Figuring It Out

Aunt Edna lived with us for several years while I was growing up. She was a forensics enthusiast before being a forensics enthusiast was cool, which it never was. While most kids had hopscotch squares in front of their houses, we had chalk outlines outside ours. The figures’ ghostly limbs were bent in all manners of unlikely angles, probably owing more to the fact of my aunt’s inability to draw than the diabolical nature of a given fictitious crime. Friends who came over were routinely subjected to lineups, and the doorknobs of our home were blackened with repeated fingerprint dustings. Photos in our family albums were interspersed with gruesome case study photos, details of gunshot wounds, and police sketches. Forensics became a way of life for my family, and after a time it became difficult to separate Aunt Edna’s hobby from our daily routines.

Most of the time Aunt Edna could be found measuring things: the arc of the door swing, the amount of milk left in the carton, which spectra tended to see more use in my crayon collection. Anything and everything was subject to quantification, because to her it all meant something, and that was especially important because she had lost so much. Dad tolerated her because it kept me occupied, and he even helped her to set up a lab in the basement in the area he’d always meant to set up his wet bar. Mom tolerated her because my Aunt Edna was her big sister, senior by nearly twenty years. Mom felt beholden to her because she didn’t really have anything else now but her forensics, and after her house burned down, and her husband along with it, she’d had nowhere else to go.

Of course, I was by her side whenever I wasn’t in school. We were inseparable, and she had use for the extra help. I assisted her in setting up cones around the refrigerator when she found its door ajar, and I drew circles around holes in the mortar to help her calculate projectile trajectories. I even got to go with her to the mortuary when she conducted psychological autopsies, and afterward we would eat sandwiches and pickles in cool rooms surrounded by quiet, reflective drawers.

I didn’t care if any of it was real or not, I just liked being a part of the mission. During school, my friends would return to class on Mondays with stories of parties they’d attended, or about their garage bands, or what video games they’d discovered at the arcade. In turn I would regale them with full and accurate accounts of the cases my Aunt Edna and I had closed during the weekend, and of the others that remained open. The rest of the time I found myself distracted by signs, clues, symptoms, and causes. I couldn’t help but see patterns in the bruises on the back of Donna P.’s neck during Geography, and could think of nothing else but precipitating factors and post-crime behaviors. Aunt Edna told me I had a knack for criminal profiling, but to me it was just a way to put off homework.

The day my parents phoned me at Junior Forensics Camp and told me that my Aunt had a pericardial tamponade I was excited, and said that I couldn’t wait to be home to see it. “No, sweetie,” my mother said, her sniffling turned to white noise by the phone, “it’s not… that’s not… I’m so sorry. Here’s Dad.”

I left camp early to attend Aunt Edna’s funeral. The doctors told me that she’d developed pericarditis caused by a sudden infection, and that she had not suffered long. I knew they were talking down to me, trying to console me, but I didn’t really care by then.

What I remember most about Aunt Edna’s funeral was the procession itself. Virginia winters still had a bite in those days, and that December was no exception. Dozens of slow-rolling tires packed the fresh snow, and bare branches hung low under the weight of the night’s accumulated ice. I sat in the back seat with my temple resting against the cool glass, and watched in disbelief as my Aunt’s hearse was suddenly swept away in an intersection by a big rig, which was itself traveling sideways. The hood of the long black vehicle became wedged under the trailer, and as the truck plowed into an old deli, snow began to drift down from the slate sky.

The fire that belched from the truck’s compromised fuel tank was almost fluorescent in the chill purple gloom of mid-morning. Snow melted in a circle around the accident, as if in reverence, and spectators formed a wide circle around that, just beyond the yellow crime scene tape. Friends and family looked on in horror as officers, shielding their eyes from the growing flames, tried to open the rear door of the hearse. But the vehicle’s frame had bent, and the door may as well have been welded shut.

A sense of desperation settled on the would-be funeral attendees as they witnessed the fire consuming the front of the hearse, but I felt surprisingly calm. My fingers were numb, but the pain was good. To me this all made sense in a way, not to sound morbid about it. In fact I was even able to summon a laugh as my mother, beyond hope, leaned to my father and said, “Well, cremation is noble too.” It was the look on dad’s face that made me laugh. My mother was the one with the macabre sense of humor.

For the first time I got to see the “jaws of life,” watched how firefighters applied it to the hearse, opening it like a tin can just to save the corpse of my Aunt. Meanwhile officers were setting up traffic cones, and, just beyond them, a small group of people were taking photos of the tracks in the snow, and marking key areas with flares. Crime scene investigators. My aunt would have loved it.

In the end we postponed the ceremony until the next day, and afterward I remember a crowded house, and food, and quiet words of consolation only barely slurred by spirits. Mom and Dad let me spend that night in Aunt Edna’s laboratory, bundled against the basement’s cold in a thick blanket. In the moon’s glow my eyes lit upon the instruments of my Aunt’s work, and stopped on a stick of chalk resting on a short stack of books. Later I dreamed in outlines, and of myself tracing around a world frozen into stillness so that I would remember it after it had moved on.


entry_134The very things I do so willingly in real life cripple me when they’re part of an assignment. While in this incapacitated state the very structure of my brain changes and I am suddenly filled with a sense of euphoric wonderment in the most mundane things. Everything becomes fascinating because fascination is a relative thing. This is why people are able to read the March 1983 edition of Highlights Magazine when they’re in the dentist office (a decent issue, don’t misunderstand).

Right now I’m late for a deadline, and my agent has been making my phone ring. Therefore I’m standing on my chair looking out my single window, which is more like a porthole on an old ship. It’s pretty high up, so I have to stand on the chair to see outside. With my palms on the sill, I’ve watched for hours as people–or randoms, as I refer to them–scurry by. Indeed, I’ve spent so much time up at the window that I’ve taken to keeping snacks, usually gumdrops, stuck to the wall for convenience. Lick ’em and stick ’em. That’s good food. Raw bacon works too, even without licking.

