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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.westtradereview.com/

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

It was raining outside.

The Kingdom, Fuminori Nakamura (trans. Kalau Almony)

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

And, right then, so did I.

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

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

“You’re gonna stop calling me Percival.”

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

“What, you wanna go living a lie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two vacuum salesmen to my right were still grinning.

“Tough night, pal?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need to get home to my wife.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I might have had it once.”

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

“I’ll make it.”

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

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

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

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

Better: what do I need?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

She okay?”

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

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

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

You never ask if I’m okay.”

Darius takes her pulse.

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

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

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

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

Don’t mind if I have a few as well?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiya.” She winks.

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

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

You’re here with—Darius?”

Can I have some coffee?”

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

Are you always here?”

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

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

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

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

Me? You’re here for me?”

Ah, no.” She turns toward the window.

Oh. For her.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey. Look, she’s still not awake.”

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

Then his voice: “What?”

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

Stop wondering.”

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

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

On days I can’t bear to walk outside, I think I might need a doctor or at least a prescription. Marion hasn’t bothered to leave me the address of the convention center; though, she knows I was looking forward to going with her and seeing all the new toys from around the world. Likewise, I can’t summon the massive energy it will take to find this out for myself, go there, and explain that I’m with her. Instead, I choose to sit in the white leather chair for an indeterminate length of time.

Same old silence. I haven’t spoken to my parents in what seems like a decade. Might be. I don’t think any of us are counting. Then there’s my sister, Linda, who I call maybe every other year. The few college friends I had back in Los Angeles—what, two? three?—never responded to my emails after I dropped out. Radio silence. Global silence. Silence to the end of the universe.

When I met Marion two years ago, I went from a one-room efficiency in North Hollywood to chrome and white leather. Still, I don’t get a thrill when I think about my bank account anymore. And really, I don’t need to think about it at all because I don’t have to spend any of the money. If I want something, I tell Darius or just order it with Marion’s credit card. Everything is available, all the time. The only thing I have to do is stay in shape and deal with black oceans of silence between the times I spend with Marion. Eventually, I know the plane will crash. Impact. Screaming. The water rushing in. Somewhere, there are statistics on this.

I go down six floors to the gym, which is deserted, and work every muscle group until my body hurts. Then I run five miles on the treadmill as the poisons I’ve consumed leech out in my sweat, which has lately begun to take on a hint of cheap floral perfume. It’s something I’m eating. Some plane food never meant to be digested by hominids. I tell myself: less fruit, more bread. More bread is nearly always the solution. That’s life wisdom, my son—deep knowledge from college. I look at the red digits on the treadmill, at the news loop playing on the flat screen, and try not to think.

Los Angeles, before. Living 45 minutes away from Linda—before she met Ad Exec Larry and cashed out, moved to Seattle, got a Lexus, had a kid for all the wrong reasons, decided that pursuing a career as a graphic designer was, well, stupid. But at least she graduated from Saddleback Community down in the OC. Most of the students there look like Justin Bieber after a scrub down. The girls have blonde hair down to their asses. Everyone dresses well. Everyone there seems to be waiting for the universe to tell them they’re sexy. You might see some tats and that pigpen student with a weight problem who’s on the wrong meds in the eighth year of his two-year degree. But he’ll be rare. A lot of great hairdressers come out of Saddleback. Highly articulate waiters. Telecommunications specialists. Hotel management professionals. I’m not passing judgment. It’s more than I’ve done.

The day I interviewed to be Marion’s personal assistant, I did not attend O-Chem and Literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Linda drove me over to the temporary office at Irvine Spectrum in her black and brown Acura Legend. She’d been laying out at Huntington Beach and she smelled like coconuts, her skin a perfect creamy brown. Her hair had tiny waves in it. Green contacts. Black bikini with cut-off Daisy Dukes. A four-year-old boob job that seemed to be holding up well. Even among the beautiful people, my sister had the Command to Look, always confident, in the zone.

The volume is all the way down on the flat screen. It’s set in the middle of the floor-to-ceiling gym window. A window in a window. While you exercise, you can stare at Shibuya or at the news or at the news-as-Shibuya. There’s a section on the Tokyo Toy Show. Marion in her navy business suit with pearls. Darius’ shoulder at the edge of the picture. I close my eyes and listen to my footfalls on the treadmill, counting steps the way I sometimes do.

You’ve got this,” Linda said, when we pulled into the lot, sharp midday sun glaring white on all the windshields.

I shook my head. “I don’t even know what a personal assistant does.”

Linda’s smile was a sunburst and I wondered how we could share the same DNA. “Doesn’t matter,” she said. “People are all the same.”

The great world spins and I dream. Marion’s prescription sleeping meds. No safer than any other thing in her narcotic arsenal. But the world can spin. Let it. Depressed after a day of working out in silence, white leather furniture, and Japanese television, I take her little green pills at random just to see what will happen. And then I’m floating in the black ocean. Nothing but wind, water, the fixed incomprehensible stars, the cold machinery of night. I know this is a dream, what they call a lucid dream, the kind you’re supposed to be able to control. But I’m not flying over Everest or visiting the rings of Saturn. There’s only me in the wind and waves, the constellations I don’t know.

I wake up, bedroom spinning. I’m making out with Marion in the dark, my hands on her body, hers on mine. We’re breathing hard and I’m half on top of her. But I can still feel the ocean on my skin. For the briefest moment above the bed, there is no ceiling. I look up at the pinlight stars, cruel and endless in the night sky. It should feel strange that my body is trying to have sex while my mind is elsewhere. But nothing is strange anymore. She opens her legs and I’m fully on top of her, moving against her, but my cock is limp and I’m thinking about plane crashes and drowning and the possibility of gravity failing, such that I float up from the 25th floor of La Maison Shibuya past the moon, and no amount of trying is going to get me hard at that point.

Marion pushes me off, turns her back to me. Would you believe me if I told you that I fell in love with her at a time when I should have been taking road trips with friends and getting my anthro requirement out of the way? I roll in the opposite direction and vomit quickly, painfully over the edge of the bed. The last of the floral whatever that I think probably came from the Hello Kitty Gin I got from a vending machine comes up like acid stripping the flesh off my throat. Then I’m on my back again and the ceiling has returned but everything’s still spinning. It takes me a full minute to realize Marion is moaning. The Girl from Mister Lo has her face between Marion’s legs. I close my eyes.

The windows in the condo are already polarized. The sun is already up. Marion’s gone and the bedroom smells like sex. It’s not a bad smell. My eyelids make a tiny pop when I blink. My eyes were so crusted shut that they could make a popping sound. Amazing. Was I crying again in my sleep? Still dizzy, I make my way carefully into Marion’s bathroom, where her various business suits are draped over the chrome vanity table, her white silk blouses crumpled in little mounds on the floor. Her jewelry case is old-fashioned, belonged to her grandmother, looks like a small powder-blue suitcase from the 1930s with fold-out mother-of-pearl trays. I put my face under the faucet and let the water run across my cheek, down my neck, thinking of how Marion’s life used to seem like an incredibly fascinating archaeological dig, layer upon layer of detail, history, meaning, pain. She wasn’t like the few girlfriends I’d had in college—into nail art and taking their shirts off at concerts. Marion had depth and she had heart and sometimes there were little things, like the jewelry case, which reminded me the she was different, thoughtful. Now the first thought I have when I see the folded-out trays with their little square compartments is that the thing looks like a tackle box.

In the living room, the Girl from Mister Lo is wearing a purple velour two-piece track suit with the monogram of La Maison Shibuya in gold thread on the left front. She’s unzipped the top to between her breasts and it’s clear she isn’t wearing anything underneath. Even though I saw her naked last night, going down on Marion, that triangle of pale skin makes me look away.

Hi.” She turns down the volume. It’s some kind of sketch comedy show with a laugh track and sound effects. The Girl from Mister Lo glances at me, then back at the show and laughs. “It’s so funny. Have you seen this? It’s called Silent Library. They have to be quiet or they get punished.” The comedians can’t be quiet. One eats noisy potato chips. Another has a digital watch that beeps and he doesn’t know how to turn it off. Close-ups on their worried expressions. Sweat beaded on their foreheads. Canned laughter off screen.

Cool.”

She looks at me, then back at the show, then turns it off. “Okay. Want to go do something?” She’s smiling. Pretty almond eyes. Whitened teeth.

Do something?”

Her smile fades. “I’m sorry. She told me to be here when she comes back.”

Her name is Marion.”

Yes.” Serious now. She nods once and looks down to the side. “Marion.”

What’s your name?”

Akina.”

Fuck you, Akina.” I walk into the bathroom and turn on the shower. When I come out, naked and dripping, thinking I should apologize, she’s gone.

When Marion returns, it’s like a spatial anomaly. She isn’t there. Then she is. And she materializes without ceremony, without even being noticeable. I come out of the bedroom and I’m shocked to see her standing in the kitchen, dressed in a conservative dark green business suit with matching earrings. She’s eating a croissant and reading the Arts page of the Asahi Shimbun.

“Shouldn’t you be making friends and influencing people at the expo?”

Marion doesn’t look up. I repeat myself to be sure that she heard me and is actually ignoring me.

She chews, swallows, folds the back page.

“Marion.”

“Yes?” she asks without looking up.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Don’t you have some drugs to be doing or some cynical little story to be writing?”

“Drugs? You’re pissed that I’m doing your drugs?”

Marion gives me an icy smile, and walks into the bedroom. I hear the lock click.

“Wait a second,” I say through the door.

Nothing. Then the sound of the shower.

“Hold on a second, goddammit.” I pound on the door, but it’s a good one. Solid. “You can’t just take a shower on me.” I pound some more.

My hand hurts, but I beat on the door until some invisible arbiter on a celestial throne hears and acknowledges my right to be pissed off—the ghost-satrap of all sad self-righteous cases betrayed and accused by their women. Because Marion is that to me. Right?

What about last night, huh? What about Akina?”

The shower goes off and the condo is silent again. I know she can hear me. The door might be fancy but the walls are paper-thin.

I look in the fridge for booze but find only a half-empty, expired carton of milk. So I make another coffee with the space-age bullet machine and stare at the city some more. I should be feeling anxious and, on some level, I guess I am. But in my front brain—the place I should be resolving things and drawing conclusions—I’m slow. I’m sipping a sour latte while I stare dumbly at science-fiction Shibuya ward in all its gray majesty. I’m not thinking or feeling very much. I wonder if it’s like this for people about to suffer horribly—a moment of free fall before the impact.

I don’t speak Japanese. I tried once, took an online class, stuck with it for a few months. But, like most things in my life . . . . I guess I can say Hello. Goodbye. Where is the bathroom? Can I have a crepe for my spotted dog? The crepe thing because it was in the tiny course booklet they sent in the mail. Marion and I had a good laugh about that one. I’d text it to her during the day. And she’d text back something funny. But you can’t retell an inside joke. It’s pointless. I wonder what she’d do if I texted it to her now. We haven’t had a good conversation since before we left L.A.

It’s afternoon on the third day of the Toy Show, but it feels like I’ve been here for weeks. I put on jeans and a T-shirt from my suitcase, find a pinstriped button-down still folded in its cellophane wrapper in one of the closets. Instead of the train, I get a taxi to Shinjuku, where I buy pink doughnuts. I sit and eat them by a koi pond in front of a store that sells console video games and luck cats with their paws waving up and down. Green plastic irises. Clown grins. Golden aliens come to our world in the shape of small pudgy cats. Twenty sets of dead eyes stare at me through the glass. I can’t look at them.

I think of texting Marion, even calling her, though I know she won’t answer. Strange how this feels, all the pressure that seems built up around her, how the prospect of just having another conversation with her makes me nervous. This, even though I was in bed with her last night, even though, at some point, I started to think of her as my girlfriend—as absurd as the term may be when applied to a 54-year-old woman.

The koi are enormous, gliding slowly around the artificial pond made to look something like a tide pool. Foreigners have thrown coins in the water. I make out a few US quarters, some British pence, others less recognizable, maybe Korean. There had to be a point where those koi were having yet another languid, liquid day and suddenly warped grinning giants were tossing pieces of metal all around them. Koi stress. What passes for a bad day in the pond of the universe. Watching the koi—before I can talk myself out of it—I take out my phone and call Marion.

Darius answers. “Don’t call this number.”

Where is she?”

He hangs up.

What the fuck!” I scream it so loudly and suddenly that an old man in a suit drops his briefcase on the sidewalk. He picks it up, gives me a disapproving look, and wags his finger. “Bad,” he says.

I call back but it goes straight to voice mail. The man continues down the sidewalk. I’m bad. The alien cats grin and wave. Don’t grin at me, you ghastly fuckers.

The toy expo is at the main convention center called Tokyo Big Sight. “Sight” might be a play on words or a mistake that no one caught in time. Its other name, the one you see on the maps, is the Tokyo International Exhibition Center, situated right on the bay.

The structure itself resembles a square of four inverted pyramids, their tips extending to the ground in great oblong columns, all of it covered in shiny titanium, a New Age Egyptophile mothership. Right now, it’s probably full to the ceiling with grinning luck cats, paws waving, eyes glittering.

These are the things that stand out to me here, things that emanate from some pure, ancient, eternal soul-energy but have to bubble up through Tokyo’s various shales of politeness and hardpan conservatism to the caliche where all good people have to linger and smile and pretend beneath a gigantic Hello Kitty sign. When I think about it, Tokyo is perfect for the toy industry, being a simulation of something an emperor once dreamed. But it’s out of control now, electrified, nuclear, pulsing, grinning, waiting for you to arrive at the toy mothership so it can do a dance and take off into the impossible future.

But I don’t go where I haven’t been invited. And maybe I just feel like hell. That old man was right when he wagged his finger at me. Son, you got a problem. Instead of the old man, I keep seeing the Captain from Cool Hand Luke saying this to me. My father loved that movie. He owned it and, whenever he’d watch it, he’d quote the Captain as if I were Luke. What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate. I grew up hearing that line.

The dogs on this street are either huge or tiny and they’re all accessorized with rhinestones, steel fetish spikes, tiny gold paw pendants hanging below their jowls. But the teenage girls prefer kittens. Three girls in black hoodies covered with patches walk past, each holding a different-colored cat. The patches are unicorns, explosions, One Direction, Taylor Swift’s face bigger than a dinner plate in the center of one girl’s back. Someone somewhere—probably in Tokyo—has that as a tattoo and is proud of it and can never go home again.

And whenever I think of why I left home the way I did—why I started at a Cal State L.A., near my sister but never going back to visit my parents in Palos Verdes; all the shitty jobs I took that had nothing to do with finance or anything remotely associated with my father’s world; why I decided I would never get married or have children of my own; and how I’ve never been interested in acquiring the various status symbols necessary for becoming a puffed-up self-important asshole like him—I think of that part where the Captain says, You gonna get used to wearing them chains after a while, Luke. Don’t you never stop listening to them clinking. Because here I am with a woman almost my father’s age, who, I guess, doesn’t love me and never did, who texts me while I’m staring into the koi pond: Dinner tomorrow night. Buy a suit. Don’t get high.

I have the Louis Vuitton three-piece I brought with me. What she means is: buy a better suit. And “don’t get high” just means I’ll need to be in stealth mode all night—not her boyfriend (or whatever I may be). I’ll be back in personal assistant mode. I have a very thin herculon shoulder bag with an iPad in it for this. I think I’ve turned the iPad on twice. I don’t really know how to use it. But stealth mode means dignitaries or the veiny cadavers who rise from their crypts every year for the occasion of her husband’s birthday. His name is Bob. Technically, Bob still owns the company. But, after five strokes, his leadership has declined somewhat. They roll him out about once a year so everyone can see him waving from one of the factory balconies: His Holiness Bob, Pope of the Toys.

Maybe I’m sick of pretending. Maybe I’d better watch my back whenever Darius is around and I’m standing near a window. Them chains. I text her back: Thanks for being so real. You complete me. And then maybe I have a small sobbing breakdown, making the nearby Japanese foot traffic highly uncomfortable for the two seconds it takes to pass through my area of effect. I don’t want to live on this planet anymore. I want to fly up past the stars. Crash in the black ocean. Swim with the koi.

Small breakdowns” sounds like a Japanese reality show: you fail to be silent in the library. Then they do horrible things to you or maybe you just feel horrible and they film it. You sit by a koi pond and cry in the middle of the day; they film the fish reacting to your tears; someone off-screen is laughing; there are sound effects; you’ve served your purpose. Just like in the States or 37, 000 feet above the Pacific Ocean at night, nothing comes without some kind of price. Everything is a transaction, even hard-to-appraise human things like friendship or trust. You think money can’t buy you love, but you’re wrong about that. In most ways, it can. I get back on the Tokyo no Chikatetsu and think: I have no family to speak of, nothing ahead of me. My only friend in Tokyo is Reymund Torneau the Saucier, but I know Reymund won’t remember me.

