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

The first time I realized I didn’t have the temperament to be a concert pianist, I was sitting in an enormous practice hall at San Diego State University with my teacher, Dr. Conrad.  I was 16 years old.  Eight years before that, through a serendipitous confluence of family connections, happenstance, and generosity on the part of my mother, I’d started taking piano lessons from him at $10 a week.

Even in 1989, that amount seemed considerable, given that living in San Diego ate up most of my father’s middle-class teaching salary and my mom wasn’t working.  So I felt rightly privileged to learn from a professor of piano and composition, who I discovered many years later, actually had a reputation as being one of the most difficult, ferocious members of the music department. 

To me, he was a kind gentle person, always willing to cancel a session to talk about the lives of the composers or take me down to the recital hall to look at the harpsichords or just tell jokes.  One day, we took an upright piano apart, piece by piece, to look at how it worked and produced its range of sounds.  The experience had me fantasizing about becoming a professional piano tuner for years. 

But really I was just in awe of Dr. Conrad, who seemed surrounded at all times by an aura of brilliance and gentility and yet had a goofy sense of humor and a love of children.  I learned more from him about music, teaching, and life than anyone I can think of.  He was an important person to me.

But the day he told me I just didn’t have it, I took it very hard.  I knew a number of kids at my school who were into theater and music, many of whom had formal training like me, but who always seemed better, sharper, one step ahead.  It kept me up at night.  I wanted to be like them, as good as they were. 

Having been surrounded by poets, painters, and professors throughout my short life, I thought creative artists, especially classical musicians, were a breed apart.  My idol at the time was John Field, an Irish pianist who studied under Muzio Clementi.  He was considered a weak student early on, but he rose to greatness later in life, praised by Beethoven, and even mentioned in War and Peace.  The reasons I took him as a model should be obvious.

That improbable dream seemed to melt away the day I asked Dr. Conrad the ultimate stupid question, one that I have since been asked many times by young (and more than a few older) writing students: Do I have the talent to make this a career?  It’s a horrible question, one that should never be asked by or of anyone, not even of oneself. 

Unfortunately, it’s asked by everyone at least once, and it’s something every art teacher hears over and over.  Do I have it?  Am I good enough?  Am I worthy?  Will Béla Bartok let me into heaven?  Will Gustav Holst discourse with me on the nature of the spheres while Mozart packs my bong?  I know das Leben ist kurz, aber die Kunst ist lang, but I’m ready to go the distance.

Up to that day, I’d had no idea Dr. Conrad smoked.  Besides, it was forbidden in the practice halls.  But before he answered my question, he motioned me outside.  The hall with about 50 grand pianos was on the second floor and, from the balcony walkway outside, we could see the women’s gymnasium, the campus tennis courts, and the great parking lot beyond, packed with cars glittering in the late afternoon.

It was windy that day.  I remember Dr. Conrad setting a lit cigarette in the corner of his mouth, crossing his arms, looking into the distance, and thinking for a moment.  He had the habit of stopping to think, as if he were listening to a voice only he could hear, and I knew not to interrupt him.  But it only made the moment heavier, more dreadful, as if my entire future depended on what he was about to say.

After what seemed like a very long moment, he flicked ash over the metal railing, looked at me, and said, “Michael, you’re very creative and I have no doubt that you will find the right way, but you lack the temperament for serious musical study.”

I nodded.  What could I do but nod?

Then he said, “I think we’re through for today.”  Because he knew that if you’re going to tell someone what you consider to be a hard truth, you have to allow them time to mourn their lies, their comforting illusions.

Of course, I was crushed.  But there was nothing but honesty and kindness in him when he said it.  And even then, I knew that when someone speaks the truth at that level, with that much transparency and, actually, compassion, you should accept it at face value.  You might not agree with it, but you cannot disagree with the sincerity behind it. 

A very deep part of me knew that he was right.  It would take years for me to fully accept it, years spent both struggling with music and becoming fascinated with English literature and essay writing.  It was me finding my true will, that path Dr. Conrad said he had no doubt I would eventually discover.  But it wasn’t pleasant; it took a long time; and it demanded a lot in return—the general template for most things in my life.

I was a weak music student, but not because I didn’t practice hard.  I practiced so hard that at times it affected my health.  I had the obsessive nature of a musician without the bifurcated mind necessary to be both mathematician and sculptor at the same time.  In retrospect, even then, I thought more like a writer, but I wouldn’t realize this about myself for almost a decade.

At the time, my dedication to piano, though misplaced, brought me a certain amount of instructive grief.  I took a long time to analyze pieces; I was often deeply, inconsolably frustrated at my technical inability; and my adolescent self-doubt was only amplified by these things, rendering me morose and miserable much of the time.  Add to that, my lack of social development and the fact that my heroes weren’t celebrities or pop stars but 17th and 18th century composers.  And I had the perfect recipe for spontaneous teenage bridge jumping.

Though I came close a few times, I would not trade those grueling hours in the practice rooms or my loneliness—as much due to the other facets of my life as my musical studies—for anything.  I learned discipline.  I learned what it is to do everything right and still fail.  I learned compassion.  I learned to revere the creative life as one of invisible risks, enormous sacrifices, and sometimes rewards that make those things worthwhile.  And I learned the value of telling the hard truth as I understood it to my own future students.

Dr. Conrad never told me I didn’t have talent.  He always said that’s something no one can know, not even about oneself.  He told me I didn’t have the temperament.  And that’s why he was correct.  I have the temperament of a writer, something he recognized but didn’t know well enough to name.  His world was music.  And because of him, I was able to exist in that world long enough to acquire some of its virtues and vices.

When I do play piano these days, it’s for my own amusement.  And I can only be amused at my ability (and lack thereof).  In the fullness of time, when I get my Roland out of storage, I think I’d like to start practicing again, maybe learn some Professor Longhair.  If I manage it, one day I can be that grinning old man with long white hair, playing boogie woogie on his balcony. 

Who’s that up there?

Just some old creep, honey.  Don’t look at him.  Get in the car.

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. 

I lead a mostly inward existence.  The part that isn’t, my small public-facing side, is bound up with my art, with what I write and submit for publication.  In this way, I’m constantly reinforcing and reiterating my identity, performing it.  I have to do this.  We all do if we expect to survive, immersed in the strange demimonde of the writing life. 

Since you never know if you’re any good and there is always someone saying you aren’t—including your own inner sadist—you have to affirmatively decide that you’re a writer and reject all arguments and criticisms to the contrary.  When you can do that and put words on the page, you are one.  If you can’t do that and you’re still waiting for permission, you’re not.  Not yet, at least.

A big part of making that decision and then constructing your identity publicly involves not letting respectability get in the way.  In 2013, feeling like I’d discovered this and that it was true, I wrote “The Discipline: In Your Head, Off the Street, and Away From the Club.” At the time, I thought I was articulating a set of beliefs and practices that could make it possible for creative people to continue in spite of the ubiquitous, overwhelming pressure to stop. 

Here is the concluding paragraph.  My sentences tend to get long and loopy when I’m writing Something Very Serious:

People enmeshed / immobilized in a fugue of “respectability” (in my opinion, a parasitic set of social mores and strictures that slowly consume the time and energy–life–of innocents whose only mistake was doing what they were told from an early age) will say you are crazy, unambitious, stupid, a loser.  They will do this because you haven’t had the time and wouldn’t spend the effort to become a stakeholder in their hierarchy of values.  I have experienced this first-hand and still do from time to time when the ripples of life-decisions I made in my late 20s come back to me.  But I do not have regrets.  I have largely overcome my personal demons, the emotional, familial, social fallout associated with owning my life.  That’s why this is a discipline.  You have to practice it.  It’s not something you do once.  It’s a way of life.  And I want that for you if you want it for yourself.

Seven years later, I feel less certain about this.  I think I was shoring up my identity for myself, talking to myself in the mirror, convincing myself.  While I’ve had a considerable amount of positive feedback from writers about that essay, it now seems more like a lacuna than a manifesto—a place where the reader can deposit her anxieties and, if only for a little while, dismiss them.  But the question remains: was I talking myself into or out of something in that piece?  What was the real opportunity cost of deciding to set foot on this odd, widely misunderstood, extremely demanding path?

Over the years, I’ve stayed faithful to the discipline, mythologizing my life in the way of a writer trying to buffer himself against the world.  A lot of creative people do this, using their imaginations not only to produce work, but also to perform their identities as artists in order to keep the cynical, draining importunities of late-stage capitalism at bay.  Unfortunately, just as an actor can get lost in a role, forget himself, and believe he is the character, it’s easy to mistake self-construct for reality, map for territory.

I’ve often lost myself, performing a writerly persona.  And I’ve had to return to the great voice-driven modernists I’ve always loved—Celine, Henry Miller, Hemingway, Bukowski, Hunter Thompson, Melanie Rae Thon, Brett Easton Ellis, John Fante, Denis Johnson, Isaac Babel, Osamu Dazai, Ryu Murakami—as a corrective.  In their fiction, the “constructedness” (“artificiality” isn’t quite right) of idiosyncratic first person always reminds me of the distinction between map and territory, between the “author brand,” or as Foucault says, “the author function” in discourse, and the unknowable human beings who’ve disappeared behind their texts.

As the constructed persona, I’m perfectly fine with the discipline “in my head and away from the club,” living on the edge, by my wits, freelancing and being a ghostwriter in a plague year.  I’m even writing a novel based on it.  I maintain a fierce, self-aggrandizing positivity and narrate myself as the protagonist of the story, on my hero’s journey, making the raw material of my life into text I hope people will find interesting.

But this is a plague year.  Millions are out of work.  The economy is flatlining.  Although it may seem like that would have less of an effect on someone leading the introspective writing life, I’ve realized that without society, there’s nothing for me to eschew, no place get away from.  Self-isolation means something different when everyone’s doing it. 

The pandemic has changed everything in the course of a few months and we have changed, are changing, along with it.  As Guitar Slim liked to say, “The things that I used to do, lord I won’t do no more”—not as a matter of preference, but as a matter of survival.  Like most people, I want to live past next month.  Yet, in order to do that, I need society to play along.  And right now, society just isn’t up to it.

In The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk, a professor at Johns Hopkins, published a very dark, pessimistic appraisal of our future with COVID-19, observing that “After weeks in which it made sense to hope that something would happen to end this nightmare, the prospects for deliverance are more remote than ever.”  He might be right.  If he is, what then?

I read about drug cartels, poachers, and conmen taking advantage of the lockdown hysteria.  I get into online discussions with fellow writers about whether Andrew Cuomo is doing the right thing and whether Bret Stephens knows what he’s talking about.  And I ask the question everyone’s asking: if it all goes dark, what will become of us, of me?

It’s necessary to offer something to the world and receive things from it if you intend to function outside a monastery or an ashram.  But, practicing my creative discipline, I’ve always felt I could be happy sitting in a small room, surrounded by books, with a narrow-ruled steno pad, a laptop, and a small refrigerator.  I have a lot of memories and thoughts to explore.  I have the voices of other writers always drifting around in my head and a very small circle of friends in the world who write to me.  I’ve never wanted much more than that.

But these days I feel transparent and weightless, untethered.  In one sense, it’s fine.  I’m not afraid to die.  I’ve accomplished most of the things I set out to accomplish in my life.  But I would like to finish this novel.  I’d like to see my third book of stories find a publisher.  And even teach story writing to a few more people before I go.  Those things would be nice, but they’re contingent on systems that are undergoing radical changes.  I fear the old world is slipping away.  I fear I am, too.

“Everything was all right for a while. You were kind.” She looks down and then goes on. “But it was like you weren’t there. Oh shit, this isn’t going to make any sense.” She stops.

I look at her, waiting for her to go on, looking up at the billboard. Disappear Here.

— Brett Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero

impressions

A travel-blog post on my first impressions of Wales.  Read it here: https://bkk-writing.blogspot.com/2019/08/impressions-of-wales.html

Recently, I had a moment where I thought someone couldn’t possibly be for real and I was about to use his face to sharpen my claws . . . and then he responded with disarming sincerity.  It’s wonderful when that happens.

Sincerity—not honesty but the good-faith attempt to be honest, which seems far more powerful and important—is like a force of nature. It’s a technique of relating to other people and to oneself that supersedes all the usual forms of vanity, deceit, coercion, and betrayal we regularly inflict on each other just to make it through the day.

It’s something I tend to forget, since the vast majority of people I deal with are usually cynical, conniving, lost souls.  My economic survival often means, as a freelancer, staying one step ahead of them and being prepared for the worst they have to offer.  I’ve been burned in most ways you might imagine and in some ways you might not.  And, because it is necessary to be a student of human nature, I usually walk away, saying, Fool me once . . .

But people can surprise you.  When they do, it’s worth noting—not only because it’s rare, but because sincerity is like water in the desert.  You don’t know when you’ll see it again but, for the moment, it’s a relief.

When you are over-committed, say it with me: “The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles. But, strangely enough, it will all come out well.” Repeat.

 

blue moon—n. 1. the second full moon occuring within a calendar month; 2. informal once in a blue moon: very rarely; almost never.  “blue moon.” Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. 31 Aug. 2012.

Writing counter-interpolative communiques on the night of a blue moon, the Speculator must observe the same ancient choreography that sorcerers, night soil men, two-headed doctors, literature professors, street hustlers, gypsy flower peddlers, and professional dog walkers have known since antiquity: one engages in a ritual dance to accomplish certain ends.

One appropriates symbols—the magic wand, the shit bucket, the mojo hand, the Norton Anthology of English Literature, the too-tight jeans, the bouquet of dyed roses, the dog leash—and invokes the primal forces of creation.  One uses obscure terms and appellations and loads them with meaning.  One waits for the hour of Mercury, drinking beer and burning incense on the roof, staring at the moon.  One observes certain ancient footwork while brandishing symbols to speak truth to power.

Thus change is brought to bear on events and minds; existing chains of causality shift; and new paradigms are born.  All from a dance, from preordained steps taken in darkness and solitude, from a Doctrine of Signatures old enough to justify itself (suggesting the monks who would recopy medieval grimoires and write Proven in the margins as a way to attest that the magic operations in question had worked for them, too).  All from ostrich feathers and incense and words of barbarous invocation; from a mojo hand with van van rubbed on its seams; or a reinterpretation of Ozymandias in 310b, Humanities Hall, at noon; or a pair of cheap jeans, an imitation Stetson, and a lewd gesture at a passing car.  One performs rituals on the roof at midnight, in the classroom, at an altar in the basement made from the door of a condemned house, or on Polk Street in full view of the headlights streaming past like lemon-white balloons.

Consider: when cornered or confronted or dragged into the light, evil thinks of weapons.  When given no way out, a fool or an animal fights to the death.  Consider also: there is nothing more evil or foolish than a human animal cornered by reason, by sincerity, or by common sense.  Thus the Speculator, the peddler selling bouquets of symbolic meaning and tugging on the choke chains of relevance, speaks what passes for the truth of her individual experience while avoiding the retribution of the masses, for whom the bottom line has always been and always will be three hots, a cot, and unlimited cable.

Symbolism can cut more deeply than plain language.  Well-honed symbols can be made to resonate like poison from a razor’s edge the way a good venom will echo through the body, taking organs like a general takes land.  The Speculator says, let the venom be good.  The Speculator says, you are more than your animal wants.  Maybe the Speculator even goes so far as to say, think.

Think and avoid being interpolated into power structures that feed your animal wants at the expense of your rational and superarational mind, flooding you with stupid details, with the endless distractions of sitcoms and status updates and the antics of politicians.  There are no politicians.  There is only the precession of symbols moving along preordained grids, along schematic causal chains, designed to reinforce dominant paradigms that make money to perpetuate themselves.  Cities like circuit boards.  Telecomunications data streams like enfolded spiderwebs, matricies of obligation, of misdirection, of stasis and social expectation woven in layers.

If we could not telecommunicate, what could we become?  The human potential movement says, nothing.  The Speculator says, how did we get here in the first place?  And maybe the Speculator adds, let the venom be good.  Let there be curses, spite marriages, drunken train hopping, total network failure from perpetual IP configuration faults, the throwing of beer bottles from roofs, the dark whisper of rain over the junkyard, the junkyard that used to be the parking lot of a sports arena, the parking lot that housed a circus, the circus that got wet by the same rain that fell on Constantine before he converted and ruined half the world.  Because all water cycles from ocean to sky to earth endlessly like the mistakes we don’t remember and are destined to repeat.

But the Speculator must remain mindful of the moon.  When the moon enters Pisces, it obscures everything, occludes thinking like water running down glass.  There are shapes one knows, certain forms, certain modes of acting, feeling, believing, assuming, receiving.  The Speculator sees them as fish at the bottom of a pool, twisting, blurry, just out of reach.  And so he writes this essay in the hour of Luna, saying let there be darkness and light and let them dance on the face of the blue moon—like ripples on water made by molten lead or flights of birds on the bowl of the sky or the shapes one sees coalesce in the clouds—and let the dance mean more than syllables in the animal screams of fools.

A fortune teller in Northern California looked at my palm and said, “You’re going to lead an unnaturally long life.”  Then she slid my money back across the table and added, “I feel bad for you.”  This was in 2008 or 2009.  My memory of the year is less distinct than the mournful expression on her face, how she pulled off her chintzy Madame Sofia veil, leaned back, and lit a cigarette as if to say, sorry, kid, that’s how it is.

I was supposed to pay her $30 for 30 minutes, but we sat there for almost two hours while she read my tarot cards.  By the time she got around to looking at my hands, she’d already told me three important things about my future.  I was going to travel across an ocean.  I was going to do things no one in my family had ever done.  And I was going to outlive everybody I knew.  As of 2018, two of those three predictions have come true.

It’s amazing how quickly life can change.  You leave the house every day and say, this is the job I do.  This is the market where I shop.  This is the person I live with.  These are the faces I see as I walk down my street.  This is the field with daisies nodding in the wind.  This is me.  For the moment, at least, this is me.

And if you succeed, if you’re healthy and disciplined and dedicated and proficient, if you don’t weaken and get that regular colonoscopy and save your money, you might last long enough to see all your variables change.  Then you’ll say, this is me—isn’t it?  But you won’t know how to answer.  You’ll remember the fortune teller saying, “I feel bad for you,” and you’ll understand what she meant.  You won’t know how to recognize yourself.  You’ll be a survivor.  And nobody actually ever wants that.  The last man standing is, by definition, all alone.

Some of us die and are reborn in a single lifetime.  In my four-and-a-half decades, I’ve already lived several full lives, played roles that had perfectly formed inciting incidents, climaxes, and denouements, which in earlier times or in other places could have described the total breadth and depth of a person’s lived experience.  I’m 44 years old, not too old but not that young, either.  Most days, I look 10 – 15 years younger than that.  Is that good?

I spend a lot of time lost in my own head, reading, walking around and looking at things.  And I’ve managed to orchestrate a life where I can do that.  I can become fascinated by very simple experiences, the wind in different kinds of trees, for example, or the way sound echoes on the canal beneath my bedroom window.  There’s a lot going on everywhere you look.  Sometimes, it’s hypnotic.  Sometimes, it’s beautiful.  Sometimes, it makes me want to scream for a real long time.  The world is too much.  It isn’t interested in making sense or being rational.  We’re the ones who make it matter.  But do we really?

I don’t recommend going to fortune tellers very often.  If they’re good, you’ll know too much.  If they’re bad, you’ll be wasting your money.  If they’re stupid, you’ll feel stupid.  And if they’re clever, you’ll feel even more stupid.  A fortune teller is like a bad pizza.  You paid for it.  So you’re going to eat it.  You might feel disgusted afterwards.  You might not want to talk about the experience.  You might want to put it away in the file labeled Decisions About Which I Will Feel Forever Ashamed and vow never again.  But you’ll probably be back. 

It’s how magical things work.  It’s how art works.  You go see the performance piece at the museum and it has some guy drenched in urine and suspended upside-down by fish hooks from the ceiling for hours over plaster of Paris horses having sex.  And you think, wow, that is neither pleasing to the eye nor conceptually interesting.  It’s pretentious and it’s trying way to hard to be something that isn’t boring.  You write scathing things about it on your blog.  You try to put it out of your mind because you know that every minute you spend thinking about it is a minute you’ll never get back.  But six months later, you go, I wonder what’s showing at the museum.  So do you want anchovies on your plaster horsefucking pizza this time?  Of course you do.  Want to know the future?  Just let me shuffle these cards.

I took piano lessons as a kid.  I was very serious about them.  My teacher was a professor in the music department at the university.  He was a lot like Mr. Rogers.  He radiated that improbable blend of whipsmart intelligence shrouded in simplicity and humor.  He was a remarkable man, a truly gifted person who knew how to appreciate life.  And one of the things he really appreciated was teaching children classical piano.  I learned an immense amount about how to be a decent human being just by spending time with him. 

I remember us sitting in a room with about 50 grand pianos.  He played a single note and we listened to it until it passed away.  Then we discussed its shape, its color, its temperature.  There was an entire life in that sound, a whole universe from the big bang to the last chapter of the Book of Revelation with dinosaurs and empires and prophets and an Industrial Revolution and fiber optics and climate change and insane politicians and Mad Max and the heat death of a wandering star.  All we had to do was listen.  And, like gods, we knew we could always play another note—that, in fact, we or someone of our great pantheon would play another one and would inevitably bring another cosmos into being.

Years later, far away at a different university, I’d study the Metaphysical Poets and I’d encounter Thomas Traherne’s poem, “Shadows in the Water.”  It contains these lines:

I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seeméd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

And I’d write a half-baked undergraduate essay on the metaphysics of sound as expressed through the semiotics of Traherne’s mirror imagery.  Fabulous.  The only important thing about it was that I remembered listening to my piano teacher play that note when I read “Thus did I by the water’s brink/ Another world beneath me think” and thought: exactly.  Our second selves these shadows be.  The gods look down from Olympus and see their reflections in us as we, in turn, look and listen to our own universes encapsulated in the breadth of a single note—as above, so below.  Quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius.  I’ve lived many lives, been reborn into many universes.  Godlike, I’ve brought universes into being.

All being depends on context, which is to say, on the existence (meaning) of a universe.  One of the many reasons I love Carl Sagan is that he said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”  This is as true for the pie as it is for the pie maker—they both depend on the existence of a universe to contain them and give them meaning.  By extension, if the pie maker is the last man standing in his universe, all meaningful correlation between the existential condition of the pie and that of the universe eventually breaks down. 

In short, one can only eat one’s own apple pies in solitude for so long before one goes insane.  The existence of a pie implies both future and past in space: in the future, someone will sit in a landscape and eat the pie which the pie maker made in the past.  Because of this, if you succeed at the game of life, I will feel bad for you. 

You will outlast your universe; your apple pies will no longer be meaningful.  You will survive and will have no one for whom you can make an apple pie or anything else.  You will see the sky fall, the stars burn out, the destruction of the world.  You will be haunted by memories of times long past and people you loved and wars that no one remembers.  That is a truly horrible fate.  Do you want to win this game?  For your sake, I sincerely hope not.

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

You Are Somewhere Else

First, a Sincere Declaration of Thanks

I’ve spent most of my life running in circles looking for something authentic, then waiting for permission to explore it, and harshly criticizing myself when I didn’t get that permission.  Maybe other people have different experiences, but this has been mine, my personal through-line from childhood to the present.  So I try to be as sincere as possible when I write about my frustrations and failures.  Because what else can I do?  While it’s true that sincerity doesn’t make you friends, at least it makes you the right sort of enemies.  I imagine this blog post will do more of that.

Still, I try to avoid self-pity and, because of this, I usually take a long time to form opinions about what I’ve done or failed to do and how others have reacted.  I ruminate.  I turn things over, trying to see past faulty assumptions, convenient rationalizations, and other self-serving anodynes.  Most people probably do this to some extent, but I think I do it more.  Sometimes, it works.  Other times, what I took for a true perception, for reality, eventually dissolves into just another subjective field, just another corridor of the maze that I have come to think of as my life.  In a maze, you never know what the next twist will bring.  Usually, it brings another twist.

With this in mind, I should begin by saying that in 2010 I came very close to ending my life.  This essay is about that time, but it’s not just about depression and not really about suicide.  It’s not a success narrative where I write about how I overcame great difficulties and am now nearing perfectibility.  It’s not about taking revenge on others through a misguided petty hit piece.  And it’s certainly not about castigating myself for the many imaginary errors I’ve regretted and then dismissed over the last eight years in order to keep getting up in the morning.  It’s a slice of life—a big, fat, ugly slice that tries to embrace the broadest range of experience in order to get closer to the truth.  In this, it’s a lot like an advanced non-fiction exercise.

“Advanced” because it is not easy and not something you would assign to a 17-year-old English major in an introductory writing workshop.  “Non-fiction” because it’s a mode of creative expression that pretends a certain degree of inviolable objectivity, even though we know that’s impossible.  Every memoir, no matter how fabulous, must begin implicitly or explicitly with an assertion of truth or at least with a sincere declaration of authorial good faith: “I did this.  I saw this.  This happened.  At least, I think it happened.”  Rousseau’s Confessions does it with style:

Whenever the last trumpet shall sound, I will present myself before the sovereign judge with this book in my hand, and loudly proclaim, thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I.  With equal freedom and veracity have I related what was laudable or wicked, I have concealed no crimes, added no virtues; and if I have sometimes introduced superfluous ornament, it was merely to occupy a void occasioned by defect of memory: I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood.

This is my favorite passage from the first part of the book because literary historians have proven that the Confessions contains many misstatements if not deliberate falsehoods.  Such graceful bald-faced prevarication is a rare and beautiful thing.  But I am not so talented.  And I have no plans to weigh my heart against a feather on the last day. 

Instead, I will put it this way: I suspect I am not a horrible person.  I have faith that I’m not even tactless.  I believe my greatest defect is that I lack the imagination necessary to see several moves ahead.  I lack interpersonal foresight, which has made me a poor manager of nervous egomaniacs and a terrible chess player.  But I love chess.  And that is a serious problem, even if I hate the high-strung pampered egomania of academic writing programs, because everything toward the end of my PhD program was just a version of that game.

Robert Greene, in the acknowledgements of The 48 Laws of Power—a book loved equally by goateed 25-year-olds with a Libertarian Bitcoin fetish and the morose IT professionals you see combing the self-help section for books on how to become an alpha male—has a similar protestation of sincerity:

I must also thank my dear friend Michiel Schwarz who was responsible for involving me in the art school Fabrika in Italy and introducing me there to Joost Elffers, my partner and producer of The 48 Laws of Power.  It was in the scheming world of Fabrika that Joost and I saw the timelessness of Machiavelli and from our discussions in Venice, Italy, this book was born. . . . Finally, to those people in my life who have so skillfully used the game of power to manipulate, torture, and cause me pain over the years, I bear you no grudges and I thank you for supplying me with inspiration for The 48 Laws of Power.

If we read this carefully, we have to smile.  Greene is doing what we might call an “inverted Rousseau,” making the same assertion in a backwards way: this is a book about real things; therefore, I thank all those who have manipulated and tortured me for providing good material and, in the process, I declare my sincerity. 

Greene puts us on notice that his book is based on subjective material that emanates from his and Elffers’ lived experience, creating a Rousseau-esque escape hatch.  As The 48 Laws of Power is all highly subjective (essentially a kind of implicit portrait of Greene stitched together in historical anecdotes), the value of whatever he writes defaults to his apparent sincerity (“I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood”).  It’s not about an objective truth process.  It’s about rhetorical ethos.

That is wonderful because ethos might be the only sincere rhetorical mode.  After logos topples from an unstable foundation of assumption, appeal to authority, and generalization; after pathos is unmasked as merely a screen of emotion recollected in tranquility; the persuasive credibility of the speaker is all that remains.  In a world where absolute truth does not exist, everything is ethos.  And so I construct my own ethical escape hatch. 

2010 was the worst year of my life, the year after my mother died of lung cancer; the year after my first book was published; the year I got my PhD in English; the year I attended my last AWP Conference; the year I traveled to the deep South for an excruciating week-long job interview and realized the English department clichés also obtain south of the Mason-Dixon Line; the year I got very ill; the year I was admonished by my mentor for questioning the value of my degree and told to be grateful for indefinite unemployment; the year my father began another surly adolescence; the year I began to think that there was no place for me in this world.  There are many years I’d relive if I could.  2010 is not one of them.  But I have been told to be thankful for these experiences because they have supplied me with a lot of inspiration.  As such, this writing is my sincere declaration of thanks.

Prelude

You never know what the next twist in the maze will bring but, in 2009, I think I was doing as well as could be expected when I stood in front of the department graduate adviser’s desk and said I needed a leave of absence to visit my mother in hospice.  For some reason, that moment stands out as a prelude for the upcoming year.

The adviser, the department’s resident medievalist, seemed to exist in an acid vapor of contempt for all creative writing students and their keepers.  She disliked me in particular because I’d dropped her Old English seminar the previous semester and she’d taken it personally.  Since I was doing a PhD with a creative dissertation (the final product would become Gravity, my first story collection), I didn’t need to be in her class.  But she needed me there.  Or, at least, she needed to feel loved by as many students as possible.

This was the woman who would thereafter try to prevent me from graduating so that my funding would run out.  This was the woman—whether due to old workplace feuds or out of resentment that there were more creative writing events on campus than dramatizations of Piers Plowman and undergraduate maypole dances—perpetually tried to block funding to the creative writing program and force out the graduate students depending on tuition waivers.  Her style of chess was to kill the pawns first.  Attack the supply lines, starve the more dangerous units in their fortifications, and wait for winter.  Classic medieval siege tactics.

However, standing before her desk, I was barely aware of the billowing acid cloud.  I was half-blind with grief.  All I thought about was my mom and how I had to get back to California to see her.  Looking back, I’m surprised I even had the wherewithal to stand up straight, much less ask for a leave of absence.  But I was very responsible.  I took everything seriously.  I thought a lot about my future in academia, especially in creative writing instruction.  And I felt my future depended on me contentiously following up on every detail.  I was, essentially, as sincere as I have ever been in my life.  I shouldn’t have been that sincere.

Given my emotional state, what the adviser said to me didn’t register until I’d left the building.  The conversation went something like this:

“I need a leave of absence to go to California because my mother is dying of cancer.”

She rolled her eyes, looked out the window as if she were considering it, sighed, then shook her head.  “No can do.  You only have so much funding.  Your funding will not cover you for another semester.”

“My mother is dying.  She doesn’t have long.  I’ve completed my course work.  My dissertation only needs to be approved.  I don’t even need any more credits.”

Another sigh.  More contemplating the clouds.  “Well, that’s really too bad.  You have to be in residence or your funding will run out while you’re gone.  Good luck.”

I stood there, trying unsuccessfully to process this. Then she rolled her eyes and asked me if there was anything else.

The grief robot turned and left her office, got on the elevator, rode it down to the bottom floor, walked out to the fountain in the center of the courtyard, and stared at the water for a long time.  Only then, did he think of the graduate adviser rolling her eyes.  Over the ensuing 9 years, the moment of her eye roll would be impressed in his memory as a perfect metaphor, a perfect image foreshadowing all the inspiration and gratitude to come.

The Tragedy of Not Dying

A hospice is a horrible place.  It’s like being given a lollipop for a bullet wound.  You’re bleeding out and everyone tells you to enjoy your lolly.  It’s cherry.  It’s got a smiley face.  Why aren’t you happy? Visiting my mother with my father there added another layer to the experience.  In spite of the pain and horror of the place, in spite of watching my mother waste away in her bed, hallucinating and suffering and being afraid, I came to understand that my father’s grief was different from mine.  I was feeling bad for my mother.  He was feeling bad for himself.

This was still 2009.  My only course, aside from empty dissertation credits, was a German reading and literature seminar.  The professor, a kind old man about to retire in his late 60s, loved his students the way he loved his trees—which is to say, far more than he loved the university.  I asked him for advice because he was the only person I could ask.  And he made it possible for me to exist in two places at once.  I gave my own writing students two weeks of work and held online course meetings via Skype and I emailed my German professor my work, which made it seem like I was present.  This is what allowed me to fly to California and see my mom for the last time.

In those first awful trips to the hospice, I’d naïvely hoped that my father and I could come together in our grief and support each other.  Of course, this was pure fantasy since he’d always enjoyed being a father but had rarely done any fatherly things.  I could count the number of times we’d gone to movies, the one thing we could do together because it involved no conversation.  And there were a few other misadventures over the years where my mother badgered him into going to some school play (he stood by the door to be the first person out) or taking me fishing (we did a U-turn at the access road to the lake and went home) or camping (it rained and so we packed up in the middle of the night and left).  He never beat me and he brought home a paycheck.  To the best of my knowledge, he never stepped out on my mother.  But he was never involved more than that; though, he lived with us in the same house—somewhat more than a housemate, somewhat less than a relative.

So my hope that he would be able, somehow, if in a manly way, to share this painful experience with me, was not based on reality.  After a certain amount of talk about how sad he was, it became noticeable that he never talked about my mom.  He sat by her bed, lost in his own self-pity, as the cancer ate its way through her brain and wasted her body.  As she died by inches, he proceeded as usual, focusing on his own needs above all else.

I witnessed this.  My wife witnessed this.  But I was so aggrieved I could barely speak.  Sometimes, my wife had to help me walk from the car to my mother’s room.  Have you ever been so upset that you can barely walk?  Until you have, you won’t know the feeling.  When you have, you’ll never forget it.  It transcends description.

I focused completely on my mom.  I waited for her moments of clarity.  I told her I loved her.  I told her the good things about my PhD program.  I made jokes and she tried to laugh.  One day, my great aunt—a stately old Italian woman who sounded like my late grandmother and seemed covered in the old-world charm that vanished with her generation—showed up with a peach and a kitchen knife.  She cut slices and fed them to my mom with a smile on her face.  Even now, as I write this, I cry a little because it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.  That kind of goodness doesn’t exist much in this world.

It was a very difficult time.  Two weeks later, I returned to finish my program.  In one of her last moments of clarity, my mom had ordered me to go back.  She didn’t want me to see her die and me being in the PhD program meant a lot to her.  I think she felt ashamed that she wasn’t going to be around to take care of my father and me the way she always had.  And knowing that I was going to get a doctorate was a relief, as if it would be the next best thing.  She also had a lot of pride in her appearance and the cancer had been unkind.  So when I offered to stay, she insisted that I not.  About two weeks after that, my father called and said to say good-bye to her.  I told her I loved her.  And I think she died shortly thereafter.

I miss her every day.  But this isn’t about that, either.  It’s about the aftermath, how everything changed as a result of her death.  Some people are the linchpins of their families.  When they go, everything goes.  That was what happened.  I flew back again for her funeral.  She was buried holding a photo of my father and me.  It was a closed casket and I don’t remember much else, just bits and pieces.  I was out of my mind. 

As we moved toward the Fall semester of 2010, I felt melted down and recast as a different person.  I’d lost my happy thoughts.  I didn’t go out or talk to many people other than my wife and my program mentor.  I stopped writing fiction.  Most of what I did was perfunctory.  But I knew I had to get my degree.  Even if I collapsed afterward, I would complete the PhD.

The Reading Series

The year before, I’d allowed myself to be persuaded that working as the assistant coordinator for the university literary reading series would “look good on my resume.”  And I did my best as the monthly, sometimes bi-monthly, flier maker, venue securer, introducer-to-the-introducer, complaint taker, fielder-of-calls from mentally unstable bookstore proprietors, irradiated scapegoat, and general handler of said low-rung celebrity infants terribles

Sometime before I left town for good, one of the faculty members admitted to me that the assistant coordinator position was really only supposed to entail flier making and that the professor who was getting paid to be to be doing the other things had dumped the rest on me.  But by then I was so depressed that I couldn’t summon the necessary outrage.

One writer wanted a per diem that wasn’t in his agreement.  Another wanted intel on, in his exact words, “the most fuckable students who might be around.”  The butch lesbian poet would only communicate with me through an intermediary because I was straight and male.  The playwright was supernaturally high throughout his entire visit and had to be physically guided to the stage.  The “local writer,” penciled in because there was a vacancy in the schedule that month, struggled to contain her spiritual darkness through the entire event such that when I handed her the honorarium (significantly less than what the other, slightly more famous writers had received), she snatched it out of my hand, hissed a “Go fuck yourself,” and then smiled broadly at an approaching faculty member.  These were some of the more endearing ones.

Needless to say, it was not the greatest collection of individuals.  They generally came across as worn out, mediocre, vain, full of fear, full of resentment, and perpetually on the hustle for any crumb of recognition.  Calling them fools wouldn’t be accurate because they were all reasonably intelligent.  They simply knew the score too well, knew they should have received more for their dedication and efforts.  You could see that loathsome awareness stamped on their faces.  Now they were privileged to read their work to the smirking tenured faculty who hadn’t hired them, a menagerie of twitchy English students, and whichever townies may have wandered in looking for free wine.  It wouldn’t get much better than that.

I disliked the visiting readers even though I saw myself and my fellow grad students reflected in them.  Most of the people featured in the series that year hadn’t been picked for life’s cheer squad.  They were the leftovers, the understudies, the adjuncts with slim books from presses you’ve never heard of.  Many, it seemed, faced depression so considerable that they were pharmaceutically enhanced 100% of the time.  I wondered more than once how they could continue to produce writing.  The greatest irony was that most of them had already gone further in their careers than anyone currently in my PhD program stood to go.

There were a few exceptions, a few graceful and brilliant souls who’d agreed to come as personal favors to various faculty members.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them as well as the moments of hilarity you find in every English department.  2010 wasn’t all doom and gloom, just most of it.

The second time I was told to go fuck myself was around 3 AM on a Sunday morning toward the end of Fall semester.  My insomnia had become pretty dependable at that point and I was already awake when the phone rang.  I got out of bed, told my wife I had no idea who it was, and shuffled into our tiny living room, where I sat on the couch and listened to the breather on the line.  He was panting hard.  I thought it was quaint that in this day and age people still gave breather-masturbator calls.  The caller ID came up with nothing.

When he realized I’d said hello and was listening, he rumbled out a “Go fuck yourself” and hung up.  I sat in the dark for a while, thinking about the human condition.  Then he called back.  It was F, one of the few grad students who’d been asked to read in the series.  He mumbled some things and then shouted that he thought I had a problem and should get help.  He was drunk off his ass.

I asked him why he felt that way and he broke it down for me.  F had read with his wife, you see, and I’d made the mistake of introducing him before her.  Neither of them were ever going to get over it.  Plus, she was a Navajo princess and I’d introduced them as husband and wife.  You don’t do that to a Navajo princess.  Didn’t I fucking know that?  What was wrong with my head?

“Princess?  Really?  I thought you guys were from Pittsburgh.”

He hung up again and didn’t speak to me until I ran into him at the AWP Conference a few months later—where he was keyed up and sweaty, slapping me on the back, telling me how he’d been featured in a very cool spontaneous reading held on one of the convention center’s escalators that drew an enormous crowd.  Now he had a pocket of phone numbers to network.  Amazing.  He didn’t remember a thing about calling me in the dark and telling me what I could go do with myself. 

Or maybe he’d repressed that memory along with his courtship of the Navajo princess, that hard winter living as tribe’s writer, the majestic swish of his khakis as he hunted buffalo, armed only with an unpublished manuscript.  I haven’t seen him or heard a thing about him since the conference, but I suspect he’s either got tenure by now or he’s back in Pennsylvania selling pre-loved automobiles like it’s a poetry slam.

The End, My Friend

Depression is a very idiosyncratic and personalized illness.  But those who have it tend to have a few things in common, one of which is that depression can be cumulative in its gravity and magnitude.  Today, you’re not feeling good.  Tomorrow, you can’t get out of bed.  The day after that, you’re standing on a chair with a vacuum cleaner cord around your neck and you think you’re the only one in the history of the world who’s endured such a linear degeneration.  Feeling alone is a big part of it.

I felt alone until I discovered  Darkness Visible by William Styron and recognized a lot of what I’d been going through.  I don’t know how I found the book, whether it was in the fiction section of the library where I sometimes studied or whether I encountered it in a used bookstore or somewhere else.  While it wouldn’t be true to claim that the book “saved” me, I can say it helped enough to get me down off the chair, multiple chairs, actually.

Reading it was an emergency measure, but it was something I could depend on.  I didn’t talk about my feelings.  I’ve never been very good at that, not even with my loved ones.  But I could read someone else talking about his.  And since I loved Styron’s fiction, I felt like I could trust him.  If he said it, I could accept it enough to be able to think about it.  And that was usually all it took for me to keep going.

By Spring break, I was prepared to submit my dissertation.  I missed my mom horribly and my wife and I returned to California to take care of the empty house where all my mother’s things sat gathering dust.  My father wouldn’t go near the place.  When he wasn’t drunk, he was hard at work rediscovering his hormones in erratic, awkward, and desperate ways.  Our relationship, never substantial to begin with, began to splinter irreparably when, out of guilt, he started to regularly criticize my mom. 

He was a self-righteous Catholic for most of my life, who often amused himself by telling me to get my ass to church and that since I’d been baptized I could never not be a Catholic.  But after a year of drinking, trash talking, and a pissed-drunk rape attempt on my cousin in front of me, he was ready to start up a relationship with an equally neurotic married woman who’d run after him at an event.

He confessed this to me one afternoon because I guess he couldn’t confess it to his priest.  Then he added that it was like a DH Lawrence love story.  Then he said she was going to get a divorce from her despicable husband and they’d marry each other.  Lovely.  I didn’t want to hear about it.  I especially didn’t want to hear him ask me to be his best man.  I could hardly speak.  It shows how detached and self-involved he was that he thought it was something he could ask me. 

“What about all that Catholicism?” I remember asking.  I don’t remember if he answered.

Around that time, because he wouldn’t help me clean out my mother’s things, I’d been over at the house, crying, putting her clothes in Goodwill boxes, packing up old photo albums, doing all the things we could have done as a family.  Instead, my wife helped and we did the best we could in a few days.  Much was overlooked, things from my childhood, things in the garage that I really do wish I could have kept.  But we only had so much time.  Now I imagine my father and his new wife paid at some point to have it all carted to the dump.  But I have no way of knowing, since I haven’t been back in years.

I do recall taking to the gardener, who revealed that he’d had my mother making food for him right up to the point where she went into the hospital for the last time.  She couldn’t lie down straight in bed.  So she was sleeping sitting up in a chair in order to breathe, then walking around on crutches, cooking and cleaning.  According to the gardener, he screamed at her frequently.  She was fucking dying and this is how he treated her.  That’s abuse.  It’s horrible fucking abuse.  And my mother, who was just about a saint in every way, did her best.