There’s hardly a reason to get down, though this is an unusually wobbly chair, I must say. It hasn’t been the same since I tripped over it this morning. I awoke, as I usually do, with a scream. I have this recurring nightmare that I’m waking up in the morning screaming; it scares the hell out of me. And when I do wake up screaming it just perpetuates the nightmare. But still, it’s better to be awake than in that coffin of sleep. I hate going to sleep, I guess, is what it comes down to. I once dreamed that I had insomnia and it took me nine hours to wake up, except they weren’t dream hours. Not the kind that go by like minutes or seconds. They were real hours, and I had to sit there in my dream waiting until I got tired enough to wake up.

As my breath clouds the glass I wonder what the randoms are thinking about. Are they thinking about other randoms? Are they thinking about a particular color? Or perhaps they’re procrastinating like I am. And who would know? I’m deep in procrastination now, and it’s like being drugged. I’m pondering drugs when an entire memory surfaces from a lobe of my brain dedicated specifically to procrastination.

In college I roomed for a while with S., who was nice enough, even though he had a tendency to refer to people in the third person neutral. Probably because of this he didn’t have close acquaintances, but I never had any semantic hang-ups. S. was also heavily into drugs, but not the usual kinds. He liked to experiment with his own drugs. He designed them using chemicals he’d appropriated from the lab, and he was good too, as chemists go. After one of his binges I once found him face-down in the empty shower stall with a section of two-by-four clenched firmly in his jaw. His teeth were embedded so deep in the wood that it took us nearly a half-hour to remove the damned thing. But he was on the recovery path by the time we became roommates, and his most unfortunate performances were behind him. Mine were just beginning however, as illustrated on the night I discovered “Godzilla.” S. had cleverly decided to store this substance in an old orange juice container in the fridge. I couldn’t have foreseen the visitations that would await me that night, but it was something I would never be able to forget afterward: the horror of being hopped-up on Godzilla. Why “Godzilla?” To put it simply, it’s because there were three primary side-effects caused by the ingestion of this substance: The first was that it made you feel like a giant by causing your surroundings to shrink away. Second, it caused a burning sensation in your throat, so you felt you were breathing fire. And last–and most importantly–you felt desperately compelled to destroy Tokyo.

Which reminds me of my high school gym teacher’s thundering thighs. I loathed and feared this man because he was an immense, bald Mr. Clean-type creature genetically designed to promote competitive group activity. He was toxic with enthusiasm, and would try to rally us by clapping his giant catcher’s mitt-sized palms and shouting, “okay, troops.” Hiding behind the bleachers I would watch him pacing back and forth, and it was impossible to pry my eyes off the veins running down his left calf because they–the veins, mind you–were as thick as my upper arm. How could this be? Was he wearing a secret tourniquet around his upper thigh? The thought brought on one of those involuntary faces you make when you spontaneously think of driving a pin through your eyeball. I recall one day when I was in formation with the other troops, and my Gym teacher caught me wincing, and he immediately pounded over and yelled in my face like a foghorn. I think I had to do nine thousand laps as a result, but all I could think about was that his breath smelled like toothpaste when he said the word “perimeter.”

Obviously I think next about the balls in my toothpaste. Last night I looked down at my toothbrush and found the sticky dollop riddled with the little orange balls. What a welcome change, I thought, to what is, typically, such a bland and uniform material. But I could not help but wonder what they were, these tiny spheres. Flavor crystals, perhaps? Or retsin? Crunch berries? There was simply no telling.

As I’m standing here wondering all this, the earthquake hits, and I instinctively take my surfer position and ride it out on top of my chair. They’re onto me, I think.

I get off the chair and consider it for a second. I got it from my ex-girlfriend. It feels strange to have this remnant still, especially since it’s such a flimsy remnant. The chair. The inert chair from an old relationship. In my experience there’s no drama in a chair unless you’re in the act of tripping over it. It certainly doesn’t speak of the pain at the end of a relationship. If it were stained from top to bottom in blood, now that would be a real token. Something you could tell your friends about at parties, and they would all nod and understand and regard the chair with a quiet respect. The chair survives the couple, like a cockroach in its aftermath.

I’m thinking of getting another chair, actually, right after I finish my assignment.

Empty Words

entry_129My friend, whom I hate, just had his second book optioned, a fact that haunts me because “The Killness” is not a good book. And it’s not as good as his first book which, though it was spectacularly bad, was also optioned.

“So what?” he says, “All books are optioned these days.” Mine wasn’t. “They’ll probably just end up sitting on it anyway.” The book isn’t good for much else, but my disappointment stems from a larger question. Namely, why is banality not only accepted, but so consistently rewarded? I don’t put the question to him quite this way, but his explanation goes, “It’s got a compelling hook, and that’s what sells. Think about it: Peace, it turns out–peace among humans–is the result of a genetic defect from way back. A mutation at some point. And when modern scientists accidentally develop a cure for it, we’re all savages again! Killness. That’s totally pitchable.” Indeed, I might have said the same thing. “And it’s got style. It’s Crichtoney. Or no, it’s like… Dean Koontz meets George Romero.”

“No,” I say, “it’s not any of that.”

“Come on,” he says. “Look, you’re just anxious about your book being published. And no worries there–it will be. Mainstream potential!”

Mainstream potential? That’s not even a sentence. To me it sounds more like the prognosis of some terminal condition. It makes me nervous when people start speaking in quotable jargon. If I nodded and said, “Mass appeal!” my friend would kiss me on the lips, clearly.

