens. The snow has melted and the news says there’s a tornado coming. But I don’t know. There’s always a tornado coming. Shadows are indistinct. The day begins dark and never truly gets light, while the ghost of old Mr. Jürgen wanders the state, trying to explain itself in correct English. I laugh, but who can say why a tornado takes one house and leaves another. Just get in the bathtub. Maybe Claire Dunlop is living a quiet life on the Santa Monica strand with a husband and a tight pink T-shirt that reads Love Kitten. Maybe Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson has a file on me waiting for the FBI. Maybe right now Miss Aniko Lydia Tomoike is breaking all available speed laws, jumping snow banks in a Husq Varna Motorized 2023 Ice Sled, headed here with apologies, justifications, words of love and eternity. It wouldn’t surprise me. Odds are garbage. Opinions are meaningless. Everything happens. It’s all here.

When I rolled into Missoula, Jim Donlon was waiting for me in dark glasses and a black cardigan with a white T-shirt underneath. He looked drunk.

“Davis,” he said, as if my return was the last in a long line of depressing accidents, “what the hell is this?” His way of saying welcome back. I took the cigarette he offered, and we walked out of the bus station through the snow. He was parked five blocks north. We stopped in at the Old Sod along the way.

I was exhausted from my three-day bus ride from San Diego. And neither of us felt like talking right off—which was fine by me considering that these were the first drinks I’d had in almost a year. Jim was closed-mouthed when he drank, the sort who made it seem alright for you to quietly let alcohol simmer in your veins. We must have looked ridiculous that afternoon, sitting in the empty bar without talking: me with suitcase and laptop satchel and Jim still wearing his sunglasses. We used to come to the Old Sod a lot. And here we were as if I’d never left. In the months I’d been gone, nothing had changed. Nothing good would ever happen in this lousy bar. The fat bartender would be eternally reading the paper.

“I thought you quit drinking.” Jim blew long shoots of smoke out his nostrils.

“How’re things?” I asked. “What’s new?”

Jim sighed. “Look at this.” He took out the smallest pistol I’d ever seen and put it on the table between us. The barrel was two inches long, lighter than my drink.

“Careful,” he said. “It’s got a bullet in there.”

“What do you need this for?”

Jim finished his drink, lit another cigarette. “You’re back in Montana, Davis. Didn’t you notice?”

“These things kill people.”

“So do these things.” Jim held up his cigarette. “And this thing.” He stood and grabbed his balls.

There weren’t many people in there. Two mustachioed old men in the corner staring into their beers. The jukebox had Broken on it. There was one woman in the place—redhead, mid-forties, plastered. Jim hid the gun in his waistband under his cardigan and walked over to her table. They talked. He held up his hands and asked, “Why not?” loud enough that I could hear it. Then he came back and sat down.

We looked at each other.

“Jim?”

“You don’t know a thing,” he said.

We drank until we both ran out of cash, switching to pitchers of Pabst at the end, when we got to our last. Then we staggered out into the snow. It had begun to glow with the gray-white luminescence that only the streets of Missoula have in the late afternoon, like cold ashes.

He destroyed one of his own plastic garbage cans, when we got to his apartment, sending two weeks of trash into the air, over his car, and out into the cul-de-sac. Two wheels of his Acura were up on the curb. I laughed and slipped on the ice. Everything was funny.

“What about all this trash?” I asked as Jim walked to his front door.

“Forget about it, “ he said and I found this funny, too. I’d ripped a hole in the right knee of the only pair of trousers I owned.

_____

In October of 1999, I was determined to rethink my life.

A letter came from Yugawara, chair of the English Department, asking if I would be available to work as a private tutor for a high school kid. The pay, he wrote, would justify my return to Montana. I believed him.

I packed a small suitcase and called a cab.

I’d been taking a year off in order to write; though, the real reason I’d left Missoula had been to dry out. A graduate student at the University of Montana and twenty-three years old, I already had arrests in two different states for driving under the influence. I was not proud of this. Perhaps because I am an only child or because my parents both came from broken homes, I have always been indulged. But, whatever the case, my mother and father did everything they could to help me with my drinking problem when I should have been disowned.

In order to help myself financially and morally and I think to, as my mother put it, take some time to develop a spine so you won’t always let everyone walk all over you, I moved back to San Diego on leave of absence, promising teachers and friends that, when I returned, I’d have my novel finished and be ready to take my degree. I fully intended to do this, but I didn’t work on the novel at all in San Diego. I produced one frivolous, eight-page story that I threw out.

So when Yugawara’s letter came, I jotted a short note that said I was going and left it on my bed. I took the cab downtown, to the Greyhound Bus Station, bought a fifty-dollar ticket one-way to Missoula, and sat down to wait. My parents wouldn’t ask questions. Still, I felt like I was abusing their hospitality by leaving so abruptly in the middle of the day with a stack of library books on my bureau that needed to be returned and no explanation whatsoever.

I told myself that, even though I was worthless, I was doing what had to be done. I needed to go, and I was never any good at good-byes, usually getting soppy and melodramatic enough that I made a fool of myself and embarrassed whoever I was with. My family hated public spectacle, so at least in that sense, I told myself, I was doing them a favor by disappearing. I would write to them from Missoula. Though, deep in my weak, self-centered heart, I knew I was a rotten son.

It was October. At least that much was certain, an unavoidable fact. Winter in San Diego meant that days stayed in the upper seventies instead of the lower nineties, and palm trees swished slightly more in the wind. But that didn’t mean winter couldn’t be just as hard there as anywhere else. I always felt that it wasn’t the climate that killed so many homeless over the holidays but the hardness of everyday people around the world, taking out their petty frustrations on the less fortunate. I knew that was a sentimental way of looking at things, but sitting in the Greyhound terminal can bring out the sentiment in anyone. It seemed like all the homeless people in the city were sleeping in there that day. And it made me sad to look at them curled up around me in the black molded chairs, stinking, talking out loud in their dreams. When I got up to board the bus, I left a ten-dollar bill on my seat.

_____

Money never meant much to me. I had a tendency to give it away if people asked for it—which someone usually did. Or I’d fall into one of my sentimental fugues, insisting that they take it for their own good. And I never saw the point of fashion. It took too much of my energy, too much money, too much space in my life.

But Jim was different: two years older, tall and thin, like me, but with better clothes and style. He seemed to move through other people’s lives, through entanglements that would side-track any normal person, with a certain effortlessness. Years ago, he’d inherited a lot of money, had an apartment in Montana, one in a Vegas suburb—where he’d go sometimes on weekends. In Missoula, Jim was a graduate student in my writing program. He took the bare minimum of units and taught classes like everyone else. And he made having money and everything that came with it seem a given, seem easy, even the day after a drunk.

