You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Writing’ tag.

 

 

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

Vintage circus photo sad clown antique photograph poster wall

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a writing life.  And you could lead it if you could only get past everything else, which is to say yourself.  This is what a lot of writers eventually believe, even if they don’t start out that way.  Maybe you believe it, too.  It’s not the wrong way to think (tell me there’s a right or wrong in this business and I’ll show you how that’s both right and wrong), but it is naïve. 

So be naïve.  There are worse things for a writer, like crippling cynicism or despair or (absolutely lethal) early unwarranted success.  And what is success?  Before we get into that, let’s start with trouble, which means we have to also start with money because they’re inseparable. 

I was going to call this, “Of Trouble and Money,” but I realized that’s too broad.  It covers everybody.  And this is a post aimed primarily at writers and at those closeted egomaniacs grappling with the concept who call themselves, “aspiring writers.”  So I added “the So-called Writing Life.”  But that, too, is just a label, a concept, a paper hat, an identity that often proves to be more trouble than it’s worth.

You need something else, a different paper hat to stave off Bob, who works in IT and hates himself, at the dinner party you were coerced into attending.  Bob despises everything in the world, but he’ll despise you so much more if you put on the writer hat.  So you say, “I’m an English teacher” (nice and boring; he feels superior; well done) or “I’m a copyeditor” (also boring; satisfyingly obscure) or “I’m between jobs” (could be true; boring; allows Bob to feel superior and has the added benefit of desperation cooties, which will make Bob excuse himself in 30 seconds and avoid you for the rest of the evening).  Say anything other than, “I’m a writer.”  You don’t need the paper hat to lead the life.

You just need to lead the life.  And what does that entail?  First, trouble.  You have it the minute you make the decision to put down words that amount to anything more than a grocery list.  There’s the art, which takes a lifetime.  There are the ponderous exigencies of time and space that seem to conspire against you from the beginning, making it very difficult to get anything completed.  There are many pencils to sharpen and bagels to eat and horrific dinner parties to endure.  There’s your recalcitrant mind, your spouse, your family, your friends, your old pals from high school at the reunion, your outright enemies, the publishing industry, crotchety reviewers, and posterity, which you won’t be around to appreciate but which you’ll worry about nonetheless.  There’s needing to eat.  And there’s existential dread that you’re wasting your time, which you’ll laugh at until it starts laughing, too.

Second, money.  Another pernicious idea.  A demon.  The basis of all well-being in our mentally ill society.  Getting it.  Having it.  Spending it.  Losing it.  Cycle, cycle, cycle, over and over.  Writing doesn’t work on money.  And the writing life doesn’t know money exists.  All writing wants is more writing.  All money wants is every part of you salted on a plate.

A young horror writer I know recently told me that he feels small presses are fine, but his goal is to make a middle-class income off his writing.  So he has to go for bigger game.  I told him that I thought it was possible, that I thought he could do it, and I was being honest.  You can earn a middle-class living doing just about anything if you make that income level your goal and subordinate all other considerations to it.  I admire his clarity.  I never said, “I want that.”  I only said I needed to write because if I didn’t I’d get (more) mentally unwell.  For me, it’s a matter of health.  For him, wealth. 

We’re both writers.  But he’s going to get what he wants because he actually knows what it is, which gives him wisdom.  Very few writers are healthy, wealthy, and wise.  All I ever knew was that I didn’t want to not write.  When I did write, I was happier for it.  I’m still on that track: write so I can avoid having not written, then get busy with all the other compulsions and machinations of my day, which are ultimately in place to facilitate one thing: me being able to avoid not writing again tomorrow.

So you eat the trouble-money sandwich every day.  And if you can keep it down, if you can do your art on a regular basis with a free and sincere mind, you’re leading the writing life—insofar as we can call it that, since most serious writers will be equally serious when they tell you that’s no way to live.  Go into plastics.  Sell computers.  Operate a used car lot.  Go make Bolivia great again.  Manage a bowling alley and spend all your free time watching spaghetti westerns and smoking weed.  Care for a kitten.  I guarantee, in the end, that kitten will make you happier than your writing, even if, from the beginning to the middle, your writing saves your life.

But what is your life worth?  If you have an idea that it comes down to being a success and you can say what that is, you are most assuredly wrong.  If you only have a compulsion to not not write, welcome to my world.  I can’t be wrong because I can’t be right.  Every morning with my coffee and steno pad, I’m a formless pulse, trying to be someone else, somewhere else, in my head.  And that doesn’t make a body solvent.  It doesn’t make people want to put your books in urns in the basement of a pyramid.  You’ll get paid by teaching or working for Bob the IT professional or washing dishes in the back of Harley’s Place.  And don’t complain.  You made your choices.  Complaining is for Bob, not you.  He doesn’t get to do what you do.

So you accept that you’ve made this writer’s bargain.  You’ve gone down to the crossroads and agreed that, in exchange for being able to live the writing life, you will never have a two-story house in the suburbs and drive a car that doesn’t look like a dirty toaster.  You will be mindful of your whining.  You will be grateful for this divine gift that makes you weird and ecstatic and keeps your head from exploding.  And you will get up day-in and day-out and sit at the desk and go out of body to that place where your characters may be earning their middle-class incomes and driving new cars and having break-up conversations over linguine at the Chez Paul.

Maybe you’ll be a horror writer.  Maybe you will attain your income goals.  But I suspect that in order to accomplish such a thing, you’ll have to get past those goals along with everything else and exist in a liminal space where all that matters is the writing.  In the meantime, you should know that cardboard inserts in your shoes can prevent your socks from getting wet.  And a place that serves bottomless coffee is a joy forever.

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

You Are Somewhere Else

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

It was raining outside.

The Kingdom, Fuminori Nakamura (trans. Kalau Almony)

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

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

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

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

...

Early rendition of Alfred E. Neuman, 1908.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– “The Long Quiet Highway,” Natalie Goldberg

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

And, right then, so did I.

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

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

“You’re gonna stop calling me Percival.”

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

“What, you wanna go living a lie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two vacuum salesmen to my right were still grinning.

“Tough night, pal?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need to get home to my wife.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I might have had it once.”

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

“I’ll make it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philosopher with an Open Book by Salomon Coninck (1645)

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

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

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

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

The ivory tower covered in camouflage.

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

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

Enter: John, who also wanted to matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Green Muse by Albert Maignan (1895)

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

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

Listen. And seek the mysteries.

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

Better: what do I need?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tumblr_inline_nx0i37Gzbg1rbqvxq_540I’m back in Oxford today, immanentizing the eschaton once again in the Social Sciences Library, where I must regularly do at least 67% of all my work. The other 33% is done either in pubs (sometimes quiet and wonderful places to sit, sometimes full of stinkin’ drunks, though what do you expect, eh?) or coffee shops (usually loud, packed with psychotic tourists, and unclean just an hour after opening). Unlike London, Oxford is not predominately a culture where people will sit in cafes working. I was surprised at that when I first arrived, having become very comfortable with the American and Central European styles of productive solitude-in-a-crowd encaffeination.

Cafe culture is slightly different wherever you go, but there are certain international standards one can expect (that is, everywhere but in Oxford). I think my top five favorite cafes of all time have to be:

(1) Cafe 976 in Pacific Beach, California, essentially a well-kept house from the 1920s with a big porch and a garden, where I used to while away the evenings of my misspent youth reading tarot;

(2) Cafe Josephine in Tallinn, Estonia, as much for the owner’s dog, Bari, a gregarious old retriever who functions as the unofficial greeter and maître d’hôtel, as for the coffee, which is also excellent;

(3) Cafe Indigo in Prague, which I think has gone the way of the dodo, but which used to serve an Algerian coffee that would knock you out of your shoes and realign your priorities in life. It was a great gathering place for students and literary types;

(4) Zeitgeist Coffee in Seattle for frankly being one of the coolest places you’d ever want to sit and think; and

(5) Osama’s in Columbia, Missouri, where I used to hold my office hour and drink Turkish coffee after Turkish coffee in order to cope with the sad realities of teaching freshman comp in the Midwest. It was run by Osama Yanni, the nicest guy you’d ever want to know but unlucky enough to have a name recognizable by the vast unwashed proletariat of the Show-Me State. It closed.

There have been many others (and more than a few in Tallinn and Paris), though these are the ones I think I’ve liked the most in my itinerant writing life. These are the places where I’ve written some of my best stories.

But today, today brothers and sisters, I am holding forth from the holy of holies, the inner chamber of the inner chamber of the great whited sepulcher of sepulchers, the ivoriest of the ivory towers. Actually, it’s not that grand. I’m in the steel-and-Formica lounge of the Social Sciences Library, over by the vending machines. It’s a spot where I can at least eat a sandwich and have my coffee without being psychically accosted by some miserable family on vacation from upper Spokaloo, pissed that they just paid £15 each for breakfast on the Tolkien Walking Tour. It happens. Now you’re all wearing identical Gandalf vs. the Balrog T-shirts. Balance your expectations relative to that choice, okay?

Naturally, this is a university, the university, and people don’t just come here for the amenities. They come to do the work (always the work, whatever it happens to be), to get recognized, and to generate sufficient cultural cachet for them to continue on in the style to which they are accustomed. The coffee can be bad. It’s for the service class anyway.

Enjoying what you’re eating often upsets people here for many reasons. You are expected to frown into your soup and sigh over your bagel. You might even go so far as to faintly shake your head at your Greek salad, implying thoughts of great consequence that probably have nothing to do with your packet of fattening and therefore off-limits croutons. The weight of the world is buried in your mashed potatoes. Your parfait is the parfait of melancholy. To enjoy any of it is to indulge in an unforgivable lapse of seriousness.

In such an environment, one tries to be as gentle and understanding as possible toward the highly refined sensibilities of the world’s future ministers, art patrons, and captains of industry—most of whom were born after Kurt Cobain died but who nevertheless seem to constantly reference his death as if that were some kind of magical touchstone for sincerity. This makes me kind of tired, but I try to get along.

For example, I will not smuggle lunch into a reading room. I signed a five-page agreement when I got my very special non-student library access card (speak friend and enter), stipulating that I would not bring food and drink into Moria no matter how lightheaded or hypoglycemic I might become. There are the vending machines outside. There are enough steel-and-Formica tables in the lounge to support an army. So I intend to honor that agreement. And I acknowledge that seeing me in the corner with a Cesar salad might drive some of my more delicate colleagues over the edge.

They might snap and order a pizza in the middle of the night, discipline punctured, starvation-vegan diet shot to hell, shame, existential angst, eventual career failure, disinheritance. There shall be no cheese and pepperoni. For many of these kids, life is a game of no-limit hold-em with the Devil, but as long as they do exactly what they’re told, they feel they’ll keep on winning the way they always have. The thing most of them don’t seem to understand is that if you build your life around a game, even if you never lose, that’s what your life will be about. Welcome to the casino of success. You are a VIP for life. When you die, we’ll bury you under the craps table.

So food. It’s problematic. Earlier, I was breaking about half of the rules, enjoying a deli sandwich and reading Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, which also meant I was smiling. So it was not surprising when I felt hot darts of psychic rage boring into the side of my face. They were coming from a very thin, aggravated girl at the table across from me. She had on a sweatshirt that looked a few sizes too big and what I assumed was her usual expression of dislike mixed with contempt. I thought what I always think: who, me? But then I realized: it wasn’t the standard-issue animosity most people display in this environment. It was a food thing. Next to her laptop was a plastic bag of carrot sticks and a bottle of mineral water. Lunch. I’d be in a bad mood, too.

I looked back down, pretending like I didn’t notice her staring, but I was also thinking, you know, there’s this golden retriever named Bari you really need to meet. If only. A clean, well-lighted place and a friendly dog can make all the difference in your life, in your work. I dug into my sandwich. It was good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

What I’m Not Doing Anymore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Next Thing

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

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

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

Trouble

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

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

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

Upcoming Projects

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year.

Michael

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

She okay?”

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

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

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

You never ask if I’m okay.”

Darius takes her pulse.

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

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

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

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

Don’t mind if I have a few as well?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiya.” She winks.

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

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

You’re here with—Darius?”

Can I have some coffee?”

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

Are you always here?”

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

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

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

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

Me? You’re here for me?”

Ah, no.” She turns toward the window.

Oh. For her.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey. Look, she’s still not awake.”

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

Then his voice: “What?”

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

Stop wondering.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cool.”

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

Do something?”

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

Her name is Marion.”

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

What’s your name?”

Akina.”

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

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

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

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

She chews, swallows, folds the back page.

“Marion.”

“Yes?” she asks without looking up.

“What’s wrong with you?”

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

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

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

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

Nothing. Then the sound of the shower.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is she?”

He hangs up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You weren’t sleeping, were you?”

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

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

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

Where are you?”

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

In your bedroom?”

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

Guess I should see it someday.”

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

What’s with the TV?”

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

What about Sunny?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I miss you.”

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

Bye, Charlie. Take care.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darius.”

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

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

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

Darius.”

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

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

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

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

Take your shoes off.”

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

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

Did you go to college in England?”

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

Cambridge? Oxford?”

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

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

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

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

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

No answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m leaving.”

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

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

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

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

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

I turn toward the wall.

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

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

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

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

No,” I whisper. “We can’t.”

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

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

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

I’m watching my father from the mezzanine of the Chicago Hilton. He’s sitting in the lobby with a prostitute and they’re both drunk. She looks like she’s providing a GFE, a “girlfriend experience”—what passes for one in her price range. Laughing, poached beet red from booze and sun, she sits on his lap, slips off, lands on the floor, hauls herself up, tries again. He glances around, as if he can sense someone watching. But he’s too far gone to think about looking up at the entresol, where I’ve been sitting now for 15 minutes. It’s Christmas Eve.

I don’t really know if she’s a prostitute. But maybe I do know. Or I know enough—that my father now only engages in transactional relationships with women; that she’s wearing huge plastic bangles, has runs in her nylons, a sloppy stain on her blouse. Tangled, white-blonde hair. Large injected lips. A smoker’s laugh like a hatchet splitting wood. Just his type. He took her to Bora Bora for three days. Now they’re waiting for a room.

“That’s FUNNY,” she says, and they both crack up. He said something hysterical. Something really funny.

I tailed my father and his new friend here from O’Hare, brushed through their vodka cloud without being recognized, went up to the armchairs on the mezzanine, then got a call from Frankie Lum.

Frankie’s voice in my ear. He’s talking about putting a tracker on his wife’s Civic. He can follow her on his smart phone. Wants to know what I think about that, but I’m not really participating in the conversation. He says that tomorrow he might take his kid to Disneyland and wants to know if I’d like to come or is it too weird?

“I don’t know. Should it be?

He doesn’t say anything and, for a moment, I forget he’s there. Then: “You mean Disneyland’s weird or it’s like we’re gay for each other and Manny’s our kid?”

“It’s your son, Frankie. I don’t know how gayness comes into it. But now it is weird.”

Why does my father do this? Maybe I know why. Maybe I consider smoking a cigarette, even though I quit 4 years ago. I’d have one if I could walk through the lobby without being noticed. I’d feel better in some ways that probably don’t matter.

“That fucking sadist. I know what she does during the day. Like I even need to track her down.” Frankie has been cheating on his wife with women he meets online for years. Somehow, this makes no difference. Bonnie does it once in a while and she’s lying, cheating, vicious, while Frankie’s the victim.

I tell him that I couldn’t go to Disneyland even if it wasn’t weird. I have to visit my mother’s grave with my father tomorrow since she died two years ago on Christmas morning.

“She says she has to work. On Christmas? You have no idea what this is doing to me.”

A waiter from the bar brings them a bottle of Absolut in a champagne bucket shaped like a loving cup, glasses, tonic water in a vintage fluted carafe. My father says something and her OH MY GAWD draws stares around the lobby. The two women at the front desk giggle. My father—red-faced, sweating in his wrinkled Valentino pinstripe and Montecristi Panama hat—looks very much like Minnesota Fats inflated by hot gas. Like he might float up and pop.

The possibility that this woman is actually his girlfriend and not being paid flickers through my mind. I dismiss it immediately when she calls him DADDY and falls out of her chair for the fifth time.

The concierge stalks over, whispers in my father’s ear. The concierge is a short man in a cheap blue suit. He has a mustache and perfectly squared, sprayed hair. My father nods and then he and the girl start laughing all over again. My father offers him a drink. The concierge straightens his tie and looks down at my father the way one looks a bum jingling a cup from a doorway.

Frankie asks if I’m listening to him. I tell him the truth.

“You’re not paying attention to me? What the fuck, James? I don’t even know if we’re friends anymore. Can I trust you?”

“Sure.”

“What’s that mean? Sure? Like I’m asking if you want to hit a movie? I’m saying can I trust you?”

I ask him why and immediately regret it.

“Illinois law. This state’s fucking law says, and I quote: grounds for marital dissolution exist if, without cause or provocation by the petitioner, the respondent has committed adultery subsequent to the marriage. That’s compiled statues 750, chapter 5, section 401, bitch.”

They’ve found my father a room. An entourage has assembled in the lobby: a guy to load their 10 suitcases on a rolling cart; a guy to carry the bottle of vodka, tonic carafe, and glasses on a silver tray; another guy to help the lady walk; and the concierge, overseeing everything, with dead eyes and a key card. Back to Bora Bora: a mountain caravan replete with porters and shitfaced great white hunter in Panama hat. They move slowly through the lobby, the lady stumbling on her heels and shouting FUCK every time.

“You think it’s weird to come with me and Manny to Disneyland? That’s fine. Cause my son and me are gonna be busy photographing his mother breaking the law. Thanks for nothing. See you on Monday.”

Frankie clicks off. He gets emotional like that. He’ll come away with a flash drive full of photos of Bonnie in flagrante delicto with the pool boy or another yoga teacher. They’ll fight and go somewhere for the weekend to straighten things out. Then Frankie will hook up with a morbidly obese woman named Jolene or a sex-addict cutter or a bipolar divorcee or a leathery women’s volleyball coach in the back office of the high school gym.

Always the same: he’ll come over to my desk at work to confess. He’ll ask me if I think he’s got a problem, if I think he’s a bad person. And I’ll say if he’s into Jolene and she’s into him and they want to do it in the master bedroom of the house she’s supposed to be cleaning that day, then that’s their business. I’ll tell him good and bad don’t come into it, which is what he wants to hear. Then all will be right in the world. Except, I guess, with Manny. Nothing’s ever going to be right with that kid. But you can’t pick your parents.

After the entourage departs, a certain calm descends on the lobby. 1 AM. Lights wink on the enormous fake Christmas tree over by the doors. The girls at the front desk lean against the wall beneath eight brass clocks that show times from around the world. The concierge passes me as I pass through towards the entrance. He’s loosened his tie. He walks forward with his hands in his pockets, staring at the carpet.

Outside, snow along Michigan Avenue is three feet high. I ask one of the valets for a smoke. He gives me a Marlboro Light. I don’t cough. It doesn’t make me sick after four years of Puritanism. I spend a long time slowly smoking it, watching the flakes come down in the headlights of cars.

Bora Bora is one of the Leeward Islands of French Polynesia. It’s surrounded by a lagoon and a barrier reef. The island is completely supported by tourism. There are 18 hotels, but my father always stays in the Herenui Suite at the Four Seasons. The biggest town is named Vaitape. It’s on the west side of the island, opposite a lagoon. Somewhere inland, there’s a dormant volcano. And there are many coconut trees. Coconut trees are everywhere. You could close your eyes and point and you’d be pointing at a bunch of coconut trees. At least, this is what I’ve read. I’ve never been there. In 45 years of marriage, my father took my mother on one vacation to New Mexico. Now he goes to Bora Bora and stays in the Herenui Suite twice a year.

I should eat something, but I don’t have an appetite. I trudge over to 7-11 and buy a pack of Marlboro Lights, a blue plastic lighter. Then I go back to the valet, hand him two cigarettes, say thanks, and he looks at me like I’m a psychopath.

I’m not crazy, but I do hear my mother telling me I need to eat. I hear her voice all the time from out of the past, from my memories. And I know it’s not a psychopath thing. It’s a grief thing. When you’re a kid, it’s enough to know there is such a thing as grief. If you’re lucky, that’s the extent of your knowledge for at least a decade or two. But you learn. Everybody learns. So fuck the valet. I paid him back with interest out of gratitude and this is how he acts. I hope his lungs turn black.

The All-American Diner is open on Christmas Eve. It’s half-full of sad-looking old men in wrinkled clothing, the ones who can’t afford or who can’t bring themselves to pay for some company. My Denver omelet tastes like corn oil. The wind picks up and the lights of the Hilton across the street make gauzy halos in the snow.

I could go home to my studio apartment in Westmont, smoke a few more, fall asleep in front of the TV. But the same thing that motivated me to tail my father and his unfortunate new friend from the airport is what keeps me in the diner booth. I can’t go home. And I can’t say exactly why, but it feels like giving up on mom.

The last time I spoke with her, the cancer had reached her brain. She talked gibberish half the time. But you could see, deep down, that she was still in there. It had been a bad day, a messy, humiliating day for her in which the nurse had to be called multiple times. But there was a moment when she turned to me and said, “Don’t blame your father. He won’t know how to take care of himself.”

At the time, it was okay. Anything she said was. But now it breaks my heart to think she’s looking down at all this. At me, here. At my father up in the room, sweating out Citron and Viagra while he grunts and strains through the last night of his Girlfriend Experience. We should be sitting in the living room, having a drink together on Christmas Eve. We should be doing the things families do.

Frankie calls and I let it go to voicemail. I’ve had just about enough of Frankie Lum for one day. I finish my omelet and eat a piece of toast to soak up the grease. After four refills of coffee, I start feeling like a jerk for taking up the booth so long. New gray-faced men keep coming in, their trench coats and umbrellas caked with snow.

It’s a strange sight on Christmas Eve, but the lone Russian waitress keeps the glasnost fish eye of hate trained on everyone in equal measure. I tip 25% because no one should have to work in the All-American Diner on the night before Christmas. Or ever. There is no Russian word for “table service on Christmas Eve in Chicago.” The waitress scoops up the money before I’m fully out of the booth. I don’t look at her.

I wander back into the lobby of the Hilton and leave a message for my sister, Elsa—who said no straight out when I suggested a family memorial service for mom. But she said she’d be coming to town with her husband Johann and to give her a call. So I do, even though I told myself I wouldn’t.

Her voicemail’s tinny robot message expels a burst of German, then her name in her own voice, slow and clear, the way she might enunciate it for a two-year-old. I can’t bring myself to describe what I’ve been going through. So I just say, “It’s your brother. I’m at the Hilton. Dad’s here.” And I leave my number to prevent her from being able to claim she lost it. She loses it every time I give it to her. In this era of cell phones and caller ID, there’s only one way that’s possible.

“Can I help you?”

Ah. One of the girls from the desk. Heavy glasses, brown Velma hair in a bob. Freckles. Big mean stare. She’s had her nightly snigger and now must deal with the vagrant dripping on the upholstery.

“I don’t think so.”

“Are you staying here, sir?”

“I’m James Garrit. My father, Trevor Garrit, is staying here.”

“Do you want to ring his room or leave him a message?”

“No.”

“Then can I help you?”

“Not really.”

“Then why are you sitting here?”

“Don’t you think it’s a little late for philosophical questions?”

“I’ll be back.”

“I’m sure you will.”

The trouble with Bora Bora isn’t that the volcano might wake up some day and turn the place into a burning hellscape sinking beneath the waves or, even worse, that the entire economy depends on wrinkly divorcees like my father. It’s that the island has exploitation threaded into its soil. Polynesian settlers took over in the 4th century. Then Captain Cook arrived. Then missionaries from England built a church. And once that happens, as my grandmother used to say, it’s all over but the shouting.

In 1888, Queen Teriimaevarua abdicated as supreme ruler over the island. Henceforth, Bora Bora would be a French colony. Baguettes. Wine in the afternoon. Tennis. A vacation spot for Legionnaires on furlough and a place to take your mistress when that dusty little nid d’amour in Lyon starts to seem confining.

My phone vibrates and I make the mistake of answering without checking. I expect Elsa. But no. Frankie.

“You still staking out your dad?”

“You live in a world of stakeouts and mistrust, don’t you, Frankie.”

“Screw you.” He hangs up.

No, I am not surprised that he does this. Yes, this is my life.

The desk girl returneth. “Sir, if your party isn’t expecting you, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“I thought this was a lounge.”

“No, sir, this is the lobby.”

“But people sit here and order drinks here from the bar, right?”

“No one sits here, sir. This is just the lobby.”

“Does the lobby have a function?”

“People walk through it.”

So Bora Bora. One cannot nurture expectations contrary to the nature of a place. But since I’ve never visited the island, it exists only in my imagination. And therefore it exists only for my father, only as a symbol of his treatment of my mother, especially while she was dying. There it really is a ghostly hell where lobster-red tourists marinate their organs in loving cups filled with Vodka and the Girlfriend Experience is compulsory.

Frankie texts me: Apologies. Under stress. Forget Disneyland. You need to be the one to follow Bonnie. I just can’t do it. Text YES if you understand.

The weirdness never stops, does it?

Is that a no?

“So you’re saying no drinks?”

“I’m calling security.”

The sun comes up and I’m still in the lobby-lounge-place people walk through with no drinks. I did nap a bit. Velma the desk girl eventually called the concierge, not security. But perhaps because of the earlier difficulty with my father, nothing was done. She wouldn’t look in my direction. Then she went home. And I remain. Like Gibraltar. Like the Great Sphinx. Like the brooding volcano at the center of Bora Bora, which the natives call Otemanu.

But there is a moment when the gravity shifts, when the barometric pressure rises and I don’t feel so certain. It’s a familiar feeling. Even before I see Else standing over me with her hands on her hips, I know it’s her.

“You look like shit.”

“Good to see you, too.”

She looks down at me and, for a moment, I get the impression that she really does see me as an enormous glistening turd.

“Why don’t you just get a room if you can’t bear to go home?”

“Have you seen what they charge for rooms here on Christmas?”

“Don’t poor-mouth me. It’s disgusting.”

I follow my sister out of the lobby and compliment her on her silver Bentley Continental.

“I’m selling it.”

I know that if I ask why, she will tell me she doesn’t like the curvature of the dash board or how the back seat ashtrays vacuum her cigarette smoke too directly. Asking questions pisses Else off. Her driver’s name is Howard. But she doesn’t have to say a word to him. Howard knows not to ask. We get into the back seat and the car slips down Michigan Avenue. It’s perfectly silent. No snow crunch under the tires. No rattle from the heater. The first thing I hear is the flitch of my sister’s lighter.

“So you’re here to spend the holidays crying in a graveyard.”

“I just thought it would be nice to have a memorial.”

Else exhales smoke and it’s immediately snatched apart by air currents, vents, suctions, the hidden impedimenta of flawless climate control designed to keep the interior of the Bentley throne-room perfect.

“It’s morbid and useless. You’re smart enough to know that. This is really about the fund, isn’t it.”

“I don’t want your money, Else.”

“SHUT UP YOU FUCKING LIAR!” She slams her cigarette into the ashtray built into the door. “You know it’s about money. It’s ALWAYS about money. I should kick you out into the snow right here.”

“No,” I whisper. “It’s never been about the money.”

Howard changes lanes. We cross the Chicago River. Traffic floats past outside, heading downtown for morning services or home or far, far away from whatever home has come to mean.

So much rage in her little body. Else lights another and we listen to the ashtray whir as it opens and takes her previous cigarette down into its mechanical bowels. Else came into the world as a mistake. That’s what our parents used to say. They never stopped saying it.

When she was 14, they sent her to a convent school in Frankfurt. She spent her holidays there, too. Like she didn’t exist as part of the family. Like the cigarette: whir, click, gone into some fancy garbage disposal.

Four years later, she appeared at the New Years celebration my father’s magazine was throwing in Brooklyn. Else, all grown up, dressed in black, weaaring immaculate boots, a smoker of fine cigarettes, and a lesbian. Three years after that, she married Johann Moll and moved to Geneva. She’s still married to Johann. But why, how, and in what capacity I do not know.

When it comes to my sister, the only thing I can be sure of is that she thinks her trust fund should have been larger—that I received preferential treatment yet again, that I somehow cajoled a chunk of her inheritance away while mom was on her deathbed, and that I’m angling for the rest of it.

Actually, I received nothing. Instead of a trust fund, my mother had intended the family gold—a substantial number of heirlooms that had been in her family since before the Renaissance—to come to me. My father made off with that before the ink was dry on the death certificate.

I had no way to prove anything. But I never complained. I never threatened to kick someone out into the snow. In any ten of Else’s thoughts, eight are invariably about money and one is about something she hates. I like to imagine that the remaining tenth thought might be about art or music or kittens, but it’s probably just about selling her Bentley. In an earlier age, she’d be a cruel Cleopatra, a Lucrezia Borgia, a young Roman matrona rooting for the lions.

Antipater of Sidon is supposed to have written the following in 140 BCE:

I have gazed on the walls of impregnable Babylon along which chariots may race, and on the Zeus by the banks of the Alpheus. I have seen the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Helios, the great man-made mountains of the lofty pyramids, and the gigantic tomb of Mausolus. But when I saw the sacred house of Artemis that towers to the clouds, the others were placed in the shade, for the sun himself has never looked upon its equal outside Olympus.

I have enjoyed that passage ever since I was forced to read it in high school. Antipater of Sidon is the prototypical sidewalk pitchman, the classical version of: Hey buddy, you thought you seen wonders? You ain’t seen wonders. Back here in the tent, shit, I got some wonders. Only five bucks for a look at the sacred house of Artemis. But how might he describe Else’s arrival in Bora Bora?

I have gazed on the 32-karat gold shingles of Johann Moll’s house along which chariots may race, and on Herr Moll dressed as Zeus by the banks of Rhône. I have seen the lingering bad attitude of his wife and her colossal resentment towards her brother, the groundless mountain of irrationality that props up her lofty opinion of herself, and her gigantic ego. But when I saw Else Moll arrive, smoking Gitanes in a diamond palanquin, I knew Bora Bora might never recover, and Otemanu himself might be so offended as to erupt after four million years.

Or something like that. The point is, we travel all the way to her empty Victorian on West Armitage without another word between us. Just cigarette smoke getting suctioned away and Howard engaging the turn signal with silent dignity. The whir of the ashtrays. Dirty snow. Bleak white-gray Chicago Christmas morning beyond the tinted glass. I have all the time I need to speculate about Antipater of Sidon and offending the volcano and how sad my mom must be that we all turned out like this.

The interior of Else’s house is a time capsule of late Victoriana—not because she is in any way enthusiastic about Favrile glass or Morris wallpapers, but because Johann bought the place along with its contents in a single consumerist ejaculation. I have no idea if either of them have spent one night in the house since they signed the papers last year, but I tend to doubt it.

“You can sleep here tonight.” She puts a glass ashtray on the Louis XV rococo coffee table polished to a museum sheen. “But don’t think you’re moving in.”

I imagine how the house cleaners must feel, coming here to dust once a week, nothing ever moved, nothing changed. “I’m not homeless, Else. I actually have a job, a life.”

She smiles, raises an eyebrow. “You’re obsessed with our dead mother. Any woman attracted to you is either stupid or thinks you’re a chump. Or both. You have no life.”

“Speaking of that, I think dad just got back from Bora Bora with a hooker.”

Else walks over to the baroque drink trolley that looks like two brass flamingos having sex while falling to earth. It’s fully stocked. None of the bottles have been opened. The whole room disturbs me. Red Persian rug. Tasseled drapes. The tall stained-glass windows glare with late morning light.

“Who cares. Martini?”

“It’s ten in the morning.”

“It’s Christmas.”

“I’ll pass.”

She shrugs without turning around and makes her drink. “If he wants AIDS, that’s his business.”

Calling Else was dumb. I knew it was. Why did I do it?

“I think I should go.”

“Yeah,” Else says. “Maybe you should.”

She takes a sip of her drink and stares up at the tall window, a blinding red, green, and yellow mosaic showing a saint blessing a pack of dogs. If it was taken from a church, what kind of church? If it was made to order, who would want to look at that every day? Johann?

“Why did you want me to come here? Just to see the inside of the place?”

“This house means nothing to me.”

“Sure.” I stand up to go.

“You don’t understand a thing, do you. You’re completely clueless. My clueless brother.”

She follows me to the door, smoking furiously, then holding her cigarette and drink in one hand and cupping her elbow with the other.

I open the door. Tiny snowflakes swirl around us. “Don’t forget,” I say over my shoulder. “You were a mistake.”

Try to get a taxi in Chicago on Christmas day. I dare you. It’s not impossible. Nothing is impossible. It’s just highly improbable—like every other thing we want. What should take me 30 minutes takes 4 hours and it’s nobody’s fault but mine for letting Else do her number on me yet again.

Somewhere between the house that means nothing and the Hilton, Frankie updates me on his situation.

Manny’s in the car. Okay? When they ask you where he was, you know I said he was in the car.

What?

I’m doing this. It’s the only way. Not for me. For my son.

Don’t talk crazy.

I always liked you, James. But someone has to put a stop to her. She’s evil. She’s fucking up my son’s childhood.

You don’t sound rational, Frankie.

Good-bye.

Hey. Don’t be like that.

And this, too, is Frankie. The last time he got this upset about Bonnie, he threatened to burn down his house. I’m guessing that’s what he has in mind today. Always the same. Good old Frankie Lum, creature of habit.

Only I do not believe—not even in all worlds and all times while infinite monkeys type ad infinitum on infinite keyboards and the means and will and opportunity recur in Frankie’s life like the tide—that he would ever burn his own house down. Had he but world enough and time, he might find the proper expression for his inner turmoil. He might be able to actually say what he signifies by threatening arson. But he doesn’t. And so. And so.

Okay, Frankie. You want to get a beer?

My $67 Christmas cab ride through the most circuitous route known to the driver brings me right up to the front of the Hilton before Frankie responds: okay. Because nobody wants to be alone on Christmas. Of course, he and Bonnie could decide to spend the holidays with each other like a family, but I guess Frankie prefers to work it out by threatening to commit felonies.