No, if I’m anxious then maybe it’s because it’s taken me three months just to start on the last chapter of my own book. I reached a point where even thinking about getting back into it was enough to fill me with dread and revulsion. And not even the story per se, but the physical act of writing. Articulation is taxing. Sometimes just writing my name seems to be pushing the limit of my abilities. Take for example the writing of a check. I’ve found myself in a self-destructive thought spiral that goes like this: Begin to sign name. Realize that I thought about signing my name last time I signed my name, and the act of becoming conscious of the activity caused me not only to lose my place, but temporarily to lose the ability to write at all. Try not to think about it. Concentrate on finishing what I had begun. Squeeze pen in hand and make illegible marks on check. Neck muscles strain, and I raise my pen arm over my head and bring it down repeatedly on the table while making torn, hoarse woofs and swinging my head back and forth. Warden puts me in solitary.

Writing is an odd thing. Muses run hot and cold. Agents are fickle. I’ve never considered myself a writer except in contrast to other people–particularly those who find a way to succeed in spite of having burned all their bridges, hacked some bit of fluff inspired by the back of a cereal box, and had a tryst with their own agent’s wife. I guess I’m thinking about this one person in particular now.

When he told me that he’d been made an offer I had one of those moments where things stop and you’re suddenly at the center of the universe, and the audience is waiting to see what you’ll do so they’ll know whether to laugh or hide behind their hands. See, I knew this guy’s work. I knew it for what it was: logorrheic dandruff. And there we were standing on the sidewalk and he had the nerve to tell me that he was going to be published?

Later on, when I was by myself, I finally summoned the nerve to read the draft of “Jejune Moon” he’d given me. A quick scan reminded me how wretched it was, but I’d forgotten the exact flavor of wretchedness, or emotionally blocked it off. To be fair, it was conceivable that I’d missed something redeeming about the work, a small thread of satire perhaps, or a bit of self-referential sarcasm. Or maybe something so extremely subtle that it’s not actually there. An implied wit.

I opened to the first page, which was typed and formatted just like a real book, except the words were arranged in this manner:

“You know what? You can’t stand that you lost. You can’t believe that you lost and that I won. Well you’re going to have to believe it because its true. There can be only one winner here, and that is me, and that is more than you can handle. But you’ll have the next twenty years to get used to it. Not to get used to losing, but to get used to the way you have been put in your place so firmly, so decisively. Your loss will be with you like a child now, and when it finally leaves you in twenty years you’ll be left with nothing. And in a way you will miss the loss, because you are comfortable with it, and are quite familiar with it. Incestuously so. And you will miss the loss because, finally, it was all that you ever really had.”

The problem with this setup, other than the fact that it’s terrible in so many separate and unique ways, is that it’s never resolved. Never, never ever. Indeed, it’s never explained in any way whatsoever, not in this book or any other. We never learn who is being addressed, who is speaking, or what was won and what was lost. And most importantly, we can never come up with a reason to care one way or the other.

I told him later that I thought the loss concerned that of the reader who, after reading this opening, would never be able to care about anything that might follow. And that wasn’t really a loss, because there never really was a chain of events, as such. Oh sure there were paragraphs strung one right after another, but they were more like people shoved together on a subway train at rush hour. They didn’t know each other, didn’t really want to know each other, and couldn’t wait to be home. His paragraphs were vignettes from the uninteresting parts of other stories. I told him that if there was any karmic justice at all, after reading this offal the reader could take comfort in the fact that the next ten books he or she read would be brilliant. I felt righteous.

I don’t know why we’re still friends.

For Sale

entry_122I noticed the car only because of the fancy sign propped up just behind its windshield, which was fogged like a cataract. The sign, intricately decorated with macaroni and glass beads, read, “Finally For Sale, $4,000,” like people had been waiting for it all this time. The sign was far more eye-catching than the subject of advertisement, itself a nondescript American make whose paint was of some elusive color between beige and gray. The U.S. does still craft nondescript cars, though the heyday of these little charmers was in the mid-seventies. Many of them didn’t live long enough to see the beginning of the eighties. These were cars made without flourish, lacking entirely any kind of stylistic nicety. And a $4,000 asking price was far too much to hope for.

It was kind of sad, this diminutive slab of metal. Each day I passed by, I gave the car a courteous glance. It was the least I could do, I thought. Surely this inert box, a product created to fill a niche market identified in some long-abandoned boardroom, was our responsibility still, wasn’t it? Or had we pulled this lackluster thing into existence to satisfy some immediate need, only now to leave it abandoned? The possibility seemed irresponsible, but perhaps not so unfamiliar to a good citizen of the consumer class.

Less than a week since I’d first noticed the car, something about it had changed. The sign. It was the same sign, but it now read, “Finally For Sale, $3,000.” Certainly headed in the right direction, I thought. I imagined that someone had talked to the owner of the car, struggling to point out in as diplomatic a way as possible that $4,000 was a little more than anyone was likely to pay. Where our irresponsibility as social creatures was manifest, perhaps we were redeemed in some way by our ability to thoughtfully adapt to market expectation. The thought didn’t necessarily fill me with warmth, but it was at least something I could take as a positive.

Still the car sat, an object of mounting rejection, and I felt the weight of it. Save for the occasional flicked glance I began to avert my eyes. The car stared at me unblinking though. It wasn’t like a puppy who needed a home – I had no interest in owning a car. No, it was more like a knowing look: You who would pass by. You who are fallible. You, lost in your world of interior monologue.

A week later the sign caught my eye. The price had gone down again, this time to $2,500. It was like watching a bedridden relative waste away. A few days later and the price was set at $2,000. And the beginning of the next week saw it dwindle to $1,200. By then I was ready to write the whole experience off as just so much noise, until the third Thursday when I saw in the car’s window, “Finally For Sale, $971.”