As soon as we got into his apartment, we polished off the better part of a bottle of Absolut; though, I don’t remember doing it. I passed out in a small wicker chair in his living room, my suitcase and satchel placed neatly by my feet. In the morning, I woke up, still in the chair, with my legs straight out, crossed at the ankles. My body was stiff. I felt like I’d been dead for a thousand years.

I opened my eyes to a full-length cherrywood bar, an entertainment center, a few miniature indoor palms, an Italian leather couch, and a blonde on the end closest to me with a lit cigarette and one breast hanging out of Jim’s bathrobe. Jim was sitting on the other end, in black pajamas, also smoking a cigarette and there was hockey on TV.

I felt the vast, horrible waves of nausea that come from mixing types of liquor. So I didn’t say anything. I sat there quietly and looked at them. Jim was staring at the widescreen. The blonde was staring at me.

“It’s a breast,” she said. “Want to see the other one?”

“Show him the other one,” said Jim without glancing away from the game.

“Fuck off,” sighed the girl. She yawned, looked me over, took a slow drag. “You look like a sick rat.”

“Darcy, this is my friend, Davis, from San Diego.” The only way to tell Jim was hung over was that he’d let his cigarette burn down to a crooked finger of ash.

There was a silver dish of cigarettes on the coffee table. Darcy picked one out and lit it on her old ember. The ash tray sat on the middle cushion between them on the couch.

“He’s breaking up with me, you know. He broke up with me yesterday. I’m moving out.” She raised her eyebrows at me and took a drag.

Jim changed the channel. “I’m sorry I was so erratic last night, Davis. I could have gotten us both killed. It’s stupid to drink and drive.”

“He doesn’t care about anyone or anything. He’s not your friend.”

“I think I might vomit,” I said.

“Darcy, be a doll and go get him the wastebasket from the kitchen, would you?”

“I fucking hate you.” She tied the bathrobe more tightly around herself and went into the kitchen.

Jim looked at me for the first time that morning and smiled: “What can you do?”

I shook my head. I didn’t know what you could do. First I was a drunk. Then I was sober. Now I was a drunk again. The guilt hadn’t even started, but it was stalking me. I could feel it. It was being sportsmanlike, waiting for me to vomit a few times before it sprang on me in all its demonic fury.

I did vomit several times—but not in the wastebasket. I weaved along the hallway and into the downstairs bathroom. The act was painful when I got to it: a thin gray fluid hanging like a cloud in the center of the bowl and then the dry heaves. For all the drinking I’d done in my short life, the day after never got any better, only worse. Half an hour later, I made my way back down the hallway, feeling like I was swimming through an underground cave to the light.

I stopped before entering the living room. Darcy had shed her bathrobe and was straddling Jim, who hadn’t moved from his sitting position at the end of the couch. Her cheeks were full of tears. She whispered things and ran her fingers through his hair while she rode him. He still had the top of his black pajamas on and his right arm stuck straight out to the side over the armrest. One of them had put the ashtray on the floor beside the couch so Jim could ash in it while they did their thing. I walked back to the bathroom, sat on the closed toilet, and put my face in my hands.

This was two and a half months before the millennium.

Jim went to school to teach a class. With nothing to do that day but wait until my appointment with Yugawara, I sat around in the coal-gray suit Jim had lent me, smoking and imagining how the world might end on New Years Eve. I didn’t see any reason to go to the university early and have to explain my life to my former colleagues. So I stayed on the leather couch and stared back at Darcy, who was wearing a pair of Jim’s shorts and one of his T-shirts. All of her possessions were now packed in her car, but she wouldn’t go. She sat in the wicker chair looking at me blankly. Maybe she was looking through me. There was an open Ziploc full of large pink horse-pills on the table between us.

“Christ,” she said. “I’m getting so thin. It’s like my bones are growing out of my skin.” Darcy had a fake tan, but it looked good on her. Her body wasn’t too thin; it was just right. Her eyes were a pretty blue-gray, even though there was too much white around them at the moment and she was sweating.

“You look fine.”

“Look at my hands. I’m a skeleton. You can see the bones coming through.”

“What are you worried about? You’re beautiful. You got everything going for you.” I handed her a cigarette, but she couldn’t keep the lighter’s flame on. I lit it for her and sat back down.

“What am I worried about?” Darcy puffed quickly, not inhaling, sending fat milky clouds into the air between us. “Wow. Yeah. Wonderful. That’s wonderful.”

We sat in silence, listening to her breathing. I thought about taking one or two of those pills, just so we could be on the same planet, but I had no idea what would happen. I wanted to stay straight for Yugawara and the high school kid’s parents who’d be there to interview me. So I went behind the bar and made myself a whiskey sour. Just one. Just for steadiness. Darcy watched me with a sick, detached expression—like those pills had made everything horrible, everything disgusting.

“Look,” I said, “you’re making me nervous. Why don’t you have a drink.”

She half-nodded, so I brought her mine and made another. But she let it sit on the coffee table in front of her, condensation puddling on one side of the glass. I sat back on the couch and loosened Jim’s black silk tie.

“I’m gonna kill myself,” she said to the drink. “You might want to leave.”

“How many of those pills did you eat?”

“Who the fuck are you?”

I brought her over to the couch and put my arm around her. She was shaking.

“Shit,” she said, hugging me and resting her head on my chest. I held her tight and sipped my drink.

After enough whiskey, you forget you ever had problems. You forget what a failure you are and how you’ve let everybody down. I sat there holding Darcy, waiting for Jim to get back from teaching his class, and the only thing I could do was drink. The first whiskey sour was my first mistake and, having made one mistake, it was all too easy to make another and another.

I laid Darcy down and got a blanket off Jim’s bed to cover her with. Then I began to pace. I paced around the living room for so long that soon pacing was all I could concentrate on. After a while, I didn’t concentrate on anything. I looked at my track in the carpet, walked around the room, looked out the windows, and sipped whiskey.

“You look like hell,” said Jim when he came in the front door. “Even in an expensive suit, you look like a drunk.”

He was right. I’d wrinkled his suit at some point and combed my hair over with some water, but it hadn’t done any good.

“Your girl. I think she od’d.”

He went over and looked down at her. “She’ll live. She say she was going to kill herself?”

I nodded and the room tilted. I steadied myself against the bar.

“Happens all the time.” Jim put his arms around her chest and dragged her off the couch. We put her in the backseat of his Acura, then got two unopened bottles of Irish whiskey from behind the bar and took off down the street.

I was drunk but I was wide awake—enough to know there was no way I could do an interview and not seem like an idiot.

“Yugawara. I can’t see him. I’m not up to it.”