Despondent after my small breakdown, I ride the train as it threads its way through the Tokyo sprawl, urban blocks of the city center, traffic tunnels, suburbs. Tochomae. Yotsuya. Takadanobaba. Station after station. Billboard anime sexbots holding persimmons. Robot crane garages. Tiny parks with cherry trees. Whitewashed Buddhist shrines trimmed in gold. Bronze statues of statesmen and gods. Everything that can be plugged in, is. Not all of Tokyo is electrified, just most of it—Akihabara Electric Town passing in a profusion of crackling signs, pulsing neon, particolored light and glass even in the middle of the day. It’s a red-green blur when the train accelerates. High-voltage pea soup.

So, my best and only friend, Reymund the Saucier. He, too, is electric. And though he will not remember me, at least I remember him. His small storefront cafe, Merveilleux Goûts, sells French sauces in fancy glass jars. フランスの ソース, Furansu no so-su, on every label, even on the Cajun hot sauce. Reymund is French. Therefore, all of his so-su must be Furansu. I step off the train at Nishi Station in Toshima. And, after a short stroll, I’m there—a little bit of Furansu on a gray street opposite a baseball field.

Since my last visit, two vending machines have been installed on the sidewalk to the right of the shop. One sells scarves. The other, dog whistles. Things you might need in France. And to the left of Merveilleux Goûts, a spotless, empty Kentucky Fried Chicken, the employees leaning, snapping rags at each other. The street itself looks dirtier, older, and grayer than I remember. Almost like something you’d see in Hamtramck or Scranton. Not so Japanese looking. I might convince myself I’m back home as long as I don’t look down past the parked cars to the vanishing point, where circuit-board highrises, thinner and more imposing than anything in the States, push into the sky. But where’s home? Tell me. I want to know.

Merveilleux Goûts is crowded. I walk in and take a seat at the counter, which is like the counter in an American diner—only everything, even the cutlery, is white. Reymund and his three Japanese assistants work as quickly as chefs in a four-star restaurant. And they look the part in their dress whites and straight Careme 50-pleat hats. Reymund paces the open kitchen, barking orders in Japanese while cooking multiple things in multiple locations. His assistants frown, concentrating intensely. It’s fascinating to watch, a malicious ballet that uses misery to produce excellent food. Merveilleux Goûts offers a brasserie menu with 15 different kinds of sauces, any of which can be sampled from small tasting bowls. Along the left side of the dining room, there are shelves of plastic dome containers filled with various entrees, pastries, even a rabbit ragout with pappardelle, all with a small container of appropriate so-su, Reymund’s specialty.

A young girl, who could be working for Mister Lo, but who is instead serving excellent European misery food, walks up with a small white plastic tray. Fair skin. Shoulder-length hair with a salon curl. On her tray there are tiny sauce cups. People are encouraged to take a miniature spoon from one of the dispensers located along the counter and have a taste. A man in a double-breasted Chinese suit beside me does exactly that, makes an appreciative sound and bows to the girl, who bows in return. When she comes up to me, I wave her off.

Reymund looks right at me without recognition, as expected. We met at a lunch with Marion, Darius, a translator, and two Korean businessmen who owned a corporation that made self-assembling toy robots—toys that essentially played with themselves, removing the human element. The whole time, Marion and Darius traded racist jokes about Koreans, while the translator composed statements that seemed possibly neutral and pleasant.

We ate in one of the rooms above Merveilleux Goûts, and all of it was served to us by Reymund personally. Though, at the time, I couldn’t figure out whether he and Marion were friends or whether he secretly despised her and was serving her due to some arcane geis placed on him through a business connection that he had to honor or else. Knowing Marion, I suspect the latter. But I can remember holding the first decent human conversation I’d had in months with Reymund downstairs at the doorway to his kitchen, while everyone upstairs was still eating. The man was capable of cracking jokes while delivering extremely hostile drill-sergeant commands to his underlings. He was a brilliant kitchen schizophrenic, and he had me laughing in spite of myself. Reymund seemed to understand why I lingered down there instead of returning immediately from the restroom.

But today clouds of steam billow in the open kitchen as he commands his forces with a degree of irritation one only sees in kitchens of fancy restaurants or in potential crime scenes. I half-stand and wave when he glances into the dining area, only to see him turn, lift up a bowl of what could be custard but which is probably something far more exotic, and toss it unceremoniously to one of his assistants, a young Japanese man with a terror-stricken look on his face. The assistant bows and runs through a side door. I sit at the counter in Merveilleux Goûts for 90 minutes. In that time, I taste seven different kinds of gravy with seven different miniature spoons.

Eventually, the young girl returns but without the tray. She says something in Japanese that I barely understand. I think she’s asking me what I’m doing there—but in a roundabout way, like, can she help me, one way or another, find what I’m seeking or find the exit.

You can’t help me,” I say. “Anata wa watashi o tasukeru koto wa dekimasen. I do not need assistance.” Or maybe what I say is that I’m beyond help.

She looks at me as if I just said I have a terminal disease, then offers a tight insincere smile, bows, and walks away. She cannot help me. I do not need assistance. I am beyond help.

Out on the street, the sky is overcast. It’s cold. December weather. The front page of the Asahi Shimbun tumbles down the gray sidewalk. The drivers in cars notice me as they pass. But they are perhaps less surprised than they would be in a ward that isn’t as international as Toshima. Still, I am a gaijin. I am a Russian in the synagogue. These little circuits of supposed European high culture overdone with French names and ridiculous marketing cannot help me.

Instead of going directly back to the train station, I decide to walk for a while in the general direction of Shibuya. Looking into the faces of people driving by, I think of my one true friend in Tokyo, who no longer remembers me or who perhaps no longer wishes to. Watashi wa watashi no hanten inu no tame no kurēpu o motsu koto ga dekimasu ka. Can I have a crepe for my spotted dog? No, evidently I can’t.

So the great world spins. I get off at Kōrakuen Station and walk past Tokyo Dome. Five stark white gulls jerk into flight from a mirror-still puddle in front of the entry gate. Traffic crawls down Sotobori-dori. People on the sidewalk open umbrellas and look down as they go by. I stare at an iron manhole covered with writing I can’t understand. A wooden truck carrying street food backfires like a muffled fart. And, for a moment, my perceptual field widens enough that I become aware of everything moving around me at once. Variables in an enormous equation that has nothing to do with me.

I have attained perfect invisibility, a stone in the river. I’m not completely cognizant of where I’m headed, but when I arrive at my destination, it seems that I may have subconsciously intended this route all along. Tokyo Blue Light. A private club in Bunkyō Ward, open all the time. We stopped here that day after having lunch at Reymund’s. Of course, by the time we arrived, we were incredibly high. But I still remember. Bamboo everywhere. A whole forest of it. Low carved tables and furniture. Purple twilight from recessed blue and red ceiling lights. Add cigarette and hookah smoke and the club is disrecognized, de-timed, a non-place gone fully sideways from the traffic out on the sidewalk streaming past its blue-frosted windows. This is where I go.

Greeted at the door by a geisha in an electric blue kimono. S/he runs Marion’s Platinum MasterCard for the ¥120,000 cover. I leave my shoes on a black steel shelf by the door. Then through the black-carpeted bamboo forest to plush cushions by an ebony table inlaid with mother-of-pearl kanji. I suspect all the “geishas” here are men, but there is no way to be sure. The girls in short skirts come later, with hookahs, booze, whatever else. I sit down on the cushion and the geisha host/ess towers above me, expression unreadable behind thick white makeup. Two very thin young men dressed in black pants and button downs bring a bottle of shochu on ice and two glasses, a silver box of the Tekel cigarettes Marion likes, crystal ash trays, a heavy silver lighter.

When the host/ess ran the card, Marion’s information must have come up. That or the geisha has an eidetic memory. It could be either, both, something else. Is it necessary to understand why things happen? Following the plan from last time means there will probably be Jack Daniels and a mirror for Marion’s cocaine. There will be a girl for her and one for me, both fluent in English and willing to sit very close and find everything fascinating.

But today, when they come—two stunning Chinese girls with glazed smiles, their hair in glossy braids—I wave them off. They pivot and disappear just as easily as they came. And then it’s soft voices in Arabic somewhere off in the bamboo forest to my right, a mist of hookah smoke drifting in, and those twin red and blue suns high above. The bourbon arrives when I finish the shochu and I start to feel a little better. I smoke cigarette after cigarette, give my bourbon a jolt from the heavy glass soda bottle they brought with it, and listen to clipped Japanese mix with the Arabic. This is better than humanity—sitting in the purple light, getting displaced. I’d move into Tokyo Blue Light if it were a hotel. Sadly, the best I can do today (tonight?) is ¥80,000 bottles of liquor and high tar.

With Jack Daniels, I want to talk to someone other than myself. But the wait staff is giving me my privacy and, what, I should call Darius? I do call the number he said I’m never supposed to call, Marion’s, about 20 times, clicking off every time it goes to voice mail, which happens immediately from the second time I call to the 20th. Then I call the time in Porterville, California, the town my high school girlfriend was from. 13 digits. At the tone, the time will be 3:16 A.M. Thank you. Then I call my sister in Seattle.

She drops the phone, picks it up, says, “Uh, hello?”

You weren’t sleeping, were you?”

Who is this?” The TV in the background is turned up so loud that it hurts my ear through the phone, CNN, going to an ad.

It’s Charles. You can’t tell my voice anymore?”

Charlie? Oh my god.” The sound of a door muffles the TV one degree. The sound of a second door muffles it again.

Where are you?”

Hold on.” The noise gets softer until it sounds like a normal TV in the next room. “I’m in the closet.”

In your bedroom?”

Yeah. The shoe section. It’s a big closet.”

Guess I should see it someday.”

She doesn’t say anything. The CNN anchor is talking about Michael Jordan starting a foundation for newborns with bicephalous mutations. I imagine Linda sitting in a room full of shoes.

What’s with the TV?”

I just keep it on, like, for noise. I don’t sleep.”

What about Sunny?”

Michael Jordan’s spokesman is a father whose two-headed son is now 12 years old and doing fine. And a malfunctioning drone carrying military armaments on a test flight outside the Camp Pendleton Marine Base, demolished a segment of Interstate 5, resulting in four civilian deaths. Caltrans is clearing the wreckage. Updates as the situation develops.

Sunny . . . she’s with Larry’s mom in Pittsburgh.”

In fucking Pennsylvania? Jesus Christ, Linda. Where’s Larry?”

The sound of a lighter. She coughs for a full minute. The Lakers still have a shot at second place.

I don’t know.” She laughs. The controversial new cookbook smuggled out of Afghanistan has sold more copies than any cookbook in history. “He hates it when I smoke near his shoes.”

Smoking, Linda? Really? I’m in Japan. Want to come out here for a while? I’ll buy you a ticket, have a car come get you. It would be good, right?”

I don’t know. I’m kind of busy. I’ve got a lot . . . going on. But thanks.”

I miss you.”

I hear her exhale smoke. There’s an ad for some drug in the background. Ask your doctor if it’s right for you.

Bye, Charlie. Take care.”

I look up at the twin suns, light another cigarette of my own, and listen to the emptiness on the other end of the line. I’ve never actually met my niece, Sunny, but I have seen pictures. I think I’ve got one somewhere in my luggage. Or I did at one point.

The plan is to finish the bottle of Jack and stagger through the warped streets of Bunkyō Ward around the Dome. But after talking to my sister and thinking about my niece getting shipped off to Pittsburgh and what that probably means, I get lost in the bamboo forest and the geisha host/ess has to lead me to the door. After Tokyo Blue Light, the evening outside seems bright, lights on the stadium, the fan of a small fountain illuminated behind a courtyard gate, the gentle swoosh of cars down Tōkyō-to. My phone tells me it’s 8:10 PM. I’m drunk. If I adopted my niece, where would I take her? The thought of Marion and me as parents is alien enough to make me laugh out loud when I step back on the Chikatetsu. It’s empty, which is good.

It has occurred to me that maybe I protest too much. There are starving people, broke-ass people, guys who fantasize about situations just like mine. But I wanted something else. The elevator on the outside of La Maison Shibuya is made of glass. Riding up to the 25th floor, I get the grand view of Tokyo at night, pinlight helicopter comets moving through glowing constellations, pale blue banks of office windows floating in the dark below HITACHI, REMBRANDT HOTEL, エレクトリックラブ, FUDO MYO LTD. The new gods of this age, their names glowing pridefully in the darkness.

By the time I open the door to Marion’s place, I’m half-sober again. I have an anxious thought that maybe my key card won’t work, that I should have stayed closer to home. But then the light and air-conditioning hit me and I see Akina and Darius have set up an all-white Ping-Pong table in the center of the leather, silver, and glass living room. Even a ping pong table must be stylish and integrated.

I stand in the doorway with my hands in my pockets and watch them play, wishing I was still drunk. Akina is in pale blue negligée. She’s laughing. Darius has camouflage sweatpants beneath his long-sleeved dress shirt, his conservative red tie loosened but still in place. Marion sits in one of the white leather chairs, texting on her phone, three empty martini glasses by her foot. She’s wearing a pair of men’s blue cargo shorts, one of Darius’ Chang Beer T-shirts, and she seems to have gotten tanner since I last saw her. But none of it matters. Not even the fleeting thought that she might be sleeping with Darius, too. Maybe we’re all just a traveling harem for Marion, who—let’s be real for a moment—would never, could never be my girlfriend. The term seems as ridiculous as that Chang Beer T-shirt, something that doesn’t fit with a woman like her. Pearls, yes. T-shirts and cargo shorts and a college dropout going nowhere, hardly. This. This is my life.

A rolling steel bar cart has been positioned near the kitchen area. A middle-aged Japanese man in a tuxedo stands behind it, polishing glasses, pretending not to look at anything. The ping pong ball caroms off Akina’s shoulder and hits the bartender in the forehead. He doesn’t react and neither Akina nor Darius apologizes or even acknowledges his presence. She scoops the ball off the carpet and they continue.

Hello?”

Darius has some kind of fancy reverse grip on his ping pong paddle and he looks like he knows what he’s doing, which in itself is bizarre, his laughing adding to the strangeness. He serves. He jumps up like a professional and returns, red tie flapping. Akina also seems quite good. A full ping pong tournament is going on in the suite. Apparently, this makes everything hilarious.

Hello?” No one looks at me. Not even the bartender.

Marion stops texting and takes a call. “Oh, hi, Daisuke.”

I knock on the door jamb and think: this is my door, too. So why am I knocking? “Hello?”

No, we can do the plushy line and the macro fitting at the same time. It won’t be a problem.”

Darius misses a return and Akina yells, “Yatta!” Then she poses, winking and giving him a thumbs up. Darius bows from the waist and they both start laughing again.

I’m absolutely serious,” Marion says. “Really. I love it.” She drums four fingers on her knee. Her knee is so tan and smooth that the light gleams on her skin and I notice it all the way across the room.

Ready!” Darius serves the ball and I watch them hit it back and forth until he scores another point.

Darius,” I say, but he won’t turn around. I’m still standing in the doorway. I look down at my scuffed black shoes. The tips are exactly perpendicular to the edge of the beige neoprene shag carpet. It’s supposed to feel like fabric, clean itself, and never get threadbare. But going barefoot on it makes me think of AstroTurf and lousy nylon carpets in small insurance offices.

Akina serves. The bartender smiles at me from across the room, no doubt wondering who I am, why I don’t come in.

Darius.”

Marion lowers the phone and says to the bartender: “I’ll have a Captain Seven.” The bartender smiles, nods.

Ha!” Darius with an overhand smash. The ball hits the table, goes well over Akina’s outstretched paddle, and bounces off Marion’s shoulder.

That’s why I already approved them.” Marion’s still on the phone. She smiles at the carpet.

Darius.”

The bartender walks five feet to Marion and presents her drink on a silver tray. She takes it, stands and, phone to her ear, walks in the bedroom shutting the door behind her.

Akina holds up the ping pong ball and smirks. “Backspin!” She serves the ball and Darius grunts, jumping to the side just in time to return it.

I drift in, forgetting to take off my shoes before stepping on the neoprene. I could be floating. Whether from exhaustion, drinks, too many Tekels, or emotion, I’m out of phase. I settle into Marion’s seat, staring at Akina’s back as it twists in her blue negligée—a pale inner skin that will eventually slide free in Marion’s bedroom. The white leather still holds Marion’s warmth and I can feel it through my pants. I know that warmth well and I consider, for a brief moment, how things could get better. But Akina makes another return and yells, “Yatta!” I think of how warmth fades over time. In the end, there’s just this cold leather.

I’m so lost in my self-pity that I don’t notice Darius standing over me.

Take your shoes off.”

I look down at my shoes. They’re scuffed. There’s a thin line of gray mud along the outside edge of the right one. The left one is about to come untied. And I think: when was the last time I bought shoes? I mean, in a proper way, going to a shoe store and trying on a few pairs—not simply giving specifications to some grinning flunky who comes back with eight different pairs. How distanced have I become from anything real? What is this space I’ve entered?

Your shoes. Take them off.” Darius is sweating. The top of his bald head glistens. He has a damp spot on his tie, which I suddenly realize is some kind of crested college tie from the U.K.