$971? Seeing this provided a strange relief, an excitement, and it quickened my step. Perhaps it was just enough to cover the cost of a drunken dog-buying binge. What had they been thinking that night? Or maybe $971 would get them that home laparoscopy kit they’d had their eye on. But in truth I suspected something much more clever. The fact is that 971 is a prime number, alone and iconoclastic. It doesn’t even pretend at playing with the other numbers. And so it was that I suspected the seller had finally experienced a breakdown of some magnitude, and this price was the result: a coded call for help that none could hear but me. Like gravity though, such calls are a weak force in the face of the commuter’s momentum. I was not immune to a pang of guilt, but my gait afforded me escape velocity from the woe around me. Anyway, I am at heart a voyeur, not a savior – I savor the thrill of the watch.

So, fine, I was not willing to intervene, and the seller’s silent struggle would have to go unassisted. Imagine, then, my surprise when I passed by the sign that read “Finally For Sale, $1,033.” I wondered at it long after I’d passed the car by, and well into the afternoon hours. Was this some play on the dynamic of market psychology? Thinking about it, I felt watched. Someone was watching to see my response twice a day as I passed by, and I was the unwitting puppet. But I didn’t have long to obsess over the point, because both car and sign were gone the next day.

Someone for whom $971 was too small a sum deemed $1,033 the perfect rate for their ticket to independence. And for the seller, that $1,033 had proven to be the sweet spot. But what about the rest of us then? What about me?

The patch of gravel that remained seemed all too empty, and hungry, and I felt – really felt – a tug as I walked by. How silly and sad this had all been then, this drama, this distraction, half conjured to engage otherwise idle synapses. And, if it was possible, I felt a little embarrassed at myself. It was like waking to a sound only to realize that the sound was your own snore. No harm done though, right? And thus chastened I determined that it was the right time to move on anyway.

So I’ve been staring at other things.

Summer of Shrunken Heads

entry_121The neighborhood where I grew up lay on the border between the old quarter and the new. The natives to the land were descendants of those left behind in the frontier days, themselves too unfit physically, socially, or mentally to make the trip westward. The late twentieth century had seen the rise of suburban sprawl and expensive homes, and with that came the lawyers and politicians willing to pay any price to live outside the nearest city. The divide between the old and new was a constant source of fascination for me, especially as tensions flared. On weekends I could hear them both from my bedroom window. To my left the bucolic rhythms of jaunty jug bands and the synchronized slap of bare feet on floorboards echoed into the night, and the morning brought fire and brimstone sermons and wails of repentance. To my right the antiseptic strains of classical music accompanied barbecue gatherings that spiced the air until dusk, and the morning brought the chatter of televisions to keep families safe from conversation and lawsuits.

Daily I watched the uneasy interplay of two cultures brought together in a time of transition, like tectonic plates, one steadily subsuming the other. And though it was this dynamic that was the source of many of my childhood amusements, there’s one memory in particular that I still hold most dear.

The redneck kids decided that the measure of one’s coolness was a factor of how fast they could drive their pick-ups over the neighborhood speed bumps. These latter, like the pavement itself, were an innovation of the “fancy folk,” and a novelty to a people raised on packed dirt and warped porch wood. Of course coolness, like any drug, is something that must escalate in order to remain potent. I was witness to this very phenomenon as, over the course of just a few years, the rednecks went from barely slowing down to actually accelerating as they approached the speed bumps.

Now, it so happened that one of the most unforgiving speed bumps was right in front of my family’s house, which was good fortune for a curious child such as I. So steep was the mound that I would come home from school each day to find my yard littered with the detritus launched from the rear of the rednecks’ pick up trucks as the tires bounced over the incline. Jews harps, corn cob pipes, spent rifle shells, bandanas smelling of gasoline and sweat, old photographs of proud grandmothers grown solemn after their husbands fell for the Confederacy, and a myriad of carved containers.

I was like an archaeologist, poring over the exotic relics from some foreign, but not so distant arcadian land. I’d started a collection, exhibited in our otherwise unused guest house, and my friends and I took to calling it The Museum of White Trasheology. We would take refuge there from the unforgiving heat of late summer, and invent stories to explain the paraphernalia, and we would practice our hillbilly accents while pretending that our lemonade was really moonshine from a still.

A week before school was set to start, our play became more frenzied and our laughs more shrill, but as the last few days of freedom dwindled we could no more deny our lethargy than a death row inmate making his final walk. As summer grew moribund the world we’d created for ourselves had grown more fragile. But I remember the renewed sense of hope I felt on the day I found the long cardboard carton lying intact on my lawn. Rather than opening it where I stood, I instinctively checked to make sure no one was watching before taking it to The Museum.

I called my friends over, and before long we were assembled around the item like curators around the latest artifact from the field. This moment, staring down at the carton, seemed like nothing more than an idyllic memory even then, and I hesitated, not wanting to spoil it. I remember the steady drone of locusts outside, and how it swelled periodically like violins in a horror movie soundtrack. And when I looked up my friends were all looking back at me. Of course they had been waiting for me.

I fished out my pocket knife and slit the wide tape around the seam, then pried the lid off with my fingernails. Inside were two rows of sealed glass cylinders, each with a single shrunken head inside. All but five of the heads were suspended in clear plasma, and the curve of the cylinders magnified the knotty brown skin, empty puckered eye sockets, and mouth slits sewn shut with coarse black thread. Thoughts of school faded like an old dream as our minds filled with superlatives. In an instant our lives had become larger than summertime – we’d made a genuine discovery.