My mother was a talented painter and sculptor, but he’d left her art in a shed that had a broken roof.  It rained a lot that year and most of her work was ruined.  I’d been standing in the backyard, looking at the shed, unable to get in because he neglected to give me the key to the deadbolt (probably because he didn’t want me to see what had happened) when he called with a task for me.  It was something small, something to do with getting a TV boxed up for him and cancelling the  TV service that my mom had in her hospice room.  I’d already taken care of it, but he spoke to me with contempt, as if I were very lazy.  He said, “After all I’ve done for you, couldn’t you take care of this one thing?”

I thought of my mother on crutches, making him breakfast.  I thought of her art destroyed through neglect.  I thought of my father drinking a case of my cousin’s high-end champagne and then trying to fuck her in front of me.  I thought of all the nasty things he said about my mother when she was gone, after he’d cried his eyes out for himself, after he blamed me for not being there when she died, after the sizeable amount of heirloom gold from old Italy that my mom wanted to come to me but that disappeared right around the time my father and his new cadaverous lady friend got a second condo in San Antonio.  I thought about all these things and saw that no matter what his paycheck had been worth, no matter how much I may have cost as a child, no matter what my mom and he may have given me as a teen or a confused 20-year-old, I owed him nothing. 

I felt something snap and a certain coldness overtook me.  My depression had come to be replaced with something more useful: calm, thoughtful anger.  We had it out.  He told my wife and I we had to be out of the house.  Within 48 hours, we were.  I’ve never looked back.

Gone for Good

I got my PhD without fanfare.  My wife and I went out to dinner and it was nice, just the two of us.  I knew I’d miss my mentor in the program and her brilliant husband.  I’d miss certain things about the university town and my own writing students, several of whom had become more like friends.  But I was glad to be done—done with the degree, done with my father, done with trying to hump the dream of being an academic creative writer.

In the eight years since the day we drove south, blasting M. Ward’s “Helicopter” with the windows rolled down, I’ve thought about 2010 quite a lot.  I still get depressed.  But I can cope.  I’ve learned that it is possible and, for me, even preferable to have a life outside academia.  And I’ve come to accept that family isn’t really who raises you when you don’t have a say in the matter.  It’s who you choose when you do.

I miss my mom every day and I write fiction every day.  As of this writing, I’m working on my third collection of stories with a novel draft mostly written.  I’ve published over 30 items in magazines, worked as a freelance writer and journalist, and lived in 9 countries.  I’m healthy.  I really don’t have anything to complain about right now.  And sometimes I even give myself permission to think I’m happy.  Somewhere, there’s a Navajo princess riding through the clouds over Pittsburgh, but I doubt our paths will cross again.

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sally Yates at Carter Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s you.”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s me.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I have an interview.”

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

“You do?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

“A board?”

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

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

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

“You sure about that, Jim?”

“About what?”

“Him swinging the board at you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence.

Then Jack, to the carpet: “He—”

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

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

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

“Ha,” said Jack.

“Typical,” said Betsy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ha,” said Jack.

Abeline nodded, looked me over.

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?”

“People died.”

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

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

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

Then a hand went up.

“Yeah?”

“But what are you reading for dinner tonight?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just had one, alright?”

“How sharp was it?”

“Pretty fuckin’ sharp.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I guess.”

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

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

“Sales,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yes, if we look at that scene after reading Through a Scanner Darkly, we will have an emotional meltdown because Philip K. Dick was no fool and he understood something when he wrote:

But the actual touch of her lingered, inside his heart. That remained. In all the years of his life ahead, the long years without her, with never seeing her or hearing from her or knowing anything about her, if she was alive or happy or dead or what, that touch stayed locked within him, sealed in himself, and never went away.

So I do this. I think of this. And I listen to “Wish You Were Here” sipping my tea and breathing through the pain while I look at the meadow. And that last stanza, “We’re just two lost souls/ Swimming in a fishbowl/ Year after year/ Running over the same old ground/ And how we found/ The same old fears” means a lot to me; though, I have never felt more alien in this world.

The Voight-Kampff Empathy Test

Sometime back in 1993, William Gibson is supposed to have said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed,” which is a saying that seems wise, then obvious, then wise again the more you think about it. But 23 years of hindsight later, the obvious part seems far more dominant than whatever might have proven insightful. It’s 2016. Has the sheer science-fiction-horror-dread of this moment in time caught up to us from the back end of the 20th century yet? The future is not evenly distributed, at least the good parts where someone like me can get bionic knees. In 1982, Blade Runner gave the world a vision of rebirth after decay instead of the unadulterated Kali Yuga we’re entering now.

Ridley Scott wanted to show us how replicants just want to be loved and how those replicants are really us. Instead, we’re seeing how we’ve failed to evolve beyond the dystopian Reagan-era cyberpunk automatons we fantasized about in the 1980s. We never got past Terminator. Now, all we can say, with any degree of sincerity, is: blame the drugs. But not the ones people were on in the eighties when they handed us the trickle-down theory. Blame the nasty synthetic street drugs that made the best story of the last two decades have to be about a high school chemistry teacher dying of cancer who starts cooking meth to pay his bills. Yeah. Debt. Meth. Drones. Endless war. Doesn’t it add up?  Time for your meds.

All our dreams of machine salvation, online utopia, and some vague transhumanist singularity depending on an equally flimsy brain-as-hard drive metaphor became loud, stupid, self-important Neo from the Matrix—our savior, here to make us feel better about being consumers and take away our pain. The fridge logic singularity of Matrix Revolutions was merely the last cynical whimper.

But I’m in a bad mood today. Don’t listen to me. Now we have Trump and Hilary. Now the sweaty holographic fetish reel of decadent and naïve Reagan-era consumerism obviously didn’t work, but we’ve taken too much fluoxetine hydrochloride to care. It was never going to work. It wasn’t built to work. And it was always going to be ugly beyond words.

“And, for an instant, she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty, that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human.” 

Count Zero, William Gibson

One of the great, maybe incredible, things about having interesting friends is that you have a lot of stories to tell, if you’re the sort of person who likes telling stories, which I am. One of the sad, maybe horrible, things is that your friends are often your primary audience for these stories and people reach a point at which they stop trusting you with the events of their lives. They think you’re going to reveal everything ugly and embarrassing written on their hearts and on their faces, and their inherent defectiveness will then be shamefully exposed to the world. Who wants that?

So it’s not hard to see that misunderstandings will be inevitable and a certain degree of paranoia will definitely set in. In fact, your friends are sure to become convinced everything you write is about them personally. Oh sure, maybe you’ve used different details (like age, gender, geographical location, profession, background, ethnicity, species of house pet, and everything that happened) but really it has to be about them. They might as well have told the story themselves about themselves. And sometimes they do.

But more often they don’t. Because if they had, they’d understand that a good story is like an exotic bird. It’s nice to look at for a while, but how much more wonderful would it be to watch it fly out of your house and into someone else’s, then, squawking, fly into another house and another house until the entire block is pissed off and lights are coming on and maybe somebody throws a shoe and shatters his own windowpane and then the baby starts crying and somebody says I never loved you while standing at the sink and everyone winds up having an affair and life is changed forever. You story did that. So you don’t really have a choice. You have to tell it because what else could have such a remarkable effect? It’s magic. The Resplendent Quetzal has to fly.

Then again, if the story is completely unbelievable—even if it really happened—certain steps must be taken. Say, for example, you have a friend who wins an absurd amount of money in a poker game he should never have been playing. The amount he wins is so large that he fears for his life. But that’s not what makes the story great. The great part is that he had an immense amount of student loan debt, the sort that if he worked long hours for most of his life and never took a vacation or retired, he still wouldn’t be able to get out from under it. And a single poker game put him in a position to eventually pay the whole thing off.

Of course, what really happened is more complicated than that. And, for two years, you mull the story over, trying to come up with a way to tell it—how he paid off his debts and turned his life around and especially how he never played cards again, figuring his luck was divine and the gods don’t do favors like that more than once. For two long years, you feed the bird, imagining what would happen if you let it out on a warm spring night when the chimes are tinkling and everything seems quiet and slow.

Do you have a responsibility here? How much would everyone (especially your friend) hate you for writing the story? The cost-benefit is agony—especially since you know deep down that you’re doing to write it, that your friend is a great person but that you have this compulsion and eventually you will be powerless against it.

So one warm night with the chimes tapping the window and too much caffeine in your veins, you tell yourself you’ll just write it. You won’t send it to a magazine or post it on your blog. You’ll write it like an exorcism and be done with it once and for all. Your friend will never know. And the story will fly out of town, down to some rainforest canopy in the feral part of your hard drive to live with the Splendid Fairywren and the Lilac-Breasted Tern in the cold confetti of paradise.

At least until you drop your laptop in a motel pool on some drunken Sunday far in the future. The point is that you write the story. And, in the course of constructing a realistic narrative about an unreal thing that really happened, you realize that your friend is a fundamentally decent human being. The discontinuities and convolutions of doing creative nonfiction to a bit of his life reveal his essential goodness not unlike a magic mirror. The glass clouds over and it’s not your face looking back. ‘Tis true. He’s a thousand times better than you, oh hypercaffeinated story-writing fool with disheveled hair and guilty conscience.

All you can do is try to render what you consider to be his essential goodness and the wonder of his story—one which has been told many times by many writers better than you but which rarely comes about in real life. The poor, hardworking underdog wins for once and actually does the right thing with the money. Somehow, it’s even better because you can admit that if you had that much, you’d be sunning yourself ricky tick on a super-yacht off the coast of Zadar with Anastazija and Ljubica. He is basically, without a doubt, a better person. And this is why the gods do you no favors. So maybe you do understand a little bit about the world.

In any case, the bird, like the bennu-phoenix of antiquity, rises off your laptop like a flame from its own ashes. Where before it was merely a delicately feathered idea of itself, your writerly fever gives it shape and magical fire. It explodes into words. Then it demands a cookie. Because it is your bennu-phoenix, it prefers Mcvities Milk Chocolate Caramel Biscuits with a cup of strong Assam tea and a little coconut milk. But this is only natural. The real question is: how long do you expect such a marvelous bird to stay put?

Your friend comes to visit and you say nothing. You’re probably so busy shrugging and blaming the houseboats down on the river for the burning smell, that you don’t notice how he’s changed. It smells like an upholstry fire? Well, you know those boat people are always sailing their barges on the other side of the meadow. They’ll strip an empty house clean for fuel. They do it all the time. And you surreptitiously drop a cookie between the seat cushions, hoping the bennu-phoenix will quit trying to nip you in the ass while you’re sitting across from the reason for its existence. The bird wants out.

But your friend has changed, hasn’t he. He’s still got a considerable amount left over after paying his debts and even contributing significantly to his niece’s college fund. A certain air of respectability rides on his shoulders, as if it were now his duty, his burden, to have opinions about things. He’s been reading art history, you see. Politics. He uses the word consequence enough to make you think the word must have tiny lead counterweights roped to it like a piece of flying scenery.

And so you work very hard at having a conversation with this person while trying to square your perception of who he is becoming versus who you have imagined him to be. You feel like your house might burn down from shame at any moment and, though bennu birds might rise and fall, a house only goes one way if it isn’t standing straight. Such shame: that you could have been so wrong, that no matter how many caramel biscuits you feed your creation and no matter how its feathers seem to rake the air with brilliant fire, it is fundamentally false when you thought it was true. Your friend has become a pretentious asshole.

“And so I explained,” he waves his hand and the little counterweighted words bob and weave in the air between you, “that I’m taking this extremely seriously. I said, I’m a shareholder in this company. I’ve got two advanced degrees. And if you’re questioning my judgment on something someone in my position deals with every day, we’re going to have words.”

“So what did he do?”

“He backed down. He had to. I mean, seriously.”

Seriously? He goes. That night, you can’t sleep. You’re covered in a kind of mourning. You thought he had the greatest, most classically great story you’d ever heard—conceived in essential human goodness and dedicated to the proposition that not everyone will be transformed by money into a self-obsessed unaware narcissist.

So you let the bird out, feeling sad and betrayed and blaming yourself, too, for being just as unaware. And it flies onto your blog and burns there for a while. And you hope it has as good a life as any bennu-phoenix could have, it’s origins shrouded in myth, its destiny a riddle.

 

Written for a friend who sleeps the sleep of the just while the cold stars wheel above our heads.

26 May 2016

 

America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing. 
America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956. 
I can’t stand my own mind.

—Allen Ginsberg, America

If there is such a thing as a formula for success in life, it might go something like this: don’t complain, get results, and watch your back. Notice I said success, not happiness. We can determine metrics for success relative to a given line of effort in a given context—even if such achievement must therefore be contingent and temporary. Still, we can develop certain best practices for success within those parameters. But we have no idea how to determine happiness.

Since 1964, smart people have agreed with Paul that you cannot, under any circumstances, buy love. Clever people (who probably like John’s “Watching the Wheels” a lot more than anything on A Hard Day’s Night) say you may not be able to buy love, but you can certainly buy the conditions most favorable for finding it. However philosophers, especially mathematicians and rhetoricians, respond that “favorable conditions” mean very little when dealing with a binary (love / not love). And playing even-money odds is still a losing game. In other words, correlating a certain quantity and quality of conditions will not necessarily cause a particular outcome. So put your raggedy wallet back in your pants, eh?

Thinking you can beat the system by “bettering your chances” is sloppy, unnecessarily mystical, and prone to failure. It also happens to be in our nature and one of the emotional drivers of post-industrial culture. Part of us may be secretly relieved that we can’t buy love in a Tokyo vending machine, but an even deeper, more pathological part assumes there’s some morality always-already implicit in winning.

We despise the weak, the downtrodden, the unfortunate. We’d prefer that our Bentley be polished by a former office manager recently hoovered into the service economy, not by the mentally ill bearded man who’s been sleeping in the bus station. But we shouldn’t blame ourselves for feeling this way. We know what we like, even if all of heaven’s angels think we’ve grown into monsters.

Max Weber identified this justification-by-success 111 years ago when he wrote that:

the peculiarity of this philosophy of avarice appears to be the ideal of the honest man of recognized credit, and above all the idea of a duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself. Truly what is here preached is not simply a means of making one’s way in the world, but a peculiar ethic. The infraction of its rules is treated not as foolishness but as forgetfulness of duty. That is the essence of the matter. It is not mere business astuteness, that sort of thing is common enough, it is an ethos. (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 16-17)

In our present economy, this pathological faith seems to have mutated into an ethos blind to pervasive redundancy, obsolescence, dehumanization, and systemic violence so toxic and transpersonal as to make one long for a time machine. No one actually believes he or she is secure anymore or will be in the foreseeable future. No one believes (or even likes) the baby boomers, but everyone wants to believe what they say about things naturally improving.

We could argue that western economic systems have been in decline at least since the state of the “special relationship” in the Reagan / Thatcher administration. The modernist concept of empty-at-the-center radiant socioeconomic decay is now a legitimate way of describing our post-modern reality. Gordon White puts it well in his book on chaos and economics: “By refusing to adjust your strategy from the recommended life offered to the baby boomers forty years ago, what you are saying is that you have every confidence in the system; the current challenges are just temporary, and someone will come and sort it all out for us” (The Chaos Protocols). Right. I have yet to find someone willing to identify this messiah without having to listen to incoherent bellowing about making America great again.

So maybe if we’re not as successful as we think we should be, we can at least remind ourselves that we are trying to avoid being completely evil, that the morality of winning is a hollow and damaging ideal, and that we’re doing our part to bear witness to this:

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round,
I really love to watch them roll,
No longer riding on the merry-go-round,
I just had to let it go.

Personally, I’ve done what I could to disconnect from what a professor of mine once called the “cant of success,” but I still get suckered by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and four-hour work weeks and the undergrad-in-communications-level presentations on TED and Big Think. I still read too many articles about “lifehacking” designed to make me a more efficient self-propelled office mechanism. But I read a lot of Allen Ginsberg, too. Like, America:

America why are your libraries full of tears? 
America when will you send your eggs to India? 
I’m sick of your insane demands. 
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks? 
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world. 
Your machinery is too much for me. 
You made me want to be a saint. 

I want to be a saint, but I’m afraid. I want to love everyone, but I’m afraid. I want to tell the truth, but I’m worried that I don’t know what I’m doing. And I worry that we are all actually perfect and have nowhere to go. As a real life saint once said to me: “There’s nothing to be done. There’s nothing to achieve.” This breaks my heart a little bit more every time I think of it.

Who am I to say what is good or bad?  The bad parts are as integral to my life as the good parts. Sartre said that, and I think I agree.  I’m told to want certain things.  I feel like I have desires and pains.  But if I’m going to be honest with myself, I have to accept that desire and pain are both are necessary for a full life.  This, too, breaks my heart in unforeseen circuitous patterns.

Because I know happiness will remain as distant and ephemeral as the next world, until it comes.

I 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

Cunning is what counts in this life, and even that you’ve got to use in the slyest way you can; I’m telling you straight: they’re cunning, and I’m cunning. If only “them” and “us” had the same ideas we’d get on like a house on fire, but they don’t see eye to eye with us, and we don’t see eye to eye with them, so that’s how it stands and how it will always stand. The one fact is that all of us are cunning, and because of this there’s no love lost between us. – Alan Sillitoe, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner”

Long ago, in another, more colorful life, I knew an aging exotic dancer named Juliette. She was 22 years older than me and beautiful in ways exotic dancers half her age weren’t or weren’t anymore. Usually when someone starts off by saying, “I knew an exotic dancer named Juliette,” the preterit know must be read in the most expansive and liberal sense. However, Juliette and I had a far more intimate connection—the greatest intimacy with many in her profession being not so much sexual or romantic as sincere. We were friends. We got along.

Specifically, I would sit in the club with a bottomless coffee (yes, even the coffee) and write fiction. On her breaks, she’d sit with me and eat—a bowl of potato soup or chili con carne, pot pies, various pulverized Stouffer TV dinners heated up at the liquor store a block away. Dancers need to eat just like the rest of us. And her breaks were the times she didn’t have to try to be sexy or smile at people, even though she still did when we’d sit in the back and talk about the weather. There is nothing sexy about a pot pie.

I was a 29-year-old graduate student. And Juliette—especially given the local culture of Missoula, Montana—was certainly old enough to be my mother. At 50, she occasionally looked her age. But she most often looked about 25. She was one of those gifted people who always look young and who always look happy even when they’re sad. Born in Manchester, England, she’d made her way across the Atlantic and across Montana first by marriage then by inertia. And she once told me she didn’t see how Missoula was any better or worse than where she grew up in “Gunchester.” It’s an old story. Goes like this: you get married; you get citizenship; you get away from Anaconda, MT the way you got away from the UK; you take off your clothes for men every night in a bar; you get money for regular frozen beef stroganoff and peas; you befriend the dopey-looking guy scribbling on a steno pad in the corner. You are amused. He publishes a story about you. It’s a living.

Things Get Weird in the Chong Market

So yesterday I came down with a bad case of synchronicity. I hadn’t thought of Juliette and our conversations for a long time. She was entirely unique, one of nature’s prototypes, completely unashamed of her body, and someone who shouldn’t be forgotten. Unlike most in her profession, she didn’t secretly hate men for being the hog-faced repellent bastards that we generally are. And that alone should have commended her to my active memory. Still, a lot had happened since then. I’d lived in five countries and spent a significant amount of time in several more, lost myself, found myself, learned to speak poorly in various foreign languages, deliberately forgot certain things and inadvertently remembered others at the least advantageous times.  I’d done my own long slow dance with the devil in the pale moonlight.

I did not dwell on the painful exigencies of the past because I typically do not like feeling depressed. And my MFA years were full of neuroses, desperation, and dread—in my fellow grad students and in myself—which is what I mostly think of when I remember living in Missoula. People in the English department there hardly ever seemed stable and never seemed happy. All in, it was a stereotypically morose humanities graduate program experience best forgotten, which might go toward explaining why I wrote half my first book in a strip club. But that is a subject for a different (and no doubt equally painful) excavation of the past.

But synchronicity: standing in the narrow crowded Chong Market (the only place I can find Mama-brand noodles in Oxford that taste like the ones I had on a daily basis in Bangkok—I am that guy), I had what can only be described as a supernatural-level return of the repressed. While looking at a stack of tiny red plastic offering bowls, I heard someone pronounce “Chinese bowls” like “Chinese bowels.” I wasn’t sure who said it (the place was packed), but I remembered Juliette and her innumerable bowls of chili, which she called as “bowels of chili soup.” I never mentioned how funny that sounded to me because I was afraid she’d take it the wrong way. Over time, her accent had evolved from heavy Mancunian English to some utterly unique amalgam of Manchester dialect plus upper United States and lower Canadian. It was an amazing moment. And, for the rest of the day, I felt surrounded by the kind of trippy new age glitterdust that only comes with spooky action, tinfoil-hat Sedona harmonic convergences, and Tinker Bell. How could I have forgotten Juliette?

A Moment of Spontaneous Hoodoo

One of the greatest features of the Chong Market—other than their extensive assortment of ramen and fish sauces—is the enormous red and gold Hotei shrine dead center in the store. Having had such an intense resurgence of memory, I decided something momentous had just happened. When the hand of the past reaches out and tweaks one’s nose, one should pay attention.

I thought of making an offering to Hotei Buddha for the health and excellence of my longish writing projects, even though that had nothing directly to do with my memory of Juliette. Of course, I’m not in Asia but in Oxford and so, after standing there for a while, drawing weird looks from people going down the narrow aisle, I started to think Hotei might not be the way to go. If I was feeling like working some kind of old-timey Seven Lucky Gods Hotei hoodoo, would it not have been even better to go the Saint Friedeswide route and light a candle in the abby down the street?  The trouble was, the culture of Oxford doesn’t particularly like its medieval saints and I’m still waiting for Frida to return my previous call (it’s not me, it’s her—she’s been busy—don’t I think it might be good to start seeing other towns?—am I seriously jealous of the time she’s been spending with Binsey?—let’s act like adults for once—she needs some space). So I decided to settle for just my little Hotei figurine at home, some incense, a stack of hell money, and a shot of something strong to salute the mystery of it all.

Because moments like that are all about mystery. Synchronicity is memory plus pattern recognition. And memory is narrative, wherein lies what the ancient Greeks referred to as the mysterion—more than just your garden-variety Professor Plum with a revolver in the conservatory. It’s the thing that only reveals itself in your life by degrees, unfolding like a Rose of Jericho. It’s the palimpsest you solve over time. It demands interpretation.  I bought my noodles, put two pence on Hotei’s shrine, and drifted along Hythe Street Bridge, feeling Tinker Belled, like I was missing something. What message was I sending myself?

If You Were Any Good . . .

By the time I reached the other side of the bridge, I felt I had the answer: it’s important to remember as much as you can, no matter how painful, because this is what creates you. By extension, it is how you create.

Earlier in the day, I’d had a conversation about a family member who’d written me off a long time ago to the tune of if you were any good, you’d ________. Every writer hears that at some point; though, I count myself as one of the unfortunates who’ve had to hear it more than once from resentful friends as well as distant and immediate relations. Okay, friends? Maybe “people I used to know and no longer like all that much.” But you can’t beat hearing “if you were any good” from family. That’s a special kind of wonderful. When you hear this, remember it because the past is a mysterion you need to constantly interpret and whoever said that, no matter how much they grin and prevaricate, will have your worst interests at heart going forward. As the person writing the developing narrative of your life, you are the one responsible for writing the plot.

There is absolutely no way a writer can avoid dealing with the past. The entire problem of leading a creative life is bound up with personal history and the old sad “if you were any good” attack. It’s the meritocratic lie that creeps up from the subconscious in the long dark of your novel-length writing project. It’s a nutty relative coming out of nowhere to say she knows that what you wrote is all about her and that’s why she’s so upset. It’s your uncle asking you if you have an agent yet. It’s feeling like you have to do NaNoWriMo to prove something on Facebook. It’s the thing you should never forgive or forget if you respect yourself as an artist. Let them insult you all they want and critique your work on its merits, but never put up with them insulting you through your work.

All of this, as Ecclesiastes might say, is vanity. It gets in the way of mental health, but more so if you allow yourself to forget it.  NaNoWriMo, for example, is an interesting exercise the way having a colonoscopy can be interesting. It’s a unique experience. You have troubling thoughts about the people providing that experience. You walk out stiffly and tell yourself you’re glad you did it; though, you’re not altogether sure it was necessary, and you quietly resolve to never do it again. If you were any good, you’re sure you’d have loved it.  Keep that in mind for next year.

For that matter, if you were any good, you’d be living in New York City. If you were any good, you’d have a novel being optioned, you’d be on the NY Times bestseller list, have a Stegner Fellowship, and no doubt have rancid AWP Conference hookup fellatio scheduled right after the panel discussion in which Charles Baxter says things about moral fiction that everyone will try to forget. If you were any good, you’d be something in residence somewhere. You’d be making a fuckload of money for yourself and around 200 better dressed people who majored in English at Brown and Vassar. More importantly, you’d be making your friends and relatives finally shut up about your life choices because you’d be on that Limitless drug that shot Bradley Cooper through a cannon and transformed him from a writer into a low-fi Jeb Bush. All these things you have to have and make and do in order to be real. If I’d said as much to Juliette, she would have laughed me out of the strip club.

Oh Yes Money is Part of It: The James Patterson Experiment as a Case Study in Thuggery, Bullshit, and Woe

I took my Chong Market mysterion as an opportunity provided by my subconscious to remember and therefore create. In other words, don’t have selective memory. Hold onto the good things, the good conversations, the good people, but keep the painful things pressed hard against your heart. For creative writers, this is essential. Allow yourself to forget a good person and you profane what the world has given you. Allow yourself to forget a painful experience and you lose a hard-won part of your soul.

Walking back home across a city in which people put razor-sharp spikes on four-foot backyard fences because they feel they should, I thought about my old friend, Juliette, and wondered where she was, if she still was. Was she back in Gunchester? Did she get married and become a happy homemaker? Did she wail off half-naked to the horizon on the back of some werewolf’s Harley? Juliette could have done anything because she knew how to survive anywhere. One thing she understood better than I ever have: money will win in the end but that doesn’t excuse us from anything.  We still look to the past in order to create the future.

Consider the “James Patterson Experiment,” which sounds like a funk band started in 1975 at Chico State but which, in reality, was a cynical (but rather funny) project by an unpublished ebook writer named Paul Coleman. Coleman boiled James Patterson’s bestseller formula down to a relatively depressing yet realistic set of principles: “Paul is using Patterson’s fast-paced style (short paragraphs, short chapters), plenty of action (‘when in doubt, blow something up or shoot someone’), and plain language (no purple prose here), among other tactics.” Why? Because Paul wants to get published and pay rent and James Patterson is one of the wealthiest writers alive ($94 million).

Now also consider that there are other “real” writers out there: E.L. James ($80 million), Danielle Steele ($23 million), Stephanie Meyer ($14 million). Searching for literary authors with money gets us the likes of Richard Ford, Haruki Murakami, and Donna Tartt (who, according to Vanity Fair two years ago, was the “It Girl” who’d become the “It Author,” having written The Goldfinch, described as the “It Novel”— read some Vanity Fair and then say it with me: fuck It). These people have all the talent. And if you don’t agree, we’ll replace you online with a 404 Error page and send some Viking-Penguin leg breakers to beat your mother into submission. If you were any good, you wouldn’t be googling the net worth of the person who wrote 50 Shades of Grey.

You don’t mess with enfants terribles littéraires who suddenly get money. And you definitely don’t mess with the hideous lampreys who make a living off of them. There is no one more gangsta than an author (plus lamprey cloud) who can now tell the world to kiss his ass. To be fair, most authors feel they’re due for a little ass worship, given the abuse that comes standard with the writing life. But feelings aren’t the point. In the immortal words of Boss Hogg, “Blood may be thicker than water, but money’s thicker than blood.”

When you’re talking about creative works that produce millions, it’s no longer about art or even about taste; it’s about intellectual property. So Paul Coleman’s website is now a 404 Error result. Why is that, do you think? Where is Paul Coleman now? Google “James Patterson Experiment” and see what comes up for the first 10 pages of results. No, this is not paranoia. This is the notion of “loss prevention” filtered through high-end corporate logic.

To wit: if you pose the classic Foucaldian question: “What is an author?” you may receive a list of brand names that represent intellectual property interests distantly related to human beings alive or dead. If you disagree with this list, we throw our heads back and laugh because you’re broke, chump! Get some talent and you’ll get paid. Then you’ll be real. Only then. If we don’t disappear you in the meantime for asking too many questions since, if you were any good, you’d be something you’re not right now. But I think about Juliette, who was wholly herself. And yesterday, I may have asked the Foucaldian What, exactly, am I? more than once on my way to my little house on the meadow.

One Last Tiresome Synthetic Connection Evoking the Restless Spirit of Bob Nucklet c. 1989

Bob Nucklet (Where are you now, Bob Nucklet?) played the trombone. He was tall, still wore his band letterman jacket two years after graduation, and had his drunk of a father to thank for the fact that he couldn’t walk straight. Bob was an amazing trombone player, but his day job was waiting tables at Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego. We’d stayed friends after I’d transferred and he graduated due to our mutual love of comics and music. Picture me, 17 years old, tooling around San Diego with Bob in a broken-in-every-way-possible 280ZX to buy comic books. We’d discuss Seven Samuroid and Axl Pressbutton over 7-11 coffee with the intensity of post-Soviet avaunt-garde film critics.

When I woke up this morning, thinking about the past, about all these things and more, I had another resurgence of memory: me haltingly trying to explain to Bob that I was picking up classical guitar as well as piano, worried that he would respond like all my other musician friends with piano players think they can play anything. Instead he simply nodded and said, “Just keep playing, Michael. Just keep playing.” And I think I should keep that memory close as well because I have kept playing in my own way—with words and doing my best to avoid the if-you-were-any-goods coming at me from time to time.  Hotei knows, it hasn’t been easy.  

I wonder what Juliette would think if she met Bob. I’m sure they’d fall in love.

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.

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.

There is a definite upside to living in a creaky old house next to a canal with a doctor and four housemates: you’re alive. The downside is only slightly less obvious than that: you and the housemates have to get along with a degree of functional civility, which in Oxford generally means avoiding each other in the hall.

This seems perfect. I’m an introvert by nature and I don’t actually like the company of other human beings for extended periods of time. Someone told me that this almost makes me English, but I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that the culture of Oxford is a very accurate representation of English culture in general. And I don’t believe reclusiveness and introversion necessarily characterize all of Oxford all of the time. Only some of Oxford part of the time. The part involving beer.

I’m not talking about pubs. I’m talking about survival. Beer is essential to cohabitating in Oxford. If you drink wine, you’re out of luck. Get your own place where you can listen to Brigadoon and sing to your cat while making courgette hummus for your dinner guests. I’m talking about something far more exacting and necessary, something essential: the redemptive power of beer to make everything okay when you have to get along with people completely terrified by the prospect of disclosing anything about themselves.

I don’t mean to imply that it’s necessary or even desirable to drink beer with your housemates. On the contrary, you will often drink beer because of your housemates. And the world of difference between these simple and compound prepositions is the world in which you will take 4 cans of the Fursty Ferret up to your room, lock your door, and watch old Trapper John, M.D. episodes as you sip your way toward a better tomorrow.

You will do this because the alternative is staring at the ceiling—listening to your neighbor give sexual dictation to his girlfriend or a meth-head talking to an owl down by the water—while thinking about the psycho-spiritual train wreck that passes for personal relationships in this town. And I say that with nothing but love in my heart for Oxford, its children, and its ales.

Of these particular housemates, though, there isn’t much to say. I think, if we were shipwrecked together on an island in the North China Sea, we would probably converse from time to time. Maybe if we were interned together in a work camp. But, even then, it’s possible that few words would be spoken. As a writer, I have a tendency to catalogue and amplify the personal eccentricities of the people around me. And, in that way, I come to appreciate them. But there is a certain type of person who sends me straight to Trapper John.

This is not without some theoretical precedent. In a creative writing workshop, when someone has written a supporting character who is a two-dimensional rat-bastard, who is such a complete bastard that he never evolves beyond a state of fundamental, luminous bastardy, we call that character “plot furniture.” In other words, he exists as a prop. But if we’re talking about a central character, maybe the main character, the writer has more work to do. Instead of dismissing this character as furniture, we tell the writer, “Look, you have to give the character something.” This means you have to round the character out. He can’t just be a prop; he can’t just be a bastard. You have to give him something that shows another psychological dimension. Because no one is ever just one thing in life. Uncle Wiggily might be an “engaging, elderly rabbit who suffers from rheumatism.” But he only really gets interesting when you learn that he performs a Satanic black mass every Thursday in the bobcat’s basement. Like that.

So when I write these therapeutic blog posts, I try to give something to the people I write about. I was trained to do this in the sadomasochistic hellworld of MFA writing workshops. And the fact that I’m mostly writing creative non-fiction* here never gets in the way. Giving your characters something is the “creative” part when you’re writing about people who exist in real life. But the type of person who short-circuits this, the writer’s kryptonite, is someone who can’t be given anything without you having to completely make it up.

In other words, there is a type of person who has pushed his libido down so far, who has conformed so perfectly to a kind of fastidious, highly curated, social acceptability, that the most compelling thing about him is his sweater. Sure, we can say that he’s interesting in that he tries so hard not to be interesting. We can give him that. And we know he probably has dark squirmy things crawling around in the sub-basement of his soul, but getting down there, drilling down through all the conformist blast-shielding and cautious evasiveness is tedious at best. At worst, it’s exhausting.

Of course, there’s money in being boring. It pays to be socially careful, even if it does inspire a certain degree of contempt in those of us who never could fit in. Sometimes I wonder, when such people lie awake at night beside a partner just as meticulously uninteresting, if they can hear those squirmy little devils scraping their proboscises on the other side of the blast doors—the ghost sound that torments people through their long dull miserable lives into late middle-age depression and a pension they don’t know what to do with. Then they buy a camper, I guess. Masturbate less or more. Eat a lot of soft-serve ice-cream.

It may be that I don’t have enough material on the housemates to even write a very substantial piece on them or their calculated sweaters. But, while deciding whether to write it, I remembered something Arthur Miller wrote in Death of a Salesman:

Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.

In a perfect world, we’d be able to stave down the horror of having a full conversation with each other. We’d actually step out into the hall.  But a terrible thing is happening, has been, I think, for as long as social pressure has rewarded people for not standing out in any way and avoiding human contact as a rule.  Krypton is a boring utopia.  And every utopia is a dystopia.

So beer. Instead of speaking to the housemates, everyone listens behind the door until the hall is empty, until it’s quiet in the house, and it’s possible to creep down the stairs and over to Sainsbury’s where four cans of the Fursty Ferret will run you £4.30. A small price to pay for equanimity, I guess. And I guess this post is the lagniappe.


* I publish two types of writing on this blog: creative non-fiction and short stories I’ve already published in magazines.

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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.

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.”

There comes a time in everyone’s life when a tactical regression is in order. Not the screaming hand-waving hysterics of those soon-to-be dinner for someone with sharper fangs, but a gentleman’s dignified reverse into the security of the kind and the known. Still, you can do nothing without electricity, especially if you live with me in the Imperial Sukhumvit Panopticon, where even breathing requires steady wattage.

I stepped out of the colonial bubble today at the On Nut sky train BTS station thinking about this and about the power disconnection notice I received three days ago. In truth, I thought I paid the bill. But apparently—between working 12 hour days, grinding out comments for 100+ research papers, and worrying about a panoply of things that stretch my angst around the globe such that I’m a true international stress case—I forgot.

So: screaming disconnection dismemberment and summary vivisection unless I pay 3,000 Thai Baht plus a 40 Baht service fee. And I’m like: Fine! What is that, $90 USD? Christ. I’ll pay the motherfucker. Just don’t turn off my juice, okay? Or something like that in a more polite, guest-in-this-country tone. But the Metropolitan Electricity Authority is not amused.

The Metropolitan Electricity Authority does not appreciate my lax attitude toward paying my farang electricity bills. In fact, the Metropolitan Electricity Authority thinks I’ve been running my a/c a bit much, even for a westerner. And so I must pay a fat chunk of Baht. Now. Through one orifice or another. Or they turn it all off and the party stops. See how I like the 90% humidity at 45º C then, eh? So, of course, I capitulate. I capitulate all the way down to On Nut with a gangster roll of 1,000 Baht notes in my pocket and -10 lbs. of water weight from involuntary dripping.

I look for the MEA office for 3 hours in the badly made Bata loafers that are slowly making my feet disintegrate. I receive 4 conflicting sets of directions. I spend 30 minutes feeling vomitous from polluted humidity in the food court of Tesco Lotus, where I am laughed at by 3 highly amused schoolgirls. My handkerchief is soaked.

By the time I find what might be the offices, the secretaries are streaming out of the building and the lights are off. I want to cry because this is how it is to be illiterate. (Aside: you know, I have a PhD. A real one. One that required a dissertation and a lot of high-level academic work. Someone I generally like asked me today if I’m actually qualified to teach research. What should I have said? No? This is where being a creative writer leads you, kids. Caveat scriptor.)

But, yes, illiterate.

I went home. The power was still on. My attempt to pay it as usual at 7/11 seemed successful yesterday. So maybe the MEA is willing to take my payment and look the other way for a change. I do love this country. I just don’t love being a stupid farang. Stay in school. Otherwise, your feet are going to hurt a lot more. Trust me on this.

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 told her exactly how long? What if he could have looked into the future and said, Five out of ten, state. And then I’m out, no problem. What would she have said then? He clicked the pull-chain and the bathroom went dark, his black silhouette in the mirror. The dollhouse watching from the bedroom, miniature shadows in miniature window spaces, doorway like a gaping mouth.

When Darwin was released and moved back home, he unboarded the windows, bought an old bureau, a mattress for the bed frame. Saving money on power, he moved through candlelit rooms, sweeping the dust, hammering down boards in the floor. Every sundown, he put on his uniform and walked to the bus stop at the corner. By day, he slept, shafts of light through new glass and curtains moving gently over his body. Or, quiet in the front window, he listened to the children next door play in the street, smoke from his cigarette twisting into shapes—a hand, a question mark, thick lines of a laughing mouth. The silence of the house made his cigarette loud, the drag, the hiss of the ember. Outside, when the little girl and her brother yelled, their laughter came in waves, went up, down.

He would close his eyes and listen.

It was dusk when he stepped onto his porch. Darwin shouldered his backpack with sandwich and thermos of coffee inside and shut the chainlink gate. His uniform was the gray of the sidewalk, the bus stop. Behind him, the black sockets of the house watched him go.

Dust was always falling in the museum. That was one thing. Job security. But no light after closing, that was another. The big lights in the ceilings were too expensive to keep on, so they gave him a camp lantern, florescent, ran on a battery the size of his fist. The darkness reminded him of something solid, huge balloons of night pressing the walls, while his lamp illuminated a four-foot circle of granite floor. He scanned the darkness and positioned his bucket, the white face of a portrait just visible in the distance.

When Darwin mopped down the center of a large room, it looked like there was no end at all, like the floor continued forever. Moving the lantern was tedious, so he’d leave it in the center and mop until he bumped into a wall and had to turn—no outside sound, no windows, only the polished granite beneath his feet, the wheels on his yellow bucket, the slish of the mop.

Every night, he put in four hours. Then he stopped, found a bench, ate his sandwich. Not like making toilets at Lovelock or before he went to prison, at the plant, cutting pine into strips for people’s brooms. There were no buzzers, no foremen, nothing but an island of light back in the middle of the room and the beep of his digital watch to let him know.

Then, after break, Darwin climbed the wide stone staircase like a blind man, without the lantern, testing out each step, keeping his hand on the sculpted rail. No power for the elevator. He’d climb all the way up to the seventh floor storeroom and carry the huge buffer down to the bottom, where the lantern light made its chrome thorax shine—an armored grasshopper that rumbled like a rock slide when he turned it on.

That noise seemed wrong every time he did it, like cussing in church. And, with a cough, he always felt like he should address the edifice itself, should apologize to the museum the way a swarm of ants might apologize to the corpse of a mouse: when this is finished, your bones will glisten. The air inside your head will be dark and clear and still. Your eye sockets will never be obstructed, and you will never die.

It was like a church, everything fixed in its place, a relic out of time looking back, still around, dead but not dead. Like the faces of condemned houses or a frozen surf of crumpled bed sheets in the dark, the memory of a little girl’s laughter floating over Darwin as he slept.

His mop left a wet sheen that glistened faintly in the lantern’s glow. If he stepped where he mopped, he could leave a perfect shoe-print in the moisture. It might be gone by the time he’d reach a wall and work his way back, but he’d look for it anyway—a subtle hint of his passing, the tick-pattern an ant might leave in the wet cartilage of a mouse’s skull.

The buffer would erase all footprints, but it wouldn’t matter. By then, he’d be nearly finished and on his way home, where he’d animate the bones of his own house with candlelight and movement, with the thought of what he’d left behind, of one who’d died, of a missing wife, of brown grass and chainlink and white paint curling upwards in the sun. Darwin pushed the mop forward and imagined the face of his house looking out at the street where, ten blocks to the north, he’d hit the girl.

That day was a day off from the broom factory, and it felt like a holiday, no reason not to put down a few pitchers. Everyone from his usual shift was at the Elbow Room, so he’d gone, too. Then he ran out of money and floated out into the bright world, looked at cars whipping past on the other side of the parking lot, the workday still in swing. Trying to put Janel’s beat-to-shit Datsun in gear took him five minutes, ten, examining the H diagram on top of the shift. It was broken and there was a trick to it, something simple, but his brain didn’t work. He squinted at the road, at gleaming traffic in the distance where the asphalt swam with midday heat.

Once he’d gotten Janel’s car rolling, he tried to drive casually, but who could say? Darwin’s vision kept crossing, head spinning. He made it to his neighborhood without being pulled over and saw the streets were empty, people at work, their kids at school. Darwin relaxed, told himself he only had to watch out for a few old people now—the toothless granny with her rolling cart who took fifteen minutes to cross the street, the ancient garbage picker with bags of aluminum cans—and cops, swarms of them all through the neighborhood all the time, sitting in alleys, sliding into the street behind your car to run your plates. Just get home, he thought, just get there.

Darwin saw faint wisps of his breath as he dipped the mop, a sight he knew was impossible at any other time. Cold for LA is around forty degrees, and only in the dead of night could this happen, in the earliest morning. The mop had a metal clamp attached to the shaft. He used the clamp to squeeze the excess water out: water on water, split-second clatter of a rocky stream when he pushed the clamp down. A reverberation that wasn’t quite an echo. The sound would go out and rattle over the surfaces of a room: polished granite floors, marble benches topped with black leather, paintings and sculptures, dead lights in the ceiling. Quiet, Darwin always paused to hear it. Then slish . . . slish . . . slish . . . slish . . . slish . . . until he reached the wall, each thrust of the mop changing the sound just that much.