I tell him I’ll call him after I go to the graveyard with my father. I’ve already Christmas-guilted the new front desk girl into telling me my father’s room number by the time Frankie texts me back one last time: okay. It’ll give him time to think up a face-saving excuse for not torching his house after all. And whatever he says, I’ll make sure to believe it.

The elevator plays all of The Partridge Family’s “My Christmas Card to You” by the time it gets up to the 17th floor. The music makes me want to shoot myself and does nothing to improve my disposition when I knock on my father’s door.

I’m thinking about Else saying so you’re here to spend the holidays crying in a graveyard, about Frankie standing in front of his house with a gas can and some rags just so the world will take him seriously, and about mom—feeling like I should be somewhere making an apology for my family, burning incense, praying for her soul and her forgiveness. I don’t consider myself particularly religious. But I was raised Catholic. And we know how to do all kinds of guilt.

My father answers the door, still drunk, his black silk bathrobe hanging open. White pubic hair. His enormous belly. He’s got a red fez on his head with a golden tassel and his face is painted like a clown. He looks at me for a moment before realizing who I am.

I resist the urge to walk back down the hall to the elevator. Instead, I put my hands in my pockets.

“What’s with the clown makeup?”

“Hello, Jim. How’d you know I was here?”

“Come BAAACK,” his friend calls from somewhere behind him in the room. “We ain’t done yet.”

He wobbles and holds onto the door frame. “What’re you doing here? You staying here, too?”

“I called you about ten times. I had to follow you here from the airport. It’s Christmas day, dad.”

“No shit.” Then, over his shoulder: “Hey, Carla, didja know it’s Christmas?”

“Today? Wow. Time flies. Hey, who’ya talkin’ to, daddy?”

“Nobody, hun.” He looks at me and thinks. “You need some money? Is that it?”

“I thought we might go over to mom’s grave. You know, just for a few minutes. Put down some roses.”

“I got this party thing later. But let me give you some money, Jim. For Christmas.” He turns back into the room and Carla takes his place. She’s dressed in a green fishnets, a green vinyl babydoll one-piece, green platforms with a big costume emerald on the top of each.

“He’s a sad clown and I’m Poison Ivy. Who’re you?”

“I’m just leaving.”

“Yeah. Okay.” She stifles a burp. “Good.” And she shuts the door.

I’m halfway to the elevator when my father catches up with me. He’s got a vodka tonic in his right hand and a roll of bills in his left. A gangster roll. Living large, my dad.

“Take it. Five-hundred bucks. For Christmas, you know?”

When I don’t reach out and take it, he tosses the roll to me. Reflexively, I catch it. He grins and I feel like an asshole.

“Good,” he drains the rest of his drink. “Gimmie a call next week, okay?”

I toss the roll back at him. It bounces off his belly and lands on the carpet between us.

“Go fuck yourself.”

“Hey.” He bends down to pick up the roll and almost falls on his face. “That’s not right. That’s no way to treat me.”

He doesn’t follow me down to the elevator. He just stands in the middle of the hallway watching me, repeating, “That’s not right, Jim. That’s no way to be,” over and over. The elevator closes and a moment later I can’t hear him anymore. I wonder if he’ll remember that I came by at all. Something tells me Carla won’t mention it.

The lobby is full of happy, smiling families—people visiting relatives in Chicago, people from the west coast, from New York City, from Austria, from North Dakota. I sit in a plush chair in the center and listen to their conversations. I pay attention to my breathing.

Frankie texts me: Look, I need a favor.

Another one?

You didn’t do the last one.

Which should tell you something.

I need you to take Manny until tomorrow night. Is that too gay for words?

Frankie. Gay is okay, you know? You use the word like a 14-year-old. What are you going to do when Manny starts saying things are “so gay”?

Are you really asking me that right now? I’m calling out for help.

It’s the middle of the day and bright, but large flakes drift past the front windows. The Canadian father of three next to me calls it the “polar vortex.”

Did you know it’s never snowed in Bora Bora?

WTF are you talking about? Something’s happened. I need to

There’s a long pause in which I imagine Frankie is trying to come up with a way to seem not so predictable, not so much like an overly dramatic fool.

spend some time with Bonnie. Set her straight about a few things.

You flying to Palm Springs this time?

No. What makes you think that? We’re going to Niagara Falls. But hey we need to take a rain check on that beer. Can you come get Manny ASAP?

He’s forgotten all about me saying I had to go visit my mom’s grave. The dead don’t compute. They don’t exist. They don’t matter when it’s time to go to a casino in Niagara Falls to fall in love all over again or to a costume ball dressed like a mime version of Kasper Gutman. Who’s going to take care of the dead if not us? If not those of us who can still remember them? Staring at my phone, my thumb poised above the little keypad, I ask these questions again for the thousandth time since my mother died on the worst Christmas of my life. Still, in the end, maybe family—any family with a chance to be more than a rabid bunch of animals snapping at each other’s throats—matters more than the dead.

So: Yeah. Okay. We can go to a movie or something.

Cool, man. Can you come right now?

I tell him sure. I’m not doing anything special.

When I go outside to have a cigarette, Else’s driver, Howard, is waiting in the snow, standing by the silver Bentley, with a cardboard sign that reads, JAMES GARRIT. He looks at me as if he’s never seen me before.

“Greetings. Mrs. Moll has told me to take you wherever you need to go today.”

“Has she. Howard, right? I met you earlier.”

“I have no recollection of that, sir.”

I shrug and let him open the car door for me. We pull away from the curb. I imagine I could say nothing and Howard would still know to take me Mount Olivet Cemetery then to Frankie’s house. But I tell him anyway and he simply nods. Beside me on the backseat is a bouquet of 36 large roses. I count them as we go and think about my sister sitting in that house, drinking, looking at the stained-glass saint blessing the dogs.

My cell phone tells me that in Vaitape, it’s 77-degrees, partly cloudy, with a 20% chance of rain. Today, Bora Bora is silent. Otemanu broods, shrouded in mist, knowing nothing of Christmas, while tiny yellow butterfly clouds twist above the jungle. I picture this as the snow falls silently over Chicagoland, over the sidewalks, the river, the Eisenhower Expressway, and my mother’s grave.

Your eyes are closed. And a voice repeats itself: if you can’t eat, you need to sleep. “If you can’t sleep, you need to build something. Something edifying and engrossing. A sculpture. A sculpture that will take you out of yourself and release your attachments.” The voice of Dr. Bentley Philips, your wife’s psychiatrist. He arrived an hour ago, claiming that you called him. It’s possible that you did.

“But that’s only if you can’t sleep,” he says.

Sitting under the chandelier on the white shag of your unfurnished dining room, your new two-story house seems enormous and the night endless. None of the windows have curtains. Through the large bay window in the dining room, the desolation of the new housing development is clear: empty asphalt drives, vacant yards, half-built skeletons of houses. You see the silhouettes of transplanted midget palms waving in the orange glow of sodium vapor lamps around your circular driveway. Evil midget palms with fronds like sword blades. The chandelier is large and electric. It blazes like an alien mothership.

“Can’t you give me something?”

“You mean a fat pill that’ll knock you into next Tuesday?”

Bentley is a Buddhist, does Buddhist psychotherapy. He uses terms like “satori” and “blissful illumination” and talks about “exploding supernovas of joy in the meninges of the skull.”

“You’re an addict, Ed.” He tamps the bowl of his bong with his thumb. “Say, ‘I’m an addict,’ and I’ll write you a script right now.”

It’s possible that you’re an addict. But it’s a fact that, due to meth and despair, you haven’t been sleeping. You’ve been seeing mice at the edges of your vision. Your conversations with yourself in the bathroom mirror have grown cryptic and obscure—as have your talks with the cast of Battlestar Galactica.

“What if I say, ‘Fuck off,’ and punch you in the mouth?” You may be delusional and talking to television characters through the bathroom mirror, but unfortunately you’re not imagining Bentley. You’ve always hated your wife’s psychiatrist.

He shrugs and takes a long draw, tiny wisps of smoke rising from the bowl. The fact that you might have called him in a meth-addled stupor doesn’t make him any less of an asshole. You remind yourself that Bentley, too, shall pass. He coughs out used smoke and tells you to blame yourself, not the drugs. He says you need to admit what you are.

You put on the Sounds of the Humpback Whales CD he has in his boom box, the one he always brings with him to play chants and guided meditations and shit like that. Then, over the sounds of whale fin slapping the water, you tell him he’s a worthless pot-head.

What you don’t say is that you feel worried when you look through the front windows—the opaque, mirror-black world waiting to eat you, the wide circular drive illuminated in the middle of the glass. You watch the midget palms standing around the drive as if engaged in ritual, their fronds fronding the wind as the chandelier waits above, its monstrous mandibular arms glowing with the fires of perdition.

Bentley wants you to hit the bong. He nods and smirks when you wave it off as if he was testing you. There’s no way to blame drugs for this situation. Drugs are innocent. You blame Paula, your ex-wife. Fucking Paula, who abducted all the furniture en route and disappeared.

So if squinting Commander Adama appears in the dark dining room window or behind you in the bathroom mirror and starts telling you you have to roll the hard six just like in the series, you’ll ignore him as a rule. You’ll tell yourself there’s more than enough time to fix his geriatric bullshitty hallucinatory ass. If you see a mouse doing the Macarena across the back of the toilet tank, you’ll blink it gone. You’ll listen to the whales and tell yourself this is not psychosis. This is the necessary meth, the straight dope. Emotional life support. Beyond question. Only meth will save you from a violent probing on the alien mothership, which you feel will be more or less inevitable once the chandelier reveals itself.

The doctor’s triple-chambered bong bubbles as he initiates an herbal satori. The bong is bright orange, as long as Bentley’s arm, with pointillist green arabesques on the side. It’s enormous, faintly penile, slick-looking. The arabesques seem like sequins formed out of abjad. You imagine a woman with needles sticking out of her tongue licking designs into the bong—all about the unpronounceable name of god and forgiveness and how you must turn away from foolishness. Indeed.

The midget palms are right outside the window now. They wave and dip their fronds. Standing between them, Commander Adama beckons. You give him the finger and Bentley laughs. “Hallucinational are we?”

“I’m cold.”

“You’re sweating. Say you’re an addict, Ed. Just say it.”

The necessary meth, the straight dope: if you’re going to be completely honest, you’ll admit that the meninges of the skull cannot withstand more than 72 hours of racing heart and no sleep before acute psychosis sets in.

Psychosis. The big chosis.

This is not something other drugs can prevent, not even satori weed from the good doctor’s bong of enlightenment. Rather, amphetamine psychosis is a Daisy Duke Moment, a stretchy atemporal hiccup of severe disidentification in which you realize that you are now and always have been, say, the Antichrist or a tawny pug that was once shot into space by Soviet physicists or the sexy hillbilly cousin of Bo and Luke Duke for 6 full seasons.

But if you admit to yourself that Commander Adama is actually just a palm tree outside the window, then you must confront the unsettling question: what are palm trees?

“Look at you with your cock bong,” you say. “Have I ever seen you without a bong?”

“Paula has.”

Meth psychosis would constitute a total break in the reality piñata. It would constitute a new state of being in which you’re blindfolded, weeping on the ground, and all the candies of the world will have razorblades in them forevermore. Death Piñata. It’s the Winchester Mystery House on acid. It’s Daisy Duke. It’s Mitt Romney having won instead with plagues of locusts, the death of the firstborn, the Tower of Babel falling down all over again. It’s the chosis that makes the rest of society’s piñata-beaters want to tie you up and throw you in a hole. Daisy Duke? Oh my sweet lord, yes.

“You know, there’s nothing wrong with fucking a psychiatrist up, Bentley. People will probably like me for it. The police will. I could fuck you up right now.”

“With every threat you make, Ed, I grow stronger. You know why? Because I’m a Jedi knight and you’re an addict. That’s why.”

And a voice repeats itself: if you can’t eat, you need to sleep. If you can’t sleep, you need to build something. Something to distract you. Something to relieve you and bless you. Something sacramental. Something to initiate satori. And therefore, you know the only relief possible lies in the construction of an utterly enlightening machine dedicated completely to personal bliss, covered in knobs and cranks, and weighing more than a gun safe from the 1930s. One must build a beautiful, interactive sculpture. A machine, yes, but one that would connect you to the infinite.

“That’s the spirit,” Bentley says. And you realize you’ve been talking out loud, but it doesn’t make the idea any less brilliant. So this is what you do. Infused with the unstable and perhaps inbred hillbilly energy of an impending Daisy Duke Moment, you know you have to roll the hard six. You watch yourself get out some tools, a squirt-can of 3-in1 oil, and the box of machine parts someone left in the front closet. You watch yourself scream incoherently at Bentley like some kind of bloodthirsty pterodactyl. You dance in circles and stamp your feet until he helps you carry in the enormous moldy butcher block you found in the storm drain below the housing development. Then you listen to the whales and start to superglue the parts on.

It takes forever.

It only takes a little while.

It makes you want to gouge your eyes out with a screwdriver.

It makes you giggle like a little girl.

You’re not hallucinating. Those aren’t palm fronds swishing scissor-like beside your ears. That’s not Commander Adama in the foyer with his uniform pants around his ankles. He’s putting Daisy Duke and the new girl-Starbuck through a lesbian bondage routine with ball gags and chains and a stuffed puglet. They’re surrounded by midget palms, but you don’t have time to watch the fronding. You’re at the gound-zero-eleventh-hour-apocalyptic-meltdown-trigger-point-of-all-creation and there’s no time to be a tourist with the whole reality piñata hanging in the balance.

It looks like a chunk of Watts Towers when you finish, an amazing machine bristling with buttons and levers, knobs, cranks. You turn the knobs. You push the buttons.

You do feel slightly better.

“That sculpture you made has focused your thoughts. That’s good, my son,” Bentley says.

“This is a machine that creates satoris, bitch. Drug free. None of your Jedi bullshit. No psychobabble. Just pure, sweet, extra-virgin distractive bliss. Better, by far, than your cock bong. You better recognize.”

Bentley nods, smiles, his eyes nothing but slits. “It’s good that you took my advice, Ed. But remember, those levers don’t actually do anything. They’re just a placebo. They won’t keep you from diving head-first into a drained swimming pool or running over yourself with a car. You will eventually do something like that, you know.”

The thought of running over yourself with a car is terrifying. “Screw that. It’s about focus. You think I’m a meth addict, but you’re high and wrong. I made this machine before you told me to. I made this fucking years ago. I’m ancient like the hills.”

“Addict. That’s what I think. That’s what Paula thinks.”

“Paula has no philosophy and neither do you.”

Bentley’s cackles turn into coughs. He lies back and stares at the mothership chandelier, puts his hands behind his head. “Bliss machine. I like that. Bliss is nice. Machines are nice.”

In the menagerie of lethal street drugs, methamphetamine has had a short yet astonishing history. It is everywhere and nowhere, the redneck grail. It can be made from various combinations of iodine, battery acid, cold pills, acetone, paint thinner, white gasoline, wood ester, fiberglass resin, grain alcohol, liquid ether, and Bisquick. Moreover, it’s frisky and it wants to bring you the paper in the morning. It’s coat has a glossy sheen and it’s just so cute the way it wags its tail. Cute as a button. Meth is a pug that loves you. And it’s never, ever going away.

So let’s say at least some of what you’ve been experiencing has been due to blown-out meninges and perhaps to the sheer stuporous exhaustion that comes from overclocking the bodymind with such chemical puggy goodness. Before you left Gainesville, you had quite the little laboratory in your garage. But you were not a drug dealer. You were a married man with equity and a Prius, a fan of whimsical Rube Goldberg inventions, minor league baseball, and space opera. You recycled. You had a job as a chemical engineer for a company that produces one thing: synthetic lube oil for the nose cones of ICBMs—lube oil that used to come from whale blubber. This was good work you were doing. Yes, Daisy, you were saving the fucking whales. You were saving Free Willy. Sing with them, Daisy. Sing.

In fact, all the drugs you made were for personal use. Contrary to popular belief, meth did not turn you in to a raving, flesh eating werewolf. Rather, it made you more efficient and aware at work while providing an excellent hobby interest. And now, after ten faithful years of whale conservation and making it possible for the United States to turn North Korea into glowing maple syrup for 20 centuries, you don’t even own a bed.

So let’s say you’ve taken up chain smoking as both protest and comfort, sitting against the dining room wall in your boxer shorts, contemplating the mournful song of the humpback whale and pug dogs and battlestars and why Paula is so wrong about everything. Let’s say you’ve been compulsively applying ChapStick and snorting rails of homemade powdered meth at the rate of 250mg every three to four hours for the last 48 consecutive hours. Let’s say you’ve started to twitch. Let’s say a raindrop that got caught on the windowpane made you cry. Nobody loves you. The whales are singing. The house has no furniture.

Bentley’s finishing another bowl. Let’s also say you’re alright with despising him enough to choke him unconscious with one hand if he gets too close.

“Why did I call you? There’s no way I could have called you.”

“Because you need my help,” Bentley says.

And let ‘s admit that your obsession with Battlestar Galactica has also played a role in this—that you are powerless over Battlestar Galactica and that your life has become unmanageable. You look over at the machine you built, the Blissful Illumination Machine (BIM). It’s now covered by an old T-shirt. It’s sitting on the carpet where the dining room table should be.

“I need furniture is what I need.”

“Yeah.” Bentley nods. “That’s true.”

The current meninges-frying meth binge started 48.5 hours ago with a call in the deep end of the night, the phone squealing like a child shocked out of a dream. It’s alright, you said half-sleep, daddy’ll take care of everything. But you don’t know why you said that because you don’t have kids. You were holding the phone upside-down in the dark.

“What did you call me?” said the little voice.

“Are you the movers?” you asked. “I told you not to call me at night. For chrissake, it’s the middle of the night. This is unacceptable.”

“Ed Tiller? There’s an end table here with your name on it, Mr. Tiller. We thought you’d want to know.”

“It’s almost midnight. You should have been here last week.”

Creeping death: you knew exactly why they were late, why you’d been sleeping on a blanket for days under a sinister chandelier in the dining room—the only room with carpet and therefore the warmest place in the house since the heaters didn’t work.

“We’re in Lubbock,” he said. “I’m sorry. We’re in Lubbock.”

But that was 48.5 hours ago when you were psychologically defenseless. Now you’re higher than Luke Skywalker and you’ve got the BIM finished and you don’t have to dwell on Lubbock or calls in the middle of the night letting you know your soon-to-be-ex-wife had the movers divide your possessions in a truck stop parking lot.

Under the T-shirt, the levers and protrusions of the BIM resemble a jumble of bones under a shroud, a fat pug skeleton. Could the image of a skeletal pug bring enlightenment under a shirt? Why not? Dipping a pug in acid and wrapping up the bones is not something Rube Goldberg would kick you out of heaven for. Saint Rube, patron of over-engineered machines and useless gestures. Ave Sanctus Rubius, hear our prayer.

“I’m hungry. Big surprise there.” Bentley laughs at his own wit. You notice Captain Starbuck and Commander Adama making out over in the foyer. They’re sloppy, loud. It’s horrible.

“I’ve got some instant coffee in the kitchen,” you say. “That’s it.”

You focus on the BIM with all your power, trying to block out the slurping, smacking noises.

“You should switch to xenadrine, Ed. Contains ephedrine, caffeine, aspirin. Best legal speed there is, actually. You could crush it up.” Something mocking in Bentley’s voice.

“You’re the worst doctor I’ve ever met. What did you ever do for Paula anyway?”

“I freed her from the illusion of separation, Ed. And I made sweet love to her vagina. Say you’re an addict, Ed. Say it.”

Hideous. But you’re not coming down to his level. You’re not down with killing pugs yet. There’s one last episode of Battlestar Galactica: the Reimagined Series waiting. One. Only one. And if you can get over the image of Starbuck and Commander Adama going at it, maybe you can finally get closure. The dvd has been sitting on your laptop, looking at you. But you have approximately 25 minutes left on the laptop battery and, thanks to Paula, no power cord—no way to recharge without leaving the house for Radio Shack. Is it even possible to leave the house? No. It isn’t.

Bentley has the munchies. He goes to look for the instant coffee, which he says he’s going to eat. But he’ll never find it because you actually taped the packets under the sink, realizing, in one of your more precognitive moments, that otherwise anyone could take them. You start to chuckle. You hold your hand out and can’t stop it from shaking.

No, it’s not possible to go anywhere outside. You’d wind up in the drunk tank, spread-eagled over a fender, tortured in a basement. Nothing good ever happens in a basement. And you’re sure nothing good is exactly what would happen to you. The world beyond the house’s airlock is the cold vacuum of space, the cruel stars waiting, and no luscious Captain Starbuck to love you and make it alright.

“Where the hell is it?” Bentley’s voice is hollow and slightly lower coming from the kitchen. Commander Adama and Starbuck have reverted to their natural midget palm state. The foyer is now a tropical island. Toucans. The dulcet tones of a ukulele. Turn the cranks of the BIM. Pull the levers. Ave Sanctus Rubius.

“What? Bentley you fuck? Munchies? Feeling a drug craving? Wishing you had a plate of chimichangas, perhaps? Pizza? A big bowl of buttered popcorn? Say you’re an addict, Bentley. Say it. Then maybe I’ll tell you where I had the—sandwiches.”

He’s back in a flash, standing over you, hands balled into fists. “You’re mentally ill,” he says. “You’re addicted to illegal narcotics. That’s why you’re so cruel.”

“A whole cooler of sandwiches straight from Safeway, Bentley. Just think about it.”

“It’s not you, Ed. It’s the horrible disease of chemical dependency in you.”

“Turkey. Pastrami. Tomato basil. Lightly drizzled with olive oil.”

“You sick bastard.”

“Chipotle antipasto on rosemary flat bread with capers and chicken remoulade.”

For a moment, he looks like he’s going to cry, which is good.

“Caramelized onions, Bentley. Hear me? Caramelized.”

Then he does, a single tear rolling down his cheek. “You know, I never doubted what Paula said about you. But I never understood how deep your sickness goes.”

“Paula snorted Xanax on a nightly basis and couldn’t get off unless I choked her. Welcome to my world, Bentley.”

“So.” He wipes his cheek, takes a deep breath and tries to smile but now he’s twitching, too. “Were you just kidding about the sandwiches?”

In the course of watching the entire Battlestar Galactica series 13 consecutive times—always high and always stopping short of the Final Episode—you have come to believe that a power greater than yourself could restore you to sanity. You said as much to Paula when you were still living with her back in Florida and she was complaining about your nightly viewings. “Honey,” you said, “I think there’s something encoded here. Something metaphysical. I think Captain Starbuck might be talking to me. I mean, really talking to me.”

“Starbuck is talking to the camera, Ed.”

“I think I believe in god. A numinous reality. The communion of saints. The forgiveness of sins. The whole fucking thing. It’s there. It’s right there. I think I’ve finally got religion.”

And then she pointed to the sign she’d made a week before, the sheet of printer paper taped over your desk that read: “CAPTAIN STARBUCK ISN’T REAL. SHE IS AN ACTRESS NAMED KATEE SACKHOFF IN A TV SHOW THAT ENDED. YOU ARE AN IDIOT.” Paula’s pointing nail was a bloody claw and her eyes were dead moons of resentment. Maybe she was right and you are an idiot. But there can be no denying that the words Captain Starbuck speaks are oracular in nature, that Battlestar Galactica might have ruined your marriage but it might also have saved your soul. And, yes, it is possible that Paula resembled a Cylon.

In fact, it would not be untoward to say that in spite of saving the whales from nuclear nose cones, faithfully sorting bottles from cans, and pulling down six figures to keep dear Paula in gold rings and Gucci, there was never a time when married life seemed right and stable. That is, except for said moments of chemical methamphetamine communion with the words of Captain Starbuck, whose wisdom yet warms the cockles of your heart.

Paula was no Captain Starbuck. She knew it, too. And hell hath no fury like a woman scorned for a television show. But please. Paula owned enough handbags to kill a normal human. Handbag overdose: Gucci, Melli Blanco, Prada, Dolce and Gabbana, DKNY, House of Florence, even one made of pure black goat. Open her closet and there they were—leather-smelling, ruby studded, chained with nubbins of white gold and clasps and little symbols. A Babylon of bags. And a hanging garden of shoes. And Paula with her cartons of Virginia Slims and five different groups of friends you didn’t even know about for the longest time and were never allowed to meet.

Paula’s calves were cut like rocks and the fake breasts she got from Husband Number One were hanging in there strong at a generous C. She had her own bedroom. But you always had breakfast together. Damn those breakfasts were good. You could feel the love bubbling in the bacon. And she didn’t mind that you had a laboratory in the garage. She didn’t even notice if for months or didn’t care until you spoke for 17 hours—couldn’t stop speaking—about mysteries, Cylons, oracles, galactic sorcery. She made you dump the beakers before you moved and that should have told you.

Her brown hair was always in a twist. Her cellie blew up nightly. Callers with names like J-Dub, Rickkie, Kayreesha, Fabian d’Alonzo. Who’s named Fabian in this day and age, you wanted to know, but that was part of the You Don’t Ask and I Won’t Tell part of the marriage, the biggest part, and Paula wasn’t telling. Your obsession with Battlestar Galactica tore it. Maybe it meant you’d never assimilate and take a name like Rock-D and start wearing shiny tight-fitting shirts to clubs with one-syllable names. In your defense, Paula had no ear for the oracular.

Between man and wife, man and Daisy Duke, or man and pug dog, there can be a great sadness. But there comes a time when man and dog must reconcile. Dog is dead, says man’s wife. Man is dead, says dog. But you could imagine a better way. In a world gone mad, space opera is the ultimate anodyne. You quit reading scripture years ago. You went through a poetry phase. Sure you read Flowers of Evil and it seemed to mean something at the time, but Paris imagined as a bloated whore doesn’t uplift. And, in the end, the best that you could say for Baudelaire was that he liked cats. As for “Tintern Abbey,” don’t even bother. You got “Ozymandias” and most of William Carlos Williams and the jokes of Billy Collins and Howl and Leaves of Grass but whatever the leaves meant didn’t catch and, after all, you couldn’t smoke them. There was no Burning Bush Effect, no Daisy Duke Moment, no divine revelation from the mouths of the gods. This you got from Captain Starbuck, her voice flowing like Hecate’s fountain: Gorgo, Mormo, Moon of a Thousand Forms. Yes.

So you made a decision to turn your will and life over to the care of Captain Starbuck as you understood her. It wasn’t wrong. It was following your bliss. And that can’t be wrong. Even if your wife has not left you and there’s an end table with “Ed Tiller” on it sitting in a parking lot in Lubbock, Texas.

The only thing keeping you from ending it all is the BIM and the Final Episode. You lost your job. You lost your marriage. You lost the whales you should have been saving from nose cones. And you lost all the clothing you’d had in your drawers. All you’ve got left is this two-story tract house in Santa Monica, two boxes of shirts, a laptop, a psychiatrist baked out of his mind, and sorrow. And after the Final Episode, you can die as you’ve lived: a nothing, a failure, a no one. A zero. An empty crying thing, blown out of the Battlestar airlock and falling up into the big dark.

You wake up listening to your breathing. The side of your face is bonded to the shag with vomit. The whales are still singing. You’re fairly certain it’s your vomit. You take the T-shirt off the BIM and look at it, inhaling it’s 3-in-1 oil, turning its cranks. The base is solid wood—the butcher block, moldy and unlegged. On its surface, you have affixed rubberized red knobs, lathe handle, stippled cranks, link arms, handle washers, index sprockets, casefeed arm stop pins, an assortment of jam nuts, a camming pin, and a variety of other components which were unlabeled and which will now never need labels. From the same cardboard box you found in the front closet, you obtained the plastic spout bottle of 3-in-1 oil with a skull on the back and WARNING: HARMFUL IF SWALLOWED in bright red. But not harmful to the BIM. To the BIM, it’s holy anointing oil. And as you manipulate the parts, you breathe in the scent of the mechanical world and sigh.

Bentley must have left earlier. He’s back now, cooking lamb chops. He’s got a plastic bottle of vodka, which he alternately drinks from and pours into the frying pan. He took his pants off at some point. He’s dancing from foot to foot in pale yellow boxers, singing Bye-Bye Miss American Pie while he fries up the chops. The question as to whether Bentley has anything beyond pot and booze in his system is now moot. High or crazy stops mattering after a while. Doctor Bentley. Mr. Rational. God’s gift to the psychiatric profession and mental health everywhere is singing at the top of his voice and frying lamb chops in your kitchen for reasons you cannot fathom, shatterproof plastic gallon of vodka notwithstanding.

You un-skitch your face from the shag and wobble upright.

“Bentley? Bentley-poo? What are you doing, Bentley-poo?”

You feel like a child walking for the first time. A new world on stilts. Everything tilting. A sudden great pure-hearted sense of accomplishment. You did it! Look, honey, junior’s walking. But as for the hideous pulsing agony in your meninges? Ignore it. Ignore the sudden anxiety you feel, realizing that the BIM will be back in the dining room and therefore out of arm’s reach if you walk into the kitchen. Banish it. There’s a psychiatrist present. The psychiatrist who had everything to do with the abduction of your furniture and the dematerialization of your wife into the post-marital vapor of Lubbock, Texas.

Bentley dances and sings like some stubbly lamb-chop-frying satyr, raising up and fluttering his hands at key points in the song as if to say, Hallelujah! I’ve been saved by lamb meat! Instead, he sings, Them good old boys are drinking whiskey and rye and flips the chops as if they were pancakes. Hot oil splatters.

“Bentley? Are you alright, my little friend? What are you doing, Bentley-poo? Did you get into your medicine bag?”

The aroma of lamb chops and cheap vodka is repellent, but you will not be repelled from your own kitchen, even if the only pan in it is the Teflon fryer he must have bought along with the booze. Your head pounds with each step forward.

“Come on, now. Let’s come back to Earth. It’s a Class M planet with gravity and an atmosphere. You’ll like it on Earth.”

Singin’ this will be the day that I die. He does a Michael Jackson spin but shrieks when he sees you in the kitchen doorway and drops the vodka. True to its design, the bottle does not break, the plastic stopper at the mouth preventing all spillage. Some bottle designer out there understands the health principle of keeping one’s vodka wet and one’s powder dry. Momentarily distracted, maybe hypnotized, you notice the tide of the vodka in the bottle. But with every rise and fall, the agony in your head grows worse. There’s no preventing that. You cover your face with your palms and breathe. When you take your hands away, Bentley has backed up against the far wall, staring at you, holding the frying pan out as if it were some holy relic against evil.

“Stay the fuck away from me.” His eyes are big and terrified. He jabs at you with the pan, the lamb chops in it sizzling. You notice the entire left side of his body is covered in blood.

“What did you do, Bentley? Is that your blood?”

“Blood? What the fuck do you want with my blood?” He looks left and right. He’s cornered. To his left stands the enormous empty refrigerator that came with the house. To his right, a wall. “You want my fucking blood. You’re a fucking vampire. I knew it.”

“Bentley. I’m not a vampire. Now put down the chops.”

“You’re a vampire and if you don’t step away from me, I’m gonna use this on you. I mean it.”

Holding the side of your head, you step past the vodka bottle and reach out to take the frying pan, which in retrospect, you should not have done. Bentley screams the impassioned death cry of a small mammal about to be snapped up for dinner and throws the entire contents of the frying pan—vodka, hot oil, and two medium-well lamb chops—at your face. You duck just in time to get a spray of searing oil across your back, burning through your T-shirt.

Bentley follows the hot oil over you, diving head-first, and hits the floor hard. He slips but gets up and disappears out the kitchen. You also slip—on a lamb chop—and land flat on your back. Your head hurts too much for you to get right back up. Your back is burned. However, you do have the energy to scream, “Goddamn you, Bentley, I am not a fucking vampire. I’m a werewolf and when I find you, I’m gonna make you my werewolf bitch and burn you with fucking cooking oil you fucker.”

But by the time you find him, you feel you understand him.

The BIM brought you back and the chops were good. Proximity breeds tolerance, maybe even complacency. Moving through the house, frying pan dripping warm oil onto your hand, you revert from murderous to melancholy. What, for example, was more important: caving in the skull of your wife’s psychiatrist or watching the Final Episode? If sitting for a moment beside your Blissful Illumination Machine could bring you back, where were you? What does it really mean to want immediate and brutal vengeance on a wife-stealing psychiatrist when the cruel stars wait in the trackless void? When you finish turning the cranks and inhaling the scent of the BIM’s holy oil, you realize that these were the sort of questions Paula could have asked herself before deciding to leave you without furniture or hope.

By the time you decide to ask Bentley about his role in this, you’re standing outside the bathroom door, listening to him scream: “It’s locked! It’s locked, okay? Locked. And when the sun comes up, I’m gonna find your coffin!”

“You got into the meth and you’re paranoid, my brother. Paranoia. Shouldn’t you know about that?”

A dedicated meth addict will develop an extrasensory understanding of the drug at some point, made from one part intuition and three parts memory of previous bad decisions. It comes with the territory and it can calm you down in the throes of a bad run that’s otherwise putting a pressure cooker death clamp on your meninges. What once was an army of brain-sucking, face-eating ghouls climbing up towards your bedroom window can be attributed to inchoate fears attributed to possessed midget palms in the drive or some other fearful agency. And gods willing, you may tell yourself: yes, that might be an octopus tentacle sticking out of the mouth of my dead third-grade teacher standing in the other room, but I understand that if I sit very still and operate the dials on this BIM, she will not notice me.

Bentley pounds on the bathroom door and tells you he knows you’re undead. “I should have staked your heart when I had the chance,” he says. What he hasn’t learned yet is that running only encourages the monsters.

“Dr. Philips, my good friend, you snorted a pile of meth from the big jar in the pantry. You were not ready for this. Magic meth, Bentley. Makes you think everyone’s a vampire. Gives you a nosebleed and a lust for lamb meat.”

Now he’s weeping, saying “Paula” over and over. You sit down against the bathroom door and hold up the frying pan: no oil, a yellow-brown drip trail leading down the hallway toward the stairs.

“What about Paula? What did you do to her?”

