Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Date with culture

These tables are a little small don’t you think? And we probably should have gotten one away from the window. More in the shade.

. . .

My face? I’m making a? Oh, the chair hurts my back a little.

. . .

Really? You thought I was . . . ? No, I’m definitely not sulking. Thought I was being like who . . . ? Your father! What’s he like?

. . .

No! I’m not like that, I promise. I’d never be like that. I’m totally fine about it! I’m glad we changed the subject. I want to enjoy myself.
Huh . . . ? Oh, I am enjoying myself. I didn’t mean

. . .

My jaw? Well, it’s healing up, only one tooth had to come out. They think they’ll salvage the other two on that side—and they didn’t have to use wire in the jawbone like they thought they might, so that’s good.

. . .

No, it’s fine! It doesn’t really hurt anymore. Except for when I chew a lot, or bite something hard or chewy. What really sucks is that my ear hurts all the time now. Especially when I’m trying to sleep, that sucks big time. Doctor says it’s from the swelling, fluid in the Eustachian or whatever. Causes like a vacuum around the eardrum? I don’t know, all I know is it hurts . . . Which one?

. . .

No, it’s not really that bad. It looks way worse than it is. I mean, all the purple around my eyes and the huge scabs on my cheek, especially this huge yellow/brown part right here—it’s hideous looking, right? No, I’m serious. I see myself in the mirror and I scream every time! No, but honestly, it feels way better now. To look at it you’d think it was horrible, though, right? All the women at work wanted to go and castrate those guys. I seriously had to stop them from doing it.

. . .

Oh, please don’t feel that way, there’s nothing for you to feel bad about. It wasn’t like . . . No! It totally wasn’t your

. . .

My back? Oh, I don’t know. Hurts still. Still bad I guess

. . .

My doctor? She just said it’ll take the kidney a little time to heal, and the spine thing was only two fractured vertebrae—thank god—and so she said the vertebrae would just, like, knit back together on their own in the next eight weeks or so. I just have to wear this brace for a while and take it easy. Makes me look like a furniture mover, right? You have such a cute smile . . . And I have to drink this nasty-tasting gelatin shit every morning

. . .

I don’t know, for the bones, so they heal better. After that I’ll have to do some rehab, I guess. She said I also have some tissue damage in my hip-flexors, whatever that means. They said ten years ago I would have been in a whole body cast—you know broken back, shit

. . .


Oh, I don’t know, I guess they just treat it differently now. Take it easy, should heal itself, not as big of a deal as they used to think. They used to think it was the end of the world

. . .

Which . . . my ribs? Well, she said they should just stitch themselves up pretty quickly, too. I guess I don’t need anything special for that—I mainly only have small fractures and torn cartilage, there were only two ribs that were really, like, broken completely. But one stayed lined up so it should heal correctly. She said I still might have to get surgery later on the other one because it shattered more and if all of the pieces don’t get reabsorbed they might have to do something about it. I really don’t understand that one. But it’s not likely anyway. I just have to wrap my ribs and chest every morning, not a big deal. It hurts when I cough, though. Or move too quickly. Washing my hair is a bitch, but that’s more from the torn ligament in my shoulder. Actually, my shoulder might be the most painful thing out of everything. Any time I lift my arm, like, past here, it’s just the most excruciating pain—shoots right through my whole body like somebody just stabbed me

. . .


. . .

But she said I was lucky my clavicle didn’t break. I just have some hairline fractures in it. That could have been a bad one, she said, because when the clavicle breaks it can puncture your lung. So I was lucky there.

. . .

I know! When they brought me into the ER the doctor thought I’d been in a huge car accident!
Yeah, she goes, “Were you driving or were you a passenger?” I was like, “When?”
Wow, look at the way the sunlight is making a rainbow through your water glass

. . .

Yeah, pretty

. . .

Yeah, no, my eye’s fine

. . .

I know! I know, it looks gruesome, right? With all the blood in the white like that? And the swelling! I know! My mother cried when she saw me the first time. She couldn’t believe human beings could be so savage, she said. She kept saying that over and over. “How could human beings be so savage?”


Oh they were afraid I’d lose some eyesight in it or some muscle control but everything’s fine, I guess. The eye doctor said I got lucky. Steal-toe to the eye like that, should have done more damage than it did. I should’ve at least had a detached retina. Got really lucky

. . .

Pay for it? Oh, I don’t know. I guess my lawyer’s going to try and bring a claim against the fraternity first, then the university. God, look at this knife, it’s filthy. I’ll have to get a new one when she comes back.