“You’re a mess,” said Jim. “Open this, would you?” He handed me one of the bottles. Speeding up the I-50 felt like we were on a rollercoaster. Misty, snow-covered mountains were all around, but the highway could have been going up, over the top of the world. Jim kept one of the bottles between his legs and only slowed down when he wanted a drink.

“I heard about this kid up at the Black Creek Lodge. People stick things in his body for money.”

“That’s where we’re going?”

“Shit,” he said, “what are you, a genius?”

“What about her?” Darcy was in the middle of the back seat, head back, mouth open.

“Forget her. She’s stoned.”

The road was covered in ice. It made a ssssssshhhh sound like air escaping from a giant puncture.

By the time we got there, Jim had gotten drunk enough and I had gotten sober enough that we were both tired and quiet. Before we left Darcy in the car, I took off my coal-gray suit jacket and covered her with it. I couldn’t see why we’d brought her. But I was sure that if we didn’t cover her, she’d freeze.

“Davis, you’re a saint,” Jim said.

At the Black Creek Lodge, there was an annual bull testicle eating festival of international repute, which made it a meeting place for freaks of all kinds year round. But, on that day, the parking lot only had a few cars in it, and we both slipped twice. I was shivering violently from the cold and almost dropped the unopened bottle of whiskey. Jim held the opened one to his chest.

We walked through several large empty rooms, one that had been the inside of a barn. Then we came to a lounge that had a full bar in it and large bay windows looking out on a pasture. The pasture was covered in snow. A cow stood in the middle of it, staring at the windows. An old woman was waitressing and serving drinks behind the bar. The low wooden tables looked just like her—brown, cracked, not long before they’d collapse. In the corner sat the kid who got things stuck in him for money—bird-thin with a light blue sheet around him like a Roman senator. His hair was shaved down an inch from his head and his face showed no emotion. He sat completely straight in his chair.

A few locals were sitting in a semi-circle in front of him, laughing and drinking. A man in a bowl-cut and two flannel shirts, missing his left index finger. A blonde with a nasty puncture scar on the side of her neck. And another woman with no teeth at all; though, she couldn’t have been more than 35. A few others. Everyone but the kid looked at us when we walked up and sat.

“Look at this. Whiskey for everybody,” said a fat, bearded man in a thermal undershirt and jeans. Jim smiled and toasted them with his bottle. The men sitting there looked like loggers and so did their women. I wondered if they’d come for this or if they just happened to be drinking here.

The old woman from behind the bar walked up. “I’d ask you two what you want but it looks like you got that covered.”

I opened the full whiskey bottle and took a sip. Jim asked the woman for cups and, when she brought a stack of plastic tumblers, he poured out whiskey for everybody, brightening spirits all around. Jim even poured out one for the kid, but the fat bearded man held up a hand and said, “No, thanks. He don’t drink.” The kid didn’t do anything but blink. He was completely still.

After everyone had some whiskey, the bearded man stood. “This is Colter and he only does this once a day.”

Too much whiskey: I felt stupid, my thoughts dissolving in to Montana nothing, as if I were no different from that cow in the snow-gray pasture.

“Is he gonna scream?” asked one of the women.

The bearded man slapped Colter hard across the face and said, “See? He don’t feel nothing.” He took the sheet down and pooled it around Colter’s waist, leaving the boy’s upper body exposed. The skin was pale and curiously unscarred. Did it matter that he was sixteen or fifteen or fourteen? He had nothing in his eyes, dead stare, vacant. Then the bearded man brought out a black dish containing hatpins, a long thin paring knife, an assortment of thumbtacks and small pins.

In San Diego, my parents’ yard would be covered with plum blossoms. I thought of them and wished I was there. California was a bright complex of light and heat that was beyond us here, in this place, after we’d given the bearded man ten dollars each—where we took turns silently pushing hatpins into the boy’s arms and chest—where even the snow looked like ashes.

When we finished, thin strings of blood ran down Colter’s torso where silver thumbtacks had been stuck between his ribs in graceful arcs. The pearled plastic drops at the ends of the hatpins looked vaguely like peacock jewelry, an ancient beautification method, difficult and prized.

“Shit,” said one of the women, “I want a picture.”

“Five dollars,” said the bearded man, getting a Polaroid from behind the bar.

Like the lady bartender, this woman had nut-brown leathery skin, and it was hard to tell how old she was. She leaned over Colter and did a 1950s-style cheesecake pose as if she were on a float—Miss October. When she grinned, she was missing two of her teeth.

Jim had been drinking steadily from the bottle and staring at the boy, who was still expressionless with arms and chest full of pins.

The bearded man stood. “Okay, that’s good. We’re all done now.”

“Wait a second,” said Jim. “What about that knife?”

“Oh,” said the bearded man, “the knife. If you want to do that, it’s fifty dollars.” He smiled and looked at Jim as if he were seeing him for the first time.

Jim inserted the paring knife sideways, right under Colter’s left nipple. The kid hardly bled at all. Everyone cheered—whether for Jim or for Colter was unclear—maybe just for the spectacle of the thing: the kid, a human pincushion, so much metal sticking out of him, and some drunk bastard adding that long thin knife, as if it needed to be done to make the effort complete. But I remember Colter’s exhalation, the sound of it—long and gradual as if from a great distance.

Darcy woke up, when we were half-way home, screaming as if someone had just jumpstarted her heart.

“Where the fuck am I?” she said.

“Don’t worry,” said Jim, squinting intensely through the snow coming down in thick, moth-gray sheets. He gripped the wheel with both hands. The engine made a steady whine and the wipers could barely keep up. We were doing seventy, seventy-five, outrunning the distance as the car fishtailed and hissed. He raised his eyebrows and flashed me a look as if he expected me to object. But I looked out through the snow, thinking of Colter’s expression as the knife went under his nipple, when he slowly began to smile.

Later, we’d drink until we both wept. Jim would cut himself on a broken whiskey bottle, bleeding all over the top of his cherrywood bar. He’d shoot his pistol off twice into the floor and scare us both. The next day, he’d lend me another suit. I’d make apologies to Yugawara and get the job tutoring a slow, yet very wealthy, fourteen-year-old girl with a weight problem. And all that winter, I’d dream of plum blossoms that settle in the heat like parade confetti, making my parents’ back yard look covered in snow. I’d step through the ice to the laundry at the corner, where I’d buy my parents postcards of blue mountains in summer and scrawl I love you on the back.

“What’s going on? Where we going?” hissed Darcy, holding onto the back of my seat for dear life.

“Don’t you worry,” said Jim. “We’ve got you. Nothing’s gonna happen.”

Dogs cannot be made to look like human beings. You’re sitting on the rooftop deck at Dick’s Chop House in Fresno, California, and this is one thing you know. There is nothing modern science can do to make a dog resemble a person. The waitress comes and goes. Dennis lights a cigarette, leans back in his chair, and watches moths flit around pale yellow deck lights.