He slumps against the other side of the door. “You think you’re the only one who hurts, Ed? I hurt.” The pain in his voice. The remorse. Only one woman could inspire those feelings. But you can’t see your former wife and Bentley as any kind of item. Paula, the dance club going, fake Florida tan having, Prada wearing, hip-hop-hit-me-on-my-two-way no-you-can’t-meet-my-friends diva of the universe getting together with rail-thin, balding Bentley? Inconceivable.

“You’re telling me you had an affair with my wife? Or are you just high and delusional? I think what you want to be is high and delusional.”

“She married you didn’t she? You don’t think she’d step out? You don’t think she ever did? She told me she had five affairs you knew about. And then there were the ones that you didn’t know about.”

“Bentley, tell me I’m not going to have to beat the fuck out of you with this frying pan.”

There’s scuffling, some thuds, and grunting from within the bathroom.

“You’re destroying my new house.”

“It’s not your house! Paula owns it all now!” Then the sound of breaking glass—the small bathroom window being punched out since he couldn’t get it to slide up on its casement. You listen to him grunt and strain. Eventually, he returns and slumps back against the door, exhausted.

“Bentley?”

“I don’t speak to vampires.”

And that’s where things stand, philosophically. You ask Bentley to unlock the door a few more times, but he’s determined to make good on his no vampire communication policy. That and maybe he’s forgotten how the lock works, which is also a very real possibility. In order to clean his wounds or because he has recalled the legend that vampires cannot cross running water, he turns on all the taps and begins flushing the toilet repeatedly.

When the water seeps underneath the door and wets your shorts, you stand and wander through the upstairs rooms, the pain in your head lessening somewhat but still undeniably there. The empty unfurnished bedrooms. The barren inset shelves of the study. Slanting orange bars of light through vertical blinds. All the space, empty, useless, made for occupants leading more abundant lives with jobs and books and the unnamed end tables of domestic bliss. With such space, it’s no wonder that you’ve been under high levels of strain. When one reaches out in the darkness and touches nothing, what makes sense? When one’s wife says she’ll be there but spirits the furniture away to Lubbock, what is normal?

Standing at the top of the stairs, looking through the window over the circular drive, you banish the thought that the midget palms are still waiting for you out there. That’s just drug shit, paranoia. If you’d gone the distance and actually paid for some high-class metallic sodium instead of being lazy and using the more readily available ammonia and battery acid, none of this would have happened. You’d have gotten Ye Goode Oulde Dependable High, mild euphoria, perhaps a hard-on. But this: tremors, visions, agonizing headache, heartbroken terrified psychiatrist flooding your house, nervous breakdowns, grief, Saint Rube Goldberg shaking his head in dismay while incoherent screaming and splashing comes from the bathroom.

Or not a nervous breakdown. Maybe just a Goldberg Variation—like St. Goldberg’s Self-Operating Napkin, which raises a string, jerks a table, pours seeds into a cup, and sets off a tiny rocket that will cause the napkin to wipe one’s chin—a small chain reaction, an invention meant to play between the acts, meant to keep you sufficiently amused as you move through disrecognized domestic space, from having to having not, from end table to absence in the big bad dark.

Or your beloved Daisy Duke Moment: one moment, you’re a mildly depressed, slightly drug-addicted chemical engineer living beyond your means in Gainesville with a wife named Paula and the next moment you’re here, looking at your reflection in a window at night, hallucinating a tawny pug head in the place of your own. A few hours ago, battery acid having its filthy way with your meninges, you’d have believed a pug reflection—floppy little ears, watery soulful eyes, a certain Cosmonaut fervor in the seriousness of the expression.

By your watch calculator, it’s now been 50.7 hours since the movers called, 48.4 hours since you realized Paula never had any intention of arriving with the furniture to “talk things out.” Talk. Shit. Without furniture, all other marital issues are irrelevant. At this point, the only intelligent response is to huff, sniff the air, and yowl at the chandelier in socialist pug sorrow. And only Captain Starbuck has the answers. Soon you will play the Final Episode on your laptop while you make a searching and fearless moral inventory. Soon the Oracle will whisper to the maelstrom of your soul. And you will, at last and for all time, find release.

Your eyes are closed. And a voice repeats itself: I’m dying. Can’t you see that? It’s dark. I’m slipping away.

“No you’re not,” you say to the wall outside the bathroom. “You’re just a little upset, man.”

At some point, Bentley turned off the faucets. The water stopped seeping under the door and dripping through to the pantry and rooms on the ground floor. The voice sounds like it belongs to Bentley. Then again, you would be crazy to attribute everything to him when you have been so hallucinatory in the timeless Daisy Duke moment of all bad drugs—when the meninges try and fail to reassemble themselves on the brainpan and all assumptions about what’s real and what’s a hallucination must pass away. Your head continues to pound, to throb with each heartbeat, and you decide the voice is not coming from Bentley after all. Everything is quiet. The dark hallway. The locked bathroom door. Maybe’ while you’ve been holding a hallucinatory dialogue with yourself, something has actually happened to the good doctor. You reach up and try the door again. It’s still locked.

I’m dying, the voice says. Can’t you see that?

You’re not dying, Bentley. Nobody’s dying. I’m suffering from hallucinations brought on by sustained sleep deprivation and methamphetamine use.

Don’t you want to talk about it?

“There is no talk. Talk doesn’t work. There’s only: unlock the bathroom door. There’s only: eject Bentley from the house. There’s only: plug in the laptop and watch the Final Episode.”

And get Paula back?

“Paula’s never coming back, Bentley. I know that.”

Which may be the truest thing you’ve said to yourself all night. Because you are talking to yourself, aren’t you?

Aren’t you?

You try the bathroom door again and kick it a few times, screaming at Bentley for being such a worthless asshole. Because he is that, isn’t he? He’s that above all else.

You’ve replaced Sounds of the Humpback Whales with R.E.M.’s Eponymous. Drifting through the rooms to the third complete cycle of the album, you wonder exactly how long it’s going to take for this shitty album to make you hurt yourself. For that matter, how long can a psychiatrist withstand R.E.M. after a night of humpback whales in heat? Not long. With meth, less so. Traipsing through the house, doing little ballet pirouettes, you sing along with “Talk About the Passion” at the top of your voice—off-key maybe, but is there really a key? And besides, the whole point is to get Bentley to come out of the bathroom, possibly so you can kill him and certainly so you can urinate.

You discovered that the power cord to the laptop wasn’t missing after all—an incredible relief. You had no memory of tying it with a rubber band and hiding it between the shirts in your suitcase. Finding it there made you wonder what else you might have hidden away while high or blacked out. Gangster rolls of fifties? The house keys you misplaced shortly after arriving, sweaty and trembling from the airport? Yet more meth?

Bentley wasn’t careful with your current dope storage jar. You find it in the pantry, open on its side, a long yellow-white drift from the mouth of the jar to the edge of the wooden shelf. And if you were a desperate wild-eyed junkie in the classic Hollywood sense, if you’d bought the meth to use because you needed it, if that were your lifestyle, Bentley’s carelessness might have sent you over the edge into a murderous werewolf fever of spitting and cursing and hammering the bathroom door with an oily frying pan. Instead, you know you can just make more.

As Michael Stipe starts up with “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,” you consider the fact that you have resources. A BIM for stability. A house. Access to an Oracle of the Gods. A psychiatrist locked in your bathroom. To say nothing of all the drugs you want and the knowledge of how to make more.

You consider the possibility that doing one more rail of meth, just as a fortifying measure, wouldn’t hurt at all. Just one rail. One for old time’s sake. One for Commander Adama. One for the Gipper. One for Daisy Duke, Captain Starbuck, JFK, and Yanni. One for the fucking whales. One for sadness and alliteration, disorientation, disrecognition, distention, and the patent disregard of everything displeasing.

Yeah, disidentification. Right before the Soviet physicists initialize the launch sequence and your tawny pug ass goes sky-high along with casefeeds and camming pins, the mechanical universe squealing into space like battlestars gone wild. The BIM—you’ve got your beautiful, impractical bliss machine at least—a calming vector of predictability if you can just keep cranking the cranks.

So you do another line and the meninges start to sizzle.

The movers might not be coming west of Lubbock after all, of course. Santa Monica might not be on their itinerary. But you’ve got their number. And you can find them. And they know it. At least there’s that. At least you’ve got Captain Starbuck and an enormous jar of home-cooked methamphetamine hydrochloride and the Final Episode. Another rail and another smoke, lighter jumping around so much that you have to press your hand against the wall to hold it steady. You dial the movers, but they don’t answer and you’ll be damned if you’re going to start leaving them messages.

Disidentification of disrecognized space: this house could be a beautiful meth lab. A lab and a shrine. Statues to Jesus Malverde, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Saint Rube. Prayer beads, candles, and incense. An enormous day-glow poster of Captain Starbuck and Daisy Duke healing the sick of Calcutta. And all around it: separatory funnels, Bunsen burners, reaction vessels, plastic storage containers, large glass beakers, Mason jars, Pyrex, plastic Igloo coolers. Even the BIM would be wired in. A Rube Goldberg meth machine to reflect the hideous spirit of the times, putting out pounds of meth with no other purpose than to get you high and keep you there. Meth for meth’s sake. But Paula made you get rid of all your beakers before the move. Where are the goddamn Soviet physicists to shoot you into space now? Asking is pointless. Nobody cares. The pug weeps crystal tears.

The phone rings. Surprise. It’s the movers.

“I thought you were in Lubbock,” you say, yowling a little like a pug for emphasis before you shake off the Daisy Duke Moment and feel ready to communicate the full and proper extent of your indignation about your furniture being abducted.

“We were. There’s still the matter of the end table, sir.”

“There’s a lot more at stake here than just an end table, fucker. There’s a Malm and a Stolmen, an Elgå, a Brimnes, an Aspvik, and Expedit, and, yes, a Framstå. That’s all high-end Swedish shit, purchased at great difficulty and expense from the international importer, Ikea. I don’t expect you people to know about that or appreciate it, but it means a lot to me.”

“We don’t have anything like that.”

“You LIE! You’ve stolen my Aspvik!” Yes and then you hang up.

Taken intranasally in powder form, quality methamphetamine will produce a reasonable euphoria, a gentleman’s euphoria, not an all-encompassing derangement of the senses. It won’t come on like a freight train. Not a screaming bondage snuff film with ball gag and bodily fluids flying through the air, but rather like fantasy night with Sue Ellen Ellen, pristine captainette of the cheer team after the big game—soft-core and blushing with all kinds of muted pink goodness you want to keep and hold tight in the warm center of your center. So some fuck dumps your Aspvik in Lubbock and you decide it’s time for another rail because what the hell else are you going to do? What would Captain Starbuck do sans Aspvik?

You are now perfectly and completely ready to have Captain Starbuck remove all defects from your character. This is how you intend to make amends to those you may have hurt—what you intend to admit to Bentley, to yourself, and to Paula if she ever talks to you again. You will admit the precise nature of your wrongs. Because, as much as Paula has wrecked your life, can you really blame her?

It’s still dark outside and it has begun to rain. How much time has passed tonight? Aeons. Minutes. The cold vault of the heavens wheeling through the centuries. The midget palms creeping a little bit closer in the fronding of a moment. Those cruel stars.

If you can’t eat, you need to sleep. If you can’t sleep, you need to build something. Something edifying an engrossing. But how engrossing can a therapeutically Buddhist invention be if it spontaneously disintegrates? The fact that you do not see the BIM when you return to the dining room could mean that it has actually disappeared or that it is now invisible.

You close your eyes and try to get steady. Walk home to an empty house, sit around all by yourself / I know it might sound strange, / but I believe / You’ll be coming back before too long sings Michael Stipe. And, at least for the moment, you are inclined to agree. Screw Rockville—never go back! And screw Paula and screw Bentley sneaking around with his Freudian penis bong and all his Buddhist drama. So you’re having difficulties with reality. Who isn’t?

Yes?

Well, just consider where you are.

That’s the problem. I’m beginning to have doubts.

Lack of certainty is not certainty of lack. Quack. Quack.

Are you on drugs?

Yes, as a matter of fact, I am. What’s that got to do with anything?

Everything.

Something better happen soon, sings Michael, or it’s gonna be too late to bring you back. You feel he’s singing directly to you. How could he not be singing directly to you? You’re the only one here. The only other option is Bentley. And where is Bentley?

Your wife’s psychiatrist is not here being sung to. That’s one thing you know. And yet, the BIM hasn’t re-materialized. You make a searching inventory:

  1. The Rooms: empty.
  2. Bentley: gone as gone gets. Bathroom door open now. Tentacles of mist from shower hanging in the still air of the hall. It’s important to be clean. But still. Where is a psychiatrist liable to hide?
  3. The BIM: also gone. Maybe even gonner than Bentley-gone. Was it ever actually there? Were you? Stop that.
  4. Depression: everywhere but where the BIM used to be. You’re not coming down, but you’re not high, either. More like you’re sideways, as they say, stepping sideways. Things apporting hither and thither around the property. The midget palms once again inching their way up the drive. You can see those bastards with their bastard fronds. You know what they’re up to.
  5. The Whales: safe, for now.

In the kitchen, almost as if through some kind of demonic punctuation, some kind of horrible inevitability, your hand comes away from your mouth slick with blood. Bentley’s? Terrible possibilities snap and crackle across the meninges. Horror of horrors: Bentley left a perfect bloody hand print right at the place where he caromed against the white kitchen wall. The print is crusted burgundy with palm lines so clear and fine that a fortune teller could read his destiny. And double-horror: the print fits your hand perfectly. You’ve murdered Dr. Bentley.

Screaming wordlessly, your hand stuck to the print, magnetized there, you know you killed him and drank his blood. You are a vampire. And so it makes sense that you’re now condemned to die with your own hand fitted in the print, stuck forever to the evidence of your guilt. Poetic justice. No Buddhist therapy for something like this. No Blissful Illumination Machine. No love. No drugs. No Aspvik to soothe the meninges of the skull.

If you can’t eat, you need to sleep. Remember the blood on your face. It’s your blood, the mother of all nosebleeds covering your mouth and chin. You stop screaming. Michael Stipe tells you that Everybody else in town only wants to bring you down / and that’s not how it ought to be. But you’ve seen R.E.M.’s music actually make cats vomit. So you can’t be bothered by Michael Stipe’s senseless infantile puling. Especially when you’re bleeding and stuck. Then again, maybe all this blood is yours and none of it comes from Bentley.

Would that make you feel better?

I’m not sure.

You’re bleeding to death, you know.

Nobody dies of a nosebleed.

Look at your shoes.

They’re squishy, filled with blood. You wonder how all that blood got from your nose to your feet without getting on your pants. You really need to find a way to unstick your hand from the wall. The blood has attracted the midget palms. They crowd into the kitchen, Commander Adama walking behind. His face is a skull. He’s wearing a cowboy hat. He cracks a bullwhip, driving them forward.

“The hard six!” he screams. “The hard six!”

And you go down, screaming, vomiting, into the fronding dark.

The sun rises without event.

The midget palms are gone and it appears you are alive. Moreover, your hand is unstuck from the wall. Even the hand print is gone. After searching the entire house and silencing Michael Stipe, you realize there is only one place you haven’t looked for Bentley.

It takes you 15 minutes to climb the back trellis and onto the peaked roof. As soon as you stand up, you see Bentley, sitting on the edge of the peak that looks out over the empty swimming pool filled with dead leaves, the back yard with artificial grass, the drainage ditch. Beyond that: the housing development, gridlock on the I-5, morning haze over Los Angeles.

Bentley’s been up here all along, using the BIM as a back support. No blood. Yellow polo. Brown khakis. He shaved and smells like gardenia.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” he says when you walk up and sit beside him.

“We?” The lights of downtown are still winking in the deep haze like a fallen constellation. The half-developed housing project is speckled with pools of shadow around the inner frames of unfinished homes.

“Me and Paula.”

You look behind, but the roof is empty except for you and Bentley.

“Paula isn’t here.”

Bentley glances at you and smiles. “Well, perhaps not; though there is always the possibility that you can’t see her.”

“I can see you well enough.”

“Can you?”

He stands and moves the BIM so that its dials and cranks face you. You turn the dials and crank the cranks.

“I feel better. Thanks.”

“It really works, doesn’t it?” He smiles again. “Now do you trust me?”

Behind him, the sky has already changed from faint violet to pale blue. The stars have faded. The distant lights of the city are almost all gone now. Somewhere close by, two cats shriek at each other, about to fight.

“I didn’t kill you after all.”

“No, Ed, you didn’t. It’s not possible for you to kill me.”

“I think I’m sick, Bentley.”

“You’re an addict, Ed. Just say it. Say it and I’ll show you how to be free.”

At the other end of the roof, Captain Starbuck is trying to set fire to the house with a fistful of burning rags while blue uniformed Commander Adama looks on and smiles. He no longer has a skull face, but he’s still wearing the cowboy hat. A naked Daisy Duke covered in spiders with medusa-like palm fronds sticking out of her head crawls up over the edge of the roof on all fours like a lizard. She has a knife in her teeth. You can’t bear the sight and have to look away. Fresh blood drips out of your nose, making the old bloodstains on your shirt glisten.

“Just say it. Say I’m an addict.

“I’m an addict.”

Bentley’s smile gets wider. He holds up a Styrofoam cup and squirts the BIM’s holy 3-in-1 oil into it, then hands it to you. “Bottoms up,” he says.

“Won’t that mess me up?”

“You’re an addict. You said it yourself.”

In a way beyond words, that makes perfect sense. You nod and Bentley nods back. On the tip of the roof, you knock back a full cup of machine oil. It tastes surprisingly good before you feel your stomach seize and twist with a pain you’ve never felt before.

“Now do the right thing,” he whispers in your ear.

And you realize that you never saw the Final Episode and now you never will.

Captain Starbuck is behind you. She speaks with Paula’s voice. “Do the right thing, Ed.”

You nod, spread your arms, and dive into the empty backyard pool, knowing that it will open and you will fly through, at last free and blissful, into the big dark.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatever. Just please let go of me.”

“Oh. Sorry. Yes. Absolutely.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Jim,” she said, “hear me out.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t think—“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have two children,” she said.

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

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

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

1. Veritas vos Liberabit

Karl Lessing and I decided to finish the five gallon jugs of flat Michelob his little brother had liberated from a frat party. It felt like a big decision. This was 1993. We were sitting in Karl’s parents’ garage, watching old footage of Tower of Power’s “What is Hip?” on Soul Train. And it all seemed to go together—the cheap plastic folding chairs, the Everlast heavy bag bandaged with silver electrical tape, the beat-to-shit Zenith with a wire hanger for rabbit ears, the VHS player I got at Kobey’s Swap Meet for $12, the incense cones Karl’s sister made out of ganja and cinnamon burning on a dinner plate. Nothing had changed since high school. We were two years older and both felt that because we hadn’t yet become wealthy, famous, and adored, we were obviously has-beens.

We didn’t talk much. We were better at being self-absorbed and sullen, experts actually. The way I remember it, it was a Saturday night and neither of us had girlfriends or anything interesting to do other than sit there and make the occasional comment about how much of a badass Lenny Willams was or how Mic Gilette had them chops. One thing I’d learned how to do since high school was get good grades. And, as a sophomore at San Diego State, that meant I had a lot of free time on my hands to think about music when I wasn’t feeling like a loser.

People our age were fixated on Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but Karl and I were heavily into jazz and 70s funk. That was our main obsession—Tower of Power, Brass Construction, Average White Band, Graham Central Station, Chaka Khan, Sly and the Family Stone, The Gap Band, Sun Ra, Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, Coltrane, on and on. In truth, we listened to all kinds of music when we weren’t playing it, but because Karl was one of my best friends and happened to have three bookcases of CDs, I got exposed to a lot of styles I would not otherwise have known about. I never took world music or music appreciation. I was a double major, music and English, and apart from what I learned from Karl, the trajectory of my influences was limited to what I did in my classes. Karl was also a music major. The difference between us was that, while Karl was already an accomplished jazz saxophonist from a family of professional musicians, I was just a lost soul.

But that’s not precisely true. Looking at the 20-year-old boy I was then, I can see that I was just a writer who just didn’t know it yet, not unlike a lot of the students I’ve taught over the years. At the time, I thought I was going to be a classical pianist, but I was doing exactly what a writer does—getting absorbed in other people’s lives, details, energies, seeing the world through their eyes. Not all creative people do this but I’ve recognized the tendency in many of the writers, actors, and assorted soulless vampires I’ve met along the way. And to be perfectly honest, I had the affinity and intellectual capacity for classical music but not the temperament. Temperament might be everything.

Even with all of these influences, tendencies, fears, and assumptions swirling around us in that garage like fate, the Michelob didn’t taste any better. That said, when you’re 20 and frustrated, flat stolen beer is there for you. And we were halfway to our sworn goal when something amazing happened. Maybe it was right around the moment when Lenny in all his green velour majesty, goes, Do you think it’s drivin’ a big fine car? Have you heard, it’s tryin’ to be a star?—though that would have been too perfect—that Karl had a moment of profound wisdom which has stayed with me all my life. He looked at the gallon jug balanced on his thigh, then at me, and said, “Davis, some people get everything they want in life. The rest of us become philosophers.”

2. My Life as a Philosopher

“I know the many disguises of that monster, Fortune, and the extent to which she seduces with friendship the very people she is striving to cheat, until she overwhelms them with unbearable grief at the suddenness of her desertion.”  ― Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

17 years after Karl’s moment of Michelob profundity in the garage, I was sitting in a conference room at Western Michigan University looking at a class of creative writing students, all in their early 20s, all lost souls. It was the last year of my PhD. And in my private life, something I am not inclined to casually discuss with students, I had suffered immense personal losses by then—death, estrangement, betrayal, and disappointment. But what else is new? One still has to get up in the morning and put on one’s pants.

Unfortunately, the only way to earn the putting-on-one’s-pants insight is to suffer and then choose to become a philosopher, a choice these kids hadn’t faced yet. A lot of them looked at me and thought, this guy has it made. How do I do what he’s doing? Some of them actually said as much to me in my office hours, peering across the desk in a kind of half-disbelief that I could lead the writing life, the idyllic life they imagined they wanted but felt was forever beyond their reach. In other words, they were 20 and thought they were already losers.

The key ideas in my beginning workshop were simple: you have to read like a writer in order to teach yourself about what can be done. You have to learn how to evaluate your writing on its own terms. And you need to develop discipline, which includes an ability to survive criticism and make it work for you. Most students can emotionally grasp these things after a 15-week semester, but it usually takes about that long. The problem is that the most gifted ones, the ones with that extra something—that divine spark of talent given to them by the muse or an angel or the Prince of Darkness—are usually the ones who take a lot longer to get over themselves. They’re so busy trying to sort out the fact that they’ve internalized materialistic social values at odds with who they are, that they ignore the practical side of the work.

Just as I absorbed Karl Lessing’s love of music and the aura of professional musicianship that always surrounded him, my own students absorbed similar energies from me. Even the most gifted writers over the years were not insightful enough to see that it wasn’t me they were absorbing. Rather, they were admiring some eidolon, some mirage of ideal qualities they imagined I must have in order to do what I was doing. If I’d told them what Karl had said that night it the garage, would it have mattered? No. Because they hadn’t suffered enough to understand. You can’t tell someone who has been searching for the lost city of gold that the glimmer they think they see isn’t El Dorado. They don’t want to face reality and become philosophers. They want to be on Soul Train with Lenny Williams covered in green velour. And I don’t blame them.

One young man that semester, Paul, who stands out in my memory as having seemed broken and gifted in equal parts, came into my office hour looking pale and severe. And as soon as I looked up at him, I knew we were going to have one of those conversations—the kind that start off about writing and segue quickly into What do I do about my difficult life? To honor the teachers who put up with me when I was the one asking such things, I never slither away; though, I’m often tempted. It’s draining to talk with depressed, frustrated people. But it’s a small act of kindness, which is the only sort of kindness that really matters.

So he sat down and unleashed the kraken. He’d taken a beating in workshop the day before for his fairly chauvinistic first-person story about a guy who uses a pickup artist system to seduce a barista in some nameless college town. After using her sexually, he tells her to take a hike and she’s crushed. And that was the story. I still remember it, not only because Paul seemed to have that stricken shell-shocked look of someone who’d just gone through an Inquisition-style critique, but because the story really was tremendously bad. Also because Paul was generally talented as a fiction writer and it was unlike his other work.

After going on about various things and people he disagreed with in his critique, he stopped, deflated, and said, “This is mostly nonfiction. I don’t know if you’ve realized that.”

I nodded. “I think most of the class did.”

Then Paul turned red, stood up, and thanked me for my time. I watched him through my open door as he went down the hall. I felt a little sad for him. But I didn’t feel sad for the girl in the story, who I was pretty sure didn’t exist. Did Young Paul apprentice himself to a “How to Get Girls” system? I didn’t doubt it—as much as I didn’t doubt that he was girlfriendless and powerfully, elementally lonely.

The last scene of his story went something like this: the protagonist and the girl are standing under a streetlight or something. She’s clinging to him and he says it’s not going to work out because he just doesn’t feel things like normal people. He has a cold heart. And then he walks away and she collapses in tears. Everyone in the workshop thought (rightly) that it was an ending that resolved / showed nothing. Plus, it was melodramatic. Plus, Paul seemed completely immersed in what he called the “pickup artist movement” and the other students were sick of his critiques always somehow incorporating that material.

But what I saw (and didn’t say) was that Paul wasn’t the two-dimensional womanizing protagonist in his story; he was the girl left sad and alone under a streetlight. The protagonist was who he told himself he needed to be—someone with a cold heart who doesn’t get kicked around anymore. Though there was no world, no permutation of reality, in which he could be that. He was too much in love with love and didn’t even know it. All he’d done was absorb the “pickup artist” ideology for a time—like a writer tends to do.

In the practice of philosophy, which often comes down to a single question—What is good and how do I know?—personal truth sets us free. The lost city of gold is lost for a reason. In seeking it, we learn how to live. We don’t get what we think we want, but we become philosophers inured to the vicissitudes of fortune. It is only through this that later in life we are able to resist death’s constant alluring invitations.

3. Death Pact

In 1700, Lord Nabeshima Mitsushige, ruler of the Hizen Provence, died. Tsunetomo Yamamoto was one of his loyal samurai, but he did not follow his lord in death because Mitsushige had expressed a dislike of the practice. Instead Yamamoto traveled into the mountains to spend the rest of his life as a hermit. Nine years later, he narrated a book of thoughts and parables about the samurai life to a fellow warrior, which became known as The Hagakure or In the Shadow of the Leaves. It is a powerful book, not only because it teaches us about the historical reality of the samurai, but because one of its principle themes is that much of what the samurai thinks, does, and feels is hidden from public view.

The purest expression of this was accepting death to the deepest extent possible, essentially embodying an “already dead” perspective. One is so dedicated to one’s mission that life itself is secondary. He writes that “even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams.”

By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams. I have thought deeply about this passage over the years. In my current understanding, this “dream” is a dream of the self—the self-centered fairy tale each of us carries in our hearts about what we wish our lives could be. We’ve spent so much of our time, as writers, absorbing the energies and beliefs of others that it can be hard to wake up. But if we are to become philosophers, our fairy tale dream cannot have a happy ending. In the words of Karl Lessing, we don’t get what we want. Instead, we start asking questions.

We’re shocked awake, in media res, and we realize that we’re running towards an irrational death. We didn’t plan any of it. It’s not logical. We were busy dreaming about winning and losing, success and failure, fortune and misfortune. Everything that used to make sense doesn’t anymore. Death is waiting. It’s inevitable. And nobody wins.

At this point, the writer, if he’s honest, says to himself, my mission is more important than my dream. I know I’m going to die. But I have to try to make art until that happens. This is the pact every creative person makes with death. It’s the moment we can answer the philosophical question, What is good and how do I know? It’s the moment we look back at our 20-year-old selves—those depressed narcissists already willing to concede and accept defeat because everything at that point is cast in terms of winners and losers—and smile. The lost city of gold must remain lost to mean anything. The gold is incidental.

I first noticed the wolf in East Africa. Heard of brothers fighting and killing each other outside Makamba, daughters poisoning fathers in Goma, laughing while their houses burned, and everywhere the ritual of suffering enacted with a kind of desperate abandon. So I knew it had come around to this once again: an axe age, a sword age, a wind age, a wolf age. An age of bullets. An age of scorn, of grief, of fire and ice and tongues of rust filthy with blood. In such times, no one has mercy or even remembers it. Instinct rules. Understanding is rare. And few hear the wolf creeping up behind.

I knew Bujumbura waited to impart such knowledge to me when I saw the catherine wheel in a stand of trees beyond the airfield—a frame for breaking and burning witches—with an empty metal folding chair waiting beside it. I stepped away from the plane and stared at purple thunderheads hanging low over the steaming hills. I’d arrived during the rainy season, prop wash of the Dornier 228 twisting bits of paper and plastic bags over fields of grass and ochre mud. Then into town on the back of a piki-piki, plumes of brown water shooting up behind the wheels into the rain.

Streets with broken ditches, piles of burning garbage that smelled like shit and rubber. And everywhere: singing, chanting, drumming, sirens, heavy bass, the crackle of French radio through the wet dark as we passed yellow rectangles of light cut by barbed wire, spiked security bars, the black silhouettes of branches waving in the storm.

Arrived at crumbling plaster villa with collapsed third floor, brooding and dark and unoccupied for months—the best the company could get me on short notice. Two blocks down the hillside from the President’s mansion, the house had its own water cistern on stilts, gate guards, and a cadaverous German Shepherd, who sat beside the front door and frowned at me as I carried my suitcase in. Rusted rebar lattices over the windows. The outer wall pitted by bullet holes and topped with broken glass. The bedroom ceiling covered with spiders. My home for a month.

In the morning: Laurent Nzikobanyanka pulls the outside bell rope. Bald, smiling, gold Masonic ring, pressed blue suit and cream tie, long handshake. Regional supervisor for the company—a man in love with absurdity and beer and the absurdity of beer. Straight to Ubuntu Résidence for pizza with bitter Goma cheese and 40oz bottles of the local Primus for hours.

Then slow, the ground tilting, we walk the Public Gardens while jogging clubs in identical berets run around us, three gravely serious men in yellow track suits do Tai Chi on the wet grass, and a laughing girl flips somersaults on her roller blades. A passing woman nods at Laurent. Ça va? Ça va bien. It starts to rain. People look up and laugh at the rain. And this, too, is Africa.

The report I’m supposed to write for Laurent—what report am I supposed to write? I take the Lariam I brought with me to keep off the malaria and have bad dreams, wake up in the middle of the day with cockroaches on my belly, kill them, go back to bed and have bad dreams of cockroaches. Laurent comes by and pulls the bell rope, but I don’t go to the door. Three days in, and I’m pale and trembling. I’ve started vomiting and shitting uncontrollably. I worry I might have typhoid. So I add Cipro to the Lariam and spend ten days going from bed to toilet. Ça va? Ça va bien.

On the eleventh day, I rise again, thinner, with clean intestines and more circumspection. Before dawn, dogs are howling all across the city at a WWII air raid siren being cranked for no discernable reason. The house German Shepherd, who I have learned is named Jean-Pierre, howls back one raspy and exasperated howl, his duty as a dog. But he’s heard it all before. I lean out the back door and give him an ancient withered galette from the tin I found over the sink. The dogs in the distance begin again. He holds the end of the flat cake in his mouth and looks up at me with something like sympathy. “Good boy,” I say. “Fucking eat it or I’ll take it back.” He growls a little, but he doesn’t put it down. When I close the door, I hear him whimper. Growl or whimper: life is simple until you need to do both at once.

Laurent takes me to meet Father Martin, a Catholic priest, a descendent of a Tutsi king, and an initiate of Imana, the old creator god. Father Martin has no problems with this. We walk through his small, crumbling Église de l’Ascension while he talks to us about water issues, the rebels, the Evangelical Christian missionaries defacing ancestor shrines outside Gitega. Half-burned pillar candles in wrought iron stands line the bare walls. Spiderwebs over everything. The tiny arched windows have no glass, only black bars set deep into the frames. A breeze twists down, guttering the candles, lifting the webs like an invisible hand.

That night, there is mass and then, in a tent behind the church, the worship of Imana. Drumming. Singing. I pass out on a bench and no one notices, not even me. When I come to, Laurent is gone. Covered in sweat and smelling like incense, I walk through silent black streets until I find my way home, where I drink and smoke cigarettes and talk to Imana in the dark of my bedroom.

Day fifteen, halfway through the report, chain smoking, writing what the company wants me to write to calm the investors: emerging technologies, very good, country is on the upswing, great opportunity for development, everything is wonderful, god is in his heaven, all is right with the world.

I don’t mention the child who’d been thrown in a pool of acid when he was three, who is now eighteen and assigned to guard my front gate in a blue uniform with only half a face. I don’t mention the woman who weeps every night somewhere nearby or that I heard the catherine wheel was used a month before I arrived to break every bone in a woman’s body. They said she used sorcery to make her boyfriend impotent. Grenade attacks at gas stations. Shootings in the central market. The Muslim Brotherhood taking revenge for someone taking revenge for something another group did in some other country at an earlier date. A rebel general in the hills above Kigali, raping and murdering villagers, mounting their heads on spikes by the side of the road. The wolf age. The wheel of iron, come back around for its bloody payment.

Sicker than five dogs, but no time to relax. I stop writing only when Laurent insists that I get out of the house for my health. I stink and speak incoherently and sweat and grope for a cigarette every few minutes. But Laurent is determined. We have lunch at New Parador with Jessica Stanley, a functionary from the U.S. Embassy so far up or down in the hierarchy she doesn’t have a job title. Blonde, early fifties, stick thin with a pearl necklace and a pained squint. “What do you do?” I ask. “I work at the embassy.” “And what does that involve?” “It involves embassy work.”

Laurent smiles broadly and orders three big beers.

She goes thirty minutes later, her Primus untouched. Laurent drinks it slowly and sighs. “An unfortunate woman, but someone I thought you should meet.” I don’t ask him why. The interior of the New Parador dining room is covered in chipped gold leaf. The ceiling drips water into a plastic bucket. I decide Laurent is too sincere to be putting me on.