Sculptures stood in glass cases or on pedestals in the center of some rooms. When he entered, they moved into his camp lantern’s glow like ships drifting out of a fog. First, the leading edge, maybe the corner of a glass case, a vertical line ahead just visible in the dark. Then more: a tongue of shadows slipping back between the lips of frowning samurai armor, a carpet of light moving over a gigantic Plasticine orb painted like a swirly marble, illuminated spindles growing beneath a small glass skull as Darwin put his florescent lantern down. Sounds came back differently near those things: crick-crack of the clamp, water on water, slide of the mop-dreds.

He looked up at the form of a horse made entirely of rusted rebar, at the varicose tangle of shadows on the white block-platform beneath it. He watched a tiny flick of condensation in front of his mouth and dipped the mop again.

Right before he hit the girl, Darwin told himself that once he got home, he’d forget all about what it took to get home. He just had to make it. He’d turned onto his street about ten blocks away from the house, took the corner more quickly than he intended. Now, when he passed the spot on the bus, he turned his face away. But somewhere in his memory, Darwin was still driving around that corner in Janel’s car. The memory, like ghost pain from a severed limb, went with him everywhere: the low screech the car made when he turned too sharply, the thunk of the wheels through a pot-hole, cars hazy in the heat at a distant intersection.

Memories seemed very much like ghosts as he mopped through the dark rooms of the permanent exhibit, seventeenth century portraiture, ancient sculptures, Holy Roman triptychs, panoramic views of Hokusai’s Fuji. The artworks were a crowd of curious shades at the edge of the camp lantern’s glow, memories of time gone. All those directly connected with the images were now just ideas, ghosts—the painter, the painted, the dynasties, entire civilizations gone to dust with only these left to tell the tale. The museum was a house of the dead.

When he finished mopping, he sat down to eat his sandwich in a circular foyer that had a copy of headless Nike at its center. He thought of the girl floating up diagonally onto the hood as if she were a piece of paper caught in a hot vent, the way she seemed to drift in that moment, the ripple of her T-shirt. Darwin stared at headless Nike. Shadows clotted under her wings. He wouldn’t have been surprised to find the girl’s ghost waiting in one of the rooms—just another work of art, another shadow, looking on in the half-light.

The buses didn’t run at 4:30 AM. It always took him two hours to walk home after work: city within city, dark inside dark, downtown shadows were impenetrable night. Far above, staccato code-lines of yellow-white squares glowed across the sides of skyscrapers where people just like him vacuumed and emptied, never seeing the regular employees who worked during the day. The absence of dust and crumpled paper was the only indication that anyone had been there at all. Seeing those lights from the ground—signs, distant implications, like a column of camp smoke on the other side of a forest—meant somebody was up there. But, as soon as the mirrored faces of those towers were washed with sun, as soon as the regular workday began, Darwin and the others would be home, asleep, and it would be as though the buildings had cleaned themselves.

He passed a homeless man burning phonebooks in an alley. Darwin could smell the smoke but couldn’t see it above the fire, his sneakers quiet on the sidewalk. And the man didn’t look up, crouched with his back up against a red brick building, hands balanced lightly on his knees. How many others were watching from that alley as he passed across its mouth. How many were sleeping back in dumpsters, on rusted escapes? The world would never know and daylight would find them gone. Trash blown into the gutter made more sound than those ghosts.

Traffic lights changed over empty intersections all the way down to Thurmond Drive where the street went up on a steep hill and entered some old neighborhoods. Darwin walked up that hill, thumbs hooked in the straps of his backpack, and turned for one last look: downtown Los Angeles, still and dead, pale points of light, a helicopter blinking tiny electric beads across the sky, a few cars on the Five going south.

It had occurred to him that the girl he’d killed, whose only crime had been to run across the street in the middle of the day without looking, would never see these things. It occurred to Darwin every night that that was one more night she wouldn’t have. She, whose name he still could not bring himself to say or even write down. He walked home his usual way, through neighborhoods of crumbling slatted houses and Beware of Dog signs, cars up on blocks, muddy toys in dirt yards. Each familiar point in the nightscape, each bit of detail was one more she wouldn’t have—the smell of lilacs bent over the sidewalk from a sagging window box, the one-eyed German Shepherd watching in silence, its ears pricked up behind a short iron fence, the bone-white sliver of moon like an afterthought. Nothing Darwin would notice during the day. But, at night, he knew exactly where he was and wished he could take her by the hand, up Thurmond Drive, show her the alley where an orange streetlight made puddles of water shine like sunset, hold her up to smell the lilacs, stand her on a cul-de-sac’s peeling wooden rail so she could look into a canyon that had become a lake of darkness.

Sunrise. The end of his day. A jet broke the sound barrier, an earthquake rolling away in the sky. Darwin stood at the window and listened to it, to a hundred sparrows chirping from the chainlink fence. The sparrows were a sight, especially when they all flew up together, as if each bird was attached to an invisible wire, and all the wires jerked at once. Wind chimes made the dull tink of champagne glasses. Palm trees along the sidewalk moved their fronds up, down, a draft rattling through them as through cheap Venetian blinds. To the right, the kids next-door followed their mother onto their porch. She was all dressed up in a brown leather mini with black snakeskin flames up the sides, black hose and heels, a white blouse and gold rings on her fingers. She gave her son and daughter a dollar each and then pulled away in her green Chevy that backfired like a shotgun. The kids sat down on the bottom step of their porch in silence, waiting for the school bus the same way they waited for their mother to get home in the evening.

The one time Darwin could have spoken to the woman, she looked him up and down, saw Janel on the side of his neck, the bass-clef scar up his right forearm where part of a door once shot out of a varnishing machine and cut through his coveralls, the gold cap on his right incisor. She noted those things, added them up in an eye-blink, poor person’s math. Her mouth turned down at the corners and she gave him a curt nod. Don’t be a problem for me, that nod said. I won’t, his smile answered. But she didn’t believe him, seemed convinced something was going to happen eventually. He saw it in her face, so he tried not to see her face, looked down, turned away, stayed inside when their paths might cross because her expression brought it all back. Her knowing: somehow, somewhere, he’d failed in some horrible way. She smelled it on him. And she was right. And he didn’t even know her name.

He’d built the dollhouse shell from the inside-out, partitioning rooms, fixing plywood walls with super-glue. It was a simple early American two-story with a walk-up attic. In issue 84, page 16 of Dollhouse: The Magazine for Miniature Aficionados, Darwin found the design laid out in scrupulous detail. The exterior walls were 3/8th inch balsa, the interior walls 1/4th inch. He had all openings for doors, windows, and stairs precision-cut at Pacific Building Materials, where he’d bought the wood and lost nearly a day of sleep getting everything together. But what was sleep? Maybe a journey through another world, a drift of consciousness where the minute and insignificant didn’t exist, where all that was nameless or forgotten could rise up like the smoke from a burning phonebook in an alley at night—dark against dark, black fume against black air. In that case, building the dollhouse had to be a kind of sleep too, a good dream.

In Lovelock, he’d begun by drawing stick houses, but soon the single-line walls were fronted by Doric columns twined with marble snakes, simple peaked-rooftops eventually fletched with dragon-tiles. His designs were a mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, Greek, German. Anything Darwin had ever seen, he’d try to draw, clumsily at first but eventually in exacting precision. He begged paper off the guards, little golf pencils that he sharpened by rubbing against the cinderblock-and-plaster wall above his bunk.

Lying on his bed, he drifted off, staring through the dollhouse’s eyes at the bare wall. In the half-light, it didn’t look that different from the walls in Lovelock. You can learn a lot by staring at a wall. Al, a cellmate, would look at him and say, “It’s just a wall, man,” then laugh and shake his head. “Darwin, you one strange cat.” But nothing is ever just itself, just one thing. You focus on the plaster wall over your bunk where somebody outlined part of a long crack in blue ballpoint, went at it until it looked like it was bleeding ink, like somebody had actually leaned in and stabbed it. And, after a while, your senses spread out, go sideways. You hear things from other cells. Somebody talking in his sleep. A crackle like an instant of hail or a giant piece of parchment being turned. A dripping faucet. Cars on the street outside like a mechanical ocean. The girl next door yelling, playing with her brother. Two cats in the backyard growling, about to fight.

Darwin opened his eyes. Headlights rolled across the bare walls. There was no furniture, no big entertainment center, no shelves with movies and plants and all the other junk you see in people’s houses. Just wooden floor, white walls, the window that now had glass and not boards. The thin white curtains Janel didn’t take.

He stood up from the shadows at the back of the room. He’d slept all day. The streetlights had come on. It was just about time to take a shower and go to work. The walls looked like an alien landscape, the surface of a new country, a place to get lost, to stake a claim and build.

“I’m not strange,” he’d said to Al. “Just try looking at where you are.”

“Whatever you’re on, give me some,” said Al.

The little girl next door had short braids with silver beads at the ends. Her younger brother had a shaved head, smooth like a rock in a stream. It looked like somebody had waxed it for him because it had a dull gleam in the orange street light. This late and mom still wasn’t home to let them in. They sat on their front steps, staring at the sidewalk, at the street, at the blade-shadows of dead grass in their front yard.

On his way out, Darwin shut the chainlink gate, clink-clink. They looked over like he’d shot a gun, stared at him in silence as he walked past the front of their house. The chainlink shadows were doubled on the sidewalk, one orange streetlight up towards the bus stop, one back at the corner.

“Where’s your mom?”

They stared at him.

“You kids got a key?”

They stared at him.

“You better get your asses inside. It’s getting late.”

They kept staring at him as he walked up to the bus stop.

It made him think about a dream where he stepped into the bedroom wall as if it were a landscape. “Open your eyes,” he’d said to Al in the dream. “Try looking. Nothing’s ever just one thing.” Before him, white craters and plaster mountains had stretched to the horizon. To know a place, to know it like you know your own body, means seeing it, then looking but not seeing it, then seeing it anew. Seeing the gleam on the floor you’ve polished or the light from your windows in the distance. And it means loving the place as if all of it were precious and all of it yours.

Darwin didn’t get right off at his stop. He rode the full circuit through downtown and into the neighborhoods. He saw houses pressed together like ripples in a carpet, the cars pulsing into Sunset from Malibu and Glendale. At dusk, distant headlights were pale moons floating down the contours of streets. Coming off PCH, there was a stillness, colors faded to a long purple-blue, hints of baked asphalt drifting in a palm wind. The graffiti seemed at rest. He noticed a Japanese girl standing in blue window light from the Luminescence Day Spa, closed now but making the girl luminous nonetheless. King Seymour Smitts The Bail Bonds Man smiling down at her from a billboard, his white teeth as long as a person. The brown grass of a vacant lot, still, then bending, then still.

At the museum that night, he mopped the rooms, ate his sandwich, climbed up the dark stairs, wondering whether the kids were still locked out on their porch. The buffer shocked him when it snarled awake in his hands, a small, angry beast that hated dust above all else. Darwin moved the buffer beneath pale English faces—the Duchess of York, a count with a white terrier asleep at his feet, a cardinal in blood red velvet. They looked down at him as he erased his footprints, leaving another gleaming floor for them to contemplate. He paused from time to time and studied the portraits. Each night the darkness waxed and waned as the paintings in the museum looked on, fixed and certain like the stars.

The dollhouse was finished. He’d airbrushed the outside pure white, installed a complete electrical system. The paint was still drying when he plugged it in. He’d had to buy an extension cord so he could bring the house onto his porch and show them the working ceiling light in the kitchen, the track lighting in the bedroom, the tiny yellow porch lamp.

The boy started to walk towards the porch, but his mother held his shoulders. His sister sat over on her front step, looking at the dollhouse without expression.

“We can’t afford it,” said the mother.

“You can have it.”

Her eyes narrowed. She looked at Darwin in disgust as if he’d just proposed something obscene. “No. We don’t do that.” She took her kids inside. He heard the sliding bolt in her door go clack.

Darwin carried the dollhouse back in and set it in the middle of the living room. The interior lights shined out over the floor. He’d put in real glass windows. There was a tiny brick fireplace and a chimney, a genuine porcelain bathtub.

He slumped down against the wall and ran a palm over the stubble on his head. All the house needed now was a miniature family, a dog. It was Friday afternoon but, all of a sudden, the neighbor wouldn’t let her kids go outside. Darwin looked at the dollhouse for a long time, until the light began melting into dusk. He felt exhausted. He kept his eyes on the light in the windows, the oak front door standing open to the royal blue foyer, the porch so pure white it glowed. The girl’s name had been Ada Miller. It came into his mind, and he put the name away. Then he gently shut the front door of the dollhouse, his fingers gigantic on the miniature knob.

After midnight, the neighborhood’s windows were no longer yellow rectangles silhouetting the branches of trees. Porch lights and streetlamps reigned over all other light, knocking the same dirty orange glare across overgrown lawns, between the slats of homemade wooden fences. Chainlink shadows were the most interesting at this time of night—static waveforms of orange and black warped over the pavement. And Darwin’s own shadow, finely tooled on the sidewalk and yet vaguely missile-like, the way it stretched from his feet as if it were deliberately set to blast off on a mission into the greater dark.

Darwin lit a cigarette as he approached his house, contemplating the way light and shadow tumbled through the interior of a’78 Oldsmobile up on blocks, how darkness and orange light seemed to coexist perfectly inside it, molded to each other in the contours of the seats. The steering wheel’s shadow drooped like a stupid grin. The plastic Virgin Mary on the dash was the same color as the interior. Streetlight turned everything gray. He looked at his reflection in the driver’s window, blew a line of smoke from the corner of his mouth. Friday was his day off and he’d just walked past the corner where he’d hit the girl, not realizing it until he was half a block away. Darwin wondered if he’d subconsciously meant to go past that corner, if that had been his reason for taking the walk in the first place. Nothing’s ever just one thing. Al would have sneered: sure, take another hit.

The neighbor and her two kids were snug in the dark behind bolts and locks at this time of night. Knowing her, she probably had a loaded piece on hair-trigger right by the bed. Walk under her window too loud and kiss your ass good-bye. He paused in front of her house and listened to the buzz of the streetlamp, a distant flagpole hook clanking in the wind. Something had happened to that woman, and she would be forever angry, forever scared. Afraid to unlock her house during the day. Afraid to go out and look at the night. People don’t change. They’re as predictable as the dusk. But, Darwin knew that, like the night, there are entire universes hidden in people, waiting to be discovered, beautiful and still and overlooked. Like the rows of powdered faces in the museum staring at the newly polished floor. Or the yin-yang of shadows inside a house, light and dark entwined like lovers.

 

* Note: this story originally appeared in The Normal School  2 (2010): 92-98.

Oh, the puppy. Everyone wept for the puppy. Tears rolled down my wife’s cheeks as she cried through the night. Little Jessica next door wouldn’t say hello and took a week off from school. Jessica’s mother stopped coming outside and stopped speaking to me altogether. The puppy. Little fluffy puppy that didn’t have a name. Big brown eyes. Pink tongue. It was so cute. Someone decapitated it with a shovel. After that, its cuteness declined. It’s useless to add, when our neighbor was hit on his bicycle last year and sent at high velocity through the trunk of the tree across the street, his cuteness also declined. The man was forty-five, a mechanic with three DUIs and a failed marriage, who couldn’t look you in the eye. When it happened, my wife, Cheryl, said: “Too bad he’s dead,” and walked in the other room.

Yes, I thought, too bad. Too bad was what it was.

I thought the same thing watching Cheryl get nailed by Gary, our attorney, on a day I was supposed to be out looking for work. I stood outside our open bedroom window, briefcase in hand, my tie, my overcoat, watching Gary give it to her from behind. The sound of his body slapping against my wife’s ass made me a bit upset. I was somewhere in the vicinity of “too bad,” or maybe something a little stronger, when I drank half a bottle that night and rolled Cheryl’s Accord into a ditch. Given enough time, all things wind up in a ditch by the side of the road. Our airborne neighbor should have known that. Maybe not the puppy. Certainly Gary. And my wife.

Mister .38-caliber knew it. Every time I looked into his dark mouth, he repeated it to me. Ditches: the end of all things with broken windshield and sincerest regrets. I hope you remembered your seatbelt. If not, well, that’s too bad. I was sitting on the old orange step-stool in the garage one day, trying to explain to Mister .38 that getting out of Texas was just about the best thing that ever happened to me when I saw the neighbor’s bloody shovel lying under his box-hedge. The puppy was there, too. Both parts. Who would do such a thing, I asked Mister .38.

Nothing’s worth anything unless you can get away from it. The problem is money. Having it. Getting it. Keeping it. Losing it. Loving it. Leaving it. Money. Some even run from it, from money itself, which, no surprise, requires money. But you can get away from that, too, if you know people in West Des Moines, Iowa.

By the time you get out of Texas and into West Des Moines, everything’s taken care of, problems sorted, checks posted, accounts dissolved. Shit, by the time you show up in West Des Moines, you don’t even exist anymore. And, when you wake up on a beat-to-hell futon in your friend, Max Latham’s, basement, you feel like you can say just what this world is worth—because there it is, way behind you. There’s nothing left but dust, the futon, some bookshelves, and the sound of water running in the kitchen above. Everything you know, you’ve gotten away from, and that, my friend, is living.

Unfortunately, if you then make the mistake of getting married, it’s all down-hill from there. At the bottom of the hill is a house in California one block away from a polluted beach, a wife who hates you, a lot of remorse, and a decapitated puppy. But you’re not there yet. You’re still, at present, stuck deep in the bad reality of getting out of Texas the hard way, which means getting out for good and for good reason—with bullets somehow involved and, for all you know, with that good reason back up the highway behind you, coming on strong. Right now, you’re into more than just a speeding U-Haul, because Jackson Jackson is driving and that special goodness behind you might just be the Texas Rangers. Not the ball team.

Consider what you know about your old chum, Jackson Jackson: He’s tall and thin. He does calisthenics every morning at 5 religiously no matter where he is and he always has for as long as you’ve known him. In the Navy, he was a forklift operator and a shotgun expert. He’d send you postcards from exotic locations where he’d had many drinks with beautiful local women. He’s the only black man you’ve ever met who listens to Rush. In high school, he ran track and laughed a lot, the kind of kid who’d give you the last dollar in his pocket and not mention it. But now, Jackson Jackson has become a bitter motherfucker. Now he keeps a .38 somewhere on him at all times, which he addresses as “Mister .38.” He has a .44 in the luggage and a disassembled AK-47, which he calls Kalashnikov as if it were the lost testament of Jesus and Jackson Jackson just got religion. “Treat Kalashnikov with respect,” he’d say, then wink with a smile that was more like shorthand for some wrong, homicidal mission-statement he’d learned in the Navy: I’m gonna operate my forklift, clean my shotgun, then do you like you’ve never been done before. Or, at least, that’s how it seemed when he’d mention the AK. “Finest quality,” he’d say. “Superior workmanship.”

Consider that he’d been out of the Navy for six days; that you hadn’t seen him in person for six years; that his grandmother, who’d raised him, had just died; and that there were large bullet holes all over the back of the U-Haul. Say to yourself: there is no causal connection between these things. Granted, his grandmother died of natural causes. She was very old. One does not, however, acquire bullet holes through natural causes. When asked, Jackson Jackson’s only response was to nod and say, “I know. Shit’s fucked-up.”

Indeed.

Now say you’re me. That’s the situation in which I found myself: shit = all fucked up. I contemplated the variables from the passenger’s seat as dead-flat Texas got rainsoaked to the horizon, and my old friend stared straight ahead, pissed at past, present, and future all at once.

Consider the piano that fell out the back of the truck and hit the highway. It was interesting. The whole thing exploded, wood going everywhere, keys, the big metal harp inside clanging down over its hammers in the middle lane. It was fun to watch it all burst apart in the side mirror. In the rain, the fragments sticking up at odd angles reminded me of a shipwreck. Jackson Jackson looked in his mirror, held his hand out for the whiskey bottle, and said nothing.

We were both sweating. Outside, it was fifty degrees and pouring but, in the truck, it was Cabo San Lucas at peak tourist season. The heat hadn’t worked for the first thirty minutes out of Austin. Trying to get it going, I’d turned it up all the way and broke the switch. Now, if we rolled the windows down, we got a big Texas facial. So there we were: drinking Black Velvet and losing weight by the mile.

“Well,” I said, “we’re almost to Dallas.”

“Bed’s about to go.”

He was right. It took me a second before I saw the top sheet fluttering around the side like a white flame. His grandma’s big, oak poster-bed with the carved lion feet. She’d just had too much stuff. We’d tied the door down with a bungee cord, but that didn’t even hold it to Buford Station, and the door’s bent latch kept coming open.

“You want to stop again?” I asked, reaching to turn down the Beach Boys Reunion, the only tape besides Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show we could get at the Bi-Lo in Martenville. It got stuck in the tape player and auto-reversed at the end of each side in spite of all my attempts to pry it out.

“Do not touch that fucking dial.”

“We better stop,” I said.

He handed me the bottle without looking and put the truck in fourth. The lead Beach Boy, the one who got fat and started looking like a latter-day Spanky, sang she’s giving me excitations. It was the seventeenth time we’d listened to the song, but Jackson Jackson wouldn’t let me turn it off, wallowing in his misery.

I guess he missed his grandmother. I’d talked to her a few times back when Jackson Jackson and I were in high school in L.A. She seemed like a nice lady, but I couldn’t imagine why she’d moved to Austin. Jackson Jackson didn’t know anybody in Texas. She raised him, but he didn’t say anything about her funeral, or his family when he asked me to go along. He just said, “She’s got this glass bar, right? And it’s real nice. We could set it up in the basement.”

Possibly, I came along to just help him out. Possibly, it was also convenient that I was leaving Texas, too. But the world wouldn’t weep for one less upright piano, and I was pretty sure we’d have to sell that bed off or put it on the roof because it wasn’t going to fit through the front door of Max Latham’s house.

Max was waiting in Iowa with open arms and open basement. Everybody needs an old high school friend with a wife, a stable job, and an empty basement. It’s necessary when the Navy’s made you weird. Or, in my case, when you went off to study writing and philosophy, but wound up in Texas with a large gambling debt and no gainful employment.

When the bed hit the highway, it didn’t shatter like the piano. It went down crunch-crunch on all four lion feet, and there it was, linens flapping in the rain around the triple-band of silver electrical tape we’d put down to keep everything in place.

“They don’t make them like that anymore,” I said. “Crashworthy.”

Jackson Jackson pulled a three-point turn suddenly and with such vehemence it almost tipped us over.

“You had to say that,” he said.

It took us an hour and a half to put the bed back in and tie it down.

Close my eyes. She’s so much closer now. Softly smile, I know she must be kind.

I woke up on the couch as usual, went into the kitchen, and made a cup of instant coffee. I couldn’t stop thinking about the puppy. I’d dreamt its severed head was licking my hand.

The bedroom door was locked, of course, and that was a good thing. Maybe Gary was in there right now sleeping blissfully in the arms of my wife. My wife: Max Latham’s former wife. A year ago, I’d been in the Gary Position. Now I was in the Max Position. Did it serve me right? Had anything ever served Jackson Jackson right on our fateful trip, his short trajectory from Navy to Iowa basement to bullets to Ft. Madison State Penitentiary?

Maybe it was time for Mister .38 to finally have a coming-out party. Maybe three shots for Cheryl and three for Gary, Jackson Jackson style. Then a quick reload and six more in the ceiling as I howled and did a crazed, murderous hat-dance. El Danceo de Vengeance. But the door was locked and closed. Whatever was behind it was still awash in a haze of quantum possibilities: Gary? Cheryl? Some other guy? Another headless house pet? The string section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra all pressed together cheek-and-jowl, their instruments held gingerly above their heads as if they were fording a river? Maybe. But I didn’t have to deal with it if I didn’t see it. So I decided to take my coffee down a block and talk to the ocean.

Imperial Beach stunk. Literally. The sand itself smelled like a fouled toilet, and there were red signs saying TOXIC and HAZARD at the end of every street going to the cement boardwalk. The beach had been critically polluted going on four months, blocked up toilets in Mexico, overflowing sewers, sending the shit north. But toxic sand never killed anybody through their feet. And brown tide hadn’t killed the surfers. You could see it in the waves. The whitewater wasn’t white. Yet the kids were out on their boards, surfin’ the break every day.

I curled my toes into the sand, sipped my coffee, stared at gray morning. “What do you expect me to do?” I asked the beach. “What’s required when a man catches his wife blatantly cheating it up?” I looked to the brown tide for answers. Asking the tide was crazy. It didn’t make sense. But what made sense? Forty-five minutes south of San Diego, Imperial Beach was the broke-ass redheaded stepchild of southern California. Gang members didn’t even come there anymore due to the stench. But the locals kept walking their dogs every morning in pathetic imitation of the beautiful crowd up north. The surfers still surfed.

I heard, “Dude!” as two overtanned kids came out of the water holding their boards. These were the same kids with the same boards saying the same Dude! that you’d find on any beach, except here the kid on the left was picking toilet paper out of his waistband instead of kelp. “Nasty,” said the other. I smiled and nodded as they passed. Nasty was right. And, more importantly, somebody close by had whacked that puppy. I wondered who. That was something Jackson Jackson, at his lowest, might have done.

It’s a fifteen hour drive from Austin to West Des Moines. After six hours, I took the wheel but decided to stop when I realized I was driving on the wrong side of the highway. Jackson Jackson just laughed, turned up Surf Safari, and said, “No, man, just keep on going. We’ll get there.” But we were on one of those long stretches of dark Texas nothing, where you can see a light from a great distance. And not seeing one, not seeing anything through the rainglittered windshield but fifty feet of highway caught in the headlights, made me nervous.

“I don’t feel right,” I said, pulling over to the side.

“Doesn’t stop me day-to-day.”

“Too many variables. I’m too tired. Let’s get some sleep.”

He didn’t say anything to that. I closed my eyes and tried to get comfortable in the seat. Time passed in blessed post-Beach Boys silence. The air seemed cleansed now that the tap of rain on the truck had replaced a bushy bushy blonde hairdo. I also had the slosh of the Black Velvet bottle to remind me that Jackson Jackson did not share my views on sleep as opposed to facing the dark infinity of Texas. I hoped he’d drink the rest of the BV and pass into whiskey dreamland. Jackson Jackson hung-over couldn’t have been that different from Jackson Jackson sober. And I wondered if it was all just the Navy and his grandmother. I wondered what had happened in the last six years to change him so drastically and so much for the worse.

Of course, he did sleep eventually. When I woke up sometime in the late morning, he was out with the empty bottle upright on the floor between his feet. I had the overall lousy feeling of having slept in the driver’s seat of a U-Haul. But, all things considered, there was no harm done and soon we would be out of Texas, which brought a certain joy to my heart.

I was so confident, in fact, that I thought it would be a good time to call Maddog, the man to whom I owed a total of $17,870 as a result of the three worst poker games of my life. I didn’t own a cell phone for many good reasons, so I took Jackson Jackson’s out of the ashtray and dialed Maddog from memory.

How I got involved with a man named Maddog is, in itself, a tale to be told. Suffice it to say, there are still a few ways left to struggle without having to get a soul-destroying, ass-numbing nine-to-five. And one of those ways, apart from murder or dealing mountains of drugs out the trunk of your car, is card playing. You just have to have patience and sit in the small games until you meet the right people who can hook you up with the bigger games. You also have to be good, and you have to have enough honesty with yourself to know whether you are. That’s where Maddog came in. He didn’t play cards; he played money. I told myself I was good enough to borrow his, pay my debts, make my rent, and pay his back. I told myself that three times in a row and, all three times, I was lying.

“I don’t know you,” was how he answered the phone. Okay: caller-id, cell phone technology and all that meant he could see who was calling, and he didn’t know Jackson Jackson from Adam (good for Jackson Jackson). But the real reason Maddog answered that way was that he didn’t associate with one single respectable person. He was something out of a B-gangster film, and he did the things that B-gangsters in films did. Maddog wasn’t from Austin. He was from Queens. He sounded every bit of it when he answered.

“Maddog. It’s Christian.”

“You fucking rat bastard.”

“Yeah, about that—”

“Now is not time for the bullshit, Christian. Bring my money over right now, and you’ll be glad you did.”

“I’m on vacation. I won’t be around for a while. I hope that doesn’t put you out.”

“I’ll find you. Don’t worry about that.”

“God bless you, Maddog. You’re a Mother Theresa. You know that? A big, goddamn, stupid, stinking Mother Theresa who doesn’t know when to quit. Pretty soon, you’ll be nailing the sick in Calcutta.”

“I get my hands on you, and it won’t be so funny.”

Why did I take the trouble to agitate the idiotic, leg-breaking asshole who was right then scouring the Austin card rooms for the faintest scent of my trail? I don’t know. Maybe, in my own way, I was equally as stupid. If he was a mad dog, I was a weasel. I’d just made the most weasely phone call of my adult life. But it felt good. One last kiss-my-ass—coming from me this time—as I vanished into the comforting embrace of God’s own American Midwest.

“There’s a little more to you leaving Austin, huh?” Jackson Jackson still had his eyes closed, but his snoring had stopped.

“You want to tell me about the bullet holes in the back of the truck then? And we can have a heart-to-heart about all the heinous shit we’re dealing with here?”

“Now I will piss.” He climbed out on his side and pissed to the east. I climbed out on mine and pissed to the west. I had no doubt right then that, just like me, he was reviewing the unlikely and unfortunate events that had conspired to have both of us pissing on the same latitude.

Schopenhauer wrote: “The ordinary man places his life’s happiness in things external to him, in property, rank, wife and children, friends, society, and the like, so that when he loses them or finds them disappointing, the foundation of his happiness is destroyed.” I believe the Beach Boys put it this way: I’m gettin’ bugged driving up and down the same old strip/ I gotta find a new place where the kids are hip. Just so. But putting my happiness elsewhere and moving on from Imperial Beach to the next thing, from Cheryl, who’d been Max Latham’s unfaithful wife and who’d once seemed like my salvation, would not be easy or simple. She had a steady job as a RN at Kaiser. I’d been looking for a job. The Accord was in her name. Since I rolled it, I only used it when she didn’t need it. She put all the money we’d stolen from Max toward a down-payment on the house. If I walked, where would I go? I’d be sleeping in the Greyhound Bus Terminal. External things? Yes. When I got back home from the ocean, Cheryl was having it out with Gary in the living room.

Gary was in boxers and a T-shirt. Strangely, he was also wearing brown loafers with brown dress socks. My wife was in panties and a Cal sweatshirt I’d never seen before. Her long, brown hair was only partly tied back, and she had the same fierce, wide-eyed expression as the day she’d done half a bag of speed and threatened the mailman.

“I saw you,” she said. “You think I don’t know where you go?”

Gary crossed his arms. “A lot of people look like me from a distance. Right, Christian?”

I glanced from Gary to Cheryl. The fact that he was fucking her was one thing. I was ready for that. But backing him up in an argument? I wasn’t ready. I thought about running for the safety of the garage and my little orange step-stool.

“Don’t bring him into this.” She crossed her own arms, squared her stance, shaking a little from the dope she’d obviously done. “He can’t even get it up.”

What?

“I think you’re paranoid. I think you’ve got a substance habit,” he said.

“Asshole,” she screamed as she ran back into the bedroom. “I’m gonna find that bitch and cut her bitch heart out.”

“You do that, but don’t call me when you’re down for assault. Find somebody who cares.”

I sat on the couch and looked at the brown hairline cracks on the bottom of my coffee cup. I felt like a kid again, watching my parents.

“Screw you.” Cheryl had put on some jeans. She stormed through the living room and out the front door. The screen slammed behind her with a thwack.

We listened to the car peel out.

Now the house was silent. Gary sat down on the other end of the couch and stared at the gray TV screen.

“Women,” he said.

I went into the kitchen and put my cup in the sink. It was a mess, dishes piled everywhere, a big brown roach on top with its head stuck in a glob of ketchup, the smell of death from the overstuffed garbage disposal. We didn’t have any utensils in the utensil drawer. I wondered where they’d gone and had the crazy thought that maybe my wife had gotten guilty and sent all the cutlery back to Max. All I saw was a wine corkscrew with a burgundy-stained cork on it and a couple of small, water-spotted pairing knives.

Gary turned on some basketball and settled in with his hand in his boxers. I walked over and sat down on the arm of the couch. “This is for the puppy,” I said and stabbed him in the stomach.

“Fuck,” he said. “What the fuck did you do that for?”

The pairing knife had gone in about a quarter of an inch. It was the first time I’d ever stabbed someone. It wasn’t as easy as I thought.

“I can get it up.”

Gary looked at me and nodded, pressing his hand over the wound. “I believe you.”

I gave him a hard stare before I went to the bathroom for the hydrogen peroxide and some Band-Aids.

We were over halfway there. Hours of fields and flat, open nothing: Toline, Eagle, Lungerberg, Gainesville. Dallas sliding past in the gray flash of morning. Rain coming down, then not, then again, ice-cold, fat, Texas drops as big as the locusts that could storm up in summer and band the flesh off a grown cow.

Jackson Jackson had found a pair of black, leather gloves somewhere in the luggage. They creaked as he tightened his jaw and tightened his grip on the wheel.

“I put those holes in the back of the truck before you showed up, okay?”

He said it spontaneously somewhere outside of Baton Springs. I pictured him with those gloves on, screaming incoherent syllables in his grandmother’s front yard, firing round after round from Kalashnikov into the back of the U-Haul.

I asked him why. He thought of what he wanted to say. And I waited, watching the scrub go from Texas brown to Oklahoma red. The Beach Boys sang with gravity and passion about a little deuce coupe, and Maddog rang Jackson Jackson’s phone for what must have been the twentieth time. We were a happy caravan of goodness. Even then, I pitied Max Latham for the sorrow that was clearly about to descend on his head.

“I broke my old fishbowl.”

I nodded, but it made no sense. Fishbowl?

Just as all men need a former high school friend who’s married and stable, so the friend needs to know better. Usually, the wife says something like, oh no, they’re not moving into my basement—if she’s a good woman, if she’s done her wifely duty in distancing her man from all his old hoodlum friends. But I would find that Cheryl was not a good woman, and the shot-up U-Haul was raging down the interstate like Satan’s private livery. What would happen, I wondered, when Max’s wife saw the beaten, claw-footed bed with all its linens duct-taped in place? How would we account for the bullet hole-fish bowl connection? For the leather gloves? For the whiskey-sweat reek of the cab still pulsing with heat and Beach Boys perdition? No, it wouldn’t do. We were all wrong.

Oklahoma passed with crops and sprinklers, with the smell of pesticide and fertilized soil. Then we were on the I-35 North, crossing into Kansas. At about that time, I concluded that everything about the fishbowl story was complete and utter bullshit. Maybe it was Kansas clearing out the last of Texas, the last part that had slipped up into Oklahoma as the South tried to rise. Kansas was rational. Kansas knew: one does not put a clip of 7.62mm into the air over a fishbowl. Not even an emotional Naval forklift operator and shotgun expert would do such a thing. Maybe I’d lost my judgment for a while in the unreality of the trip, but my mind started coming back when Jackson Jackson answered one of Maddog’s calls.

“Yes, hello, can I help you?” His all-professional-and-polite-noon-in-the-haberdashery-voice.

I stared at Jackson Jackson, but he just winked and gave me a minty smile. I could hear Maddog screaming on the other end, but I couldn’t make out the words.

“503 Pearl Street, West Des Moines, Iowa.” I heard a black, leather glove creak on the wheel. “You got it, buddy.” And Jackson Jackson hung up. He seemed deeply pleased with himself, smiling at the distance as if all the joy in the world had now become his.

I said: “You realize Maddog wants to kill me. You did realize that before you gave him our destination.”

Jackson Jackson kept smiling. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I got guns.”

I was behind the wheel because Gary felt too fragile to drive.

“Shouldn’t we be armed for this sort of thing?”

“We’re just looking,” I said. “You know, for a lawyer, you’re a nervous bastard. What are you trying to be, some kind of gangster?”

He winced and looked to see if there was blood on the palm of his hand. “I got stabbed today,” he said.

I’d done a good job with the Band-Aids, but Gary still kept his hand pressed on his stomach as if his guts might shoot out at any minute. We were sitting in his forest green Jeep Cherokee across the street from Cheryl’s favorite bar, The Brig. She’d been in there over an hour.

“Quit complaining. I should have killed you.”

“Over her?”

We looked at each other.

“Did you behead that puppy in my backyard?”

Gary checked his palm again. “That’s disgusting,” he said. “Don’t talk like that. It’s bad luck to even hear something like that.”

I looked him over and shook my head. “Somebody did. Puppies don’t behead themselves.”

“Maybe she did it.”

Cheryl stumbled out through the tinsel in the bar’s doorway. Behind her came a large man in jeans and a flannel shirt. He was grinning like he’d just won the state lottery and had nothing to do with the money but refurbish his trailer. We sat in silence as my wife leaned back against her Honda and made out with today’s lucky number. Watching her, I knew deep in the cockles of my own, small, criminal heart that the last bit of attraction I carried for this woman had just lifted away, replaced by a certain cold revulsion. I thought of our neighbor, Willis, knocked through a tree and her saying it was too bad. I thought of the puppy. Of Jackson Jackson’s grandmother silent in her grave under Texas rain.

I moaned, and Gary shot me a startled look. I moaned the way I imagine Jackson Jackson might have moaned when he gunned down Maddog in the street in front of Max Latham’s house. Moaned, not for Cheryl or a broken fishbowl or the polluted tide that never had any answers, but for all the choices I’d made that had put me on this latitude and for the cruel gravity that conspired to hold me to it.

“Don’t do anything crazy,” said Gary. “I’m an officer of the court.” He winced and checked his palm. “I live by morality.”

My wife and Lucky had gotten in her car and were pulling away. I started up the engine. “No,” I said, “you live by me. And you fuck my wife.” I hit the gas and the Cherokee surged. A red Honda Accord is no match for a green Jeep Cherokee in a collision. We sheared off her trunk and the Accord skidded up onto the sidewalk, bent trunk hood bouncing over nothing. I hoped Lucky would jump out so I could run him over, but Cheryl was still going on a snootful of speed that no amount of Brig drinks could negate. Smoke came off her back tires. She shot down the street, new friend and bouncing hood notwithstanding. In about three seconds, I was right behind her. Gary had stopped pressing his stomach and was now holding onto the dashboard and handbrake for the grace of god and deliverance from evil.

“The trouble is,” I said as I put the pedal all the way down and rammed the back of the Honda, “the puppy was innocent. It didn’t do anything to anybody. It just wanted to be loved.” I hit my wife’s car again and it fishtailed, rims flying, the back left tire wobbling badly.

Gary’s mouth moved, but no sounds came out. It was all too much for him. I might have looked at him too long, too long as in one millisecond over. The road veered sharply to the right, I looked away from Gary and saw the edge coming, tried to turn, heard him pull up on the handbrake. There was a soft, empty moment where the Jeep Cherokee became a feather floating in a white nothing. All the fluids in my body began to rise, as we went over the edge of a canyon.

I wanted to speak. There was no time to speak. The front of the Jeep became my nose, the windshield my eyes, the steering wheel my cheeks, my mind the sky, my anger a dark, fiery cloud rolling upwards without sound. The rain of blood inside the Jeep made me think back to Texas one last time—one last, nervous thought that yanked me sideways into black.

Max Latham’s house in the blue light of morning. And Max standing there watering his lawn as if the storm wasn’t moving north from Texas. Anyone who thought to look could have seen it rolling up on the edge of the horizon like a polluted tide, bringing with it all manner of flotsam, heavily armed fools in U-Hauls, homicidal moneylenders from Queens, and 100,000mg of unmerciful fate delivered right to his front door. But that was exactly Max’s problem. He never thought to look.

When we got out and walked up behind him, he was talking to Cheryl. She was sitting on the sill of the second-story bedroom window in jeans and a bra, smoking. Max absently held the hose to the side. The water bored a hole in the grass and puddled around his sneakers.

“Well, don’t close the windows, then. I don’t want my ass blown off in the middle of the night.”

“Radon doesn’t do that,” said Cheryl. “It kills you in your sleep. You’d never know.” She exhaled a tongue of smoke that hung over the porch for a moment before twisting into a draft.

Jackson Jackson and I stood behind Max and said nothing. Cheryl gave us an empty look and took another drag.

“Oh, that’s so much better. I’m so happy. Die in my sleep. Fuck.” Max gestured with the hose and pebble-sized clumps of water flew in an arc.

Then he turned and saw us. His expression changed from the morose, Midwestern husband with receding, close-clipped, blonde hair and wire-rimmed glasses, to a boy delighted that his sandcastle had withstood the waves after all—complete with toothy grin and mud on his shoes. His old friends had arrived. No amount of radon could change that.

Max: the image of a chump, a fall-guy, a perpetual victim. In school, he’d been the one who got tricked, a bewildered, hurt expression on his face, as the bus pulled away. Yet there was always a streak of cheerfulness in him that enabled him to forgive everyone, to make it alright again. Seeing him made me want to smile, to clap him on the shoulder and celebrate something—maybe his innate goodness, maybe just the contrast between him and me. I may have fallen in love with his wife a little later. But, then again, I may have fallen in love with her at first sight, seeing her sitting up in the window, smoking, like she didn’t care about a thing. Max was oblivious from the start. He had a paunch and obsessed about things like invisible gas poisoning, EMFs, and keeping a perfectly well-groomed front lawn. Many times during that first night, as we unpacked the truck and got extremely drunk, he grinned at the lawn and said, “Isn’t that a fucking gorgeous piece of grass right there?”

Toward the end of the night, I think he may have hugged his front yard, but he could have simply fallen face-down on it, spread-eagled as if the whiskey and PBR had temporarily reversed all local gravity and the lawn was the only thing that cared enough to keep him from floating away. Max had been married for four or five months. I wondered how long he’d had his lawn.

We piled everything in the basement, everything, that is, except the bed, which we had to leave in the driveway under a tarp. Jackson Jackson said little. When I asked him how he felt about leaving the bed out, his only response was: “Light the fucker on fire.” His mood, apparently, had not improved by arriving in West Des Moines.

No one lit the fucker on fire but, staggering drunk down the long, railless basement stairs at 3:00 in the morning with a tiny flashlight, I saw our mountains of boxes piled like miniature ziggurats in the dark, a tiny Babylon. Toward the center of the darkness, Jackson Jackson was snoring on the futon, probably with arms crossed like King Tut and a loaded gun in each hand. I passed out in the corner. I hoped, away from existing lines of fire.