“Look,” you say. “It’s here: ‘Federal Scientific Panel Tests Limits of Cosmetic Surgery on Dogs.’”

Dennis coughs against the back of his hand. “Want to hear the one about how a dog both does and does not wag its tail at the same time?”

These trips to Fresno are making you nervous. Brown smears of pollution hang over searing afternoons. Police are everywhere. Fistfights on sidewalks. Porcelain statues of saints and shrines to dead relatives on porches. Car shows in parking lots. SUVs with rims and tint jobs bouncing high at the stoplights. From Dick’s roof, you can see Blackstone Avenue three stories below, stinking, pulsing, clotted with angry traffic at nine on a Friday night. Flashing lights in the distance. Always. Based-up mariachis from passing lowriders make your empty beer bottle vibrate on the patio table.

“I can’t shake the feeling we’re about to get shot,” you say.

Dennis looks at you for a moment and then holds up his cigarette, watches smoke uncoil from the tip. “Relax. Dogs can tell when they’re being filmed. Know that?”

You scan the rest of the front page. Murder. Lies. Bombing. Abductions.

“You can’t just film dogs when nobody’s around to see if they’ll wag their tails,” he says. “They always know you’re watching.”

You try to remember if you asked the waitress to bring another beer. You tell Dennis you can’t understand why someone funded a government project to see if dogs could look like people. You cross and re-cross your boots at the ankles, light one of his cigarettes, and think about the future. It’s been fifteen minutes since Warren went downstairs to meet the buyer. In about fifteen more, you will finally have enough money to live comfortably for at least a year or be arrested.

The waitress brings two more beers. Black hair, thin, pretty, she looks barely twenty-one. Dennis tips her a dollar, and she rolls her eyes. He smiles and watches her go.

“Schrödinger. It’s the tree in the forest thing,” he says. “First, you take a dog and put it in a room. Inside the room you have a bunch of nuclear waste. If the waste gives off too much radiation, a machine detects it and smashes a can of nerve gas. But if you look straight at the door of the room, there’s no way to tell if the machine has smashed the can or not.”

You imagine a plastic surgeon’s scalpel cutting into the muzzle of a screaming Golden Retriever and shake the thought away, drink your beer. A police copter hovers over distant city lights. Its search light probes like a glowing feeler.

“Which means you can’t tell if the dog is alive or dead,” Dennis adds.

“And that’s why you can’t tell if it’s wagging its tail?”

“No.” Dennis pauses, takes another drag, and looks at you a bit longer this time. “This is a hypothetical example. The tail comes in a minute.”

Five trips from San Diego to Fresno in as many months. And each time, you carried enough illegal items to stop your happy thoughts for a good, long time if you got caught. An hour ago, you parked stolen truck number five in the lot behind Dick’s. It’s loaded with one-hundred-and-seventy-eight cases of premium vodka that should have been in Reno, according to the bill of lading. Stealing interstate means federal time. A possibly dead driver means life. You smoke Dennis’s cigarette and try not to think about it. Instead, you read yesterday’s paper filled with all the heinous shit people already got caught for.

“So the fucking dog is now in a quantum state. It’s both alive and dead until you open the door. Maybe it’s wagging its tail. Maybe it’s just a stiff, little bundle of joy.”

“But wait. You can never find out because if you open the door you might get nerve-gassed. You can’t risk opening the door.”

“Fuck that,” says Dennis. “You’ve got a space suit. That’s not the point.”

Then it doesn’t matter because Warren walks up to the table with a grin. “All done.” He takes a long drink of your beer. “Andre says we’re good. We go out back right now and get paid.”

“Fucking-A,” you say, standing up. Dennis stands, too.

The waitress walks out onto the deck, sees Dennis, Warren, and you grinning at each other, and takes a step back. “What?” she says.

“Dogs,” says Dennis. “We like dogs.”

She looks at the three of you and nods slowly.

You wink.

Andre is an extremely large, extremely stupid man dressed like a farmer in a plaid shirt and overalls. He’s got a shaved head with a dark red birthmark shaped like Florida on the back. Every time you have to deal with Andre, you wonder what he would do if he lived in Florida and people kept asking him why the state was tattooed on his head. He’d likely kill a few of the slower people and then spend the rest of his life in prison. Prison. Something to not think about when standing in a parking lot beside a sixteen-wheeler full of highjacked vodka. Andre’s holding a can of Miller and doesn’t seem at all bothered by passing sirens on Blackstone Avenue.

He does look like he enjoys eating chops at Dick’s Chop House. That’s another thing you feel confident about besides the bit about dogs not looking like people. The question is: if you put the contents of Andre’s belly in a quantum state—i.e. with or without a chop—would that mean he’d be digesting and not-digesting at the same time? Would it mean he’d be simultaneously hungry and not-hungry? Andre’s eyes are very small. He gives you a glazed, faintly hostile look.

“So it’s all there,” says Warren.

“So it is.” Andre’s eyes shift to his beer.

You look at Andre, at Warren, at Dennis standing back a few feet, puffing his cigarette down to the filter, and wonder what’s going on. Usually, it’s Andre with a bag of bills and then good-bye, done. Not the current Andre with the beady expression of some fat, hostile marsupial in overalls. Marsupials. Koalas and shit. They eat bamboo, not chops.

“Thing is,” says Andre, “Jimbo don’t come down no more. He don’t like being recognized. You gotta drive it over to Madera. That’s where the money is.”

“What the fuck,” says Warren. He’s tall. Medium build. Sandy blond hair parted on the side. Warren wants to get mad, get up in Andre’s face. But Warren doesn’t get anything more than smart. “This is bullshit,” he says to the asphalt. He puts his hands in the pockets of his Pepsi windbreaker and looks down like a schoolboy.

Maybe Dennis could do something. He’s wiry but strong. You’ve seen him get in fights, get crazy, punch holes in walls. Once, he beat the hood of his ex-wife’s Firebird until his fists were all torn up. In the morning, the car looked like Dennis had won. But what’s there to do if you want to get paid?

Andre blinks. “Madera,” he says and drains his beer.

Madera will be a challenge. Only twenty minutes north, but getting there will be difficult. It’s Memorial Day weekend, and the police are out en masse, the Force in force, making people walk the line and count back in sevens from a hundred. There’s a sobriety checkpoint every five blocks. Driving north into Fresno earlier, you saw highway ninety-nine lit by flashing lights, the first unlucky drunks of the night standing pale and uneasy in patrol car floods. So the three of you decide to call it for the night and go out to the warehouse tomorrow noon. Dennis tells Andre. Andre will call Jimbo, and all will be right with the world.