With the month almost up, I write continuously, pausing only to feed galettes to Jean-Pierre and drink filtered water that smells like an unwrapped condom. Before I can finish, I’m visited by Reverend Moonstar, an old high school friend who used to be named Sean Roberts. He got rich importing wicker things from the Congo and selling them in Manhattan. Now he practices polyamory and runs a coven of divorced Wiccans in Italy.

Reverend Moonstar has become pale and obese. He tells me Wiccan bitches are all succubi while he mixes a pitcher of martinis in the kitchen. “You know, this light in here, I think it’s flickering ‘cause it’s broken, Mikey. And, uh, you’re not living here permanently, are you? You’ve got a serious fucking roach problem.” I tell him he’s got a dirty mouth for a man of the cloth. The reverend offers a martini to Jean-Pierre, but the dog nips his hand. Even this doesn’t bother him. He laughs and sips his martini while I bandage him up. In the morning, I open my eyes to see Jean-Pierre snap a cockroach off my shirt, bite it in half, spit it out, and lie down again with his head on my body. I don’t know how he got inside, but I decide he gets double galettes later.

I finish the paper and Laurent is pleased. He pats me on the shoulder and hopes I get over my chronic cough, trembling, and fever. I have started to sweat profusely and I’m out of Cipro. The Lariam gives me dreams of my dead mother, memories of my father on one of his two-week whiskey benders where he called the house and told us he’d been elected governor of Alaska, dreams of a man-sized cockroach kneeling by the bed, hissing terrible things into my ear.

I’ve got an extra week paid for if I want to stay and Father Martin has invited me to another service. The Public Gardens are empty and covered in mist. I walk through them in the morning, feeling like the mist is more solid than my body, like I could hike up the side of the mist to heaven where Imana waits to explain Burundi to me, the wolf age, the twilight of the gods. I realize I know nothing. I have learned nothing. And, at best, I am seriously ill.

So I take a moto-taxi out to the airport where the catherine wheel is now soot black. They have broken and burned another witch since I arrived—always a poor village woman or a rape victim. Never someone like our Reverend Moonstar, who can wear pentagrams and talk about spells and Wiccan bitch-succubi all he wants. I vomit twice in the airport bathroom and pay the attendant 500 BIF for the trouble. A mustard yellow gecko crawls out of my laptop bag before I board the plane.

Brussels. I miss my connecting flight to London and get a closet room at the Hotel Friederiksborg instead. Too weak to get to a clinic, I soak the bed with sweat and think about dying. I think about Jean-Pierre, my best and only friend, and that I should have taken him with me. Room service leaves bottles of carbonated Spa outside my door with dry toast. The conceirge is understanding and discrete; though he is clearly worried about what to do with my corpse should I kick off in the middle of the night. I live on bread and mineral water for a week until I can keep it down and am strong enough to bathe myself and walk outside.

I look up friends of friends who live on Rue de Lakenstraat—three Estonian girls who give me tea, wine, and chocolate. In my lingering dizzy exhaustion, they seem to me like creatures of pure air and fire, filling up my glass, laughing, wanting to know—everything—how many people there are in Burundi; what the climate is like; why I went there; whether I have read a certain Polish travel writer; what I think of Belgium; what I think of Obama’s administration relative to the Bush administration and if there is much pro-American sentiment in Burundi; if anyone I know has been a victim of the grenade attacks; what my dissertation was on; what they should see if they visit Rwanda other than the gorillas; and whether I am a vegetarian. I look around and tell myself none of it is real. Any moment, a man-sized cockroach will sit down next to me and raise his glass. Cheers.

When I leave I feel I’ve spent time with the fairy court in the kingdom of the Shining Ones. But when I walk along a canal into a bad part of town I see dull-eyed prostitutes leaning against the buildings and the primered chassis of an Audi up on blocks behind a chainlink fence. And I remember the catherine wheel and decide that I am somewhere on the earth after all.

In the morning, the money comes through. Job well-done. Everyone is happy. Glowing praise from Laurent. In the unfathomable machinery of coincidence, I am offered a small part-time position at the university in Tallinn, Estonia.

Sure, I think, why not? I can spend some more time with the Shining Ones in a beautiful European city. But, of course, it’s not that easy. Even now, in my dreams, the empty roads are still and silent under windows painted with the brown of old gore. And the ragged lines of cities have given way to sand and weeds. And no one cares about the trash in vacant lots or whose bones lie there, warm and pale in the sun. Of these things, only those with eyes to see can recognize the Ouroboros coming full circle again. The blackened catherine wheel. The rows of heads by the side of the road. Only those with ears to hear will notice the wolf sniffing at the door in the dead of night or recognize the riddle of our beginnings tied to the wheel and broken by the ignominy of our end.

 

 

* Note: this story originally appeared in The Painted Bride Quarterly, Print Annual 6 (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

download (2)

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.

download

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.

download (1)

I finished the first draft of my novella last night. But I don’t feel anything except that same old sense of loss and emptiness. The only time I ever enjoy writing is when I’m in the middle of it. Once I finish–and I mean like 10 minutes after I write the last word of the first draft–I feel like I just got back from a friend’s funeral and all that’s left is some absurd memory of something they did.

The act of submitting my work for publication is a mechanical afterthought. It’s necessary, at least in how I choose to lead my life, but it’s not the reason I write. Put me in a box with all my manuscripts and drop me in the ocean. Never read a word I’ve written or speak of me again. Grind me into dust. Throw every trace of me into a furnace. And nothing will have changed. The process will still have mattered as much to me as it does right now. It’s the process, the act, the engagement, the work–always changing, always the same. And when it’s finished, I need it to start again. Immediately.

On the second day of the third week of the fifth month of her marriage, she already wanted to kill him. It was after the pills, after the night cab to the airport, after the restaurant fit. He didn’t give a damn. It was November.

She bought a whip. She started smoking. She changed her wardrobe to blacks, leather, reds, PVC, nothing. Some of it worked. Some of it made her think of something else. But she was all alone. She had an allowance, a gold Rolex, an eight bedroom house in La Jolla by the water. Fuck all that. She tried to burn the house down but stucco doesn’t burn. And as hard as Andy tried, she couldn’t cry.

She told people her name was Condra, but they called her Anaconda at the Sports Club, even though she didn’t touch anyone and no one touched her. No one got close. She wore silk on Thursdays. What was life for? She didn’t know. The bitches at the club all hated her when she walked in. $2000 got the burns on the house removed before Conrad got back from Japan.

He was on tour when he wasn’t composing, teaching, rubbing his tired eyes at the piano. She walked across the carpet naked like the mechanical duck that comes out of a clock when the little door opens at noon. Automated. Ignored. Displaying her body. But she might as well have been dead. Corpse porn. Conrad was killing her. He was there, playing Mahler. She knew Mahler. Mahler was dead. And so was she.

She looked at him.

He stopped playing and said, “Yes?”

Her hand twitched. “Fuck Mahler.”

He resumed playing.

***

Her gossipy, mouthy friend, Dimitria: “Just have an affair, Andy. Just get it out of your system, you know?” Dimitria wore a lot of purple. She was divorced and fantasized about Conrad. He was so sensitive; he had beautiful hair; he’d done a classical performance on PBS and wasn’t it brilliant? She’d saved the piece in TIME where he’d sat on the leather couch and talked about his muse. Andy stopped inviting Dimitria over a long time ago. Dimitria had a kid and lived in a sad bachelor apartment in Brea. She was a secretary in an insurance office.

“Just do it. Fair is fair. You’re not getting any younger? Am I right?”

“They call me Anaconda at The Sports Club. They think I’m a dominatrix.”

Dimitria lit a thin cigarette and rolled her eyes. “Please.” Purple lipstick on the filter. “You want one?”

Andy took the Whopper while Dimitria ordered another through the drive-up window. Andy blew smoke over the orange carpet that ran across the top of the dashboard.

“Your car’s a box of shit.”

“It’s a Corolla, Andy. Of course it’s shit. Eat.”

Andy ate.

“Remember that Chevy Nova I had in high school?” Dimitria laughed. Dimitria always asked Andy if she remembered the Nova. And then Dimitria always laughed. Andy looked at her with a mouthful of burger and sighed through her nose.

Dimitria dropped her off at a shoe boutique on Rodeo. Then Andy walked 15 blocks back to the Burger King and ordered another Whopper. And another. Then she vomited behind the dumpster on the other side of the parking lot and rode the 3:15 bus to the Amtrak depot at Union Station. She bought a ticket back to San Diego and sat down on a wooden bench to wait for her train.

A bum said, “Hey Vamparella, how about a dollar?” She gave him three fifties and the ticket for her return flight to San Diego that she wasn’t going to use. He handed the ticket back and said, “Baby, I don’t fly.”

It was the funniest thing she’d heard in a long, long time and she said so. He said, “Blow me” and shuffled off.

Right, she thought, everybody but Conrad. Her train boarded thirty minutes later. She got on and watched the tracks speed past. Then she slept.

Anaconda. What did it mean? It was a snake. Woman becomes snake. Was that sexy? All those pictures of Nastassja Kinski. Everyone agreed Nastassja Kinski had been very sexy. But why? Andy had a framed poster of Richard Avedon’s “Nastassja Kinski and the Serpent” in black and white over her bed. It was a mystery. Andy lay upside-down with her feet on the pillows, and stared at Nastassja, the serpent wrapped around her, emerging from between her legs. Nastassja had a belly and the snake was a boa constrictor, not an anaconda. But still. Nastassja’s belly was small. But still. What was it about her? She tried to imagine Conrad staring at that belly and masturbating, but she couldn’t.

A horn honked down in the circular drive. That would be his cab to the airport. A week with the Boston Symphony. He’d been practicing for it all year. They’d said their good-byes the night before at The Marine Room. He’d ordered the Brandt Farm beef carpaccio with chowder. She’d had the free range veal tenderloin and two martinis.

“I’m going tomorrow,” he said. “I’d invite you, but I know how you hate Boston.”

He looked like an alien masquerading as a human. Or a mock-up of a man done in white porcelain with stylish hair to his shoulders and Armani glasses. Or maybe fine china. She could knock him backwards and he’d shatter.

“You could say good-bye.” He blew on a spoon of chowder. “Do you have emotions anymore, Andrea? Really. If it’s the meds, we can change them, I’m sure.”

She stood. “Blow me, Conrad.” He flinched. That was something, but she knew it was just because there were people sitting all around them, looking. She was wearing a black latex Oscar de la Renta minidress with a vintage white Members Only jacket over it. She slapped her thigh. It went SPACK!

“I’ll call Dr. Bundt from Cambridge and get your prescription adjusted.” He ate his spoon of chowder.

Now he was gone. The sound of the cab faded. But still. A snake like that. It didn’t look like a penis. More like a limp fire hose. Was that it? Limp dicks to put out the fire?

That night, she went to The Sports Club in one of Conrad’s winter suits. It’s wasn’t Thursday and his suit wasn’t silk. It was a Herringbone Stanwyck Stripe Navy, the pants and the jacket. She had to cinch his belt to the last hole. Would he miss it if she pushed it into a trash can and walked home at the end of the night in her red thong? Had he worn the suit even once? The coat smelled like closet. She hadn’t taken her meds in over a month, even though her mother called every Sunday to ask if she had. She always said yes.

“So, you a dyke or what?” Blond. Say, twenty-two or twenty-three. Rugby shirt. Stupid. Not even sharp enough to be president of his fraternity, but fraternity was all over him.

“Probably more of the what.”

“You want a drink, don’t you?” His friends across the room, making faces at him.

“Drink is good. Go ahead.”

“What do you drink? The weird shit? You always slick your hair back like a dude? You want an Obsidian Death March? I can’t believe I just said that. Obsidian Death March.” He had trouble with the words, laughed at his own cleverness, one hand on the bar.

“Sure.”

Then the inevitable question: “So what’s your name?”

“Conde Nast.”

“Like nasty? You like it nasty?” Loud enough for his friends to hear. Somebody whistled, hooted.

“Contrara Nosferatu. You like that? You like it nasty? What’s your name? Brad?”

“Yeah. I like a nasty bitch. My name’s Penguin.”

Two Obsidian Death Marches. Purple black cough syrup. Jaegermeister base. $60. His wallet had an inch of bills.

“Bottoms up, Penguin.”

“You’re not even fuckin drunk.”

“Oh, I’m wasted.”

“I knew it,” he said. “You’re a dyke.”

“Look at this.” The whip. Conrad’s coat had hidden it well. Andy drew it out with an air of mystery and a smile.

“That’s a fuckin bullwhip.”

“Yeah, Penguin. It’s a fucking bullwhip. What’s wrong? I thought you liked it nasty. You want some of my nasty?”

He got pale, took a step back. “Fuck you, you fuckin dyke.”

“Come on, Brad, how about another drink? Let’s talk about your feelings.”

She could live or she could die. She felt like he could hit her and she might feel better. Andy tried to imagine what it would be like. It wouldn’t feel good. But what felt good? Maybe bad was good. Or better. She left him by the bar, staring at her, and went to the ladies’ room, where she purged the Obsidian Death March with two fingers just like mom taught her when she was 15. It burned like white fire. Blurry octopus cloud in the toilet. The phone number on the stall had the name ELIAS over it in black Sharpie. She called it on her cell. No such number. No such Elias. Poor Elias.

Andy uncoiled the whip and let it drag on the floor as she walked out of the restroom. Brad the Penguin was back at the fraternity table. She could live. She could die. She could die twice. Maybe bad was better. What would Conrad do if BP and friends killed her? He’d play Mahler. He’d buy her a tasteful casket. The upscale crowd didn’t come to The Sports Club on Monday nights. Just knucklehead frat boys living it up in the posh wood-paneled booths and paying $15 a beer.

“So Brad. How are you feeling now? You get it touch with your inner pussyboy? You still want the strap-on? It’s gonna cost you, Brad. I got an eight-inch dick out in the trunk. Come on, Brad. Fuck these guys. Let’s go.”

Uproarious laughter. The other three: two blonds like The Penguin with fake tans and whitened grins. One dark-haired boy who needed a shave. Sweatshirts. K ball caps on sideways. Teasing: Come on, P. You know you want the input. Don’t say no. We won’t tell. No blood left in the Penguin’s cheeks. Bitten by the Vamparella.

“Fuck you,” he said and threw a crumpled napkin at her.

“Fuck me? Fuck me?” The bullwhip took one of the tall beer glasses off the table. The glass shattered behind her. They all tried to stand. But it’s hard to stand up in a booth with an oak table that’s bolted to the floor. And, anyway, she’d been whipping cigarettes off the edges of brandy snifters for three weeks. A hat came off. A bloody strip across a face. Screams. The dark-haired one—she whipped him as he climbed over the back of the booth, cut straight into his ass through his jeans. A bullwhip could be incredibly precise and satisfying instrument of destruction. But you had to practice. Andy shook her head. It was all about self-discipline and practice, precision, and lots of wrist. The Penguin was screaming the long distorted scream of the terrified and the damned. He had pissed his khakis. Andy whipped him hard around the neck and he dropped to his knees, fumbling to undo it.

26 hours later, she was released by the SDPD with a citation. A notice to appear would be coming in the mail. The duty officer was in his fifties. He had a long head and dimples from smiling too much. But he wasn’t smiling.

“You can’t go whipping assholes in bars, honey. You could put someone’s eye out.”

“Actually you could kill someone with a thing like that.”

“Yeah. That, too. But they’re not pressing charges and whips aren’t classified as deadly weapons no more in the State of California. And those four dumbshits were high as hell. You got lucky.”

“I have problems with how I express my emotions, officer. I’ve got medication, but I haven’t been taking it.”

“You’re just like my daughter,” he said. “But she’s in the Army.”

They did not return her whip. Andy wandered through downtown San Diego to Seaport Village and then up to the port. She sat on a shipway and watched a rusted trash barge spackled with arrows of white bird shit carry its load south to Mexico. She imagined what it would be like if she swam out to it and climbed in, riding it all the way down to Jalisco. At dusk, she called a cab and threw Conrad’s suit jacket in the water.

She didn’t see anyone for four days. This, too, was part of her discipline. She shaved her head with a Norelco electric razor from Rite-Aid, listing to Sweet Dreams on repeat, so loud the walls of the house vibrated and a painting fell in Conrad’s bedroom. Then she lathered her head with shaving cream and Bicced it down to the skin.

On the second day, she shaved her eyebrows and her bush and her legs and under her arms.

On the third day, she drank a bottle of Grey Goose and shat herself in the bathtub.

The fourth day was for mourning. She wore a black veil and walked through the neighborhood feeding pigeons. She placed an ad in the San Diego Reader: “Cheap Castrations – Outpatient Only.” She placed another with a different credit card and phone number: “Thank you, Saint Oedipus, for Mommy.” She thought about the randomness of the world. She told herself she was Shiva, God of Death.

When had she eaten? She was dangerously thin. Her pelvis could be seen from space. She had no hair. She looked like a prisoner of war. The shag carpet was growing into the bottoms of her feet. The stars were winking at her. The universe had a Morse Code and she was receiving it. She was melding with the rocks. She had creeks and valleys. Andy looked at her naked body for hours in the bathroom mirror. She was an A-cup and had never cared about being anything other than an A-cup. But what if the universe wanted her to be a C-cup or a D? You don’t get breast implants just because the universe is horny. But fucking the universe would be amazing. Nastassja Kinski had fucked the universe, was fucking it eternally in that picture with the snake. You could see it on her face. She had a little belly. But it was there. It was definitely a belly.

On the fourth day of the second week of the sixth month of her marriage, Andy called Dimitria. “I’m taking you on a trip. Pack your suitcase.”

“I can’t. Some of us have to work, doll.”

“I’ll pay your salary.”

“But I won’t have a job when I come back.”

“Goddammit, I’ll pay your stupid fucking salary for the rest of your sad fucking life, you whore. Now get ready.”

“Okay.” Dimitria sounded very small.

Andy didn’t care. They were going to fuck the world. Both of them together. Like a road trip back in high school. But, of course, Dimitria had her job and her 8-year-old boy named Chris and her fantasies about Conrad. She weaseled out of it with a text message. It was just like her. Mouthy. Weasely. Texty. The trip never happened. What could you do with someone like that? Andy bought a blond wig with pigtails for $700 and a special hypo-allergenic adhesive to stick it to the top of her head. She bought salmon-colored lipstick and a red PVC corset with lace-ups from House of Harlot. It was a 4, the smallest they had. It was uncomfortably roomy. What could you do?

She could have called Dr. Bundt, her cheerful roly-poly psychiatrist with the special pills. Pills that compressed her emotions into crystal spheres that floated hither and thither through her brain. Hideous: knowing that she was feeling emotions without feeling them, looking at Conrad behind his piano every day he was home, thinking, I hate him; I really hate his fucking Mahler ass, while smiling pleasantly on her morning corpse walk across the den. Andy did the walk every morning when he was home. Next time, she’d wear a snake.

Sometimes, if he were feeling magnanimous, he would smile, back—the dreamy smile of a musician occupied with his music or thoughts of beautiful raven-haired Danica Gepura, who taught vocal performance at the university and who he’d been sleeping with for two months. Danica didn’t have a snake, either. Or did she?

Sticks and stones. You can’t fuck the world when your emotions are floating away in crystal spheres. She bought a past life regression cd and booked a weekend at the Disneyland Hotel. When the cab came, she left the front door of the house open, the alarm off.

“I need a whip is what I need. I had one before but the cops took it.”

The cab driver eyed her in the mirror as they pulled onto Mission Boulevard. “For reals?”

“For reals.” Under her white fox fur coat, Andy was wearing the PVC corset and a navy thong, matching navy heels with diamonds on them.

He adjusted the rearview and swerved when a car merged in front of him. His eyes took up the whole mirror. “Shit, I been waiting for you my whole life.”

She smiled. “Just drive.” Her lips were very red.

Andy did all the old rides. She did Tomorrowland with a pint of peppermint schnapps. Small World depressed her. She opened her legs and the paunchy father of three almost fell out of his teacup when his wife wasn’t looking. She bought a novelty whip and broke it trying to lash the receiver of the Mickey Mouse telephone in her suite. She hated Mickey. And Goofy always seemed high. Minnie was just mousy eye candy with polka dots. Three college girls with too much makeup flipped her off in line for the Matterhorn and screamed at her because she was wearing fur. She blew them a kiss and laughed when all three of them turned around and started whispering to each other. She fantasized about whipping them bloody. She felt she understood Charles Manson.

Past life regression was all about reclaiming your cycle of reincarnation, working back through your memories until you bumped against your mother’s vagina. And then farther. Going back up the birth canal. Back to the moment of your previous death. Then getting over that and going even farther. You were supposed to learn things about why you were here now. She did a few of the guided meditations sitting cross-legged on the king-sized waterbed shaped like a giant Mickey head. All she got was mom slapping her when she couldn’t vomit, the weekly weigh-ins, the feeling terrified about gaining a pound.

Her father was a blur. She could barely remember him, barely knew him as a child before the acrimonious divorce that turned mom into a fire-breathing lizard. Her father never visited. He was management in a company that made ships and he lived somewhere in Rome. When he left, her mother started dieting more heavily, tanning, wearing more gold. Now, as an adult, Andy would have foreseen that you couldn’t go down that road without encountering collagen. But back then she was just a kid and collagen injections were still experimental science.

You could only get the injections in Europe, which her mom did, which lead to the collagen accident—the swelling of her lips and cheeks to monstrous proportions. Hospitalization. Four years of psychotherapy and a lot of plastic surgery. Hideous allergies. A suicide attempt in their Park Slope condominium. But you can’t kill yourself with a vacuum cord from a chandelier. Even someone as light as her mother. Now, at age 68, she was very calm. She knitted. She lived alone and dreamed about the days her husband would pick her up in a forest green MG and take her out to the best clubs in New York.

Andy wore jeans. She wore baggy boy shorts. She wore a cream linen blouse and a sweater set that made her look like Barbara Billingsley. She got sick of Disneyland and wandered around Anaheim in Chanel glasses that hid half her face. In the Cathedral Bar on 4th Street, she met a short fat guy, named Wilson, who wore a white track suit with a yellow stripe down each leg.

“You repulse me,” she said, after he’d bought her a second vodka tonic.

“Yeah, I’m fat. I gotta do something about that. But I got too much life to live. You know? Who has time?”

“Take me somewhere. I have to get out of here. Let’s go to a concert.”

“Okay. Let’s go to a concert. I don’t give a shit. I can go to a concert. What do you like? Kenny G? Metal? Violins? Let’s do it.”

Wilson said he was going to the bathroom to smoke a rock and he’d be right back. When he returned, he didn’t look any different. He was a little sweaty. “Let’s go. Let’s ride. I don’t got a car. You got a car? I can probably get a car.”

They took a cab to a mall where Wilson said there was a Ticketmaster. But there was nothing but an organic market, a Starbucks, a massive gray Home Depot sprawling to infinity.

“I gotta piss,” he said. “Wait here. Don’t go away. Just wait here. Really. I gotta piss.”

He went into Home Depot and she walked down the street. She went into a diner and sat at the counter. Outside, two men with torn clothes and ruddy skin were trying unsuccessfully to take the rim off a truck tire with a small crowbar. She took her coffee outside and watched them.

One of them stopped and straightened up. He looked at her jeans, her cream blouse, the beige sweater tied around her shoulders.

“What do you want?”

“I’ll give each of you $100 to throw that tire through the window.”

His friend put his hands in his pockets and looked at her. “Bullshit,” he said.

Andy took the money out of her little black purse and showed it to them.

“Why?” The first one was a little rougher looking. Blond. Paint-stained T-shirt. Pants that had never been washed. A moustache straight out of the Old West.

“I don’t need reasons. Take it or leave it.”

The second one grinned. He was missing his front teeth. “Okay, your highness. Money first.”

Andy handed each of them a bill. They did a test-heave with the tire but they couldn’t coordinate enough to do it together. So the first one said, “Somebody might get hurt. We better create a diversion.”

“A what?”

“Just do your thing and act stupid.”

The toothless man understood that. He grinned, nodded. They calculated. They walked up to the window then back to the tire.

The man with the moustache sighed and shrugged. “This ain’t never gonna work. We don’t got enough torque.”

“What the fuck is torque?” asked the man with no front teeth.

Andy put her hand on her hip.

“Like, am I gonna throw this discus style? I’d have to stand in the street.”

“So stand in the street,” Andy said.

“It’s dangerous. There might be oncoming traffic.”

“That’s true,” the toothless one said. He took a watch cap out of his back pocket and pulled it over his wild pepper-gray hair. “Well, maybe her highnessness could keep an eye on the street and give a holler if there’s like a truck coming or something.”

“Whatever,” said Andy. She set her coffee cup beside her foot on the sidewalk.

“Yeah.” The blond man leaned the tire against his leg and folded his arms. “What do you want us to do this for anyway? We could go to jail. I hate jail.”

“I hate jail, too,” the toothless man said. “I been there half my life. What, are you mad at the folks that run this place? It’s a good café.”

His friend nodded. “Good warm coffee. Good pepper steak.”

“They got a wicked chili bowl. You ever try that?”

“Yeah, man, like every day of my life. They put that cheese on it. I love that fuckin’ chili bowl.”

“You remember when Armando used to work here? I ate here all the time back then. I had that job down at Liviccio’s flipping pizzas.”

“Right. And we all got those free Rams tickets that one time? What was that, like 1988?”

Toothless nodded. “That was a long-ass time ago.”

“Look, I don’t have all day,” Andy said.

They both looked at her. The blond man handed his $100 bill back to her. His friend sighed and did the same. She looked at the bills, then back at them. “I thought we had a deal.”

“You thought wrong,” said the blond man.

“Yeah,” said the other, “wouldn’t be ethical. Wouldn’t be good for the neighborhood.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“Believe it.” The blond man lay the tire down on its side and picked up his crowbar. “We’re union. Machinist’s Local 173.”

“United Food and Commercial Workers, 312, out of Pasadena,” Toothless said, pointing at his chest with his thumb. “And I voted for Obama.” He said it and smiled as if he’d just beaten Andy at cards.

“Oh,” she said. “I see. Well, give this to Obama.” She tore up the bills in front of them and sprinkled the pieces on the sidewalk.

“That’s very wasteful,” the blond man said.

Andy turned away and started walking down the street. They called out something else, but she wouldn’t turn around. Her face was twitching.

Wilson caught up with her at a bus stop four blocks away. “What’s with you? What’s wrong? I said don’t go anywhere and you walked away. I thought we were gonna have fun. I thought we were going to a concert.”

“Give me some rock. I want to smoke it.”

“You’re not a rock smoker, girl. You’re not a rock smoker. It’ll ruin your looks. You don’t want that. You have beautiful hair. You’ve got good looks. I mean, damn, you’re good-looking.”

“It’s a wig. My hair. I’m dying of cancer.”

“That’s not a wig. That’s bullshit. You’re a natural blonde. I know a natural blonde when I see a natural blonde. And you are. I mean, it’s obvious.”

“Nothing’s obvious.”

“Nothing’s obvious? You’re obvious. I mean, you’re very obviously fucked up over a guy.”

She looked at him. Wilson’s brown hair was stuck to his forehead. Pale. He smelled like an old locker room. His smile looked gray like fish scales, like rainclouds.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m a crack addict. But it makes me feel better. So who’s the guy?”

“My husband.”

“I should’ve guessed it. A rich bitch with a cheating husband. You got it written all over you. And you’re a natural blonde. He’s stupid, n’est-ce pas? That’s French. See? I know my shit.”

She smiled. “Yes, you do know your shit.” She took his hand and pressed it against the inside of her thigh. His hand was limp as if he were afraid that if he gripped her thigh something horrible might happen.

“Let’s go to a concert,” she said. “Fly with me to Boston tonight.”

The bus stopped and the driver opened the door. There was no one on the bus. The driver wore black aviators. He looked at them sitting there, Andy holding Wilson’s hand against her thigh, and shut the door to the bus. His face registered nothing. The bus pulled away.

Then Wilson said, slowly and clearly, “I would be honored to accompany you.” A drop of sweat fell off the tip of his nose and she kissed him on the mouth.

Symphony Hall was on Massachusetts Avenue. When she called the concert director’s office and identified herself, the director’s secretary immediately booked her into the Presidential Suite at the Back Bay Hilton three blocks away. Andy used the voice of the pearl-wearing society women who frequented the university concert series at UCSD. She told the secretary not to inform Conrad. Her arrival was a surprise and she didn’t want to disturb her husband on the first night. The same concert—Mahler’s Symphony Number Five, Grieg’s Piano Concerto, and Sibelius’ Finlandia—would be given for three consecutive days. But the first night was always the most tense. Everybody knew that.

Meanwhile, Wilson was out scoring more rock. She’d bought him a gray Burberry suit with Italian shoes and a wool tweed belted topcoat. And when he returned from his quest, shaking and wet from the snow, Wilson looked like a well-to-do middle-aged businessman coming home after a long day at the office.

He went into the bathroom and, when he came out, his pupils were enormous. A dark gleam radiated from his face and his smile reminded her of a shark. He poured them whiskey from the wet bar and shook his head. “Boston rock is intense rock. Quality shit. You don’t get quality shit like this back on the west coast. No way. You just don’t. This is—this is ghetto fabulous.”

After handing her the drink, he added, “And this, for a classy lady with great pigtails.” From under his coat, he drew out a new bullwhip. Andy gasped and held it to her chest like a baby. Fragrant leather, cured and woven the way it should be, the handle widening out into an evil-looking knot.

“How did you get this at 7 PM on a Friday night?”

Wilson winked. “I have my ways. I’m magic.”

So they went: Wilson in the suit she’d bought for him and a tastefully muted black and gray tie and Andy in a crimson Terani Coture cocktail dress with white nails, white eye shadow and lipstick, and her blonde pigtailed wig. She had black-toned stockings and red heels and when they walked through the lobby, everyone in the building seemed to be offended. Nearly all the men wore tuxedos and the women were in black evening gowns.

The concert director met them at the inner door—a reedy man in a white tuxedo with nervous eyes and a deliberately tousled black mop of hair. He began to perspire the minute he laid eyes on them, handing them off to an usher and putting as much distance between them and himself as possible. Andy and Wilson were placed in the second row, center, right behind Danica Gepura—in her black evening gown and sapphire earrings. The sapphires looked like deep blue stars against her fair skin.

When Conrad walked out on stage, Danica looked up adoringly and Andy imagined Danica was made of porcelain or find bone china—brittle, delicately wrought in white, blue, and black. So in need of protection, of nurturing. Danica needed a glass display case, not a snake. Andy imagined strangling her from behind.

After the orchestra began—the first movement of Mahler’s fifth—Wilson started to shake uncontrollably. He put his head between his legs and began to retch sharply and prodigiously. The white-haired woman sitting directly in front of Wilson shrieked as the violins rose, and the distinguished-looking old man on the other side of Danica half-stood, staring down at his feet. That’s when Danica interrupted her trance of musical rapture to turn around in her seat and look straight into Andy’s eyes. They’d met before. As soon as Danica recognized her, a look of such profound shock crossed her face that Andy felt it was almost better than strangulation.

Then Danica turned back around, double-triple waves of horror washing over her, and the first movement continued as planned—except that, for a while, everyone around them could hear Wilson choking and groaning when the volume of the music went down. Did Conrad notice, enveloped in his bubble of Zen musician concentration? A spotlight was directly above him. When he played, the Steinway resonated like a force of nature, like the musical part of god. People had said he was the greatest concert pianist in the world.

Andy called Dimitria and, when she answered, Andy just held the phone so they could both listen. Conrad was a boorish, self-obsessed prick, but when he played—played for real, with an orchestra, with a crowd—even Andy couldn’t deny that he was beautiful. She watched his calm expression, his white cuffs glowing in the spotlight. And, for a time, Andy forgot all about snakes and bullwhips, about her corpse walk and why she wanted to die and even about her meds. She only listened, even if the truth was that she hated, hated, fucking hated Mahler.

When Danica looked back again and opened her mouth to say something, Andy said, “I voted for Obama” and gave Danica the finger. Andy thought she now understood what the toothless guy in front of the diner had meant. Danica shook her head. She turned to say something to the old man in the seat next to her.

Wilson tapped Andy on the shoulder. “You gonna fight?” Vomit-putrid breath, but he still smiled.

“I’m gonna slap a bitch.”

He nodded. “Thought so. I got your back.” And he handed her the whip.

That Wilson, wasn’t he just a precious wonder? She stood and bunched the whip in her hand. Danica looked up.

And it was on.

 

* Note: this story originally appeared in The Atticus Review (2013).

Oh no. She’d send you there, wouldn’t she? She’d transport you there just so she could feel your pain and write about it. But you’re not going. You’re never going back to Texas. Not for fame. Not for money. Not for the glory of Victoria Volt. Not for that article she wants you to outline. Not for anything. Not on your life.

Sure. You check your bags in at SFO and get on the plane. You hate everything about yourself as far as Nevada. You can’t imagine the number of things Victoria demands, all the things she wants from you. You don’t want any of them back. There might have been a time when the deal could have been reciprocal. But now, no. Now you’re lost in lackeyland. If you had a personal life, it’s dead. Working for Victoria kills.

While you’re cursing and grinding Delta peanuts and hating yourself for giving in again, the perfect date is going on two blocks east of Coit Tower back in San Francisco at a little café called Nunu’s—where the perfect couple is getting together under a Tiffany lamp with carpets on the floor and drinks and everything good. There’s no weird. There’s no crazy. No pretend happy. No dull-eyed shrugs. No lying. No flight to DFW. Your boyfriend, Dane, and his new girlfriend, Adriana, will have their perfect date and then get married and live the rest of their lives together and die on the same day and be buried in the same grave and everyone will talk about how right and how beautiful it all was.