Sometime, in the wee hours of the morning, Max and Cheryl had a horrendous argument. I woke with the spins, my stomach lurching, and remembered hearing them screaming at each other and slamming things around. I would eventually discover that she threw his computer through one of the upper windows that morning and Max spent the rest of the dark hours cruising around town in his brown El Camino as he listened to Dwight Yoakum and drank more beer. The way she told it to me later was that she’d kicked him out of the house and it hadn’t been the first time.

Problems. The first was extricating myself from the airbag. I came to upside-down, the mouse-grey pillow almost suffocating me. The second problem was Gary. He was out, belted in place. It looked like the passenger airbag had shot forcefully enough to break his nose or something else had. Gary’s blood was everywhere. His forehead was dark red with it, and there was a little puddle of it just below his head on the Cherokee’s roof liner. He moaned and snuffled, a bloody bubble popping in his nostril.

I squirmed out, went around and unbelted Gary and pulled him through the shattered passenger-side window. The Cherokee was on fire, a little fire. It had been the source of the black firecloud that I saw in the rearview mirror after we went end-over-end and landed on the canyon floor. As soon as I dragged Gary away, the gas tank exploded with a hollow thump into sparks and green-orange streaks of flame, jagged strips of glass, and sizzling plastic.

Neither of us had cell phones. So I turned Gary on his side, leaned back into the ice plant and stickerweed on the slope of the canyon, and watched the Cherokee cook. A burning vehicle in the middle of a residential area: someone would call. There would be fire trucks, police, ambulance. Gray wheezed and snorted blood. I watched a seagull glide over the rooftops of houses on the other side of the canyon.

Two hours passed, and Gary grew silent. I couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead. I put my ear to his back and still couldn’t tell. No one arrived. No sirens in the distance. Nothing but the occasional gull overhead, the smell of melted plastic.

So I did the only other thing I could do. I walked. People don’t like people who walk away. It’s unpopular. It’s ugly. It shows a certain changeability, weakness, lack of determination. I didn’t feel good about it, but I went anyway. I left (blood-spattered, probably dead) Gary on the slope of the canyon and walked my way to freedom. Or, if not to freedom, then at least out of a certain kind of bondage that would have involved explaining to police how we’d arrived at the bottom of the canyon in the first place. I told myself repeatedly it was actually good that no one called or came, that Gary got what he deserved.

The ice plant roots were twisted like rigging and, even though I was beaten and dizzy, it enabled me to climb right up and out of the canyon. I went down the sidewalk, wondering what I was going to do now that I had no home.

Late afternoon and nobody was on the street. It was a quiet, residential neighborhood not far from the beach. Little brightly colored one-story houses. Kids’ toys strewn on front lawns. 3-foot high white picket fences. Party sounds came from a backyard, pool splashes, laughter. Pure, bright clouds hung low in the hard blue sky. I went down the driveway of a house towards the party sounds, half-thinking that I should say something to someone about Gary, half-thinking that it would be nice to lie down next to a pool where people are laughing and sleep. I had a powerful urge to sleep.

3 metallically clean, blond teenagers tossed a beach ball in the pool, 2 girls and a boy. They looked happy and perfect like models, like they’d been pressed from a mold. On the far side of the pool, another boy was grilling burgers. A tiny cd player with speakers plugged into it played music I’d never heard before, a crackly kind of accelerated country with the singer whispering nervously over the guitar.

I sat down in a white chaise lounge and looked at them. Eventually, the boy and girls in the pool waded towards me. They didn’t get out. The boy on the other side looked over but kept grilling. The music scraped out of the speakers on the patio table next to me as the singer stammered and strummed his guitar. I caught lyrics about love and radiation coming from the sky.

“You’re bloody,” said one of the girls.

I turned my head slightly to see her, realizing that there was something wrong with my neck.

“Who messed you up?” asked the boy in the pool next to her.

I noticed that there was a tear across the filthy bloodstained button-down that had been white when I’d bought it long ago at the Austin J.C. Penny. The boy who’d been grilling came around and stood next to the cd player, holding the grilling fork with a smoking hamburger patty stuck on the prongs. I looked up and smiled. The boy in the pool took a step back.

Maddog was on his way. Jackson Jackson had already cleaned and assembled the AK in anticipation and was sitting down in the basement, testing the firing action and loading clips with black-jacketed 7.62mm cartridges that looked more like a bad day in Baghdad than home defense. Jackson Jackson looked like a bad day in Baghdad. He’d never been more cheerful, but with that crisp smile that was heavier on the homicide than the happy. I knew he wouldn’t be after Max’s wife. Everything that had formerly been Jackson Jackson the human had gotten jettisoned into some distant, pockmarked landscape in a USMC Government Issue Standard Waste Disposal Receptacle. All that was left was Jackson Jackson the Pile of Endless Rage with the occasional episode of Malicious Joy thrown in by the gods for flavor.

I don’t know what it is about upheaval that makes people seek it out, or what it is about very personal, very utter destruction that makes people hungry for it like no other. But I knew then, in the way of knowing that seems completely clear, even though it’s completely corrupt, just how good Cheryl looked to me when I staggered up from the basement the next morning, my hair like a bush hit by too much wind.

Was I corrupt or just aware? Why was it that neither Jackson Jackson nor Max had any desire for this well-endowed brunette, who, as I emerged from the basement, happened to be drinking a beer in her underwear—very narrow, very sexy black underwear? She leaned back against the kitchen sink and gave me a look so clear and blank her eyes might have been polished glass—the same look she’d given me from the window the day before. As we stood there blinking at each other, I wondered what it would be like waking up next to her legs, what her belly would look like when she stretched and arched her back.

Right then, I should have jumped in the U-Haul, turned up the Beach Boys, and wailed through the cornfields until inertia and gas mileage won and all there was was an atomized pin-flat duskline as far as I could look, the nearest telephone pole 50 miles gone. Then I should have started to run. I knew this just like I knew the house was ready to pop with Max hung-over upstairs face down in his bed and Jackson Jackson in the basement getting ready for war. He’d traded up the Beach Boys for Funk Soul Brother on infinite repeat as he kissed each cartridge and whispered to it before grinning and sliding it into the clip.

Yes. Crazy. But all I could think was how cool Cheryl was, drinking a beer all by herself in the kitchen at noon in her black underwear and not giving a shit.

“No,” she said, “You don’t get a beer. This is the last one.”

“I wasn’t asking.”

She raised an eyebrow and put the empty bottle in the sink. “This, from someone living rent-free in my basement?”

“Don’t worry about the money. It’ll flow like sweet milk from heaven as soon as we stock the bar down there and get our liquor license.”

“Funny man.”

Nobody who says funny man ever means it the way it sounds. It’s always a placeholder for something else, some other stronger observation that can’t be voiced right then. What I didn’t realize, as Cheryl moved close to me and rested her palm lightly on my chest, was that she was about to kiss me.

When I become a learned philosopher, my first book will be entitled The Beach Boys as Ontological Modality: An American Response to Schopenhauer’s Primacy of Will. I will argue that the term, “hodaddies,” as it occurs, for example, in the song “Surfers Rule,” is a mystery term, an intentionally ambiguous sign, carrying a multiplicity of culturally significant meanings: The hodaddies sittin’ while the surfers are draggin’/ The surfers are winnin’ and they say as they’re grinnin’/Surfers rule. Hodaddies. What does Schopenhauer have to say in response to hodaddies? That angle has been completely overlooked by scholars. It will be the first of many important books I will write. The second will be an exploration of death. Specifically, how little deaths create chain reactions that result in big deaths. I will reference hodaddies.

Hodaddy No. 1: Little fluffy puppy that didn’t have a name. The puppy that haunted my dreams, severed head, blood crusted into white fur.

Hodaddy No. 2: Max Latham, who now also haunts me in his own sad way, who stumbled downstairs too late to catch his wife kissing me, who, like the puppy, only ever wanted to be loved and free to focus on harmful minerals in the tap water and the hygiene of his front lawn. He didn’t ask for nihilistic, ex-naval shotgun experts and failed gamblers. Max didn’t ask for philandering wives in sexy black underwear. But this world is full of victims. And so there would come a time when the puppy would have to lose its head, Max his wife, Jackson Jackson his freedom, Maddog his life, and me my immortal soul.

And then, of course, Hodaddio Grande del Mundo: the flight of bullets through the air, cyclic rate of fire as estimated by the US Department of Defense: 650-750 rounds per minute, give or take variations in barrel design that might affect velocity. The grand Hodaddy doing its thing over your rental car, the street, up the front of your body, and out the back.

“Where’s Jackson?” Max asked, not even noticing that Cheryl was standing there in her black underwear or maybe not even caring since their fight the night before.

She shrugged, and the glimmer of interest I’d seen in her face when she kissed me receded into the mask of blank indifference that seemed to be her normal state—and would be until, much later, when she’d discover she liked to do speed with various unwashed individuals in the washroom of The Brig.

“I think he’s downstairs, loading his weapons,” I said.

“Oh.” Max frowned deeply and poured distilled water into the coffee pot by the sink, blinking his bloodshot eyes slowly against the light. I wondered how much was hangover and how much was anxiety that the trouble with his wife or maybe the brooding arsenal in the basement would somehow negatively impact his lawn. How could a man who was ingenious enough to build a tri-level water-distiller in his kitchen from hardware store parts and a battery pack completely overlook his wife? Or, for that matter, how could he overlook the very depressed, dangerous man sitting in his basement giving each bullet its own unique name?

Max put the grounds in, turned it on, and the smell of percolating coffee filled the air. For that moment, as the three of us stood there blinking at each other, I hoped it all might work out. I told myself I’d legitimately put Texas behind me. I could get a straight job, pay off my debts, maybe get a lawn of my own. Max had to know something the rest of us didn’t. Unfortunately, the moment after that, I realized Jackson Jackson was not still in the basement loving his bullets. He was in the street outside, firing them.

We ran out like idiots. I saw Maddog on his back in the street, red long-sleeved button-down shirt, sneakers pointing up, and jeans washed in blood. His scraggly beard. His fat belly. A pistol in his left hand. His eyes staring straight up at Holy Astral Queens, the loan shark heaven. I didn’t feel good about him dying, but then I didn’t feel bad about me living. And it looked like Jackson Jackson wasn’t feeling anything, standing there like a statue with Kalashnikov smoking.

The bullet holes were large. The same ones that covered the back of the U-Haul had riddled Maddog’s rented Taurus. Jackson Jackson frowned at them as if they’d failed to live up to his expectations point-by-point. He was a death artist, and this was his performance, his installation in the center of 503 Pearl Street, with cordite in the air and Max back inside, sweating and pissing and hissing an emergency-911-death-immediately-now hoddady into the telephone.

Jackson Jackson sat down right where he was, in a half-lotus, and proceeded to disassemble and clean each part of his weapon with a little, white bristle-brush and a can of machine oil from his pocket. When the SWAT team arrived, no shots were fired. A gun-cleaning kit was confiscated along with the AK parts and several pockets of ammo..

The next day, Max didn’t go to work and started drinking at 8:00 AM. No one had been shot in front of his house before, and he was taking it hard. He sat in the den, sipping whiskey as he clicked the TV remote with a trembling hand. The fact that he’d started on a brand-new bottle of Black Velvet was not lost on me. So many synchronicities seemed present when I realized he was watching a biography on Dennis Wilson, the Beach Boys’ drummer. Everything comes together. Everything converges. I said it to myself over and over. This is not a chaotic, disconnected whirlwind of shit and suffering. There are reasons. There is a tide, even if it happens to be brown. If you don’t want to ask the tide, ask Schopenhauer. He’ll tell it true.

I kept saying this all to myself when I crept down into the basement to do some secret packing and found Cheryl waiting there with one suitcase full of money and another full of clothes. My clothes. My suitcases. Max’s money. It looked like all of Max’s money. She unzipped my little blue valise and showed me how she’d rolled the twenties and fifties in fat little bundles, each one like something a movie gangster would have in his pocket after selling a pound of crack. How many pounds would this represent? It looked like harvest day in Crackland.

“I love beautiful women smiling at me with suitcases full of cash,” I said, “but I hate jail and, oh, who knows, bounty hunters and enraged husbands and death.”

Cheryl shrugged. “I don’t give a fuck, and I won’t offer twice. Max is an asshole. He deserves it.”

Maybe seeing Jackson Jackson take out Maddog in the street jarred something loose. Maybe she was just as fundamentally evil and crazy as everyone else, sexiness notwithstanding. But such a woman in such a situation making such an offer could seem right even if it were wrong. No matter the reasons, in a life of lousy decisions, leaving with her seemed like the answer, the next thing. Everything comes together.

“When?”

“Tonight.”

“How?”

“I’ve got a car.” Cheryl zipped the suitcase back up. “This is everything. I’ve been planning this. Max is screwed right now, but he doesn’t even realize it. He won’t have time to come looking.”

I nodded. She smiled. And then we, too, came together. A few hours later, we were gone.

All these things. Convergences, mistakes and imperfections, resurgences, corrections, convections, exceptions. The slow path of a leaf or a bullet through the air. And I ask myself who the puppy is: Gary, Jackson Jackson, Max, or me. And who is West Des Moines? And who is the futon in the basement? Who are the bullets? And who is the problem? Money? And how are we getting away from it, money? And gravity, why gravity, when all we want to do is leave?

* Note: this first appeared in Willow Springs 62 (2008): 67-83.

Tomlin sits across from me. Pissed. He wants to smoke a cigarette, but he doesn’t do that anymore, and anyway we’re in the café of the Cherry Blossom Hotel. Tomlin’s got a tonsure of white around the back of his head but nothing on top. That’s the first thing you notice. Then the liver spots. Gigantic ones that might as well be birthmarks or bruises for all anybody knows or cares. He’s of an indeterminate ancientness. He’d gouge holes in the ground if he thought the earth could feel the pain. It’s freeing, really. It almost makes me happy. Fifteen minutes with him and I feel fortified, ready to go back and face one more day of blocked up toilets and garbage. I sip my lousy coffee and smoke down to the filter. I crush the butt out on my shoe, and nobody needs to understand.

The Kitchen Staff watches us from behind the coffee counter. Three women who used to work the x-ray machine at the airport. They are harder than pig iron and they stick together. They’ll beat you. I’ve seen them face down snarling dogs with just a chair, a broken bottle, and some language. Glaring over the espresso machine, they look offended by our existence, enraged, as if they can read our thoughts, sure that we come here just to stink up the place and make their lives harder. They comprehend all, see all. And what they see, they despise.

We are your filth-ridden, smoking co-workers.

We are having a cup of coffee. We excremental examples of janitorial wrongness are drinking your coffee. And, of course, I will exhale gray, poison death-fumes all over your asiago bagels.

The Kitchen Staff knows who we are. We know who they are. It’s a hate stand-off. They hate me and my smoking. They hate the fact that Tomlin takes his coffee black. They’re hate generators. They hate the sky, the birds, the flowers, the ocean, your mother, and dirt. Find something. Put it in the café. And they’ll bust hate all over it. The only thing they might not hate is hate, but they probably hate that, too.

In fact, we are hateful.

We’re maintenance. Janitors. Custodial staff. Sanitation engineers. We don’t have a lot to live for, according to Tomlin. He says this all the time and, lately, I’ve almost come to believe him. I’m not saying all janitors are automatically like this; somebody has to clean up the shit. But we’re employed by the world’s first and only fake Chinese hotel. Even if we work like imperial slaves, nothing else does. The lawn is always dying. It, too, stinks and is fake. Garth, the owner, bought lawn-carpets that look like grass and are supposed to eventually become grass. But now they’re just gigantic, rotting mats of corruption, and he knows it. The toilets back up or the pipes explode, weekly.

Eventually, everything stinks. Such is life.

As for us, Tomlin’s still hung over from his fourth divorce. And Marciel, our very own hypersensitive Oaxacan, is a now an Evangelical Spiritist awaiting God’s thunderbolt. The stable one might be Otis. He doesn’t believe in anything but television—not what’s on, but TV itself, the Muse, he says, of our civilization.

The news burbles low from a big-screen near the ceiling. These are strange days. A serial killer has just been given the death sentence in Texas, his execution a media event. Depressing, brutal wars in places we’ve never been taught to locate on a map. The earth hot, ready to pop, and everything dying all at once. We follow the news from the café or from our break room in the sub-basement—Otis shaking his head in dismay at what the Muse hath wrought, while Marciel prays under his breath.

The execution is now being performed in Dallas. The man on a gallows, black bag over his head, arms locked in a heavy leather harness. His picture squared in the corner of the screen: Warren Edward Ames, 35, hard cheekbones, mouth pressed to a single line, all 16 murders sitting in his stare.

“Death by hanging,” says Tomlin. “A classic. Rupture of the cervical vertebrae, laceration of the trachea, asphyxiation.”

“Messy.”

“Not true.” He smiles at me. “It’s all in the knot.”

“Don’t tell me you were a hangman before you worked here.”

Tomlin looks at me for a moment, sips his coffee. “I sold Buicks.”

CNN live. Amazing that they would show this on national TV. A verse from the Bible being read for the prisoner, who, the reporter notes, is a professed atheist.

“You didn’t sell Buicks.”

“Buicks,” says Tomlin. He stands up on a chair to flip the channel.

If Tomlin’s still trying to unwrap himself from his divorces, I’m trying to get unwrapped, too. But not unwrapped as in shed, as with skin or hang-ups. Unwrapped as in untwisted, made smooth, ironed out. If I could have one wish, I’d ask for a little bit of that, a little smoothness. In the deep end of the night, the very basement of the blackest, darkest hours of the night, when I wake to hear Beth weeping in the kitchen, I imagine normal life, how smooth it could be. When she weeps and prays at the same time, she sounds like she’s mewing out a different language, spreading tears on herself and the table. Crying for the son we gave up for all the good reasons we both agreed were good. For a son we kept for approximately two minutes and didn’t even name. Beth has recently nailed a crucifix in every room. And that’s where we are as a modern couple.

I tell Tomlin I’m thinking about buying a snake, and he just shakes his head.

“Save your money,” he says. “It’ll die eventually anyway.”

“Well, maybe I’ll feed it.”

“The fuck you will. You’ll forget or your wife’ll start having nightmares and chop it up while you’re at work.”

“Maybe I’ll get two, then. And hide one. So when she kills the first one, I can tell her Jesus raised it from the dead.”

Tomlin sighs, stares into his coffee cup.

We are emotional janitors.

I look to Tomlin as my moral compass. He’s an atheist, he says, which means he can’t pray; he can only hope—for a global nuclear war. He’ll smile and wink and say it’s best for everybody. Square the books. Take it back to before humans got out of control and became an infestation. He’s one of the few people who’ll be happy when all that’s left is smoking ash and twisted rebar. It’s an interesting approach to the world. How bad can things seem if you’re ready to burn at any given moment? Still, Tomlin says it’s not going to matter when some crazy fool rolls a hundred pounds of diesel into the Blossom’s lobby and lets the bitch burn. He says the world is becoming a disease-ridden corpse. Eventually, we’re all going to have to face the consequences. Tomlin is also fond of reminding me that, in lieu of a redeeming bullet in the back of the head, a good low-carbon straight razor costs $5.78. Applying it to one’s own throat costs nothing.

The Kitchen Staff snaps the TV off with their remote.

“One of these days,” Tomlin says, “I’m going to take an axe handle to that espresso machine.”

I nod slowly and glare at the Kitchen Staff with a fierceness.

“What about this,” he says. “Get a horned viper. A horned viper can bite you and you’ll just go to sleep. No pain. Dead in seconds.”

“That’s a myth.”

Tomlin looks at me and raises his eyebrows.

Of all the venomous snakes in Africa, Tomlin, Otis, and I have learned that the horned viper is actually the least likely to bite a human. We know this because the high school football team that stayed up on the twelfth floor five months ago left one in a bathtub. Marciel has a phobia about snakes, and so naturally he’s the one who found it when he went up to unclog the toilet. Since then, the rest of us have done a few snake searches on the internet, and Marciel has stayed as drunk as possible. He’s still going to the Evangelical Spiritual therapist, who told him the snake was a physical manifestation of the Devil—but added that it’s natural to feel anxiety about Satan and that we shouldn’t sublimate our emotions. I don’t think Evangelical therapy has been helping Marciel much considering all the sublimating he’s been doing with the apricot brandy he takes from the kitchen.

My cell phone rings. It’s Beth, so I ignore it. It has been something of a general policy of mine not to answer when it’s Beth. She hired a private investigator a year ago to find out all about our boy. He lives in Arizona now. He’s in preeschool. His name is Robert. I discover her in bed some days, holding the phone to her chest, dial tone carrying out of the receiver, and I wonder was she calling his house again. Our son. Not our son. I’ve stopped asking. Maybe I wonder sometimes how it might feel not to have to come home to this.

In two minutes—less than 113 seconds to be exact—I will have to go get Otis and check out the drainpipes on the mountainside where the hotel plumbing is supposed to empty out. Otis tells me we’re expected to wear hip-boots for the job, which does not bode well.

Garth beeps Tomlin on his walkie-talkie and they have a conversation about the roach problem in the second floor east wing. Guests are upset. Garth is pissed, screaming, his angry little voice coming through the two-way like some kind of Lilliputian tent preacher. But years in the janitorial profession have taught Tomlin to breathe and be the Zen master who speaks calmly and in short syllables. He is Master Po. Master Tomlin, the Silently Angry.

“No,” he says. “Yes. I understand. Right.”

“Can’t you just tell him they’re authentic roaches from Shanghai?”

Tomlin says nothing. He gets up and stalks away, a grim expression on his face.

I pick up our half-full Styrofoam cups and walk through the café. It’s made to look like an ornamental Chinese garden complete with fake bamboo, red paper lamps, black lacquered tables, and an artificial stream that works fifty-percent of the time. Koi can’t live in it, we’ve discovered. On my way out, I place the cups right on the inside of the café’s round, wooden door. Ten-to-one, when some guest walks through it, rancid coffee will go everywhere. Two-to-one, Tomlin will be culling the roaches and Marciel will be sleeping off a pint of sublimation. That means I will get the call, because the Kitchen Staff has made it abundantly clear they can’t be bothered with spills. It means I’ll have to take the hip-boots off and hightail it back up the mountain. Sorry, Otis. You should have prayed more to the Muse.

Abundantly clear. Some things just are. Like the fact that the local villagers of Pine Bluff, Colorado, have no idea what to make of The Blossom. Actually, let’s be real. Nobody has any idea what to make of it—not even Garth, if you decide to qualify him as a person.

Architecturally, it’s about as bogus as a hotel can get, a series of interconnected towers made from cheap concrete and gridded into floors. When I was fifteen, my uncle took me to a donkey bar in Tijuana that looked like that: a parking structure closed off and painted in bright primary colors. The Blossom is essentially the same thing without the donkey. Instead, for lovers of wildlife, there’s the crazed grizzly bear who Tomlin named Claudia, after his first wife, and who occasionally puts the fear of god into the guests by trashing their vehicles in front of them.

In aesthetic terms, the main differences between the Blossom and a donkey bar come down to a few green, tiled dragon corners and fake round windows that help create a sort-of pagoda façade. Ergo, Chinese hotel. Ergo, occasional Pine Bluffians coming halfway up the mountain road or watching from the tree line, bewildered expressions on their faces. Standing in my hip boots, covered in human and animal fecal matter, I have stared back, painfully aware that the tree line was not the only divider between my world and theirs—and burdened with the knowledge that the Blossom presides over everything like the last remaining ruin of an abandoned theme park, a dead world devoted to particleboard and leakage, cheap moldings and graft.

But let’s go with the idea of abundance, get right to the heart of it: me and Otis working our way down the side of the mountain with climbing ropes to unplug the sewer so the waste can run down the mountainside, through the forest, and into town like it’s supposed to. The sewage pipe is about two-hundred feet below, sticking straight out of the earth like a busted rib. And here’s Garth on the walkie-talkie: “Where are you, Otis? Otis? Give me your exact coordinates.” Garth is worried. Garth has had more than his usual four Red Bulls this afternoon. Maybe a fun line of cocaine up his nose. Maybe two.

He walks around most days in a brown silk robe, Ming-dynasty-style with matching slippers, high, trying to look like Wise Old Grandfather. Needless to say, Garth is 36, a straight-up white boy from Hackensack. The closest he’s probably come to China has been the Nee-Hou Restaurant in Trenton. But on a mountain in Colorado, maybe that’s enough. In the nineteen months of The Blossom’s history, the only affectation Garth has missed is the long, Emperor Ming fingernails, which he’s probably growing right now while Otis and I risk our lives for plumbing.

“We can see it,” Otis says into the two-way. “We have visual confirmation.” He slides a little lower on the line and hammers a piton between two boulders.

“Why do you talk like that?”

Otis cranes his neck so he can glare up at me. “Don’t trip, Ellis.”

“I heard what you said. You said, ‘visual confirmation.’”

“You’re trippin’, Ellis. Don’t trip.”

“Oh, I get it. Now you’re all trippin boo, but a minute ago you were, ‘Check. Roger. Visual target in sight, Captain.’”

“Fuck you.”

I laugh my hard laugh. I almost find him funny. I wonder if Otis is going to find it funny when I get to climb back up the line and he has to pipesnake the drain all by his lonesome. I’ll sure as shit be laughing then.

We secure ourselves on either side of the drain. This is accomplished by running nylon ropes through carabineers in Velcro waist harnesses that look like diapers. We’re wearing hip boots because, once we clear the drain, the nastiness will spray out like Hell’s own Trevi Fountain. For chest coverage, we’re wearing brown plastic trash bags. This is because, according to Tomlin (who’s done it before all by himself), it’s impossible to completely get the sewage out of rain slickers, coveralls, or hair. Otis pulls down his goggles and begins to unfold the deluxe fourteen-foot pipesnake.

I look down and imagine jumping. On his list of the twenty best ways for maintenance workers to die, Tomlin has defined number eleven as drowning in a water tower cistern filled with Bushmills single malt. Such a way to die would be, in the words of our beloved employer, the “quintessence of decadence.” With Garth, everything’s the quintessence of, indubitably, without a doubt, the paragon of, essentially.

In the world according to Garth, there are stylish ways to die and gauche ones, some flamboyant, others plain. Strange words from the man who pretends to be a different ethnicity to up his booking rate. But Garth doesn’t know what Tomlin claims to know: there may only be good ways to die; although, some may be better than others. Right now, dangling from a rope for the sake of someone else’s shit, I can’t think of a better exit than a lungful of County Antrim’s finest.

I’m waiting on the café spill call to save me, but it never comes. This means Otis sits on my right shoulder like a baby at the zoo—a large, bald, two-hundred-and-fifty pound baby, smelling of old cigarillos, in hip boots and a trash bag. I’ve got my own goggles on now because I’m the anchorman. And I really hope this works out since I’m staring right into the mouth of the pipe.

The pipesnake looks like a giant segmented bottle cleaner with a corkscrew at the tip. Otis works it in, giving it an angry twist every few inches.

“I hate this job,” he says.

“This job hates you.”

“You been hanging around Tomlin too much. Pretty soon, we’ll be out here looking for your body.”

“Don’t talk trash, Otis. Tomlin knows things. He knows things. You should listen to the man speak.”

“I listened to him,” says Otis, twisting the pipesnake almost all the way in. “Aha. Found the motherfucker.”

“You listened to him. But you didn’t hear him.”

I bend my knees and get ready to push off to the side. Otis will push off of me. And, if all goes well, the blocked-up shit will fire out between us. If all doesn’t go well, my plan is to at least keep my mouth closed.

“Tomlin never said much to me other than I should blow myself up for science,” he says.

We re-thread the ropes and get ready. I coil up as much energy as I can in my legs. Otis puts his left boot against my right shoulder, holds his line with one hand and yanks the pipesnake out with the other. We leap apart. A few hundred pounds of raw sludge goes into the air between us with a hiss. Aside from being coated by a fine sewer mist, Otis and I are mostly unviolated. We wait for the pressure to die down to a garden hose dribble before starting the slow climb back.

“You really think Tomlin knows a lot about science and cadavers and that?”

A few moments pass before Otis finds the energy to say, “Ellis, that’s just stupid.”

Beth has her friend, Lenorah, over with Lenorah’s two kids, Nell and Illy. I don’t know what the kids’ actual names are. Probably Nelson and Illyana. But who’s asking? The important thing is that, if the local toddler contingent is going to be represented, the local septuagenarian population should be present as well—namely Tomlin. He sits with a cup of coffee in the corner of the living room at our computer desk, surfs the net, and talks about as often as I do, which is to say, little. As Beth’s husband, I am required to sit right up next to the kids on the couch. I’m required to participate in socialization with my wife’s new friends, all of whom are fundamentalist Christians in their thirties with children under the age of ten. And they always get around, sooner or later, to the fact that we gave up our boy for adoption.

Tonight, it’s Lenorah: the sighing, coo-cooing, Jesus-loving center of the universe and her perpetually screaming, defecating offspring. But so be it. I got home from my mountaineering adventure, wanting nothing more than to shower off the corruption and go to sleep, only to find Lenorah T-minus fifteen minutes and counting. Enough time to entertain running to the car and flooring it or perhaps a few choice suicide fantasies. Enough time to say, “So be it,” over and over before calling Tomlin. I can always depend on the old smilodon to be free and available, even though to save face he has to say something like, “Well, I don’t know. I might have something going on. You’ll have to call me back.” Just like a schoolgirl. I usually call him later, and whatever it was has mysteriously fallen through.

Lenorah wrinkles up her nose and pokes Illy in the stomach. “Say Jesus loves me,” Lenorah says. “Say Jesus.” Illy gurgles “Jeegis,” before letting go in her diaper and trying to fit her fist in her mouth. Beth and Lenorah rejoice and laugh hysterically. Praise Jesus for such a cute kid. But Illy and I look at each other, and we know: just get the job done. That’s all life can ask. Say Jesus. Then it’s alright. Then you can load your diaper with a modicum of grace.

Much wooden laughter and baby talk from Beth and Lenorah. Though, occasionally they shoot each other highly critical, calculating looks. I wonder if my wife and her friend actually get along or if there’s some unspoken agreement that all fundamentalists must act like distant relatives meeting each other for the first time. Tomlin lets out a belch or my attention wavers, and I see Beth take on a different, yet equally critical, expression—the severe, smoking look of death that a wife usually reserves for younger, firmer women who may be trying to adhere to her man. However, when filth is adhering to your man ten hours a day, it appears that you get to save those looks for him and his buddies.

So be it.

Actually, I am rather undead. With every conversation about the goodness of adoption, I see Beth get a little more fundamentalist. As in “sinking into the fundament.” Buried in it. Brain-deep. She gets fundy and I get zombie. Now the process is almost complete for both of us. I sit, a faint smile on my face, and appreciate the kids. In instances where there are no kids, I nod seriously at Beth’s friends and make the little noises people make when they’re listening. I am allowed one beer. If I put on an especially convincing show, Beth will be satisfied that I’ve done my part and go to bed early, avoiding accusations, weeping, and the invocation of our Lord and Redeemer to brutally show me the error of my ways.

But I know the error of my ways.

“Here you go, Ellis,” says Tomlin. “Here’s your fuckin’ snake.”

There’s a general gasp from the couch. Tomlin points to the picture of a bright green snake with ruby eyes on the computer screen. He has no idea that all the stained glass windows in all the churches of the world just shattered at once. Lenorah hisses the way I imagine the snake would if someone called up a picture of a human in its living room and uttered something profane. She yanks Illy into the bathroom to change her diaper, and Illy starts crying.

I don’t want to look at Beth, so I look at Nell. He grins, and I count six teeth in his mouth, three spaced on the bottom and three together on the top. He’s looking at the snake.

“See that shit?” Tomlin winks at the boy and slurps some coffee. “That’s a fuckin’ emerald tree boa. You like that?”

Nell nods his empty little head and keeps grinning.

“I think you’re leaving now,” Beth says to Tomlin, and I know she’s gone pale the way she does right before she starts to shake from too much stress.

Lenorah comes back and says, “No, I think we’re leaving.” She takes Nell by the

hand and carries Illy out the door. Over Lenorah’s shoulder, Illy waves at me with the fist that was too large for her mouth. I wave back. In her own way, Illy’s telling me, let’s face it, tonight there will be crying. And in my way, I’m saying yes, I know. She looks at me with big, mournful, blue eyes and a tiny part of me, deep down, a tiny non-zombified centimeter, feels moved—one worker to another, Illy and I, we understand each other.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Beth expects me to do something about the fact that Tomlin just belched, called up another emerald tree boa on the screen, and cackled like the snake was some kind of dirty joke and he finally got the punchline.

“I’m waving at the kid.”

We look at each other for a moment before Beth stalks into the bedroom and shuts the door. There will be reprisals. There will be screaming. I wait and say “So be it” to the carpet twenty or thirty times, sensing my zombification reassert itself, willing it to rise up and take away that last bit of me that might want to start screaming, too. I feel as if I’m slowly turning to stone or, given my life, at least a low-grade cement statue of a janitor. And I say, so be it. That’s alright. I’ve done my part, my screaming.

This was before Beth had her breakdown. I screamed a lot before she had it, the complete and utter psychotic rip down the center of her brain. The way I imagine it—like the window of an airplane getting punctured at altitude—the contents of her mind sucked out the hole with so much hiss. And then she woke up one day. But she didn’t wake up. And she realized I was there, had been waiting there. But she didn’t realize. And she found Jesus. And she refurnished the interior of her brain. But I’m not fond of the décor.

I say: so be it, and everything’s okay. The adventures of statues are many and various. Statues get to be left alone in this world and probably have fewer problems. There’s always a place for statuary. And the successful ones get put in the Louvre. So there really is no glass ceiling when it comes to a statue’s upward mobility. Glass walls, maybe.

“That didn’t take long,” grins Tomlin. He whacks his paper coffee cup down beside the computer keyboard, and I realize his teeth are not that different from Nell’s. “Now we can get down to business. Did you know you can buy these bitches with a credit card right now?”

In the end, I bought four. Four snakes and no more room on the MasterCard. That’s it. I winced before I hit CONFIRM TRANSACTION but, according to Tomlin, if you’re going to ruin your credit, you might as well do it on emerald tree boas from the Amazon basin. And, goddamn it, he’s right. Thank Jesus. Or don’t. I’ve been walking around all day with one of them in the sleeve of my pink-orange coveralls. It’s wrapped around my arm, and it likes it there. I address it as Satan. I refer to the others as Maltodextrin, Cleano, and Colorado State Birding Trail as these were words I randomly noticed in the break room when I came to work. But Satan is my favorite.

For his part, Marciel talks Spanish to the Devil while pushing a housekeeper’s cleaning cart down the halls, telling the Prince of Darkness to get away, get back, get behind him. And Marciel gives me nervous looks whenever I go by. Maybe he’s seen snaky lumps shift and tighten under my coverall sleeves. Maybe he’s looked into my face and seen a emerald swamp-light there with zombies and snakes—thoughts of my marriage like a half-sunk raft stuck with mosquitoes. The Blossom is there, too, in my eyes, in the center of my swamp, its dragon corners enfolded in a dirty gauze of webs and vines, creepers and mold.

The night of Lenorah’s visit, I sleep little and drink much.

The next day, Beth moves in with her parents in Boulder for a week of complaining and prayer.

Then the snakes move in and Beth moves back.

For the love of sweet whiskey I’ve slept with my new reptilian friends in the Caprice since her return. Seven holy days of snakes and Bushmills, of plungers and mops in the blear-eyed stuporous day, and feeding live, white mice to the boas at night. Stretched out on the Caprice’s backseat, staring up at parking lot lights, I want to jump on Jesus, beat him senseless, and raise my angry little fists to heaven. I want to dive into a cistern of Bushmills and find the mystical portal to County Antrim. To join the Devil’s army and execute the helpless. To load my diaper and hold my breath. The whiskey itself is a serpent, a burning firesnake twisting into my lungs and coiling around my heart.

The snakes move on the seats of the Caprice, slither over the headrests. The mice don’t stand a chance. I’ve been able to tell Satan apart by the blue-gray stripe across his nose. But when he strikes, he’s invisible, like the others. All week, I sat in the back seat while my new friends slid over my thighs. It’s been a weird experience—being part of the hunting landscape. This is what Pine Bluff feels when Garth goes out in his war chariot with his bow like the Emperor Ming of old.

Today, Garth has called the maintenance staff to accounts, to an inquest of sorts. We stand before his mahogany desk—Marciel, Otis, Tomlin, and me, all covered in different degrees of filth. Garth presses his fingertips together. His long nails are coming in nicely. His blond Fu Manchu has gotten downright respectable. He’s wearing a brown satin cap with Chinese characters on it and a yellow T-shirt that says, Boston Marathon 1988.

“You people,” says Garth, “have no values. No value system. No guiding functions. You’re acting like peasants.”

In the normal course of human events, when someone addresses a group with “You people,” a certain amount of hostility usually results. The phrase conjures up white-columned houses and tobacco plantations, red-faced state governors and chain gangs. Nobody wants to be “You people.” But my fellow sanitation engineers just sigh at their shoes, perhaps even in agreement. Peasants. Even Tomlin, especially Tomlin. What I took as Zen remove, as the calm, Master Po-ness of one who’s seen it all and is now wise beyond his station, is proving to be nothing more than tiredness, resignation, peasantry. It feels like a general, unspoken agreement that, yes, we all suck—not just because we’re janitors, but because we’re low-down human specimens.

Maybe we should blow ourselves up for science.

“You need iron balls to be in hotels. IRON. You know what iron is, Ellis?”

I nod. I also know what unemployment is and hate myself for knowing it while nodding.

“Now we have a fucking roach problem, second floor east. And five guests have left. Who’s fault is that? Mine? You guys fucked up. The roaches haven’t fucked up. The roaches are doing their jobs. They’re on-task. That means you guys are, right now, lower than the fucking roaches.”

Garth’s eyes are bugging out slightly from whatever stimulant has frothed him up to this angry place. His blonde Fu Manchu vibrates as he talks. That Garth is a strange cat is beyond question. Maybe at one point, the whole ancient Chinese motif was a put-on. But somewhere along the path toward having us pull his war chariot through the forest so he could shoot arrows at deer, Garth crossed over. He swivels around and sprinkles some incense on the hot iron brazier behind his desk. Then he presses his fingers back together and looks over them.

“You need direction.” He nods to himself. “You need a guiding philosophy.”

Just like the war chariot, his office is done up in red and gold. The black wrought iron incense brazier hangs down to desk-level by a chain. A jade luck dragon slithers across the front edge of his desk. And a Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary always sits in an ornate wooden bookstand from the Eastern Han Dynasty, open to the word of the day.

We know about these artifacts because Garth takes the time to explain them. He’ll call one of us in to talk about, say, a forgotten puddle of vomit or a mess left by Claudia, Tomlin’s favorite grisly bear, who likes to rip off trunk hoods and upend cars. Garth will begin in a coked-out furor—all twisted up about how the puke bonded with the hallway carpet at the molecular level and how now everything needs to be ripped out or how Claudia couldn’t get to a bag of dog food and wound up flipping a Corolla down the mountainside in frustration. But Garth’s lectures invariably end with: This is an authentic. AUTHENTIC. Vhass from the time of Cao Cao. Look at it. See that crack? That was made when Hua Tuo delivered his famous speech on the significance of the sunrise. Like that. Garth knows what he’s talking about, as far as any of us can tell. We stopped trying to cross-check him with the internet long ago.

So, when he hands each of us a new copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, we hold it in our hands and blink and nod. We’re lower than the fucking roaches, but we can read The Art of War.

“Simply put,” he says, “this is battle. This is conflagration. Chaos. Life is a struggle and you people—maybe not you, Tomlin—but the rest of you fuckers have no idea what’s going on. You’re stupid. You’re lazy. And you’re your own and the Blossom’s worst enemies.” Garth sniffs. His pupils are tiny.

I’d like to say I’ve never been spoken to like this, that I’ve got a smudge of self-respect left on my zombie heart, but I look at my shoes like everyone else. This isn’t the first of Garth’s speeches we’ve had to enjoy. I’m thinking about Satan, who’s traveled up my right arm and coiled around my shoulder. Marciel, looking as contrite as an altar boy, is doubtless dreaming about apricot sublimation or the Prince of Darkness, while Tomlin imagines everyone dead and Otis tries not to trip. But we all look sufficiently browbeaten by the time Garth takes another breath.

“One thing I want for you. One thing—no matter if you keep this job or not—is for you to pull yourselves up. Take responsibility for once in your sorry lives.” He sits back and wipes sweat from under his eyes even though the room is cool and smells of purple lotus. “So I need two things. One, no cockroaches on second floor east. Two, this immortal manual for life and warfare read by this day next week. There will be a test, and then we’ll see who keeps his job. Now fuck off.” Garth puts his feet up on his desk and closes his eyes, exhausted.

Tomlin takes a cigarette out of the pack on the desk and puts it between Garth’s parted lips. Otis lights it. Without opening his eyes, Garth blows a funnel of smoke over his head, where it mingles with the incense. We file silently out of the room and Marciel shuts the door softly behind us. I turn the book over, and read the back: An immortal manual for life and warfare written by perhaps the greatest military thinker of all time.

When I get home, a fundamentalist prayer circle is being held in my living room.

What does this mean, you ask?

I am a man of routine: after feeding five white mice to the boas (Garth’s voice in the back of my head tells me the most enterprising snake should get a one-mouse bonus), I plan to sneak in through the bathroom window for some stealth hygiene. Such an operation consists of showering, brushing my teeth, and shaving as quietly as possible in the dark. I am highly skilled. Catlike, I plan to slip out the window again and drive to the Blossom, where I will park and sleep in the car. But today, I’m worried. There’s a prayer circle in my living room where there should only be dust, vinyl, and remorse.

In a cardboard box in the trunk, I’ve got a bouquet of the silk flowers Beth collects, a new pink satin bathrobe (on which I paid to have a B monogrammed), a white teddy bear Jesus with a plush crown of thorns and a puffy red heart on its tummy that reads, I forgive you because I love you!, and a brand-new copy of Chicken Soup for the Quilter’s Soul to bring my wife’s Chicken Soup collection up to date; though, to my knowledge, she does not quilt. These are the peace offerings I plan to leave in conspicuous locations around the house over the course of several days.

But with ten fundamentalists in my living room, casting prayer circles and calling up Jesus from the netherworld or whatever it is they do, there’s no room for plush teddys and forgiveness. They close ranks; Chicken Soup becomes just another demonic manifesto; and I become 100% sinner in everything for all time. Period. Another possibility—that they’re actually in there waiting for me—means they could be some kind of protestant Inquisition, some kind of radical Christian Schutstaffel, waiting to crucify me over the fireplace with sanctified nails and eat my soul. I peer through the windshield into the big living room window for a few minutes then put the car in reverse.