I’m making a face? Oh! I’m not so sure about this beer. I was just giving it a good taste.
Which? I got the India Pale Ale. I should have gotten the Hefeweizen, I think. This one’s a little too hoppy. And the citrus tones are a bit much

. . .

Am I angry? About what? No! Not with you, no. No way! It was just a crazy night. Things got out of hand . . . How’s the pear cider?

. . .

Say what I’m? Oh. Oh, I am saying what I’m thinking.

No, for real, I am!

Really? Earlier? You mean what I started saying earlier earlier?

But you wanted me to stop.

But now you want me to . . . Well. Okay. Yeah, good. Okay. Let me just put it this way. A different way. I just think . . . I mean, you’re really great and you seem really smart and friendly and I love Anthropology majors, and I’m thrilled that we’re finally getting to spend some time together . . . especially after the debacle at the party

. . .

I know . . . no, there’s totally no need, we don’t have to waste our time on that, I really understand, he was drunk and I was maybe talking a little bit too much and I didn’t really fit in there in the first place and all his fraternity brothers were drunk too

. . .

yeah, water under the

. . .

No, totally, you’re right. But you had nothing to do with it, remember that. I mean, it’s not your fault your ex-boyfriend is a totally macho, like, roid-rage repressed-homosexual psycho, right? How could you have known?

. . .

No, not a repressed . . . I know! I was just kidding! All I was trying to say earlier is that I just think you should be able to talk to me. Like we started to that night at the party. I think. I mean, don’t you think? You know . . . Can’t we have an interesting conversation like that?

. . .

No! Not at all! No, I’m totally not saying you’re not being interesting, sorry, I really didn’t mean that, I guess it sounded like that. I just mean we could bare ourselves a little bit, like we started to at the party. We’re adults, right? We can handle it . . . especially after the other night, right . . . ? Huh?

Good. Because it’s so important. There’s no reason to be uncomfortable with it, right? By the way, that purse—you had it at the party—did you get it at the Goodwill or was it your mother’s?


Yeah, I know, it is. It’s great. I know, so much character! And good quality, too. They don’t make them like . . .

Totally . . . Hey, I just had a thought. You mind if I just talk, like, off the top of my head? Yeah? It’s just. I mean, I was just thinking you probably should be uncomfortable . . .
Oh no, there’s that face, again. I’m sorry. Do you want some bread? There’s two kinds of butter here. They’re kind of melting in the sun though . . .

Why do I keep doing what?

Well. Well, just because. Let’s be honest, okay? With each other? With the bread? Oh, I like this one—it’s the garlic butter, I think it’s better. That piece looks a little burnt why don’t you try . . . yeah that looks like a good one . . .

Because I don’t know you. I mean, really. I’ll admit that. But I’m pretty sure you have your own private reasons to be uncomfortable, okay? There. That’s all. What I wanted to say. What I was thinking. Kind of like what we were saying at the party.

Why? I mean, because it’s just obvious. It’s obvious from your face, anyway, and your ex-boyfriend. I mean, okay. Why? Okay. Okay, just let me think for a second about how to put this . . . Huh?

No, I just hurt my jaw biting on something . . .

Oh, how’s my . . . Oh, it’s okay. I don’t much care for sprouts. But the pine nuts are good. I think they toasted them. Lots of sprouts though. And too much iceberg in the lettuce mix . . . I was really just talking about what most people are like. I think. I mean most people nowadays, almost everybody . . .

Well, because, aren’t you like most people . . . ?

How are most . . . ? Well. What I mean is, everybody has at least one thing, don’t they?

Do you mean . . . Oh, what do I mean? Want another piece of bread?

I mean, often times. Don’t you feel a little anxious, for example? You’ve got some Gorgonzola there. Your cheek. No, left. I mean, sorry, my left. A little further. Got it! God, you’ve got a cute little dimple there, I didn’t notice that before . . . From your father? Good genes.
Anyway, don’t you feel—like fairly often—some kind of anxiety? That’s my first question . . .

You don’t want to talk about? . . . Oh.

Okay, I’m sorry, I understand. It’s probably a little out of bounds. There I go again, right? I really have some kind of brain damage or something.

Seriously! I’m always spouting the wrong shit at the wrong time. Maybe it’s from taking too many fraternity boots to the head!

I’m joking! I swear, I have no social what do you call it. Social Intelligence? That’s why I always do that. I’m seriously missing some part of my brain, I think. Makes you uncomfortable, right? Our first date, nice restaurant . . . Midwestern girl like you. I just thought you being an Anthro major . . . you might . . . I’m sorry, I just wanted to acknowledge . . .

Yeah, you’re right. Shouldn’t have called it a date. I just meant just our first time, like, hanging out.