None of that will ever happen in or anywhere near Texas. The last time you were there, you saw a house out in the desert half-full of sand, a dead horse by the side of the road, a coyote wandering in circles because it drank from a poisoned spring. Years ago, your older brother, Stevie, dead in a Lubbock parking lot. The Klan and rancid TexMex and border towns that look like the zombie apocalypse. There’s a vein of spite flowing up in the contrails of the sky and blocked up anger in bowels of the earth. Texas is a tragedy. It hates you and maybe your dog and the President. It isn’t a state of the Union; it’s a state of disunion, a wretched state of mind, of being in a rotten place at a lousy time with locusts and bad Santeria and guns. To hell with Texas. But that’s redundant.

Victoria doesn’t believe in direct flights and always sends you coach. The plane is packed and smells of all the drama and passion of the Lone Star State. You can’t get away from it. The guy sitting next to you once had curly brown hair but now it’s gray and his name is, in fact, Curly. Dark blue jeans, plaid long-sleeved shirt, suede blazer, his fingers covered in silver and turquoise. Curly introduces himself at pushback, shaking your hand a little too long, grinning a little too much. He drinks beer after beer, telling you about his life in San Antonio and asking too-personal questions when you’d prefer to brood in silence.

“Little lady, whatcha got there? What do you do for a living? You married?”

“No.”

“Got a boyfriend?”

“Yes.” No hesitation. Because you do, right?

“You live in San Francisco, don’tcha? I can tell. You got a San Francisco accent.”

He tells you he owns a chain of vegetarian restaurants and he figures that being from San Francisco, you’d be into that. You look at Curly and think, yes, he looks like Texas. He drinks beer like Texas. His name is Texas. And you’re thinking that everything about him comes straight out of the old stereotype you knew as a girl, when your dad would make you drive part of the way, long distance from Bakersfield to his refrigerator factory in Lubbock. You hated Texas for that reason alone. On some other level, you knew it was your father’s attempt to spend some quality time. But it didn’t feel like anything but a rolling prison to your 12-year-old self, forced to drive the truck while your father read the paper or slept in the passenger seat. That drive from Bakersfield to Texas. It was shit. And then your brother died.

Still, you’re thinking that this Curly might actually be okay. Slightly unstable—but who doesn’t seem slightly unstable if you look closely enough—an affable old coot. And when it comes to men from Texas it might not get much better than “old coot.” Old coot might be the best that Texas ever has to offer. So you think: maybe. Maybe the odds are getting better. Maybe, on this trip, Texas won’t be what it has always been, a depressing, disturbing bout of alienation and repugnance.

Then he starts talking about his restaurants. “Are you a vegetarian, little lady?”

“Yes.”

“Well shit you have to come to my restaurant in Houston. I own about 15 of the fuckers.” He gives you his card. It says Silver Star Vegetable HouseCurly Morgan, CEO. A white card with an embossed star in the middle, shaped out of silver leaves.

“Really? Texan vegetarian cuisine?”

“We grow all our own produce. Science is amazing. I can grow a bell pepper half as big as a Volvo. Have you ever eaten a mutant bell pepper just for dinner? A stuffed bell pepper? We put sour cream in those fuckers. Shredded cheese? Fake tofu bacon chips? Just dump it in there. I got some of them bigger than a plate. They look like small dogs. It’s amazing. People love it. And you know what? You don’t have to eat meat to have food that good.” He pounds the arm rest, takes a fierce gulp of beer. Curly really cares about his mutant peppers.

“That’s interesting.” What else are you going to say? You’re stuck with the mutant vegetable restaurant tycoon of the universe for the next three hours.

“Yeah, and it’s real popular with the tourists who come from, you know, California.” He winks. “A lot of tourists come in terrified, traumatized, because they think Texas is all just steer and beer. But we grow our own stuff.”

At this point, you’re fighting a flashback, thinking of Jim Logue, your father’s partner. Creepy Uncle Logue, who always came by for dinner whenever you and your father got into Lubbock. He managed the refrigerator factory and did everything while your father was home in California. Uncle Logue used to poke you in the shoulder and say you were growing up to be a sexy little thing and to call him in 5 years.

That creepy-crawly feeling you’d get from Uncle Logue—that’s what Curly’s giving off. Only he’s not thinking about you. He’s thinking about a Honcho bell pepper as big as a small dog. It makes you wonder what Curly gets up to with his mutant bell peppers at night when nobody’s around. And suddenly, all the possible ideas you have about what Texas could be, vanish into what it clearly is. You look around the plane and realize that nothing changes—that every city in Texas has a different permutation of the same dysfunctional human blight. Uncle Logue was supposed to teach Stevie the business. But Stevie got killed. He’d only been in Texas for a few months.

“People need it big. They want it now, you know? And if it moves, we can kill it dead. And if it don’t move, we can cook it,” Curly says with his vegephile grin. That’s how it is. People need it big.

Why you choose to live in California: everybody who hasn’t been to California says Los Angeles, fires, crazies, gangs, riots, San Francisco, godless homosexuals, cults, earthquakes, falling into the ocean, weirdo freak Democrat liberals. But maybe that’s okay. And even if that’s all there is, you’ll take it any day. In fact, the perfect day in San Francisco goes like this. You’ll get up late and you’ll take the BART from Hayward into the City. You’ll have a crepe at Tart-to-Tart and walk down 7th Street pleased with the world. Then you’ll go by the Japanese garden in Golden Gate Park and look at the dogs playing on the grass and at the wandering peacocks and the Korean girls trying to make sense of tourist maps on rented bicycles.

The sky will be blue. And someone will be doing Tai Chi beside a pond. The disc golfers will be laughing. You’ll pause to watch a mime do the entire second act of Hamlet, playing all the characters himself. And then you’ll go sit by the stone lion in front of the de Young museum, where there’s an Andy Goldsworthy installation that’s just a crack that runs down the center of the entryway. You’ll wait and nobody will notice it, thinking it’s just a crack in the concrete. And you’ll enjoy watching everyone, until a crowd of extremely self-conscious tourists in electric blue jumpsuits arrives on Segways. And then you’ll go in and look at the art. And this will be your day.

Curly’s ordering another Amstel, flirting with the flight attendant. You’ve bored him. You put his card in your pocket and close your eyes. You’d give anything to have a job that’s stable, that would allow you to pay your bills and live back in the City. And then Dane would realize that you are around and that he really does love you. But life isn’t like that. It would be too perfect. That perfect couple on their perfect date back in San Francisco are as far from Texas as Texas is from anything good.

Knowing this, you also know the fault is yours. You’re the one that got on the plane, telling yourself you had to. Your last experience in Houston (fiancée George, dentist, mistake) was as horrific as your first experience in Waco (12 years old, on a trip with dad, thrown from a horse, six weeks in bed). Sitting in the factory office in Lubbock for hours with nothing to do but watch the workers load refrigerator shells into the backs of trucks. Stevie in his coffin, laid out in a black suit that he’d never worn while he was alive, the deep cuts in his cheeks spackled and rouged. Texas has enough bad memories and ghosts for you to fill the back end of a horror story—when all you want is to make up with Dane, at least to break even as friends, at least to walk with him down Embarcadero one more time and look at the bay. But here you are.

So you touch down in the mutant cyclops state that only gets one star. DFW’s full of idiots in cowboy hats, morons in mongoose, monitor lizards in Durango dusters. And you’re going to get on that connecting Fokker F-27 and it’s going up in the sky and coming down in Houston. Blind date in Texas? Oh yes, motherfucker, you’re all about it. You’re doing it for Victoria. You’re doing it to get paid. You’re doing it because she forces you to do things like this. And then she’ll write about it as if she did it herself and you’ll fade into freelance vapor. You’ll try to recover, curling up in your studio apartment in Hayward, feeling like a beaten animal, nursing your wounds. Blind date in Texas? Shit, you’re helping Victoria Volt get famous. You’re fueling her image, doing what she’s supposed to be doing instead of raising her son on 7 acres in upstate New York, eating vegan, and going to yoga twice a day. Research assistant? There’s no such thing in Texas. You’re going to wind up skinned in a barn, tied up on a farm, overwhelmed by locusts, lynched by rednecks.

You get off the plane and avoid the urban cowboys, the dudes with handlebar moustaches trying desperately to look like Sam Elliott. You sit in a small bank of chairs far away from everyone between the boutique that offers bells and little glass angel chimes and the food court with four varieties of Authentic Texas Bar-B-Que. It’s a trade-off. You have to smell the meat, sauce on a slab of death, but it’s far enough from the gates to discourage new cowboy friends.

The first thing you have to do before you read the files Victoria sent is check your email—the special account you have just for messages from She Who Must Be Obeyed. You open your laptop and go through the motions. There she is. She’s left you the usual video message. She has the clearest skin of any woman you’ve ever seen. Short brown hair in a bob and a radiant white smile—so constructed, so perfectly put together that it makes you think of an artificial sun. She wears blue contacts, does Yogalates multiple times a day. She has an obese 10-year-old boy named Frederick, but there isn’t an ounce of fat on her body. In fact, Victoria has biceps cut so severely you can see them ripple.

Her face is frozen on the screen in that perfect smile, ready to deliver the usual instructions, veiled threats, and warnings about spending any unnecessary money. You plug your headphones into the computer and notice Curly embracing a tall Asian man, dressed in a black suit, black Stetson, and a clear glass bolo tie with a spider encased in it. They’re standing right in front of you, but Curly doesn’t notice.

Curly says, “Well, shit, Robbie, what the hell have you been doin’ with your life?”

Robbie bows. “Do you want me to get your bags, Mr. Morgan?”

Then you hit play and your patron and mentor, Victoria Volt, begins her pronunciamento, which will regulate and define all things for the next minute and 38 seconds of your life: “Hi Allison,” she says, losing her smile a little as if your name were a term for something necessary yet disappointing. “I hope you’re well. By now, I’m sure you’re already either on the plane or touching down in my favorite state. I understand it’s not your favorite state, but let’s not forget this is a job I need you to do. You’re going on a blind date, Allison! This should make you happy. Does it make you happy? It makes me happy thinking that you’ll be getting out for a change with an eligible guy. This is as much for you as it is for me. You need to get out more, you know. By sending you on this trip, I’m doing my part to help you out. And if writing comes out of it, then all the better, right? Think of it as a paid vacation. I’m paying you to go out on a date. How much better could it be? And this guy, Harley Winslow, he’s perfect for a human interest piece. I discovered him through a friend of mine at the Houston Chronicle. Harley’s amazing. He used to be a travelling preacher, but now he raises alpacas on a farm and it’s really fantastic because he wrote a book. Would you believe it? It’s a book about dating.”

She holds the book too close to the camera then pulls it back and the image of a glowing white crucifix on a hill comes into view with a man and a woman holding hands and kneeling before it. “It’s called Sacred Love: the Words of Jesus as the Ultimate Guide to Life and Romance. How about that? I think he might be an idiot, which would be perfect.” She puts down the book and raises her eyebrows. Directive number one: make sure you note any details that would make him seem like a fool.

“Anyway, he’s not very attractive. Not too hunky. At least by my standards. But he’s certainly interesting. You need to find out all about him. I think he’s human interest gold. Magazine readers would find him very entertaining. Don’t you think so? I hope you do. You’d better.” Victoria smiles—not at you, but beyond the webcam lens at the Universe, with whom she shares various running jokes. You watch the video a second time with a certain Zen detachment.

Victoria’s real last name, her maiden name, is Vichinsky. You have no idea what her husband’s last name is. Victoria would send you into a swamp to investigate alligators. But she’d do it with a wink and her supernova smile. Every time she sends you on a job, which is about once every three weeks according to her writing schedule, she frames it as something that’s good for you, something that can make you better and more like her. If you thought in such terms, you might be flattered, since she’s the most attractive competent woman you know; though, you suspect she spends hours a day on her appearance. You also suspect she’s OCD, a hypochondriac, and very possibly an agoraphobe.

But that’s all beside the point. The point is: you have a job to do. As you watch people from the plane drift into Authentic Texas Bar-B-Que and drift out, looking slightly bilious and poisoned, you realize that part of Victoria’s success and beauty lies in the fact that she hardly ever leaves home or deviates from her schedule. She lives on several acres of old farm land in upstate New York in a barn that has its own air purification system and is riot-proof. It’s even got a moat. On those rare occasions that she does go out, she checks the driving routes in case everything hits the fan while she’s on the highway. Her husband carries a gun to protect her.

She has only granted an in-person audience to you once—when she hired you. And, even then, there was a certain skittishness about her, the sense that you might, in fact, be a vector for some kind of bacteria that would eventually kill her and her entire family. These are things the world doesn’t know about Victoria Volt, columnist, celebrity, who has appeared on Oprah, Doctor Phil, The O’Reilly Factor, and even Charlie Rose. Radiant avatar of failed marriage and doomed romance, hidden away in her secret temple in Saugerties, New York, who has written many books, who is everywhere and yet nowhere. The times she has to do a show or an interview are periods of great stress and there’s always a blackout interim before and after in which she speaks to no one—probably doing Yogalates.

You open the Word file that Victoria sent. It gives contact details, your motel, what she wants you to do. Victoria writes that Harley calls himself Lord Harold sometimes, which is his bowling club nickname. He was an itinerant preacher on the old chitlin circuit. He went to Hosanna Bible College of North Texas and drove around in a 1972 Winnebago with a box full of Gideon Bibles, sanctified nails, and gallon milk jugs of holy water. He was casting out devils, exorcising the peoples—until he had a faith crisis and became a Unitarian. Then the Longree Pentecostal Sanctuary in Bethel kicked him out. He started selling power tools door-to-door, but that didn’t work, either, because he was more interested in talking about the Lord. So now what does he do? Now he’s a cell phone salesman at The Galleria in Houston and he raises alpacas. He does Christian Star Wars reenactments in his spare time. This is the guy she wants you to go out with—the embodiment of everything Curly could have been had he made slightly different decisions and not had a fetish for oversized Honcho peppers.

There’s a small photograph embedded in the Word document. Harley’s details: 6’2” tall; sunburned pink scalp under sparse blond hair; blue eyes; small nose; thin lips, but a prominent chin with a cleft. In the picture, he’s wearing a western shirt with pearled snaps. And you think he isn’t attractive, but he doesn’t look that bad. More like an extra in a cowboy movie. Someone you take for granted as you’re watching a young Clint Eastwood put a steel plate under his poncho to stop bullets before a gunfight. Victoria has set you up on a date with this man in order to vicariously live it and write about it. Yes. Okay. You can do this. You’re a professional. But dating for money sounds like something else—something that almost came up before. What if Victoria decides to write about what it’s like to be a hooker again? Does she send you out to some guy’s apartment and tell you it’s going to be good for you? Every now and then, she tries to broach the subject.

You’ve got 20 minutes before boarding starts for the short flight to Houston. So you wander around the airport. There’s a kiosk with shelves of tiny ceramic dogs. Serapes are hanging everywhere for sale, more serapes than in all of Mexico. And DFW smells like dust. The hot dust of Texas. Even in the hermetically sealed biodome of an airport, the outside world will seep in over time. And this is true even here at Dallas-Fort Worth. The airport resembles a dystopian bubble city from bad 70s science fiction—with its own rail system and outlying terminals designed to contain a terrorist blast. You think DFW probably has machines in the basement that could independently support it as a city-state in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Logan’s Cattle Run. You can even see the dust on some of the people just in through security. You wonder if you’re going to smell like Texas when you get back and how many showers it will take to get it off you. This is something Victoria would know.

In the restroom, you look at yourself in the mirror, your brown hair has streaks of gray in it like little lightning bolts of death. Gray already at 31. You keep your hair tied back most of the time. It’s easier that way. You haven’t worn nail polish or lipstick in a dog’s age and why would you? All you do is work. And the type of work you do doesn’t require you to look like Victoria Volt. It requires a laptop, focus, and self-discipline most days. When you have to meet with someone, you have the basic ensemble ready—a black two-piece Donna Karin business suit, a few silk blouses.

But right now, you’re wearing the blue Cal sweatshirt that belonged to Dane. You kept it because giving it back would have been like giving him back to the world. And that isn’t on the docket. He’s still your boyfriend. Looking at yourself, at your gray in the mirror, you feel a wave of sadness rise up through the center of your being. But nothing’s changed. Everything’s on track. You’re going to do this job, make 2 gs. You’re going to go back to the bay area and call Dane and he’ll actually answer the phone and you’ll go out and have dinner at the aforesaid chic little café called Nunu’s, his favorite.

If you don’t call him your ex, he’s not really your ex—Dane now has Adriana and, yes, she’s from Brazil. But it’s because you’re never around. And really, let’s not kid ourselves, it’s because of Victoria. Adriana’s a model who doesn’t shower. And even though she stinks, she’s possibly the most well-put-together woman you’ve ever seen in real life other than Victoria. Her father owns a villa in Belo Horizonte, which you know because Dane has a framed picture of it on his wall. And when you come by his place to check on all your things still in his closets, Adriana’s always there and you leave faster than you arrive. Victoria wants you to write about that, too—at least to make an outline for her as usual and work “frenemy” into the title.

The crowd on the Fokker F-27 is sparse, which is strange because the trip from DFW to Houston is popular, but today there’s hardly anyone on the plane. You have an entire row to yourself. Below, the tawny lion hide of Texas goes past as the plane reaches 37,000 feet. The flight attendants are all female, blonde, and look vaguely porny. Centerfold material. They have a festive air. They’re telling jokes to each other, imitating people they know and laughing hysterically. The few passengers consist of a South Asian gentleman who goes to sleep immediately, three old ladies sharing a crochet bag, a business man on his day off in an Izod polo and a baseball cap, reading the Wall Street Journal, and you.

It will be a short flight. You consider watching Victoria’s message again. But you know Harley’s waiting for you. He told Victoria he’d pick you up at the terminal. You won’t have a chance to put yourself together. He’s going to be there from the minute you set foot in Houston—another thing you don’t like. But you’re not being paid to look good for Harley Winslow or even to like him. You are a prosthetic eye that will not be touched and that’s how it’s going to be. You are the agent, representative, and sometimes ghost writer for a famous author. So you put your laptop back in its leather shoulder bag, drink the 7-Up that Miss November just brought you and close your eyes, listening to the hiss and rumble of the plane. Someone had too much Authentic Texas Bar-B-Que and it’s evident. Your seat is up against the restroom bulkhead. You close your eyes and try to ignore the smells and sounds of air sickness coming through the wall.

This is your life. You had a Confucian exit strategy as recent as last year—the cheerful retreat, the thank-you-for-teaching-me-so-much-master, the take-care-can-I-use-you-as-a-reference sort of thing. But reality: you don’t know how to operate a hydro-encephelator or manage IT security for an auto parts chain or give MRIs. You could apply to wash dishes at Golden Wok across from the library in Hayward. You could maybe get a job selling shoes at the mall. Instead, Victoria pays you $2,000 to spend the weekend riding along to meth labs with the LAPD. She then sells the article to Vogue, “Dark Days: Victoria Volt goes Undercover in the Inland Empire.” Your title.

She acts like she’s your mentor, like she’s grooming you to be her. But you’re already Victoria in many ways, her muse, her lackey. She supports herself with blogs and pastel-colored books on divorce. She’s the divorce queen. The diva of despair. Five Things I Learned from Divorce. Vengeance and the Abandoned Spouse. Things You Should Never Do After a Divorce. Men: Do we Need Them? Seven Things About Me You Didn’t Learn Until You Divorced Me. You Haven’t Divorced Me…Yet! Maybe You Haven’t Divorced Me But It’s Like We’re Already Married So Maybe You Could. And What I Hate About You: A Book of Holiday Lists.

Victoria has a problem. But it isn’t divorce. She’s married to a guy she calls “The Plumber” because he’s a plumber. But there’s supposed to be a double meaning in that. He doesn’t get a name. He’s just The Plumber. She has attempted to castrate him 17 times with a wood chisel. It’s an ongoing project. And she writes about it, about how he’s distantly amused by it: The Plumber comes into the room and says, “Tried to use the chisel on me last night, eh?”

She has written that the Plumber sleeps in a different bedroom. She needs to pick the lock every time she wants in. But he’s always one step ahead of her. He leaves crumpled up newspapers around his bed. He has pepper spray stashed everywhere. He doesn’t talk much, this plumber. But they communicate in absolutes, in physical essentials, like: “Did you try to castrate me with a wood chisel again?” or “Did you lock me out last night?” According to Victoria, she hasn’t had sex in seven months, 22 days, and 7 hours. She has some scheduled for around Christmas Eve—when she’ll put down the chisel and he’ll unlock the door and first they’ll go have prime rib in some restaurant in Saugerties and she’ll blog about it later.

But you’ll be shivering in someone’s basement with a can of pork and beans, even though you’re a vegetarian and you hate pork and beans. You’ll be eating it anyway for some kind of experiment of Victoria’s—because she’ll want to know what it’s like to spend Christmas alone in a cold basement and eat pork and beans out of a can. And that would be the lesser of evils. You’ve dug out latrines and spent the night in subways and halfway houses and bungee corded into rivers and all sorts of other things that Victoria wanted to pretend she’d done. Only Victoria and The Plumber know about you. Whenever you narrowly escape something awful, she says, “I think your reportage is really coming along.”

And how much is she paying you and why do you do it? It’s because you majored in English. That’s why. Because there are no jobs. Because you’re not good at poker and you couldn’t afford the gas to Vegas anyway. You answered the ad in your last year of grad school: Research Assistant for Nationally Recognized Columnist. Must be obedient, smart, and hard working. Victoria said you got two out of three, but it was enough. She liked the fact that you didn’t know how to dress yourself when you flew out for the interview and she offered to teach you how to write because people don’t learn anything in graduate school. “I’m absolutely willing to learn” you said, which was code for: soon I will have a MA in Victorian lit., which is to say, soon I will have nothing. I have massive student loans. And I need a job like I need the air. “Breathe,” Victoria said.

Harley drove 47 miles from Bethel, Texas, to pick you up. Harley opens the trunk of his white Crown Vic in the airport parking lot and points everything out because he thinks you’ll want to write about it. In his trunk: a rubber tourniquet, a box of spoiled Taco Bell chalupas, duct tape, a bag of shriveled biscuits, a Taser gun, a Dragunov SVD sniper rifle, and an enormous fucking jar of Metamucil.

You wonder what Victoria told him about you. He’s a lost tumbleweed that blew up against your door. The last thing anyone wants to do is take something like that in, break it open, and see what kind of strange sick thing is curled up inside. The whole research project has felony murder potential. It’s the tumbleweed of death. It’s a tractor wheel rolling downhill and killing an old lady at a bus stop. A random bolt of lightning. The zombie apocalypse. It’s the end times. You look at the rifle—DRAGUNOV SVD on the stock in slanted black letters—and decide that going on a date with Harley just so Victoria can write about it isn’t even a real job. It’s a tragedy. You tell yourself this won’t become a felony murder. And the sky won’t be filled with bullets. You tell yourself it’s just another research project. But you’re not stupid. You can’t deny your sense that the excrement is heading for the air conditioning. And Texas is where it’s at.

“I collect all kinds of stuff. I just keep it all in my trunk. You ever heard of Watts Towers?”

“I’m from California, Harley.”

“Watts Towers is a beautiful thing, man. I got five books on it.”

“I’m not a man, Harley.”

“Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior, Allison?”

“No.”

“I realize that this is some sort of test tube experiment for that writer. But could we at least try to make the best of it and be friends?”

“You’ve got a rifle and a tourniquet in your trunk.”

“Sniper rifle, honey. And that’s actually a hospital grade medical tourniquet.”

“Are you a junkie or a juicer of some kind?”

“I have been known to make a mean banana-guava smoothie.”

“What’s a former preacher doing with a Taser?”

“Technically, it’s a stun gun. Don’t tase my balls, bro! You see that video? That was funny. Internet. It’s on the internet.”

“I’m going, Harley. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“Don’t you want a ride?”

“I’ll get a cab.”

It was supposed to be a date that lasted three days. The first day lasted three minutes. After a year of working for Victoria, of coming up with ideas and outlines for chapters of books and magazine columns, there’s one thing you know for sure: as long as you get her a nice article to write—not too serious, not, as she says, “offensively smart”—she’ll love you long time. You’ll get paid. Victoria will get the credit. Life will continue.

It’s 7:00 PM in room 14b at the Roundup Motel when you decide to call Dane again. His cell phone rings and rings. Sometimes it’s good just to hear his voice on the outgoing message. You used to leave messages for him, trying to sound casual:

It’s me. Just checking in. Just want to see how you’re doing.

Hey, I saw this funny thing on Facebook and I thought—hey, are you online?

Hey, I thought maybe you and—your friend—want to catch a movie. Or maybe just you.

Hi, it’s me—wondering what you’re up to. It’s so weird. I’m going to be in the neighborhood again.

Hey you! Thinking maybe we could meet up if you want to get a cup of coffee, may at that café down by the tower. What was it called?

Everything in room 14b is vinyl. It has a Bates Motel lamp hanging loose by a cord from the ceiling—something to send shadows all around the room while an occupant gets knifed. The motel is outside the city on Highway 35. Victoria’s all about the work and never about luxury. You can’t count the number of roadside motels you’ve stayed in—Motel 6s, Super 8s, Red Roof Inns, Budget Suites. Truckers welcome. Once, she sent you to Osaka for two days and you stayed in a coffin hotel—which, although creepy and uncomfortable, was still infinitely cleaner and better put together than any American low-budget motel you’ve used.

The smell of the dust is here, too. But this time, it’s not Texas dust per se, just motel dust. Still, you unroll your sleeping bag on the bed because there’s no way in hell you’re getting in those sheets. At this point, you feel you know about motels. The only vegetarian fare on the menu is a small apple and a bottle of water. You have suspicions about the water. Somehow, Texas would find a way to put meat in it.

So you sit there in the mustard colored bank chair with cigarette burns in the wooden armrests, looking into the mouthpiece of the ancient room phone. It’s holes are crusted with the creeping crud of the ages. You listen to Dane’s outgoing message: Hi. You’ve reached Dane Robbins. Leave a message, okay? He doesn’t mean it. You call back and listen to it three times. His voice is beautiful. Like him. At the beep, you always hesitate. What do you say? Dane, I’m in Houston but I’ll be back in a few days. (Would you be interested in leaving that stinking bitch from Brazil? Moving in with me? Getting married? Having 2.3 children? Changing our names and moving up to Pacific Heights where we’ll have perfect jobs, perfect happiness, and relief from the horrors of life?). But you just listen and hang up.

For some reason, your cell phone can’t connect whenever you call Dane, but you won’t believe he blocked you. When you call him, you always have to do it from hotel phones. You wonder if Victoria has paid attention to those charges because she always requests the motel receipts. She knows you have no living family. What does she think about the fact that you call the same San Francisco number every time? She has to wonder. But she’s never brought it up. Hopefully, she never will.

The psycho killer lamp, the single light source in room 14b, is dim. Not enough light to read. The TV is a Zenith. Its screen is a dark 1970s olive green. You turn it on and get the agricultural channel, three channels of Spanish news, and Doctor Phil. Tonight, he’s featuring real life vampires and the people who love them. You turn it off. Outside the hotel, there’s a truck stop gas station and a Burger King. You’re scheduled to be picked up by Harley at 4:00 PM tomorrow, when he will take you on a tour of his alpaca farm and then buy you dinner. That’s the plan.

You take a shower and get back in your sleeping bag, but you can’t stand the buzzing of the gas station floodlights, enormous orange sodium vapor floods that cast a flat matrix of light and shadow around the motel. The 16-wheelers are giant rumbling monsters blinking their headlights and hissing in the dark. It will be a long night. So you hop over to the TV in the sleeping bag and turn on the Doctor. It’s the middle of the show. A very large pale man with purple streaks in his long black hair and a silver stud below his lower lip holds hands with a heavyset woman in an orange sundress. Doctor Phil says, “Really? And you go to these clubs and you never have any trouble with him getting together—”

They both start talking at once. Then the woman holds up a hand and says, “It’s a lifestyle thing. This isn’t like cheating.”

The crowd boos.

“I’m not being unfaithful,” the man says. “It’s just part of our vampire culture. We’re predatory. We need to hunt.”

“Yes.” The woman nods. “It’s a need.”

“And you’re okay with this? You take precautions? Isn’t this sexually dangerous?”

This time, the man holds up a hand bedecked with steel rings. “Being a sexual outlaw is part of it. You take a chance in your life walking across the street. But, you know, it’s like playing roulette. We don’t expect the mundanes to understand.”

Everyone laughs.

Doctor Phil raises an eyebrow the way Victoria might if she were proposing that you walk naked through Times Square just so she could learn what it feels like. “Sexual roulette? You’re sexually gambling?”

The woman grips the armrest of the chair with her free hand and leans forward, displeased. Then she says, “It’s not random like that. He has this ability.”

“Yes,” the man says. “I can sense my prey. I can sense when someone wants it. Can’t you, Doctor Phil?”

Silence and then a few tentative boos from the audience. The camera pans over the faces—people straight out of middle America. Weight problems. Bifocals. Chunky sweaters and bad haircuts. The disapproving frowns of suburbia. Doctor Phil makes an interested face with an under layer of extreme boredom. He says that after commercial they’ll be back to talk to someone who claims she must drink blood in order to survive.

You fall asleep with that thought: some people have to drink blood to survive. And you dream that you’re in China in the Forbidden City. And Sun Yat Sen, dressed in saffron robes, is giving you a tour through its empty rooms. And then he’s sitting at the foot of your bed, smiling and nodding and telling you the location of the emperor’s silverware that he hid many years ago—a treasure room of such vast proportions that it’s amazing it has never been found by the government. A treasure room cunningly hidden far below the Forbidden City. And even in your dream, you’re putting together an outline on this for Victoria.

You eat a greasy truck stop breakfast and drink a small chemical orange juice. Then you call a cab and take it into downtown Houston and walk around, feeling lost, feeling like a ghost, a Sun Yat Sen poltergeist. You snap some photos with your cell phone for Victoria so she can write more convincingly about what the place looks like. She wants photos, video, sounds of people talking, images of food, descriptions of the weather, major landmarks. It works quite well. The final copy of her articles read as if she were really there. She always wants you to start with downtown—places, she says, that the rednecks might avoid, even in Texas, because she hates rednecks. This takes you several hours, as always, before you go to Starbucks to email it all.

While there, you look at Victoria’s latest blog post. It reads like straight fiction. “The Chisel Report: How to Know What You Need in a Man.” It describes her latest attempt to overpower The Plumber while he slept. This time, she picked the lock early and waited all day in the closet, razor-sharp chisel, mallet, latex gloves, coffee, bag of doughnuts, penlight, the question: Does he really need his balls to be my husband? circling through her thoughts. But Victoria fell asleep.

Four or five paragraphs into the post, she speculates: was it was the extra cruller? Too much milk in the coffee? The lack of movement and light? The warm closeness of The Plumber’s overcoats and suits around her like a comforting wooly uterus? Victoria admits that she doesn’t know exactly why she drifted off. When she awoke it was the middle of the night. She crept out into the dark bedroom, feeling a sense of triumph, tasting victory at last.

However, when she drew back the comforter, she saw that he had anticipated all of it. He’d shaped an outline of himself with pillows under the blankets and left her a note that said he’d been living at the Holiday Inn Express in Tannersville for the past week. Toward the end of the post, Victoria admits that she hadn’t noticed his absence.

In the last paragraph, she writes, This is what I need in a partner instead of husband-ballast, dead weight, a man who brings nothing to the table. I need a man sharp enough to stay one step ahead. This is what we all need in a partner if it’s going to last and I know I’m a fortunate girl. This is love in case you were wondering. Are you lucky in love?

You think this might be one of the worst pieces of writing you’ve ever seen from Victoria. It’s surprising. But she’s told so many lies about her life and herself at this point—her participation in Viet Nam protests as a toddler; beating and making a citizens arrest of a potential rapist in Central Park using only a rolled-up magazine and Krav Maga techniques; turning down an invitation to MENSA. The Victoria Volt image, brittle and constructed, a gilded eggshell.

During a Skype call in which you were waiting for Victoria to come back from the restroom, The Plumber once paused on his way past the computer to ask you how you were. He’s a short paunchy man who wears baseball caps and has a pencil-thin moustache. And, as he stooped over the webcam, he seemed like someone from a different era, maybe the 1930s—the sort of man who’d peer carefully through a peephole before opening the door to a speakeasy. He wiggled his fingertips at you and said, “I admire your skills and so does Victoria. We’ve got a lot to thank you for.” At the time, you didn’t know what to say. Now, if you could relive that moment, you might say, “No, actually you don’t.”

Doctor Phil is always on. You return to Room 14b and watch a rerun of an earlier broadcast. No vampires this time. Now it’s people who secretly try to make their spouses obese. The panel members on stage are very large and very unhappy. They speak over each other, a certain dark luster in their eyes. You picture them skinny under their voluminous T-shirts and muumuus with pillows strapped to themselves so they could be on TV. You try to imagine the hidden world of such people, delighted, desperate, depressed, full of the need to be on television, to be seen.

The sun goes down and Harley never shows. Once again, you watch the telephone, imagining the best worst Dr. Phil episode: Ex-Girlfriends in Denial Who Call from Texas. Some of them are sad and desperate. Some of them will drink your blood. It’s easy to be in denial when you don’t know what went wrong. You have four pictures of Dane in your wallet and you lay them out on the bed like Tarot cards: Dane playing water polo with his headgear pushed slightly back, his arm in mid-throw. Dane in his living room trying to play a didgeridoo. Dane riding his father’s horse, Sugar, in Connecticut. Dane laughing at the Gypsy palm reader that day in Berkeley.

You shut off the TV and the room is silent. You think of the last time you saw him. You’d gone out for a drink to celebrate his acceptance by Hastings. You said congratulations and he just shrugged. “I’m so dedicated to life,” he said, “that I can’t tolerate weakness in others for very long. It gets disgusting waiting for the world to catch up.” But Dane had cried like a baby when he didn’t get into Boalt Hall and stayed drunk for a week. He’d hired a ringer to impersonate him and take the LSAT again. You didn’t bring these things up. Why would you?