For you—for obvious reasons—traceable cell phones are a no-no. You stare at the truck and dial your girlfriend, Christina, from a filthy phone booth in the dirt lot behind the Apache Motel. You parked the truck a few feet away, right next to the room you’ll share with Warren and Dennis. It looks like any other semi parked for the night, but the shadows in the cab remind you of a ghost town.

Your girlfriend’s roommates call her Tina. You call her Chris. You both call your little boy Jessup because that was your grandfather’s name and neither of you wanted a son named Jessie. Jessies go to jail; Jessups go to college, according to Chris, and you have no cause to disagree. But you wonder if someday he’ll wear a jean jacket and a mullet, if he’ll ride a motorcycle he calls a “dirt bike” and phone you from jail in the middle of the night like you did to your father. When that happens, you’ll feel as sad as your father once looked standing on the other side of shatter-proof glass at County, his failure complete.

Images of Dennis throwing a crowbar away from the highway. It was easy for him to whack the driver in the back of the head while Warren pointed a .45 in the guy’s face. Dennis and Warren didn’t like doing it that way. Neither did you. But highjacking trucks is what it is. Unless you want to spend the rest of your pathetic life in prison, it’s you or the driver, who should have known what he was risking when he took the job. You listen to the connection beep and tell yourself you’re a survivor. You try not to remember the groans or the sound the driver’s body made when you and Warren heaved him into a ditch in the darkness.

The connection goes beep-beep and the answering machine comes on, Chris and Jessup together, sounding happy, laughing, saying after the beep! You don’t mention anything about what you’re doing. You hesitate and say, “Hi, Chris. Hi Jess. It’s me. I miss you!”

Whenever she asks where you’ve been, you tell her a story. You say that you’re a dealer in dry goods, that you work for a trucking company, that sometimes you sell ladies’ hats out of boxes because it’s easier that way. You tell her you only sell high-end jewelry and only when you can get a good deal on it. You tell her you once owned a Zamboni that used to belong to the L.A. Kings, and that the price of shoes in Cleveland is much lower. Which, you add, is how you came into fifty-seven crates of Louis Vuitton Vienna Minimalisa High Boots in ostrich leather. You tell her there’s nothing better than family and not to ask where the money comes from because every dollar means I love you. You tell her to wait, to be patient, because you’re going to get her a house in a neighborhood not as violent. You tell her to be realistic because you are. You tell her you’re a hustler because, in this goddamn world, everybody is. And, most of the time, you feel you’re telling the truth.

“I’ll be back soon,” you say and wonder who’s standing beside the phone listening, maybe one of Chris’ cruel roommates, a blood-red nail hovering over ERASE.

“Tell Jessup I got him a present.”

Ghost town: the darkened windows of the truck are like the dead spaces of abandoned buildings at night, somewhere you wouldn’t want to go. After dark, they’re just void, negative space. The truck cab is empty. And, you think: twenty-five years to life for interstate highjacking and maybe an accessory to murder. You think: maybe what you tell Chris isn’t the truth; it’s just your truth. But that doesn’t make the Zamboni any less real or the fact that it came into your possession something false. You tell yourself no other thief in the world has successfully stolen and resold a Zamboni. That, too, is part of your story, your truth. Maybe, if you’re lucky, the bad karma of your thieving life will take a long time to kick in, unlike with your father. Maybe then you’ll know what is or is not absolutely true. Until then, you’ll keep calling from dirty phone booths outside ghost towns in the dark.

“I love you both,” you say. And the phone booth is silent. On its two-story pole beside the highway, the Apache Motel sign is a pale, yellow circle with hot-pink Vacancy across the center. But behind the L-shaped motel, the empty dirt lot continues into darkness. The motel is two exits up the ninety-nine from Fresno, a place Dennis says nobody cares about, where he’s stayed a couple times before. When you turn your back to the highway, the empty motel, and the truck, you look across the flat dirt and feel you’ve reached the end of something. After this, somewhere out there in the night, there may only be emptiness and the good chance of falling into it—or maybe twenty-five years to life, waiting patiently to pounce. You’re thirty-four years old. You’ve spent four of those years in Corcoran State Prison for stealing a tractor from a construction site in Chula Vista. And, right now, you’re headed for Madera.

The door to Room Six swings open silently. It’s unlocked. Dennis and Warren don’t give a shit. They’re sitting cross-legged on the bed, two grown men in their boxers, sweating, shuddering, smoking meth. Normally, they look like computer programmers from Akron. Windbreakers and Hawaiian shirts. Wire-rimmed glasses. Socks in Birkenstocks. Dennis is only thirty-eight, but his shoulder-length hair is dark gray streaked with white. He keeps it pushed behind his ears. Warren likes to wear sun visors. He knows card tricks.

The bowl of the lightbulb pipe is black where Warren’s lighter flame licks it. Warren grins at a square burn on his thumb from the lighter. The facial tick at the corner of his mouth is back and makes his grin look insane. Warren’s cockeyed. Cockeyed-stoned. He exhales a puff of used smoke and hands the pipe to Dennis. Neither of them speaks. You don’t hear a sound but the lighter, the pipe hiss, and the tick of the air conditioner in the wall. Chemical meth-smell hangs in the air. Dennis exhales and stands on the bed. He turns on the TV and starts jumping, flipping channels with the remote. This makes Warren fall over backwards. He gasps and curses but doesn’t get up. Instead, he stretches out on the floor between the bed and the wall. You hear the hiss of the pipe.

The bathroom is cool and dark. Thankfully, it has a tub. You take your jacket and shirt off. You’re careful to remove your wallet, keys, and the thin survival knife you found in the truck’s glove box. This won’t be the first time you’ve used your clothing as a mattress in a strange bathtub. You curl up on your side and pull the shower curtain closed. Outside, Dennis yells at the television. Warren yells at Dennis. They will do this for five, six hours, then crash.

It’s a long way to freedom with a girlfriend and son behind you and Madera in the front. You might be an accessory to murder. Accessory. The word tumbles around in your head. You hear it the way one hears a foreign term and can’t forget it. The word for prison in German is Gefängnis. You took German in high school from Mr. Antonucci. Du mußt nicht ins Gefängnis gehen, he’d say and laugh. Don’t go to prison. Gefängnis, you think, accessory.

“Szechwan chicken is not fucking fried!” screams Dennis.

“Fuck that. The fucking chef knows what he’s doing!” screams Warren. “He’s the chef, man.”

It’s been almost six hours with sleep as a distant fantasy and the two assholes in the next room, arguing about (1) the Musical Chef; (2) the differences between Fiats and Škodas; and (3) whether Nixon was better than our current chief executive—Fucking-A he wasn’t. Nixon was an idiot—Fuck you, Dennis, Bush is a FAGGOT—with the occasional Learn your shit! and Why don’t you just shut the fuck up? thrown in. Yes, you frown, pulling your knees up closer to your chin, yes, why don’t you?