Leaning in to get a closer look, I turned one of the cylinders in its hollow to get a better look at the label. The hand was crude, but the single word was legible: “Regular.” They were all regular, all save for the last two which were dry as raisins. I turned the jar at the end, and jerked my hand away when the words were revealed: “no sauce.”

“Guys,” one of my friends said, “isn’t Jeb’s that rickety old restaurant up by the creek?” He was pointing to a sticker on the outside of the carton. “I don’t know about that,” said another, peering down at one of the cylinders, “but this head looks just like Lawrence’s father, the divorce attorney? Look, he has that huge bulbous nose, just like Mr. Burtenshaw had.” Mr. Burtenshaw, rumor had it, skipped out on his family a few weeks back. They were still talking about it on the news, because the man had neither packed nor left a note. So there was no doubt in our minds that we were looking at Mr. Burtenshaw now – all that remained of him. “Hey, Lawrence,” I said holding a mock phone to my ear, “we found your dad.” There was a stunned silence, and then we all laughed ourselves hoarse.

By the time school started my life felt like an empty routine. I felt vulnerable because of what I knew, because I had gotten a peek behind the curtain. I had to wonder if our parents – the adults – were complicit in this. Was that the deal they’d made? The so-called “fancy folk” could build their townhome estates and strip malls on redneck land provided the flock was trimmed back from time to time? We watched the sons of lawyers and politicians mingle with the redneck kids, but with a newfound respect. And maybe they sensed something about my friends and me. We were quieter when they were around, and sometimes I’d see one of them touch the brim of their baseball cap and nod in our direction. “They know,” said my buddy. “You know they know we know.”

There was a natural order to things, after all, and it had simply adapted to the times. Adapted to the point where shrunken lawyer heads became a part of the balance, as well as a delicacy.

Of course things are different now.

The Station

“Your tank empty?”

I blinked. “Huh?”

The station manager pointed to the repair sheet with his pen. His hands were gray with oil. “You want us to fill ‘er up?”

Was this a trick? I’d brought my car in to be inspected, and that’s what I wanted. Not gas. Gas didn’t enter into it. I was already on edge for being a fish out of water – these were people who sweated when they worked, I mean – and his question took on weight and sat on my forehead, directly between my eyebrows. “Uh…” Why was he asking me about gas? I couldn’t imagine. But I allowed that I was perhaps too vulnerable to reason through this challenge with any degree of clarity. “Um, no, that’s okay.”

“I was just asking because we could make it a part of the same bill.”

A middle-aged woman – the station attendant – popped in from the garage then. “Excuse me, I just have to…” and she palmed a form on the counter to the manager’s left, slid it around in front of him, and caught it with her other palm, her arms girdling his waist for a moment. It was like gas station ballet. A brief interlude to cleanse the palate, and then she was back to the garage. I saw it all in slow motion, and played it back again as the manager continued filling out my form. The sudden display of intimacy seemed as out of place as I was. Like a hallucination. My mind wandered. Was she his-

“And,” the manager spoke under his breath as he wrote, belaboring the point, “no… gas.” I felt self-conscious. Why had I said no? If he asked me again – I feared this – then I would gladly accept the gas, and he’d have to scratch out the “no” before “gas.” I hoped that he wouldn’t ask me. I stared out the window and played with my hands. My silence is consent, I thought. Write anything you want and I’ll be silent.

When I looked back at the man, his eyes were locked on mine. I laughed to avoid backing away. “I’ve done inspections for a lotta years,” he said, and he thankfully broke his glance in an apparent reverie. “Seems like forever. Course I wasn’t always affiliated with a station. Sometimes it was just me an the boys. We’d do inspections in the middle of the night, and then we’d take our loot to Round Hill and split it up even.” He looked at me. “Round Hill, that’s back in Iowa,” he said.

I took my hands off the counter. “Oh?”

“You haven’t heard of it, ‘course.” He rapped his pen on the knuckles of his other hand and shook his head. “Guess you might call it a euphemism then. Inspections by night. Night flight. Huh.” He shook his head again and laughed, eyes distant. I stood stock still. When you think someone’s far away, that’s when they can sneak up on you. I half expected to hear him continue from behind me somehow, his mouth suddenly next to my right ear.

“But you learn a lot anyway,” he continued, still in front of me. “Inspecting things. The things that belonged to other folks. Looking through it, you learn that everyone’s about the same, you know that? Oh, sure, people seem different on the outside. But that’s just decoration is all that is. Nothing but artifice. Deep down,” he looked at me and nodded once, “deep down we’re all thinking the same stuff. And you get to know people. You see that you and them are the same, you learn about yourself – you inspect yourself, you might say. And you pretty much know what they’re thinking just by looking at them, you know what I’m saying?”

“Sure,” I said, my tongue coming unglued from the roof of my mouth. How could I not know? “Yes.” It was in fact the only inconspicuous answer. The only answer that wouldn’t stem the momentum of his homespun diatribe.

“What I’m saying,” he said firmly, as if he didn’t believe me, “is when you been around, when you seen what I seen… well then you have yourself a sense about what’s right and what’s not right. The lies, they run back and forth like a chased dog. But you know the truth because the truth looks back at you square.” His eyes were stony. And he was finished. More than that, he was waiting to see how I would respond.

I licked my lips and swallowed. “I’ll…” I raised my eyebrows and nodded, “Yeah, I’ll go with the full tank of gas.”

“Fine,” he said, and scratched out the “no” in front of “gas.”

The Tide of Youth

entry_112The City seems impersonal more often than not, particularly when I compare it to the intimacy of the household I grew up in. Over the holiday, in the ebb of the din, I found myself with some spare moments during which to reflect on the way things were: three generations packed into a caravan, surviving the summer’s heat in our threadbare underclothes, ripe as an open can of meat.