It’s then that you see the procession beyond the curtains of Room 14b and you forget about Dane completely. Maybe you notice it out of sheer luck or fate. Or maybe it’s just something randomly ejected from the great machinery of happenstance that turns beneath the sodium floods outside all one-horse motels. It doesn’t surprise you at first because you’ve heard about the kinds of things people have seen in Texas: ghost caravans emerging out of the fog, a semi-transparent circus, a silent menagerie floating north toward Nacogdoches, invisible by dawn.

A heavy mist, maybe a fog, has risen six feet above the ground. A ghost mist from which anything might emerge. But you’re not prepared for a night procession, cars rolling past, a hearse covered in flowers, various old convertibles driven by skeletons, and at least 50 mourners afoot, each carrying 7-day vigil lights, little sugar skulls. Some are dressed as the Grim Reaper. Some carry statues of saints. Some have burlap bags over their heads, inching forward in prayer. All in perfect silence.

You stand in the doorway to your room and close your mouth. If there is anyone else staying at the motel, their cars are gone from the parking lot, their windows dark, curtains drawn. Maybe they’re terrified of this. You look at your long shadow stretched out before you in the light from the room. Then you look at the procession still going by and take picture after picture with your phone. No one looks at you.

What are you now? Are you the ghost? The ghostwriter? Are you a journalist? Are you still that prosthetic eye and is this something that the eye should see? Is this something you could tell Dane about? Maybe it’s not something you could describe to anyone. It’s not something Victoria would ever write about. It’s not something Doctor Phil would want on his show, five kinds of Grim Reaper sitting on the stage and an audience in skeleton drag.

Taking a step backward, you almost fall. You’re dizzy with surprise and unsure whether to shut the door. You could zip yourself all the way into your sleeping bag, like a body bag, and pretend that you, too, are part of it somehow in the dust and vinyl of Room 14b. Or you could walk out and take more pictures and follow this strange parade.

You run back into the room, pull on your jeans, Nikes, a T-shirt and the Cal sweatshirt. Then you lock the door behind you and fall in with the mourners, your heart triphammering in your chest. No one speaks to you or looks your way, except for an old woman who hands you one of her candles—a white taper with a paper guard to keep hot wax off your hand.

Silent, you walk for over an hour according to the clock on your phone. And when you reach the graveyard hidden from the highway by buttes on either side, it’s a quarter past midnight. When the hearse rolls down a dirt path and stops at an open grave, you realize it’s November 1st, the Day of the Dead. This is someone’s funeral mass. You make your way to the front of the crowd and kneel with the family by the mound of fresh earth as the coffin is lowered.

The priest is all in white with a green stole. And the graveyard is already full of burning candles like a fairy metropolis, pinwheels, tiny chimes tinkling in the wind. The priest says, “Oremos” and everybody bows their heads. You do, too, even though you were raised atheist and have never been to a religious service in your life.

Escuchanos, Señor,” the priest says.

“Amen,” responds the congregation.

A woman beside you collapses forward, wailing. No one touches her. She drops her candle on the mound of fresh dirt, digs in it with her hands. She pulls on her hair and moans and says things not in English or Spanish but in the special language of grief that everyone eventually learns. And part of you feels you should take a picture of this, if not for Victoria, then for yourself. But it wouldn’t come out or make sense if it did.

The image of your brother beaten to death by someone you’ll never know. He’d had an open casket and you were not grateful for that. No embalmer’s art could completely obscure the lacerations or reconstruct the extent to which Stevie’s cheekbones had been crushed, shattered, they thought, by a metal bar. Hit by a bar repeatedly, they said, in the restaurant parking lot.

Then you’re crying, too. You’re looking down at Stevie laid out in the bottom of the grave in his cheap black suit. His eyes are open, staring at you. Dizzy, you can feel the tendrils of the mist on your neck as you listen to “Bendito seas por siempre.” And the great world seems hollow, the great gilded eggshell world—a fragile empty thing made to seem fine and rare but secretly thin, as brittle as bone, and capable of shattering in an instant.

Hit by a bar.

You think of all those years back and forth to Lubbock with your father, who has now also passed on. And a great terrifying knowledge rises up inside you where before there has been merely an empty space that sometimes filled with longing. This knowledge, like the rising mist, like the body now in its coffin, like Stevie’s broken face staring up: the knowledge that you will return to Hayward, that the sun will come up, and that these moments will be hidden by the lying, prevaricating customs of the daylit world. You will submit your outline and materials to Victoria, carrying on the gilded fairy tale that everything is fine, that Victoria Volt is a brilliant journalist. You will continue to think of your brother as the victim of an impersonal tragedy—as if he’d been caught in an earthquake or drowned at sea instead of being beaten to death in Texas by someone he knew holding a metal bar. Beaten repeatedly. The heart of things, the truth, will sink back into the rotten shell of the earth where no one wants to look. But you will have seen the Forbidden City, at least in your dreams.

This is how you spend your night, crying silently with a Mexican woman dressed in black with dirt in her hair, watching, listening, kneeling. They take communion by the open grave. And by the end of the service, people start drifting back toward the road. You follow, feeling that you’ve left your body, that you’ve seen something hidden, horrible, beautiful—something that you shouldn’t have seen, something that cannot exist after sunrise, that could not be true in the same universe as Victoria Volt, that has never existed anywhere near Coit Tower or Dane Robbins or a chic little café named Nunu’s.

When you reach Room 14b, the sun is rising from the middle of the road beyond the Roundup Motel. The mist is gone. Your TV shows the morning news. They’re talking about a Day of the Dead gun battle between rival gangs in downtown Houston.

Later, as you doze, Sun Yat Sen comes to you again in a dream, dressed as a Buddhist monk. He takes you by the hand and leads you through hallways of filigreed gold, down red carpets with embroidered dragons, through hidden doors beneath Fou dogs. You travel far beneath the Forbidden City into the caves, through waterfalls in caverns as big as football stadiums. You follow him down a twisting stair into a darkness, where his torch shines like a lingering candle flame in a hidden graveyard. And when you reach the bottom, he’s no longer there. But you do see the Emperor’s silverware—enormous mounds of it, forks, spoons, knives, chopsticks shaped like dragon claws, like tiny Dragunovs, like the mandibles of great golden scarabs. And there are horses made of rubies. And there are mountains of inlaid plates and loving cups and jade bowls. And even a mountain of brass bullet casings, smoking in the torchlight. You wake up covered in sweat, your sleeping bag stuck to your bare skin. And you breathe the dust of the motel and you still want to cry but you tell yourself there’s nothing to cry about.

A few hours later, you wake up and listen to Dane’s outgoing message again. The connection picks up but there’s nothing on the other side other than the sound of whistling air, a series of clicks, a weird insectoid trill. What does this mean? You know it should upset you. You should take it as a sign. But something is different. You can’t say, Hi! I’m just up the street! because you aren’t. You can’t say, I just attended a midnight mass and saw the ghost of my dead brother. It seems that those clicks, that empty whistling, that computerized insect song is fitting—wind through an empty shell. You hang up, dial again, and then hang up before it connects.

There was that day after you both had class. You walked down Telegraph with Dane and saw the Psychic Hoodoo Palm Reader. You both went in just for fun, Dane repeating that he didn’t believe that horseshit and you daring him. “What’s the problem, then?” you said, winking, happy, laughing.

An older woman dressed in stereotypical Gypsy silks, as if she were in a perfectly arranged Gypsy Halloween costume, with a head scarf and big silver hoop earrings and electric blue eye shadow and blood red nails. All part of the fun. You sat in what used to be the living room of a house but was now done up in purple velvet. Her name was Madam Philomena. The requisite crystal ball was in the middle of the table. She held Dane’s right hand in both of hers as if it were made of fine china.

You remember that moment when he couldn’t control the muscles around his mouth and she said, “A dark-haired man with blue eyes. Your uncle has an evil cloud over his head. He’s addicted. He’s speaking Spanish to a policeman. He has a message for you.”

And Dane looked sick and terrified. “Where is that in my palm?”

“It’s not in you palm,” she said. “It’s in your face.”

“My uncle has blonde hair.” He stood up and threw down a twenty. But what he didn’t say was that the rest was exactly right. His uncle died a few months before, trying to bring cocaine over the border.

As he walked out, you took his picture, laughing again, ha ha, what a joke.

He grinned. “The stupidest twenty dollars I ever spent.”

Neither of you brought it up again. You held onto the picture of Dane you took that day because he didn’t want it. His family told everyone that his uncle got framed by corrupt Mexican police, that he was a victim. That it just happened like a rainstorm or a flood, another innocent American victimized south of the border, shot for being in the wrong place. In time, even his family believed it.

You dial his number again by heart, one last time, and this time it doesn’t even ring. There’s only that whistling sound, that black space, as if the wind is twisting through a hole in a window that no one cares to replace.

Your hands won’t stop shaking. So you buy a pack of Marlboro Lights at the truck stop, even though you haven’t smoked in months. You’re halfway through it when Harley knocks on the door.

He looks you up and down. “Rough night?”

“You could say that.”

“Yeah,” he nods. “For me, too. But I guess we gotta do this. I promised.”

“Let me get in the shower before we go. Do you mind waiting?”

“Not at all.” Harley bows slightly. “I’ll be in the car.”

When you come out, you’re almost awake. But you bring the cigarettes in your purse. As soon as Harley pulls away from the motel, you ask him if he minds.

“Just roll down the window,” he says. “I personally have never smoked, but it doesn’t bother me.” You go through two cigarettes before he gives you a sideways look. “I guess you’re supposed to be interviewing me or something. But maybe you want me to ask a few questions like, what happened to you last night?”

“I went to midnight mass.”

“You mean the graveyard mass they have sometimes back down the road? They do it for Day of the Dead if somebody’s died around that time. I hear there was some pretty bad stuff back in the city.”

“What do you really do, Harley? You don’t sell phones in the mall.”

The highway opens up and every now and then when a car or truck passes, heading in the opposite direction, people raise their hands in salute. Harley does the same.

“What do I do? Well, I suppose you’re asking because I stood you up yesterday. I suppose I owe you an explanation.”

“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

“I’m a known exorcist, Allison. You know what that is?”

“I read something—you travelling around with holy water. Something like that.”

“Something like that.”

He turns right onto a dirt access road and everything gets bumpy. You still feel like you’re not completely in your body, not completely present, like part of you is back at that service the night before, kneeling on a grave with candles all around. If asked, you might have considered trading the experience for more of Curly and his Honcho peppers. That you can understand, expect, laugh at. But this? You can’t shake the image of your brother, of those candles amid the headstones, of the priest like a ghost floating above the grave, and the mourners drifting by the motel—a secret parade that only appears on the night of the Day of the Dead.

“Here we are,” Harley says. “My place.”

It’s a nice one-story ranch house. A big affair with two backyard pools and a guest house done up in Western-brick-fireplace grandeur. But he doesn’t take you inside. And you don’t want to go in anyway.

“I was going to show you the ’pacas, but quite frankly, I hope you don’t mind if I just go to the range.”

“The range?”

“The firing range. I hope that doesn’t bother you.”

You light your 15th cigarette off the butt of the 14th with slightly trembling hands and shake your head. “Whatever. It’s all for Victoria.”

Harley coughs and squints at you. “Right.”

His trunk, in addition to the Dragunov SVD sniper rifle and the various other items he showed you before, now contains a large box of assorted melons. He places them at periodic intervals of 900 feet, head high along a wall of square hay bales. Beneath every melon, he tacks a fresh black-and-white bull’s-eye target with numbers on the rings. Then he comes back.

“You ever shoot a rifle?”

“No. You?”

He laughs. “You got quite a mouth on you. I’ll give you that. But that’s okay. I guess I deserve it 90% of the time.”

Harley unrolls a felt blanket on a slight rise of earth. He puts a clip into the rifle. He chambers a round and adjusts the scope. “Stay behind me.”

DRAGUNOV SVD is written on the stock, but you might have guessed a name like that. It looks like a long black mandible, a sleek dark stinger with nothing on it that would glint in the sun. When he takes a shot, a cantaloupe vanishes in a mist.

“Marine sniper school,” he says. “That was my real job.” The brass casing ejected from the gun smokes on the ground beside him. “You can take the man out of the Corps, but, well, you know how the saying goes.”

A loud pop like five balloons punctured at once. And what used to be a honeydew melon is no more.

“Nothing I have says you were a military sniper.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not something I necessarily put on my resume anymore. I like to think of myself as a godly man.”

Pop. Another melon down.

“How do you justify it?”

Pop.

“Justify it? I know it’s a waste of good melons, but you gotta pick your battles.”

Pop.

“No, being a sniper and being, you know, a preacher.”

“I did two turns in Iraq. I gotta believe in god, honey. If not, what was all that killing for?”

“I never accused you of wasting melons.” You’re thinking of that midnight mass, the woman on hands and knees clawing the dirt from the open grave, the carpet of candle lights between the headstones in the darkness, the priest with his hands outstretched. You’re thinking about Harley as a young man somewhere in Iraq, dug in with a rifle just like this one, sighting into a building, saying the Lord’s Prayer. You’re thinking of your vision of your brother in a black suit, staring up at you from the bottom of the grave.

Pop.

“I guess this isn’t much fun for you and for that I apologize. But exorcisms will change a man. They leave a spiritual taint. And you don’t get that off you for a couple days. I’m afraid it sours my disposition.”

Pop.

“When the devil gets up in someone, you gotta pull him out. It can go on for hours. It can go for a whole week. And you better pray hard.”

“You want to tell me about how you do it?”

“Not particularly, Allison. I understand you came here to parody me. Well, I can be parodied and that’s fine. Most of my life is a bad joke. But I’d prefer that my spiritual beliefs not be made fun of by some New York writer.”

“I can understand that.”

“Thought you might.”

He kills two rows of melons in silence with only the pops and the mist of melon juice as punctuation. Then he does a round of wine bottles. And then he starts on the paper targets. 90 minutes later, you’re back in the truck. He hands you the targets and you hold them up so you can look through the bullet holes.

“You can have ’em,” he says as he pulls up outside Room 14b. “I suppose that will give your boss something to write about.”

“I think it will, Harley.” You extend your hand. He takes it and kisses the back.

“I’m honored to have made your acquaintance, Allison. And I hope that someday our paths may cross again, if only for the pleasure of seeing you once more.”

You’ve smoked all your cigarettes. When the white Crown Victoria pulls away, you stand in the parking lot of the hotel and think of Stevie buried up in Lubbock and that you might go find him sometime.

Your flight leaves at noon. Before the cab arrives, there’s time to walk out to the hidden graveyard. You leave Dane’s four pictures beside a burned-down vigil candle. You look around the graveyard at all the drippings, wax spilled onto headstones, wrought iron fences tilting into the dirt over forgotten graves, tall glass holders lying on their sides, flowers and an ornate black and white cross made of sugar laid on the freshly filled plot. It’s here that you will put your love for Dane to rest and let the sun bleach the pictures. You will never come here again. It will be as if you had never visited this secret place. No one for a thousand years will discover your path to the emperor’s silver.

Waiting in the room for the cab to come, you see the same things on television, the agricultural channel, the news, the temperature at the Alamo, Dr. Phil coming on in 14 minutes. Then you go back to the parking lot with your suitcase and breathe the hot dust of a Texas afternoon, composing your letter of resignation to Victoria. It will say, Dear Victoria, I appreciate everything. I’ll remember everything. But the time has come to lay our relationship to rest. Harley Winslow might be insane. But even if he is, he’s still too good for you. Come meet him yourself. She’ll be furious. She won’t say that your reportage is coming along. She’ll say she’s going to bury you, that you’ll never work again, that she’ll hound you to the ends of the earth. But none of that will be real.

* Note: this story first appeared in Forge 8.4, April 2015.

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

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

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

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.

Miss Tomoike can’t pronounce the German for money. The problem is, neither can I.

I am in love with Miss Tomoike.

I say, Ich habe kein Geld. I have no money. And the class responds, Wir haben kein Geld. We have no money. In my world, the world of German 2A, no one ever has any money. But I am still in love with Miss Tomoike.

Problems.

She is sixteen years old. I am thirty-one. It is a clichéd, old story—probably as clichéd and old as having no money. Miss Tomoike’s d’s sound like t’s. If I’m not careful, mine do too: “Wir haben kein Gelt.”

Nein.

Nein, nein, nein.

I dance around the room for no reason at all and the class snickers. Geld: gay-aey-elle-day. The class repeats. They are patient, indulgent. They see my lighthearted antics and raise me my lack of correct pronunciation despite the fact that every day, at 9:10 AM in room 22, I am barely in the game.

My feelings for Miss Tomoike endure. They torment me from her wonderfully messy homework, the lopsided A’s, the undotted i‘s. I’ve bought a pack of the pens she uses: Pilot Precise V5 Rolling Ball, blue (extra fine). Sometimes I copy her signature over and over. I am a sad, sad man.

Jeremy Hoff raises his hand. Both of his parents are from Augsburg, directly from Augsburg. He could teach my class, and he makes sure I know this every day. Jeremy Hoff is the worst thing in my life.

He reminds me: “We did this yesterday.”

“Yes,” I say, “yes,” and retreat to the table at the front of the room where the teacher’s answer book is open to the lesson I almost understand.

Jeremy laces his fingers behind his head and leans back in his desk. He’s wearing western boots. He crosses his legs straight out at the ankles and the boots make a thok-thok on the hardwood. “What did you do before you were a teacher?” he asks.

I tell them to open their books.

He says something in a complex Bavarian slang I don’t understand, and the class snickers again. I ignore him. Miss Tomoike has beautiful eyes. Her short black hair is meticulously clean. She smiles up at me and I move on to verbs. Verbs are good. One can depend on verbs. I say, “sprechen,” and try not to stare as she conjugates.

I took it as the innate goodness and simplicity of small town folk that Claire Dunlop, the principal of Alexander Weiskopf H. S., offered to rent me a room until I could find a place of my own. Now we have a different principal and Claire Dunlop is gone. Two years have passed, but I am a hundred years older and I think back to my arrival as if it happened in a different era. I was in the last group of teachers to live in her house on Main Street, equidistant from the gas station and the school.

Hired by Claire right out of college, I moved from California so I could teach English and wouldn’t have to be a jeweler like every other member of my family. I would have gone just about anywhere. And Hauberk, Missouri, seemed okay even though tornados ripped across the state every year and the Hauberkians didn’t appear to care as long as their own, personal houses still had roofs when they got home from work. Sometimes entire barns were razed, animals carried for miles, tumbleweeds, bushes, and dirt pulverized into clumps by the road or rising out of the blasted cornfields in lopsided columns—messages in the great symbolic language of creation: DON’T STAY HERE. I didn’t listen.

Claire sent the algebra teacher, Henry Barber, to pick me up at the Greyhound one county over. He was a thin-lipped man, completely bald, with high cheekbones and a heaviness around him as if he traveled in his own pocket of dense air. He drove an old mint Packard in mint condition, which made me want to like him. But neither of us spoke much on the drive back to Hauberk.

Henry. What is there to say about him? He had the stick-to-itiveness of Midwestern farm culture all over him, the implicit understanding that anything worth being done was worth the time necessary to do it. Consequently, he didn’t drive over forty m.p.h. and I spent most of the trip doing what I’d been doing on the bus. I watched the geometry of the fields, haystacks, distant crows fluttering up in bursts, how the sky bent into the earth at the edge of sight and seemed to get darker there, as if an end really did exist beyond which all Missouri would disappear. Winter was coming. Later that day, I’d see blue run into gray, clouds like dead chunks, clotted and falling. I’d get used to seeing the sky as a dour, unfriendly predictor: tinged green for tornados, red for heavy wind, blue for dense humidity, gray for everything else. And, like the Midwestern sky, Henry Barber’s face was bland and serious, both long and compressed at the same time with a set expression and flat hazel eyes that seemed to be looking at the horizon even when they were looking at you.

“Yep, here we are, I guess,” he said. His voice startled me after the long silence.

There were only eight streets in Hauberk, and I hadn’t noticed that we’d come in. Though we were supposedly in the heart of the “downtown” area, it seemed like we’d entered a slightly more versatile truck stop. We got out and Henry put some quarters in an ancient parking meter.

It was the biggest house in this part of the world. If Claire Dunlop hadn’t been waiting at the top of her front steps, I would have thought we’d stopped at the county courthouse. As it turned out, the courthouse was one block away on the other side of the street. And it was smaller. Henry leaned against the car and sighed. Claire was looking down from the porch, raising her arms like Christ over Rio, embracing us, the town, the sacred perfection of everything that led up to her door.

Her T-shirt is tight and pink, says Love Kitten over a gray cartoon cat with hearts for eyes. She hands me her Midterm Progress Report and smiles. Ice glittering on the frosted window makes a pinwheel of light on her neck. I look at it and smile back, feeling just like that gray love kitten curled up in the sun. The students press out of my classroom—all but Jeremy Hoff glaring from the door.

There are only a few reports left for me to sign. In the totalitarian world of high school, a report of “Not Satisfactory” results in the victim being sent to the school psychologist and an emergency conference with parents and teachers. A “Poor” means regular therapy, tutoring every day, and a grand jury investigation. Probably electro-shock. There are no “Poor” students at Alexander Weiskopf High School.

“How are you?” asks Miss Tomoike, still smiling, beaming out ten-thousand gigavolts of Love Kitten all over me.

I grin like a boy and mark the “Very Good” box.

“Okay,” she says. “Thank you. Have a good day.” A few more bonus volts before the smile disappears and she’s out the door with Jeremy, who’s been having a desperate power shortage—blackouts, failures, exploding circuits. He hates me, yes, but that’s nothing compared to how much I hate him. I step into the hall, hands clasped behind my back, and watch them go to her locker.

Miss Tomoike’s American name is Lydia. And, of all the Lydias I’ve known, she is the most un-Lydia, which makes me love her even more. Her real name is Aniko, but everyone must call her Lydia, the name of three of my ex-girlfriends. I am cursed by that name.

First there was Lydia MacLeod: tall, redhead, hated father, abortion at fifteen, moved to Canada then hated Canada, made me bleach my hair, left me for a bouncer.

Then there was Lydia Horton: med student, chess and bowling, eating disorder, hated father, moved to Sri Lanka to build huts for the blind.

And Lydia Ründegaard: married to textile magnate, bisexual, abstract photographer, chain smoker, hated father, broke my television.

Now I no longer own a television and Miss Tomoike doesn’t bowl. She is an exchange student. Her parents live in Tokyo—bankers, businessmen, important people of commerce. I imagine sitting down with them. She’ll bring me home to meet them. Finally, yes, things will work out. An unconventional match? Of course, but aren’t all the great ones unconventional? I’ll sit down over awabi and twig tea with eight-thousand-year-old grandfather, exchanging deep existential truths in the form of short poems that seem like politeness. I’m preparing for it. I’ve learned three expressions from my Japanese On One Word-a-Day: Gaido-san desu-ka? Are you a guide? Saiko sokudo hyaku kiro. Maximum speed one-hundred kilometers. Iro, iro domo arigato. Thank you for everything.

When Henry and I drove up, she emerged in state. There was James Reid, music teacher, to her left, and coach Spinadella on her right. She’d wrapped herself in gauzy yellow cotton, something between Cleopatra and Glenda the Good Witch of the North. And she seemed to radiate, if not beauty, then a certain conviction of her own seductiveness, trying to flow down her whitewashed steps but having to go very deliberately so as not to trip on the hem of her dress. This was a different Claire Dunlop than the person I’d met at the interview, sitting in the Oleander Room at the Day’s Inn outside Saint Louis, where she was all polyester angles and sobriety, black coffee and the students and educational theory and what we expect. Henry, I noticed, had already become steam, blowing away so quietly I hadn’t had time to thank him for the ride. So I left my bags in the Packard and met Claire’s hand half-way up the steps. Everyone tried to smile.

“Would you?” she said. It was a question, but the flick of her hand toward my bags said Go and Spinadella went. That was the beginning. A more intelligent person would have seen past, present, and future all phenotyped at once in that gesture. A more intelligent person would have jumped back in the Packard, punched it, shot the covered wood bridge over the dry creek outside of town and been down the I-44 before any of them had a chance to say what. But I wasn’t that smart and Packards don’t go very fast and I was constrained by all the usual human courtesies.

It might have been the awe I felt at Spinadella’s thirteen-inch biceps that made me go along. His blond hair was so clean it gleamed: the first Italian Viking. We watched him open the Packard, scoop up my suitcase and backpack in one gesture, and lumber up into the house without a word.

“We’re so very, very happy you’re here,” said Claire, putting her arm around my shoulders and leading me up the steps, while James Reid smiled behind us like someone in her livery waiting for an order or maybe just waiting to catch her if she tripped and fell backwards.

I was amazed at the house. Safavid rugs, crystal chandeliers, authentic Victorian chic right down to cloth tubes over the chair legs. It was in the National Register of Historic Places. An ante-bellum plantation two-story, replete with Corinthian columns, domed pergola in the back yard, and two-hundred years of whitewash—one of the few buildings left from Missouri’s time as a slave state. The whole town took a certain pride in it. Carolers began there every Christmas. The Lutheran youth group whitewashed it once a year. People got married on its wide front lawn.

“We have no electricity here.” She smiled with an air of confidence and secrecy that told me she could see I was down for whatever. “We preserve our traditions here just as they have always been preserved, meaning a respect for the past.”

I nodded. Of course.

Claire was no stranger to history. She taught the European variety to juniors every semester. And, though she’d never been outside Missouri, her subject and her position as principal made her the local sage. In the deep, violating humidity of the Missouri summer, the mayor could often be seen conferring with her in the shade of the pergola, sipping fortified punch and hiding from the brutal realities of the political life.

She took me up the grand staircase into my room at the top. It was small and the ceiling was low, but it was very clean and white. Spinadella had left my bags on the bed. There was a wash-basin and a bureau with a small round mirror, a free-standing oak closet, throw-rug alongside the bed, writing table with a candelabra, and an oversized crucifix on the wall above it. Jesus’ wounds were bright and dripping. Dinner was at five. The housekeeper’s name was Pattie.

After class, I go to the cafeteria for coffee and a pudding. Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson is there sucking on a toothpick, plotting, squinting into the suspect distance. He looks me over and nods. I nod back and focus on the pudding. Pudding might be one of the last good things in life. Pudding is innocent, beyond reproach. Pudding would never get you accused of making someone disappear. Nor would eating it make you want to disappear anyone. If I were Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson staring at me eating pudding, I’d know right away that I was not a disappearer. But he is not so perceptive. He blames me for Claire Dunlop’s untimely vanishing act two years ago.

Jorge and his wife are from Kansas City. He teaches health and English lit., has always taught health and English lit., will always teach health and English lit. I was supposed to have been hired to replace him. If anyone should be suspect for her disappearance, it should be him. Still, he blames me. He is a Marxist.

He has a Marxist righteousness, a Marxist nose for sniffing out iniquity. He has channeled Karl Marx for so long that he has come to look like him: the jowly frown, the intensity in the eyes. At the first faculty party, I wandered into his study—a veritable Marxist bacchanalia—three complete editions of Kapital in different leathers, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts leaning provocatively against a marble book-end, Grundrisse, A Critique of Political Economy, the whole sticky tangle in both German and English. A framed picture of Marx over the writing table. There was a Marxist tinge to everything in the house, a certain alien consciousness at work, even in his wife, who’d arch her eyebrows as if all the things she’d heard about me were coming true in front of her.

He twirls the toothpick in the corner of his mouth and looks away a split-second before I look at him. Feeling him about to turn his head, I glance up at the water stain shaped like a coffee ring on the ceiling. I know he’s scanning my face. The three girls at the table behind me hiss angrily about hair. The janitor over in the corner stares into his chicken soup as if it were saying something remarkable. Jorge, no doubt, is recording everything, memorizing it for some future testimony.

When I asked other faculty about his politics, they looked like I’d said something dirty. Decent folk don’t bring up things like that. So okay. So Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson and his squinting and his contempt. He’ll never stop hunting me for crimes against humanity. And if I breathe the smallest sigh for Miss Tomoike, if the smallest, helpless human emotion slips out, he’ll be on me—chains and culpability, scandal, perversion. I can see myself behind bars. I can see myself lynched in a field. Missouri: where the great Confederate rebels went criminal, knocking over banks, Jesse James, heads blown off, segregation, Indian slaughter. It’s in the people’s blood. You can see it bubbling under their skin when the proletarian in the truck next to you looks at you like you just felt up his mother. Missouri’s angry. Missouri wants revenge for whatever you’re about to do, and Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson’s watching. I can’t let myself even think of Miss Tomoike when he’s around. He can sense a certain furtiveness in me. He’d like to put me under a harsh smoking light, ask me angry questions, write my name on the floor in chalk. He knows dirty when he sees it.

I get up to leave and he makes an inquisitive face, “Finished so soon?”

“Uh, yes, pudding, you know.”

“Oh?”

“It’s easy to eat.”

“Is that right. Easy to eat.”

I move toward the cafeteria’s double-doors, slowly, casually.

Days and dinners came and went, and everyone was polite. Barber, Spinadella, Reid, and I shared the bathroom at the end of the hall with absolute maturity. We passed the salt down the table when someone wanted it and stayed off the third floor, which was Claire’s.

If she was in a good mood, she’d be vampy, fluttering and quick and trying to flirt with sudden meaningful looks designed to smolder. If she was in a bad mood, the looks grew heavy, the dark around her eyes got that way without makeup, and a pall hung over dinner. Barber would do his steam routine. And coach Spinadella wasn’t very articulate in the first place—whether from that last stubborn Viking chromosome or from the horse-juice he’d probably done as a bodybuilder. He was Claire’s barometer. If she was in a funk, then so was Spinadella. He’d beam ultra-hostile glances at everyone, like he was about to chop the table in half, then eat another spoon of peas.

Only Reid kept a cheerful face no matter what. Claire would have a mausoleum death-spell hanging over the table, and Reid would be shoveling food into his mouth as if he’d just been paroled, saying, “Hey, anybody watching the Chiefs tonight?”

Nobody was even if they were.

At first, I took it as passive resistance, aggressive cheerfulness. Then it seemed that Reid was inherently happy—one of those rare individuals at peace with himself and his life. But, ultimately, I understood that he was just plain insensitive. He didn’t focus on anything beyond himself and so was completely content. James Reid remains for me, at least in this sense, one of history’s unacknowledged geniuses.

School started and I began to teach freshmen and sophomore English under the supervision of Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson, who sat at the back of my room every day to make sure I was using his lesson plans. Assignments full of nutritious Marxism that I, with my degraded bourgeois ideology . . .

Question: How does Kent’s vehemence towards Oswald in Act II, Scene ii, help portray Oswald as a capitalist prototype? (Skipped in favor of What kind of a guy do you think Lear is?)

Question: How does personification of The Red Death symbolize the embodiment of false consciousness and the effects of aristocratic exclusivity? (Skipped in favor of Describe the big moment in the story.)

Question: How does the willingness of the indigenous Africans to be exploited by Kurtz reflect the function(s) of an internalized ideological state apparatus? (Skipped in favor of Did you like Heart of Darkness?)

The revolution was put down in all of my classes. Satanic capitalist ideology prevailed despite baleful looks from the political officer at the back of the room. I imagined Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson’s Health 2 students marching through the quad in olive uniforms, his AP English politburo lecturing their parents after grace about the opiate of the masses.

Still, at first, things seemed okay, seemed doable until the heavens opened up on my head. I was two weeks into my first semester at Alexander Weiskopf when it hit. It came on like one of the local twisters I’d heard about, the kind where you’re supposed to jump in the bathtub and hold a mattress over your head while cows from the next county are hurdling through the air. A death in the faculty. No one to teach German. Horror. And I was the only one who could fix it. Could I substitute maybe? Could I teach a few lessons until they found someone else? It wouldn’t be hard. I’d had a few years as an undergraduate. Sure, of course, I wanted to get along. Old Mr. Jürgen—who lived with his mother thirty miles outside town and only spoke Hochdeutsch, who’d been learning English his whole life and never quite got it down so that it pained him to speak it—had choked on phlegm and left me alone with his Kulturspiegel, his Arbeitsplan, and his fifty students, each secretly suspecting what I knew to be true: I was planlos, without plan. I was cluelos.

Later, I’d come to believe Claire had hired me just for this, that she’d foreseen it. There was no bathtub to shield me from the twister. There was no mattress. The winds had picked me up with the livestock and dropped me in Germany. And everything took on sinister proportions. The vicious underbelly of Claire’s flirtiness: was I expected to flirt back? If I did, would she let me return to just teaching English? I had one-hundred and fifteen dollars in the bank, enough for a one-way ticket to nowhere. My family back in Los Angeles had disowned me: two generations of angry jewelers with no faith in education. Grandpa Gordon had been an anarchist. Dad left when I was twelve. Draft-dodgers. Vehement, non-conforming Welshmen with an uncle still doing time in Mount Joy for polygamy. They’d laugh me into the street. I had nothing to go back to.

“What do you mean by ‘big moment’?” asked one of my brighter sophomores.

The problem with Pandora wasn’t her curiosity as most people think. It was that Zeus gave her the box in the first place. Come on, people, let’s have a little sensitivity for the Pandoras of the world. I’m thinking this—meditating on it, sympathizing with all the misunderstood little destroyers of creation—on the corner of Main and Shelly, staring into the Main Street Diner, while beside me James Reid squeaks bad saxophone at the falling snow. Reid was originally a drummer not a sax player. And, even though he teaches everything from horns to strings, drums are the only things he can play correctly.

My feet are damp. Reid has enough air in his lungs to kill everything within a six-block radius. And I’ll count myself lucky if the next time he squeaks up that b-flat it’ll disconnect my heart, blast me to a pile of dust, scatter my molecules into gray gutter snow. Make it quick and make it final. But that would be too easy. Tonight, my very own Pandora is on a dream date with Jeremy Hoff, and I’m destined to watch.

Yeah. Didn’t Norman Rockwell paint something like this? Johnny and Jenny sharing a malt in a brightly lit diner while fluffy snowflakes glide down outside and God is in his heaven and all is right with the world? Norman never painted me. I’m freezing and I still can’t figure out how Reid can play in these conditions.