Did you go to college in England?”

He kicks my foot. “Show some respect. Now.”

Cambridge? Oxford?”

Then he hits me with the ping pong paddle and Akina starts screaming. The paddle is relatively light, but the wood is solid and Darius has a good angle on me. He holds the blade of the paddle in his hand and drives the edge into the corner of my eye. I try to stand up but he hits me again and I land back in the seat. The front of my powder-blue button down is speckled with blood after the third hit and I’m having trouble seeing out of my left eye. I want to get up, tackle him or something, fight back. But that’s the thing about being hit repeatedly, savagely, by a large man using the edge of a wooden ping pong paddle as a wedge to open up the side of your face—it takes your energy.

Darius sniffs and says, “Now take your shoes off.” But when I don’t do anything, he just shakes his head and walks out, around the ping pong table, still holding the bloody paddle.

I spit out a tooth, which I guess means he also hit me in the mouth. And it seems the region of my brain that controls pain has shut a lot of it down—the left side of my face feels like it’s had an injection of concrete. And my hands shake on the armrests, even though I’m not using my hands for anything in particular at the moment. I also seem to have pissed myself.

Akina and the bartender have run away. I’m sure there’s something wrong with me because, when I try to stand up, I have no sense of how long I’ve been sitting there, staring at the white regulation ping pong table with its stark green sidelines. It takes me years to rise from the seat and move to the closed bedroom door. When I try the handle, it’s locked.

Marion?” Speaking is difficult. Only the right side of my mouth moves and I’m still bleeding onto my chest, creating a long dark slick of blood like something out of a horror movie.

No answer.

I knock again. “For chrissakes, Marion, open the door. I’m hurt.”

The living room looks like a crime scene—because it is. I leave a bloody palm print on the bedroom door, bloody smears on the armrests of the white leather chair. My two suitcases stand inside the front door. I remember pushing them into Marion’s bedroom. I guess someone removed them—probably Darius; though, at this point, any of my dear friends here could have believably done it. By the time I step onto the glass elevator with my luggage, I’ve recovered enough to see through the red film coating my left eye. I try not to lean against the chrome railing. Someone will immediately have to scurry around with a spray bottle and a rag, and I can’t bear to think of it being my blood that they have to clean. A strange thought, all things considered.

The janitor at Hiroo Hospital is kind enough to bring some paper towels. We wipe the blood off my suitcase handles and he disinfects everything with an antibacterial gel. 20 people watch this in silence from a bank of plastic seats. When I emerge with 13 miniature staples in my face, the sun is coming up. My taxi driver is waiting by the curb. He asks me in perfect English if I need to go back to where he picked me up. I say no. “Kūkō ni watashi o toru.” Take me to the airport.

I’m sitting on a steel bench in the airport, looking up at a screen showing arrivals and departures. To my left: a duty free shop featuring bottles of Johnny Walker under a heavy copper sign that reads, House of Walker. To my right: the moldy wall, carpeted all the way up to the ceiling in blue and pink argyle. I haven’t bought a ticket. I’m having trouble concentrating and my face aches like it wants to give birth.

In the cab, I texted the forbidden number: I’m leaving. My other suitcase has some things I actually want. I’ll send you an address. After 30 minutes of staring at the flight times on the screen, my phone beeps. Marion.

Charlie. Where are you? I’ll send a car.”

I’m leaving.”

You can’t. We have dinner. It’s all set. I need you here.”

A fat gaijin in a Hawaiian shirt and a suede Australian bush hat walks out of the duty free shop, stops, and looks at me for a moment.

I ordered you a suit. It’s really nice.”

Marion,” I’m saying, “Marion. Listen to me. I’m—burned out.”

The fat man whistles. “Hey. What happened to you? You need medical?”

I turn toward the wall.

If this is about the thing with Darius, I already talked to him.”

Yeah? The thing with Darius? I’ve got 13 staples in my face.”

We’ll fix it,” she says. “We can overcome this.”

I turn back and see the fat man already far away, walking toward the departure gates, his bright red Hawaiian shirt a tiny lick of flame.

No,” I whisper. “We can’t.”

Charlie? You still there? Can you hear me?”

14 hours later, I step off the plane at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. It’s the middle of the night. I slept most of the way, high on the pain pills for my face, and now I’m on a different planet. St. Louis was the soonest departing flight to the States. I have no other reason for coming here. Within an hour, I have a room at the enormous empty Hilton downtown. I go out on the balcony and look at the glowing blue-green pool 20 floors below.

In the distance, headlights float past an illuminated fountain that reminds me of the one in Yoyogi Park. I can’t imagine what Marion is doing, who she’s with, whether any of this even matters to her. I can’t imagine where I’ll be tomorrow, what I’ll be doing. The bottom lights of a plane turn against the sky. I start a cigarette, leave the balcony door open, switch off the lamp by the bed. Then I lie down with an ash tray so I can watch the planes take off.

 

“Anyway, I think if we route the grant money into the primary fund we’ll be alright. Actually, we’ll be more than alright as long as we don’t spend another dime before fall.” Merton Swinn, the English department’s most recent acquisition, took a measured sip of brandy without blinking or looking away from Van Adler, the department chair.

Van Adler sighed and stared into the mouth of his empty beer bottle. His suit jacket was wrinkled and his feet already hurt. He’d been at the faculty party now for 45 minutes—15 minutes more than he normally preferred to spend at these things. But sometimes escape was impossible. He wished, above all else, that he were at home having a bath while his wife, Myra, blasted the Late Show downstairs in the den and laughed out loud.

He tried to smile at Swinn, but the effort felt unnatural. Lately he’d caught himself grimacing even when he was not upset, as if his face had become perpetually fixed in a transition between dismay and rage. Moreover, his hands ached horribly. Van Adler could no longer ignore the arthritis that had announced itself two semesters before and now visited him regularly with sudden jolts of pain from wrists to fingertips.

Van Adler looked at Swinn, who was starting to purse his lips, and said, “Right. But how will we account for the fact that we now have only seven tenure-track lines? Are you recommending that we forego the new one opening up? Missouri mandates at least eight full-timers in an academic department.”

Swinn’s eyes darted to Van Adler’s face, down to his brandy, over the crowd of graduate students and professors, and then to the carpet. “Well,” he said, “is that so monstrous in a recession? We have the adjuncts. And we’re not being evaluated for another two years. Who’ll complain?” He was a short, compact man who wore heavy multi-colored sweaters and round rimless glasses. At age 35, Swinn was already balding with a wispy tonsure of blonde over his ears. His eyes moved with his thoughts, which were quick and numerous.

Swinn’s dissertation at Rutgers, which he’d published shortly before being hired by Hauberk College, had been a study correlating the rise of the novel with the expansion of private leisure space in middle class English homes. Everyone on the hiring committee had agreed that it was inoffensive and at least mildly interesting. But for an expert on the literature of leisure, he seemed rather consistently ill at ease. Which was understandable, thought Van Adler, seeing that Swinn did not yet have tenure.

Van Adler sighed, shook his head, and again tried to smile. “Do you want a riot, my friend? We’ve announced the position. There’s no un-announcing it. The part-timers are already massing like flies.”

“That’s another thing,” Swinn said, following Van Adler’s gaze around the room. “We have 32 adjuncts. With a distance learning component in place, we could do with about half that.”

Swinn put his empty snifter down on the piano behind him. It was a baby Mason and Hamlin and it, along with the rest of the two-story Victorian townhouse, belonged to Juliette Lezerski’s, the department’s resident medievalist. She’d held her graduate classes in Chaucer and the bi-annual departmental get together in her large sitting room for over 30 years. Most of the furnishings in the house were historically accurate to mid-nineteenth-century Missouri, except for the piano, which Juliette tuned herself and otherwise kept in a state of factory perfection. She also played beautifully and, being slightly deaf, very loudly—always a miraculous respite at these functions. Van Adler turned, but didn’t see her. He wished Juliette would come over and start playing right now.

“There is something to be said for departmental morale, Merton. How many composition classes would you like to teach?”

“I’m teaching three at the moment.” Swinn crossed his arms, then caught himself and relaxed, clasping his hands at waist level like a boy heading to communion. Then he also smiled. Van Adler thought Swinn did a better job at smiling; though, Swinn’s eyes stayed level and his smile was nervous and tight in the bottom half of his face.

Van Adler could remember being like that years ago (before tenure), practicing a “warm, humane yet humble” smile in the mirror when Myra wasn’t around. It was something he eventually programmed into himself to an exact degree as if he’d carved it out of wood. And he held that wooden smile in reserve for those unforeseeable moments when true feeling threatened to rise and lay waste to his carefully sculpted professional image.

But that was years ago. Times were different when Van Adler had been a young assistant professor, teaching four to five sections a semester and spending the weekends writing in the humanities research library. There’d been 16 full-time lines back then and only a handful of adjuncts. Still, he’d served on more committees than he could easily count. This was his second and thankfully final term as department chair, since he planned to retire in two or three years. And Van Adler felt he had nothing left to prove to anyone. In fact, he was thinking of buying a boat.

“I know how hard you’re working.” He patted Swinn lightly on the shoulder. “And everyone thinks you’re doing a really fantastic job.”

Swinn raised his eyebrows, a flicker of anxiety and contempt in his face. Then the smile returned. “Well, thank you, Jim. It’s only been a year, but I already feel at home.”

“That’s great, Merton. That’s just what we want.” Van Adler flexed his left hand. He felt a hideous electric current dig into his knuckles and shoot down his fingers. He supposed it was time to take Doctor Whitehurst up on that prescription. He didn’t want to. It felt like giving in, like he’d lost. But maybe this kind of pain meant he already had. That’s how it was with everything, he thought. You didn’t know what you’d lost until it was gone and then your only recourse was to numb yourself and wait for the next catastrophe, the next unavoidable disappointment.

When Swinn left to get another brandy, Van Adler saw an opening. There was a small servant’s door in the pantry where a housekeeper could discreetly bring in supplies without disturbing anyone in the other parts of the house. And the door between the sitting room and the dining room had been propped open, revealing a straight unobstructed shot into the kitchen. Such moments of grace were few and far between. He felt that it would be the essence of hubris, an affront to all the gods of fortune, if he didn’t capitalize on the opportunity. No one would blame him for cutting out after an hour of fielding meaningless pleasantries and enduring Merton Swinn’s considerable angst.

And he was almost successful. He shuffled around the baby grand slowly, keeping his gaze on the fringe of Juliette’s authentic Boston Sego Bicentennial piano rug. There was a technique to fleeing a party: one walked easily yet quickly, avoiding all eye-contact, stepping cautiously as if barefoot in a room of scorpions. One kept a Zen mind, blank and empty, and did not congratulate oneself until safely in the car and away. Such was the discipline. But Sheila Barnhof-Canterbury emerged from across the sitting room at the last moment, sealing off his route to the kitchen and the pantry. Sheila was an adjunct with two kids and a husband who was out of work, and she radiated desperation in the best of times. When she saw Van Adler, her eyes lit up and he knew there would be no escape.

“Oh Jim! How wonderful to see you. Did you get my emails?”

“I’m sure I did, Sheila, but you’ll have to excuse me. I’m on my way—.”

“That’s fantastic. Then you know I’m planning on applying to the new full-time position everyone’s talking about. There is a new opening, right? It’s not just a rumor?”

He tried to flank her to the right, but she adjusted, holding her glass of chablis to the side for extra blocking width.

“Well,” he said, “it’s been advertised nationally. You can find it on the MLA job list, for example.” He put his hands in his pockets and glanced over her shoulder through the dining room. Apart from Sheila, the way was still open. But this was now a bad situation. They were very visible. And, not unlike flies, one adjunct talking about job prospects attracted others. An accurate, if unfortunate, analogy, Van Adler thought to himself, given what usually causes flies to swarm. Before long, he would have to start lying and prevaricating, making him the proverbial turd. It could get bad. It had before.

“My goodness.” Her knuckles turned white around the stem of her wine glass. Van Adler thought it might explode in her hand unless she did first. “How many applicants do you think there will be?”

“Sheila, I really—there’s no way to be accurate about something like that. Those things go up and down year to year. You know. Many factors. Hard to say.” But no less than 100, he thought, 100 if there’s one and potentially twice that many. Swinn’s job search had been a nightmare. They’d begun with 233 applications—an impossible number for a hiring committee of six professors with full teaching loads and other administrative duties. And so they’d made wide cuts, rejecting off-hand anyone who didn’t have multiple publications or an impressive pedigree. That brought it down to 50, which was where the hard work of actually reading the applications began. And there was nothing to indicate this process would be any less brutal. Sheila had a MA in English from Northern Missouri State University. What could he tell her that she shouldn’t have realized already?

She grasped his arm lightly, just above the elbow, and leaned into him. “Are you going to your car? Can I walk you out? I have a few more questions.”

Van Adler scanned the room. Three creative writing students had cornered Swinn, eliminating the possibility that he’d want to come back and revisit the budget apocalypse for another hour. But two adjuncts, whose names escaped him, were starting to move through the crowd in his direction. He had a vague memory of them. Former graduate students at Hauberk, now husband and wife. They certainly looked like adjuncts—Walmart wardrobe, disheveled hair, and a certain air of exhaustion, maybe exasperation. They must have had kids, he thought. The ones with kids were the worst off—the most scared, the most desperate, the most likely to have a psychotic episode at a faculty party. If there were a universal handbook for temporary academic employees with no benefits and no future, Van Adler felt the first line should be: if you’re going to lead that life, get sterilized early. Sadly, the best advice was always hard to give and even harder to hear. He’d definitely be calling Dr. Whitehurst about those pills.

“Jim? Are you alright?” Sheila looked up at him with her big blue eyes. She had set her wine glass down so she could hold onto his arm with both hands.

“I’m fine,” he said. “But I really have to go.”

“Sure. Of course. I’ll come with you.” She tightened her grip.

“Whatever. Just please let go of me.”

“Oh. Sorry. Yes. Absolutely.”

Juliette had appeared at the piano and began a baroque interpretation of “Blue Hawaii” loudly enough to draw everyone’s attention and prevent all conversation. The perfect diversion. Without another word, Van Adler turned, went through the dining room, and into the kitchen as quickly as possible with Sheila right behind. He unlatched the pantry door and pulled the little metal chain on the overhead bulb. It hung down at eye level on a green safety cord.

The pantry was well-stocked and looked like a cave of canned food with wicker baskets of onions and potatoes lining the bottom shelves. The door at the far end was made from polished oak planks with black metal bands. Its top rose to a minaret peak, making it look like a hobbit door or something out of the The Thief of Bagdad. It had a simple tumbler lock set in an ornate black face with an inlaid leaf design. And its shiny brass key hung from a loop of red yarn beside it.

Van Adler realized that there had never been a time when the key hadn’t looked perfectly new. Juliette must have polished it regularly. But who polishes their house keys? Only a medievalist who plays Elvis standards as if they’d been written by Antonio Scarlatti and who lives in a house on the National Register of Historical Places—someone interesting to know about but someone you didn’t want to get stuck next to on the plane.

That realization, plus the roar of graduate student cheering when she finished “Blue Hawaii” with a trill and two motets, made him feel slightly unsettled. The normal degree of strangeness was heightened tonight. There was more than the usual morose faculty party energy in the air. It was as if the impending job search had fueled a frenetic current, a wild, wavering voltage that might quadruple into something very unpleasant for the chair of the department if he were cornered by a group of drunken angry part-time instructors.

He was wiggling the key into the lock when Sheila closed the door behind them and laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Jim,” she said, “hear me out.”

She was wearing a white long-sleeved blouse designed like a man’s button-down with tails out over jeans and scuffed brown flats. One more of the buttons on her shirt was undone, plunging her neckline lower than it had been a few minutes before. He looked at the V of smooth white skin there between the slopes of her breasts. She caught him looking and smiled.

“Jim. I know you’re going to go out that door and get in your car. And you’re never going to respond to my emails.”

He opened his mouth, but she held up a hand and let it drift down to rest lightly on the front of his shirt as if she were radiating a magnetic force through her palm that held him in place.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, moving closer to him, almost whispering. “I know everybody wants this job. But it would really, really mean a lot to me, I mean, I’d be so grateful if you could help me out.”

Van Adler could feel her breath on his lips. It smelled like the cheap white wine Juliette provided at the faculty parties. He wasn’t a young man anymore. It seemed like he’d stopped being a young man earlier than most—maybe sometime in his PhD—where, like Swinn, he’d decided to get serious about his future and quit playing around. Marriage to Myra had been an advantage, solid closure on the question of romance and loneliness. He’d gotten that handled with alacrity and moved on to more important things. But Sheila Barnhof-Canterbury was a good looking woman. Was there anything he could do for her?

“I don’t think—“

“I’m not asking for a miracle.” She pushed him against the door and slid her hands up around the back of his neck. “But, you know, I find you very attractive.”

She was lying, of course. But did that matter? How many lies had he already told this evening alone? How many half-truths, evasions, duplicitous omissions? How many lies was he obliged to tell in a standard academic week—as chair, as a professor of American lit., as a mentor to a group of neurotic, hopeless graduate students, half of whom needed prescription mood stabilizers to get through the day?