Then, finally, when silence comes, it’s total, sudden, and ominous. You dress, put your things back in your pockets, and creep out of the bathroom, cheering yourself with images of Dennis and Warren contorted in a final death-embrace, hands around each other’s throats, neck veins still bulged-out. Instead, it’s the usual scene. Dennis is spread-eagled on the bed, head hanging upside-down off the edge, snuffling with his mouth open. Warren’s on his side, sleeping on the round table under the window. He didn’t bother to brush away the wrappers from the vending machine food and looks like he’s been sleeping at the bottom of a trashcan. You walk out of the room, shut the door, and stare at the low-slung peel of moon just above the horizon. Maybe you should call Chris again. You’re out of change. You’d have to call collect.

The woman in the motel office is also stoned. How many times have you seen this in the late night offices of motels, trailer parks, campgrounds? The bored, slightly pathetic life form behind the desk, hooked into bad TV and whatever happens to be on the smoking menu that evening. There’s usually nobody around, and it’s a real bummer when somebody steps in with some problem. She’s thought ahead, has a cigarette burning in the ashtray to cover up the hash smell. But hash is hash, as a wise man once said. In your humble opinion, hash is a good thing. Let there be hash.

She looks over at you, wishing the one thing in the world you won’t do is speak. You mosey over to the urn of free coffee and get a cup. The coffee tastes like hot, bitter plastic, but it warms you from the inside, which is always the best way to get warm. When you were a kid, warm felt like that. Your dad would make instant coffee on the kitchen counter in the morning—thin and steaming, without sugar. Was it his way of saying, I’m sorry your worthless mother o.d.’d in your bed and you had to come home from school and find her there? Was it his way of saying, I apologize for the stints in various orphanages while I did six months in prison here, a year there? Maybe he wasn’t trying to say anything but Drink up. You’ve thought about these things for years. You can take all the time you need, think about it for the rest of your life if you want. It might take that long to figure your childhood out. The important thing is, standing in the office of the Apache Motel, looking at the sad array of yellowed tourist brochures from fifteen years ago, you feel warm. You’ve got coffee. You’ve got a son named Jessup. You’re not in jail. You’re not dead.

“I suppose there’s something you want.”

“Nothing,” you say. “Coffee.” You hold up the Styrofoam cup and smile on your way out. She turns back to her show without a word. Her cigarette has burned down to the filter, leaving a two-inch worm of ash. Doesn’t look like she smoked any of it. She’s in her thirties, getting curves where she shouldn’t, platinum-dyed hair tied back in a band.

Outside, you look at her through the windowpanes in the door. She’s sitting there, not blinking, staring at the television as if she’s part of it. A machine could do her job. Someday, you think, a machine will. You notice a blue pushbutton with a black circular base beside the door. Around it, Press Button if Offise Closed is written in Magic Marker. You walk down the side of the motel, following the wires running from the button. The wires are covered in the same tan paint as the rest of the motel.

Ah. You feel good for the first time since you started this trip. If Dennis were here, you might even consider discussing whether you’re about to enter a quantum state. Or, rather, whether the blonde’s cottage is, because that’s where the bell wires end, and you’ve still got that survival knife in your pocket. While she sits over in the motel office, the rest of the cosmos waits in one of Dennis’ probabilistic equations—with and without her hearing you snap the latch on the cottage’s screen door and pry the survival knife into the lock; with and without her getting up to check (probably not—if you want to talk about likely hits from a very probable hash pipe); with and consequently without some interesting items, which she should have made a lot more secure.

You smile, picturing how irritated Dennis would be with you narrating all the possible outcomes of the situation as you easily, absently, twist the knife in the ancient lock and shoulder the door open. Probabilistically speaking, you’d say to Dennis, dogs simultaneously wagging and not wagging their tails misses the point. You pause in the darkness of the living room and think about Dennis’ hypothetical. Who cares what’s behind Door Number One? That’s the real question. Nerve gas? A yipping daschund? If you want to know, twist a knife in the lock. If you don’t, let poisoned, radioactive daschunds lie.

It’s a small cottage, but the living room seems large in the dark. A digital clock face glows red from a bookshelf. You hear a slow drip-plop from the kitchen, and decide to feel your way to the bedroom first. What’s wrong with a little thievery, really, everything being equal and equally thieved? Money. Time. The Beatles thieving Little Richard. The US thieving Mexico thieving the Indians, body and soul. Everybody thieving oil and oil thieving right back. Children thieve the future from their parents as parents thieve the past. Dracula pulls up in front of the blood bank, and the President invades Iraq. It’s the way you live, the way we live, the way we’re all going to die—thieving one more taste of life in this desert of trouble and mistakes until death gets its own hustle on. The only downside is getting caught reminding people of the truth, not just your truth but everybody’s: the world is a criminal. If your son were here, you’d sit him down and tell him just that. The whole world, Jessup. The very earth.

The bedroom smells like cigarettes and strong perfume, and it cheers you right away. Your new best friend has cases on her pillows. Good. You strip both pillows in the dark. Now you have two sacks. Tossing a house, really stripping it, might take an hour or two. But if you don’t want the gold out of someone’s teeth (and normally you don’t—too burdensome, too hard to get rid of every last, little thing), it ought to take ten minutes, less. Appliances. Jewelry. Grandpa’s roll of bills under the mattress. People have no imagination. They’re sheep. They buy the fake Ajax can to hold their pension and go to sleep feeling like its safer than the bank.

Sheep. Like this girl—diamond earrings, five-hundred, and a dime bag rolled into an old sock in her panty drawer—the place you usually look after the mattress. Someone should tell her she’s right. The bank isn’t safe. No place is. Someone should tell her, if she put down the hash pipe, just for tonight, and did her rounds, you wouldn’t be able to rob her blind, and there’s no FDIC on an Ajax can.

“Baa,” you say to the living room, bagging the DVD player and some nice stereo components—far too nice for a motel manager, which proves your point yet again. Who really owns anything? You’re a goddamn social revolutionary, quantum dog state or not. You pull the clock’s power cord out of the wall, wrap it around the clock, and put the clock in your sack. The entire escapade has taken about twelve minutes in the dark.

On your way out, you turn on the bathroom sink and the shower. This is great—a little, original twist. Most people will run straight into the bathroom and stare dumbly at the floor, going, “Baa.” Did the pipes explode? Did the toilet overflow? (Oh shit!) Meanwhile, you’re several miles down the road, feeling good for having played your role in the great, daily sacrament of human crime.