I was closest to my grandparents. They were truly two of the most gentle people I’ve ever known, with voices like doves and never too busy to pet me on the head for an hour or two each day after school. By the time I was old enough to pee without crying they’d already gone soft in the head, and usually just sat there mewling like helpless kittens. They remained affectionate though, and would hug me close, my face pressed up against their stained plastic bibs. My grandmother used to suck my hand unconsciously, which I thought was cute. And then at night they would coo, the both of them. To this day I think of my grandparents when I hear the pigeons on the stoop outside my apartment. Still though, doves are classier than pigeons. Pigeons remind me of what I didn’t like about our blue-class hovel. Doves are the socialites. And if all this is so, then my parents were a couple of crows, fighting all the time, and never with a kind word toward me or to each other.

My parents used to talk about me as if I weren’t there. Which was fine with me, as I spent most of my time fantasizing that I was an orphan – albeit one with grandparents. I was sickly and had every kind of allergy you could think of. I felt much more akin to the mindless geriatrics blinking their cloudy eyes on the piss-stained sofa than I did to the shrieking couple who spawned me. So who was trespassing, really? But for all her incessant screeching, it was mom who kept us together. At least she tried. Pop wouldn’t have had anything to do with me if mom hadn’t told him to. Anything to get us out of her hair. And the best thing he could come up with – this is what I remember most vividly – was to measure me against the wall.

I was young then – still in the single digits – but old enough to know from humiliation. Because I was an oddity back then, and I knew that this little ritual of pop’s, it didn’t come from anything so lofty as an appreciation of biological progression, nor anything as basic as pride in his son’s struggle toward the blight of adulthood. No, the only reason my pop wanted to measure me was because I didn’t grow normally. That is, I didn’t always get taller. I was taller some years, I mean, but other years I was a little shorter – sometimes by nearly a foot. That’s just the way it was for me. And as humiliating as the whole drawn-out experience was, it’s not like I could have refused to participate. It just wasn’t the way of things. There was a hierarchy, ingrained into me from the time I knew anything.

Those marks on the wall – each one dated – looked like a chaotic jumble of lines. And just let me be shorter by six or more inches too, I’ll tell you what. My pop would take that kind of behavior as a personal affront. “See now,” he would say. That was his way of warming up. It was the conversational equivalent of cracking your knuckles before you roll the bones. “Everyone has to do their part, and what kinda respect do you have for it? Hah?” His questions didn’t make a lick of sense to me then, but his tirades were best suffered in silence anyway. His bark was bigger than his bite, and by the end of the night even his bite would be gone.

When my grandparents died – they both went on the same day – I was quite young yet, and I recall pop pulling me onto his knee. I thought of Santa, whom I’d never been able to actually approach on account of my allergy to fake beards. Pop seemed excited though, and I was hoping that he would tell me that my grandparents weren’t really dead. My hunch, in fact, was that they had hidden themselves, and I was supposed to find them. Was that the game? Maybe pop was excited because he’d finally figured out something to do with me other than to draw lines over my head. I was close to right on that count.

“Life is a mystery,” he said to me, and I was enraptured immediately. Not because I understood what the hell he was saying, but because he wasn’t grumbling or yelling. He seemed positively inspired. “Mamsy and Papsy, they’re gone now. Like, as in dead-gone,” he went on, and my happiness flagged. “But, see, in one way they’re not gone, because when people die, son, they don’t just disappear.” I remember looking up at him – I was very, very short that year – and he nodded at me and winked. “When people die, they get tiny. Really tiny. So tiny that you could hardly even tell they was there in front of you.” And now my spirit sank. In fact I was horrified without exactly knowing why. “Like dust particles,” my pop was telling me, “floating in the air. They could be anywhere.”

And then my pop got up, shoving me off his knee, and grabbed a beer from the ice bucket.

For the next two years, as bad as my allergies got, I didn’t sneeze once. I kept my sandpaper sinuses to myself for fear of inhaling my dead dust grandparents.

And I sit here now in better health, and with a clearer understanding of things, and it occurs to me that the people who do the most talking are the ones with the least to offer. And even though I know that deep, deep down, I still catch myself, on occasion, holding my breath when someone walks by.

The Mexico Centrifuge Nosebleed

entry_108Mexico was a traumatic experience when I was a kid. With my brother I traveled to the Yucatan in 1982, where our uncle guided us strategically away from pesky familiarity of tourist traps and civilization, and toward the less trafficked areas replete with local color. A socially stunted thirteen year old, I would have found a trip to a new Radio Shack almost seizure-inducingly overwhelming. Not used to being out in the sun, my skin had a eerie computer club paleness. I was lanky, and wore my white tube socks pulled up to my knees. I was foreign to this world, and it rejected me like some incompatible transplant. Especially in Mexico.

Adversity lay in wait for us at every turn, and I remember clearly the flat tire we got on an uneven dirt road overgrown by high grass, and our subsequent rescue by two shady men in a rust-eaten van. And there was the drunk who threw his arm around me, shouting “iNo puedo leer!” And there was my paroxyism-racked bout with sun poisoning, hardly soothed by the the hastily prescribed nostrum of the local medic. And there was our uncle’s food poisoning, which prompted several men to come into our hotel room to take him away, leaving my brother and I alone in Mexico, maybe forever.

But other than those few incidents I managed to be completely miserable.

Having finally made it to a small town in Quintana Roo, our uncle lightened up on the culture aspect of the trip and agreed to take us to a street carnival that had been set up in a nearby parking lot. But not before reminding us that parking lot rides were no substitute for experiencing the flavor of the real Mexico. I thought he might be referring to the tainted fruit, but I was looking forward to something a little less vomit-oriented.