“It doesn’t work that way. I’m not even on the hiring committee.”

“But you could be on it if you wanted. Isn’t that right?”

It was there, at age 65, in Juliette Lezerski’s pantry, with the light bulb swinging back and forth at the end of its green safety cord, that James Van Adler was kissed by the first woman since he’d married his wife, Myra Chambers, 33 years earlier. Kissed, that is, by a desperate woman two-and-a-half decades younger than him, who had a son and a daughter and a husband who used to be a dispatcher for a garbage truck company and who, rumor had it, now spent most nights with a bottle instead of his wife. Moreover, Van Adler sensed that Sheila Barnhof-Canterbury found kissing him vaguely repulsive, which, in a strange non-personal way, he could understand. Some days, actually most days, he felt the same way about himself.

“Sheila. Honey. There’s nothing I could do for you that you can’t do for yourself by applying. I’d be glad to write you a letter of reference if you need one. I could be honest and say you do good work. Because you do.”

She pushed him hard with both hands. He’d moved forward, away from the door about two inches, when she’d kissed him. And now he connected with the surface again, exhaling a sharp burst. A jolt of agony went through Van Adler’s hands and he cried out softly.

“You have no idea what it’s like,” she said, stepping back and sizing him up. The light bulb bounced against the back of her head. “You have health insurance. You can get your teeth fixed. When my son needs the doctor, what do I do? We’re on fucking food stamps.”

He nodded, turning the key behind him with his right hand. The situation that moments ago had seemed quite pleasant was now scandal-worthy. An intoxicated tirade by Sheila in the pantry and the rumors would reach Myra in less than a day. Above all else, Myra hated being talked about. It was what made her the perfect faculty wife. It would also be what made her perfectly insane when Bethany Lyon called to lay it on and enjoy her suffering.

“But I do know what it’s like, Sheila. I was an adjunct for years.” Actually one year. “I paid my dues in a time when there were no social programs in place to help me lead the academic life.” Actually, Myra’s income as a CPA would have disqualified them for state aid had they looked into it.

Van Adler’s hand complained horribly as he turned the key and pushed the little pantry door open. He put one foot on the pebble walk outside. The walk ran through Juliette’s rose garden to a small wrought iron gate in the six-foot hedge that went along the sides and back of the house. It was a windy night in Hauberk, Missouri. The trees wagged and swished, their shadows dancing through rectangles of light. Next door, a dog started barking. And inside, Juliette had started playing a mashup of “Flight of the Bumblebee”, “Blue Suede Shoes” and Beethoven’s 5th symphony.

He looked back at Sheila. She was standing in the center of the pantry, arms at her sides and the light bulb hanging down behind her head. She was about to start weeping. And the radiance from the bulb made it seem as though she had a halo—a white-shirted wingless angel with blue eyes who’d lost her way.

“I have two children,” she said.

He smiled. “They’re very lucky.” And he stepped outside, closing the pantry door behind him. He took a deep breath. When he got around to the front of the house, Juliette had segued into “Great Balls of Fire.”

Van Adler looked up at her grinning and pounding away at the keys. Her trifocals had slid down to the tip of her nose and the strap of her glittery blue dress had slipped off her left shoulder. A group of drunken graduate students pressed in around her, singing and egging her on. In another window, Swinn concentrated on his Blackberry, a concerned look on his face, texting with both thumbs.

It was only after Van Alder was halfway home that he realized he was still smiling and that it was the old wooden smile he’d developed years ago to get out of bad situations. His face seemed to be stuck like that, the muscles overtaxed and somehow charlie-horsed in place. And he couldn’t, for the life of him, stop.

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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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There is an emotional truth or reality at the center of a story I may be writing.  I have a fleeting sense of it and then I start off by trying to explore it, trying to get to the center.  Then I always stop.  Sometimes it’s because I’ve forgotten that “fleeting sense” and consequently do not know how to proceed (a kind of amnesia in which I know that I had the emotion, but I can’t feel it or understand how to be guided by it anymore).  Sometimes, it’s because I can’t face what I’ve discovered–conditions in my life have made such an emotional realization too painful or too difficult in some way.  But if I can realize the truth of that emotional center deeply in myself, if I can come to terms with it in the deepest possible way, then I can move the story toward completion.  The end of the story is always a revelation because it remains hidden for most of the process.

In this sense, many of my “story fragments” are still waiting for me to come around to that place where I can recognize what they are and what they mean.  A fragment waiting to be finished is a piece of me waiting to be recognized and realized.

This goes further.  As with stories, so with certain themes in life, certain personal relationships, certain avenues of self-work.  Everything is ultimately and inherently a story, which is to say, an unfolding emotional self-realization.  This is mysterious.  This is why it takes endurance to write outside of outlines and formulas.  And this is the difference between making art and telling someone else’s story–which is something you haven’t lived and are not.  This is also why no one can tell you what your creative project should be.  No one can know what you need to realize.  No one can see that far into you.  Only you can seek this mystery.  And it begins in that painful moment when you are entirely alone before the blank page, which is to say, before the mirror, asking, “Who am I becoming?”

It got dark and they fell in. The water was cold. They turned together under the surface, Janelle’s hair twisting like smoke, her eyes closed. Blaine could barely see her face in the dim moonglow through the high gym windows. He thought again about his own death, how easy it would be to drown, to let go. But then he inhaled, choked. It hurt and he panicked, pulling her up with him.

He coughed while Janelle vomited water. Then she rolled on her back, looked at him, and grinned.

“Your eyes are fucking crazy,” he said. He was flat on his back. Janelle was beside him, her pale shoulder glittering with droplets.

Your eyes are fucking crazy. Along with the rest of you. Where’s my shirt?”

The water slapped against the tile. The pool filters gulped. Somewhere, far above in the dark, a wall clock thunked one minute forward. Blaine had a dim memory of boosting her up through one of the men’s room windows. They were in the Women’s Gymnasium, CSU Fresno. What the fuck.

“You put it on that kid’s head. The one who grabbed your ass.”

“He shouldn’t have done that.” Janelle sat up and raked her wet hair back. “Gimmie your shirt. Did I burn the place down this time?”

He could see her ribs in the moonlight, the bumps of her spine, the goat’s head pentagram on the back of her neck. Blaine sat up beside her and started unbuttoning his soaked short-sleeve. “You tried.”

“No shit? Well, that’s what happens when you smoke K.”

The kid hadn’t been smoking K. That had been Janelle. They took the elevator up to the second floor and climbed back out the bathroom window, slower this time. On that side of the building, it was only a short drop to a closed dumpster. Then they walked across campus toward the sirens.

The kid’s only crime had been being drunk and horny. He’d done what any loaded 19-year-old will do when a woman takes off her shirt in the middle of the frat party and grinds on him. He didn’t deserve a front kick to the sternum.

“Holy shit,” Janelle said.

Yes, thought Blaine, holy shit. Across Shaw Avenue, the Zeta Beta Tau house was on fire. Red-orange flames licked out of the windows. A crowd had formed. A wilted group of sorority girls in tiny shorts and sweatshirts sat on the curb, crying and holding hands. A few people still had plastic cups full of beer. The police had set up a perimeter and two water trucks were spraying the third floor. Then a deep thud came from within and a green fireball busted out towards the sky, raining hot glass on the firemen. They immediately turned away and dropped to one knee like synchronized swimmers or medieval soldiers when a volley of arrows comes down.

“I guess you succeeded,” Blaine said. The air smelled like smoke and melted plastic. The heat had already dried his T-shirt.

“Maybe it wasn’t me. I don’t remember a thing.”

“It was you. It’s always you.”

Five campuses this spring and three fires. Deaths? Blaine didn’t know. Why would he want to know something like that? And yet he felt he should know. He should find out. So when they got caught and someone threw them both in a dark hole, at least Blaine would know why. Someone was tracking them. Someone had to be.

“Shit,” Janelle said. “Look.”

Two sorority girls and a frat brother with a ball cap on sideways talking to a cop and pointing.

“Go,” Blaine said. They walked. They didn’t look back. When they got a block away, they started running—silently, simultaneously, the way the firefighters had knelt, perfectly synchronized, as if the two of them had also been trained. Some mad dance: arson, fire, and blame.

“You gonna hit it or what?” she said when the Dodge Monaco wouldn’t turn over. Blaine touched the screwdriver to the top of the solenoid inside the mangled steering column—nothing.

“It’s dead, babe. We have to go. Get something else.”

Janelle sighed. She’d found some black lipstick in her duffle bag, but she was still wearing his short-sleeved button-up. She was a beautiful woman, no doubt about it. Fair skin, long raven hair, blue eyes. She’d even look good when all she had to wear was a prison jumpsuit. The yellow-white streetlight made her jawline and cheekbones look extra severe. Her hair framed her face in graceful arcs. She looked well put together, as if she hadn’t just gotten high on horse tranquilizer, burned down a house, and almost drowned.

“Give it here.” Janelle slid over to him and planted a black kiss on his cheek. When she used the screwdriver to cross the terminals on the solenoid, the Monaco lurched and started up with a high keening deep in the engine. She kissed him on the lips, made the heavy metal horns with her right hand, and said, “Love me.”

“Listen to that. It won’t last.”

“Nothing does, Blaine.” She winked, then slouched against the passenger door and shut her eyes. It started to rain. They went down several tree-lined streets to the squeak of the wipers and the death cry of the engine. Blaine headed for what he thought might be the direction of the 5 North. He rolled down the window and lit a cigarette, listening to the sirens in the distance.

It was dangerous, life. He was falling. Always in his dreams, falling or burning or screaming. Not so different from when he was awake. He’d done too many drugs. That was one thing. Ketamine. Meth. Rock. Hash. Shit Janelle cooked up on the way. How did they both still have their original teeth? Blaine didn’t know. Cancer was probably locked in. Arthritis for sure. He creaked when he walked. He’d turned 37 four days ago and hadn’t said a thing about it. What would Janelle have done if he had? Bake him a cake?

Now she’d gotten the portable lab stuff, the hot plate, their tiny generator and some ingredients. She was over in the woods doing her thing. You could make meth from lots of substances. And you could make it anywhere. All it took were a few household products, a heat source, and patience. He’d taught her how, at first, but now it was all Janelle. Maybe it was bullshit, the patience part. But they were careful. They hadn’t had a cooking explosion in a long time. Still, what did he know? These days, he waited by the car. She never let him watch.

Maybe she was cooking down another batch of that liquid K they’d bought in Arizona. Or something else. They could make more in the long run selling meth to hillbillies in trailer parks, but that was dangerous. So they stuck to universities. And the college crowd liked K just fine. Dissociative. Hallucinogenic. Snort a bump of ketamine and you go outside your body. Tastes like oven cleaner if you smoke it. But it’s good for the nervous high-maintenance types. Blaine had seen it all. Rich kids with suitcases of dope. Wheezing trailer trash rednecks in wife beaters, no teeth and orange hair. Secretaries with death in their eyes. Fun-loving idiots who had no idea. Addicts. Future captains of industry. Future guests of the state. Kids on fire, feverish, drowning, disintegrating, disconnected, coming down, shot up, strung out, freezing in the heat, melting in the cold. Kids headed for the gutter, jail, the grave. Everything.

Pop the trunk. There it was. A shit-ton of meth in two lady’s handbags. Three more 12oz. cylinders of liquid ketamine. His usual bag of travelling hash. A cardboard box of lab equipment, solvents, a folded tent. A crate of cold pills in individual boxes. A box of powdered rat poison. All that special goodness.

Janelle came back grinning, armpit rings and a V of sweat on her T-shirt between her breasts. She smelled like cleaning supplies and burned hair.

“We’re good.” She took the cigarette from his lips.

“How good?”

Janelle sat on the bumper of the Monaco, smiled, smoked. “Just wait.”

Four hours later, after dumping the chemical remains in an orchard and getting a filthy dinner at Denny’s, they drove through downtown Chico, looking for the state college. She had directions written on a ripped piece of graph paper. 11:30 PM on a Friday. Packed sidewalks. All bars wide open. Drunk blondes in glittery dresses. Subwoofer thumps at the stoplights. A ten-year-old with a mohawk in front of a lit-up laundromat breakdancing on a piece of linoleum, black silhouettes around him in the bonelight.

“Go left,” she said. And there it was. Chico State. Dark as a crypt. The place looked like Atlantis sunk beneath the waves. Blaine imagined a shark snaking between the red-brick buildings. They went around a field to the other side of the campus, then went left again and rolled down another quiet tree-lined street. It looked just like the one in Fresno where they’d parked the car before selling the first batch of K to the ZBTs and then ruining everyone’s night. Every campus in the country had neighborhoods like that around it. Quiet old houses. Not too much money, but clean and neat. Window boxes with geraniums. Cats. It was the sort of area Blaine used to live in when he worked at Chemical Dynamics in San Diego. But that was more than five years ago—when he had a job, a wife, a life. Ancient history. Before he failed his drug test three times in a row. Before Janelle.

“Here,” she said. “Yeah. This.” Small two-bedroom house. Peach stucco. The rust-colored drapes everybody had in the 70s tied to the sides of the front window. Dark inside. He went by, did a three-point turn, and parked across the street from the house. Janelle opened the trunk and wrapped something in a plastic grocery bag. Then they were ready. They walked down the driveway past a minivan and a Subaru with a CSUC Faculty Parking sticker in the corner of the windshield. The backyard was a small rectangle of flat grass surrounded by trees and walled with fix-foot trellises. The neighbor’s floodlight shined around the spikes of a wrought iron spite fence, striping half the yard and house with fat bars of light. More bonelight. Pale. Spectral. Ghost city. Dead light.

Nothing on in the house, but they didn’t have to knock. He came out immediately and shut the door quietly behind himself. Fat guy. Round belly and a double chin. Early forties. Brown hair down to his shoulders, parted in the middle. Khakis. Lionel Richie concert shirt. Hello, it said across the bottom, is it me you’re looking for? He had a long face, small full lips, and the expression that people get at graveside funerals—mournful, a bit uncomfortable, a bit like he thought he should be somewhere else, like maybe he’d killed the person in the casket and was afraid people might catch on. He stood on the cement step just below his backdoor and frowned at them.

“What do you want?”

“Who else comes up to your backdoor at midnight?” Blaine said.

“That’s not what I asked you.”

“We’re here to sell you illegal drugs.” Janelle smirked and held up the bag.

He looked at her for a long moment. His frown got deeper, brows pushed together. Then he laughed. “Well good.” He looked Blaine up and down. “And what are you here for?”

“What the fuck does it look like?” There was something about this guy that seemed extra wrong. Not the usual wrong drug shit, but reptile wrong. The kind of guy who goes to AA meetings to find a date. That sick vibe. He was a college teacher? Of what?

“Wait here.” He went back inside, taking care not to make a sound. When he turned, they could see the handle of a gun in his pants pocket. Blaine looked at Janelle. She shrugged.

The fat man slipped back out with a yellow plastic bong in his hand. “Let’s see it. And keep your voice down. My wife’s asleep.”

Janelle unwrapped the plastic grocery bag and took out a large Ziploc full of white powder. The K. She held the bag in the light. It cast a gauzy spider web on the back of the house. Bonelight, boneweb, thought Blaine, everything dead or dying, falling apart, falling away.

The man’s mournful expression had returned. He offered the bong to Janelle. “Go ahead. Do the honors.”

She looked at it and shook her head. “Sorry, Nate, I don’t feel like it tonight.”

“You serious? How do I know it’s for real? How do I know it won’t tear a thousand little holes in my lungs on the first bowl?”

“Killing customers is bad for business,” Blaine said.

Nate turned his head slowly and raised his eyebrows. “Was I speaking to you?”

“I was speaking to you. If you want the shit, pay us. Otherwise, we’re out.”

Nate looked at Janelle. “I think he’s bad for business.”

“He’s my boyfriend.”

“Oh really. Well tell him to relax. And at least pack one for me.”

She put the bag on the ground. “Why don’t you do it?”

He sighed. “Because of this.” He took the gun out and pointed it at Blaine. It was a little gun, the kind women keep in their purses. Dull black metal. Not a movie gun. Not an ego gun. A gun people buy along with shooting lessons because they’re planning on using it and afraid of it at the same time. A gun you get shot with in a parking lot or in someone’s living room or in a dark backyard.

“What is this?” Blaine said. “You’re robbing us?”

“Lower your voice. My wife needs her sleep.”

“You’ll wake her up if you fire that thing,” Janelle said.

“Aw, shit,” he smiled and tossed the bong to her with his free hand. “You got me there. Then I guess I’ll have to shoot her, too.”

It’s not even his place, thought Blaine. He broke in and killed everybody. He’s a psychopath.

“Hurry it up,” Nate said. Then he looked at Blaine and winked.

Janelle carefully loaded and tamped the bowl with her thumb. Then she got out her lighter and offered it to him.

“No way,” he said. “You first.”