He stops for a blessed moment to say, “Hey there, are you asleep?” And then his Chic Corea version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen starts up again like large pieces of metal crumpling into each other. Jazz, dig?

It’s my job to scoop snow out of the taupe fedora on the sidewalk in front of us. James does this two nights a month for pocket money, but this is the first time I’ve helped him. Usually, it’s his sister scooping snow out of the fedora, but she has pneumonia. He’s in his forties but looks about seventy-eight—stooped, wrinkled, completely gray. It’s a Friday night. Our students walk by, bored in Hauberk’s tiny downtown, on their way no doubt to drunken naked pleasures neither James Reid nor I will ever know. They drop a few pity-dollars in the hat when they pass, faces blank, embarrassed for us.

Dreamy: let’s have a cultural exchange. Jeremy Hoff can be second-generation German-American corn-fed Romeo from the heart of the heart of the country. And Miss Tomoike can be happy optimistic Asian beauty, who cares about the environment and wants everyone to live well. Together, they’ll be a force so powerful it will blow the glass of the diner into the street, rip the space-time continuum, end reality as we know it—true enlightenment, no more pain and suffering, human evolution advanced to the next stage because of this most sacred and perfect union, Amen.

Only that’s not happening, is it?

Jeremy Hoff’s putting his high school moves on her as only an adolescent lizard like he can. Pure reptile: the sort of seduction that makes young girls think it’s true love forever. It’ll never be true love. Lizards don’t fall in love. It’s a constitutional fact. And it’s never been Pandora’s fault. All Zeus: the prototype, the lying, cheating, seducing sky-lizard.

Maybe Jeremy got “hurt” a little in the past. He looks down, smiles. He’s shy but he might let his “true feelings” show through his “confidence” because Miss Tomoike and he “really click” and they’ve got, like, “something special.” I realize I’ve walked forward and am standing in the middle of Main, staring at them in their window seat. Ah, acid jealousy, burn, work your evil.

Reid stops playing. “What are you doing? My hat’s full of snow.”

Of course, there’s a job to be done. When I clean the hat out, there’s a dollar-fifty in it. I slip the money into his trench coat and walk up the street towards my car.

“Hey,” he yells. “Wait. Where you goin’?”

Good question.

My bad situation couldn’t have been more perfect for Claire, who drifted through the rooms at night like a wraith. She could be as eccentric as she wanted in the House for Orphaned Teachers. Claire never slept and neither did I, hours of stay-ahead German in my brain like a nightly violation. I’d be heating a pan of water in the kitchen for my midnight don’t-worry-everything’s-going-to-be-okay tea and see her drift soundlessly through the next room, stopping briefly to touch something on an end-table or run her fingers along the curtains.

I’d ask myself whether she meant for me to see her. Was it all part of some preternatural courting ritual for high school faculty? Was Reid involved? Spinadella? Barber? Was I paranoid or had the deciding factor in hiring me been that I’d have nowhere to run? Today, German. Tomorrow, physics, calculus, organic chemistry. I could see my future forming in all its nasty glory. She could make me do anything. And what would I be able to do about it? Just nod and start reading the textbooks. After the rent deduction, there was no way for me to afford utilities and pay Claire for my portion of the dinner budget. I already owed her. If I ran, I knew she’d send Spinadella to collect.

He was the perfect leg-breaker. Spinadella and his linemen regularly growled at the top of their lungs in the tiny weight room attached to the gym. They’d scream out blood-death calls in some language invented by the Frankensteins, Albertus Magnuses, Doctor Moreaus of the world—mastermind handlers who knew how to control the beasts. But now the creatures were loose and in high school, free to shave their heads and pump as much iron as they wanted, free to flex their way through any class—untouchable, terrifying, and hog-dumb. They stood at least a foot taller than the other students and had the same slow contempt for other life forms that one has for ants trying desperately to avoid the shoe.

Their shrieks and grunts played out in echoes over the quad, knocking between the buildings as if the linebackers had mated, multiplied, and had finally broken their cage locks. Free at last. Fresh meat. Like their coach, they always seemed to be wavering on the edge of a steroid berserk. Teachers passed them partly out of pressure to keep the football team intact, partly out of self-preservation. Françoise, the bulimic French instructor from Lyons, would run to the bathroom and vomit after first period—not for her usual bulimic reasons but because she was shaking from fear. Unnamed persons had once held her upside down and pinched her nose shut while she counted backwards from cent.

I should have felt lucky not to have gotten any of them in German. But I would have gladly vomited every day in exchange for not having to live with Spinadella, who’d openly stare at me like he wanted to kill me. On the surface, he respected my personal space, a clear-cut DMZ that he wouldn’t violate. But there were stray shots: the hard looks, the collision in the hall that left a baseball-sized bruise above my bottom rib. I didn’t know what he had against me. I went over everything, searching for a slight, a stupid joke, an off-color word skewed to an insult when I wasn’t looking. But, of course, I had no idea. I avoided him in the cafeteria, made no eye contact at dinner, kept to myself, afraid for my life.

Borges’ parable: Dante, exiled in Ravenna, dreams of a tiger dreaming in a cage below the Coliseum and then realizes that he is dreaming about himself. He is the tiger; Ravenna is the cage. He and the tiger share a blessed unity in the dream-state. I wonder why I haven’t had a similar dream. All the greats had a guiding star—Constantine’s floating cross, Hemingway’s bull fights, Blake’s demons giggling in his shop. I have nothing but Miss Tomoike.

Looking through black branches at her studying on her bed, I realize that this parable stinks: alone in the darkness under a dead maple tree, the pathetic exile nurses a broken heart without the luxury of tigers. And in the end—every parable needs a twist—is he redeemed? Is he relieved? Or does he wake up in Ravenna?

She’s not looking out the window. And, if she did, what would she expect to see? Twenty squares of beveled darkness. People don’t bother curtaining their windows because Hauberk has never had a peeper. Not until now. I walk up and press my palms against the warm glass. My breath makes crystals on the pane before interior heat turns them to droplets that freeze half-way down.

A strand of her hair is caught in the corner of her mouth. She’s wearing black overalls and a T-shirt. I can’t tell what she’s reading. It’s not German. Good for her. Miss Tomoike’s English is so good that she can take German in America; she’s brilliant. The glass is warm, comforting in the cold like touching a living thing.

How could someone so beautiful and intelligent fall in love with a kid like Jeremy Hoff? It’s the question I’d really like to ask. If I were her father, I’d ask it. If I were her friend. Anyone but me. Nothing to do but spread my palms on the glass and ask myself: how could she?

I walk away slowly, pulling a branch off the maple tree with a hard crack. I don’t care if she looks out. Let her see me swinging gashes in the snow, splintering the branch against a wooden post. My hands are cold and I don’t feel the splinters, cutting diagonally across a hard-packed snowfield, hitting any lump or post until I’m holding a wooden fragment. I’ll bet Miss Tomoike didn’t even get up. If she did, she didn’t think of me. She saw part of a handprint, the residue of breath, and thought of Jeremy Hoff or maybe thought of nothing, not so brilliant after all.

The sight of a distant car, however, gives me pause. It’s Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson’s brown Škoda. How many other people in Hauberk drive a brown Škoda? I walk straight towards it, but it takes off before I can make out who the driver is through the new snowfall. I tell myself I am not an offender. I repeat.

Claire had been leaning in the doorway to my room, staring at me. I was studying. The German had blunted my senses and I’d forgotten the door ajar.

“Yes?” I cleared my throat and made an unintimidated face.

Her eyes flicked to the cross-shaped bright spot on the wall above my desk where the crucifix was supposed to be. Every night, I took it down and hid it because Jesus’ gaze would follow me in the flickering candlelight. Every day, the housekeeper would find it and put it back. In the interview, Claire had asked if I was a Lutheran. I told her I’d been a devout Lutheran my whole life, making a mental note to learn what that was. And now she’d caught me, but Claire only smiled. She was in her nightgown.

“Just looking at you.” Her voice was even-toned, but I could see a distant, glazed look in her eyes. Had she just taken her medication or did she need some? The door closed. The nightgown came off. Claire’s body was shaped like a large white thumb. She walked to the bed and looked at me.

“Get over here,” she said.

I closed my notebook and quietly laid my pen down on the desk. I felt detached; the sight of Claire’s body had shocked me into some basic motor-survival mode. I thought I might go downstairs and take a walk. The fact that I was in my pajamas and slippers did not occur to me. When I opened the door, Spinadella glared at me from the end of the hall, all bulging six-three, two-hundred and fifty pounds of him.

I thought of my job and of how the one-hundred and fifteen dollars I had wouldn’t cover a new set of teeth. Claire was waiting behind me, hands on hips, mouth in a tight knowing smile. She grabbed my crotch and backed me onto the bed.

“Tell me you love me,” she said.

The word for the day is Gewissensbisse. The phrase for the day is Gewissensbisse haben: remorse, to have remorse, to feel remorseful.

Here’s Miss Tomoike with her big brown eyes.

Her midterm looks like an execution. I emptied the red pen. Invented new criticisms on the spot. Large heaps of teacherly lash. And for what? Vengeance. If I could have nailed Jeremy Hoff, I would have, but his work is untouchably good. Deep, in the inner darkness of my being, I have sometimes prayed for him to fail an assignment. Yes, a cardinal sin—paradise lost, lake of fire, burning, gnashing of teeth, no teacher heaven when I die.

She’s the last student left in the room. She’s trying not to break down. I half-sit on the table up front, just like an adult, waiting, as if to say, That’s life, honey. And the sad thing is I’m right. There are a lot of pathetic, vindictive, lonely people out there, Miss Tomoike (can I call you Lydia?), and you just got yourself one.

“I tried . . . hard.” Pristine, angelic teardrop down cheek.

“I know,” I say. “I understand.”

Now she’s weeping. She’s letting it all out. Sobs. Even a few wails, moans. Miss Tomoike looks down at her paper as if she still can’t believe it. Actually, it’s not that bad. I don’t tell her that after seeing her on a date with Jeremy Hoff my standards for her work went up five-hundred percent. And the part of me that wants to burn down the children’s hospital, spray the petting zoo with toxic waste, see all privileged sniffling little flowers broken under boots—that part is completely satisfied. That’s right: suffer, suffer, suffer.

“Am I going to fail? Is there anything I can do?” The skin under her eyes is extra red where she’s viciously attacked her tears with the sleeve of her sweater. Miss Tomoike hates her tears. She sits very straight in her desk.

“Of course, there’s always something you can do. Failure is pretty far off, I think, if you want to put out some extra effort.”

“Yes.” Smiling, nodding, wiping her eyes.

“Why don’t you meet me here after school tomorrow and we’ll go through your paper, maybe talk about re-writing it.” That’s reasonable, isn’t it? She thinks so. I picture what she’ll be wearing tomorrow after school and smile benevolently.

Miss Tomoike is now incredibly happy: good people do exist, forgiveness is a beautiful thing. Teacher wants you to learn. He’ll correct your faults. She thanks me profusely, but I wave it off. “Don’t mention it,” I say and watch Love Kitten No. 1 walk out of my room.

I tried to laugh it off, but I didn’t have any more energy. I’d been too accommodating. I’d hesitated, there, in the kitchen, watching her drift through the rooms. Was it the hesitation? How does a man put this into words? We have no language for it.

After a while, Claire no longer needed the threat of Spinadella to force me into it. She had her own key and entered at night. We never talked. Her nightgown came off and my body did what it did while my mind was on a beach in California, contemplating the waves or how wind takes root in the palms and seems to live there for a time. In the morning, I’d stare at the dark ceiling over my bed and think: why did I have to wake up? I’d think: there must be a logic to this. I’ve always believed there’s a logic to everything.

Tired. Days muted to their lowest setting. I’d walk through the halls and look at the students as if they were fish in an aquarium. When had all adolescents begun to look exactly the same—drifting down the halls in groups, quietly glassed-off from existence, unaware of anything beyond themselves? Had they always been like this? And my life too: a different kind of fish but equally distant or maybe just an empty tank thrown open to the sun—yellow-green depth, sediment lit from above, where you might stop to wait for a fish and, when it didn’t appear, feel ridiculous for staring into empty water.

Claire owned me. What objection could I make that anyone would take seriously? What hold did she have on Spinadella, on Reid and Barber? No one talked about it. There was no resistance, no underground railroad, no solidarity. I looked for a sign, a bent word, a wink, any kind of acknowledgement, code tapped on the pipes at night. But nothing. Dinner remained dinner, light pitter-patter, long protracted silences. Claire would be having an up day or a down day. Reid would be gently oblivious, Barber impersonating a distant cloud formation, and Spinadella beaming out hostility like hell’s only lighthouse. With my inner volume turned down, I had nothing to say. I was the Quiet One. It was all I could do to keep the candelabra lit on my study-desk at night after hiding the crucifix someplace new.

I never heard steps on the thick rugs, but her weight made the floorboards creak. In the middle of the night, I’d listen to Claire pace and stop, pace and stop for hours, and sometimes, a much heavier person—Spinadella—faint dancehall music from the thirties filtering down through the wood. The thought of them dancing above me seemed terrifying and obtuse the way the reenactment of a battle leaves corpses in the landscape that aren’t dead. Undead. One word and the corpses stand up grinning, a pantomime of life.

Love maketh men do strange things, Horatio.

The day is all anticipation. Am I too pale? Is the gut showing? Is my hair out of whack? It feels like prom. I never went to prom, spending the night instead on the roof of the Imperial Toy Company in downtown L.A., reading Camus, hoping that the girl I’d casually mentioned it to would find me mysterious enough to follow. She never showed up. I went home when it started to rain.

But Miss Tomoike, she’ll be here. Seduction of the innocent. The predator doesn’t worry about the baby giraffe. If he did, how would he eat? There’s no blame in nature, no blame when you’re starving for some giraffe. Come not betwixt the dragon and his wrath, says Lear. That’s right. Come not. And if you do come, well, that’s fate isn’t it.

I go to the men’s room between classes and stare at my face in the mirror. I don’t look like the dragon and his wrath. More like the baby giraffe. Not even that good. Sallow. Sunken eyes. Wrinkles around the mouth. More like the aging Komodo dragon. At thirty-one, I’m already a half-gray, wrinkled, German-teaching Komodo. It’s ridiculous to think I could seduce her. But here I am.

Miss Tomoike’s class is its old ugly self. Twenty-five separate shades of contempt looking back at me. Jeremy Hoff’s work, no doubt. The phrase list we’re on deals with a trip to the dentist. I say X and the students answer Y. It’s not supposed to be hard.

Ist es ein Abszeß? Is it an abscess? I manage to pronounce the sentence pretty well, I think, but a wave of sniggering goes around the room.

Ja, they answer, es ist ein Absezß.

Jeremy Hoff is participating today, still riding the glory of having thrown the winning pass against Rigg County last night. He and Miss Tomoike exchange glances when they think I’m not looking.

Können Sie mir eine Spritze geben? Can you give me anesthetic?

Nein, they say, nein, wir haben keine Spritze. We have no anesthetic.

Ich kann nicht schlafen. I can’t sleep.

Ja, they answer. No more sniggering.

Ich kann nicht essen. I can’t eat.

Ja. Some of the students nod or look away.

Ich habe Schmerzen. I’m in pain.

No one says anything. Maybe it’s my tone.

“Come on.” I grip the edges of the table, lean towards them. Wiederholen Sie. Repeat.

The clock’s broken hands spasm and click. Wir haben Schmerzen, Jeremy says.

We look at each other.

Outside, the sophomore girls are shrieking by their lockers. A boy is laughing the long, high, mean-spirited laugh of the adolescent. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA-HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH. The kind of laugh that comes with pointing, that’s serrated, that leaves one bleeding, with an Abszeß, in need of immediate attention. Someone at the back of the room coughs. I look down at the last phrase on the list.

Wieviel bin ich Ihnen schuldig? I ask. How much do I owe?

Claire’s sudden disappearance, when it came, had far less tragedy for those of us who lived with her every day than for greater Hauberk, suddenly buzzing with the hint of scandal. I wasn’t going to miss her.

They found her clothes laid out on a chair. Everything up on the third floor was as it had always been, Victorian tea furniture unbroken, crystal figurines of ballet dancers perfectly arranged in their wall case, her gigantic lace doilies unrumpled, no psychopathic messages in lipstick on her gilded bathroom mirror, no bloody prints in the porcelain tub. Nothing. Just poof and gone. Claire’s British history class had been the last to see her. According to them, there had been nothing exceptional in her behavior that day. God save the Queen.

Dinner on that first Clairless night had been extra awkward. Very little was said. We were stunned. It was the first dinner Claire had ever missed. And, for many dinners after, we would still be unsure what to say to each other. We’d become like medieval prisoners blinking suddenly into daylight, our new liberty glaring and unwieldy.

The sheriff came sniffing around as sheriffs are supposed to, but he didn’t sniff too vigorously. The farmland outside Hauberk was searched. The house’s basement was dug up and found to be no dirtier than dirt. There were no newly cultivated mounds in the backyard. No telling piles of ash and fillings in the snowfield behind the graveyard. In short, she’d left the earth without a trace. And I felt like dancing a moonlight samba. I felt like having cases of burgundy delivered to all inbred schizophrenic killers hiding in barn lofts for a hundred miles. At night, I heard the patter of little feet—my own. I was even dancing in my sleep.

Of course, there was Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson: all suspicion, that toothpick in the corner of his mouth. But the life of Hauberk, Missouri, continued. People got tired of speculating, inventing theories. The paper stopped running her picture. A tornado had taken out a village to the east. Drought was expected that summer. A graduate student at the University of Missouri had committed suicide. These things were news, not Claire’s disappearance, which became uninteresting and thus faded out of the collective consciousness as if it had never happened.

Hulking Spinadella, at least for me, was the prime suspect. But he went crazy on one of his halfbacks during a scrimmage and crippled the boy with his fists. He’s still in jail. Reid moved in with his sister and I found my cottage outside town. Only Barber remained. Claire had willed the house to the mayor, who became the new landlord, and the space suited Henry just fine. I dropped by to visit him a few months later, but he didn’t ask me in. We stood on the porch and stared into the darkened Jiffy Lube across the street. He kept his hands in his pockets, and I could see that the solitude had not made him any more pleasant.

“Well,” he said, “I guess she’s gone.”

“Guess so.”

“I guess you’ll miss her.”

I looked at him, but he was staring into Jiffy Lube like he might learn something important if only he didn’t blink. We listened to the night. Crickets were chirping somewhere far away, somewhere I wanted to be.

“Henry?”

“Yeah?”

“Fuck off, okay?”

If there’s a time I can meet with you off-campus, maybe, with just a little more help, instruction, tutoring, supervision thinks the old Komodo. But her midterm sits on the table between us like a chessboard, and what was so simple in my fantasies seems Byzantinely complex now. Checkmate in three? I don’t think so. Miss Tomoike’s arms are crossed. She’s looking down, her aura dark. What did I expect? She’s assimilating. Ten minutes ago, like a loose American girl, she was kissing Jeremy Hoff by his locker and then they walked, hand-in-hand, toward my room—slowly, as if one of them were about to be executed. “I’ll be right outside,” he said too loudly. Her protector.

We sit in silence for a few moments, both of us staring at her exam. I imagine Jeremy in the hall listening, his ear to my door. In a samurai film, I would hear his heartbeat, firing arrow suddenly through paper partition into chest of interloping spy. Just so. Impudent Romeo dispatched with alacrity by old arrow-shooting Komodo.

She uncrosses her arms and I notice her fingers are stained with ink. She’s been writing: love notes to Jeremy, letters of discontent to Tokyo. Japanese in ballpoint, such a waste. One requires a brush, a straight back, high virgin-white vellum that takes the ink like a momentous event. The paper loses a certain innocence but gains the character of the writing, bringing the female-yin-black letters together with the male-yang-white sheet—the unification of all duality. That’s the sort of writing instruction I’ve had in mind for Miss Tomoike (segue to Confucius: “It furthers one to undertake an affair with an older man. No blame.”). More likely: Mother, Father, the teachers here are horrible. There is this one monster in particular. He looks like a lizard.

“I’m sorry, but could you tell me how this is wrong?” Tentative, polite, sincerely worried, but with an undercurrent. Resentment? No. Coaching. I can hear Jeremy telling her to question me, telling her I don’t know what I’m talking about. The truth is that her answers are fine. The questions were short-answer, interpretive. I look at my red Xs, where I pressed so hard the pen left furrows in the page, and feel ridiculous.

“Well,” I say, “the questions were pretty open-ended.”

She nods, her expression blank.

“And there’s a certain degree of subjectivity . . .”

“I don’t understand.” More forcefully now. Jeremy Hoff in ballpoint all over her. All she’s missing is his regulation sneer. The truth is that her answers are probably better than what I might have written. The truth is that I’m an apprentice molester and Confucius was Chinese.

Bright hot reality: Miss Tomoike is a child. Love Kitten doesn’t even factor in. I’m horrified at the sudden clear vision of myself as Claire. I hear Jeremy clear his throat loudly outside my door.

“The truth is, Miss Tomoike, I’ve called you here to tell you that I’ve re-evaluated your work. I’m changing your grade.”

A thousand thank-yous. She doesn’t ask why. And she’s out the door before I can find the inner pulleys that make my face smile. The Christmas cologne I never wear sickens me. I go to the window and stare out over a runny snowfield at my home—the worthless, never-ending latitude of Missouri.

All this happens. The snow has melted and the news says there’s a tornado coming. But I don’t know. There’s always a tornado coming. Shadows are indistinct. The day begins dark and never truly gets light, while the ghost of old Mr. Jürgen wanders the state, trying to explain itself in correct English. I laugh, but who can say why a tornado takes one house and leaves another. Just get in the bathtub. Maybe Claire Dunlop is living a quiet life on the Santa Monica strand with a husband and a tight pink T-shirt that reads Love Kitten. Maybe Jorge Rodriguez-Jackson has a file on me waiting for the FBI. Maybe right now Miss Aniko Lydia Tomoike is breaking all available speed laws, jumping snow banks in a Husq Varna Motorized 2023 Ice Sled, headed here with apologies, justifications, words of love and eternity. It wouldn’t surprise me. Odds are garbage. Opinions are meaningless. Everything happens. It’s all here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you need this for?”

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

“These things kill people.”

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

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

We looked at each other.

“Jim?”

“You don’t know a thing,” he said.

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

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

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

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

_____

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

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

I packed a small suitcase and called a cab.

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

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

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

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

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

_____

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think I might vomit,” I said.

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

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

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

I shook my head. I didn’t know what you could do. First I was a drunk. Then I was sober. Now I was a drunk again. The guilt hadn’t even started, but it was stalking me. I could feel it. It was being sportsmanlike, waiting for me to vomit a few times before it sprang on me in all its demonic fury.

I did vomit several times—but not in the wastebasket. I weaved along the hallway and into the downstairs bathroom. The act was painful when I got to it: a thin gray fluid hanging like a cloud in the center of the bowl and then the dry heaves. For all the drinking I’d done in my short life, the day after never got any better, only worse. Half an hour later, I made my way back down the hallway, feeling like I was swimming through an underground cave to the light.

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

This was two and a half months before the millennium.

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

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

“You look fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How many of those pills did you eat?”

“Who the fuck are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your girl. I think she od’d.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s where we’re going?”

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

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

“Forget her. She’s stoned.”

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

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

“Davis, you’re a saint,” Jim said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where the fuck am I?” she said.

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

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

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

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

Dogs cannot be made to look like human beings. You’re sitting on the rooftop deck at Dick’s Chop House in Fresno, California, and this is one thing you know. There is nothing modern science can do to make a dog resemble a person. The waitress comes and goes. Dennis lights a cigarette, leans back in his chair, and watches moths flit around pale yellow deck lights.

“Look,” you say. “It’s here: ‘Federal Scientific Panel Tests Limits of Cosmetic Surgery on Dogs.’”

Dennis coughs against the back of his hand. “Want to hear the one about how a dog both does and does not wag its tail at the same time?”

These trips to Fresno are making you nervous. Brown smears of pollution hang over searing afternoons. Police are everywhere. Fistfights on sidewalks. Porcelain statues of saints and shrines to dead relatives on porches. Car shows in parking lots. SUVs with rims and tint jobs bouncing high at the stoplights. From Dick’s roof, you can see Blackstone Avenue three stories below, stinking, pulsing, clotted with angry traffic at nine on a Friday night. Flashing lights in the distance. Always. Based-up mariachis from passing lowriders make your empty beer bottle vibrate on the patio table.

“I can’t shake the feeling we’re about to get shot,” you say.

Dennis looks at you for a moment and then holds up his cigarette, watches smoke uncoil from the tip. “Relax. Dogs can tell when they’re being filmed. Know that?”

You scan the rest of the front page. Murder. Lies. Bombing. Abductions.

“You can’t just film dogs when nobody’s around to see if they’ll wag their tails,” he says. “They always know you’re watching.”

You try to remember if you asked the waitress to bring another beer. You tell Dennis you can’t understand why someone funded a government project to see if dogs could look like people. You cross and re-cross your boots at the ankles, light one of his cigarettes, and think about the future. It’s been fifteen minutes since Warren went downstairs to meet the buyer. In about fifteen more, you will finally have enough money to live comfortably for at least a year or be arrested.

The waitress brings two more beers. Black hair, thin, pretty, she looks barely twenty-one. Dennis tips her a dollar, and she rolls her eyes. He smiles and watches her go.

“Schrödinger. It’s the tree in the forest thing,” he says. “First, you take a dog and put it in a room. Inside the room you have a bunch of nuclear waste. If the waste gives off too much radiation, a machine detects it and smashes a can of nerve gas. But if you look straight at the door of the room, there’s no way to tell if the machine has smashed the can or not.”

You imagine a plastic surgeon’s scalpel cutting into the muzzle of a screaming Golden Retriever and shake the thought away, drink your beer. A police copter hovers over distant city lights. Its search light probes like a glowing feeler.

“Which means you can’t tell if the dog is alive or dead,” Dennis adds.

“And that’s why you can’t tell if it’s wagging its tail?”

“No.” Dennis pauses, takes another drag, and looks at you a bit longer this time. “This is a hypothetical example. The tail comes in a minute.”

Five trips from San Diego to Fresno in as many months. And each time, you carried enough illegal items to stop your happy thoughts for a good, long time if you got caught. An hour ago, you parked stolen truck number five in the lot behind Dick’s. It’s loaded with one-hundred-and-seventy-eight cases of premium vodka that should have been in Reno, according to the bill of lading. Stealing interstate means federal time. A possibly dead driver means life. You smoke Dennis’s cigarette and try not to think about it. Instead, you read yesterday’s paper filled with all the heinous shit people already got caught for.

“So the fucking dog is now in a quantum state. It’s both alive and dead until you open the door. Maybe it’s wagging its tail. Maybe it’s just a stiff, little bundle of joy.”

“But wait. You can never find out because if you open the door you might get nerve-gassed. You can’t risk opening the door.”

“Fuck that,” says Dennis. “You’ve got a space suit. That’s not the point.”

Then it doesn’t matter because Warren walks up to the table with a grin. “All done.” He takes a long drink of your beer. “Andre says we’re good. We go out back right now and get paid.”

“Fucking-A,” you say, standing up. Dennis stands, too.

The waitress walks out onto the deck, sees Dennis, Warren, and you grinning at each other, and takes a step back. “What?” she says.

“Dogs,” says Dennis. “We like dogs.”

She looks at the three of you and nods slowly.

You wink.

Andre is an extremely large, extremely stupid man dressed like a farmer in a plaid shirt and overalls. He’s got a shaved head with a dark red birthmark shaped like Florida on the back. Every time you have to deal with Andre, you wonder what he would do if he lived in Florida and people kept asking him why the state was tattooed on his head. He’d likely kill a few of the slower people and then spend the rest of his life in prison. Prison. Something to not think about when standing in a parking lot beside a sixteen-wheeler full of highjacked vodka. Andre’s holding a can of Miller and doesn’t seem at all bothered by passing sirens on Blackstone Avenue.

He does look like he enjoys eating chops at Dick’s Chop House. That’s another thing you feel confident about besides the bit about dogs not looking like people. The question is: if you put the contents of Andre’s belly in a quantum state—i.e. with or without a chop—would that mean he’d be digesting and not-digesting at the same time? Would it mean he’d be simultaneously hungry and not-hungry? Andre’s eyes are very small. He gives you a glazed, faintly hostile look.

“So it’s all there,” says Warren.

“So it is.” Andre’s eyes shift to his beer.

You look at Andre, at Warren, at Dennis standing back a few feet, puffing his cigarette down to the filter, and wonder what’s going on. Usually, it’s Andre with a bag of bills and then good-bye, done. Not the current Andre with the beady expression of some fat, hostile marsupial in overalls. Marsupials. Koalas and shit. They eat bamboo, not chops.

“Thing is,” says Andre, “Jimbo don’t come down no more. He don’t like being recognized. You gotta drive it over to Madera. That’s where the money is.”

“What the fuck,” says Warren. He’s tall. Medium build. Sandy blond hair parted on the side. Warren wants to get mad, get up in Andre’s face. But Warren doesn’t get anything more than smart. “This is bullshit,” he says to the asphalt. He puts his hands in the pockets of his Pepsi windbreaker and looks down like a schoolboy.

Maybe Dennis could do something. He’s wiry but strong. You’ve seen him get in fights, get crazy, punch holes in walls. Once, he beat the hood of his ex-wife’s Firebird until his fists were all torn up. In the morning, the car looked like Dennis had won. But what’s there to do if you want to get paid?

Andre blinks. “Madera,” he says and drains his beer.

Madera will be a challenge. Only twenty minutes north, but getting there will be difficult. It’s Memorial Day weekend, and the police are out en masse, the Force in force, making people walk the line and count back in sevens from a hundred. There’s a sobriety checkpoint every five blocks. Driving north into Fresno earlier, you saw highway ninety-nine lit by flashing lights, the first unlucky drunks of the night standing pale and uneasy in patrol car floods. So the three of you decide to call it for the night and go out to the warehouse tomorrow noon. Dennis tells Andre. Andre will call Jimbo, and all will be right with the world.

For you—for obvious reasons—traceable cell phones are a no-no. You stare at the truck and dial your girlfriend, Christina, from a filthy phone booth in the dirt lot behind the Apache Motel. You parked the truck a few feet away, right next to the room you’ll share with Warren and Dennis. It looks like any other semi parked for the night, but the shadows in the cab remind you of a ghost town.

Your girlfriend’s roommates call her Tina. You call her Chris. You both call your little boy Jessup because that was your grandfather’s name and neither of you wanted a son named Jessie. Jessies go to jail; Jessups go to college, according to Chris, and you have no cause to disagree. But you wonder if someday he’ll wear a jean jacket and a mullet, if he’ll ride a motorcycle he calls a “dirt bike” and phone you from jail in the middle of the night like you did to your father. When that happens, you’ll feel as sad as your father once looked standing on the other side of shatter-proof glass at County, his failure complete.

Images of Dennis throwing a crowbar away from the highway. It was easy for him to whack the driver in the back of the head while Warren pointed a .45 in the guy’s face. Dennis and Warren didn’t like doing it that way. Neither did you. But highjacking trucks is what it is. Unless you want to spend the rest of your pathetic life in prison, it’s you or the driver, who should have known what he was risking when he took the job. You listen to the connection beep and tell yourself you’re a survivor. You try not to remember the groans or the sound the driver’s body made when you and Warren heaved him into a ditch in the darkness.

The connection goes beep-beep and the answering machine comes on, Chris and Jessup together, sounding happy, laughing, saying after the beep! You don’t mention anything about what you’re doing. You hesitate and say, “Hi, Chris. Hi Jess. It’s me. I miss you!”

Whenever she asks where you’ve been, you tell her a story. You say that you’re a dealer in dry goods, that you work for a trucking company, that sometimes you sell ladies’ hats out of boxes because it’s easier that way. You tell her you only sell high-end jewelry and only when you can get a good deal on it. You tell her you once owned a Zamboni that used to belong to the L.A. Kings, and that the price of shoes in Cleveland is much lower. Which, you add, is how you came into fifty-seven crates of Louis Vuitton Vienna Minimalisa High Boots in ostrich leather. You tell her there’s nothing better than family and not to ask where the money comes from because every dollar means I love you. You tell her to wait, to be patient, because you’re going to get her a house in a neighborhood not as violent. You tell her to be realistic because you are. You tell her you’re a hustler because, in this goddamn world, everybody is. And, most of the time, you feel you’re telling the truth.

“I’ll be back soon,” you say and wonder who’s standing beside the phone listening, maybe one of Chris’ cruel roommates, a blood-red nail hovering over ERASE.

“Tell Jessup I got him a present.”

Ghost town: the darkened windows of the truck are like the dead spaces of abandoned buildings at night, somewhere you wouldn’t want to go. After dark, they’re just void, negative space. The truck cab is empty. And, you think: twenty-five years to life for interstate highjacking and maybe an accessory to murder. You think: maybe what you tell Chris isn’t the truth; it’s just your truth. But that doesn’t make the Zamboni any less real or the fact that it came into your possession something false. You tell yourself no other thief in the world has successfully stolen and resold a Zamboni. That, too, is part of your story, your truth. Maybe, if you’re lucky, the bad karma of your thieving life will take a long time to kick in, unlike with your father. Maybe then you’ll know what is or is not absolutely true. Until then, you’ll keep calling from dirty phone booths outside ghost towns in the dark.

“I love you both,” you say. And the phone booth is silent. On its two-story pole beside the highway, the Apache Motel sign is a pale, yellow circle with hot-pink Vacancy across the center. But behind the L-shaped motel, the empty dirt lot continues into darkness. The motel is two exits up the ninety-nine from Fresno, a place Dennis says nobody cares about, where he’s stayed a couple times before. When you turn your back to the highway, the empty motel, and the truck, you look across the flat dirt and feel you’ve reached the end of something. After this, somewhere out there in the night, there may only be emptiness and the good chance of falling into it—or maybe twenty-five years to life, waiting patiently to pounce. You’re thirty-four years old. You’ve spent four of those years in Corcoran State Prison for stealing a tractor from a construction site in Chula Vista. And, right now, you’re headed for Madera.