. . .

Yeah. Change the subject, right? That bandanna’s a really great color for you, for your eyes, I wanted to say. No, I’m totally serious, it looks great! I love bandannas. And your eyes are really pretty. No, I mean it. You have super beautiful eyes.

Did you see that thing about the woman on TV? No, the one in Texas. No, Houston! Yeah, fuck. The one that lost her daughter in Mexico. Shit, I know. Did you get that email? The one with her picture in it. Yeah, like right after the press conference. I know! It just, like, hits you in the gut, right? Oh, awesome, here’s our food. Wow, your tempeh looks good. Thanks, that looks great! No, I think we’re fine for now! Thanks!
This? I ordered the Portobello sandwich . . . Well I’m not really sure. I think they marinate it—like in soy sauce—and then just grill it. Is that right?

Yeah, sounds good . . . Remember what? Oh yeah.

I’m sorry, excuse me, before you go away . . . Can I get a new knife? This one’s a little . . . Thanks! Oh, no need! I mean, you don’t wash the dishes, right? Not your fault, you have enough to worry about! Thanks!

Can you pass me the salt and pepper again . . . ? Thanks.

Yahoo News had a whole slide show on that Houston lady at the press conference and then after it. Her and her three other kids at the podium and then all of them crying and hugging afterward. I know, yeah, you should check it out. Horrible. Really sad. God that has to suck. I mean, like, your own daughter. I think they’re going to be on 60 minutes tomorrow

. . .

Um, I think you just go to Yahoo News, like right on the front page, and just click the slideshow. Seriously, you should. It’s terrible. I feel so bad for her.

This is good coleslaw, want to try it?

Hmmm? I did? I do that, sorry. People say I do that lately. Drift off. I think it’s the pain meds. I try to moderate them, but if I stop taking them, like, everything hurts, so . . .