She gave him a look of pure hate but took a hit. The smoke was thick and unnaturally white when she exhaled. Cartoon dragon smoke. She made a face and blinked a few times. It smelled the way the house fire had—hot chemicals, melted plastic.

“That good, huh?”

“Always tastes like that.” She croaked the words out and spat on the grass.

Nate nodded and sighed. “Okay,” he said. “I’m satisfied.” Then he unzipped and took out his limp penis, a small pale tongue hanging out the mouth of his fly. “Now you can blow me.”

“Fuck you,” said Blaine.

“Right.” Nate shrugged and fired into the ground. The gun made a pop no louder than a balloon. Lines of gray smoke came out of the barrel and flowed up around his hand like tiny serpents. “I can do you and then pick up with her. It’s all the same to me.”

Blaine looked at Janelle. She had dead eyes. She put down the bong. “It’s cool,” she said. “Just be cool. Blaine, why don’t you go sit in the car.”

“He’s not going anywhere,” Nate said. “Now get with it.”

She wobbled as she walked over to him. She knelt down and took his penis in her mouth the way she sometimes did with Blaine, then started bobbing her head.

Blaine’s throat tightened up. He was breathing hard. He stared at the gun still pointed at him. He was maybe five, six feet away. He started to sweat.

But Nate was looking straight at him, grinning. Nate didn’t look away, even when he slapped the side of Janelle’s head. “Slower” he said. “Take your time.”

She slowed down.

The wind rose in the leaves above the backyard. Black branches waved in the starless sky. It took a long time for Nate to come. He made a little sound and told Janelle to swallow. And then Blaine thought they were both going to die. And he thought about falling in the pool; the time they were both shitfaced and Janelle drove them off the freeway into a canyon; the time he came home high and his wife Sarah started screaming because he’d gotten cut to the bone and was covered in blood and didn’t realize it; the time Janelle tried to burn a Hummer and it had a locking gas cap and wouldn’t burn and she kept pouring gas over it from a can and then, when she finally gave up, it exploded and they were both deaf for a week. A hundred other times. Waking up in the hospital. Waking up in a ditch with blood in his hair. Waking up on an enormous concrete pipe in a construction site. Waking up in people’s homes, in stolen cars, on roofs, in movie theaters, on shit-stained mattresses. Death was easy. It was right there all the time. It was drugs. It was that bullet in the ground. It was Janelle. It was Blaine himself, his own mind. Maybe it didn’t matter whether you tried to live or die. Sometimes you lived. Other times you died.

“That was real sweet,” Nate said. Then he gestured with the gun. “Now get lost before I change my mind.”

They backed away from Nate, the bong, the bag of K, his erect penis sticking up out of his fly, glistening in the light. They walked up the driveway in silence, past the Subaru with its faculty parking sticker, past the minivan with a plastic Goofy on the dash.

Janelle got halfway to the car before she started vomiting. Blaine tried to put his arm around her, but she staggered up, almost fell, and ran down the middle of the street. He watched her go. She went across the intersection at the end of the block and almost got hit by a truck. She didn’t even look.

He started searching for her about an hour later. The Monaco wouldn’t turn over. Blaine worked the screwdriver across the solenoid from ten or twelve different angles before the current connected in the steering column. Meanwhile, the house across the street stayed dark.

Blaine drove around the neighborhood, smoking cigarette after cigarette. He was thinking about guns. He was thinking about handcuffs and about injecting oven cleaner into Nate’s balls and letting him stay like that until he died. He was thinking maybe Janelle was going to kill herself—because she’d tried to before. But he was also thinking she’d want to burn one more house down first, that she wouldn’t go out so easy once she got angry. And he knew she was angry.

So he cruised the gas stations in the area. Janelle knew a hundred ways to start a fire, but gas was her favorite. It was her thing. She loved the smell of it. She loved the way it burned, the way it made a fire breathe. She said a gas fire was better than a poem or getting high. It got her high. Just the sight of it.

But he couldn’t find her. He went down the same streets twenty, thirty times. Not knowing where else to look, he drove back to Nate’s house. It was almost 2:00 AM. He parked in exactly the same place, got out, and leaned against the car.

There was Nate in the front room, sitting in a recliner, watching T.V. He had a beer resting on his belly. A woman came in. She was wearing a pink bathrobe and she had a baby on her shoulder. She was patting it on the back, doing a little rock-a-bye dance. Nate said something to her, then looked at the T.V. and started to laugh. Then she started to laugh. They laughed for a long time.

Something was real funny. But the baby was crying. It was wearing one of those animal pajama suits, all one piece with little rabbit ears on the hood. She held the baby at arm’s length and said something, then she started patting it more rapidly on the back, doing that rock-a-bye dance. She and Nate were still laughing. He got up and put his arms around them both and they started waltzing across the living room. Waltzing and laughing. The woman did a one-handed pirouette. And he bowed like an 18th century lord.

That’s when Blaine looked around and noticed Janelle sitting on the porch steps of the house behind him. She had two red metal gas cans beside her, the sort you see strapped to the backs of Jeeps. She’d been crying. Maybe she’d cried out all her tears. He walked up and sat next to her.

“There’s a baby over there,” she said. “He’s got a baby. They’re dancing.”

“He’s got a wife, too, from the look of it.”

Janelle nodded slowly. “I guess she woke up.”

Now Nate was back in the recliner, holding the baby on his belly where the bottle had been. He pointed at the television and said something to the kid. The wife had disappeared.

“I can’t do this.” Janelle looked down at the gas cans, rested her hand on them. “I want to, but I can’t.”

It started to rain. They stared through it at Nate until his wife came back and took the baby. Then it was just him. He turned off the lights. The blue-white flicker of the television flashed on his face like lightning.

“We could get him now,” Blaine said. “Get the crowbar from the trunk. Throw a rock through the window. Go straight in at him. Beat him in front of his wife and kid. He fucking deserves it.”

Janelle thought about it. But she shook her head. “He’s got a baby. The baby’s innocent.”

“So we don’t beat on the baby.”

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s see if the heater works in the car.”

Blaine drove to a 7-11 and they bought doughnuts and coffee. Then he got on the 5 going south this time. Neither of them felt like spending the night in Chico. They hadn’t talked about where they were going to go next. It didn’t matter. After an hour, she looked at him.

“You know,” she said, “some people lead their whole lives and never go dancing.”

Blaine remembered the kid with the mohawk breakdancing outside the laundromat in that dead bonelight. Maybe that kid was high. Maybe he was just a normal kid. Maybe he had no home. Maybe he was some kind of genius. Maybe he’d grow up to be a rapist like Nate. It made no difference. Blaine would never know him.

“But then maybe they do dance. Maybe they just decide to and they do it,” he said.

She coughed, nodded. “Yeah. I mean, it doesn’t cost anything. No one can stop you. You say, I’m going dancing. You just make the decision and you go.” Her voice wobbled a little. She looked very young to Blaine right then.

He smiled. “Anybody can.”

“Yeah.” She looked at the rain being pushed along the passenger’s side window. “Even us. We could go dancing.”

“We could. I like dancing.”

“I like it, too. It’s better than dying.”

The keening from the engine had gotten worse—like an animal caught in a cruel trap, screaming in pain. The wipers squeaked. The steering column made an electrical zap sound and smelled like hot metal.

“Blaine, can we go to San Francisco? I think my mom lives there.”

“We could go down there,” he said. “There’s nothing stopping us. San Francisco’s better than dying.”

“I think I need some help.” She slid over and put her head on his shoulder. “Can we stay there for a while?”

He said yes, okay, if that’s what she wanted.

“Yes,” she said. “And I want to go dancing someplace like normal people.”

Blaine thought about it. Normal might be good. They could try normal. So he said he might like that, too. The night was almost over. The bonelight had faded back to the drug world, the world of the dead, the lost, the dreaming. Ahead there was only sunrise and the mad dance of the sober, daylit world.

 

 

* Note: this story first appeared in Redline, Best of the Year Issue, 2014.

In the morning, I watch the sun come up from the bottom of the empty swimming pool, lying on my back in dead palm fronds. In the afternoon, Faye calls to tell me she’s going to kill herself. In the evening, I buy a bottle of port wine at a grocery store in town and drive back out to the motel. I sit in the threadbare chaise lounge by the pool, drink from the bottle, and listen to the wind push dead fronds over the concrete.

While I’m sitting there, Faye calls again.

“It’s all ready,” she says. “Just give me a day before you tell anybody.”

“Faye. Stop.”

She’s crying. She’s been crying for about ten days.

“Look, I’m at a motel about five miles north of Plaster City. There’s nothing out here. You can come if you want.”

I’ve been living in the motel, drinking one thing or another for the past two weeks. This is the first time I’ve told Faye where I am. All day, I’ve had this new internal organ pain that I’ve never felt before. And I think, okay fine. Would it be so bad if I died in this motel? I’m $130,000.00 in debt, and my legal career just ended before it could begin. No, it wouldn’t be that bad. The world would go the way it’s going. A couple people would feel sad.

“I’m not coming anywhere. I mailed a letter to your apartment.”

“I don’t live there anymore, hun. I won’t get it. You can come down. It’s nice here.”

“You can fuck yourself.” She hangs up. Faye has called me twice a day to talk about suicide since I’ve been here.

Palm trees shed their fronds all year. Someone thought to plant a ring of them around the motel. I haven’t counted how many there are. Palms can grow anywhere. In a couple decades, there might be twice as many of them here. Eventually, the motel could be in a palm grove. As far as I’ve seen, there aren’t any other palm trees near Plaster City.

The place is about 17 miles west of El Centro, just north of the Mexican border, smack in the middle of 41,000 acres of open desert. There are a few sad motels along the highway, held over from the days when gas tanks were smaller and cars went slower. But mostly there’s just Interstate 8 in an immense beautiful emptiness. You might see a hawk or heat wobbles in the distance. In summer, you might see an overheated car or a dead armadillo.

Faye calls back, and I look at the phone light up in my lap. There’s a dead silence out behind the motel at night, and the sound of my phone vibrating seems violent and stupid like a crime. There should be misdemeanors issued for the use of certain phones or ringtones. I look at the phone until it stops vibrating. I finish the port before listening to her message.

“Okay,” she says. “The thing that’s killing me. You know, I was attracted to him. And if he called me right now and said let’s have a do-over, let’s give you another chance, I’d go in a second. I wouldn’t think about it. So now you know.”

But I already knew. I already knew it. And what I implied to her more than once was that I wasn’t judging. What happened didn’t bother me. And it wouldn’t have bothered me if she’d decided to make a move like that. You’ve got to use what you can to get ahead. Faye not using her looks just didn’t make sense. Of course, the fact that I didn’t cut her loose when I should have didn’t make sense, either. But she didn’t. And I didn’t. And so it went.

Two agonizing years of law school down the toilet. My whole future. Just for being visibly involved with her, for thinking that I was some kind of savior, that I could do anything. It’s an old story: the good professor propositioned her. She turned him down. And then he told her she was through. You don’t fail a class in law school and continue. And law professors don’t need reasons. I objected and so I went, too.

I call Faye back but now she’s decided not to answer. “You should come out here,” I say. I’m starting to slur my words and I can’t think too straight. That’s good. “Come out here and die in the sun instead of up there. He’ll hear about it up there. It’ll be an event. They’ll say you were crazy.” It occurs to me in some non-drunk part of my brain that maybe that’s exactly what Faye wants—for Professor Steptoe to hear about it and maybe feel bad for ten minutes.

“But don’t do it, okay? You’re not going to do it. You’re not going to do it because that will really fuck me up and we both know I’m already really fucked up. You can call me back, but I’m getting ready for bed.” Sometimes I pass out in the chaise lounge by the pool and wake up at dawn. This will be one of those times.

Tempora mutantur nos et mutamur in illis. Times change, and we change with them. John Owen wrote that. He died in 1622. He was a Welshman and he liked to compose Latin epigrams. You get a lot of Latin epigrams in law school. Going through the 17 spiral notebooks from the trunk of my Corolla, I find tempura mutantur nos et mutamur in illis written at the top of a civil procedure practice exam: tempura changes and we change with it. That was good. I ate tempura that day in a little bistro off El Camino Real in San Jose. Lunch break on my internship at the Santa Clara County Adult Drug Court.

However, I find the motto of Korvinus Junior College in Sackstona, North Carolina, to be more compelling: Tempora mutantur. Times are changed. Times have changed. I don’t know why this is the motto of the school. I do know that a triple murder happened there on their upper field. It went to the NC Supreme Court due to a disproportionate representation of African-Americans on the jury. It was a hate crime in which an unemployed former auto worker axed an African-American family to death in the middle of a softball game in front of about 70 witnesses. After a mistrial and a completely biased appellate decision, it went up to the supreme court. Professor Steptoe taught the case in Con Law II, which I failed. Now the Axeman is sweating it out in ADX Florence up in Colorado where they shipped him when he bit someone’s ear off in Craven Correctional. I know this because I’m supposed to know this. I know this and thousands of other things like it because I’ve been trained to know. Faye knows this, too. We were in the same class. The five practice exams I took before the final scored between 93% and 98%.

Today is a Korbel day. And on a Korbel day, you sit in a hot tub with beautiful women and appreciate philosophy and culture and the invention of champagne. Okay, it’s Korbel, so maybe they’re not so beautiful. Maybe they’re missing some teeth or they’re afraid to get their extensions wet or they’ve got pendants made out of rhinestones that say their names. Kaneesha. Jobie. Dolores. Those three were sweethearts.

My usual rule is that I don’t start drinking until the sun has been up for at least two hours, which puts it at about 9:00 AM. But I don’t know because the hotel room doesn’t have a clock. I’ve got my course notebooks spread out all over the floor and it almost seems wrong to be drinking Korbel without my girls from the drug court. But I need something between me and the memories locked in my handwriting. Faye hasn’t called yet. And I’m trying not to think about it.

Delores’ pimp paid a lot of money to have her sterilized so he could fuck her without a condom and stop paying for abortions. She was his property and he kept her on a dog chain in his apartment until she lit him on fire while he was sleeping. She did not get arrested for this. Rather, it came up as evidence for her post-traumatic stress disorder when she was caught driving a van full of meth months later. Delores was a nice girl. She just got some bad breaks. Same with Jobie, whose mom had been a hooker and pretty much brought her into the business as soon as it was biologically feasible. Kaneesha was just a junkie.

I’d walk down the hallway to the courtrooms and they’d all be standing there, a hundred people or so in handcuffs and ankle chains, males on the left, females on the right. I’d see them standing there every day, waiting to be arraigned because there is only one drug court in Santa Clara County and a lot of goddamn drugs. I got to know people. The Accused. Getting caught with a heroin kit or robbing a store because you’re getting sick doesn’t make you a monster. I’d stand there and drink the machine coffee from the lobby and talk to them. About the 49ers. About the fact that R. Kelly got screwed. About O.J. Everybody wanted to know what a white male law student thought about O.J. I’d wink and say, “Shit, man, you really think he did it?” This never failed to incite gales of laughter. Sometimes they’d call out “O.J. innocent!” when I’d see them getting loaded back onto the bus at the end of the day.

Kaneesha and Jobie didn’t get convicted for their offences. Delores did two months on a parole violation because the meth was hidden in the fenders of the van and they couldn’t establish clear possession much less intent to traffic. After she got out, she looked me up at school to thank me for calling her mom about the trial. Faye and I had a party with Delores, Kaneesha, and Jobie to celebrate. Faye brought everyone together. We all got incredibly drunk on cheap champagne. It was the happiest moment I’d had in years.

But that handwriting. That handwriting tells it true: there were days when I was so nervous, I could barely hold a pen. I had this shaking thing crop up from time to time. Others developed facial tics. A couple people in my classes were working hard on a cocaine habit. Everybody drank when they could. Pot was irrelevant; though hash had a brief renaissance at the end of my first year.

The traditional bullying of individual students in classes of 100 people was one thing. But law school is like a game of belligerent poker in which the institution keeps raising the stakes. You fold and fuck you: you weren’t cut out to be a lawyer anyway. You raise and you better know what you’re talking about because even if you’re right, the professor has an ego. And power doesn’t like a challenge. Mostly, you try to stay in the game. You pray that the competitive bullshit and the sadistic scrutiny of the professors leaves you alone while you go further into debt and develop health problems from worrying all the time, not sleeping, and destroying your liver. But John Owen knew what he was talking about. Times do change. And nobody can live like that for long.

I step out of my room because I have to piss. I take off my left shoe and put it down so the door won’t shut all the way. I don’t know where my key is, and the toilet in the room hasn’t been flushing for two days. There’s a communal pissoir at the end of the hall, which lends a certain bouquet to the entire floor. The communal pissoir is not often flushed, either. But at least it’s away from my room. It’s dark when I go in because the lights are on a timer—like an oven timer that ticks down. If you want to do your business in the light, you’d better be able to complete the operation within two minutes. I wind the light switch up to the maximum two and go over to a urinal.

In one of the stalls, Nelson is trying to take a shit. Nelson owns the motel and, as far as I know, he’s the only person who works there. He’s leathery, about 700 years old, and wears a lot of turquoise jewelry. I like Nelson, but I don’t like talking to him while he’s shitting.