Back in the office, she’s still sitting behind the desk, slack-jawed, watching television. You look at her again through the glass in the door, then enter, leaving your sacks leaning against the wall outside.

“What’s on?” Another cup of coffee seems good. It swooshes into the cup.

Real Life. It’s a reality show.” She doesn’t look at you. Her words sound stilted, deliberately linked, as if she thought about each one before adding it to the sentence. You wonder if she might be thinking about just how much attention it’s going to take for you to leave smoothly, without a fuss, without screwing up her high.

“Reality, eh?” You’ve heard of this kind of show, but you’ve never seen one of them. You haven’t watched TV in about ten years. “Does that mean other shows aren’t real?”

“Of course they’re not real. Where’ve you been?”

“I work nights.”

She turns and gives you a long, slow stare, one part disbelief, two parts weariness.

“If we can talk about them, aren’t they real?”

“What the fuck do you mean?” Hostile. She swivels all the way around to face you. You are a problem. Now she has to deal with you.

You take a sip of coffee and smile, stepping back. “Shows are real shows, right?”

“Are you looking for something? ‘Cause I don’t have anything for you. Understand what I’m saying?”

“Just talking.” You shrug. Smile. Move toward the door.

She stands up, brow knitted, concentrating. “Look,” she says to the desk, “shows are shows. Some shows are real. Some are all made up. Is that what you’re asking?”

“So what’s real life, then?”

“They just take a camera into some place, like a store, and let it sit.”

You put your hand on the doorknob. “That’s crazy. What do you see?”

She is convinced you’re an idiot. She gestures with the backs of her hands, fingers up, as if to show how evident it all is. She looks like a surgeon about to operate. “Everything. They went to this butcher shop. People came in and said fucked-up things to the butchers. Then they cut some meat.”

“Like nasty things?”

“This one chick goes, ‘I want a piece of rump,’ and the butcher, all covered in blood and shit, goes, ‘Me, too.’ How fucked-up is that?” She’s still standing as if she’s about to pull a can of mace out from behind the desk, but the corner of her mouth curls in glassy amusement. Thinking about it makes her laugh and cough.

“Ever want them to come here?”

“And film what? Me watching the show? That would mess with your head.”

“It sure would.” You toast her with the Styrofoam cup and walk out, picking up your sacks on the way to the room.

Baa.

The truth happens. Sometimes, absolute truth happens. And, when it does, you’ve decided you don’t want to be anywhere close. Fifty megatons of truth with a half-life of regret for eternity. When the truth comes down, it drops like a bomb or a burning flare. Facts that follow you. Fallout in perpetuity, in the midnight hour, staring at a dark ceiling or out the window of a stolen truck, thinking of all the people you’ve robbed, defrauded, screwed. Of how you went to college for two years and could have wound up better.

Sitting in the passenger’s seat of the jacked semi as Dennis drives it up the ninety-nine, you look out at tractor dealerships, broken motels, heavy machinery yards in the orange-white envelope of a burning, San Joaquin Valley afternoon. You think of the original driver, pale in his own headlights, as if sculpted in wax. You imagine his upturned face burning white at the bottom of the ditch where you threw him, the ditch itself like a ghost town. Marking the spot: this is where they left me to die, the truth finally come down. Burning where it fell. Clinging to the earth for as long as it could. Not your truth. Not anyone’s. But the truth. Absolute truth this time—hideous, brutal, and rare.

Regret for eternity. How much for taking that poor chick’s DVD player and pot and clocks? More, you’re sure, for having drawn her just the smallest bit out of her bolt hole of hash and Real Life. Eternity plus five.

“So I’ve been thinking,” says Dennis, “about the possibilities. You know. With the dog.”

“You’re still on this?”

“On what? What the hell, man? Don’t you care about the meaning of life?”

“That sounds like a show.”

“Work with me. We’ve got a dead-or-not-dead dog trying to wag his tail. We need to solve this shit.” Dennis downshifts and grins. The silver cap on his right incisor is turning black. His eyes are still bloodshot from the meth.

Warren’s stolen, brown Datsun two cars behind is holding steady in the side mirror. It looks like it’s been smoking meth, too. And Warren inside it: hair straight up, face partly swollen as if he’s been punched a few times which, in a way, he has. Warren got up this morning like Night of the Living Dead. Dennis laughed, said, “Rise! Rise!” To which, Warren responded with his usual, “Fuck. You.”

Plus five. Plus five with fire and perdition. With your whole ancestral line for generations back, through dispossessed French Huguenots and amoral Scotsmen—the balance of whom were probably hung as thieves or burned as liars. And drawn. And quartered. And blamed. And mortared. And taken off all books of contributing members before being dismembered. But not before they could breed the next generation into this confusion. The confused, jagged screech of a newborn slapped hard on the ass so it takes its first breath—what better way to symbolize life than this? That hurt. I don’t feel good. And this place very clearly sucks.

You’re thinking about all this, letting it tumble through your brain, while Jimbo checks the truck. A slight man, Jimbo, slight and low-talking. He mumbles. He murmurs. He stands by the truck and says things to Andre, who nods like he’s taking dictation. Maybe Andre is. There’s no telling what a relationship could be between a beady-eyed, marsupial-faced thug and a little man from Nigeria with colored braids and a dark green polo. All that matters is Jimbo has the cash. That’s all you need to know. And Jimbo’s got a kid named Omar who’s fidgeting with the latch on the truck, over-excited, asking you too many questions: “Hey, man, you do this a lot? It looks like the money’s good.”

Andre goes to get the payment while Jimbo and Warren talk off to the side, Jimbo’s voice like the hum of distant equipment, Warren gesturing with his hands.

“It’s fine,” you say and look at the kid.

Omar nods, uses his palm to wipe the sweat off the top of his head. Dennis yawns and lights a cigarette. The warehouse is empty except for the truck. And it’s big—as big as a hangar. Might have been a factory once or a machine shop for heavy equipment. You watch Andre get smaller as he walks across the cement floor, way back to the other side of the warehouse, where the dark office door stands open. Then he lumbers back, carrying the bag. The wrinkled, paper grocery bag. The bag of bags.

The bag with the money.

Everybody gets paid, and everybody gets happy. Andre buys both sacks from you for a crisp hundred-dollar bill off his roll before he gets in the truck with Jimbo. You watch them go, Kennworth ghost town vanishing to the underworld. The warehouse is dead-silent. It’s all over, done, and no problems. You tell yourself you should feel good.

You get into the passenger seat of Warren’s Datsun. Warren slides behind the wheel and tries to get the engine to turn over, Dennis and Omar in back. Omar’s nervous, trying to act like he’s cool. But he’s wired, staring at the three of you when he thinks you’re not looking.