The sun had fallen hours ago, but the air was still thick from a day’s heat. Colored lights through the park’s trees brought our shoes scuffling across the lot’s graveled asphalt, stronger with each step. There was a distinctly Latin sound to the calliope music, and the shouts over the metallic, mechanical surf of roller coasters were foreign, though interpreted easily enough.

At the edge of the carnival grounds stood an idle attraction: the centrifuge. This is a concept ride more than it is an experience ride, and a diabolical one at that. On an experience ride one derives enjoyment from a journey of discovery and surprise. The concept ride is something understood at first glance, and it’s usually the destination one seeks rather than the experience. That is, once the concept is understood, it’s survival that one most looks forward to. But a kid, intoxicated by spectacle, will be gleefully indiscriminate when it comes to attractions.

My brother and I, our pupils dilated with awe, tugged our uncle toward the contraption like rabid dogs tugging at their leashes. He wasn’t interested though, and released us to our own fates. He said he was going for a walk instead. Down in the cylinder, our backs against the padded wall, we looked up at the operator as he barked down some unintelligible words. I saw that he was actually younger than I was, surely an indication that this carnival had enough of that Mexican flavor to satisfy anyone. Were we doing this right? There was not time to contemplate this, as the hum beneath our feet tugged the world above into a labored spin.

As the cylinder approached a certain velocity there was a hydraulic whine from below, and the floor began to drop away. The principle, of course, is that the centrifugal force brought on by the rotation is just enough to keep objects fastened to the inside rim of the wall. And indeed, the novelty of being pinned did provide a few minutes of amusement. My brother and I wondered aloud what would happen if we spat, which is just about when the operator felt it was time for a little midnight constitutional, and left my brother and me to our business. I looked down at my feet and saw that I had actually dropped a couple of inches, and that my ankles now hung down past the lip where the floor met the wall. I suddenly had the image of the floor coming back up and crushing my ankles like a trash compactor. Inching upward was exceedingly taxing, but I was motivated by this possibility. “Are you slipping?” I called to my brother. I thought at first that the trick was to be as still as possible, but the fact was that the centrifuge was not spinning fast enough to keep us in place. We’d been in there for about four minutes when I began to get dizzy with the exertion of trying to stay above floor level.

The operator was nowhere in sight.

I was thinking about standards. Surely there were international standards for the operation of such machines. There was nothing to worry about. The operator, young though he may have been, was obviously so experienced that he wasn’t concerned, and watching over us would have been overkill. Anyway, another minute or so and we’d be off and heading toward the next ride.

But minutes crept by and there was no one in sight. In fact, the operator had probably left to go mug our uncle, who was even now being held at gunpoint in some dingy room with a naked bulb swinging back and forth overhead casting sharp shadows against rotting walls. I was sweating from the heat and my nose was running. I glanced up at the trees twirling by overhead and felt nausea setting in. “I’m definitely slipping,” I called out to my brother. If this went on for much longer I feared it would be my consciousness that would be slipping.

Eight minutes into the ride I wiped my nose, leaving a fresh red streak across my forearm. I sniffed instinctively as I tried to recall what the operator had told us as we’d boarded the ride. Perhaps it had been, “This centrifuge requires some repairs.” Or maybe, “I need to go find you some barf bags, I’ll be back.” Or even, “I don’t work here, what does this handle do?” Every muscle sang from fatigue as I tried to keep from dropping into the darkness below, inching up the sweaty wall one body part at a time.

At ten minutes into the ride I was trying to think of happy things, and testing to see whether it was easier to hold my bile with my eyes closed or open. Closed? Open? I had images of astronauts in my head, their cheeks stretched back toward their ears as they underwent similar centrifugal forces.

And that’s when the operator returned.

I was beyond feeling any anger toward him. My primary thought centered around keeping my feet from being clipped off at the ankle long enough to find solid ground.

In the parking lot my brother and I stood as still as possible. I swallowed repeatedly, and stared at the ground, which appeared to be spiraling slowly away. Our uncle found us again just as the effects of the centrifuge were wearing off, and he told us of another ride he’d found that we’d probably enjoy. He pointed at an imposing device with eight arms. From each arm dangled three fiberglass cars, which the machine shook about like tassels on an exotic dancer. I wiped another red streak down my other forearm and considered the beast. The young are resilient, and trauma doesn’t last when the world’s moving fast. My brother and I looked at each other through dilated eyes, and then tore off to the next contraption.

Notes from the Cell

entry_106Dear Diary,

Yesterday I was caught in a fight in the courtyard, and we didn’t come out of lockdown till just now. Johnny Digits and his gang, they were making noises at Manolo’s group–which, there’s been tension between them ever since Zico was put in solitary for mouthing off to a guard. And suddenly it was like a tornado hit. I’m still not sure how that happened, but I’m hoping that today I might be allowed to breathe a little. You always go back to the basics, I say, especially just after I’ve taken my “medication” and the warden has us in lockdown. Always back to the basics.

It puts me in mind of my formative days though. Nothing has changed much, really. You’d think I grew up on the streets because of my explosive disposition and the mesh of scars I wear like a pink and white striped unitard. But I grew up in a palatial estate. Dad still worked for the UN then, and spent most of his time in Geneva where he had chain dalliances with the wives of foreign dignitaries. I never saw him much, even though I always beamed when people asked me who the man in the portraits was. Mom though, Mom and me were tight.

As I remember it, she’d throw cocktail parties almost every night. It was like a ritual. To me the whole ordeal was a bore, and I’d taken to menacing the guests when Mom wasn’t looking, just to keep myself entertained. But even then there was something underneath, something I brooded about when I was alone. And it wasn’t a feeling that I could keep bottled up. I think I must’ve been about ten when I first asked a guest, “You want a piece of this?” and really meant it. I didn’t have a lot of respect for the people Mom had over, it’s true, but I don’t think she did either. She was just keeping up appearances, which isn’t something that should be discounted. It’s part of the lifestyle. Oh, she could handle herself, I know, but I guess I felt protective of her just the same. Crowds of idiots would come by just to rub elbows with us. The way they would fawn over the topiary and my mother’s hairdo with equal praise, always laying it on real thick. They all wanted a piece. And Mom would shake their hands and smile. They were no better than the shit we used to fertilize the gardens, that’s what I read in her smile.