“How’s it goin’?” he asks. He’s wearing Converse tennis shoes that a teenager might wear. His stall is closed, and all I can see are the shoes and his sky-blue polyester pants crumpled down on top of them.

“Oh, fine.”

“Good to hear. Me? Oh, it’s been a horrible day. Just horrible. I’ve got problems a young man like you can’t even imagine. With the plumbing.”

“You mean shitting?”

“Some days it just won’t happen. I’ll sit here for hours. Nothing. My legs fall asleep.”

I flush the urinal but it doesn’t flush.

“Well, you take care,” I say. “Maybe I’ll see you out by the pool.”

“Unlikely. I may have to sleep here. I might have to ask you to carry me to my room.”

“Keep trying. I won’t be around.”

After I wash my hands, I realize that I’d made a mental note last time to remember there are no paper towels. I wipe my hands on my T-shirt and look at myself in the spotted mirror. I look awful. At 29, I’m almost completely gray. I’ve got bags under my eyes and I haven’t cut my hair in two months. I’m growing a lopsided beard that’s going gray or blond in patches. I can’t tell. It should be black, but it looks like I’m hiding a skin condition.

“Yeah, that’s your generation, isn’t it,” Nelson says. “Twist up the light, will you?”

I do. And it begins to tick down again from two minutes. I step in some water with my shoeless foot on the way out.

There’s only so much Korbel a body can handle. And I am nowhere near that limit, but I am near the bottom of my fourth and last bottle. What to do: there’s half a bottle of $8 sherry that I don’t like and a case of warm Pabst in the back seat of my car. You can drink and drive out in the desert. The chances of you wrecking are the chances of you winning the California lottery. But I don’t like to drive into Plaster City unless I’m relatively sober. Too bad I’m going to make an exception because I don’t want warm beer and that sherry is being saved for desperate times.

I’m halfway there, trying to keep my eyes open, when Faye calls. I drop the phone twice before clicking on.

“I’m driving,” she says. “I need directions.”

Faye says she left the night before, hasn’t slept, and she’ll be here in a couple hours. She thought about what I said and she wants to see me.

I say okay and give her directions before I hang up. I’ve got about a hundred different emotions and none of them are good. So I keep on toward the little market on the edge of Plaster. There’s no way I can be sober when Faye arrives. I’m potentially an alcoholic. But no one can tell me what an alcoholic is. So I don’t really know. It’s easy to feel like you’re potentially anything. I was potentially a lawyer 49 days ago. Then I got my grades and I knew Steptoe had made good on his threat. Now I’m potentially ruined.

At the market, I get three bottles of ruby port, four bottles of Korbel, a fifth of Jack Daniels, a twelve-pack of Coke, and three bags of ice. Then I think, what the hell, Faye’s coming. So I also pick up a bottle of Southern Comfort, sour mix, and a quart of Early Times on sale for $28.50. I spend money like this. I’ve calculated out a few hundred just for alcohol from my remaining student loan money. The rest comes to about two grand and change, enough to get me somewhere else, wherever that might be. Enough to buy me some time. I haven’t talked to my family in years. I have a BA in history an no marketable skills. All my personal effects are in a storage unit in San Bruno—where I might be living soon.

My good friend, Sanjit, rings me up at the counter. “You’re drunk already,” he says. He has an incredible white turban, an equally incredible white beard, and wears a lot of army surplus.

“You don’t want my business, say so.”

“Don’t worry, my friend.” He takes my money and shakes open a brown grocery bag. “I’ll take all your money before you die.”

“Good man,” I say and walk the first two bags out to the car.

I start thinking about Steptoe again on the drive back and realize I’ve become dangerously sober. So I pull over and open one of the bottles of port. It’s only after I’ve drunk about half an inch past the top of the label that I can think about him without despair overwhelming me.

Me. Fucking me. In my good suit with gel in my hair, standing in front of Steptoe’ desk, shouting. I did the research feverishly, indignantly. The case law in California alone could have its own library. Teachers sexually harassing students. Students, teachers. Teachers, other teachers. Janitorial staff, teachers and students. Teachers, athletes. Athletes, campus clergy. Campus clergy, department secretaries. The combinations are endless. I found enough to argue multiple torts. There was also a criminal angle. But I didn’t want Steptoe’ resignation or damages or conviction. I wanted him to apologize to Faye and, ultimately, to me. Faye was my girl. And my ego was involved.

I pull up in front of the motel and Nelson comes out of the office, waves.

“Lemme help you with those,” he says. I hand him a grocery bag. But it’s too heavy so he sets it down on the super-heated parking lot asphalt.

“Having us a little party?” he asks when I run back to get the bag before the ice inside completely melts.

“Something like that. My friend’s driving down from San Francisco. You’re invited.”

“That’s wonderful. You’re the only motel guest I’ve had in six months. I hope you never leave.”

“You’re cheerful,” I say. “Did you shit?”

“As a matter of fact, I did, yes. No thanks to you.” Nelson draws himself up and gives me a stern look. Tangled white hair. Watery blue eyes to go with his turquoise rings and plaid button-down. “You realize how long it took me to get back to my room with this metal hip?”

“You could see a proctologist.”

“I am a proctologist.”

I heft the last two bags and kick the car door shut. “That explains your knowledge of crap.”

“That, my boy, explains my sadness.”

By the time Faye arrives, Nelson and I are already deep in the Early Times. I’ve fallen into the drained pool and cut both knees. Nelson has urinated on himself and sweat through his clothes while sitting in the ripped beach chair by the edge of the pool, eyes shut, head tilted back.

She walks around the corner of the building at dusk and the setting sun outlines her like she’s some kind of Celtic goddess. Or that’s how she seems in my misted vision. We’ve already been having a conversation when I realize that it’s Faye and she’s here. But only she will remember what we talked about.

***

“I don’t know how you can live like this,” Faye says. This from the woman obsessed with suicide. It’s early. We’re sitting in a Dennys somewhere near Plaster City. Faye drove. And in the pale light, she looks tired. Washed out. Like she’s been crying consistently for days, which is probably the case. I wonder if this is her look now. I’ve seen that look on guys I went to high school with who went into insurance sales, real estate, got jobs at car dealerships and started making money—for a while. A worried, tired, regretful look with a touch of resentment creeping out around the corners of the eyes: how Faye can’t look straight at me when she talks and I can’t look straight at her when she doesn’t. There’s an embarassment in that look, too, a sense that all these emotions wouldn’t be necessary if some key decision hadn’t been made incorrectly. The mistake you remember for the rest of your life. The deal that ruined you.

“I’m alright for now.” I take a sip of the rotten Dennys coffee that I can’t even taste. I’m congested. My head is killing me. And some internal organ (Kidneys? Liver? Who really wants to know?) feels inflated and tender. But this is still the good kind of hangover. The kind where I don’t have to think and I can just focus on my body. It might be the Zen state to which all heavy drinkers aspire—not the process of drinking or the drunkenness, but the painful dead-calm of the morning, the no-mind that comes from obliterating yourself completely the night before.

Faye’s got a thick wrap of gauze around her left forearm. When I ask her about it, she says she couldn’t go through with it. “But it looks like you’re succeeding,” she says. “You won’t last long drinking like this.”

“You remember Delores from the drug court? We should go back up there. Look her up. You know? That was fun that one time.”

She looks out the window at the parking lot. She’s got bags under her eyes and the cruel mouth wrinkles that women in law all seem to get. Law is a harsh mistress, especially to women.

“Yeah,” she says. “I remember Delores. She’s in Chowchilla now, doing eight-to-ten.”

The place is starting to fill up with the morning crowd. A table of Mexican laborers. A few worn out old men who look like farmers but who can’t be farmers because this is the desert. Our breakfast arrives.

Faye looks at her French toast like it just died on her plate. “This isn’t what I thought it would be. I’m going to drive back tomorrow.”

“Could you stay a couple days?”

“This isn’t going anywhere. You’re not going anywhere,” Faye says. “You need to dry out.”

“There’s time. You have time for a couple days.”

She pushes her plate towards the center of the table with her thumb and then rubs her thumb hard with a napkin. “There’s no time for us,” she says. “There never will be.”

Of course, the very nature of a criminal court internship means the intern is going to witness tears. The system is built on sorrow. And in the fall of my second year, I began to notice a certain attrition. Arraignments came and went. People got tried in groups and convicted as individuals. They were put on the “Rocket Docket” and got fast-tracked out to Fulsome, Chowchilla, Lovelock, CYA. They had one or two strikes, previous convictions. Their hearts gave out in their cells. They got sent to work homes, group homes, rehab centers. They killed themselves in the night with pieces of broken glass or plastic forks. The great world went on. A few people were sad. But not that many.

I’d see them in the hall on Friday (“Yo! OJ innocent, man! Ha ha ha!”) and by Monday they’d be on a bus. That year, I drank more than I ever had before. I worked for lawyers and judges. I filed papers. Took notes for the public defenders. Had lunch with law students, secretaries, paralegals, all the lesser carnivera of the judicial food chain. And I saw the wind and light change into winter. And I saw families weeping on the courthouse lawn. And always new faces lined up down the hall. And I didn’t want to make friends anymore. I walked past them quickly.

Late December, I got a postcard from Jobie in my law school mailbox: They got me in Seattle. Guess I fucked up. Don’t have nobody to write to except you. Good memories. Say hi to Faye. She is such a dear. – Jobie. I pushed the postcard across the table to Faye one afternoon when we were having lunch at a little Japanese bistro a block from campus.

She read it and smiled, shook her head. “I’m not surprised. I thought she had a little crush on you.”

“You don’t feel bad? Like maybe it’s a tragedy she’s back in?”

Faye pushed the postcard back and slouched in her chair. Then she looked at me. “The world’s full of tragedy,” she said. “You better toughen up.”

Faye takes sleeping pills and passes out in my rumpled bed before Nelson brings out his Glock 17.

“Where’s that little blonde gal of yours? I don’t trot out my gun for just anybody.”

“She’s asleep,” I say. “So that’s your piece, huh? What about the other one?”

“The elephant gun?” Nelson takes three magazines out of his pockets and starts loading them with bullets from a plastic utility box, copper 9mm rounds all tumbled into a single container like metal cigarette butts in a giant ashtray. “I don’t know where that monster is. Maybe somebody stole it. Wouldn’t be the first time.”

Tonight, I’m drinking the Southern Comfort I bought for Faye with the sour mix and a Pabst on the side. Nelson’s back into the Early Times, but he’s taking it slow because he wants to shoot his gun.

“I only shoot one tree,” he says. “That one.” He points to the very center palm tree in the dirt on the other side of the pool. At one point, there was a fence where the concrete stopped. Now there’s just a row of palm trees like the condemned before a firing squad. Beyond that, acres of parched flat earth run out toward purple mountains, which you can barely see after a rain.

“I hate that one. I like the others. But I hate that one. Reminds me of my wife.” He grips the Glock in his bony liver-spotted hands and fires nine times. It sounds like a Chinese firecracker. Pop. Pop. Pop. Nelson takes a sip of Early Times and ejects the clip. “Goddamn tree,” he says.

He tells me that the tree he hates is the original palm tree, the primogenitor of all the others. Nelson also explains how much he hates large palms in general. They make dust that gets into his lungs. He doesn’t like the way the big fronds look. And he drained the pool because fronds and pollen made it impossible to keep the water clean. “Like Natasha. Filthy woman.”

He slides a new clip into the gun and hands it to me. “Go ahead. You kill the tree.”

I aim, trying to hold it the way he did, but something isn’t right, because I squeeze off all nine shots and not one connects. The gun smells like smoke and machinery, which, I realize, is mostly what it is. When I turn, Nelson is sitting in the chaise lounge, eyes shut again, short glass of Early Times balanced on his knee.

“You know,” he murmurs, “later on, I’m gonna go take a shit.”

I load up a third clip, fire one mis-aimed round, and stop. What did that tree do to me? I put the gun in my belt. I’m staggering and wary of falling in the empty pool again. So I give the edge a wide berth. I go up to the condemned tree and notice that it doesn’t have a single bullet hole on it. Nobody’s watching. I put my arms around it and say, “I hope you have a long and happy life. I’m sorry.” And if I start to cry for a tree, it’s only because I’m a drunk and the world is full of tragedy and I haven’t toughened up even though Faye tells me I need to and I know she’s right.

I wake in my bed with Faye standing over me. She’s showered. She looks determined.

“I’m going.”

It takes me a moment to process this. “Where?”

“Back. Rudy called.” Rudy is another law student. He’s been after Faye since he met her and has despised me just as long. “He says Steptoe’s having a party in two days.”

“And you’re going to it.”

“Steptoe can reverse my grade. I have to try. But I better cute myself up. Think I’ve got it in me?”

“We were shooting trees last night. You should have seen it.”

Faye gives me a level stare. “Take care of yourself,” she says.

Out by the pool, I push Nelson’s broken whiskey glass into a pile of shards under the chaise lounge and resume drinking from the bottle of Southern Comfort. The Glock and the open box of bullets gleams in the afternoon sun. I wonder how hot it would have to get in the desert for those bullets to explode in one giant supernova of death.

Nelson is nowhere around and I resolve to check the bathroom later in case he fell in. I know he’s probably sitting there in the dark, meditating on old age and constipation or snoring and dreaming about better days—before he married filthy Natasha and made that one fateful decision that ruined him forever.

That day in Steptoe’s office, I ranted and raved at the top of my voice about ethics, best practices, betrayal of trust. About the irony that he was famous for his civil rights cases. That he’d argued the Constitution before the US Supreme Court. I even cited the Constitution.

He’s a dignified man, a fatherly man, someone you want to trust with his close-clipped gray beard, wry sense of humor, and the way he squints into a smile. He was smiling like that when he said, “Are you finished?”

I was out of breath. I stood there on the Persian rug in his office, stunned by my own tirade.

Still smiling, Steptoe folded his hands on the desk. “You’re making a career decision.”

“I think you made a career decision when you sexually harassed Faye McDaniels, Professor Steptoe.”

He sighed and nodded. “You’ve said that.”

We looked at each other. And then I noticed Steptoe’s vision shift. He stared right through me at something else.

“Good luck to you,” he said to that other thing.

“This isn’t over.” I didn’t know what else to say. I turned on my heel and stalked out of his office, slamming the door behind me, and walked off campus. After five or six blocks I went into a liquor store and bought a fifth, which I drank greedily with trembling hands in the aluminum bleachers of a high school football field. Some kids were playing catch there. One of them stopped and looked over at me. I can only imagine what he saw.

A day goes by and I’m out of alcohol again, except for the Early Times and the disgusting sherry—which is just as well because my kidneys (I think) have swollen up enough that it’s hard for me to sit straight. By late afternoon, the pain is manageable and I feel good enough to make the drive to the market. I call Faye from the road but she doesn’t answer.

“Look,” I say in the message, “I’m not judging you. But I want you to ask me sometime why I failed Con Law. It’s not because I didn’t study.” I never found out if anyone else knew what transpired that day in Professor Steptoe’s office. I wrote a letter to the dean of the law school shortly thereafter. The letter disappeared. I think I expected outrage. I expected people to rally to my cause. For a few days, I told myself I was a hero, that I was doing what lawyers did—standing up to power, giving a voice to those who, whether through fear or incapacity, were voiceless. I took my finals. Con Law was open and shut with no surprises. I wrote 15 pages longhand and finished in good time.

“Ah, it looks like you’re finally dying,” Sanjit says.

“Don’t be envious. At least I don’t work at a liquor store in the desert.”

“Where I come from, there are far worse things. But you are an idiot. Why do I speak to an idiot?” Sanjit is drinking a strawberry smoothie from a white foam cup and the bottom of his white moustache is stained pink.

“Yes.” He grins and makes crazy eyes. “Can you believe it? It is a smoothie. Fruit. It’s healthy. But you would not know about that.”

So I let him have it. I tell him everything in one big paragraph: I got kicked out of law school over a girl. I’m thousands of dollars in debt. No future. Little money. And no one to take me in. “And, yes,” I say, “I am an idiot.”

“Come with me.” Sanjit puts his smoothie down and locks the front. He’s wearing his usual perfectly white turban and a red long-sleeved shirt unbuttoned down the front over a Bull Taco Motorcycle T-shirt. His pants are gray-blue arctic camo and he has a pair of black combat boots coming apart at the seams. I follow him out the back of the market to an asphalt lot with weeds growing up through the cracks. The lot is full of wrought iron in the shape of a deer, an enormous Japanese robot, a kid doing a handstand, a horse, a cowboy driving a stagecoach—all of it rusted, baking in the heat.

“Just look at it,” he says. “My son did this.”

“Your son’s a welder?”

“My son’s an artist.”

I walk around the sculptures while Sanjit watches me from the shade of the doorway.

“They’re beautiful,” I say.

He nods. “The smoothie place is two blocks away. I won’t be offended if you spend some money there.”

My insides are killing me, but suddenly I want to break down and weep or hug him. But the sharpness in his eyes makes me think that if I tried either of those things, he’d punch me in the face. Instead, I extend my hand.