Man: “What is corruption?”

Jesus: “It’s you.”

The Devil: “It’s nothing.”

Sun Tzu: “Have you looked on the other side of that hill?”

The hill: rooms 144 through 168. The roaches have been uncharitably horny. It doesn’t matter that we’re about to unleash a boiling tide of death-spray designed to kill them all or that such chemicals will probably shorten our lifespans by ten years. It doesn’t matter that we work for a corrupt, coke-snorting asshole who likes to play dress up. What does matter, according to Otis, is deception:

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

Otis stands with us outside Room 144, delivering The Art of War as if it were a fiery Baptist sermon designed to cast out demons. He holds the text at arm’s length and looks down his nose through his spectacles, gas mask pushed up on top of his head like a second face turned toward heaven.

Tomlin’s got his own mask down, locked to the PVC collar of his hazmat suit. His breath comes in soft hisses. He sounds like Colorado State Birding Trail the morning I woke up on the backseat of the Caprice with its body outlining the curvature of my skull: don’t worry. Everything will be okay as soon as another mouse comes along. I didn’t have the heart to tell the snakes that I’m the one providing the mice, not some benevolent snake god in the sky. Tomlin isn’t a snake or a snake god; though, he sounds like a monstrous python when he breathes. And he looks like a cartoon armadillo—long snout, dual filters at the bottom of the mask suggesting flared nostrils or some kind of round baleen as if the air were a dirty ocean. Hissing, waiting, Tomlin glares at us, his thumb on the red button of his sprayer.

“Hold out baits to entice the enemy,” reads Otis. “Feign disorder, and crush him.”

“Yes,” says Marciel, oddly sober today and excited, ready for battle.

Attack him where he is unprepared. Appear where you are not expected.”

“Yes!”

“In order to kill the enemy, our men must be roused to anger!”

“Yes! Yes!”

“That there may be advantage from defeating the enemy, they must have their REWARDS!”

“¡MATE A LAS CUCARACHAS!”

And with that battle cry, Marciel kicks open the door to Room 144 and opens up, screaming, with his NCC-18 B&G Sprayer, loosing a full gallon of Cypermethrin into the air. Otis and I also start screaming, running back up the hallway, trying to get our gas masks locked to our suits.

We go to the hospital to visit Marciel, who is in surprisingly stable condition after inhaling a massive amount of insecticide. In the small coppice of oaks and willows behind the pathology lab, I release Satan, Cleano, Maltodextrin, and Colorado State Birding Trail back into nature. I would have released them somewhere near the Blossom but for the fact that they are snakes. As a result of Claudia the Bear’s gentle ministrations with the cars in the Blossom’s parking lot, the guests are already nervous. Someone’s grandma would find Satan in her coleslaw and, much like Solomon Kane, the great Puritan witch hunter, I or one of my unfortunate colleagues would be called to destroy the evil with iron and fire.

“You realize,” says Otis, leaning against a tree, “that by letting them free out here, you’re probably killing them. This isn’t their . . .”

“Habitat,” says Tomlin.

“Yeah, habitat.”

I’m not listening. Everything will not be okay as soon as another mouse comes along. Maybe I’m the only one present who understands that. I feel sad as I watch Cleano test the air with his tongue and begin to move tentatively, carefully, under a bramble.

“Dead today. Dead tomorrow. What’s the difference?” Tomlin smiles and shrugs. But, quite frankly, I am sick to death of his phony death-worship shit. Only he survived our war against the roaches unscathed, the Blossom’s WMDs having blessed Otis and me with a certain lingering incontinence. More than any of us, Tomlin had been concerned for his own safety.

I turn toward him with lightning in my eyes: “Tomlin? Why don’t you go blow your ass up for science, you old phony bastard?”

“You’re gonna see,” he screams as I make my way back to the hospital lot. “You’re gonna see as you get old! It all gets worse! Worse!”

Maybe it gets worse. Maybe it gets better. For better or worse, I go home. There are Christians again in my living room. I know they are Christians because their expressions harden when they see me. They’ve finished another prayer circle. I don’t know what for. It must have been a long one because they all look a little drained. They’re sitting around, eating potato chips. Three of them watch a sitcom on my television, laughing when they should. I notice that Lenorah is absent, still recovering, no doubt, from her little, profane adventure at our house.

The guy making my wife laugh is fortyish with a bit of a belly. Young in the face but balding, delicate wisps of blond arcing over his scalp. His smile fades when he looks at me.

“Who’s this?” he asks Beth in the tone and manner of a nervous adolescent boyfriend about to snap.

Beth says nothing, looks at the carpet, stone-still.

“I live here, too,” I say.

Beth looks up at me. Suddenly. Like someone switched on the wattage in her face. “No,” she says, “you live in your car.”

“We put your stuff in the yard,” says the guy. He gives me a little, knowing smile.

“These are my friends,” says Beth.

A man who loses his home and his snakes in the same day is unfortunate, sayeth Sun Tzu. And if he didn’t sayeth it, he should have. It’s late. The Blossom café is empty. The Kitchen Staff sees that I am alone, maybe senses that something is amiss: chum in the water. They circle in the distance, letting their fins break the surface, swishing their tails.

The CNN loop doesn’t show the actual execution. The volume is off. Now it’s Warren Edward Ames looking out silently at the world. The news ticker runs across the bottom of the screen, informing us that the President has announced he intends to go back to school after his term is up. Then a lurid, two-second clip of the gallows, the red jumpsuit, the black bag over Ames’ head.

The Kitchen Staff stares. One of them ventures closer, wipes down one of the small black tables with a dishcloth. A true blue-collar veteran. Her face is leathery, eyebrows drawn in severe arcs. She’s got the forearms of a dockworker. She peers at me, curious. I’m a dangerous property. I’m plutonium. I look pretty worked-over. She’s not sure about me. She might be wiping tables at ground zero. When she straightens up, I see all her night shifts. I see her telling herself she’s hard. The stresses of the years that put their stamp on her. She’s marked by them, the way Warren Edward Ames is marked by what he’s witnessed. And Tomlin by what he hasn’t.

A terrible weariness sits on my heart.

I glance away. I don’t want her to see that I understand her. Because if she sees my recognition and her face falls, if she drops her hostility and stops believing she’s a tough, cast-iron broad, what then? At least, she’s got belief working for her. She’s found something, a shelter. Like Marciel with his brandy or Garth with his Blossom. I stare at my unlit cigarette, at my nails cracked with grime.

“What’s wrong with you?” She’s spooked, holding the dishcloth in front of her body like a protective charm. I smile and light up. But I guess my smile is odd.

“I’m not sure.” I blow a puff of smoke above my head and wink at her.

Garth’s voice crackles over the two-way: “The BEAR!” his precious, little squeal full of coke and dread. “The bear’s in the west lot! It just mauled a Honda! DO NOT GO OUTSIDE! For the love of god. Tomlin. Otis.” Garth weeps, mumbles. The signal breaks off with a beep.

The woman backs away from me, nervous, wary.

“I’ve seen your kind before,” she says. “Crazy eyes. You smell like shit.”

I shrug. Smoke leaks out from the corners of my grin.

“Fuck this.” She throws the dishcloth down and runs for the kitchen.

I want to cry but I smoke my cigarette, smile, and tell myself I’ve got a shelter.

* Note: this story appeared in Gravity, published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in 2009. Buy it here.

burundiI started this website years ago, when I was living in East Africa and had no idea when I’d be leaving. The idea was to experiment with travel non-fiction essays I might eventually submit to magazines. But, over time, The Writing Expedition became more than that. I’ve begun to notice a theme emerging—the same theme that characterized most of the stories in my first collection, Gravity:

[T]he assumption that everything in life depends on being solvent, employed, and generally needed. These things constitute the gravity, or the seriousness, of one’s situation—that which holds a person’s life together and makes it mean something.

I guess I’m still thinking about what it means to survive in our often unforgiving, inhuman post-industrial economy. It seems that writing and thinking about this is emerging as an aspect of my life’s work—my overall artistic project. I think I should probably be reading more Studs Terkel, Orwell, Huxley, Ignacio Silone, Walter Benjamin, Viktor Frankl. I should be doing a lot of things.

indexSince my book came out in late 2009, I’ve published in more magazines. I’ve taught more students at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. I’ve received praise for my work from those who get my project and the inevitable pushback from those who don’t. It’s all part of the writing life. Nevertheless, times change and we change with them. Recently, I’ve had occasion to look back the at the road behind me and also wonder about the future.

Abre Camino

After a number of reversals, sickness, and a new appreciation for my mortality, I left Burundi sooner than I thought I would. I wrote a story loosely based on my experiences there, sweated profusely in Belgium, led a charmed existence in Tallinn (a city fairly close to how I imagine paradise), and then had to leave the Schengen due to an unresolvable issue with my visa. I spent a few discombobulated days in Oxford before it was back to central California again for hard times, family betrayals, and a veritable buffet of disappointments and bad luck. 

As soon as I got back, I knew I had to leave again. So I did. Since I work primarily online, I was able to go places where I could also enjoy myself—San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Washington D.C. Then I left for England again, living in Oxford for a good while. I had a short interlude, staying with friends in a village outside Vienna. And then London. Soon, I will return to Oxford before heading out to Asia. It’s a good life if you can stay flexible and you don’t want to own a lot of things.

The Hounds of the Grass

Another theme has been that of trading financial stability for time and interesting experiences. In the beginning, this was not altogether intentional. I got my PhD at Western Michigan University and hit the job market, which, I discovered, hits back. I have three advanced degrees, 17 years teaching experience, an expert ESL certification, numerous magazine publications, a book with an academic press, and a winning personality.

Still, the tenure track job interviews right out of my program were not forthcoming. I had a few in which I was competing tooth-and-nail with a large number of equally qualified candidates for, say, one position. I talk about this experience often on this blog. I think it’s important that some people tell the truth about the process. In the end, Thomas Benton’s notorious “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” has proven out. What he describes hasn’t quite been my experience. I’ve been lucky that way. But I think Benton has been nearly prophetic for a number of my friends who I’ve seen lied to, exploited, blamed, and disregarded by a broken system packed with terrified neurotics. I say go get the degree you want to get. But do it with open eyes and be willing to do what you have to do to survive.

Kephera - Egyptian Neter of Coming into Being

Kephera – Egyptian Neter of Coming into Being

So this morning, I got up and looked at the calendar. In 24 days, I will turn 41. And, thinking about that over my coffee, I realized that I’ve had many, many interesting experiences over the years. I’ve done some amazing things—at first from necessity, then in order to court eustress and test myself. Now I really do think I’ve changed. I love teaching, without a doubt, it’s part of who I am. But I no longer have that sense of desperation that characterized those of us who made it through the PhD relatively sane. I’m no longer that brittle academic refugee. I’ve evolved.

No one knows what’s around the next corner. Though, after 4 decades of life, it seems preferable to hold Will to Meaning as my highest good instead of Will to Productivity or Consumption. In my ongoing search for a meaningful life, I’ve come to experiences over approval, freedom and time over money and obligations. Or, as the Uncle Aleister used to say, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”

Dost thou wish to be praised by a man who curses himself thrice every hour? Wouldst thou wish to please a man who does not please himself? Does a man please himself who repents of nearly everything that he does? – Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, Book VIII

Most writers will tell you that envying the success of others is lethal, stupid, wasteful. They will tell you this because they have no doubt experienced the consequences of crippling envy firsthand. It comes with being an artist. But it’s something we have to get past and learn how to avoid. Envy is one of the many things that will destroy a writer emotionally, creatively, and sometimes even physically.

A True Story from the MFAkong Delta

I remember one afternoon toward the end of my MFA. I’d been teaching a beginning fiction writing class and was fortunate enough to have a good group of undergraduates in the workshop. They were serious, smart, and several of them were in the process of applying to MFA programs themselves.

Because it was late spring and because my tiny office in our brutalist 1970s humanities building resembled a janitorial closet in a parking structure, I held my office hours outside. Twice a week, I could be found sitting on a grassy hill in front of the administration building. Students actually showed up and we talked about their work. It was good. It also kept me away from the toxic environment of the English department and the Machiavellian absurdities in perpetual flux on every level at every moment. Give me grass and sunshine and a passing Golden Retriever any day.

My students and I had a friendly relationship and I looked forward to meeting with them. One afternoon, we were sitting on the grass immersed in conversation when I felt someone staring at me. It was one of the professors in my writing program. Here I will call him “Professor Careerist.” (Why Careerist? Because the vast majority of the things he said in my workshops had to do with getting published by the Big Six and what not to write if you wanted to be famous.)

Anyway, I noticed him standing across the quad, glaring with a mixture of contempt and disgust. Later, I had the misfortune of passing him in the hallway outside the department office. His expression hadn’t changed. When I was far enough away that a full conversation would have been impossible, he turned and called out, “Davis, don’t get used to this life for much longer. You’re not going to have it.

At the time, I took this to mean that I’d be graduating and moving on—and that thinking about this pleased him deeply. I also felt that Prof. Careerist disliked anyone who seemed remotely content not to be hustling and constantly self-promoting. When he noticed students putting thinking about art before trying to get ahead, it offended him deeply.

Ironically, Professor Careerist taught me as much if not more than any of my other professors—about what not to do. His negative example has served as a guide in very tough times. And what he said to me in the hallway has unfolded with many levels of meaning over the years. One of the most profound is: there is no free lunch, not in writing or in anything else. Because of this, an artist has to make a decision whether to write for a commercial interest or for herself or for a little bit of both. But she should never expect the world to take care of her (or even pay attention to her) unless she’s offering something of value in return.

The Kindness of Strangers

When Careerist said, you’re not going to have it, what he really meant was you’re not going to have it without my help. And, brother, that’s one thing you’re definitely not getting. In that, he was correct. I didn’t get his help and didn’t get that life.

Nearly every one of my fellow MFA students was a gifted writer. Some were shockingly brilliant. But today only a handful of us are still writing. And an even smaller group of us have found permanent teaching positions. This is not because we weren’t all talented, hard working, and sincere about becoming creative writers and teachers. It’s because some of us had help and some did not. Some of us offered something of value. Others sat back and waited for a line to form outside their door.

Prof. Careerist never helped me (deliberately), but others did—enough to help me continue. And, because I had very little to offer those who helped me, I have to add that maybe there is a free lunch sometimes. Maybe I was a rare, lucky exception to this cruel economy of patronage and fear. I’m still writing, still interested, still doing my thing. I seem to have had the knack for showing up when certain professors and administrators were about to do their good deeds for the day.

Dry Rot and Perdition

Years later, about to finish my PhD, I had lunch with a fairly well-known visiting novelist. I’d just published my first book of stories, Gravity, with Carnegie Mellon UP (through a largely serendipitous convergence of allegiances that had little to do with me as a writer). I also had 18 or 19 magazine publications and a handful of small writing contest wins. I was not (nor am I now) a big deal. But the novelist (who was a big deal) really wanted to know if the other graduate students in my program hated me now that my book had come out. I said that I didn’t know and I was being honest. My mom had just died horribly. My father had started a second pathological adolescence. I was worried sick about the future. I didn’t care what my fellow neurotics in the department had to say.

I guess the reason he asked was because something like that had happened to him. And he still cared, though he’d been out of his MFA program for close to 20 years. At some point, people had envied him, despised him, traumatized him. And this highly accomplished, famous, established writer was still thinking about it.

That night, at his reading, I sat in the audience while he spent half an hour talking about his creative process. His thinly veiled egotism curdled the air like a rotten onion for nearly 2 hours. I could see him, sitting at home, reading the AWP Writer’s Chronicle and giving himself an ulcer because so-and-so got an interview or some other bonbon and he didn’t. And I could see that even now, deep down, he feared he was a bum. This is what happens when writers forget why they write. This is what envy does to us.

So why do we do it?

I guess there are as many reasons as there are writers. But I think it often comes from the inability to separate commercial success from creative satisfaction. We’re told to eschew fame but emotionally wired to seek it. We’re told that success as an artist is a meritocracy—much like what we’re told in graduate school about finding teaching positions: if you’re good enough, there will always be a spot for you. Right.

Moreover, most of us hold ourselves responsible for our relative success or failure, forgetting that much of it depends on the opinions and assistance of others—people who may only be thinking about sales or who may be in the position of gatekeepers but who may have no aesthetic sense or artistic ability whatsoever. We often overlook (in fact, we’re often encouraged to overlook) the fact that a commercially successful career as a working artist depends very much on trends, consumer demographics, timing, and the decisions of those who may or may not stand to gain by helping us. Patronage is alive and well. We ignore this and we suffer accordingly.

When we do experience a modicum of success, we often celebrate a bit too loudly as a way to release all the angst we’ve otherwise acquired. Unfortunately, it is guaranteed that someone is hating us twice as much as a result. First, for our success. Second, because we seem to be enjoying it too much. And the extent to which we crow about our successes is the degree of envy we will feel when others pass us by. It’s absurd. It turns us into fools, victims, slaves.

Remembering Who We Are

Caught up in all the envy and jealousy, we tend to forget ourselves—that we originally became artists not for fame, wealth, or to demonstrate our worth to a cruel world. We did it because we wanted to create.

We have to keep in mind that the pain of not being able to create to our own satisfaction is only superseded by the pain of self-doubt that gnaws away at us and will not depart until we accept that we have limitations. Ultimately, being an artist is a love affair with our creative impulse—not with hype, not with fame, not with feeling clever or showing up the competition.

It’s far healthier to say, I am going to make this small interesting thing. I am going to do the best I can and then send it out into the world and forget about it. I am going to do this over and over because it makes me happy. So please don’t tell me what it should say, how much I should be adored at this point in my professional life, how much money I should be making , or who should be coming over for dinner.

You write your thing and I’ll write mine. And if I’m writing for pay, let me do the best possible work for my employer. If I’m writing just for myself, let me know my creative genius in the deepest possible way.

My friend and fellow writer, K. Murphy Wilbanks kindly mentioned me in a blog post focusing on what she’s working on right now. So I will follow suit. Though I have the usual 100 things blowing up my computer, I am focusing on a few big projects at the moment.

What am I working on?

First and most painfully, I’m working onVelouria, my novel about a guy who lives in Washington D.C. and works for one of the smaller Smithsonian museums. I’m just about to close out the first draft at 250 ms pages, which warms the cockles of my heart. I will be completing this draft in just over a year of toil and misanthropy in poorly lit rooms.

Then there’s Heavy Industry, my novel about snow, murder, and the food and beverage industry in Illinois. That is also nearly finished and waiting for me to come back to it. But, since I’m getting ready to finish Velouria, I’ve already resumed work on it a bit.

My third story collection is in progress. I think I need about four more stories. Cruel Stars, my second, is still making the rounds at small presses and literary contests. I’ve had a lot of close-but-good-luck-to-you interest in it. Sometimes, I wonder if it’s going to get published before I’m too old to remember that I wrote it. But that’s how it goes with literary submitting, specially with story collections. Everyone tells me to self-publish. I might do this around the 100th rejection. I’m only up around 20 or so. Yay. Let’s submit 80 more times!

I’m also working on a super-secret screenwriting project, which is one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done, well, ever. I’m also learning that screenwriting is different enough from fiction writing to present an entirely unique spectrum of writerly challenges. That, in itself, is cool because I feel like I’m learning more about narrative structure and how to control a story.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Literary fiction is a genre. But that doesn’t mean it has to march in lockstep with an editorial style sheet. At least, we like to imagine the best literature takes its own shape and carries its own unique message. A lot of this uniqueness comes from particularity—how a piece of writing expresses a vision that has not been expressed before. Of course, this can be highly threatening to those who spend a lot of time identifying with existing motifs and types in their genres in order to advance their careers.

So this question can be taken a number of ways. I prefer to read it as a question about particularity instead of the kind of theme-and-variation question we sometimes see in publishing industry blogs and magazines—designed to make hack writers and their handlers feel like they’re not just automatically churning out the same old thing. In other words, I’m not interested in a question that goes something like, how does your work stay faithful to the editorial hand that feeds you while still allowing you to feel like a creator? Whatever. I’ll answer this one: how do you imagine that your work finds a unique vision and voice relative to everything else? A writer should be able to answer this.

My answer is that I’ve gone through a long period of exploring idiosyncratic first person. That was what my first book, Gravity, was mostly about—seeing how voice can implicitly move a story forward without having to rely on the tired scaffolding of transparent, third-person realism. Basically, I was apprenticing myself to the tradition of literary maximalists in North American fiction. It’s a tradition that goes back at least as far as Stanley Elkin in the 1960s and runs up through David Foster Wallace and William Vollmann. But I’ve moved on now, I think.

Now I’m more interested in the atmosphere of place and the kinds of textures that can spontaneously arise from physical environments. I still have my obsessions: unemployment, suicide, social alienation, love, darkness, funerals, architecture, snobbishness, explosions, travel and petty theft—maybe a few others. But I’m thinking about all of these things in terms of environment now. I see my characters relative to their environments and how they interact with them. I think this makes my work particular. At minimum, it gives me a focus that other published writers don’t appear to have right now. I’m sure there are others out there who share my current interests. Let’s hope I don’t meet them before I finish this round of projects.

Why do I write what I do?

I write what I can. My work and my creative impulse are very closely aligned. So I don’t choose what I write as much as make myself receptive to what’s already there, if that makes any sense. I will write anything, in any mode or form or genre, that pleases me. Maybe it is better to say that I will write anything that pleases that part of me over which I exert little control.

It’s like sex. We like what we like. It’s not a studied decision unless we’re intimidated into functioning like whores. And then are we really enjoying it? Sometimes, maybe—the way any professional can enjoy the familiarity of an articulated process. Then again, I see a difference between simply being highly professional and being a highly professional artist. The artist puts the art first and the professionalism second becauseno matter what your publicist may say in that passive-aggressive conversation about how they might “position your book”professional polish and artistic creation are two different things.  A lover puts the love first and the sexual maneuvers second.  That isn’t professional, but it’s authentic.

That said, I think I also write because otherwise I would be a severely self-destructive, depressed, impossible person. It’s a common thing to say, maybe a cliché, but I think it’s true for me. Writing is my outlet. I have always escaped into my imagination. Now I do it so that others can join me there. That is very satisfying in a number of ways.

How does my writing process work?

I write as often as I can, ideally every day. Though, it doesn’t always work out like that. I try to write about 2 ms pages a day. This produces a story or a chapter every month. That’s as fast as I can do it and I find that’s all I need to do. It gives me time to think and keeps me from burning out.

I write what I feel drawn to write that day. Surprisingly, I get nearly everything done because I always have multiple projects in development. As long as I show up ready to get out of the way and let the creative impulse guide me, I’m good.

I sat down today intending to write a piece critical of certain shrill MFA voices that seem to have gotten shriller since MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction hit the shelves last February. Is “shriller” actually a word? It is. But it only takes meaning as a comparative adjective once something that was brittle, high-pitched, piercing, and so exaggerated as to be deeply annoying gets intensified beyond the bounds of reason and tolerance.

In fact, this was going to be one of those, “I think yon highly privileged (shrill) MFA Child Of The Universe doth protest too much, Horatio” posts. In it, I would have been sure to impart a sense of having been there and done that, taking care to insinuate that I was a hard bitten veteran of the academic creative writing hustle. I might have added a touch of weary exasperation that the culture of many workshop-based programs is about everything but the work. And I might have tried for a some kind of brief reversal three-fourths of the way through so that I could have ended on a slightly hopeful note.

Nope.

But come on. I’ve done all that. I’ve argued both sides: that MFA writing programs are excellent ways to focus on learning craft for two to three years without the distractions that would otherwise apply. I’ve also argued that the bloated culture of privilege and cynical, thinly veiled mediocrity in many of these programs short-changes students from the beginning. I still believe all of this. I also believe that if you go into it with open eyes, intending to use the program as a tool to facilitate your development as an artist, you will not regret your decision. If you go in and expect a big hug and Wonder Boys, your life will come to resemble a Muddy Waters song.

I’ve written a lot, here and elsewhere, on MFA programs—why I think we should still believe in them and the ways I think they utterly fail everyone involved. And by “everyone,” I actually mean anyone interested in the mission of creative writing, which I guess means everyone. The Big Everyone—like you, me, the kid on the big wheel down the block, President Obama, and Ray Kurzweil. Everyone. Because, in my opinion, the mission of art school is nothing less than cultural transformation. It’s founded on the assumption that the arts can and should have a place in society.

So I don’t know. Maybe I should recognize a certain degree of irony implicit in any post I write about gifted, neurotic, highly privileged 20-somethings in creative writing programs. I was one. In many ways, I still am. I feel at home with that crowd. And as a freelance writer and fiction instructor for the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, I’m still connected to the academic MFA world. I guess the question is whether there is anything new to be said about it. The perspectives in MFA vs. NYC have not been very surprising or insightful. It seems like the same old array of objections and justifications we’ve been hearing for years. Now they’ve been collected in a book instead of appearing in The Atlantic or on websites.

Maybe an even better question is whether anyone sees MFAs clearly at all. What if I point out that there is a perceptual “distortion field” around MFA programs which encourages students to believe themselves at the center of the universe? What if I argue that, because of this world-view, many MFA students also believe that the universe is in a state of perpetual collapse—because its center has been revealed to contain semen, bent paper clips, and cotton candy instead of the fire of the gods? And what if I describe the almost universal malaise that seems to descend on these young lords and ladies of creation around the time they’re halfway through their programs? A certain melancholy made from dwelling on the absurdly large student loans they took out in order to be “student writers” and how this seems like a perverse existential joke considering their post-program job prospects?

Oh, don’t be sad. There’s enough cotton candy for everyone.

 

For me, writing fiction means staying wide open to human experience by giving myself permission to be vulnerable and to intuit how other people can be vulnerable in the same ways.  It’s about representing that complex emotional mystery with as much sincerity and authenticity as possible—not as some kind of living camera, but as an individual person limited by defects and inhibitions, who is nevertheless willing to express what he feels.  That’s why I will never be finished becoming a writer.  I’ll never get it done.  I’ll never be able to say, “Okay, now I’ve done my best work.”

Back in Michigan, I studied more literature than was required for my degree because I enjoyed being around lit professors and grad students. Once a well-meaning lit student in one of those classes said to me, “It’s great that you want to become a fiction writer.” I said, “Actually, I am a fiction writer. But I agree, it’s great that I want to become more of one.”

When you know and develop what you are–writer, artist, teacher, programmer, lawyer, entrepreneur, soldier, whatever–you radiate that. You become a catalyst for that kind of change no matter what you are doing or where you are. It’s not that you are what you do–because that implies that if you’re not doing it, you don’t exist. It’s that you do what you are, always.

So a photographer sits in the waiting room of her dentist’s office. She is a photographer in a waiting room. She is not someone who was a photographer for two hours yesterday and is now nothing or some kind of post-photographer waiting to be a photographer again tomorrow. She is what she is, and she is constantly thinking like a photographer. In her actions, conversations, thoughts, memories, and impulses, she is a photographer, whether she has a camera in her hands or not. By doing her art, she can deepen her sensibilities and technical ability. But she does not rely on anything outside herself to be who she is, even if she relies on cameras to express that state of being externally. Likewise, she does not need the recognition, money, or approval of the world in order to exist.

As a writer and a teacher, I am always writing and teaching–whether I am at my desk, in a classroom, watching a movie, or taking a walk across town. I radiate that and cause change around me according to it. It is the way I connect with the world. Moreover, I can recognize the same sensibilities in others.

My classmate understood this immediately. She said, “You’re right. I’m sorry.” But it wasn’t an awkward moment. I could see that she’d already turned inward and had begun to ask herself: “Who am I? What do I radiate? What am I becoming? What sort of change do I create?” It was a really good moment because these are the questions we all have to ask and never stop asking.

​This happened.  My career changed overnight.  My personal relationships mutated in shocking ways.  My financial Plan B was revealed as unfeasible.  My living arrangement became highly temporary and unstable.  I had no family support, no fallbacks left.  I was in the middle of an enormous bout of writer’s block.  Moreover, I was beginning to experience health problems.  The excrement had hit the air conditioning in every area of my life.  The small things to which I had clung for a semblance of stability had dissolved completely.  I felt extreme anxiety and began to entertain thoughts as dark as my situation.  But it’s not in my nature to give up as long as there is something I can do to remedy a problem.  I felt there must be a way forward, I just couldn’t see what it was.

Then, while giving advice to a former student on a slightly different subject (the role of writing in professional life), I had a moment of clarity about something I had never fully understood until that moment: everything is dynamic.  Everything moves.  Nothing stands still.  It’s an easy concept to thoughtlessly embrace until we are forced to realize it firsthand by looking around at every aspect of our lives.  Even though we may think we’ve built havens of stability in our lives, we’re deceiving ourselves.  As soon as we say, “Well, at least I can rely on my job / house / spouse / skill set / religion / health,” we’re buying into an illusion of stability in order to feel better.  All of these things can change radically at any moment.  Maybe the only constant is change–even if this idea is trite, even if it’s become a self-help cliché.  I think it’s painfully true nevertheless.  At least, that was my experience.  That is what I realized, which brought me a great deal of insight, and from insight came the relief I was seeking.

If everything is dynamic, if everything changes and we change with it, then is there a more accurate model for the good life?  That was the next logical question I asked.  I needed an answer fast if I was going to avoid being dragged into a highly uncomfortable state of personal and professional ruin.  It seemed that if change is inevitable and omnipresent, the key to living well is not to fight it.  That is impossible if change is the basis of everything.  Instead, the good life may come from participating more mindfully in the transformations we care about.  If our personal relationships are changing, how can we engage with and direct that change for the most fulfilling possible outcome?  If our professional fields are changing, how can we adapt and position ourselves such that we can continue with the highest degree of personal satisfaction?

I found answering these questions difficult.  In fact, I’m still trying to answer them.  Maybe the answers, too, are dynamic, protean, constantly subject to revision.  That made sense the more I thought about it.  It could be that as we change, our range of personal truth–what constitutes our highest good–has to change as well.  What will it be today?  What do I want it to be?  What new directions should I take?  What new worlds are coming into being right now?

“Nothing stands still – everything is being born, growing, dying – the very instant a thing reaches its height, it begins to decline – the law of rhythm is in constant operations.” – Three Initiates, Kybalion: A Study of the Hermetic Philosophy of Ancient Egypt and Greece

​Here are some random thoughts on getting creative work done with a minimum of grief.

Basic Artistic Needs.  In order to write, I need, at minimum:

1. Quiet.
2. Solitude.
3. Minimal levels of discomfort​ – i.e. not feeling feverish and sick (including being hung over, exhausted, or otherwise ill), the heater not turned all the way up / down, people walking back and forth through the room or shouting / throwing things against the wall next door​, the gardener blowing leaves under the window, etc.  ​The idea is to be able to forget one’s surroundings for a short period of time in order to free the imagination.  This can’t happen with constant chaos and upheaval. 

Artistic Time vs. Regular Time:

Artistic time is subjective.  If I haven’t written in 3 days, it feels like a week.  When I haven’t written for a week, I feel dead–like I may never have the enormous amount of energy it will take to find the particular emotional structure I was working on before.  This is why Bukowski, Hemingway, Carver, and probably every other non-hack in existence worries about waking up one day and realizing that one’s talent has disappeared.  But such worries just amount to performance anxiety.  I get back into the process and they disappear.

Money and Making a Living as Justification for Complaints:

I am unable to justify any of these needs in terms of what I need to make a living.  It is not persuasive to say: maybe if I had a regular schedule (i.e. a better day job, more money coming in) I wouldn’t be having these problems.​  Money has nothing to do with it and publishing advances will not ultimately validate these needs.  Personally, I am writing highly specialized literary fiction.  I will be most likely to publish in literary magazines and small / university presses​ where there is an audience for my work.  I will not be able to support myself with my work because there are not enough consumers to make it profitable.  Therefore, all the demands I make about needing time, needing space, and needing minimum levels of comfort must always seem baseless and unjustifiable in any practical sense. 

Keeping on Keeping on:

I meditate and exercise.  Music plays a large role in my process.  Whatever it takes to continue is what you need to do.  The point is to continue.

Objections are Inevitable:

Objection 1: Resentful voice from the Internet: “I am a scholar / artist / salesperson / programmer / thought-worker and I need time and space, too!”  (Yes, I completely agree.  This doesn’t mean that just because you are having trouble along the same lines, I stop having trouble as a writer.)

Objection 2: Spouse / flatmate / friend / parent / magical talking dog who lives in the closet: “I am doing my part to help you have the conditions you need to write (so stop complaining)!”  (My complaints come from my sense of frustration not from any perception of insincerity or failure to help on your part.)

Objection 3: Regular reader of my blog: “But you write in crowded cafes all the time.”  (I can write in cafes when I am surrounded by strangers I can ignore and only when they are sufficiently quiet or oblivious.  I am unable to write in cafes (a) where there is someone I know staring at me or walking back and forth; (b) where people are emoting too much–like irritated tourists or upset locals; and (c) where people are sitting too close to me.  Because the art-production process is rarely 100% systematic, there will always be experiences that stand as exceptions to these things.  Still, I am talking in general, not about the exceptions.)

​Objection 4: Upset writer trolling posts tagged with writing terms: “So-and-so produces ten times the amount of work you say you produce and has none of these complaints.”  (So?  Many writers and artists have these complaints​.  If you want to point out an anecdotal counter-example to me, ​I can again note that there will be exceptions.  Unfortunately​, I am more typical​ in my needs than atypical.  If this makes me somehow complicit in my own misery, so be it.  But if that is true, then I am joined my many, many others experiencing the same problems.)

Objection 5: My disillusioned ex-girlfriend who wanted me to stop writing and go into sales to support her modeling career: “Why do you choose to do this work in the first place when it is so difficult and thankless?” ​  (Because even though it is difficult and thankless, writing fiction provides me with intellectual, emotional, and spiritual relief that would be lacking if I were merely working to make money.  People have said that an artistic calling is a curse because once you develop yourself artistically, you typically feel compelled to continue no matter the personal consequences.  Nevertheless, I can say with a certain degree of conviction that  if I didn’t have this relief, I would exit life as quickly as possible.  This is not to reduce art to the level of therapy, but it is therapeutic.  And I believe that is a large part of what makes it compelling.  That said, no artist actually chooses art.  It chooses the artist, my young apprentice.)

Objection 6: Well-intentioned genre writer with anxiety from listening to editorial advice on how to be more formulaic and saleable: “I read that in order to be a professional you need to (a) produce 1-2 novels a year; (b) write at a 7th grade level; (c) have your work vetted by test readers that function like focus groups, guiding your revision process to the most genre-acceptable trajectories; (d) spend twice as much time self-promoting as you do writing; (e) give away free content to entice readers, etc.” (No.  These things come from a particular stratum of the publishing industry that is usually heavy with genre fiction​ aimed at a very tight reader demographic.  These professional standards are neither right nor wrong.  However, they are definitely narrow enough to apply only to the new pulp fiction industry that has emerged from the convergence of e-publishing, self-publishing, and a powerful online consumer base.  If you are a literary writer or someone whose aesthetic does not fit into the highly calculated style sheets of these pulp houses, don’t fucking worry about it.  The publishing industry is a lot bigger than it seems.  Do not make the mistake of thinking that just because a particular writer on a particular blog says this is how it is, that is how it must be for every writer everywhere.  Apply critical thinking.  And don’t forget to do that with what I’m telling you here as well.  Remember that I am just another writer with a perspective on his industry.)

Objection 7: One of my Facebook friends: “You like James Altucher, but he says publishing is dead and we should all self-publish.  How do you reconcile that?”  (I don’t.  Altucher is a good writer and is entitled to his opinion about publishing.  I don’t completely agree with him because I have had some success in traditional publishing.  I have not made much money; though, I am not concerned with making a living this way.  I will probably always have a day job.  If I were writing Harlequin romances to make a living, I would be very concerned and would probably put all my books on Amazon.com via Createspace instead–because I fundamentally believe what he is saying about skipping the middleman in the publishing process.  It makes sense.  I actually like that idea and am not ruling out self-publishing for myself at all.  I just don’t think that self-publishing is the only viable way to publish.  And if you’re alright with the (admittedly crazy) traditional methods, then relax and put your manuscript in the mail.  He uses 50 Shades as an example of a successful way of bootstrapping oneself into publishing using self-published material.  Okay but I would like to point out that the books he mentions reading are somewhat different from that and any given piece of his own writing is superior to that of EL James (I have read some of her work and am not making this criticism arbitrarily).  Altucher is too modest to make that claim for himself.  I also think 50 Shades of Grey is a good example of a turd that everyone has decided to eat.  For that matter, I think Eat, Pray, Love, She’s Come Undone, The Notebook, and most of what Random House releases every year is comparable.  This doesn’t mean I won’t read such books.  I will read them to learn more about what I like and don’t like.  Maybe I’ll check them out from the library instead of giving my money to the Big Six.)

Woof?  Woof.

The discipline has three steps.  It begins at home.

You want to do something–paint, write, act, play the hammered dulcimer, whatever–because it calls to you.  It’s more than just a passing interest and you’re aware of this (I think hammered dulcimers are kind of cool, but I feel no compulsion to start taking lessons down at Jim’s Dulcimer Academy).  This thing calls to you more deeply than it does to the dilettante.  You think about it when other things aren’t distracting you.  Then it becomes the distraction.  You love and even idolize existing practitioners of the art.  You read their interviews, their Wikipedia pages, the pretentious Rolling Stone pieces that treat them like geniuses or flops.  You fantasize about that being you.

So you take a step and get some training.  Lessons.  You pay for a class at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop.  Extension courses at the local community college.  Don Webb’s class at UCLA.  Maybe you get a method book or join a group that meets in the back of a bookstore once a month.  Maybe you hit the pawn shop and buy that beat-to-hell Mexi Strat in the window with some Dylan tablature.  Maybe you just get some paper, a pen, a stack of your favorite Stephen King novels, and start imitating.  The point is that your brain is a learning computer and, whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re learning.

So it goes: you produce a lot of bad material that you soon come to recognize as such.  Then maybe you make something small and good.  Then a few more small good creations like it.  Things begin to seem possible.  Your teachers (if they’re ethical) encourage you and suggest possible directions.  You start to calibrate your “built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”  You’re at the door of the Shaolin Temple.  Again, whether you know it or not, you’re standing there looking for admittance with your duffel bag and $300 in personal burial money.  You are not coming into fame and fortune at the top level with connections, Aspen lift tickets, and a sugar daddy to introduce you to literary agents or casting directors.  You’re doing it yourself.  And you’re probably starting to get pushback from those who now identify you as competition and want to end the threat before it begins.

As soon as people start trying to stand in your way–friends, family, other practitioners, teachers, coworkers–you know you’re moving forward.  This is also the moment when you truly have to apply “the discipline.”  Here it is as I have formulated it for myself.  This is a theme that runs throughout my writing on this blog and, in a more subtle way, my fiction.  The two things I care about most in life are helping people find their “thing” (bliss / true will / highest actualization–whatever you want to call it) and being able to follow my own path as a creative writer.  This has led me into teaching, which I love, and a lot of philosophical / sociological / life-hacking explorations.

Step 1: Mental Discipline: orienting all ambitions toward your art but expecting nothing in return save the art itself.  Just as publishing houses care primarily about volume of sales and production companies about box office returns, see commercial art for what it is.  In exchange for the freedom to make the art you want to make (if you’re not a commercial artist–if you are, you have a different set of problems than I’m addressing in this post), accept that “industry values” come from a vastly different universe than those of fine art and never think commerce cares about art beyond its baseline profitability.

You can’t control whether someone wants to buy your work.  You can slavishly imitate the trends, hoping that there will be room for one more clone.  Or you can recall what inspired you to start doing art in the first place–the possibility and texture of self expression.  So if you want to be authentic and original, save yourself a lot of pain and disappointment by accepting that your work may or may not be appreciated by those who seek to profit by the creativity of others.  By all means, submit your creations for publication and consumption.  But make that peripheral to your emotional center as a practitioner.  Make the work come first and the marketing come second.

This is the first step of the discipline because there will be enormous pressures levied against you for even thinking that you have the right to be original.  The publishing industry, like the movie industry, does not run on originality.  It runs on predictability.  Taking chances can be disastrous for them in the worst, career-wrecking sense.  You will be told a version of this in 1000 different implicit and explicit ways: try to imagine your audience and write to their expectations.  The serious artist will be following something else in her work than trend and established taste–something industry professionals may not even believe exists.  Two different sets of values.  Different universes.  Thus, the serious artist must be disciplined in what she believes, how she lets herself be influenced, what choices she makes about the integrity of her work.  The best way I know to do this is to embrace the real possibility of being ignored while continuously putting your work out there.  It can be emotionally difficult at first.

Step 2: Financial Discipline: keeping survival (but not respectability) always within your peripheral vision.  The second wave of pushback comes with the very real threat of extreme poverty.  Staying away from the infectious and materialistic mechanisms of the business world, status jobs, job trends, upward corporate mobility, and attendant notoriety is essential.  At best, these things are distractions from your daily commitment to furthering your art.  At worst, they will lead you into value systems that are openly antagonistic to serious, non-commercial productivity.  The same attitude behind “A BA in philosophy?  What are you going to do with that?” is the one that will frame you as an unrealistic dreamer who is certainly crazy and misguided, possibly stupid in a number of hidden ways, and someone we don’t want our daughters dating.

But these worlds and their inhabitants will be more than willing to ignore you if you ignore them–if you do not ask them for a handout or add to their unabated misery, jealousy, and covetousness by showing them the contrast between your values and theirs.  Rather, the second step in the discipline involves smiling and waving good-bye to middle-class ambitions; practicing “cheerful retreat”; and going your own way.  Being non-threatening (actually invisible) to those who hold status and money as the highest good will allow you to (1) avoid being influenced by their values; (2) avoid having to defend yourself against them; and (3) the space and time to simplify your life financially.  You are not a threat–so the fact that you are living humbly and frugally is a non-issue for them.

Simplifying your life is easier said than done.  And it may not seem like others would have a problem with this, but people will actively try to prevent you from simplifying and reducing your levels of consumption if they feel threatened by this.  However, you must arrange it so that the bulk of your personal responsibility can be shifted toward your art.