“I gotta ditch this shit in Bakersfield. I’ll drop anybody on the way.” Warren sighs, stretches. Nobody says a word or counts any money. You look at Dennis’ eyes in the rearview mirror as the car pulls out and leaves a cloud of white smoke behind it that reminds you of meth. Dennis is getting freaked out by Omar. You’re mildly surprised Dennis waits until you get on the 99 before he starts messing with the kid.

“Why you lookin’ at me?” he says to Omar in a half-whisper. “Don’t you fucking look at me.”

“Sorry.” Omar looks like he might piss himself.

“Why you here, anyway?” Dennis pulls the .45 and presses Omar’s face against the window with it. “Why the fuck are you here? Why didn’t you leave with Andre?”

The kid doesn’t say anything. He clamps his jaw shut. You turn around in your seat and watch. Omar’s got a sweat stain around the neck of his T-shirt and straight down the front like a ruff.

“That’s a good question,” says Warren, driving with his left elbow on the door and his face propped in his hand. He sounds like he’s about to fall asleep, still hung-over from all the happy meth.

“Pull over,” says Dennis. “I think I’m gonna shoot this asshole right here.”

“No,” says Omar, squeezing his eyes shut.

“Okay,” sighs Warren. The Datsun rolls to a stop in another cloud of smoke.

How many times, you wonder, has something like this happened on the 99-south?

“Get the fuck out,” screams Dennis as he runs around the back of the car, gun in hand.

Omar tries to lock the door, but Dennis yanks it open and pulls him out by his foot.

Omar’s crying, on his knees, with Dennis pushing the .45 into his forehead in broad daylight.

“You pathetic piece of shit,” screams Dennis over air and traffic, “gimme your wallet.” A semi, not unlike the one you’ve been driving for the past several days, makes the Datsun rock like a boat. Dennis whacks Omar in the side of the head with the gun to snap him out of his crying. A passing car leans on its horn. You imagine the call: Police! Send the SWAT team! There’s a guy getting executed on the 99!

“Come on. This is taking forever.” You yell it into the wind, not wanting to get out and make yourself more identifiable, hoping Dennis doesn’t actually shoot him. But, by the time you say it, Dennis is already in the backseat. Warren hits the gas and whips into the slow lane. Behind you, Omar is still kneeling but bent over, forehead on his hands as if in prayer.

“Look at that.” Dennis has Omar’s watch on. This is the real Dennis, you think—not the philosophical guy who likes to take it easy and talk about dogs wagging their tails. This is the criminal. You wonder where you fall on Dennis’ scale and whether you’d have left Omar bent over and weeping in the heat.

“That’s not a real Rolex,” you say. “A real Rolex doesn’t have its hands click forward like that. They’re smooth.”

“So? Shit, I knew that.”

Warren and Dennis start laughing. You laugh, too, because not laughing when a crazy meth-addicted asshole is sitting behind you with a loaded gun is not an option. You tell yourself this might be it. No more truckjacking. Fuck the money. A box of high-end Louis Vuittons doesn’t shoot you in the head.

Dennis is still laughing when he taps you on the shoulder with the butt of the .45.

“Wasn’t loaded,” he says and shows you the empty space where the clip should be. He makes a hard face. “You like my gangsta-gangsta?”

“Yeah, man.” You smile: funny joke. “I believed it.”

“I’ve got talent.” He takes his wire-rimmed glasses out of his leather case and polishes them with his shirt.

You nod and keep smiling.

These trips have made you close to $50,000. But none of them were as violent as this one. You think of Omar bent over on the side of the highway. You should put him out of your mind. You tell yourself you’ve been Omar. You tell yourself that if Omar keeps his mouth shut and learns a thing or two, he might just live to be you.

 

For five years after his imprisonment, the house waited.

More faithful than his wife.

More faithful than his dog, who his wife had put to sleep. More faithful than the roses dead and gone under weeds.

A chainlink fence went up at the edge of the sidewalk and light went out of the house, its windows boarded up, brown grass overgrown from the fence to the broken porch still held up by bricks. The house had lived and now its life was a memory, the way a skull remembers its face, or the empty classroom remembers its children.

The white paint on the shingles curled upwards in the sun. But, still, the house waited through its death, through rain, through LA summer heat. The six-foot high fence clinked in the wind, and only the pigeons listened. Clouds rolled across the sky. A child’s red ball got kicked over the chainlink, turned flat, gray. Spiders spun their webs under the eaves, ate them, and spun them again, fishing the air year after year. And still, the house waited. Until, one day, Darwin returned. The tall gate in the chainlink pushed open. The front door’s rusted lock was made to turn.

Now, even with its eye sockets dark, the house seemed full, conscious, occupied. Cats hunted the backyard around the droopy stone garage that was gray and dusty, packed with whatever his wife, Janel, hadn’t wanted.

Time passed to sunrise, sunset, sunrise—the city of Los Angeles stapled into the earth for miles and miles and miles of monstrous concrete ribbon and box, mirror, metal spines, twisted carbon fume in every direction at every moment. But in its small orbit of shadows and cats, of brown grass shivering in the breeze, of pigeons in a row on the dead telephone line and bits of paper dancing off chainlink into the wind, the house was alive. The house clothed him like glass around a lick of flame. And, from the windows, his faint light glowed. Before Darwin went to work at night, a filigree of shadows from the chainlink would flicker on the sidewalk. By then, the children would usually be gone but, as if he could still hear their voices, he’d listen and pause before blowing the candles out.

When he hit the girl, he was drunk and, for five years after that, Darwin had not seen a girl or a car. Now he watched both pass the front window as if on a screen. In five years he had not had a drink. Now he drank from the faucet in the kitchen, made coffee in a pan on the stove, shaved his head every other day. And waking up at sunset to the voices of the kids next door, he’d stare across his bedroom at the large plywood dollhouse he was building for no one, watch shadows grow into its doorway, gather beneath its unpainted eaves.

It was two-and-a-half feet tall and, when he wasn’t working on it through its open back, he’d turn it against the wall so it looked like an actual house being constructed. It reminded Darwin of the housing projects he sometimes passed on his way home from work—unpainted with black plastic trash bags staplegunned over the window spaces. Blocks away, you could hear wind sucking the plastic in and then puffing it out like sails, as if the house-frame were breathing through its eyes.

The little beaded pull-chain ticked against the light bar over the bathroom mirror, Janel in cursive on his neck when he stepped out of the shower, a streak of shaving cream over his left ear. Water dripping, he saw her name on him, as always. I can’t do it, she’d said. Two years. It’s been a long time already. Already. How many more you got? Three? Eight? I don’t think I can make that stretch. What would he have done if he were her? Probably the same. Find somebody else. Move on. Darwin dried himself off, pulled on an undershirt. But what if he could have to