“Don’t do me any favors,” he says and turns back into the store.

I look at the sculptures a little more: wrought iron life, motionless in the heat. I wonder if his son really did make them or if Sanjit’s in there having a good laugh at my expense. But then I realize it doesn’t make a difference. Somebody made them. And it doesn’t matter if someone sees the sculptures or wants them. They’re out there anyway, soaking up the desert heat, playing out their silent drama for the weeds.

Sanjit rings me up in silence. In the interests of good taste, I only buy another case of Pabst and a second bottle of Early Times, both of which I put in the trunk before walking down to Smoothie King for a strawberry-bannanna zinger. I vomit it up along with a gallon of bile beside the door of my car. My best friend doesn’t come out, even though he must have heard me retching into the asphalt. Driving away, I feel incredibly light-headed; though, there’s only one thought in my mind: I’ll have to find a new market.

Nelson has a rechargeable hair clipper. Later that day, with the sun melting into the smog over the mountains like a bloodshot eye, I sit crosslegged in dead palm fronds at the bottom of the pool. I drink Jack Daniels and shave my face and my head down to the scalp. There are small brown scorpions and centipedes under the fronds. A scorpion crawls past my bottle of Jack. A centipede investigates a gray clump of my hair with its feelers. This is more fascinating than it should be. I call Faye to tell her about it but her line just rings and rings.

When I wake up, I’m on my back in a puddle of whiskey, the phone held tightly to my chest with both hands. They used to bury knights that way with their hands gripping the hilts of their swords. But with me, a phone’s more appropriate: live by the phone, die by the phone.

Nelson has turned on all the exterior motel lights. The place is lit up like an orange landing strip. I get up on one knee and steady myself. A whiskey-soaked patch of cut hair falls off my neck. I stare at it for a moment, trying to understand what it is, what it signifies. In the orange light, it looks like a little fiberous alien, it’s long shadow jagged over the palm fronds. The bottle is on its side and there’s hardly any whiskey in it. I stand up and throw it against the wall of the pool. It explodes in a flower of amber glass that glitters on the fronds like tiny stars.

Swaying, I almost fall face-first into it. The pain in my side has gotten worse, progressing from a dull ache to a sharp stabbing agony that comes on every few heartbeats, making me feel like I should be vomitting or shitting but I also feel that I won’t be doing those things anytime soon. Instead, I stand with my arms straight out to either side like Jesus over Rio and look at my shadow while Nelson fires his elephant gun at the tree.

BOOM.

The shot sounds hollow and thick the way a ship’s cannonade must have sounded off the coast of far Tortuga.

BOOM.

And a mass of blue-white smoke moves over the pool. I shake whiskey out of the hair clipper, put the phone in my pocket, and contemplate walking up to the shallow end beneath where Nelson’s standing, cursing and reloading his gun.

“Bitch! Whore! Howdjalike that, hah? 40 calibers, bitch!”

I cup my hands around my mouth and call out: “Hey there, Nelson! I’m in the pool, okay? Hey! Cease fire!”

There’s a moment of silence before he lets off another round. BOOM. And my right ear starts fluttering like a strained muscle.

BOOM.

“Take it all, you filthy whore!”

I hear him grunt and crack the stock of the gun to reload. In spite of all the drinking and self-destruction, the living animal part of me still gets hungry and wants sex and knows when I should sleep and wants to live. My palms are sweating. I wipe them on my jeans and laugh at myself. That elephant gun would take me apart like a watermellon on a hot sidewalk. Would that be so bad? Wasn’t I the one with nothing left? But that deep part of me is locked on the amber floodlight, the glitter of the broken glass, the carpet of dead palm fronds, my long dark shadow on the bottom of the pool.

“Hey! Fuck you, Nelson. Unless you want to kill somebody, hold up so I can get out of the goddamn pool. Alright?”

Another moment of silence. Then his ragged screaming, more scared than angry: “Shut up! Get out of my fucking head! You’re not in the fucking pool!”

My inner safety animal tells me that if I want to live, I need to scramble out of the pool before Nelson finishes reloading because he’s about to walk up to the edge and let one go. I run to the shallow end and half-leap up the little blue staircase in the corner: whiskey-stained, shaven superhero with magical hair clipper.

Nelson looks up with terror in his face just as he’s closing the stock on two more enormous rounds. When he sees me, he lets out a little cry. I notice that he’s wearing a woman’s maroon tassled bathrobe with paisley designs that make it looke like a Turkish carpet. It’s open down the front, showing his sagging hairless chest and belly poking out over a dingy pair of boxers.

“Who the fuck are you?” He pushes his round wire-rimmed glasses up on his nose and squints. “You’re not Natasha.”

“No. Obviously not.”

Nelson points at the hated palm tree that reminds him of his wife. One of the shots must have grazed it because the top fronds are burning like the bush of prophecy.

“I taught her,” he says. “I taught her a lesson she’s never gonna forget, the bitch.”

And I nod. The palm tree will never forget. Ash and burning embers fall in a tiny rain of fire to the foot of the tree. He hands me the rifle and says, “You be the guard.” Then he shuffles through the glass door that connects the pool area with the motel’s single internal hallway.

All the lights go off. I sit in the chaise lounge next to the empty bottle of Early Times and a cardboard box full of enormous .40-caliber shells. The gun is impossibly heavy with over-and-under barrels and a round metal sight. I unload it, put the two rounds back in the box with the others, and settle back to watch the tree burn.

Nelson isn’t up the next morning, but I am. Being neither intoxicated nor hung over at 8 AM seems unnatural and awkward. I do not feel better about life, but the image of the burning tree and Nelson, drunk and hallucinatory, in what could only have been his late wife’s bathrobe haunts me. I decide not to drink for the rest of the day.

Tempora mutantur. Times have changed. And we may or may not have changed with them. But some things are always the same, like the feeling I got when I first read Jobie’s postcard. They got me in Seattle. Guess I fucked up. Death energy there, laced into the words. Guess I fucked up like I’m going to die now. This is it. Arivaderche Roma. Give my regards to Broadway. See you in the next life, on the flip-side—out in the far country, far Tortuga—where you’ll be headed, too, before long.

There’s always a degree of absurdity in that feeling, like it’s a horrible farce, a killing joke. Like the Axeman chasing a whole family down one-by-one between third base and the west side bleachers of the upper field—running back and forth with a bloody Woodsman Mark VIII, while 70 people screamed and made for the chainlink.

It’s the same feeling I get when I walk out back and look at the half-burned palm tree. A V-mark of soot runs down the center of its trunk. It’s fronds have been burned to spindly tendrils reaching up toward the sky. If the tree could scream, it would sound the way those tendrils look, sharp and twisted and wrong against the rising heat of the day.

Out here, in this emptiness, an old man can get drunk in his dead wife’s bathrobe and fire a .40-caliber gun at a tree in the normal course of human events. A former potential lawyer can try to drink himself to death and realize what a fool he’s been. And who knows how many ex-wives are buried without their bathrobes between Plaster City and El Centro.

My best friend is not surprised to see me. He stands beneath the cigarette overhang with one hand on the register and another on a glass case full of cheap cigars—an inscrutible wirey Sikh in a white turban and an USMC jacket with the patches ripped out.

“You look now like you’ve escaped a concentration camp.”

“Well, maybe I have.”

“I sincerely doubt it. But it shall now be impossible for me to sell you more alcohol.” His eyes regard me from a great distance beneath his bushy white eyebrows.

“That’s fine. I’m here for something else.”

“You wish to rob me?”

“I wish to work for you. Tell me you don’t need the help.”

Sanjit looks down and sighs. He shakes his head. “The help. I don’t need it. But ask at the Smoothie King. I will provide a recommendation and lie that you are not suicidal or impossibly stupid.” It takes him a moment to grin at his own wit.

“That smoothie made me puke.”

“Yes.” He nods slowly. “In my parking lot. They are often disgusting. The milk is often sour.”

“That’s why you need to hire me. It’s too unhealthy over there.”

Still grinning, he says, “That is the first thing you’ve said that has not been stupid. Come back tomorrow and you can try out for the position.”

On the drive back to the motel, I pull over and study my face in the mirror. I don’t recognize myself—gaunt cheeks, shadows below my eyes, shaved head. I really do look like I’ve survived something big and terrifying. The destruction of my home planet. An endless galactic war. Some chapter of Revelation that permanently changed the times and changed me with them.

While I’m stopped, Faye calls.

“I just thought I’d tell you,” she says. “We’ve worked it out.”

“Yeah?”

“Well, we’re going to, I think. He forgave me. He’s leaving his wife.”

“Oh?”

“He’s going to make a call. I’ll be back in on a probationary basis.”

“And that’s good?”

“I don’t think we should talk anymore,” she says. “It’s too risky. I can’t fuck up again.”

We sit on the open line without speaking. Then she says, “So . . . good-bye.”

“Good-bye, Faye.” I listen to the beep.

When I start the car moving again, I think about looking for an apartment nearby, maybe a small sandblown house. Times are changed. Times have changed. And I’ve arrived in my own far country. The road from Plaster City shimmers before the car—a painted background damaged by heat that can no longer trick the eye into believing it’s real.

 

 

Note: this story was originally published in Isthmus magazine.

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.

I’m sitting in a cafe in downtown London with a show tune version of the Doors’ “People are Strange” playing overhead. At some point, some focus group, some collection of sample listeners employed by a marketing concern or polled through a survey, decided that this schmaltzy cover was better than the original. Based on their decision, the track was included. This is the hidden world of the beta listener, beta reader, product tester, quality control specialist, and sometimes that of the literary editor. And it smells like untreated beta.

Let’s play a magical game of what if? What if you wrote something and not everyone liked it? Would you still be a legitimate writer? In the words of the incomparable Ksenia Aneske:

Stop worrying about what will happen. Will anyone read my books? Will anyone like them? Will anyone buy them? Will my mom call me and tell me I’m a genius? Will my dad send me a pistol to put to my head? Will I have to forever hide from my friends in an opium den and will my face slide off my head from shame and embarrassment at the atrocious and absolutely abominable quality of my prose? Put it out of your head!

Yes. Stop. And fuck the beta reader. Do this for any number of good reasons that remain good no matter what kind of writing you’re doing, how famous you are, or whether you feel the thing you just wrote is brilliant or incoherent.

One of them, maybe the biggest one, is that ultimately only one entity is served by the advice of even the best beta reader: the publisher. Having beta readers for your story or novel helps your publisher in three ways: (1) it lessens the already considerable work of the publicist-editor-copyeditor tasked with getting your manuscript in line with what the publisher wants; (2) it focuses your work towards a viable consumer demographic; and (3) it reminds you, the author, that you are not as important as you would like to think, given the cruel, rapacious hellworld of publishing.

Why does having a beta reader do these things? Because there is a difference between a beta reader and someone just providing feedback. This difference is rooted primarily in the language and assumptions of genre presses and e-book publishers; though there has been some bleed into the general vernacular of publishing in general.

Consider the submission guidelines for the “Harlequin Heartwarming” imprint. It’s worth reading the entire set of guidelines for all the Harlequin imprints, by the way:* “Similar in tone and feel to movies and TV shows like Sleepless in Seattle, Parenthood and Enough Said.” Why would a publisher say something like this as a guideline? Why, indeed. Because the job of a beta reader on a manuscript meant to be sent to this imprint is to give feedback relevant to that tone and feel—i.e. the beta reader’s job is one of aesthetic critique and revision. It’s writing-by-committee. And it sucks.

This is exactly the problem in MFA programs with the soulless “workshop story.” As the Writer’s Digest article puts it, “a workshop story is . . . insidious: on the surface it appears authentic, profound, meaningful. But really, it isn’t about anything.” Yup. It’s about style at the expense of substance. And this is the realm of the beta reader. In a bad workshop, every participant becomes a MFA beta reader, an experience worse than death.

Oh, you’re an artist? Excuse me. Hugh Howey puts it like this:

[W]riting within a genre is a huge first step in being discovered. No one is looking for you or your particular book. You are both unknown unknowns. So you better write a book that’s near a specific book. You can either change your name to L.E. James or you can start writing billionaire erotica. Of the two, I’d go with the latter. Science fiction, romance, new adult, erotica, fantasy, crime all sell better than literary fiction.**

This is unquestionably true. But if you want to write a memoir or a novel about an old couple living in Kansas, please, please, please do it. Please don’t make it a novel about a teenage couple having a romance in a post-apocalyptic Kansas because you think no one will be interested in the novel if you don’t put zombies and vampire ninjas in it.

In contrast to the beta reader, the person providing feedback is not reading relative to a particular style sheet—or she shouldn’t be if she’s trying to be a good reader. She’ll try to understand your project. And she’ll give you feedback that helps you realize that project more fully. That’s it. And that is very hard to do. It’s what happens in a successful story workshop. It helps writers become more of who they already are as artists. It does not churn out something that can be positioned as the next big salable thing (which is bullshit anyway—ask Hugh).

Back to what if? What if they held a workshop and nobody came? What if you’re writing all by yourself in your drafty garret? What if you actually are writing a teen paranormal werewolf romance novel in a post-apocalyptic dystopian vampire Kansas? Do you need a beta reader then? Not really. Do you know what you’re doing? If you don’t, aesthetic quality control isn’t going to be that much help (Um, I think, the scene in the taxi could be a little more like that one scene in Sleepless In Seattle . . . ). If you do, your polished draft will arrive in the editor’s inbox with only a few changes necessary–which is part of being a professional instead of a hack.  I do think reading and sharing our work is really important and useful. But the beta reader is a creature of marketing, not art.

 

* Note: I choose to pick on Harlequin because they’re an institution in the world of the romance genre and because I am not aware that any of my writer friends are publishing with them. Of course, I want all my friends to publish everything, get rich and famous, and bathe nightly in bathtubs filled with Cristal if that’s what they want. Still, it won’t stop me from grinding my axe on this blog. Sorry, bubu, them’s the breaks.

** Hugh Howey has good things to say and I’m not disagreeing with him about being discovered. I’m disagreeing with the attitude that literary fiction is irrelevant based on what sells.

​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.

Planisphaeri Coeleste

Planisphaeri Coeleste

The structure of what I write is the structure of my emotional life.  My fiction isn’t autobiographical in any overt way.  Yet how I approach my subject matter depends on the way I see the world and myself in it.  Therefore, conceptually, perceptually, structurally, I write the narrative of my life the way I write any narrative—certainly in words but, in a deeper sense, in images.  Strung together in the mind, they form a constellation of emotions unique to me.  The physical manuscript is a chart of these moments, an inner star map, a personal zodiac that makes it possible for others to see what I have seen and feel the way I have felt.  The secret of such navigation is not in the words but in the structural relations between them, not in any given star but in the proportionality of the constellation.

This is my current understanding of creative writing: building associations between emotional states instead of focusing on monolithic things (characters,  paragraphs, settings, scenes).  A character is a humanlike set of particularities that exist in relation to something else.  A paragraph is a movement, an emotional gesture.  A setting is an environmental set of particularities, also significant insofar as it relates to something else (even to the eye of the reader, Mr. Fish).  A scene is all of the above moving together and in relation to all the other scenes.  And all of it exists for one purpose—to map a structure of intricate emotional movements that took place first in my mind, now in yours.

Is this difficult or complicated?  Not really.  But it is more honest, more elemental (-ary), than saying, “according to so-and-so, a character should do X, Y, and Z in a dramatic scene.”  Focusing on X, Y, and Z misses the point.  I don’t write to fulfill a preset arrangement of static constituent categories.  I write to move my reader.  And that is just as dynamic, relational, and variable as any emotion I might feel.

Like most who went to college in the early 1990s, I had the misfortune of first encountering Bret Easton Ellis’ work indirectly via the movie adaptations.  I rented Less Than Zero and thought it was okay in a rich-kids-get-the-blues-and-make-bad-life-decisions sort of way.

Cool yet deeply annoying.

Cool yet deeply annoying.

James Spader was simultaneously cool yet annoying.  And that pretty much characterized my opinion of Ellis’ sensibility for a few years.  The people he wrote about were outside my experience; though, I’d known a few self-entitled wealthy narcissists at my private high school in San Diego—daddy owned a boat and mommy took valium, that sort of thing.  But what I didn’t realize was that I had been reacting to the oversimplified (maybe clichéd) Hollywood tropes that had been extracted from his writing—a serious case of lost in adaptation, particularly for Less Than Zero and Rules of Attraction.

During my MFA, my professors were so determined to dismiss Ellis—I thought, mostly out of jealousy—that their vitriol actually piqued my interest.  I went through everything he had out at the time—Less Than Zero, Rules of Attraction, American Psycho, The Informers, Glamorama, and Lunar Park.  I read them with an eye for plot structure.  I paid attention to his use of short chapters and perspective shifts.  But mostly I apprenticed myself to his idiosyncratic first person voice.  I think that’s his strongest stylistic quality as a fiction writer.