Because it’s good to live in human society–because that, too, provides fuel for your work–accept that “shifting personal responsibility toward your art” will entail a certain amount of discipline.  You may have to take the kids to football practice.  You may have to do what seems like an all-consuming job as a psychologist or a Zamboni driver or an IRS agent or a drug lawyer or a hot dog vendor in the mall.  All of these can be scaled down.  Take fewer hours.  Accept two (or three?) part-time jobs instead of a full-time job if that will build in greater flexibility.  Plead your health, your ailing family life, your grandmother’s lumbago, but reduce, reduce, reduce.  Become a freelancer.  Become a contractor.  Become a minimalist in everything but your work (and even in your work if that’s where your creativity leads you).  Read and apply The Four-Hour Workweek, Choose Yourself, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, Possum LivingThe Shoestring Girl, Working, The Outsider and Gordon White’s brilliant blog, Rune Soup–especially “Apocalypse Timeshares: Radical Strategies from Inside the OAT.”

Step 3: Be Determined / Take Your Lumps.  Do not think that frugality means limited options in any sense.  This is another cruel fiction propagated by the industries that depend on a manufactured, highly misleading, and unhealthy post-WWII middle-class will-to-respectability.  As a person practicing this discipline, you can do anything you want to do as long as you are willing to approach it in a transactional way (ironic, given the degree to which I inveigh against zero-sum materialism, but this is not always synonymous with transactional thinking as I use it here–see Browne’s book linked above).

In other words, if you want to, say, study herbalism in Shanghai, you can.  You may have to become a dishwasher, an ESL teacher, a private tutor, a person who carries pipes in a shit field, a dog-walker, a nanny.  You may have to cut costs by mostly eating rice, thin broth, and yam cakes.  You will have to learn a version of Chinese to a practical extent.  You will have to sharpen your social skills in order to get along and get what you need.  All of this takes energy.  All of this is disruptive and sometimes painful.  All of this can be done while functioning as an artist.  But you will have to pay for these experiences through a degree of chaos, stress, effort and the disapproval of others.  There will be dreadful moments.  But if you want to lead a different life–one that includes art and new experiences, you will accept the trouble as a necessary payment for doing what you want to do.  The discipline means taking your lumps and eternally paying dues.  Nothing comes for free but sometimes the payment is fun and sometimes it doesn’t even matter.

People enmeshed / immobilized in a fugue of “respectability” (in my opinion, a parasitic set of social mores and strictures that slowly consume the time and energy–life–of innocents whose only mistake was doing what they were told from an early age) will say you are crazy, unambitious, stupid, a loser.  They will do this because you haven’t had the time and wouldn’t spend the effort to become a stakeholder in their hierarchy of values.  I have experienced this firsthand and still do from time to time when the ripples of life-decisions I made in my late 20s come back to me.  But I do not have regrets.  I have largely overcome my personal demons, the emotional, familial, social fallout associated with owning my life.  That’s why this is a discipline.  You have to practice it.  It’s not something you do once.  It’s a way of life.  And I want that for you if you want it for yourself.

The following is taken from my response to a former student who asked: “When writing a story and you find that you need to hop around from one scene to another, but not start a new chapter, what do you do?”  In other words—how I decided to construe the question—how do you break scenes and create implicit transitions between them?

When I started training myself to think in scenes, I relied heavily on the “white space” as a time lapse / separator.  The visual analogue of this would be the classic “wipe” transition from TV and movies.  It’s technical shorthand for “there is nothing more of significance to show in this particular time and place.”  We can use this because modern writers have pretty much stopped trying to adhere to the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action.

Here is one theory about this departure.  As a form, the novel is older than the short story and the stage play is older than the novel.  Each form owes a lot to its predecessor.  Even late British stage melodrama generally observed the Aristotelian dramatic unities.  In other words, the only “jumping around” were the extremely conservative transitions between acts and scenes on stage—existing primarily so the stage hands could change the scenery and the actors could change costumes, etc.  But as western culture changed, public and private space got redefined, and middle class leisure reading became important (Habermas is the man to read to understand this in conjunction with the rise of the novel).  Fiction in English began to transform from highly episodic, picaresque shipwreck narratives (think: Defoe) and expositions of female morality (think: Richardson) to the highly stylized escapism of the Gothic novel.  The aesthetic of Gothic romance rebelled against tightly controlled forms.

Enter: Jane Austen and Northanger Abbey, her first published novel and pretty much a parody of the Gothic style.  As soon as we got this, we were ready for Victorian realism in the novel, which kept the idea of what a novel could be (a long, sometimes convoluted, graphic portrayal of a person’s life) and dropped the Gothic melodrama.  This is important because Edgar Allen Poe, one of the most significant figures in the early development of the short story form, argued (roughly around the same time) that a story should be readable in one sitting (back to Aristotle).  His reasons were less aesthetic and more practical: he wanted to encourage magazine fiction as a legitimate market (here is a good summary of his motivations).  So the story form emerged in a time when the novel (as the dominant form of fiction) was breaking away from classical, formal assumptions about when / where / how.  And the short story was defined (and marketed) as something compact that you could read out of a magazine in a single setting.

This is where the use of white spaces comes in.  Early story writers either used them to tell broader more “novelistic” stories or didn’t use them and scaled everything down in order to tell a more compact tale.  The idea was to produce a single emotion (incidentally, where we will get the modernist concept of epiphany).  Twain used white spaces like this.  Hemingway adopted them but more sparingly (we see them also in Fitzgerald and Maupassant)—still trying for that definitive emotional moment.  But in the 1960s, the maximalists rebelled against this, arguing that life actually wasn’t at all the way modern realism made it out to be.  Given the highly subjective, variable nature of human experience, the early maximalists (think: Elkin, Barthelme, Coover) found “minimalist realism” to be highly unrealistic!  This means that in their work technical moves like white spaces could be a lot of different things (look at the Coover link).

Realists loudly criticized such maximalist departures from what they considered to be a highly defined, clearly articulated form.  Needless to say, their vehemence fit right into the tradition I’ve been describing (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Pirsig is a wonderful exploration of the tension between classical and romantic aesthetics).

Can we use the white space to good effect, defining what it will be the way Coover does in his famous story or in the way of William Vollmann, David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, Denis Johnson–the recent postmodern maximalists?  Yep.  We can.

So back to the original question: “When writing a story and you find that you need to hop around from one scene to another, but not start a new chapter, what do you do?”  Given everything I’ve said, here’s the answer that might not have made sense otherwise: first determine what you’re trying to make the reader feel.  Because “form” should follow function instead of a set of classical assumptions about how to dramatically interpret experience through structure.

Moreover, everyone wants to write a story that will show up in the New Yorker or a novel that will make them famous with the NYC publishing machine.  But the corporate model for success as a fiction writer actually cannot be taught or learned.  That kind of success is as serendipitous as any other—no matter what the book industry would have young writers believe.  So if I were to tell students, “Do what feels right and make your own rules,” no one would listen.  Instead, I have begun with “let’s follow some of the rules.”  Only later have I followed that with: forget about what people say you should do.  Study literature as your guide and learn from what other writers have done.  Then do your own thing.

Right now, I’m writing a story, a novella, and working on a full-length novel.  In each of these, my only goal is to create the emotional movements / moments I need to create.

While my second story collection works its way through book contests and small presses, everyone is invited (cordially, emphatically) to buy my first book and love it: http://amzn.com/0887485081 ~ M

Good times.  My story, “Ghetto Fabulous” is forthcoming in the Atticus Review.  I will post more information when I know the particular issue.  Whee!

One mile out of Chicago O’Hare the plane turned around, grounded, the flight to Los Angeles cancelled due to a burning engine and pounds of ice in the wings.  Three degrees Fahrenheit and a column of smoke on the runway.  I sit by the gate and watch the fire trucks spray, their flashing red lights piercing the dull gray blizzard.  Inside the terminal, the heat has overcompensated and those of us now waiting on standby are sweating, eyes watering, human cargo left to suppurate.  When I try to call my wife, the little triangle on my phone blinks red.

People pace in front of the gate and stare out the glass windows, uncertain, deplaned.  I stare, with everyone else, at the nervous, middle-aged man who had started talking loudly about terrorists as soon as he got on the plane.  He is being detained by hard-looking Homeland Security ladies wearing surgical gloves and nightsticks on their hips.  His eyes are wide, mouth hanging slightly open.  They hold his arms and hustle him into their golf cart.  Every now and then the former passengers shoot mean looks at the airline agent behind the desk who seems both bewildered and terrified, her blonde hair sprayed up like the crest of a frozen wave.  She speaks into three telephones at once and taps on her keyboard.

Over by the news stand, a young, fat woman in florescent polyester growls at her three children as if she hasn’t had more than an animal thought since civics class, senior year of high school, last year.  She screams at her boys not to scream and swats them with her open hand.  They shriek and run in circles, listening to her probably as much as she listened when she was their age—as much as necessary to know where food, feces, and shiny things go.  Her post-adolescent husband sits at the small round table.  He has a military haircut, acne, and a black T-shirt.  He stares despondently into his fruit cup.  Occasionally, his wife turns to him and says something hard-edged, after which he says, “Behave,” to the kids.  And they do not.  They squeal and run.

“Can you believe this shit?” asks the guy in the row of seats behind me.  He’s wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt and a Dodgers cap.  He has a silver ring on every finger and two on each thumb, the Tribune open on his lap.

“It happens.”

“No, dude, this doesn’t happen.”

Delicate, porcelain-skinned Japanese women in black leather, drift into the terminal.  They don’t sit.  A swarthy, Cockney-looking man missing his right ear holds up a sign for them in kanji.  He smiles to them, bows.  They smile and nod.  He says something and their laughter is soft and sudden like the wings of birds leaping into flight.

Bing Crosby’s White Christmas plays in the ceiling.

“Look at that,” I say, as much to myself as to the guy behind me.  “People don’t hold up signs at the gate anymore.”

“Yakuza,” says my new friend.

The kids shriek in unison, what I imagine tearing plate glass might sound like—a high-pitched squeak under a hiss, the alien keening of something being rent that was meant to shatter instead.

Linda, the flight attendant, has been divorced twice.  She still wears an engraved, white-gold sorority ring, Cal Poly, Tri-Delta, ’98.  Linda has no children.  She likes to keep fit.  She’s a Scorpio by birth by a Virgo by nature.  This is what Linda has told me.  She likes to sit in the terminal with the passengers because pilots, she says, are all the same.

“What about flight attendants?”

She rolls her eyes.  She has folded her blue uniform blazer on the seat beside her.  We are the only people in our row of interlocked plastic seats, but I can feel the guy with the rings listening behind me.  “What do you do?”

“I’m a monkey trainer,” I say, “for a circus in San Dimas.”

Linda smiles like she doesn’t believe me.  “I’ve been to San Dimas.”

“You’ve been everywhere, right?”

“Hardly.”

“I bet you’ve been to Togo.”

She laughs and shakes her head.  “What’s in Togo?”

I drink the last of my coffee and watch the young mother shake a child with one hand while she holds the other by the back of his collar.  Her face is round and scarlet, a rare moon glimpsed only on the feast days of certain Confucian saints—the hard, terrible, idiocy of nature, raw and elemental.

“Monkeys.  Hundreds of them.  That’s where we get them.”

“You’re funny.”  Linda smoothes a strand of hair away from her face and leans toward me, hands on her knees.  “Funny’s good.”

“Yeah.  I guess so.”

We look at each other.  She smiles.  I blink slowly and massage my temples.

“So where are you headed?”

“Fresno.”

“Fresno.”  As if suddenly she’s discovered that the monkey thing was true.  “Who’s in Fresno?”

“My wife.”

When a structure burns long enough that the outer layers are consumed, the frame will linger in place for a time, glowing veins of fire sunk into the crossbeams, now part of them.  There may even be a point where the fire is the only thing holding it all together.  Linda’s expression is suddenly like that—held together with flame and not much else.

“Great.”  She leans back, hands no longer on her knees.  “You sure you’re not a pilot?”

“Once you spend time around monkey trainers, you’ll see we’re all the same.”

Linda stands and shakes out her jacket.  “I’ve got to catch a plane.”

“Where are you headed?”

“Go fuck yourself,” she says.

“What a bitch, says the guy in the Dodgers cap behind me.  His silver rings click on the molded plastic seat beside me when he leans over.  “She say she was a stewardess?  What airline?”

“Didn’t say.”

“Yeah.  Don’t feel bad, dude.  She’s full of it.”

An elderly couple creeps across the terminal, the old woman bent over, almost horizontal to the ground.  Her husband held her arm.  He looks upright and wiry with that spark of nervous energy people get from eating right and worrying their whole lives.“Where’s the wheelchair?” he yells.  “Come on.  Can’t we get a wheelchair?”  People stream around him.  He glares at them as if, through the act of glaring, one of them will be unmasked as the wheelchair bringer.

“Then again,” says the guy behind me, “maybe she could have hooked you up with some flights.  There’s that.”

“I’m a cop.”

“Jesus Christ.”  He stares at the side of my face, betrayed somehow, then moves three rows back.  I can feel him staring at the back of my head.

I tell him I’m kidding, but he looks away.

The old woman collapses, and those formerly streaming past now stand in a circle around her making nervous sounds.  People with walkie-talkies run and join them.  Paramedics arrive with a gurney.  The husband stands by with tears in his eyes.  “The wheelchair,” he says.  “We needed the wheelchair.”

The kids and their parents all seem temporarily mesmerized by the scene, waiting for something else dramatic to happen.  The mother’s face is no longer red but, like her kids, is suffused with expectation.  I think of Linda cruising somewhere above the clouds, thinking about earlier, happier Tri- Delta times.

A woman sets a small wire dog carrier down on the seat beside me and asks if I’ll keep an eye on it while she uses the bathroom.  I say okay.  Inside, a little terrier puppy blinks up at me through the bars.  It’s white with black spots and a tiny pink smudge on its nose.  It wags its tail, distracted only by the new shrieks of the kids—no longer interested in the old woman being wheeled away.  I raise my eyebrows and give the puppy Linda’s disbelieving smile.  It sighs and puts its head down on its paws.  And we wait.

* Note: this was written a few years ago, but I never submitted it to magazines. ~ M

My enormous, perfumed, fedora-wearing friend, Walter Kaminski, sits across the table from me outside a Starbucks in San Diego and tells me there is no god.  I look at him like he’s crazy and he smiles as if nothing could be more predictable.  In a way, he is probably right.  We are both predictable.  He sits there, heavily cologned, with his absurd hat and about 20 more pounds since the last time I saw him, looking as contemptuous and amused as ever.  And then there’s me: unemployed, disenrolled, and back home with my folks at age 31.  Somewhere, it is probably written that things should be this way.  Walter smiles and sips his coffee.  He is happy.  Happy and content in the fact that he has a job and there is no god.  He reminds me of Maitreya Buddha, the laughing Buddha, found on Chinese restaurant counters everywhere as a fancy donation box that one feeds a quarter for luck and wisdom.

“I can prove that shit,” he says.

I nod.  I believe he can.

This happens on a weekday in the summer of 2005.  A month earlier, I’d arrived back at the house in which I’d spent the first 18 years of my life, back home from the University of Missouri, with no PhD, no means of gainful employment, and my few worldly possessions packed into a small-sized U-Haul that lost its brakes in New Mexico and blew its front left tire in Arizona.  And so I could care less about Walter’s atheist hypotheticals.  What I need is a job.  A job from good Walter, who, in our undergraduate creative writing workshops at SDSU used to furtively raise his hand when the instructor asked how many poets there were in the room.

I think of this while I look at him.  He used to have long hair.  Now he wears a fedora.  Instead of transferring to UC Irvine and then going to graduate school like me, Walter has built a fine career for himself in information technology management with the Target Corporation.  I must ask him for a job because I now have less than $100 left in my account and no direction—because, as I walked my bike out the front door this morning, like I did when I was in high school, my mom pushed a folded $20 into my shirt pocket.  “In case you want a cup of coffee or something,” she said.  I took the money, but I couldn’t look at her.  And pure shame fueled my pedaling for the hour it took me to bike across San Diego to the Starbucks near Walter’s office.

“It’s like this.”  He sets his grande latte down, smiling at it and turning it carefully on the table as if we’re in some kind of variant tea ceremony involving humiliation and loss of faith.  “If everyone can make their own reality, if it’s all just subjective and relative, you could go jump out in front of a bus and believe there’s no bus, and there would be no bus.”

“When did you become a philosopher?”

He drops his smile and I ask myself how arguing with him is helping my job search.

“Of course, I can see where you might have a point,” I add.

“It’s the spiritual dimension.  This world is the bus.  God is believing there’s no bus.  But you still get hit by the bus.”  Walter looks at me, wanting a reaction, his eyes narrower than they were a moment ago.

So I nod.

We were friends in grade school, then in high school, then as freshmen at San Diego State University.  But he never forgave me for transferring to a better school and then going after a masters degree in fiction writing.  I never forgave him for not at least trying to be a grownup poet.

“How’s work?” I ask.

“Work’s work,” he says, pushing back his fedora in the way of an old movie detective.  “50k a year ain’t much, but it pays the rent.”

You fucking fool, I want to tell him, and you don’t believe in god.

Actually, I don’t believe in god, either.  I believe in Carl Sagan, which is to say, I believe that if one wants to make an apple pie, one must first create the universe.  In fact, I have been trained to create universe after universe.  My MFA in fiction writing didn’t give me permission to do that, but it did show me how others have done it, over and over in various literary traditions, while I wrote bad fiction that slowly got better.

The degree was time to think, to write, to worry a little less about the practical exigencies of life.  Such was my training—not unlike the spiritual instruction a good friend of mine underwent in India.  After giving away everything she owned and moving to Hyderabad, she found a guru, who told her to carry handfuls of dirt from one empty room to another all day long for a month.  A few days into the program, she went to him in great frustration and said, “I’m miserable and I can’t help but feel that I was a lot happier in my old life back in the States.”  “First lesson learned,” said the guru.  Getting a MFA in creative writing was very much like that, only the “handfuls of dirt” are the misconceptions one has about being a writer.  And the “life back in the States” is the love of writing one had before entering graduate school and being saturated by style and craft—a love to which I believe one must return in order to be a real artist.

The story Walter really wants to hear is what happened after the MFA, when I went on for a PhD, when the universe I’d created began to collapse.  Sitting across from him outside Starbucks in the middle of San Diego, I feel that he is, in fact, as full of shit as ever.  I would like to tell him that a bus may be a bus, but it may exist, just the same, in a world I create along with apple pies and fedora hats.  And then a bus may be whatever I want it to be.  I would like to say that I believe in unseen forces like inspiration and heightened states of consciousness and lust and honor and art and even love, and that I believe all these things might just approximate god, bus notwithstanding.  And listening to the half-baked philosophy of my former friend, who I must now entreat for a lousy data entry position, I am clearly, painfully aware that I also believe in disgrace.  And this is my profession of faith.

On some level, Walter knows all this.  And that might be the saddest thing of all: he knows about his position and mine.  He knows about art and writing.  And I know that deep in an inner un-fedoraed hole of his being, Walter still believes that something exists beyond all his neat, flaming little shit—beyond data network and Starbucks and being comfortable with not trying.  But here we sit: him enjoying every moment of our very American ritual of thirtysomething comeuppance while I suffer.  Soon, we both know I’ll get around to the big question: are you going hook me up with a job or not, fucker,

for old times’ sake

for five creative writing workshops

for two attempts at dating my girlfriend when I wasn’t looking

and for an abundance of resentment, a multitude of beers—all of it being nevertheless okay up to the point at which I got serious about being a writer and left town.  And even after that because we might, we just might, want to let these petty resentments go.  So I ask, directly, with as much dignity as I can, and Walter shrugs.

“I think we can work something out for you in one of our stores,” he says.  “I don’t know about data entry, though.  Retail’s what I’m thinking.  Weren’t you trying to get a masters or something?”

“I got that.  Then I went on for my PhD.”

“Oh, right.  Are you, like, Doctor Davis now?  Is the doctor in?”

I understand that there might be a time and a place where this could be funny or, at least, cute.  But I’m still hearing the word, retail.

“No,” I say and look straight at him.  “I dropped out.”

“How come?”  He wants to know mostly because he’s envisioned this scenario for a long, long time and he wants to enjoy it as much as possible.  I should get on my ancient Schwinn and pedal away, but the kindness in my mother’s face comes back to me, and I don’t move.  Instead, I begin to tell Walter the story of my return.

In May of 2003, I had created the universe, and my apple pie was baking nicely.  Or so I thought in the deep pie days of an almost-finished MFA at the University of Montana.  Missoula was glorious.  I liked the snow.  I liked the crazy cowboys fighting in the bars and the bikers and that lesbian separatists would come into town to pick fights with men after bar time.  There was violence in Montana, but also great kindness in the way that violence and kindness often come together and feed off of each other.  The university was only one small part of the experience, which included mountains right behind the campus, deer in the streets, and a sense of enough time to work and do the things one wanted to do while crazy things were taking place one block over.

Of course, there was also enormous talent in the writing program.  I geared up for workshops as if I were about to be put to the question.  In those fiction classes, the graduate students mixed equal parts of brilliance and hostility in an unheated narrow room beneath a picture of Richard Hugo holding a beer.  It was the traditional Zen-Inquisition method of the Iowa Writers Workshop with an extra gladiatorial aesthetic.  A friend of mine would read the Hagakure on days he was critiqued.  I would listen to Nixon’s “Cambodian Incursion Address”—as a joke at first but eventually paying attention to his voice, how he kept it steady.  If one man could face down an entire country, I could handle a room of 12 people.  It was never boring and the workshops made me capable of shrugging off the worst and best things said about my work.  I wrote a lot of lousy stories, a few good ones, and I published some of both.  I edited the literary journal.  I drank and had more varied and interesting friends than I ever would again.  I looked at the universe I’d created and saw that it was good.

Then we gave our final readings and submitted our theses.  And things began to change.  Those with trust funds went on one last ski trip together in Vail.  The rest of us went to AWP, the world’s foremost book fair and trade convention for publishers and writers, which seemed then (and continues to seem) more like a human spawning pool.  AWP was the first real sense I’d get that this flawless bubble world I’d created for myself might someday vanish, that art was not the great equalizer in which the privileged and the determined, the wealthy and the impoverished could come together in some kind of sincere community, and that after the end of the current academic term, I was just about fucked.

That year, AWP was held in Chicago.  One must travel 1574.11 miles to get there from Missoula.  Five of us covered the distance in one day of continuous driving in a brown 1962 Thunderbird Roadster with bald tires and ruined alignment.  The car slid most of the way.  Gas cost us about $160, which I remember because an hour into the trip, Jim, the owner of the car, told us he thought there might be a hole in the fuel line and so it would probably cost us “a little bit more” to get out to Illinois.  The fact that we made the roundtrip just fine with each of us only having to pay for one tank of gas still amazes me.

We were all cautiously friendly with each other on the way out, but, as soon as we arrived at the hotel, it was over.  A certain suspiciousness descended, casting all the feverish glad-handing and deal-cutting of the place in the worst possible light.  Us became me, and me was just shorthand for what I’m not getting (employment, a break), for time to reevaluate my life choices (military? vocational training?), for what have I done?  And the five of us failed the way one can only fail at AWP.

Mei, who often introduced herself by noting that she left med school to get a MFA, went to every possible event and lecture with a voice recorder and a spiral notebook.  Esther, a sweet middle-aged mother of two, who’d beaten cancer and decided that a decade working for Wells Fargo was quite enough, spent her time in the hotel bar, striking up conversations with drunk writers.  Bob, who already had three books of poems and said he planned to join the Peace Corps because art was dead, got depressed by the scene and left to explore the city.  Jim introduced himself to every publisher present and handed out business cards until he was so exhausted that he had to take a nap in a folding chair.

I tried to do a little bit of everything but, mostly, I drifted through the crowd of writers and publishing industry people, looking at their faces.  My people, I told myself, though I couldn’t believe it.  Feverish.  Desperate.  Anxious.  Aggressive.  Aggressively cheerful.  Starving.  Put several hundred writers in two big rooms—over half of whom are out of work and in survival mode—and the energy generated can warp the space-time continuum.  One begins to hallucinate.  One begins to smell others—the fear, the wild estrus of migratory poets outside their natural habitat.  One begins to ask hideous, existential, bridge-jumping questions: Why did I do this?  What have I really accomplished?  What does that magazine publication actually mean and do more than 10 people actually read it?

After my own exhaustion set in and to save money, I bought a cheap bottle of vodka a block from the hotel and went back to the room, intending to spend my first evening drinking and watching Chicago television.  But Mei had beaten me to it.  She was sitting in the middle of the bed, hugging a pillow.  The Weather Channel was on T.V.  She’d taken off her black-rimmed glasses and put on her faded CAL sweatshirt.  I didn’t know Mei that well, but I had a feeling that exchanging glasses for faded undergraduate sweatshirt and pillow was a personal meteorology that foretold precipitation.  The bottle of booze and a forced smile were my own: Creative Writing Industry Conference Job Search Rictus of Disillusionment, Mark I.

“I saw David Foster Wallace,” she said to footage of a twister going through Kansas.

“Yeah?  How’d he look?”

I took a swig from the bottle and handed it to her.

She drank.  “I don’t know if it was him.”

Silence.  The twister had flattened two towns.  People were getting treated in an emergency tent.

“Who else did you see?”

“I don’t know anybody.”

She drank again and handed it back.

The weather news reporter said five surrounding communities had pooled their resources.  People had left work to drive vans and trailers of supplies.  Whole families had already received canned goods and able-bodied volunteers were working nonstop with the fire department to remove rubble.

“We’ve got two more days.”  I made my rictus as cheerful as possible.

“Give me the bottle,” Mei said.

I got very drunk that night, passed out on the floor, and didn’t fully recover for the rest of our time there.  After three days, no one had any interviews or made any meaningful connections.  Jim, who mostly wrote creative non-fiction, was the only one of us who’d thought to make business cards.  On the long drive back to Missoula, he admitted that he’d brought 150 of them, handed out 50, and 40 of those were handed right back or thrown out while he was still speaking.  I will never forget the silence that ensued after he said that.  It was night and we were somewhere just past Rapid City, South Dakota.  The five of us stared at tiny pinpoint lights far off in the dark reaches of the Mount Rushmore State.

“Well, you’ve got ten of them out there working for you,” Esther said.  At that moment, Esther was probably the best human being within three counties.  I don’t know what happened to her after we went our separate ways, but I hope she’s happy.

Ten business cards, I thought.  Ten miniature, cardboard apostles doing Jim’s good work out in the writing world.  They were very simple: Jim’s full name, then Writer and his cell and email in a nice tasteful burgundy-on-cream script.  I still have one of them, even though I haven’t heard from Jim in six years.  The last time we spoke, he was driving to an Indian reservation to work as a librarian, English teacher, and carpenter.  I can recall wishing him well and making plans to get together sometime.  Jim had been a carpenter before graduate school, and I imagine it was the deciding factor in him getting the job.

“But you wrote a book or something out there, right?”  Walter’s eyes track a middle-aged woman coming out of the Whole Foods next to Starbucks.  She sits at the table beside ours, her plastic grocery bags on the ground in two lines as if the caravan has now parked at the oasis.  Her small dog barks and shivers in her lap.  The slice of watermelon she’s trying to scoop with a green Starbucks spoon is the same size as the dog.

“Oh, I accomplished things, Walter.”

“So it wasn’t a total loss then.”

“I never said it was a loss.”

Walter plays with his now-empty coffee cup and stares past it to the place where the goddess of information technology dispenses all palliatives and anodynes.  Somewhere, in a more systematic, calmer reality—perhaps in the antiseptic stasis of Target Corporation’s IT hive mind—men do not flirt with chaos and return.  There are clear boundaries between the known and the unknown, and the artists, priests, and lunatics who inch over the line are expelled from the society of the right-minded.  But here we are, sitting on the prow of our very own Nellie with me implying that this also has been one of the dark places of the earth—not Conrad’s image of the Thames, not the story of where I went, where Walter could have gone but chose not to go—but the story of my return in itself.

This, the return that brings knowledge of dark places on the map, beyond the whited sepulchers of good sense and steady income, is what the first century Greeks called mysterion, divine mystery, that which can only be expressed at the intersection of metaphor and silence, through art or trance.  Conrad writes that “One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same. . . . for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny.”  And thus the divine mystery of the writing life appears to me through Walter’s eyes: by getting a MFA, by pausing at the crossroads of metaphor and silence, I might just have returned, steeped in mysterion, from my personal kryptos—that which is hidden, dark, not easily understood.  And, all of a sudden, I don’t feel quite so ashamed, and I don’t envy Walter so much.

He has been neglecting his mistress.  And his reality has now forked suddenly away from questions of loss and gain, cost and benefit.  Something in my story, something about Mei or Jim or the experience of AWP, hooks into what he remembers about being an undergraduate writing student and having to argue with the binaries that writers must confront when they take their work seriously: success-failure, fiction-nonfiction, poetry-prose, truth-representation.  The truth in writing and the truth in not writing.  The lie of not writing when you’re a writer.  And the absolute, objective verifiable truth that there are no absolute, objective verifiable truths—or even true standards—in creative writing as an industry or a vocation.

There is only mysterion.  Or runa, the Norse rune-word for it.  I wear that rune on a leather cord under my shirt, the scrimshaw of it done by a Flathead Indian woman one afternoon at the Black Creek Lodge outside Missoula.  She told me the piece of bone was cut from the horn of an Iberian bull killed in the Coliseum de La Coruña, but I suspect it was from a local ranch or wasn’t even from a bull, which nevertheless fits into the runa.  As Walter fiddles with his coffee cup, trying to think of something to say, I feel the bone pendant through my shirt and think about the old Starbucks goddess that the company simplified and de-paganized into a more abstract, inoffensive logo when the Christian Coalition got offended by her breasts.  Such Victorian Will to Blandness is what set Conrad’s characters fleeing onto ships, the undeniable resonance of the mysterion, of the kryptos, in the sound of the sea.  I tell myself that I would have left the Starbucks logo nipples-out.  As my ego reinflates, I keep deciding what my story means—that it does mean something—moment-by-moment, justifying it as much to myself as to Walter, who’s growing more uncomfortable by the minute.

Arête,” I say.  “All things brought to the highest level of excellence.  That’s what it all meant.”  And I just manage to keep a straight face while I say it, even though I know that part of me really believes in things like ancient Greek mystery words, runic mysticism, and the possibility of excellence in graduate school.  I suppose I would have gone for the MFA even if my bright future in retail had been assured.  I tell myself that it was not necessarily assured.

“Okay.  Arête.  So the PhD was all different and miserable then?  That’s why you’re back?”

Nice, Walter.  Recalibrate.  Try to resurrect the shame.

“Yeah.  There was no arête in Missouri.”

The dog in the woman’s lap wiggles loose and manages a bite of watermelon before she shrieks and swats him off.  He travels about two feet to the side and then the collar yanks him back.

“Not your pooch?” asks Walter.

“Not your business,” says the woman.

“Oh.  Wow.  Okay.”  He looks at me and raises his eyebrows, adjusts the fedora, spins his coffee cup on the table.

The dog breathes heavily and, when the woman stands, she puts her arm underneath his body in a puppy come-along.  With great suffering difficulty, she hooks her five bags of groceries on one finger and makes her way into the parking lot.

“I’d offer to help,” I say, “but I don’t think she wants any.”

“Dog should piss on her.  That’s what I’d do.  Dog arête.”

I nod.  “Dogête.  Like karate.  Way of the Dog Hand.”  This is something we can both smile at, something outward, beyond both of our egos.  For a moment, it feels like old times—back when we’d both had a sense of humor that didn’t default to meanness.  Then the moment goes.

“So what’s your thesis about?  Montana?”

I watch the woman put the groceries in her trunk with one hand, the dog locked to her chest with the other.

“A lot of things.  It’s got a Montana story in it.”

“Yeah?  Where can I buy a copy, or will you be giving me one?”

There’s a Barnes & Noble just past Whole Foods.  My thesis is not in it because my thesis is not published.

“Soon,” I say.  “Maybe this year.  I’ve gotten some very encouraging responses from publishers.”  Actually, rejections.  Actually, form rejections.  Form rejections on little pieces of Xeroxed paper with fuck off and please don’t send us your lousy writing ever again phrased in the most artful yet unambiguous publishing euphemisms.  This is not what we’re looking for right now.  Thank you for your submission to Lost Loaf, but we are currently experiencing a backlog of manuscripts.  Dear author, please excuse us for passing on this one.  Dear _______, Lagniappe Press wishes you the best of luck in placing your work elsewhere.  We have recycled your manuscript.

“Oh,” says Walter.

“But I’ve published in numerous small magazines.”

“Oh.”

“What about you?  Writing at all?”  My voice sounds high-pitched.  I clear my throat.       Walter smiles: my shame resurrected.  Suddenly, I am pathetic once again, a pitiable ground rodent shaking my angry little claws at the heavens.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” he says.

We sit in silence again, and I’m about to depart and go nurse my weasel ego as I imagine that little dog is nursing his—lick my fur, yowl plaintively at the cold, unforgiving hardness of life—when Water decides he really wants to know.

“So what happened in Missouri?  What?  Did you bang some professor’s wife?”

“Yes.  That’s a given, Walter.  That’s what happens in graduate school.  Wife banging.  And the odd sex party with your students.  You’ve heard of freshman composition?”

He doesn’t get the humor.  Alright, maybe I don’t get the humor, either.  Because my time in Missouri was no joke.  And there wasn’t much sex taking place in the English department at the University of Missouri—that is, normal sex, sex between mature adults that doesn’t result in emotional fallout with a half-life of years, that doesn’t ruin careers or potential careers.  Beneficial sex might have been the solution.  Moreover, I wish whoever is there right now, suffering through that misery, great golden fornications—and not as the receiving end of UM’s graduate program in English, which had its nasty way with 15 of us in the Fall of 2004.

When I arrived, I’d been lifting a lot of weights.  I may have been in the best shape of my life thus far.  Very little body fat.  I did about 300 sit-ups a day, practiced yoga, and performed the Soo Bahk Do hyung I’d studied since age ten—a very hard Korean martial art designed primarily for breaking joints and killing people as efficiently as possible.  My tolerance for alcohol was also extremely high in spite of my constant training.  And it is safe to say that I’d developed a drinking problem in Montana—a thrice-weekly habit of blackout drunks, alone in my apartment, on cheap Canadian whiskey and the occasional 40oz of malt liquor.

I missed Missoula.  I’d become irritable without friends or future, having applied to PhD programs right out of my MFA because, as much as I loved living in Montana, I didn’t have many other options.  Steady jobs don’t often come to MFAs, at least not the steady jobs MFAs grow to want.  So, when I moved into a two-story duplex on a grassy hill just outside Laughton, MO, I put a weight bench in the living room, unfolded my futon, and hooked up some speakers.  I owned about 10 books, which included The Riverside Shakespeare, The Complete Stories of Isaac Babel, The Complete Stories of Anton Chekhov, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, books I found solace in when depressed, which was often.  When I wasn’t in class or teaching composition (something I deeply and openly enjoyed—a sentiment the other grad students and even a few of the English professors viewed with abject suspicion), I was working out or wrestling with the whiskey.

On more nights than I can count (or remember), I found myself sitting at the card table in my kitchen, listening to talk radio and drinking towards oblivion.  Other than on booze, I spent very little money.  My food budget was less than $10 a day and gas ran me about $20 every two months because I only ever drove two miles to campus, store, and home.  And, in a very short time, everything in my life changed.  I found that interpersonally, emotionally, I was becoming a different person.  My social life was different.  The amount of people with whom I had contact on a daily basis rapidly decreased to classroom, grocery check-out line, and graduate students.  I found myself looking forward to brief exchanges in the market above all else—unencumbered moments that didn’t involve mentoring freshmen or an emotional exchange with upset graduate students that would stick with me for days afterward.  When all else is dystopia, the grocery store will be the bolt hole of sanity.

The Laughton nightlife, of course, was different.  In Missoula, before the bartender (who probably knew you in some other way outside the bar) asked you how your week had been, he’d pour out two shots for you and two for himself.  These shots would be free and you’d immediately order more of the same because that would be exactly what you liked to drink.  Missoula was comfortable.  Every drinking establishment had a card table or three and even the worst places had old timers who’d come in around noon to sit at the bar and bullshit over a Pabst.  Not in Laughton.  My first few outings were dismal, reminding me more of the southern California beach bars I’d snuck into as a kid: a lot of similarly dressed people who’d arrived together and who’d leave together.  In the meantime, they didn’t want to talk to you.  Surrounded by them, you could be standing in a packed room yet feel utterly desolate.  So I stopped trying to recreate Missoula and spent more nights at home.

I eventually quit drinking and it was agony.  Night sweats.  Insomnia.  Overwhelming anxiety and a lust for sugar so powerful that I quickly gained 10 pounds.  I fought back by becoming even more irritable, more obsessive about working out and drinking gallons of water.  My writing stopped because I couldn’t focus.  But, slowly, I was taking charge of the parts of my life that I understood, trading enjoyment for control.  It wasn’t pleasant in any way, and I asked myself more than once what had possessed me to undertake a Puritan upgrade.

My Montana friends would call sometimes, often from a bar.  They’d say Hey man,  say hello to Bill.  You remember Bill?  The guy with the white hat?  He’s a funny motherfucker! as if I’d been away for years.  What are you doing? they’d ask.  Nothing, I’d say.  And then there would be silence.  Or rather, there would be the roar of music, bottles clinking, people laughing and ordering drinks.  Then we would say good-bye and I’d pace around my apartment for an hour, depressed.

The only time I felt something akin to normal was when I was teaching my two classes: beginning fiction writing and freshman composition.  The undergraduates at UM were bright, healthy, and optimistic.  Nearly all of them sincerely worked hard, and I found myself preparing more thoroughly to teach them than for the classes I was taking.  Some of those students have since become professional writers.  And I do not flatter myself that they continued on because of my efforts.  Though, if what we discussed somehow contributed to their progress as artists and thinkers, then I will be satisfied that my time in Missouri wasn’t a total loss.

Teaching aside, it sure felt like a total loss to me.  I was beginning to appreciate many of the subtle facets of life-encompassing misery, the great variety of which could be experienced in graduate school while one is drying out in isolation.  A brief overview will include a body of morose grad students sustained by psychotropics and alcohol; a faculty at war with itself in hallway screaming fights and decade-spanning feuds; a degree of marital infidelity that would make Lucrezia Borgia blush; and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, whose matrix of requirements kept students in for five years, eight years, and in the case of my cubicle-mate, Orrin, eleven years.

(Eleven years!  Orrin, where are you now?  You’d put in 11 years when I arrived and you should be writing this, but you disappeared that Fall and never came back.  I like to think it was a positive change—a good life, a secret wife, maybe some nice AA meetings beyond the sunset—but I remember you and I worry.  You once told me nothing good could come out of the graduate program apart from the good of getting away from it.  And that escaping, in itself, was a feat.  Did you accomplish this?  Anguish and massive self-change did it for me—a commitment to my own well-being above all else and a healthy appreciation for mystery, for the beauty of the writing life that has nothing to do with institutional narcissism and everything to do with individuation.  I wish something like that for you.)

In fact, we were not encouraged to look forward to graduation, reminded at all times in myriad ways that the job prospects in the humanities were more dreadful than the lives we were currently living.  There were meetings.  I liked to call them “Convocations of the Politburo,” but people didn’t laugh at that for long.  Roll was taken, and we were given one academic credit for attending once a week.  On paper, these meetings were meant to “facilitate communication between graduate students and faculty.”  But, in reality, Josef Stalin would have felt right at home.

It was always the same.  A random assortment of English professors would sit in folding chairs on the stage of a lecture hall, looking extremely uncomfortable, while trying not to make eye-contact with each other or with the grad student audience.  And the grad students would stare forward with the thin-lipped intensity of adults about to be chastised like infants.  Some wise souls learned how to sleep with their eyes open or how to seem like they were paying attention while surreptitiously grading student papers.  I felt there was deep wisdom in there that I had missed.  They were the bodhisattvas of the program.  Like all enlightened beings, they were few and reclusive.  No one taught the art of mental detachment or covert paper grading.  It had to come intuitively from the heavens.  I was not one of them.  I couldn’t look away.

Graduate Director Robinson—who appeared and sounded very much like Christopher Lee’s Saruman in the Lord of the Rings movies—would stand at the podium and open each meeting with, “Questions?”  There were never any questions.  For a brief moment, his eyes would sweep over us.  And then he’d nod, satisfied.  There shouldn’t be questions.  A guest speaker—someone who had been in the program or managed to graduate from the program—would come up and foretell the future.  Then the guest speaker would ask if there were any questions.  There would be none.  Only silence.

Sometimes the speakers would have very cathartic experiences while presenting.  I can recall one of them breaking down in tears when telling us about the life she’d had to lead after graduate school.  She’d received a PhD in British Restoration literature.  Now she was a hospice nurse.  And she still couldn’t fully reconcile the years she’d spent (“sacrificed” was her term) with what she was doing now.  But she said she was coping better these days.  “These are the best years of your life,” she told us.  Then there would be announcements, like at the end of church.  In all the meetings I attended, the professors on stage never spoke once.  And they gave off the distinct impression that they, too, were under some kind of edict, some kind of post-tenure sorcery that compelled their bodies, like stiff marionettes, onto the stage and into the chairs.

Off stage, some of them were well-meaning, very brilliant people, bewildered as much as anyone by the reversals and exigencies of the academic life.  But, in my experience and that of the graduate students I knew, most of the faculty came in somewhere between Saruman and an angry raptor—spiteful and depressed, yet dependent on certain encompassing illusions about themselves and the world.  And as the evolutionary midpoint between undergraduate and professor, the graduate students were drawn into such dream worlds, wrapped up in Machiavellian power games, competition, long-standing resentments, departmental politics.

Fortunately, I was careful.  Others were less so.  If Professor A’s cheating wife was getting together with Professor B, and you were studying with Professor B, you’d better know to avoid A or become A’s punching bag.  This happened to Pete, a lit. student who’d been a middle manager for a multi-national beverage company.  He was married and had two kids when he decided to go get the PhD he’d always wanted.  This displeased his wife.  After months of late nights and angst, they had their second divorce talk and she moved into the local Holiday Inn, where she remained with the kids, for the rest of the academic term. She was perhaps the most bitter and, unfortunately, the most clear-headed and honest human I encountered while in Missouri.  When she took it upon herself to complain to Professor A for quadrupling her husband’s work load, A’s response was that if Pete didn’t like it, he could go study with Professor B, who seemed to have a lot of extra time on his hands.