The door to Room Six swings open silently. It’s unlocked. Dennis and Warren don’t give a shit. They’re sitting cross-legged on the bed, two grown men in their boxers, sweating, shuddering, smoking meth. Normally, they look like computer programmers from Akron. Windbreakers and Hawaiian shirts. Wire-rimmed glasses. Socks in Birkenstocks. Dennis is only thirty-eight, but his shoulder-length hair is dark gray streaked with white. He keeps it pushed behind his ears. Warren likes to wear sun visors. He knows card tricks.

The bowl of the lightbulb pipe is black where Warren’s lighter flame licks it. Warren grins at a square burn on his thumb from the lighter. The facial tick at the corner of his mouth is back and makes his grin look insane. Warren’s cockeyed. Cockeyed-stoned. He exhales a puff of used smoke and hands the pipe to Dennis. Neither of them speaks. You don’t hear a sound but the lighter, the pipe hiss, and the tick of the air conditioner in the wall. Chemical meth-smell hangs in the air. Dennis exhales and stands on the bed. He turns on the TV and starts jumping, flipping channels with the remote. This makes Warren fall over backwards. He gasps and curses but doesn’t get up. Instead, he stretches out on the floor between the bed and the wall. You hear the hiss of the pipe.

The bathroom is cool and dark. Thankfully, it has a tub. You take your jacket and shirt off. You’re careful to remove your wallet, keys, and the thin survival knife you found in the truck’s glove box. This won’t be the first time you’ve used your clothing as a mattress in a strange bathtub. You curl up on your side and pull the shower curtain closed. Outside, Dennis yells at the television. Warren yells at Dennis. They will do this for five, six hours, then crash.

It’s a long way to freedom with a girlfriend and son behind you and Madera in the front. You might be an accessory to murder. Accessory. The word tumbles around in your head. You hear it the way one hears a foreign term and can’t forget it. The word for prison in German is Gefängnis. You took German in high school from Mr. Antonucci. Du mußt nicht ins Gefängnis gehen, he’d say and laugh. Don’t go to prison. Gefängnis, you think, accessory.

“Szechwan chicken is not fucking fried!” screams Dennis.

“Fuck that. The fucking chef knows what he’s doing!” screams Warren. “He’s the chef, man.”

It’s been almost six hours with sleep as a distant fantasy and the two assholes in the next room, arguing about (1) the Musical Chef; (2) the differences between Fiats and Škodas; and (3) whether Nixon was better than our current chief executive—Fucking-A he wasn’t. Nixon was an idiot—Fuck you, Dennis, Bush is a FAGGOT—with the occasional Learn your shit! and Why don’t you just shut the fuck up? thrown in. Yes, you frown, pulling your knees up closer to your chin, yes, why don’t you?

Then, finally, when silence comes, it’s total, sudden, and ominous. You dress, put your things back in your pockets, and creep out of the bathroom, cheering yourself with images of Dennis and Warren contorted in a final death-embrace, hands around each other’s throats, neck veins still bulged-out. Instead, it’s the usual scene. Dennis is spread-eagled on the bed, head hanging upside-down off the edge, snuffling with his mouth open. Warren’s on his side, sleeping on the round table under the window. He didn’t bother to brush away the wrappers from the vending machine food and looks like he’s been sleeping at the bottom of a trashcan. You walk out of the room, shut the door, and stare at the low-slung peel of moon just above the horizon. Maybe you should call Chris again. You’re out of change. You’d have to call collect.

The woman in the motel office is also stoned. How many times have you seen this in the late night offices of motels, trailer parks, campgrounds? The bored, slightly pathetic life form behind the desk, hooked into bad TV and whatever happens to be on the smoking menu that evening. There’s usually nobody around, and it’s a real bummer when somebody steps in with some problem. She’s thought ahead, has a cigarette burning in the ashtray to cover up the hash smell. But hash is hash, as a wise man once said. In your humble opinion, hash is a good thing. Let there be hash.

She looks over at you, wishing the one thing in the world you won’t do is speak. You mosey over to the urn of free coffee and get a cup. The coffee tastes like hot, bitter plastic, but it warms you from the inside, which is always the best way to get warm. When you were a kid, warm felt like that. Your dad would make instant coffee on the kitchen counter in the morning—thin and steaming, without sugar. Was it his way of saying, I’m sorry your worthless mother o.d.’d in your bed and you had to come home from school and find her there? Was it his way of saying, I apologize for the stints in various orphanages while I did six months in prison here, a year there? Maybe he wasn’t trying to say anything but Drink up. You’ve thought about these things for years. You can take all the time you need, think about it for the rest of your life if you want. It might take that long to figure your childhood out. The important thing is, standing in the office of the Apache Motel, looking at the sad array of yellowed tourist brochures from fifteen years ago, you feel warm. You’ve got coffee. You’ve got a son named Jessup. You’re not in jail. You’re not dead.

“I suppose there’s something you want.”

“Nothing,” you say. “Coffee.” You hold up the Styrofoam cup and smile on your way out. She turns back to her show without a word. Her cigarette has burned down to the filter, leaving a two-inch worm of ash. Doesn’t look like she smoked any of it. She’s in her thirties, getting curves where she shouldn’t, platinum-dyed hair tied back in a band.

Outside, you look at her through the windowpanes in the door. She’s sitting there, not blinking, staring at the television as if she’s part of it. A machine could do her job. Someday, you think, a machine will. You notice a blue pushbutton with a black circular base beside the door. Around it, Press Button if Offise Closed is written in Magic Marker. You walk down the side of the motel, following the wires running from the button. The wires are covered in the same tan paint as the rest of the motel.

Ah. You feel good for the first time since you started this trip. If Dennis were here, you might even consider discussing whether you’re about to enter a quantum state. Or, rather, whether the blonde’s cottage is, because that’s where the bell wires end, and you’ve still got that survival knife in your pocket. While she sits over in the motel office, the rest of the cosmos waits in one of Dennis’ probabilistic equations—with and without her hearing you snap the latch on the cottage’s screen door and pry the survival knife into the lock; with and without her getting up to check (probably not—if you want to talk about likely hits from a very probable hash pipe); with and consequently without some interesting items, which she should have made a lot more secure.

You smile, picturing how irritated Dennis would be with you narrating all the possible outcomes of the situation as you easily, absently, twist the knife in the ancient lock and shoulder the door open. Probabilistically speaking, you’d say to Dennis, dogs simultaneously wagging and not wagging their tails misses the point. You pause in the darkness of the living room and think about Dennis’ hypothetical. Who cares what’s behind Door Number One? That’s the real question. Nerve gas? A yipping daschund? If you want to know, twist a knife in the lock. If you don’t, let poisoned, radioactive daschunds lie.

It’s a small cottage, but the living room seems large in the dark. A digital clock face glows red from a bookshelf. You hear a slow drip-plop from the kitchen, and decide to feel your way to the bedroom first. What’s wrong with a little thievery, really, everything being equal and equally thieved? Money. Time. The Beatles thieving Little Richard. The US thieving Mexico thieving the Indians, body and soul. Everybody thieving oil and oil thieving right back. Children thieve the future from their parents as parents thieve the past. Dracula pulls up in front of the blood bank, and the President invades Iraq. It’s the way you live, the way we live, the way we’re all going to die—thieving one more taste of life in this desert of trouble and mistakes until death gets its own hustle on. The only downside is getting caught reminding people of the truth, not just your truth but everybody’s: the world is a criminal. If your son were here, you’d sit him down and tell him just that. The whole world, Jessup. The very earth.

The bedroom smells like cigarettes and strong perfume, and it cheers you right away. Your new best friend has cases on her pillows. Good. You strip both pillows in the dark. Now you have two sacks. Tossing a house, really stripping it, might take an hour or two. But if you don’t want the gold out of someone’s teeth (and normally you don’t—too burdensome, too hard to get rid of every last, little thing), it ought to take ten minutes, less. Appliances. Jewelry. Grandpa’s roll of bills under the mattress. People have no imagination. They’re sheep. They buy the fake Ajax can to hold their pension and go to sleep feeling like its safer than the bank.

Sheep. Like this girl—diamond earrings, five-hundred, and a dime bag rolled into an old sock in her panty drawer—the place you usually look after the mattress. Someone should tell her she’s right. The bank isn’t safe. No place is. Someone should tell her, if she put down the hash pipe, just for tonight, and did her rounds, you wouldn’t be able to rob her blind, and there’s no FDIC on an Ajax can.

“Baa,” you say to the living room, bagging the DVD player and some nice stereo components—far too nice for a motel manager, which proves your point yet again. Who really owns anything? You’re a goddamn social revolutionary, quantum dog state or not. You pull the clock’s power cord out of the wall, wrap it around the clock, and put the clock in your sack. The entire escapade has taken about twelve minutes in the dark.

On your way out, you turn on the bathroom sink and the shower. This is great—a little, original twist. Most people will run straight into the bathroom and stare dumbly at the floor, going, “Baa.” Did the pipes explode? Did the toilet overflow? (Oh shit!) Meanwhile, you’re several miles down the road, feeling good for having played your role in the great, daily sacrament of human crime.

Back in the office, she’s still sitting behind the desk, slack-jawed, watching television. You look at her again through the glass in the door, then enter, leaving your sacks leaning against the wall outside.

“What’s on?” Another cup of coffee seems good. It swooshes into the cup.

Real Life. It’s a reality show.” She doesn’t look at you. Her words sound stilted, deliberately linked, as if she thought about each one before adding it to the sentence. You wonder if she might be thinking about just how much attention it’s going to take for you to leave smoothly, without a fuss, without screwing up her high.

“Reality, eh?” You’ve heard of this kind of show, but you’ve never seen one of them. You haven’t watched TV in about ten years. “Does that mean other shows aren’t real?”

“Of course they’re not real. Where’ve you been?”

“I work nights.”

She turns and gives you a long, slow stare, one part disbelief, two parts weariness.

“If we can talk about them, aren’t they real?”

“What the fuck do you mean?” Hostile. She swivels all the way around to face you. You are a problem. Now she has to deal with you.

You take a sip of coffee and smile, stepping back. “Shows are real shows, right?”

“Are you looking for something? ‘Cause I don’t have anything for you. Understand what I’m saying?”

“Just talking.” You shrug. Smile. Move toward the door.

She stands up, brow knitted, concentrating. “Look,” she says to the desk, “shows are shows. Some shows are real. Some are all made up. Is that what you’re asking?”

“So what’s real life, then?”

“They just take a camera into some place, like a store, and let it sit.”

You put your hand on the doorknob. “That’s crazy. What do you see?”

She is convinced you’re an idiot. She gestures with the backs of her hands, fingers up, as if to show how evident it all is. She looks like a surgeon about to operate. “Everything. They went to this butcher shop. People came in and said fucked-up things to the butchers. Then they cut some meat.”

“Like nasty things?”

“This one chick goes, ‘I want a piece of rump,’ and the butcher, all covered in blood and shit, goes, ‘Me, too.’ How fucked-up is that?” She’s still standing as if she’s about to pull a can of mace out from behind the desk, but the corner of her mouth curls in glassy amusement. Thinking about it makes her laugh and cough.

“Ever want them to come here?”

“And film what? Me watching the show? That would mess with your head.”

“It sure would.” You toast her with the Styrofoam cup and walk out, picking up your sacks on the way to the room.

Baa.

The truth happens. Sometimes, absolute truth happens. And, when it does, you’ve decided you don’t want to be anywhere close. Fifty megatons of truth with a half-life of regret for eternity. When the truth comes down, it drops like a bomb or a burning flare. Facts that follow you. Fallout in perpetuity, in the midnight hour, staring at a dark ceiling or out the window of a stolen truck, thinking of all the people you’ve robbed, defrauded, screwed. Of how you went to college for two years and could have wound up better.

Sitting in the passenger’s seat of the jacked semi as Dennis drives it up the ninety-nine, you look out at tractor dealerships, broken motels, heavy machinery yards in the orange-white envelope of a burning, San Joaquin Valley afternoon. You think of the original driver, pale in his own headlights, as if sculpted in wax. You imagine his upturned face burning white at the bottom of the ditch where you threw him, the ditch itself like a ghost town. Marking the spot: this is where they left me to die, the truth finally come down. Burning where it fell. Clinging to the earth for as long as it could. Not your truth. Not anyone’s. But the truth. Absolute truth this time—hideous, brutal, and rare.

Regret for eternity. How much for taking that poor chick’s DVD player and pot and clocks? More, you’re sure, for having drawn her just the smallest bit out of her bolt hole of hash and Real Life. Eternity plus five.

“So I’ve been thinking,” says Dennis, “about the possibilities. You know. With the dog.”

“You’re still on this?”

“On what? What the hell, man? Don’t you care about the meaning of life?”

“That sounds like a show.”

“Work with me. We’ve got a dead-or-not-dead dog trying to wag his tail. We need to solve this shit.” Dennis downshifts and grins. The silver cap on his right incisor is turning black. His eyes are still bloodshot from the meth.

Warren’s stolen, brown Datsun two cars behind is holding steady in the side mirror. It looks like it’s been smoking meth, too. And Warren inside it: hair straight up, face partly swollen as if he’s been punched a few times which, in a way, he has. Warren got up this morning like Night of the Living Dead. Dennis laughed, said, “Rise! Rise!” To which, Warren responded with his usual, “Fuck. You.”

Plus five. Plus five with fire and perdition. With your whole ancestral line for generations back, through dispossessed French Huguenots and amoral Scotsmen—the balance of whom were probably hung as thieves or burned as liars. And drawn. And quartered. And blamed. And mortared. And taken off all books of contributing members before being dismembered. But not before they could breed the next generation into this confusion. The confused, jagged screech of a newborn slapped hard on the ass so it takes its first breath—what better way to symbolize life than this? That hurt. I don’t feel good. And this place very clearly sucks.

You’re thinking about all this, letting it tumble through your brain, while Jimbo checks the truck. A slight man, Jimbo, slight and low-talking. He mumbles. He murmurs. He stands by the truck and says things to Andre, who nods like he’s taking dictation. Maybe Andre is. There’s no telling what a relationship could be between a beady-eyed, marsupial-faced thug and a little man from Nigeria with colored braids and a dark green polo. All that matters is Jimbo has the cash. That’s all you need to know. And Jimbo’s got a kid named Omar who’s fidgeting with the latch on the truck, over-excited, asking you too many questions: “Hey, man, you do this a lot? It looks like the money’s good.”

Andre goes to get the payment while Jimbo and Warren talk off to the side, Jimbo’s voice like the hum of distant equipment, Warren gesturing with his hands.

“It’s fine,” you say and look at the kid.

Omar nods, uses his palm to wipe the sweat off the top of his head. Dennis yawns and lights a cigarette. The warehouse is empty except for the truck. And it’s big—as big as a hangar. Might have been a factory once or a machine shop for heavy equipment. You watch Andre get smaller as he walks across the cement floor, way back to the other side of the warehouse, where the dark office door stands open. Then he lumbers back, carrying the bag. The wrinkled, paper grocery bag. The bag of bags.

The bag with the money.

Everybody gets paid, and everybody gets happy. Andre buys both sacks from you for a crisp hundred-dollar bill off his roll before he gets in the truck with Jimbo. You watch them go, Kennworth ghost town vanishing to the underworld. The warehouse is dead-silent. It’s all over, done, and no problems. You tell yourself you should feel good.

You get into the passenger seat of Warren’s Datsun. Warren slides behind the wheel and tries to get the engine to turn over, Dennis and Omar in back. Omar’s nervous, trying to act like he’s cool. But he’s wired, staring at the three of you when he thinks you’re not looking.

“I gotta ditch this shit in Bakersfield. I’ll drop anybody on the way.” Warren sighs, stretches. Nobody says a word or counts any money. You look at Dennis’ eyes in the rearview mirror as the car pulls out and leaves a cloud of white smoke behind it that reminds you of meth. Dennis is getting freaked out by Omar. You’re mildly surprised Dennis waits until you get on the 99 before he starts messing with the kid.

“Why you lookin’ at me?” he says to Omar in a half-whisper. “Don’t you fucking look at me.”

“Sorry.” Omar looks like he might piss himself.

“Why you here, anyway?” Dennis pulls the .45 and presses Omar’s face against the window with it. “Why the fuck are you here? Why didn’t you leave with Andre?”

The kid doesn’t say anything. He clamps his jaw shut. You turn around in your seat and watch. Omar’s got a sweat stain around the neck of his T-shirt and straight down the front like a ruff.

“That’s a good question,” says Warren, driving with his left elbow on the door and his face propped in his hand. He sounds like he’s about to fall asleep, still hung-over from all the happy meth.

“Pull over,” says Dennis. “I think I’m gonna shoot this asshole right here.”

“No,” says Omar, squeezing his eyes shut.

“Okay,” sighs Warren. The Datsun rolls to a stop in another cloud of smoke.

How many times, you wonder, has something like this happened on the 99-south?

“Get the fuck out,” screams Dennis as he runs around the back of the car, gun in hand.

Omar tries to lock the door, but Dennis yanks it open and pulls him out by his foot.

Omar’s crying, on his knees, with Dennis pushing the .45 into his forehead in broad daylight.

“You pathetic piece of shit,” screams Dennis over air and traffic, “gimme your wallet.” A semi, not unlike the one you’ve been driving for the past several days, makes the Datsun rock like a boat. Dennis whacks Omar in the side of the head with the gun to snap him out of his crying. A passing car leans on its horn. You imagine the call: Police! Send the SWAT team! There’s a guy getting executed on the 99!

“Come on. This is taking forever.” You yell it into the wind, not wanting to get out and make yourself more identifiable, hoping Dennis doesn’t actually shoot him. But, by the time you say it, Dennis is already in the backseat. Warren hits the gas and whips into the slow lane. Behind you, Omar is still kneeling but bent over, forehead on his hands as if in prayer.

“Look at that.” Dennis has Omar’s watch on. This is the real Dennis, you think—not the philosophical guy who likes to take it easy and talk about dogs wagging their tails. This is the criminal. You wonder where you fall on Dennis’ scale and whether you’d have left Omar bent over and weeping in the heat.

“That’s not a real Rolex,” you say. “A real Rolex doesn’t have its hands click forward like that. They’re smooth.”

“So? Shit, I knew that.”

Warren and Dennis start laughing. You laugh, too, because not laughing when a crazy meth-addicted asshole is sitting behind you with a loaded gun is not an option. You tell yourself this might be it. No more truckjacking. Fuck the money. A box of high-end Louis Vuittons doesn’t shoot you in the head.

Dennis is still laughing when he taps you on the shoulder with the butt of the .45.

“Wasn’t loaded,” he says and shows you the empty space where the clip should be. He makes a hard face. “You like my gangsta-gangsta?”

“Yeah, man.” You smile: funny joke. “I believed it.”

“I’ve got talent.” He takes his wire-rimmed glasses out of his leather case and polishes them with his shirt.

You nod and keep smiling.

These trips have made you close to $50,000. But none of them were as violent as this one. You think of Omar bent over on the side of the highway. You should put him out of your mind. You tell yourself you’ve been Omar. You tell yourself that if Omar keeps his mouth shut and learns a thing or two, he might just live to be you.

 

For five years after his imprisonment, the house waited.

More faithful than his wife.

More faithful than his dog, who his wife had put to sleep. More faithful than the roses dead and gone under weeds.

A chainlink fence went up at the edge of the sidewalk and light went out of the house, its windows boarded up, brown grass overgrown from the fence to the broken porch still held up by bricks. The house had lived and now its life was a memory, the way a skull remembers its face, or the empty classroom remembers its children.

The white paint on the shingles curled upwards in the sun. But, still, the house waited through its death, through rain, through LA summer heat. The six-foot high fence clinked in the wind, and only the pigeons listened. Clouds rolled across the sky. A child’s red ball got kicked over the chainlink, turned flat, gray. Spiders spun their webs under the eaves, ate them, and spun them again, fishing the air year after year. And still, the house waited. Until, one day, Darwin returned. The tall gate in the chainlink pushed open. The front door’s rusted lock was made to turn.

Now, even with its eye sockets dark, the house seemed full, conscious, occupied. Cats hunted the backyard around the droopy stone garage that was gray and dusty, packed with whatever his wife, Janel, hadn’t wanted.

Time passed to sunrise, sunset, sunrise—the city of Los Angeles stapled into the earth for miles and miles and miles of monstrous concrete ribbon and box, mirror, metal spines, twisted carbon fume in every direction at every moment. But in its small orbit of shadows and cats, of brown grass shivering in the breeze, of pigeons in a row on the dead telephone line and bits of paper dancing off chainlink into the wind, the house was alive. The house clothed him like glass around a lick of flame. And, from the windows, his faint light glowed. Before Darwin went to work at night, a filigree of shadows from the chainlink would flicker on the sidewalk. By then, the children would usually be gone but, as if he could still hear their voices, he’d listen and pause before blowing the candles out.

When he hit the girl, he was drunk and, for five years after that, Darwin had not seen a girl or a car. Now he watched both pass the front window as if on a screen. In five years he had not had a drink. Now he drank from the faucet in the kitchen, made coffee in a pan on the stove, shaved his head every other day. And waking up at sunset to the voices of the kids next door, he’d stare across his bedroom at the large plywood dollhouse he was building for no one, watch shadows grow into its doorway, gather beneath its unpainted eaves.

It was two-and-a-half feet tall and, when he wasn’t working on it through its open back, he’d turn it against the wall so it looked like an actual house being constructed. It reminded Darwin of the housing projects he sometimes passed on his way home from work—unpainted with black plastic trash bags staplegunned over the window spaces. Blocks away, you could hear wind sucking the plastic in and then puffing it out like sails, as if the house-frame were breathing through its eyes.

The little beaded pull-chain ticked against the light bar over the bathroom mirror, Janel in cursive on his neck when he stepped out of the shower, a streak of shaving cream over his left ear. Water dripping, he saw her name on him, as always. I can’t do it, she’d said. Two years. It’s been a long time already. Already. How many more you got? Three? Eight? I don’t think I can make that stretch. What would he have done if he were her? Probably the same. Find somebody else. Move on. Darwin dried himself off, pulled on an undershirt. But what if he could have 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.

So I finally finished Season 5 of Game of Thrones and I know I should be emotionally manhandled at this point by all the cynical backstabbery, but I’m not. Martin Scorsese once said that it’s easy to get your audience to feel something—just put a puppy on stage and drop a safe on it. You’ll get the feels. Sadly (or happily), that doesn’t make for good drama.  Here’s my (I know, unsolicited) assessment with as many spoilers as possible now that the last episode has been out for a while. Look away now if you’re still planning on bingeing the season.  I haven’t felt compelled to write some kind of review since the second hobbit movie.  I know the world is probably better for it but Game of Thrones has had a special hobbity place in my heart ever since I watched the first season sick in bed in Bujumbura.  So here it goes.

The Artist Formerly Known as Theon: whatever. He has a Vader moment and takes a leap off the battlements with Sanza, the girl with the same two alternating expressions since the beginning of the show. Okay. If the fall doesn’t make them both quadriplegics in Season 6, I’ll be rooting that they don’t get flayed and salted into Bolton jerky. That’s good, I guess. I have a hard time caring about what has happened to Theon’s manhood or Sanza’s happy thoughts.

Ramsay “Lecter” Bolton: everybody wants him to die horribly because he’s such a sadistic yet annoying formulaic psychopath. He has everything Nazi but the dueling scars and the monocle, even the black leather get-up. I think his best quality is the frozen maniacal grin that every Nazi doctor from Central Casting has had since Laurence Olivier did Dr. Christian Szell in Marathon Man. That was in 1976. I was 3 years old. And, believe me, I can appreciate the number of torture-obsessed Nazi doctors churned out by Hollywood since then.

If Iwan Rheon radiated just a bit more charm, he could star in some deflated prequel to Silence of the Lambs. His character’s personality has zero depth, which, ironically is realistic when we think about how stunted serial killers and mass murderers are said to be in real life. Still, real life should not intrude when it would make a character tedious. If we don’t want to dwell on the obvious Hannibal Lecter contrast, we can always recall Jeremy Irons as Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune.  Claus is evil, yes, and we think he probably killed his wife.  Yet we just don’t care because the man has wit. Ramsay could use some wit, even just a little.

Stannis: he, however, gets 3 whole expressions: exasperation, bewilderment, and dread. And he doesn’t have to go through them sequentially anymore.  He burns his unrealistically angelic daughter, Shireen, at the stake because vampy evil stepmother Melisandre says the kid has to go. As soon as Davos gives Shireen the carved deer, we know the kid is done for. The whole arc is a sad case of writerly: look, I’m not pulling any punches here! I mean it! Nobody is safe! But if we don’t care about the characters—if they don’t have depth, if there is no redemptive vision at all—we’re in a 2D hellworld and everybody is worth exactly nothing. Sure, kill the kid if you want or drop a safe on the puppy. It’s all the same to us. This is hell, after all.

Jamie and Bronn: we know their expedition to Dorne isn’t going to end well. One good thing is that we keep expecting Bronn to be horribly eviscerated, stuffed with scorpions, and lit on fire by the end of their adventure, but all he gets is a sexy bite on the ear lobe. Otherwise, more backstabbery. In a country where everyone looks like Portuguese supermodels and dresses like medieval Turks, I guess you have to fall in love and someone is then required to put poison in your tea and you’re then fated to wake up in bed covered with snakes. Or something. You will still find the person who did it incredibly attractive.  One other thing is also certain: sweet and innocent daughters of noble houses die horribly. We know that already.

Arya Who Joined the Zen Death Circus: This has been my favorite plot strand. But by Episode 10, Arya has also gotten predictable. She was interesting for a long time—until she took revenge (oddly unsatisfying for all its gore) on demonically one-dimensional Sir Meryn. Faceless Assassin Master Po blinds her after some intentionally obscure Zen bullshit about “being no one.” All of it is a let-down because blinding is not what Arya needed. Transforming / revealing a new side to her character is what she needed. We all want her to either accept her new identity as a magical assassin or reject it and evolve into someone different. But we don’t get character change. We get Zen bullshit and Mission Impossible CGI masks. Disappointment—we get that, too.  I miss The Hound.  Bring back The Hound.  At least, he was funny.

Of Cersei, what is there to say? take one of the most beautiful actresses in the world; strip her down; and have a scene where she does the medieval walk of shame. It again works a la the safe and the puppy. Cersei’s hateful for most of the show up to this point (that’s 5 years of hate, people—think about it). So we’re meant to have mixed feelings about her “atonement.” And the whole scene has unintentional Monty Python potential. I don’t know. Lena Headey can read the dictionary in a space suit and it wouldn’t matter. We’ll still watch and try not to blink. Bright sparkles will still be floating around her in the air. But I didn’t quite believe the walk of shame scene was authentic, which is to say organic, to her character development. I know that sort of thing really historically happened (doesn’t matter, this is King’s Landing not Earth). And I know the plot can (barely) support the scene (also doesn’t matter). I just don’t think Cersei—as we have come to know her—would submit like that. One of the reasons she’s so compelling is that she does have dimensionality to her character. She does have wit. She has strong emotions and uncompromising direct motivations. We want her to do something grand.  Instead, we are given nakedness and rotten fruit.  And it doesn’t enhance our insight into her.  It also doesn’t cause her to change.  She takes a lot of abuse and has revenge in her eyes by the time she gets back to the castle. Right.  But what else?

Lastly, Jon Snow really does know nothing: His is the only death I actually believe—surprising because it isn’t surprising at all. The Castle Black plot strand is, in my opinion, stronger than the others. I found myself wanting Alliser Thorne to remain the prick that we all feel he is. And I wasn’t let down at all. Still, I don’t really believe that Jon Snow is actually dead. Maybe so. Maybe not. Of all the characters in the show, I care about him the most. I think this is because he has some redemptive qualities. He’s not just a resident sufferer in Hellworld. He’s trying to find and sustain some sense of justice. This is why I think we might be seeing him again in Season 6. Without him, Game of Thrones has no soul.

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.

Some time has passed since I’ve encountered a post-graduate heartbreak narrative as deadening as that of Jonathan Gottschall in “Survival of the Fittest in the English Department.” Maybe this is because I’ve abstained from reading The Chronicle of Higher Education, concluding (rightly, I still think) that it lives on a kind of niche-demographic sensationalism meant to make its readers more neurotic than they already are.

Granted, the article is filed under “Opinion & Ideas.” And reading about the struggles of young Jonathan, one thinks chron snip1there must be some opinions and ideas forthcoming—maybe just floating around in there like the lingering odor of a badly cooked meal. An over-fried opinion Denver omelet. A whiff of a curdled assumption. The effluvium of a half-baked generalization. Someone turn on the ceiling fan and open a window.

Honestly, I have nothing against Jonathan Gottschall, the subject of the article. I have nothing against David Wescott, either, who knows how to write a clean journalistic line and is, like Gottschall, just trying to get paid and do his thing. In fact, let them both get paid, especially Gottschall, who, according to Wescott, has been ignored by the Academy and relegated to perpetual-adjunct Siberia in spite of his unique “literary Darwinist” approach to English studies. Gottschall wants to critique literature in terms of evolutionary biology in order to make it more relevant and fundable in an increasingly STEM-dominated world:

On a tour of the campus, Gottschall points out what he calls the “Taj Mahals.” To the left, a multimillion-dollar, LEED Silver-­certified science center with a grand entrance; to the right, a stately life-sciences building that contains labs, classrooms, and a greenhouse. Sandwiched between the two, he adds, is the “hovel” of the English department. (One English professor says that the small building, which has clearly seen better days, has been home to a hornets’ nest, toxic mold, broken windows, and even indoor mushrooms.)

“If you look at these buildings,” Gottschall says with a sweep of the hand, “it’s not hard to see what society values more.”

But apparently English departments—at least the ones hiring for positions more substantial than adjunct—don’t care for Gottschall’s ideas. It’s a tragedy, this pro-science bigotry, this perpetual adjunct gulag for those unwilling or unable to agree with the academic establishment. Worse, the article implies that just as there is no remedy for this neurosis-inducing decline, there is nothing to be done for Gottschall himself, who is yet another casualty of higher education: “Asked about Gottschall’s stalled academic career, David Sloan Wilson seems to regard it as unfortunate but perhaps inevitable in its larger intellectual context: ‘This is true of all paradigmatic changes. If you lose, you can’t get a job anywhere. If you win, you can get a job at Harvard.'” Can you hear all the stained glass windows in all the churches of the world shattering at once? I think you can.

Gottschall’s sad story is also a way for Wescott to introduce the same old formulaic axe that the Chronicle has been grinding for years: look at this bright young intellectual being denied an opportunity to pursue his life’s work by the agents of impersonal, anti-humanistic, anti-life academic bureaucracy. Oh yes, my child, there are malign forces lurking, waiting to destroy everything we love. Be very afraid.

Frankly, I am tired of this. Scientism is nothing new and it’s not going to save English studies. But who said English needs saving? Everyone loves apocalypse stories and The Chronicle seems particularly obsessed with a coming academic apocalypse in the humanities—some kind of English department Mad Max brought on by too much poststructural critique and too little funding. Shakespeare with battle-axes and leather jockstraps. Well, okay. After Derrida that might be the next logical step.

But look how Wescott’s piece begins: “For a scholar ignored or condemned by almost everyone in his discipline, a career adjunct unable to secure job interviews much less a tenure-track position, Jonathan Gottschall is unusually prominent.” The ordure of piss-yellow sensationalism is unmistakable, especially if we consider that the target audience is college professors and adjuncts who have lived through some austere times in academia.

People are as worried about their careers in academia as anywhere else—every hour of the day, every day of the year. So when Wescott pushes the same old fear-buttons, we feel the same old things: dread, angst, a certain pressure to read on to the end of the piece in case Wescott offers us some relief. But there’s no redemptive vision here and the destruction of Gottschall’s dreams appears unavoidable:

Inside the English department’s building, Gottschall points to the cubicle where he once held office hours. He had spent some lean years working here. Loans, credit-card debt, saving up for a house: From 2009 to 2012 he got by on an adjunct’s income, a small book contract, and the occasional speaking gig, along with his wife’s salary as a professor of economics at the college.

Wow three years of hardship like a three-verse funeral dirge in which every dream is dead and every flower has wilted. On the other hand, he is married to a professor who, it seems, has a full-time gig. So you mean Gottschall isn’t adjuncting at five community colleges simultaneously to pay for a studio apartment that violates the Implied Warranty of Habitability in 16 states? You mean he hasn’t been misled time and again into thinking that if he took on extra unpaid administrative duties he might be first in line when the latest hiring freeze is over? You mean he actually got a cubicle to use as an office instead of having to meet with students down the street in the Dairy Queen? You mean he’s published multiple books? He has interesting ideas that he’s been able to research without sleep deprivation giving him organ damage and a facial tic? You mean he’s the subject of a Chronicle article?

Take out your books.

Hot damn. Maybe he isn’t doing so poorly after all. Maybe, just maybe, this article is a fine bit of sensational apocalyptic fear mongering, saying just the right things to rile the readers up. But maybe it has also all been said before, many times in more serious, more responsible ways. Maybe things will change in academia. Maybe they won’t. And maybe Generation Z will be learning IT instead of Milton and their comp teacher will look like Dennis Hopper in Waterworld.

But I can tell you one thing: I don’t weep for Johnathan Gottschall. I celebrate him. He’s doing what he wants to do, maybe what he was born to do. And even if I think a scientistic critique of literature will ultimately fail to bring status, money, and relevance to what many of my fellow neurotics believe is a dying discipline, I do like the idea, maybe the only idea worthwhile in this article. Let’s have more interesting ideas like that and fewer apocalyptic opinions.

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

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

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

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

Abre Camino

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

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

The Hounds of the Grass

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

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

Kephera - Egyptian Neter of Coming into Being

Kephera – Egyptian Neter of Coming into Being

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

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

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.

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

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

A True Story from the MFAkong Delta

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kindness of Strangers

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

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

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

Dry Rot and Perdition

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

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

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

So why do we do it?

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

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

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

Remembering Who We Are

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

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

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

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

My friend and fellow wr