Consider this beginning to one of Lauren’s chapters in Rules (and note the Hemingway-esque beginning in media res via “And”):

And it’s quiet now, and over.  I’m standing by Sean’s window.  It’s almost morning, but still dark.  It’s weird and maybe it’s my imagination but I’m positive I can hear the aria from La Wally coming from somewhere, not across the lawn since the party is over, but it might be somewhere in this house perhaps.  I have my toga wrapped around me and occasionally I’ll look over and watch him sleep in the glow of his blue digital alarm clock light.  I’m not tired anymore.  I smoke a cigarette.  A silhouette moves in another window, in another house across from this one.  Somewhere a bottle breaks.

Stoltz cannot save your movie.

And it continues this way.  The entire chapter is a long paragraph—not atypical for the novel or its predecessor, Less Than Zero.  The speaker’s voice—her tone, how she frames her perceptions in words—shows more about who she is than what may or may not be taking place in the physical setting.  Just as each voice-driven passage sets up a rhythm using long and short sentences to evoke the personality of the speaker, the lengths and arrangement of the chapters does the same thing on a larger scale.  By the end, we realize that the novel works not only because the main characters (speakers) have fully formed implicit arcs, but also because the novel itself has a vocal arc.  Rules weaves each of the character arcs together to push beyond their particular experiences and make a broad statement: this is what’s happening to your children, America.  Or, maybe, this is what happens when you give your child a gold card and send her off to college.

Great book.

The broad message is what it is: disaffected youth with too many resources, upper-class dry rot.  We can watch any movie about the idle rich and enjoy the cliché of the vacuous aristocrat.  In my opinion, those things are less important than what we can learn by paying attention to Ellis’ writing style.  He has been put down for having a trite, narrow message (and for his off-color comments on social networks and the media), but I think we definitely miss out on what’s great about his work if we let those things take precedence over the writing itself.  When I want to solve a problem using voice and I don’t know how to do it, he is one of my teachers.

RIP Elmore Leonard.  A great talent has gone out of the world today.  He will be missed.

Elmore Leonard

It looks like my story, “The Catherine Wheel,” has made it into the Painted Bride Quarterly Print Annual 6.  Buy one here. ~ Michael

002

* 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.

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/

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 . . .

The alligator gar was a magnificent fish.  Even in the dark room, it glittered: long, a ribbon of dimes floating in the tank.  Empty tank, clear water.  Seen from the bed, the gar seemed more like a static picture behind gray glass as if it would never move.  And, in truth, Hoki had not seen it travel more than an inch forward or back in the enormous tank.  The fish never showed more than the slightest muscular ripple, its tailfin drifting gently to the side.  The tank filled the top half of the wall beside the bed.  Hoki watched the fish.  The fish watched Hoki.

“Stop it,” said Rina.

He heard the flick of her lighter, the hiss of her cigarette.  Hoki lay on his side, his back to her, his head resting on his arm.  He often woke in that position, staring at the gar, listening to Rina’s quiet breathing or to her already moving around her house.  The mouth of the enormous fish was slightly open, flensing the water back through its gills.  It’s row of white teeth like a saw.  It’s black button-eye in a silver iris.

“How can it know I’m watching?” he said.

“It knows.”  Smoke in the dark.  The fat hiss of her long black cigarette with a golden band where the filter began.  “It can feel you.  Trust me.”

Rina felt things like that.  She always knew when to call, knew when he was asleep.  Hoki often wondered how she managed it.  Rina never did what he expected.  He’d turn in mid-sentence and Rina would be dreaming, her breathing deep and slow.  But when he was least expecting it, in the middle of the night, in the dark hours of the morning: the flick of her lighter, the hiss, the gar looking at him through tinted glass.

Hoki rolled onto his back.  Bars of moonlight through the blinds striped rumpled sheets, Rina’s thigh.

“So tell me its name.”

“Stop asking.”

“You can’t just keep it there in an empty tank.  It’s inhumane.”

She laughed.  The cigarette hissed.  “I’ll be the judge of what’s humane for my fish.”

Hoki didn’t look at her.  He slid off the bottom of the bed, walked barefoot down the long oak hallway in the dark—warm wood, even in winter, even without turning on the heater.  Wood that made the soles of one’s feet feel good, that cost a lot of money.  Not his wood.  Not his money.

Not his bathroom, either.  Hoki waved his hand over the switch.  The lights came on dim, got brighter until he waved his hand again.  He didn’t want it too bright that early in the morning, after a night with Rina.  Hoki rubbed his eyes.  His spiky black hair seemed to have gotten grayer at the temples.  At 33, he felt twice that.  These nights with Rina were sending him to an early grave.

“What are you doing?” she called.  “Get back in here.”

Everything in the bathroom  was dusty blue marble and steel.  He took a cotton ball from a chrome jar and soaked it in rubbing alcohol from a bottle below the sink.  Hoki knew where everything was—the bottle of codeine; the dark towels Rina’s husband, David, never used; David’s bottle of Viagra that had given Hoki the most painful and long-lasting erection of his life; the sterile needle and thread taped underneath the middle drawer just in case.  His shoulder might have needed re-stitching this time if Rina had kept on.  The places where her bites had punctured his skin burned when he swabbed them.  He washed his face and dabbed it dry with a burgundy towel that he re-folded and placed beneath a neat stack of identical towels in the side cabinet.

“Baby get in here.”  Rina was not a patient woman.  But there was one last thing.  Hoki found the tube of Preparation-H where he’d left it beside the rubbing alcohol.  He carefully smeared a bit under each eye, where the skin had begun to sag, and counted up to fifty.  Baggy, tired eyes were not acceptable, even in the dark.

When he went back to the bedroom, he felt more put-together.  He stood beside the bed.  Rina ran her fingers over his stomach muscles while she finished the last of her cigarette.  She smiled.  The sheet had bunched in her lap, bars of moonlight across her breasts, the black ringlets of her hair.

“You’ll tell me its name someday,” he said.

“Don’t waste time.”  She blew a line of smoke and threw the sheet aside.

He climbed onto the bed and went down on her, realizing too late that he had forgotten to wipe off a bit of the Preparation-H below his left eye.  There was no fixing it now.

Hoki dressed while she was showering.  His T-shirt and jeans smelled like sex.  She’d bought him a new pair of Bottega Ventanas on a whim and Hoki made sure to wear them when he came over.  They still smelled like new shoes.  But eventually everything he wore would smell like her Sobraines, her Clive Christian at $800 an ounce.  The black marble box with white veins sat on a narrow table right below the tank.  Just large enough for six crisp $100 bills.  Hoki folded the money, put it in his back pocket.  The gar stared.  And Hoki paused as if the gar were about to speak, to explain everything.

“I’ll get your name,” he whispered.  “You’ll see.”

The gar’s tailfin flicked gently.  It’s gills expanded, contracted.

Hoki always waited until Rina left the room before he went to the box.  It was good that way and it wasn’t vulgar.  Then he went down the hallway in the dark.  She wanted him gone by the time she got out of the shower.  That was part of it, the night over and a new day beginning.  He keyed the house alarm and closed the front door behind him.  By the time David got home from the airport, the sheets would be changed, windows open, another black Sobraine between her lips.

“The Catherine Wheel,” my story about living in East Africa, will be appearing in the 85/Displacement of Print Annual 6 of the Painted Bride Quarterly.  Check it out. ~ M

About the magazine.

The world of fiction writing needs to move away from the Manhattan literary formula into something weirder and more open to different voices.  I’d love to see Isaac Babel and Guy de Maupassant being talked about alongside memoirists like Nick Flynn and fiction writers willing to do interesting things–like Aravind Adiga and early Denis Johnson or Sam Lipsyte or Arthur Nersesian.  I think innovative writers like these guys, over the last 10-15 years or so, have been successful in spite of a system that sets a dollar value to every word.  And I think they developed unique voices because there were some teachers and writers connected to literary culture who said, “Look, Richard Ford is a really great writer and so was Raymond Carver and so is Alice Munro.  But their work has been so commodified–so accepted and worshiped and established and emulated–that we’re boring ourselves to death.”  Do we really want another coming of age story focused on a well-off young person discovering new things about relationships and sexuality?  Do we want more stories about suburban disillusionment or suffocating marriages or precocious children surviving war and famine?  If we have these stories, maybe we want them told in new ways.  I think they have to be because otherwise we’re dead; we’re not growing; we’re creating copies of copies.

So I think literary culture–and by this I mean global literature, because I think once something has been written and published at a certain level, it enters a global discourse (another reason we need to keep training good translators)–can change.  I don’t think the apoplectic elements of the New York publishing industry necessarily have a lock on all creativity in the western world.  And I think that those of us who care about literary art and who have the will to act have a responsibility to add to the creativity and newness in fiction.  It could be through individual creative work, but we could also do it through creating local literary environments that teach, promote, and encourage others to create for themselves instead of according to a pre-existing, vetted, marketable formula.  There have to be voices out there that wake people up to other possibilities.  And every interesting writer, at some point, picked up a book or attended a reading or listened to a teacher who said, “Fuck writing like that guy.  Do it your own way.”

 

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you. – Bradbury

And if you can’t write, maybe just get drunk.  A teacher of mine once said, “I’ve known a fair number of writers who spent their time drinking when they should have been writing.  And I’ve known even more who were writing when they should have been drinking.”

True, that.  True, that.

“Don’t try,” Bukowski said.  But trying is all there is.  All he did was try.  If he’d stopped trying, he’d have died long before writing Post Office, Ham on Rye, Women, Hollywood, “The Most Beautiful Woman in Town,” “Kid Stardust on the Porterhouse,” and the stories in the posthumous Tales of Ordinary Madness, outstanding things that people need to read and talk about.

So try.  You’ve got to be tough to be a writer.   Think: James Crumley, Andre Dubus Sr., Raymond Carver, Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, James Baldwin, Shirley Jackson.  These are some of the people who define tough. They ate nails.  Pour one out for Charles Bukowski, too, even if you don’t buy his romantic hustle and don’t believe he was as hard as he tried to seem.  If a person writes one good story, that is direct poof that that person took a handful of nails and got down to business.  One good story, in itself, is something amazing.  There are people who would pay big money to produce just one and can’t or won’t or think they can’t.

What about P.D. James, John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford, Ursula LeGuin, John Fante, Denis Johnson, Truman Capote, J.D. Salinger, Melanie Rae Thon?  Read them with reverence and awe.  Go take your hat off at the grave of Theodore Dreiser.  Go absorb some brilliant Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and then apprentice yourself to Michael Ondaatje and Paul Bowles and Isak Dinesen and learn all you can about the work of Somerset Maugham.  What?  You haven’t read anything by Maugham except The Moon and Sixpence?  Shame on you.  Shame.  Go to the library and get The Razor’s Edge.  Now.  And while you’re there, get Labyrinths by Borges and anything by James Jones and everything by Anita Loos.  Will you?  Will you read John Cheever?  Will you start?

So try.  It’s a miracle that any stories get written at all.  And the aforesaid writers produced many good stories in spite of the undeniable and obvious fact that the universe hates, fucking hates, serious art and artists of any kind.  And the world especially hates writers who aren’t in the service of momentary commerce.  In fact, all good writers are exceptions to the rule that says if it isn’t easy, you have no business making art, and if you were any good, you’d have made it by now.  That’s the publishing industry talking.  That’s the Random House Marketing Strategy.  That’s the substance of jacket quotes and blurbs that say so-and-so is the Next Brilliant Voice of American Literature.  Forget that.  There are no rising stars.  That light you see up there is already dead.

It takes so long to get any good at making art, especially fiction writing.  It takes so much endurance and dedication and authentic, highly personal unattractive suffering.  Once you get an idea of how badly the process is going to mess with your life—usually several years after you’ve made a serious investment into becoming a fiction writer—you’re either hooked on the energy and don’t care or you’re in the process of losing things.  You may and probably will lose spouse, custody, car, respect of family / friends / self, teeth, your temper, your self-confidence, your identity as a functional and enfranchised member of grownup society and, without a doubt, that crappy job you’d hoped would give you more time to finish your novel.  Maybe you’ll lose all of the above and be reborn as some purified Zen idiot who only knows how to write and lives in a flop house.  And maybe that will be the way for you.

I got hooked on the energy of the creative process and stopped caring around 1997.  Although I’ve had many moments of caring—convulsive episodes of remorse and dread that come on like a special kind of writer’s epilepsy, I’m still at it.  My worst moments have coincided with various losses from the list above.  But I still have my teeth and my spouse and no one ever took me that seriously as a functional adult anyway.  So losing that one was moot.  Otherwise, it has been a long road to get a book and 20 stories in print.  I’m proud of that because I have to be, because that’s where my 20s and most of my 30s have gone.  Now I’m 38 and getting close to books 2 and 3—a new collection of stories and a novel.  And that has to matter to me.  I have to care.  I’m compelled to try, to keep going, to fight, to get up every day and put my time in even if those nails hurt when I swallow them.  Like a junkie who might die from cold turkey, I’m too far along to ever get out.  I have my bad moments.  But I’m never quitting the juice.

So when I came across the quote at the top of this post from Ray Bradbury—I think I read it once before, years ago, in an interview with him or something—I started to think about being in east Africa and about writing and isolation.  I started to think about what it means to keep calm and carry on as an artist when most of the “reinforcing hits” from the outside world (the sort of identifications that our culture uses to let us know who we are) have vanished.  It’s easy to keep trying when people are telling you that you shouldn’t give up your day job.  That was pretty much my MFA program and at least major sections of my PhD.  The hard part is when you find yourself in a culture that doesn’t even care enough to want to starve you out.

Most people here in Bujumbura are grateful that the political situation is reasonably stable.  They like the fact that they can work, that their families are okay, that the government isn’t systematically killing them.  If I said something like, “Hey, I’m having a bitch of a time with closure in this story I’m writing,” I’d likely get a polite smile and a thumbs-up.  If I said something like, “I’m doing this working artist thing because it really matters to me,” the Burundians I’ve met would likely agree—with all their characteristic tact and quiet reserve—that it is a very good thing to do.   But a population worried about typhoid and tomorrow’s dinner may also tell you to take your difficult plot arc and try to eat it.  Will your characterization take away my daughter’s fever?  No?  Ah, excuse me. . . .

Most writers here, the few there are, work in isolation—way more isolation, it seems, than is usual or necessary for the creative process to work.  I think it might be different in neighboring countries; though, I hesitate to speculate at this point.  I can say that Burundi is still recovering from the last 20 years of political instability.  And as a foreigner here, as one of the few North Americans, I’ve often found myself turning inward, focusing on how my professional, artistic, cultural identity contrasts with the dominant ethos of the people here.  I’m told there is a gentility in Burundi that does not exist in many other parts of Africa.  But I might extend that: there is a gentility here that does not exist in many other parts of the world.  How, then, does a 38-year-old writer construct himself in a context where the sort of social friction that fueled his work in the USA simply does not exist?

My only answer—at least, the only one I can come up with right now—is to keep writing and hope the question answers itself.  Keep trying.  Don’t stop.  And this is what I recently told a student from years ago who emailed me with the Big Question.  No, she was not proposing.  She wanted to know what I thought her chances were for a career in creative writing if she went to a MFA.

In my capacity as a creative writing instructor, people are always asking me the same thing: whether I think they have talent to, you know, go pro.  I try to be nice about this when they ask me, but I have no idea how to answer this question.  I can say, look, you submitted two great stories to the workshop.  I think they’re great because I liked them and felt moved by them in certain ways.  Please note that not everyone felt the same way in the critiques.  Also understand that my opinion is just one among many.  I do not have the ultimate secret formula for quality writing in my back pocket.  I can tell you what I see.  And maybe I see more than the student critiquers because I have been doing this longer and to a more intense—some might say desperate—degree.  But that’s it.  Only YOU can determine if you have talent.  You do this by trying to produce something of value every day.

Most often, I say: I have no idea and then feel bad when they decide I’m being disingenuous.  I imagine that in the minds of most adult humans, the same script is running daily (given certain variations): what if I lose the house?  What if she’s really going to that motel on I-80 instead of yoga class?  What if I fail, I freeze up in the clinch?  What if the deal falls through?  What if that spot on my leg keeps changing color?  What if I can’t perform?  What if they already know I’m a fraud?  What if they’re laughing at me behind my back?  What if it all goes away?  What if inside me there is just an empty void?  The writer adds two more: what if I’m deluding myself about wanting to be a writer?  What if everyone who says they like my work is lying?

Well, what if?  You don’t have to eat too many nails to be a writer—not handfuls, at least.  Maybe you just swallow one roofing nail every day you can’t write.  After a while, you’ve got a stomach full, poking through to other organs, tearing you up little by little.  I don’t know if Ray Bradbury ever ate nails; I know less about him than some others.  But I do know he wrote some very cool novels.  I know he learned things about being an artist that I don’t know—yet.  I know if I try hard enough, I will eventually discover such arcana.  Even if I’m the only person in Burundi writing a story set on a train in Nebraska.  Even if I’m in an empty room with a notebook and a bowl of rice with Pili-Pili sauce next to me.  Even if I have to eat nails.  Even then.

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