In the evening, just as the sun had dipped below the horizon, Mom would be overseeing cocktail production in the kitchen. Meantime, I’d be hiding in the hedgerows bordering the lit pool waiting for the guests to swill their mint julep, or to laugh their easy, open-mouthed laugh. I wanted their guards to be down. And then I’d creep up behind them and scream in their ears as loud as I possibly could. They’d trip over the patio chairs trying to get away from me sometimes, and the guy at the piano would jerk his hands away from the keys, and there would be this utter silence. That was a beautiful, transitional moment. I’d get all pouty then, and tell them I was emotionally sensitive, and I would start to cry. Those days I could cry as easy as you please, and it worked like poison. I was a towheaded kid with ruddy cheeks, and my trembling lip act was heart breaking. As the guests rubbed their ears, not sure whether to buy it or not, I’d flash my blade to let them know I meant business. That was my ritual.

I think Mom knew about what I was up to, deep down. The first time I was in juvie was for bludgeoning our next door neighbor with a wiffle bat. Oh, this cow had been nipping at a margarita all afternoon, and she’s going on about how nice the weather is like it’s the second fucking coming or something. I’m minding my own over by the pool–I think I was drowning a mouse, dunking its little head under as it tried to swim. But she just keeps talking: there’s not a cloud in the sky this, and isn’t it a lovely breeze that, and yadda yadda yadda. I remember I look over and her mouth is going, and she has this ‘rita foam in her downy moustache–and I just lose it. Next thing I remember there’s a circle of people over me and I got a wad of someone’s floral print blouse in my left hand. Mom’s combing my hair back with her long pink nails, telling me it’s gonna be okay.

And you know, I couldn’t help but notice how proud she looked. Like I’d graduated or something.

Well I never did graduate, but I learned about blackouts that day. And the funny thing was that whenever I had a blackout somebody would always wind up getting hurt. It was cool though because I got my name in the paper a few times, and when guests came over Mom would always pull out the scrapbook.

The way I think about it now, those were the good old days. That was before I had my big tantrum in 1982 and ended up running through the streets of Brooklyn in the buff swinging around this huge sack of severed hands like Thor’s hammer. I still don’t know how I got to Brooklyn.

Now Mom comes and visits me every Thursday if I’m on good behavior, and she always brings me pictures of clouds. Those are my favorites, cause to me they look like fists, balled up, in slow motion.

I get tired real easy.


I lost my bearing not too long after the robots began to sing. It’s part of a childhood memory that could only have happened within a particular context, though the realization of a certain experience there haunts me still. I was enjoying the second in a series of pilgrimages my family made to Disney World. It took us several days to drive there by Vega, my brother and I lying on our backs under the hatchback’s glass nearly the entire way. Staring up at the sky for hours on end, the long transition from our mundane world, with the freeway sections palpating us the entire way like the clicks of a climbing roller coaster, had a dissociative effect. By the time we arrived we were stir-crazy and rabid – Disney’s pliant subjects.

General Electric’s Carousel of Progress was like an immense theatre in the round with its stage divided into quarters. On the stage an animatronic family straight out of the early 60s delivered a drama in four parts, with each section followed by the quarter rotation of the entire audience around the center stage.

It is perhaps to this cumulative disorientation – of being rotated in the dark, already beside myself with excitement, and a million miles away from anything familiar – that I can attribute my mistake. To my recollection we had taken our seats with my father’s girlfriend to my left, and my father to my right, with my brother next to him. So it was when the lights went down. During the course of the presentation my mind was positively achatter, and I vented some of this via a running commentary to my father’s girlfriend, nudging her in the side so that I might deliver another insight. “Look at that guy’s hair! Their kid looks like the dog! If that guy’s a am-a-no-tronic then how come he’s getting older?”

I remember all of this as if it were yesterday, because when the lights came back up after the show the woman on my left stopped being my father’s girlfriend. I had been confiding my thoughts to a complete stranger for the duration of the show. I was mortified, and felt lost suddenly. In desperation I shot a glance to my right to make sure my father was still my father. He and his girlfriend were both sitting obliviously to my right. For her I felt a special kind of scorn. She had betrayed me somehow, just as much as the stranger to my left had. Indeed, this strange woman might have said something to me to stem my utter loss of face. “Kid, I’m not your friend.” Or simply, “Don’t talk to me.” That would have been enough.

Instead, there is a basic mistrust in my own perceptions that I harbor to this day. Are the people I think I know really who I think they are? The only way to be sure is to look them over with the intensity of an archaeologist with a fossil, and even then I never can be too sure. When I recognize a friend from across the park and wave to them, I can’t be certain whether they’re waving back only because it’s best not to upset the crazy man. There’s always that moment of doubt – I’ve been wrong before. When I come up and rub my partner’s back in the grocery store, there’s no reliable way of telling whether I’m groping a complete stranger. Will they be receptive to my desperate pleas once I’m caught? “Oh my god, I’m so sorry – but I have identity issues!”

Maybe the only real solution is to avoid recognition of any kind. Do not make eye contact, and never speak first. Hold everyone in suspicion until they have repeated the pass phrase.

Or maybe it’s the opposite. Stop caring altogether, and greet people I don’t know as friends, and rub peoples’ backs without inhibition. Why should there be social boundaries of any kind? It’s a small world, after all.