For 15 weeks, Pete did not sleep.  I would see him in the basement cubicle farm that served as the graduate student offices.  He’d usually be standing, his desk covered with books, papers, Styrofoam coffee empties.  Pete once explained to me that he automatically went to sleep whenever he sat down, no matter the conditions or the amount of caffeine.  Though his wife was still at the Holiday Inn, she’d started driving him to school in the mornings.  Such was life.  I felt bad for Pete and for others like him, who’d blundered onto battlefields they didn’t understand.  But I kept my head and did my best to avoid A and B, to teach my classes, to be a nondescript entity; though there were still problems, even for someone living as monosyllabic an existence as I was.

Winter came with sleet and ice.  My apartment heater was broken and the management company kept saying they’d send someone out but never did.  I bought a space heater that looked like an enormous toaster oven.  It very effectively heated up the 6-foot block of air directly in front of it and nothing else.  After melting the bottom of my polyester futon, I decided I couldn’t risk using the space heater while sleeping.  Once, I left home with the kitchen window cracked open and found that ice had formed on the ceiling.  So I slept in jeans, two sweatshirts, and a coat.  At a local sporting goods store, I bought a green ski mask, which I also wore to bed in order to feel my face in the morning.  I was a sight.  But nobody had to know.

Directly behind my duplex, the electric company had a fenced lot of transformers and switches that gave off a high-pitched whine at all times, rain, sleet, or snow; though I hadn’t noticed it when I’d first visited the place.  That Fall, I would lie in my clothes every night, looking as if I’d just gotten home from a bank heist, and listen to the sound of the electrical field.  Some nights, I thought about the people I left behind in California, in Montana, in the other places I’ve lived.  Most nights, I’d look at the bars of light on the ceiling, listen, and wonder what was going to become of me.

Getting an advanced degree has never been, nor should it be, a throw-away experience.  It should push those who are already competent to become more of who they already are.  It should open new areas of inquiry and recontextualize what has been taken for granted.  And we can joke about arête, mysterion, and exploring the kryptos in our lives, but I believe it really is possible to experience such things through a course of graduate study—personally, transpersonally, transdiscursively.  I’ve seen it in myself, in my MFA experience, in the PhD program (far away from the University of Missouri) to which I ultimately made my way.  And, even when I was in Missouri, I saw it hidden in the individual bubble-worlds professors would create.

Dr. N taught an excellent Harlem Renaissance seminar in which he announced at the beginning that we would have to make a commitment to 50 pages of critical writing.  On the second class meeting, only five of us remained.  4 of us lasted to the end.  We produced the pages.

Dr. H, the rhet-comp expert, wanted us to understand the rhetoric of institutions, governments, universities—the hegemonic bureaucracies into which college graduates are knowingly and sometimes unknowingly interpolated.  We analyzed the rhetoric of power relationships inherent in prisons, hospitals, corporations, the military, and even UM, stopping just short of a direct critique of the English department itself.  We read poststructuralists alongside the ancient Sophists.  And I came to think of Dr. H as perhaps the reincarnation of Quintilian when she sat at the end of the conference table, eyebrows raised, fingertips pressed together.

There were others, people like night-blooming flowers—beautiful but only for limited intervals that went mostly hidden in a general darkness.  In November, Professor L refused to teach her graduate poetry workshop, fed up with her students arriving unprepared.  Pissed off beyond all restraint, she told them they were worthless, that if they wanted to learn they could teach themselves, and she went home.  This was related to me as I walked across campus with Alma, a woman who’d been in the shop and who seemed overjoyed at the recent developments.

“Was she right?” I asked.  “You guys sound pretty worthless to me.”

“Don’t be stupid.  Nobody ever does reading ahead of time.”

Ah, I thought.  This is why there is screaming.  This is why there is unrest.  People who are reading do not have time to despise each other.  Or, at least, they have less time.  I considered the possibility that the entire department had stopped reading.

“She called us a bunch of no-talent assholes.”

“Maybe you’re a bunch of no-talent assholes,” I said.

Alma rolled her eyes.  “Let’s get a sandwich.”

And so it went: with Professor L being forced to teach poetry writing to her beloved graduate students under pain of immediate suspension.  This was not considered overly scandalous, as the wife-drama between Professors A and B had recently escalated to a parking lot fistfight.  Faculty meetings were now being held via email.

As the term listed slowly into November, one of the grad students got diagnosed with a severe lung infection.  Tests arranged by her attorney revealed that the mold in her lungs had come from the basement of the English department where the graduate cubicle farm was located.  Water damage beneath the ancient mustard green carpet had gone long unaddressed.  A suit was pending.  Worried about the possibility of a multiple-plaintiff action (clusterfuck was the term I first heard), UM lawyers recommended that we all be issued paper air-filters, the common type that people wear in emergency rooms, when installing drywall, and in Shanghai to stave off black lung.  Whenever we were officially holding office hours, we were instructed to wear the masks.  We were also advised to wear them whenever we were down there and began to feel “queasy, dizzy, or overly anxious with burning in the lungs or other difficulty breathing”—symptoms which might have described the graduate experience at any point on any given day.  There were two cardboard boxes of about 500 masks each at the bottom of the basement stairs.  A few people wrote things or drew cat whiskers on theirs.  I wore mine constantly.

“Could you take that off?” asked one of my students, who’d refused when I’d offered her one.

“No.”

“It’s creepy.”

“There are spores in the air.”

“You’ve got a problem,” she said, looking around at the masked graduate students going about their breath-filtered business.  “What’s wrong with you people?”

“Health comes first,” I said.

Spores were everywhere.  That week, the no-talent assholes assembled the Comintern for a new guest speaker, a woman named Carol, who had received a MFA in fiction writing and had then gone directly to veterinary school.  She brought her St. Bernard, Ramón, who sat happily on stage, radiating canine goodness at the feet of the uncomfortable-looking professors, while Dr. Carol spoke about the writing opportunities available in animal medicine.

I was the only no-talent asshole who’d worn my breath mask.  I drew many amused stares and the twin death beams of Graduate Director Robinson, who seemed to be growing more Sarumanish by the day.  He’d taken a sabbatical to Morocco the year before, and that day he was wearing the white kaftans he’d bought there.  With the kaftans, his white beard, long white hair, peaked black eyebrows, and uncommon height (about 6’7”) he looked more like the Lord of Isengard than anyone, I imagine, in greater metropolitan Laughton.

After Dr. Carol’s presentation, there were no questions.  But people did go up to pet the dog.  I went with them, partly because I cannot pass up an opportunity to pet a dog and partly because Dr. Carol was 28 with long brown hair, green eyes, and a beautiful voice.  To someone surrounded by graduate student DNA most of the time, Dr. Carol looked like a divine being.  I took off the mask.

“Hello, Ramón,” I said.  The dog raised his enormous head and smiled at me.  Petting him was like touching a plush bowling ball.

“He likes you,” said Dr. Carol.  “But why the mask?  Allergic?”

“The whole department is.  They issued us these.”

She nodded.  “Sounds like a good policy.  Especially in that basement.”

Dr. Carol understood.  Of course she knew about the basement.  She was beautiful and she had survived UM, which meant she had incredible hidden powers.  Moreover, her dog liked me.

“Remember when you asked if there were questions, and there weren’t any questions?  I might have some questions.  About what you said.  If you feel like getting a cup of coffee sometime.”  I was proud of those sentences.  In my estimation, I sounded no more awkward and ridiculous than I usually did when talking to anyone about anything.

She took my hand in both of hers and smiled.  “What’s your name?”

“Michael.”

“Michael,” she said, “I’m a lesbian.”  She kept smiling when she let go of my hand.  Ramón kept smiling, too.

“Okay,” I said.  “Thank you.”

When I turned, I noticed that Graduate Director Robinson had materialized directly behind me, frowning, his eyebeams focused.  I looked up at him and put my mask back on.  Then I walked deliberately, evenly out of the lecture hall.

That night, I watched The Legend of Dolemite and drank for the first time in 3 months.  I smoked a pack of cigarettes, too.  And the sudden repollution of my otherwise purified and filtered body cause a certain amount of vomiting.  It was probably a necessary experience—a catharsis, a purgation of the bad mojo I’d internalized thus far.  But I came out of it weakened, shaken in willpower and confidence.  The next day, when someone mentioned that Orrin hadn’t been seen for three-and-a-half weeks, I felt a great deal of dread, a sensation that can only be described as an immediate upheaval, a moment in which I began to sincerely question my reasons for being at UM.

More ubiquitous even than the allergens and spores was the incredible sense of loss that permeated every gathering there—loss of youth, loss of employability, loss of comprehension (Graduate Director Robinson’s half-joking advice to us at the beginning of the semester: don’t get romantically involved with undergraduates.  They’ll never understand you.), and loss of everything true, good, and beautiful in life.  There was a pervasive feeling that even though those things still existed in the outside world, we’d forfeited them by seeking a higher academic status.  And I began to see that the negative side to following the mysterion was not that one might find something hiding in the darkness, waiting to pounce.  Rather, it was the constant fear that there might be nothing, absolutely nothing, in our dark spaces but an endless void into which we might suddenly fall with regret as our only companion: the terror of a sailor who knows he can’t swim and still follows the sound of the sea.

The Vikings, when they crossed the North Atlantic, carved runa on their longboats as a ward and a guide because it’s one thing to see yourself dead on the battlefield (one can accept: these are my entrails; this is my enemy; that is his spear) but getting sucked into the bottomless depths entails a different and much more profound level of horror.  Take my steaming entrails if you must, but leave me my soul.  And there are still dark places on the map we would like to explore: the psyche, for example, and the all invisible presences that drive and condition our lives—family hatreds and loves and feats of great beauty and perhaps greater stupidity.

We would gladly venture out onto these oceans, just like the Vikings, as long as we felt securely tethered to the mundane world such that we could safely return and, over a cup of coffee, speak with confidence about what Conrad called “all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.”  But we are, without a doubt, children staring down the hallway in the middle of the night at the half-open closet, daring ourselves to walk over and put one foot in.

It may not be surprising that “the mysterious life of the wilderness” had little to do with the mysterious life of being at UM.  After yet another aborted fiction workshop in which our professor burned most of 45 minutes asking the submitting writers to read their work aloud (to cover the fact that he hadn’t looked at the material, but, then again, neither had we, the dry rot of apathy having assimilated our workshop), our entire class drifted back to the basement cubicle farm.  Everyone put on their masks.

I sat at the desk I shared with Orrin, listening to myself breathe and staring at the one item of his that he’d left in the cubicle: a large pearl-and-gold framed photo of him holding his cat in one arm and his girlfriend in the other.  He’d mentioned to me that she’d died years before from brain cancer.  And it was a younger Orrin in the photo—without the pepper-gray beard, sunken eyes, and deep creases in his face.  There was a light in his expression as if he liked whoever was holding the camera.  Though, his girlfriend was not the sort you’d expect a poet to have.  In the picture, she was brassy blonde, curvaceous, and slightly older than him with an air of appraising intelligence—the sort of woman who owns her own business and doesn’t suffer fools.  But she’d suffered Orrin.  And she’s suffered herself, dying that horrible death, which I imagine is a lot more like the void than the battlefield.

To this day, I hope that if Orrin’s disappearance meant he was going out to find her in the depths, he kept runa before him and his tether secure.  But I fear that was not the case, as he’d seemed increasingly solemn and withdrawn in the times I’d seen him around the cubicle.  I’d have given him my bone pendant had I known he was going.  I liked Orrin.  Maybe I liked him more than any of the other graduate students because he had an sense of pained honesty about him and they did not.  Orrin gave me the feeling that he’d say exactly what he thought about anything no matter how awkward that might prove to be.

That afternoon, the cubicle farm looked more like ER receiving with all the intense eyes over white paper masks and the unhappy sounds emanating from beneath them.  I heard angry talk of circulating a complaint petition about our professor and fearful questions about what good that would do.  I heard the same old talk of ailments and molds, the crappiness of the student health insurance, and of people missing their Paxil.  As usual, I also heard Prozac mentioned the way one refers to Arpanet, card catalogs, and the rhythm method: we’ve come so far since then.  Yes, I thought, packing up my books.  Soon we will succeed in completely erasing ourselves and all the anxiety will then subside.  I walked up the stairs and out of the building into the iron light of a Missouri winter.

A block away from campus, I stuffed my breath mask into a snow-filled trash can.  I wasn’t headed anywhere particular.  I was simply walking and thinking about the future, about the writing life and, though I didn’t have the language for it then, about mysterion and all the things I’d thought I was pursuing when I came to UM.  After about 15 blocks of snowy sidewalk, I had to admit that the things I’d been seeking were elsewhere, that I’d made another life-mistake, and that I would probably be taking a permanent hiatus from Laughton, Missouri, before long.

Somewhere on my way back to campus, I came upon one of my freshman composition students, laughing at his car engine.  The hood was propped up and a thick column of oily smoke was coming out.

“Hey, Mike.  Check it out.  My car’s on fire,” he said.  Tiny pieces of snow were stuck in his beard.  We stood in front of the car, staring at the smoke as if it were some kind of oracle.

“You think it’ll blow?” I asked.

He grinned, shrugged.  “Maybe.”

And I moved on, listening for the thump of the gas tank, back to my own soon-to-be-junked car, parked in the graduate lot under a pyramid of snow.

Maybe, I said to myself.  Maybe it blows and maybe it doesn’t.  Maybe, maybe, maybe.  And all our yesterdays and yestermaybes have lighted fools.  And all our tomorrows may be limned with absurdity as we inch down hallways toward dark closets.  But hand out the Paxil and we’ll be okay.

Walter sort of gets it.  At least, he gets the part where I decide that Missouri is nowhere.

“Well,” he says, “you’re back in paradise now.  It doesn’t get much better than America’s finest city.”  He stands and a wave of his cologne passes like a semi-tangible ghost—an advance image of himself that he sends forward on the wind to check for reality buses and bottomless pits.

I’ve now decided that there will be no job forthcoming from his lordship, retail or otherwise.  And, strangely enough, I’m alright with that.  Walter is the first person to whom I’ve spoken honestly, without reservation, about why I left Missouri.  I can tell by the depressed look on his face that he doesn’t know what it all means.  I don’t know what it all means, either.  But, having released some of that morose energy in Walter’s direction, I’ve come closer to figuring it out.

He tells me to call him, and I watch him move slowly, almost mournfully, through the parking lot to his truck: his bulk, his fanny pack, black fedora over giant white polo shirt.  In two years, Walter will die of a heart attack.  But, as I watch him walk away after our difficult conversation in 2005, I’m not thinking about his weight problem or my job problem or any problematic decisions I’ve made in the past.  I’m wondering whether Walter has a folder of recent poems and whether, if I offer to send him my most recent story, he’ll reciprocate.  And I realize that I must have arrived—not back where I was before I heard the sound of the sea and took it as a mistress—but to where I’ve been heading all along, the path that will lead across a great ocean and back and out again.

In a few days, I will have found a job teaching English and speech at a private high school in central California.  Two years after that, I’ll be back in a PhD program—the right one this time—knowing a lot more, following the mysterion to the extent that I understand it.  As I write this, I am at the end of that program with a published book of stories and few regrets, reasonably confident that when I get up to write in the dark hours of the morning and say runa to the page, the page may say nothing, or the page may say kryptos, or it may say follow.  And I will.

Working in cafés can be wonderful.  A clean, well-lighted place with good coffee and relative quiet can be inexpressibly fantastic.  I’ve made the rent and written books in cafés.  On the other hand, close proximity to others under the influence of caffeine can reveal a certain darkness in the human condition that would otherwise be difficult to notice.

People get bilious.  A baby fires his diapers and the café hazmat expert springs into action.  “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.  Don’t worry,” says the teenager in the green apron.  He’s down on his knees wiping up baby’s spillage with a rag.  Mom takes a second before she moves.  She says: “Yes.  Well.  I appreciate your help.”  Mom’s friend—an almost identical copy, right down to the French twist and the yoga pants—crosses her arms and looks down at the boy.  How do babies contain so much waste?  Half of the café pretends it didn’t happen.  The other half is smiling.  Baby is so charming.

Mom and her friend finally decide to help.  They sigh and wipe the drippings off the stroller, the floor.  This is a normal thing in their world and mom executes her duties without getting a smudge on her yoga pants.  From a certain point of view, this, I know, is admirable.  But still, baby contains a gallon of fecal matter and mom contains a gallon of meaningless cooing.  How does this happen to a person?  These women are in their 30s.  They seem oblivious to the fact that they have been speaking very loudly in close proximity to others about absolutely nothing for the last 45 minutes.  Who raised them?

I am irritated, yes.  I am a misanthrope, maybe.  Timon of Yosemite.  But I feel bad for the parents of the kid with the crew-cut who’s still down on his knees, apologizing for someone else’s shit.  His choice, but still.  My inner Nostradamus tells me that if he doesn’t quit this job soon, he’ll be doing that for the rest of his life.

Of course, I don’t have kids.  It’s easy to pass judgment when you aren’t constrained to be a guardian of public health because baby has a bowel problem.  But what about a pediatric  gastroenterologist?  I don’t know.  Could an expert address this?  Maybe mom already covered that angle; though, it seems to me baby would feel a lot better if he wasn’t bathed in his own waste.  (Later, when mom goes out to a Lexus RX 350 with chunks of gold glued to the side, I will think this again in less charitable terms, wondering whether dad couldn’t take a day out to see about the health of his boy.  But such are my prejudices.  We should all foul our diapers and own Lexuses.)

I’m at the big table –the one for the losers who come to the café to work and read quietly.  The era of socially egalitarian coffee shops ended with the rise of the Starbucks beast.  There is definite class polarization here.  Corporate culture and proletarian workforce self-segregate at the little tables by the windows; liberal democrats, professorial types, senior citizens, and other undesirables lurk at the long table in the back.  In-between lingers the great murmuring maternity, the guardians of our future, a triple-parked fleet of strollers, an ocean of yoga pants, and the inevitable cloud of post-Yogalates hormonal dismay.

Being a mom is hard, yeah?  My mom thought so and I’m sure I didn’t make it easy for her.  She was a good mom—in my opinion, the best.  And even though my parents stayed married (until my mom’s death from cancer in 2009, after which my father descended into a second perpetual adolescence), she was the one who took care of me on a daily basis.  So maybe this is more of a personal moment for me than it seems on the surface.

Is it crazy to think parenting should be a group effort?  Sorry guys, bringing home a paycheck doesn’t absolve you of having to mop up the Schmutzigkeit.  We don’t want junior to have a lilliputian colostomy before he’s old enough to enjoy solid food.  It makes me sad.  It’s wrong.  And I think just because you can reproduce and have money doesn’t mean you should.

Next to me, a 40-something guy with white shoulder-length hair sniffs and clears his throat.  His long-sleeve is buttoned all the way to the top and he has a pair of square rimless glasses (spectacles?) at the end of his nose.  He  looks over at the baby in disgust and shifts his Kindle two inches away from that side of the room.  That’s okay, I saw a different young mother do that with her baby when she looked over at our table.  Germs.  Competing bacteria.  Everyone’s a vector.  Everyone wants to eat your child and poo in your laptop case.

Why can’t we just get along?  The answer is that we can—as long as everyone stays in the small box they were given at birth.  Born in a box: live there, paint the walls all you want, inch a tiny mirror over the top edge to see what it’s like in the other boxes, sure.  But try to climb out and everyone will destroy their diapers.

Said incontinent baby is now squealing in hideous misery while mom is sipping a latte and laughing with her friend.  I really hope baby grows up to run with wild horses over the hills.   You can always hope.

The kid in the apron has brought out a mop and bucket.  Mom and friend ignore him.

“I’m sorry,” he says for the fiftieth time.

Yeah, me too.

Something new: “On the Art of Talking to Oneself.”

http://superstitionreview.asu.edu/blog/2013/02/23/guest-post-michael-davis-on-the-art-of-talking-to-oneself/

1. Bad Juju

My eyes were opened and I understood.

Higgins Street Bridge

“I can tell you one thing,” said Louie, taking a drag on his cigarette and leaning back in his chair, “he steps over the line again and we’ll have words.”

“You won’t do anything of the sort. Don’t be ridiculous,” said Burt.

“I’ll kill the motherfucker. Got an ice-pick right in my trunk.”

“Kill a professor and you’ll go straight to the chair,” I said. “They’ll pump you so full of voltage you’ll be shitting the Bozeman power grid.”

Louie smiled at that, catlike, squinting at me through his smoke cloud. He was wiry, not an ounce of fat on him, with a working-outside-everyday tan, veins and muscles in clear relief.

“There’s no escaping it,” Burt said. “Our program’s sick. We have no future. If people are killing themselves—I mean we’re all killing ourselves if you really think about it. But this whole thing with Theresa Miles. I can’t get over the thought that Jason’s somehow behind it.”

“We shouldn’t blame Jason for all the evil in the world,” I said, checking my pulse under the table. “He’s an asshole. But he didn’t tell her to cut her wrists. She did that on her own.”

“He’s an asshole on the meter. You’ll see if I take his shit much longer.” Louie frowned and stubbed out his cigarette. Louie had dreads that he tucked into his collar. In the spring, he taught composition in a T-shirt and one eventually saw that his torso was completely covered with Chinese dragons, stars, portraits of his family, words in Greek cursive, clouds, Fraktur lines from Rilke. Louie didn’t look like a graduate student. And I believed he had probably done some deeply perverse things in his short life. But killing somebody? Louie wrote poetry.

Shelly, the Wiccan priestess, would have been able to read my ham sandwich like a palm. She’d open up the bread, squint, and tell me all about how my ordering it stemmed from a long line of causes, magnetic thoughts, manifestations, astral translocations. “You don’t care about yourself,” she’d say. “Look at this ham. You have a death wish. There’s a shadow in your aura.” Then she’d adjust her polkadotted doo-rag and smile at me across the manicure table.

2. Midnight in Paris

Bad ham and ice-picks: you don’t look into a sandwich you’ve bought in a bar when having a life-changing nervous breakdown. And you don’t then ask creative writers to explain the realization to you—even if you are also a creative writer and already possess their unique lexicon of neurotic self-obsessions, vanities, and cynicisms—especially writers with MFAs, especially graduate students trying to get MFAs, especially Burt and Louie.

The shadow in my aura must have been embarassingly obvious. I had already made 2 mistakes in this sad life. Transfigured by a radical shift in consciousness brought on by low-quality pork and an acceptance of the transcendent metaphysical principle binding all things together, I violated the Sandwich Rule and the Don’t Ask Creative Writers Anything Important Rule almost simultaneously. I said: “I think I’m to blame for every single bad thing in my life. What do you think about that? It’s called the Law of Attraction.” Burt probably already believed this about himself due to what he often referred to as his “destructive Jewish upbringing.” But making it overt and tangible, dragging it into the light of immediate consciousness, had crossed into his and Louie’s sense of the forbidden in a very bad way.

Burt flashed me a sideways look and then spoke into his beer. “You’ve been hanging out with that new age girl at the nail place, right?”

“Shelly has nothing to do with this,” I lied. “This is straight metaphysics.”

“What if the Wiccans have the answer?” said Louie. “What if gods and goddesses live in trees and the garden gnome on my front lawn has feelings?”

“I’m a non-practicing Catholic,” I said. “You’re pretty intolerant for someone with dreadlocks.”

“Yep. And I’m a vegetarian. And I will now take a leak.”

Louie got up and made for the restroom. When he was out of earshot, Burt put his hand on my arm and said, “Mike, I really do think you need to get some help before things get worse.”

“I need to go home and write,” I lied.

Angry dread. Burt looked at me as if I’d said I planned to find him later and cut his throat. When did writing fiction become so terrifying? Burt couldn’t write anymore and neither could I. Two years of MFA vitriol had stopped most of us in the program from doing anything but recycling old work. And drugs, both legal and otherwise, were how most of us got through. Only Louie seemed to be going strong, publishing poems and stories on a regular basis.

“Don’t push it,” Burt said. “Remember the hotline.”

I said I’d keep it in mind as if the idea were ridiculous, even though, to be honest, I’d had certain thoughts of my own lately, certain pleasing fantasies of self-destruction, bombs going off, being instantly vaporized in an electrical field, o.d.ing on something gentle and mothersweet, gas leaks, getting struck by an errant cement mixer—one minute my old wretched self, the next free and clear forever.

Everyone in my graduate program was having these thoughts; though most would only admit it while in the depths of a drunk in the wee hours on someone else’s sofa or to the person with whom they were was sleeping, who’d then spread the knowledge of it around as much as possible after the inevitable breakup. Such was graduate school. Most of it originated in the almost universal belief that there were no academic jobs forthcoming after graduation; in the prospect of being broke forever; and in a fat position as a UPS driver if you were lucky. Maybe I’d only just begun to have these thoughts now, at the end of my program, because I’d had other jobs before graduate school and wasn’t afraid of UPS heaven. I wasn’t delicate. I could rake coals in hell if I had to. What scared me was the feeling that raking coals in hell was something I wanted on some level in order to prove I was different from my fragile, neurotic colleagues.  Maybe.

Louie came back and we walked out front. I said good-bye and we went in separate directions. Half a block away, I looked back at Burt. He was hugging himself in the street light, staring at the snow. I’d been so immersed in my thoughts that all I’d wanted was not letting Burt intrude. He’d been saying something to us earlier about an editing job, but I hadn’t cared to listen. A few blocks later, I threw the sandwich into a snow bank. In May, it would emerge, a thawed and monstrous ham-thing in the sun. And Burt would likely emerge the same way a few days hence, expecting me to know all about what he’d been saying, expecting me to be ready for something, and wounded when I had no idea what he was talking about.

Then again, I thought about all the metaphysical discussions I’d had with Priestess Shelly those nights I’d visited her at Christine’s, maintaining rigid and neigh-flawless eye discipline when she’d lean toward me over her coffee and say something extra deep about the goddess. I wondered if I would forget to think of Burt and therefore temporarily negate his existence. Or the sandwich—blinking straight out of creation when the only mind holding its manifestation ceased to be mindful. Lord knows, I wouldn’t forget Shelly. I beat the cold out of my hands and sighed.

Midnight in Missoula with too much snow, sudden and unkind on the head of the nocturnal graduate student outside his natural habitat. Somber and half-blind from flurries, he makes his way slowly toward the safety of his hole, where he can curl up beside his ancient space heater until morning. He is an odd, fitful creature. And perhaps, we can sympathize with the rare quality of his suffering, bumped up the academic chain of being like some proto-sloth in need of mutation—not quite ready for the tree branch, but not quite capable of slumming it any longer with the other sloths back in California who’d gone straight from high school to Marines to sales. Now they all owned Escalades. And our sad friend slishing his way home has had trouble with the bus—his ability to teach a wicked freshman comp class and his grasp of ageless metaphysical wisdom notwithstanding.

While I walked, I considered my power to unthink Burt, the tragedy of the short-necked giraffe, and all the good things Hemingway said about being broke and hungry in Paris. As long as one didn’t indulge in too much natural selection with an extension cord out the window of one’s attic room, one might actually come to think of Missoula as the Paris of the northwest. Life was beautiful. These were the best of times.

3. Hair & Nails: the Clergy Holds Forth

“I need to make a confession,” I said to her.

“The Goddess don’t care about confessing.”

“Yeah, but I’m a former Catholic.”

“What about all that ‘I want to be a Wiccan stuff?’ The Goddess don’t care about Catholics.”

“I think of myself as a post-Catholic pre-Wiccan.”

“No such thing.”

“Yes such thing. You said it yourself: the Goddess doesn’t care. So the field’s wide open.”

“I never heard of a post-Catholic Wiccan.”

“Well, I’d like some tolerance, please.”

4. An Occurrence at Higgins Street Bridge

In the second year of our MFA, everyone started to write their own eulogies.  We did it reflexively.  Because I didn’t own a car, I did it while walking across town.  Despair kept me warm.

Snowflakes as thick as feathers, falling the way feathers fall, thick bright globes of them around headlights.  They came down in silent brocades over the yellow window panes of houses, black branches shadow-to-shadow across the light.  The hiss of passing cars faded up Higgins Street and over the iron bridge that was slick black during the day, the sides of its enormous bolts brushed with orange rust.  At night, Higgins Street Bridge was little more than an isthmus of ice over darkness, translucent stalactites fanged from its hanger cables.  Below it, the Clark had turned a solid murky green and held deformed bicycles and grocery carts, driftwood, bags of trash.  During the day, you could see the spokes and edges sticking up from the ice or slightly below the surface, all frozen in stasis until the spring.

I stopped halfway across.  My heart began beating fast and wouldn’t stop.  I tried breathing deeply.  Melatonin, whiskey, Valerian root for ease-downs in the middle of the day—none of it was working the way it used to.  My hands shook almost all the time now.  I couldn’t hold them flat in the air without my whole body vibrating.  And I’d begun to stutter at times, missing the right word, struggling to find it in the middle of a conversation.  There were moments of extreme paranoia.  I wasn’t sleeping.  Instead of writing, I read obsessively about nervous breakdowns, schizophrenia, depression, chronic insomnia.  I fit all the criteria.  It was possible that I was either bipolar with multiple personalities and recurring psychotic breaks or I was just stressed out.  Spending time with Burt and Louie didn’t help.

Burt and Louie had been thinking bad. So had I. And the Universal Law of Attraction had brought it to me without exception, relief, exit, or temporary refuge. I realized I was responsible for the deficiencies of my sandwiches. And I took such responsibility with a deep and terrible gravity that made me feel horrible about myself. I was responsible for the snow that had seeped into my shoes and wet my socks, for Burt and Louie, for stinking Amvets, for the semester left of my stinking MFA, for my perpetual lusts that went perpetually unsatisfied, for my mediocre thesis, for my general inability to write and for the particular exceptions when I did. The Universal Law of Attraction. I was even responsible for that. Or, at least, for my present understanding of it, which amounted to the same thing as far as I was concerned.

Not doing yourself in was key. The city and the greater Bitterroot Valley area now had a suicide hotline staffed around the clock. Many of them were MFAs trying to make enough money to supplement their miniature teaching stipends, and it was a job that allowed one to read books while on duty. Perfect. A few months after Theresa Miles drank too much one night and cut her wrists in her bathtub, Burt passed out business cards with Don’t Do Something You’ll Regret on one side, and the hotline number on the other. His way of dealing.

While she was in the hospital, open sarcasm became unfashionable for a time. But as soon as everyone heard she hadn’t died, the snide jokes began. The whole thing seemed to please her fellow poetry students the most. She’d come from an ivy background, was highly talented, already published, and attractive—a recipe for instant resentment if ever there was one. Burt might have had a shrine to Theresa Miles in his basement. I didn’t really want to know. But, of course, I reminded myself, if I did someday go in there and see her picture on a saffron-shrouded altar strewn with garlands and incense, I would have been the one who’d manifested that into my own experience. Along with the basement. Along with Theresa—and Burt.

5. The Theological Discourse Continueth, Selah

“The Catholics are the ones who burned witches at the stake.”

“Nope. Those were the Calvinists. Name one witch-burning Catholic. The Pope wouldn’t burn a witch.”

“How do you know? Have you seen him? Have you actually looked at the Pope? He scares the living shit out of me.”

“He’s got a lot on his plate.”

“People said that about George W. Bush, if you remember. People said, ‘Bush is kind of stupid,’ and then somebody would be, like, ‘Yeah, but he’s got a lot on his plate.’ Still fucked up the country though, didn’t he.”

“Bad comparison. The Pope is goddamn smart. He speaks about 10 languages.”

“If all I had to do was bless gold crosses and ride around in the Vatican all day, I’d know ten languages, too.”

“Shelly, I need to make a confession.”

“I have my doubts about you. You eat too much red meat. And you’re a fucking Catholic.”

“Maybe so, but you’re a priestess, and I’m in need of the clergy.”

“Bitch please.”

6. Brokeback Burton

I stood on the bridge so long, that Burt left Amvets to find me.

“Shit,” he said. “I can’t breathe. I think I need some air.”

I hadn’t seen him walk up to me through the snow.  “Jesus fucking Christ,” I said.  I must have seemed feverish at that point. I might have spoken too forcefully. “I’m the constant. Everything else is the variable, Burt. If I’ve got a problem, it’s me. But don’t go fucking sneaking up on me.”

Amvets_Missoula

Burt had brought me another poison sandwich from the bar.  He handed it to me wrapped in a greasy piece of cellophane.  Then he took out his inhaler, but there was nothing left in it. “I’ve got a problem,” he said. “I can’t breathe.” He did the calming exercise he’d learned in therapy, his palms pressed against his chest.

I took a bite of the sandwich, immediately regretting it but reminding myself that there was no use for regret when everything in life, positive, negative, animal, vegetable, mineral, had, according to universal law, been drawn to me by my wanting it nor not wanting it on some level. This was the teaching of my foil and muse: 23-year-old Wiccan priestess Shelly Montgomery, anthropology major and part-time beautician at Christine’s Hair and Nails. And this could be the story of a certain kind of wanting. Me of her. Her of an unnamed female deity. And of the big, whirling empty we’d all unearthed at the center of MFA wasteland. Such was my curious state, one in which I would become mewed up in these wants—living a nocturnal existence for 2 years in Missoula, Montana, Big Sky Country, where the sky would come to seem entirely too big, wholly my creation, hostile, and unwilling to let me go.

“I’m allergic to this place,” said Burt.

To the place, I wanted to say, or to the thought that perhaps the universe was not, after all, conspiring to bury us under a pile of misery; that perhaps Burt was the sole origin of his own angst, his own impending unemployability after grad. school, his own inability to hold a conversation with a member of the opposite sex even though he was almost 34 and neither an amputee nor diseased. I wanted to shake him like the child you suddenly hate for being sickly, hating yourself at the same time for being so small. I wanted to tell him that if he was allergic, he was to blame. But I just stared at his gasping and swallowing while I took bites of chemical sandwich. The snow came down around us as walked back to Amvets.

Warmth and a Pabst can fix anything.  After a few minutes of silence and worried looks from the mute bartender across the room, Burt’s calming breaths began to help. He could suddenly breathe without wheezing, mucus draining, anaphylaxis creeping back into the oracular murk of his extremely thin, pale body. He hawked into a napkin and gave me a weak smile.

“Maybe I should leave Montana,” I said. “I’m not learning anything. I’m not doing anything of value whatsoever. And it is my fault. I’m responsible.”

Burt shook his head, coughed. “We’ve got one semester to go. Don’t be in such a hurry to get back into retail.”

But I had no real intention of working some shit job after my MFA, which was precisely what Burt couldn’t understand. After 30 minutes of listening to Patsy Cline on the sound system, we walked back out so Burt could breathe air that didn’t smell like cigarettes and old beer. It was a cold night, snow in the streets, Christmas break in a week.

I’d brought the sandwich with me, which was absurd—the sandwich itself, of course, but standing there, gesturing with it more so. And I didn’t notice because I felt I had realigned my perceptions, had come stumbling painfully, maybe even mistakenly, into what might have been a perfect understanding of this impossible life. I was wrong. But, at the time, I began to feel like I might be a genius.

Burt hugged himself, shin-deep in  snow. “We should go somewhere else, get drunk.”

By “somewhere else,” he meant we should go to Missoula’s other gay bar, Lilac. When Amvets wasn’t a gay bar, it was empty or, very occasionally, filled with tuque-wearing, geriatric vets still so pissed off at society for permitting WWII and Vietnam that they’d trot out the Gadsden flag, the rainbow flag, the old Soviet flag, the FARC flag of Subcomandante Marcos and red posters of Che and Mao in response to any public event whatsoever. In their anger, they were one of the few tolerant groups in town, despising everyone equally.

As far as I knew, none of them were gay. And as far as I knew, neither Burt nor I was gay. But gay was okay at Amvets and Lilac, where cowboys, bat-wielding fundamentalists, angry Flathead Indians down from the rez, Klansmen, and hormonal fraternity brothers generally feared to tread—the only bars where Burt wouldn’t immediately have anxiety-fueled bouts of anaphylaxis urticaria with hypotension and bronchospasms.

“I think I want to go home,” I said, envisioning electron magnets and asteroid fields, weird gravitational anomalies pulling all the space junk of creation to me with every manifesting thought. The snow pressed beneath my shoes contained worlds within worlds, blindly drawn to me by my wanting, on some level, for them to exist. I had to guard my mind.

Ethically, I felt responsible for controlling all possible manifestations of thought in order to prevent, say, an Astraeus 757 from falling out of the sky and atomizing downtown, epidemics of flesh-eating bacilli, fiery mushroom clouds, all the awful things regularly in my head. These thoughts terrified me because they seemed so much more likely now that I understood how the Universal Law of Attraction made me universally accountable.

I looked at Burt, who was clearly disappointed that we wouldn’t be sitting in the corner of Lilac for 2 more hours, bitching about our graduate program and drinking whiskey. I wanted to apologize for manifesting him in my reality as such a morose, narcissistic fuck. But then who was worse? I was the one seriously considering that I could make planes fall from the sky with my thoughts.

7. The Reports of My Death have been Appropriately Exaggerated

Why in the world would I manifest all that when all I really wanted to manifest was employment, sun, and a Wiccan priestess to share it with? I had a headache (for which I knew I was responsible) that would probably last the whole long, cold walk back to my room above the garage.

For people like Burt and me, there might not have been a lonelier place in the world than Missoula in winter—his family mostly dead except for a distant uncle and a maternal grandmother he never saw, and mine mostly away in California with no money to go see them and an awkward call every couple weeks. If everyone must pass through a period of estrangement from the light, life, and love of childhood, my graduate degree had become the far promontory of that experience for me—an estrangement into ice and the persistent sense of being involved with a group of people focused solely on fear of the future and distrust of the present.

A few days before I left Burt in front of Amvets, the director of my thesis, who I will call Jason, told me that the best thing about my stories were that he’d been able to get through them quickly.

“I know you want this life, Davis,” he’d said, my story manuscripts in a pile on the floor by his desk, “but you’re not gonna get it.”

Wanting. Not wanting. Jason’s knowing smile.

He’d been harder on Burt, whose chain smoking, drinking, and oxytocin use increased exponentially after Jason threw his thesis down the hallway. Apparently, Burt had argued with him about the validity of magical realism, feeling brave because he’d just published a story in which a man became a cloud. Now Burt was becoming a cloud, dissipating, layer-by-layer, into progressively more vaporous forms.

I, too, began a descent of sorts, a series of self-transformations dedicated to the possibility that moving back to California and getting a service job—which, according to Jason, made sense, given my level of writing talent—was not my only option.

I became adversarial in everything I did. I joined a boxing gym for a few months and convinced everyone there that I had severe emotional problems when I’d stay late 3 times a week to hit the heavy bag like I was trying to kill it. No one wanted to train with me after I accidentally broke my partner’s ribs and put him in St. Patrick’s for a week. When I finally blew my left rotator cuff, I couldn’t lift my arm for a while and I didn’t bother going back. I was looking for answers, to what I wasn’t sure—to the meaning of life, to the key to my predicament.

My self-eulogizing grew progressively melodramatic and resentful.  I stood outside in lightning storms and took fifteen-hour walks through heavy snowfalls in which I could barely see, the sound of my breath in my ears. I tried Buddhism for a few days. I tried going back to the Catholicism I’d abandoned as a kid and wound up writing angry letters to Sister Carmel, my second grade teacher. I got a lot of mileage from Aurelius’ Meditations, Boethius, Nietzsche, and Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, but there weren’t any true answers—only fragments of answers, entertaining ideas, temporary escapes.

By the time Burt, in our late night Amvets bitch sessions, got around to talking about “the sheer meaningless shit of life,” I’d usually had enough liquor to start agreeing with him. It was as if by convincing me, he could convince himself. And, by convincing himself, he could finally abandon all hope, which was freeing.

But you don’t get free for long by abandoning all hope. Something brings you back. And you don’t get free from Wiccan fu or the Universal Law of Attraction, despite how much or how little of it you might have felt for a certain anthropology student who knew magic and manicures. She’d said she wanted to paint my nails purple.  Ah, purple nails.  What might have happened had I gone along with that?

Taking a short break this afternoon to post on my blog.  I know the scene I have to write today.  I know what has to happen in it.  I can even see it playing out in my mind.  So what’s the problem?  Maybe caffeine will help.  37°F and misty on the mountain today.  I won’t be up here for much longer.  Possibilities for the next move include England, Estonia, Indonesia.  In the States: Boston, NYC, D.C.  We’ll see what comes back over the water . . .

The novel is just about done. That means book manuscripts 2 and 3 will be going in the mail to small presses and contests sometime this year.  Then I ramp up work on the book dealing with gender performance and transhumanism.

Book 4, which will be my second novel, is already 80 pages into its first draft.  And so 2013 begins . . .

Winter was coming.  Now it’s here.  Not the snow, but the cold dark and the daylong mist that stays on top of this mountain around the clock.  I work on my novel for four hours every morning in a room large enough to hold a Fokker F-27.  I have a little space heater that warms the side of my leg.  Most days, I wear a blanket and a red watch cap to keep from trembling.

The long drive on a clear day.

It’s a nice place.  Enormous in every way.  Sparsely furnished.  In summer, if you’re quiet, you can hear the wind in the trees rise like surf.  My uncle had a Japanese architect build it for him in the early 80s.  My uncle went crazy in this house.  He’s still alive in a facility down in central California.  My cousin goes to see him and he thinks she’s my late aunt.

The house is situated near the top of the mountain but angled so that wind currents will naturally flow around it, creating an extra buffer of silence.  Sometimes, the coyotes on the other side of the hill yip for a while and their voices sound like dogs and babies laughing together.

I’m lucky to have this time between things, but I don’t suspect I will be staying here much longer—maybe a month, maybe less.  The regular occupants will be returning soon.  They’re oblivious (or try to be), but for me the ghosts of my aunt, my mother, and my grandmother stand in the doorways of every room.

My spiritualist aunt died of a brain tumor in the upstairs room where I’m sleeping.  She was a medium when she was alive, practiced automatic writing, channeling, held séances.  My grandmother read the candles, apple skins, could read a deck of playing cards and tell your future.  My mother could, too.

They all died in sad ways, not peacefully, not with dignity.  They were good people—hard-edged but also kind.  I miss them and all the old folks I knew as a kid.  They’re very much with me these days.  I see their faces in my mind’s eye.  I hear my mother and sometimes see her in my dreams.  But it’s nothing special.

If ghosts do exist, I hope I join them when it’s my time.  If they don’t exist, I hope I don’t, either.  It’s like that when the only family members you’ve got left are more interested in forgetting than remembering those who used to care for them.  Who’s going to remember the old folks if I don’t?  They were mechanics and housewives and small business owners.  The marks they made on this earth were slight.  And now they’re buried and gone.  It’s as if they never existed.  But I remember them all and think about them often.  I believe they existed for a reason.

So I’ll be going soon.  I don’t know where.  Somewhere interesting and meaningful, I hope.  Christmas is coming around again; though, I don’t much care for it.  It’s a holiday I could do without.  For the time being, I have an old chow to keep me company while I figure out the next thing.  I have my novel to finish and my online classes to teach.  And during the day, if it isn’t raining, I might go stand outside in my blanket and listen for some coyotes.

To myself, regarding death:

You are going to die.  You may not like to think about it, but it’s going to happen.  Maybe tomorrow.  Maybe in 50 years.  Who can say?  That’s the bit you can’t know (thankfully).  But you do know where you’re going to end up sooner or later.  You do realize how short 100 years are, don’t you?  You do realize how many people don’t even make it that far.

You are going to die.  Everything you loved and feared, all your petty remonstrances and trivial irritations will be dust.  Time will bury everything, wonderful and hateful, lies and truth.  And in a few short years after your death, it will be as though you never existed.  This alone should make you cling to every passing moment—no matter how monotonous or unpleasant—but you’re as dumb as a post, forgetful, myopic.  You don’t understand a thing.

You are going to die.  Yet you waste your days worrying about the opinions of others.  After you die, people will actively try to forget you—and will largely succeed—because you will remind them of their own mortality.  Even now while you are still alive, the only time people want to consider you or something connected to you is when it somehow makes them feel better about themselves.  How different will it be when you’re nothing but rotting meat?  At best, the thought of you will inspire grief and a sense of loss—at worst, revulsion, resentment, aversion.  No one will want to care.  Eventually people won’t take the time to speak your name—the word which used to stand for you but which now stands for nothing.

You are going to die.  Still, you waste time planning and striving as if worry and toil could add days to your life.  There is no life but the one you are living.  You don’t get more days.  You only get fewer.  And every moment spent enslaved to a meaningless job, a tyrant, an empty social obligation, an imaginary god, vain status seeking, or the quest for symbols of wealth / worth is an act of fraud against yourself.  The great herd trots into the slaughterhouse, worrying about tomorrow’s breakfast—never thinking that it will, in fact, be them.

You are going to die.  And until you realize it in your heart of hearts—until you embrace the specter of death and kiss its grinning skull and know and accept and understand that your time is painfully, stupidly short—you will not have begun to live.  Time will destroy everything but death.  There is no morality.  There are no obligations.  There are no commandments or requirements beyond this one realization.

A copy of a copy of a copy.  Chuck was right: when you can’t sleep for extended periods of time, you gain a certain distance, including on  yourself.  So I’m now on day 5 of 2-3 hours of sleep per night.  And I feel I’ve passed beyond the ability to keep myself going during the day with caffeine.  One would think that at some point, my body-mind would say enough is enough and shut down for 36-48 hours.  But that never happens.  Caffeine fasts, all sorts of drugs, 071203_coffeeexercise, self-hypnosis, primal scream therapy, Charlotte Brontë, warm milk with honey, deep trance, special Hungarian sleeping herbs, hoodoo, biofeedback, and studying Estonian grammar by candle light have all failed horribly.  I walk.  I talk.  I slither on my belly like a reptile.

Using a combination of theta wave brain entrainment and Zen meditation, I am usually able to simulate a near-sleep experience (kind of like being fully aware while floating in a featureless black void for a few hours), but nothing, nothing will put me to sleep for more than 3 hours during an insomniac episode.  No matter what I do, I know there will be some weeks where I work for up to 7 days without much down time.

I’ve been told it’s psychological, biological, social, psychosocial, biocultural, a spiritual malaise, a misalignment of Ajna and Anahata chakras, post-Catholic guilt, a sleep-onset phenomenon due to working late under bright lights, the vapors, the manifestation of damage to one of my subtle bodies, a futile attempt to compensate for lack of talent / intelligence by over-studying (thanks Dr. You-Know-Who-You-Are for leaving me with this one—you have a PhD, not a MD, by the way), or just my imagination.

In truth, the cause of my chronic insomnia remains a mystery, but I do understand its essential pattern.  It may be shortening my life; however, I have come to accept it for one reason: I do an immense amount of work at the beginning and middle of these episodes.  So this morning, I found myself on the street, my shoulder bag packed with the usual gear—iPhone, notebook, netbook, a few Euros for green tea, and a box of theI hate you, Charlotte! Pilot G-6 gel pens that I love.  Unfortunately, I’m not in the beginning or the middle of this episode.  I’m at the end where my brain turns to Tasty Wheat.  So I’m blogging instead of writing the real stuff.  So be it.  So it is.  Quod erat demonstrandum.

Because I’ve been feeling generally lousy lately and endowed with a double dose of the usual joy-killing pessimism that comes along with sleep deprivation, I’ve been avoiding all but the most essential human contact.  I’ve been editing, not composing.  I’ve been on a coffee hiatus.  And the goddamn moon has been waning.  So I can shake my fist at the heavens and scream, “Yea!  I know thee!” or I can be quiet and fulfill my responsibilities as a teacher, a writer, and when absolutely necessary, a friend.  I’ve found the latter course to be the most advisable.

All well and good.  I sound like I’ve got a handle on everything, don’t I?  Yes, I’m good at that.  They used to say my grandfather could sell ice-cream to an Eskimo, which, I believe, is exactly how he made his fortune.  My father taught English in college for almost 4 decades, sending wave after wave of humanities cannon fodder into the world to wait tables, cold call senior citizens about real estate possibilities, and dispatch garbage trucks on the graveyard shift.  And me?  My life is the eternal recurrence of the same with the dial set to the Kobayashi Maru scenario.  But then, I have an addictive, highly disciplined, yet somewhat abrasive personality.  (Lou, you don’t know where I’ve been).  Or so I’ve been told.

Ergo, I abrade.  Now it is 1:08 AM.  All is quiet.  The tv is running without sound and, as I am typing this wondering where the end of the post is hiding (my shirt front pocket?  the beautiful island of Saaremaa?), the screen shows a group of Bulgarian firefighters shooting water onto a burning roof.  Well, of course they are.  The flames are pretty.  I think I need to end this post and stare vacuously at that news loop until it’s time to stare vacuously at something else.  The good news is that when I get to this point, blessed sleep may not be far away.

Before I go, here are a few additional considerations:

  • “When Things Don’t Flow.”  A title that could suggest any number of possibilities.
  • What it is.  What it was. What the fuck. – Lounge singer I heard the other night: “He melts my boots off in every single scene.”  What does that actually mean?  The metaphor doesn’t stand up.  Neither does she.
  • A Baltic girl named Amber standing in front of Baltic Amber.
  • Girls climbing out of cellars surrounded by steam look like earth goddesses in the morning.
  • Tallinn is a magical place.  The cats and dogs are quiet and sinister, watching, waiting.
  • Bobitchki.
  • Fiat Voluntas Dei Anno 1603.  Every time I see something old and beautiful, this is inscribed above it.  Only the year changes.  And they say Estonia is not religious.

Or How I Got a Gypsy Blessing, Lost All My Money and Had it Returned to me, Lifted a Peugeot, Encountered a Catholic Folk Saint, and Caught a Girl Flying Through the Air Within Eight Standard Estonian Hours.

My grandmother used to say, “When you got it, give it.  When you don’t got it, don’t think about what you gave because it’s not healthy to hate yourself.”  I generally follow this advice.  In spite of all the people, things, countries, foods, religions, and family members my grandmother hated passionately on a regular basis, she was still a very decent, wise woman.  She just came from a world where spite was a virtue and holding a grudge for more than 20 years was considered a mark of character.

Like all the old Italians I knew as a kid, grandma did for others, sometimes without provocation.  You might get an orange as a Christmas present or a crate of oranges on your doorstep one morning for no reason at all.  That’s how the Italians living in central California were, how their parents and grandparents had been back home.  It’s how they’d translated their village life across the Atlantic.  Mess with them and you were in for a world of hurt.  But wave politely from your front porch a few times and say something nice to their kids, and one day they might refer to you as “okay”—which, in that culture, meant “nice guy / not an asshole.”  High praise.

If they had it, they gave it.  And they didn’t keep checking for the good fu to come back around like a golden boomerang.  They gave and then they went about their business.  And if you knocked on their door with the donation cup, they might toss something your way if they felt sorry for you.  But they’d inevitably make the observation that there’s always somebody somewhere who needs their back room swept.  You know?  Brooms are easy to come by, I hear.  I’m not (usually) that old school.  But I can say that I’d rather carry pipes in a shitfield than take someone’s charity.  And I think it has to do with spending every summer of my life up to age 18 around the old folks.  In fact, I can say this because I have carried pipes in a shitfield.

But pipes and shitfields were far from my mind when I woke up today.  It was a typical morning in what I’m learning to accept as the beginning of a standard Tallinn day: slightly overcast, a crowd of models in miniskirts waiting for the bus across the street, and behind them, behind a guy who looked like The Zohan in a hot pink sweat suit with a beard that zigzagged like a lightning bolt, a middle-aged couple ran through tango steps on the grass.  Yes.  At 7:15 on a Tuesday morning.  Tango practice.  When the bus came, they both ran and got on with all the rest.  I sipped my coffee, watched the whole thing, and smiled at the universe, thinking the same thing I’ve thought every morning since arriving in Estonia: I really like it here.  It’s a weird place to be sure, but gently so—everything cast in a quiet, self-amused sort of absurdity, as if to say: I fought for this cabbage.  Now I’ve got it.  It’s mine.  And guess what I’ve discovered?  It’s a cabbage. 

Like most Americans, I’m normally not that subtle.  Still, I had no idea that today would meet and exceed my personal standard for weirdness and improbable synchronicity.  Today, as Basil Ivan Rákóczi might say, was a painted caravan.  And, like most Americans 6-of-pentacleswho’ve read the tarot every morning for 30 years (more than you might think, Harry), I shuffled up my Hanson-Roberts and pulled a card.  Now, without getting too far into my theory of how the cards work (which is a book I’m currently writing), I can say that I believe divination systems, like good short stories, show us what we already know (and perhaps cannot face at the moment) and give us the opportunity to think about what we should be keeping in mind (that maybe we don’t want to think about).  So when I drew the 6 of Pentacles, after watching Tango at the Bus Stop, I wondered what the hell it could mean.

Of course, I knew what the card meant in itself.  When I give readings, I tell people that 6 is the tarot number of beauty, grace, and style.  The 6 in the Major Arcana of the tarot is the card of The Lovers, which is the abundance of The Empress magnified until Venus is so radiant, so present, that victory is the inevitable next step.  Translated into the suits of the Minor Arcana, the 6 brings that beauty and grace into more specialized elemental contexts.  So one way of translating the 6 of Pentacles from the symbolic language of the cards is to call it “the beauty of earthly concerns” because pentacles, as a suit, deals with earth, with materiality of all kinds.  In a more literal sense, it is often called the card of alms-giving, patronage, generosity.  Sitting in the window with my coffee and the first light rain of the day coming down, I had reason to question what sort of generosity I should have been keeping in mind.

It wasn’t long before the universe, in her usual gentle, relaxing way furnished the answer.  My wallet disappeared somewhere between a vanilla ice cream at Rimi and me dropping my daily .50€ into the cup of the old gypsy lady who gives me a blessing every morning.

Like grandma, I give it when I have it.  My mom used to call it, “paying your way.”  And that’s how I’ve always thought of it—paying your way on the street, on any street, means giving a little.  Only today, I gave with that image of the 6 of Pentacles in my thoughts.  The old woman in her black cloak straightened up, bowed to me in a very dignified way, as always, and made the sign of the cross over my head.  This morning, I decided to take her picture.  She didn’t seem to mind.

It was only several hours later that I discovered my wallet was missing.  I immediately began blaming myself, wondering whether it was the old woman or someone else or whether my credit cards were currently floating out to sea; turning my suitcases inside-out; cursing; vowing to never leave the house again; developing cruel theories about my upbringing and DNA that would explain this stupidity.  I have never lost a wallet.  Ever.  This is because I fear it like a fat boy fears P.E.

Trembling, vehement, cursing myself and all creation, I thought, 6 of Pentacles my ass.  I’m the one who needs some goddamn charity now, huh.  I spent most the day doing exactly what grandma always said was unhealthy: hating myself.  I was in a foreign country on limited funds (which probably had already been siphoned out of my bank account down to the last cent) and my dreamy drifting around Tallinn—thinking about short stories and tarot cards and birds and why we think we see pictures in clouds and wondering whether someone could walk in the exact same footsteps as someone else all around a city and what that would mean—had gotten me destitute and ashamed.

After going back to the market (“What?  Lost found?  Can you please again speak in Russian if no Estonian?”) and retracing my steps around town twice in the rain (“Mama, looka the man.  He all wet!”), I went home and did what every stupid person does in my situation.  I wrote to the US embassy:

Dear Duty Officer— I seem to have misplaced my wallet and will need to cancel my credit cards.  Can you advise me on how to obtain an emergency money wire from my bank in the States so I can set up a PO Box here in Tallinn?  I do not have a mailing address and will need one to receive replacement cards. Your advice is most appreciated.

I had to resist signing off with And, yes, I really am this stupid.  Two more hours of self-loathing and introspective angst ensued.  And then something very interesting happened.  I was about to go to bed and just consign myself to spiritual darkness, but I thought I should maybe check my email one last time.  Given my previous experiences with the US embassy in East Africa, I didn’t have high hopes that they would even write back to me.  But they had written back! In fact, they told me that an Estonian citizen had found my wallet and phoned them with his information.  Does this happen? 6 of Pentacles?  Talk to me, 6.  You can’t just be all “beauty of earthly concerns” and leave me hot and bothered with an address on Lootsi street in my hand and a Borgesian fable in my head.  Can you?  You bastard!

After calling and talking to the man’s grandson on the phone, I looked up his house on Google Maps and plotted a course.  I was actually quite close.  In 15 minutes, I was there.  The place was old and the top panes of the front windows were completely missing—a crumbling green bungalow in the same unpaved lot as an auto garage.  It had a rusted metal door and so much water damage on its front wooden steps that someone had laid a narrow strip of particleboard over them like a ramp.  Everything sagged with rain.  A diamond-shaped yellow sign had been nailed beside the window: Hoiduge Koer!, beware of dog.

After knocking and waiting and knocking again and waiting again, I began to wonder if this wasn’t some elaborate Estonian prank: unintelligent American drops wallet in the city center and is led on a merry chase while funds are siphoned and many beers are toasted to the goddess Schadenfreude.  But eventually someone did come—one of the mechanics from the garage: completely bald with a wicked scar laterally across his forehead and a tight, controlled smile.  He squinted at me and we began the laborious process of communication in broken German.

By the time I was holding up the Peugeot for him, I discovered he spoke perfect English and had perhaps feigned the broken German to get me to help him out—which I would have done anyway had he but asked.  There is something about someone grinning at you and saying Komm mit! Komm mit! that is entirely more persuasive than saying, “Look, I don’t know when the old man’s coming back home, but could you give me a hand in here?”

I came mit.  I gave a hand.  I even gave two hands.  The jack he was using to hold up a Peugeot hatchback looked like it had seen better days.  For that matter, so did the car.  He showed me that part of the jack had been crushed.  And I wondered, if the car could do that to the jack, how could he possibly expect me to lift it?  And would my spine look like the jack if I tried?

Stark,” he said and winked, doing imaginary bicep curls.  Yeah, right, I thought.  Stark but not Tony Stark.

Only after I was grunting and holding the rear fender of the car with both hands and thinking deep hernial thoughts did my new best friend say, “That fucking jack was bullshit, man.  You can let it down now.”

“Bullshit?  Bullshit?  You can speak fucking English?  Why didn’t you tell me?”

All I got was a bashful smile and another wink.  And I thought: it’s not that I’m stupid and gullible, I mean, I am those things, certainly, but it’s more that people don’t know how to ask for help.  If he would have only asked, I would have helped.  And then I thought of myself, broke in Montana one summer, working day labor so I wouldn’t have to ask my parents for money.  When I applied at the Ready Labor office in Missoula, the woman behind the desk asked me, “If someone said go plunge all the toilets, would you do it?”  “I guess I would,” I said, “if I were getting paid.”  She nodded and checked a box on the form.  Later that day was my first shitfield experience.  So maybe, provided certain exigencies of time and space had conspired to make me an Estonian auto mechanic instead of a pissed-off grad. student with an over-exaggerated sense of pride, I’d be the one fronting the broken German and some other fool would be holding up my Peugeot.

Still, he wasn’t a bad dude.  He helped me get ahold of the old man, who’d been called away suddenly (I never got an explanation) and was on his way back.  I sat in the auto garage beside the hatchback while the guy worked and told me all about how shitty Peugeots are.  He gave me a bottle of water and things weren’t so bad after that.  The rain made interesting noises on the corrugated metal roof.  And my new friend’s deep abiding disgust with all things Peugeot was a thing to behold.

When the old man arrived, he was like nothing I expected.  He stood about 6’6” in khakis, a white button-down, and a red beret.  He was extremely thin, and smoked a pipe.  His grip was so strong that, when we shook, I felt like he could lift me up that way.  I went into the bungalow behind him.  It looked as water damaged inside as it was on the outside.  The ceilings were falling in.  Everything inside was particle board.  And it occurred to me that this wasn’t where he lived.  It was an office or a workshop.  He was far too well-put-together to be living in a place where the top windows had been blown out and half of the living room was a puddle.

But specifics at that point didn’t matter.  All my money was in my wallet.  My credit cards.  My Communication Workers of America union card.  My 1st Gup membership  card in the United States Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan Federation—awarded to me in 1997 by the famous Tang Soo Do master Lloyd Francis which I have kept in my wallet everyday since then out of respect for that great teacher.  My drivers license. My House of Rice frequent diner card.  Everything that defines me.  Still there.  I would lift 10 crappy Peugeots for that.  I thanked him profusely.  And, after a few minutes of me grinning at him, he lit his pipe and I took my leave, still smiling.

Expedite1Could the day get any stranger?  Yes, yes it could.  Drifting home in an existential haze, trying to figure out what it all meant, I came across a slightly larger-than-life size statue of Saint Expedite completely made of marzipan in a glass case in the center of a mall.  If I’d had my camera, I would have taken a picture of that, too.  Suffice it to say, I was shocked because underneath the statue was the motto “Patron of Emergencies Lost Items, and Financial Needs.”  I stared until people started to give me funny looks, which granted, in Estonia, is not that long.  But still.  But still.

Yet stranger: almost home, a girl tripped and I caught her before she knocked her head against a concrete pole.  Good?  Saving the populace?  Lifting cars?  Interacting with marzipan Saints?  I’m Billy Dee Williams, son.

Now I’m home.  It’s late and I’m blogging this.  But somehow I don’t feel like I’m doing the day justice.  Every one of these experiences had enough emotional tender to merit a post all on its own.  And I would be dishonest if I said I didn’t feel a bit overstimulated.  So, okay 6, I think I understand by now.  I think I finally get it.  I can look over at my wallet on the table and say, I fought for this cabbage. Now I’ve got it. It’s mine. And guess what I’ve discovered?

Other times, it’s more like this:  

But today, it’s this: 

I love Tallinn.  It’s ancient and modern at the same time.  The people are cultured and willing to forgive me for being a stupid American.  In fact, an Estonian friend recently gave me the option of being an apprentice Estonian, which I took as a compliment—even though I am and will always be a child of Southern California.  Represent.

But after 14 hours of work—writing, teaching, promoting my business, applying to ESL instructor positions—I feel the need for a beer.  That’s good.  Estonia is deeply in love with beer of all kinds.  Unfortunately, the country is also deeply in love with rules—specifically, the rule that no beer is sold after 22:00 (that’s 10 PM for all you yank readers) in stores.  Alright, so the intrepid internet laborer who loses all sense of time must go to a bar if it’s 22:27, which it is.

Naturally, in moments like this, I invoke my Irish ancestry and pray to St. Patrick to leave me the fuck alone so Satan can find me the worst, most decadent drinking establishment in Tallinn.  I wind up drinking in St. Patrick’s pub in Old Town.  It’s okay—fairly standard Irish format with a jovial Irish manager slinging drinks and several nymph-like Estonian waitresses who don’t know how to make a half-and-half.  So okay.  I can handle that.  Guinness it is.

I drink my Guinness.  And I am content.  It is only after the third pint that I am approached by the poor man’s Cate Blanchett—tall, blonde, blue eyes, and post-apocalyptic survival instincts.  Apparently she is Russian because she says, “Do you speak Russian?” in an accent that can only be Russian.

“No,” I say, “I’m an American.”

“You are a beautiful American.”

“Yeah?”

“I would like a cocktail.”

“I voted for Obama.  I would like a cocktail.”

At which point, she makes a face at me and says, “Oh, you are not buying me a cocktail.  I’m sure you are used to fat disgusting monsters in America.”

I laugh at this for at least 15 minutes.  Then I dance by myself amid several married, middle-aged Estonians while a Rod Stewart lookalike sings “I Just Called to Say I love You” with a drum machine and a Peavey 6-string.

Have I mentioned that I love it here?

She takes a new position on the other side of the pub and shoots me a lot of nasty looks while I finish my drinks.  I want to say, it’s okay.  You should go to the States.  And you will find a wonderful guy with a spray-on tan and gold chains who will buy you cocktails.  But I don’t say anything.

  1. Take your AK-47 out to the street and hold it up with both hands.  Glare at everyone passing by.
  2. Go to the flower market.  Buy several plastic bags of ground nuts.  Shuffle back and forth outside the T-2000, the Chinese convenience store, while eating said nuts.  Glare at everyone passing by.
  3. Open a fresh box of grenades in a vacant lot.  Let the kids play catch with the dummies.  Those are the ones with the red plastic tabs on them.  Aren’t they?
  4. Mumble bad French to the aged, syphilitic Belgian who runs the only café with internet.  Get seated immediately and order something in a bottle.  Try to connect to the internet for 2 hours.  Fail to connect.  Glare at everyone in the café.  Realize it was a bottle refilled from the tap.  Go home and vomit for 6 hours.
  5. Take a walk in the public gardens.  Witness people healthier than you with better attitudes and better immune systems.  Go home and glare at yourself in the mirror.
  6. Go to bed early, vowing to sleep in.  Wake up an hour later with a giant cockroach in your hair.  Scream for a while.  Drink heavily with all the lights on in your house until dawn.  Produce a 15-page handwritten short story that you cannot understand the next day.
  7. Talk to the house guard.  Learn how to say “good evening” in Kirundi.  Come away feeling that you’ve finally met one of the best people alive today.
  8. Attend a Marine Corps pig roast at the US Embassy.  Come away feeling that you’ve finally met some of the worst people alive today.  Decide that they aren’t really alive after all.
  9. Visit Rwanda.  Return with a suitcase packed as follows: 1 jar boric acid; 1 pack candles; 1 pack cockroach glue traps; 3 40oz bottles of Primus Lager; 5 bars “Genital Wash” brand lavender soap; 3 cartons mosquito-repelling citronella incense; 1 small bird carved out of white stone; 1 bullwhip; 1 Chinese good luck medallion for Year of the Ox covered in red foil.  Pour boric acid around baseboards by candlelight.  Set up glue traps on kitchen countertop.  Light some of the incense.  Put bullwhip on nightstand outside the bed’s mosquito netting.  Drink the beer. Wake up the next day and realize you did it all wrong and lit one of the curtains on fire.  What happened to the medallion?  Bad luck.
  10. Sit in the living room, trying to train a mustard-yellow gecko to fetch a piece of grass.  Do this for hours.  Conclude that the gecko is actually training you to throw the piece of grass and fetch it.  Wonder about the hidden world of geckos.

June Bujumbura 023

Blue Hills

The city of Kigali is built on a series of ridges, with the geography mirroring the relative affluence of the city’s districts.  Downtown, which is in the center of the city (whOutlying District of Kigali from the Airere I’m sitting as I write this), is on one of the higher ridges (about 5k feet above sea level).  Mt. Kigali looms blue-brown in the distance and can be seen from most of the nicer neighborhoods.  The poor, shanty-like areas down between the ridges show the breadth of economic stratification here.  Still, it’s a pleasant place to be after the dust and entropy of Bujumbura.  The espresso is drinkable, which is a tremendous plus.

It’s raining today.  So instead of walking around like a muzungu fool, bothering people and taking pictures, I’ve found a quiet corner in an upstairs café where there is a great view of the distant hills.  In spite of its horrific history, Rwanda seems—at least in my Suburban Kigalioutsider’s perspective—to have worked hard on recovering.  The sense one gets in Kigali is similar to the nicer areas of Tijuana.  Yes, the streets are sometimes unpaved or broken; yes, the cars smell bad and the crows are noisy; but, all these urban characteristics are relative.  I imagine even the highest-maintenance North Americans, would find Kigali pleasant much of the time.

I’m enjoying my few days here before I return to Bujumbura.  And I can only hope that the political situation here does not degenerate.  People here, like people anywhere, are trying to lead their lives in peace, trying for something a little bit better.  Let it continue.

The four ridges of Kigali.

Me back under the mosquito netting.  It’s dawn and I am considering crowing back at the rooster next door.  How does one curse in rooster?  Let’s just say I look remarkably calm after my first bacteriological dark night of the soulThat restaurant is permanently off my list.  And I do feel emotionally stronger having survived.  Yes.  Whatever doesn’t kill me . . .

Snapshot_20120613_1

Leaving the country is a lot like dying.  At least, this is how people act when they learn that your destination will be a place where the dominant skin color isn’t white.  As soon as you say you’re going, friends and family, even soon-to-be former co-workers, begin to mourn.  And eventually you stop telling people about your destination because it only accelerates the grieving process.

It’s true: you might be going away for a long time, maybe for good.  Still, it’s not the length of time that makes you seem terminally ill to your friends.  It’s the destination.  Your friends have all seen the same Hollywood films, the same highly mediated news footage, listened to the same spots on NPR that depict the countries of Africa as chaotic pits of destruction.

Stereotypical assumptions that go back at least as far as the 18th century suddenly begin to emerge in your friends, who are otherwise intelligent and sensitive people.  Won’t you get a disease?  Don’t they have insects there bigger than small dogs?  Dirt floors?  Burning cars?  Dusty jeeps full of angry, heavily armed young men rolling through the streets?  One in every six people dying of some kind of retrovirus?  Beheadings?  The tattoo of distant ritual drums in the night?  No Wi-Fi?

Such questions run on ignorance like the worst hearsay-fourth-hand impressions founded largely on the unkind fictions that necessarily emerge when vast economic and geographic distances stand between cultures.  It’s as if your friends stop hearing themselves, stop seeing (if they ever did) that such concerns are veiled only by an inherent legacy of racism that seeks to remain invisible at all times beneath worries about health, safety, and cultural backwardness.

In your last week at work, Jim pulls you aside and says, “Don’t bullshit me.  You own a vest?”

“A vest?”

“You know.  Kevlar.  For the bullets.  Travelers can get them now.”

The bullets.  The bullets constantly flying through the air between the disease-ridden mosquitos and crazed death threats.

“Got a Koran?” he says.  “Seriously.  You haven’t thought of this?  Where’ve you been?  Put it in your carry-on.”

“It’s a predominately Catholic country, Jim.”

Jim looks at you with a wide-eyed concern, his lower lip quivering.  “I heard it’s hell on earth.”

“Really?  Where, exactly, did you hear this?”

“What happened to you?” Jim says.  “Normal people just do Xanax and a therapist.  They don’t run off to Africa.”

You decide that your friends have also read the same books about death and loss.  Everybody seems to understand that the denial phase is supposed to follow the bargaining phase for the terminally ill.  And when you say positive things about “that place,” you’re obviously in denial.

You receive emails with subject lines like, We’ll Remember You Fondly and Concerned But That’s Life, Right?  The mother of an ex from long ago sends you flowers with no card, just a wreath.  People start unburdening themselves, explaining, clearing the air, making their peace.  Several of them may have taken Xanax beforehand.

Nearly all of them mean well.  Nearly all of them are uninformed and strangely proud of it.  Yes, there are dangerous elements on that continent.  Yes, you must take anti-malarials and get vaccinated for Yellow Fever and Typhoid.  Yes, there is a history of abject poverty and political instability of some of the countries through which you will travel.  And yes, most of these elements can be found elsewhere in the world as well.  But never in such lethal concentrations, goes the objection.  When you reference the malaria problems in Alaska, the glories of south central Los Angeles, or the entire catastrophe of Detroit, most objections of this sort stop.

The mundane logistics of going take up all your time, all your emotional energy, and you catch yourself thinking that maybe Sarah from admin is being extra passive-aggressive today.  Then you realize: no, she’s just composing a potential eulogy, envisioning how she’ll redecorate your office as soon as you depart, as soon as you’re departed, dearly.

People wonder out loud if you’ve learned the language at your age, which is inconceivable since everyone knows only children can learn new languages and certainly not full-grown Americans who’ve lost their virginity, paid taxes, and had full-time jobs.  You tell them you will be able to get by at first with what you’ve learned from Rosetta Stone and that you’re not worried about it because you’re a quick study with languages.  No one believes you.  They shake their heads in dismay or nod condescendingly: you are either crazy, stupid, naïve, or a secret genius-which they have already decided is the least likely option.

Instead, they ask about the hospitals, whether, you know, germ theory is understood by the “native doctors.”  Those still capable of politeness take a more circumspect approach: This is so fascinating.  Now, is western medicine very present there? You tell them that people drop dead on the street for no apparent reason, that the local hospitals practice leeching and diagnose through spirit communication.  Everyone nods.  That’s what they thought.

As JFK drops away beneath the plane, you listen to the hiss of the cabin air, the hydraulics of the landing gear being retracted.  There are four connections and twenty-seven hours of flight time ahead of you.  When you land in Bujumbura, Burundi, you will have moved one day into the future.  You start a new page in your journal with this line: There is no way to truly know a thing unless you live it.  Then you close the journal.  The rest of the page will have to remain blank for the time being.

006

(or Why Robert Downey Jr. Owns the Role of Tony Stark and You Are Not Worthy)

1. Alien Slave Planet

Once, long ago, I had the misfortune of riding in a truck being driven at high speeds by a drunk PE teacher.  We were in the mountains.  His name was Dick.  We’d just spent three days at a beginning of the year retreat where the administrators of the high school frowned and grinned and perspired in front of us like survivors of an airstrike.  The food was bad; they ran out of coffee the second morning; and the team building exercises were run as if they’d been designed by a New Age Stalin.  We played a lot of group games that weekend and fell in love with each other all over again.

But not everyone could withstand Pictionary and “3 Things You Didn’t Know About Your Partner” at that level of intensity while metabolizing all the usual faculty venom.  Part of me admired Dick for tippling a pint of whiskey at the back of the room throughout that last day.  He seemed closer in spirit to the students than the teachers most of the time.  He drove like a student, too.

“What I don’t get,” he said, “is this continued credit bs.”  We hit a turn and, because the truck had no seat belts, I was able to enjoy a second of antigravity.

When I caught my breath, I said, “Well, if they pay us to go back to school, that’s good, right?”

We caught air from a bump and then went through another curve without slowing.  “Useless.  They should be paying us for all the extra crap we already have to do just to keep the job.  That’s where the money should go.”

He wasn’t necessarily wrong.  We all worked unrecognized overtime and were constantly reminded that although positive suggestions were always welcome, complaints would be dealt with severely.  It seemed that what Dick was saying could be construed as a complaint.  His red ball cap was ratty and he chain smoked.  He owned a variety of nylon windbreakers that he must have bought all at once.  I liked him, but I thought that he might have been working at the high school a little too long.

“Shouldn’t we like learning?” I asked.  “I mean, isn’t that the whole point?”

Dick glanced at me with a crafty expression on his face.  “Shit, Mike, I got my degree.  I’m done learning.”

That’s when it happened.  ZANG!  All the stained glass windows in all the churches of the world shattered simultaneously.  The ears of babies started bleeding.  Stars went dark.  The dead walked the earth once more.  And enormous diseased birds of prey circled above us, knowing that it wouldn’t be long now.  The end was nigh.

2. Hustle: on

At the time, I might have been young enough to feel horrified that one of my colleagues would say such a thing.  But I was also old enough to know that I was seeing something unvarnished, something real in the way Dick seemed to think he’d put all that learning behind him.  I have never forgotten that moment even if, in my memory, Dick wears his ball cap on sideways and I hold onto the handle above the passenger side with both hands for most of the ride.  Done learning?  Done?  Really?  I remember thinking: doesn’t that mean you’re done with life?  But I didn’t say it.  Instead, I concentrated on shielding the truck with my mind whenever Dick swerved too close to the trees by the the road.

There are so many problems with the idea of being “done learning” that I don’t know where to begin.  Sure, we can just roll our eyes and dismiss Dick as ignorant.  In many ways, he embodied the negative stereotype of the high school PE coach.  He spent most of his time in the small mobile trailer on the upper field that functioned as an office and a storage shed for equipment.  At faculty meetings or when he was commanded to sub a class, he had a certain air of bitterness–a displaced person now forced by tyrannical inhuman masters to spend time in an alien culture he despised.  He was a lost soul.

But let’s forget about whether he’s still out there somewhere screaming at adolescent boys to “Hustle!” or whether he had a shot too many one night and decided his truck could fly.  If we get past the superficial reading of my anecdote about Dick, we can look at his attitude about learning as a crystallization of a disturbing trend in US culture that’s hard to stomach if you believe anything good about education: the concept of the “knowledge marketplace” as legitimate and desirable commodification of learning.

In “The Challenge of the Knowledge Marketplace: How Will the Land-Grant System Compete?” the American Distance Education Consortium Panel (ADEC) offers the following definition:

One way of looking at the knowledge marketplace is through the three basic building blocks of communication and education – knowledge, data, and information. In our current environment, when knowledge (broad-based understanding) is combined with data (specific bits of information), information with significant value is created. This process invades all facets of our lives, from buying products, to making decisions about investments, to remaining competitive in our professions. Educational opportunities occur when potential learners – people who have a need or desire for new information – gain access to that information at a time and place they need it.

As someone who earned an interdisciplinary IT / business masters online through distance learning, I can say with a certain degree of first hand authority that this is exactly how learning takes place in such programs.  Knowledge, data, and information are treated as items that can be delimited and placed on a metric.  They must be treated this way in order to be delivered and evaluated meaningfully in an online format.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.  As Sarah Churchwell points out in “The Internet: is it changing the way we think?“, “Knowledge is not the same thing as information, and there is no question to my mind that the access to raw information provided by the internet is unparalleled and democratising.”  And the accessibility of distance learning means that this democratization extends to those who would be otherwise unable to go to school.  That’s important and its one of the great virtues of distance learning.

Unfortunately, the great drawback is that by interpreting learning in the marketplace language of deliverables and skill sets, we have shifted the emphasis away from the process of philosophically motivated inquiry.  Instead, we are moving towards a static model in which students “signal their traditional academic attainment and continued non-institutional learning by aggregating these accomplishments into a meaningful and dynamic profile” (ThinkStache).  In other words, it is possible to be done learning if you have the requisite number of notches on your belt or bullet points on your resume.  This horrifies me even though I believe that distance learning is viable and important and needs to exist.

3. Yukkuri hanashite, kudasai!

So I’ve started learning Japanese and I’m starting to see that it’s one of the coolest things I’ve undertaken in my life.  I am horrible at it.  I can’t remember any of the Kanji yet.  And I essentially know nothing.  But so what?  This isn’t the knowledge marketplace and I’m not done learning.  So when will I be fluent?  Everyone asks me this.  I tell them I have no idea.

You’ll excuse me if I quote Nathaniel Branden at this point.  He’s one of Ayn Rand’s homies.  I know, I know, but this is one of the good passages:

Observe, in this connection, the widespread phenomenon of men who are old by the time they are thirty. These are men who, having in effect concluded that they have “thought enough,” drift on the diminishing momentum of their past effort—and wonder what happened to their fire and energy, and why they are dimly anxious, and why their existence seems so desolately impoverished, and why they feel themselves sinking into some nameless abyss—and never identify the fact that, in abandoning the will to think, one abandons the will to live.  (116)

And why, when they have to leave their office on the upper field and sit through 50 minutes of sophomore biology they feel lost and abandoned in the vastness of space.  Branden is making an important point about learning: it’s a process of growth intrinsic to life.  Every creative artist knows this.  There is never a point at which you can step back and declare that you have arrived.  You’re always-already arriving.  To think only in terms of static qualities–deliverables, commodities that can be acquired for future display purposes–is to embrace intellectual death.

I will not ever be fluent in Japanese.  I will always be pursuing fluency.  In this, I avoid an “existence [that] seems so desolately impoverished.”  Don’t we all want to do this–to grow and become more than what we were?  I suspect that even Dick might have agreed with me had I put it to him like this.

4. Enter: the Tony

This is also why I loved The Avengers just as much as I’ve loved the Iron Man films.  More than any other “driven billionaire playboy superhero” type Tony Stark is almost Discordian in his genius–chattering, obnoxious, manic, constantly worrying away at some problem even if he had to create it just to give himself something to do.  And Robert Downey Jr. plays him brilliantly, gives him levels and a sense of roundness.

Tony

He’s a synthesis of Sherlock Holmes, Seth Godin, and Errol Flynn on speed.  Downey shows us that Stark knows he’s smart enough to get away with it before you say something unduly nasty.  So I think these simple superhero action films aren’t actually that simple.  Rather, they’re complex in ways that run contrary to the prevailing theme of intellectual stagnation twisting its way into the Academy from military-industrial complex.

I’m less interested in laser beams and hideous alien invaders from the 24th-and-a-half dimension as I am in the American public being presented with an image of brilliance that doesn’t function in terms of deliverables.  This is ironic because Stark is supposed to be an uber-scientist-inventor.  His entire shtick depends on a fancy exoskeleton and how it can keep him alive.  But Stark comes across as someone who would be doing amazing things even if he had no money and no lab and no super-suit that can save the world in 50 explosions.

Moreover, in The Avengers, Joss Wheedon stays true to the way Marvel Comics has always treated scientists, professors, and artists–as superheroes in their own way.  Stan Lee, in particular, has always shown a great degree of respect for any kind of creativity.  And this has always come through in the comics and in the Marvel movies, even the mediocre ones.  We should thank both of them because everyone knows an artillery barrage will always mean box office revenue.

Maybe this time, it’s less about money and more about story, which is to say, more about people, process, narrative arc.  Maybe someone’s inner transformational arc is more interesting than the arc of a bullet.  It’s something that comic writers have been thinking about since The Amazing Spider-Man came out in the early 1960s: what if we made the superheroes less monolithic and more human?  Well, what if?  And if we choose to make them flawed yet brilliant, emotionally complex yet open to an existential dimension in human life, what then?

Tony Stark is never going to say he’s done learning.  That’s what.

Studying

Works Cited and Referenced:

Branden, Nathaniel and Ayn Rand.  “The Divine Right of Stagnation.”  The Virtue of Selfishness: a New Concept of Egoism.  New York: Signet, 1964.  Print.

Naughton, John.  “The internet: is it changing the way we think?”  The Guardian.  14 August 2010.  Web.  15 May 2012.

The Avengers.  Dir. Joss Wheedon.  Paramount, 2012.  Film.

“The Challenge of the Knowledge Marketplace: How Will the Land-Grant System Compete?”  ADEC. 29 June 1998.  Web.  15 May  2012.

The Discordian Society.  Principia Discordia, 2012.  Web.  15 May 2012.

ThinkStache.  HASTAC, 2011.  Web.  15 May 2012.

Note: You can thank me now for not naming this post, “Getting Past Dick.”

Note: Pictures related to Marvel are used without permission in my little blog post that no one will care about. Plus, I have no money.  And I really, really liked The Avengers.  So please be gentle.  If you really want me to delete the images, I will.  Then I will cry.

I needed an old-fashioned set of fingerprints made.  So I drove down to Fresno from Yosemite to be printed.  I spent 45 minutes reading an ancient People in the LiveScan office–a small reception area that looked like it had been designed for a dentist.  Eventually, Faye the Fingerprint Girl came out with a clipboard and called my name.  She took me down a long gray hallway to her office.  She had tiny sailing ships glued upright on her long blue nails.  The nails also had waves drawn on them.

“I like your nails,” I said.

“Oh.  Thanks.”  She blushed, turned in place to set the fingerprint card on its base.  Faye was 22, maybe 23.  She was very thin and had bone-straight black hair in a middle part.  The name tag on her blouse said Faye Your LiveScan Print Technician.  Her jeans had elastic across the back.  Who under the age of 45 wears jeans with elastic across the back?

Fresno, I said to myself.  Fresno does.

She started rolling the fingers of my right hand on the ink card.  But then she took a big step back and looked at me.  “Nobody does ink anymore.  What did you say you needed this for?”

“I’m going to Japan.”

“Riiiight.”  She laughed, rolled her eyes.

“Really?” I asked.

“No shit,” she said.  “But that’s unprofessional of me.”

I had no idea what we’d just communicated to each other.

Her office was in disarray.  Crumpled papers.  Stacks of three-ring binders.  Overflowing trash can.  Vertical blinds half turned.  Motes of dust hung in bands of late afternoon light.  Faye smelled like the enamel paints I used on models as a kid.

“Next hand,” she said.  I gave her my left and watched the sailing ships work while the humidifier on her desk sighed.  It was shaped like a fish jumping out of the water with pursed lips.  A little column of steam shot up between them, went soosh.

“You know, I’ve always wanted to try that.”

“Try it?  Japan?”

“Being unprofessional,” Faye said. “But yeah.  If that’s what you want to call it.  I need your thumbs.”

She aligned my thumbs beside each other on the ink pad and on the card.  Then she slid the card off the base and framed it for me with her hands, making a decorative gesture across the bottom edge and saying, “Voilà.”

“Thank you.”  I felt lightheaded from the vaccinations I’d had earlier.  I held onto the edge of her desk.

The fish sighed.  Faye looked at me. “Sorry I got you dirty.”

“It’s just ink.”

She laughed and nodded like the ink was now our private joke.

“Can I have the card, Faye?”

“Only if you really want it,” she said.

I said I did.  Then I went out and sat in my car for a while, rolled down the window, and looked at the clouds.

Welcome . . .

I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

This blog is mostly dedicated to writing about politics and media, travel essays, creative non-fiction, discussions about books, the MFA experience, publishing, and work I’ve already placed in magazines. But I might write anything.

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To educate is to seek meaning in everything. It is to teach others to seek the meaning of things. This means mixing the dreams of children and young people with the experience of adults and the elderly. This exchange must always take place, or else there can be no humanity because there would be no roots, no history, no promise, no growth, and no prophecy.

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend time in prison for it myself.

— Vladimir Bukovsky

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If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery—isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

La lecture est un acte d’identification, les sentiments exprimés sont déjà en nous. Autrement, le livre nous tombe des mains.

— Madeleine Chapsal