Thursday, August 27, 2009

from Part I: Summer

Strange what one day can do. You live your life a certain way and a year can pass with the days blending into each other with nothing too dramatic happening to upset your rhythm, then, one sunny May morning you wake up to a convoy of DEA agents brandishing assault rifles, pounding down your door. To be accurate, I had already been up for about twenty minutes, dressed for work and had just put on the coffee when I saw the convoy. I ran to the window to make sure I was seeing what I was seeing, then ran into the bedroom and woke up K with a panicked, “the cops are here.”
Rubbing her eyes and sitting up, the zebra print blanket falling to her waist, she says, “no, honey it’s not the cops. Probably April, or Roger.” Her voice had that condescending, don’t-be-so-paranoid tone to it. And for a second, I thought maybe she was right, that I was being paranoid. We hadn’t slept together the previous night, because I was so fidgety. Kept getting the cold sweats, my joints were aching, my thoughts assaulting me from every angles, all with one urgent message: get out of the house, now.
K and I were having problems, had been for some time. She’s an alcoholic who has perfected the Jeckle and Hyde routine, and despite my efforts to stick to my sober guns and insist she cut down on the drinking, I was slowly becoming a co-dependant, spineless prick. My guns turning to shot glasses, my ammunition of choice: Jameson. Every night was up in the air. We might have wild, drunken sex, or we might have wild drunken fights; it was as predictable as flipping a coin. I knew I couldn’t carry on this way. I’d already conquered several addictions: sex, heroin, pot, speed, acid, but I never thought I’d journey into alcoholism. I was beginning to hate myself. Here I was, a devoted yoga practitioner, vegetarian, mountain-biker, teacher and stage actor, throwing my sanity away for some fragmented notions of loyalty and love. My instincts had been kicking in now, telling me to leave, so I related the urgent thoughts of escape to our relationship. “I’m going to end it,” I said that night, into the silent darkness. “Now let me sleep.” But my instincts weren’t satiated. I managed maybe two hours of rest the entire night.
“K,” I said “It’s two trucks filled with guys carrying assault rifles, dressed in camo.”
This description got her attention. “What?” She said, life shooting through her widening eyes as she pulled the blanket over her breasts. I turned and hurried out of the bedroom and I was half-way to the ping pong table (Yeah, we had a ping pong table in the living room), when they were through the door, barking orders and pointing their laser sighted rifles at my head and chest.
My heart was thundering and my head was grasping at reality straws. Everything was moving so fast, they were moving so fast, and acting so forceful, so full of energy. The way they were dressed with their camouflaged fatigues and black combat boots, for a second I wondered if there was a camera crew somewhere or if I was on stage, and had so thoroughly embraced my character and the scene, that the stage had turned into my living room. Then a second passed like a bullet and a portal of pure white light opened in the center of my head and tractor beamed all my thoughts into its bright void. The light turned into a fist of adrenaline that punched my consciousness into the present. The vastly narrow present.
“Hands on your head! hands on your head,” I heard but I didn’t catch who said it. There was all this screaming and even though they had all the control and all the guns and ammo to kill us a hundred times over, fear tinged their voices, like they were in a war zone and I was the enemy and who knew if there might be some booby trap or crazed wife with an uzi ready to jump from a corner and blow holes through their dreams.
My hands shot above my head and I was frozen by the intense excitement in their faces, the adrenaline shooting from their eyes like nothing I’d ever seen so early in the morning. There’s nothing to fear, I repeated like a mantra in my mind over and over, and I knew I was thinking it as much for them as for me. There’s nothing to fear.
“Hands behind your head! Hands behind your head!” My hands went behind my head as more of them streamed in through the front door, darting into and out of rooms, rifles at the ready.
A large, barrel-chested man with a crew cut and pouchy cheeks, a prominent hair-lip scar, holding a walkie-talkie in one hand a pistol in the other approached me and looking me hard in the eye, said: “is there anyone else here? I managed, in a daze of surrender: “Yes, my girlfriend’s in the bedroom.”
And an authoritative voice from the bedroom (I didn’t even see anyone go in there), “we have her, she’s secure.”
While two guys handcuffed me, the big guy with the pistol bent his face so close to mine I could smell his aftershave. “Is there anyone else here?”
“No,” I said, “Just us.”
He cocked his head slightly like he didn’t believe me. His light blue eyes bore into mine “Are you sure?”
“Yes, there’s no one else.”
To the two guys who were holding me, he says, “He secure?”
“Yep.” And it was true, for them, I was secure. The cuffs bighting into my wrists could attest to that naked fact.
To me: “okay, on the ground. Face down, flat on the ground.” I complied, and got on the ground, my arms at an awkward angle cuffed over my ass, my head facing the bedroom, my chin becoming one with the blue carpet fibers. I could see K’s bare feet walking out of the room, her gold-colored toenails, the tribal tattoo snaking up her left shin, the zebra print blanket caressing her thighs. On either side of her, acting as escorts, were two pairs of black combat boots. Quite a juxtaposition, I thought, and couldn’t help but grin.
“Take her to the couch,” the guy in charge said. Then, to us, in an almost-friendly, this-is-just-business kind of tone, “Okay guys, we’re going to ask you some questions, figure out what’s going on here. First, are there any firearms?”
K and I answered at the same time. “No.”
“If there is, we’ll find them, and that won’t be good for you, so I’ll ask again, are there any firearms on the premises? Anywhere?”
“No,” we both said again, and I added, “There are no firearms. I’m a teacher.” It felt just as stupid coming out as it probably did to hear. There was acerbic snickering and someone said, “He’s a teacher.” More snickering. “You teach your kids how to smoke pot?” A couple guys laughed and I couldn’t blame them, it was such a hoot.
“What?” I said. My shoulders were beginning to really hurt and I could feel a knot rolling hard against the left side of my cervical spine.
The captain of the merry DEA brigade said, “Which brings me to the second question. Is that your greenhouse down the hill?”

Part One: Summer/ Instincts

Part One: Summer
“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” William James (1842-1910)

1. Instincts
“…consciousness is defined by intentionality. By intentionality consciousness transcends itself. It unifies itself by escaping from itself.” Jean-Paul Sartre

The neighbor’s dog has been coming around a lot lately. Feed a dog once, you have a friend for life. His name’s Buddy and he’s a mostly black pit bull, with a diamond shaped splash of pure white in the center of his bulky chest. He’s 65, 70 pounds, I’d say. Solid muscle. He’s barely out of puppyhood, so he maintains an overeager curiosity about everything. No matter how many times he’s sniffed around the room, it’s never enough. Nothing eludes his scrutiny. Right now he’s licking the stone floor near the fridge. Who knows what lingering flavors his tongue is absorbing. Now he’s sniffing around the corner of the bookshelf.
Although he’s annoyingly friendly, with severe boundary issues, there’s this thing I discovered that sets him off in the other direction. If you look him in the eyes and start talking he gets this scared, attentive look. If you keep at it he’ll grow even testier, bark and hop on his front legs, as if to shake you off. I know this because it just happened about ten minutes ago. He came over for food and I told him that I’d give him a cracker if he’d offer up some conversation first.
This is the effect that teaching middle-school kids has had on me. Pets aren’t just pets to most twelve-year-olds, they’re best friends, partners in crime, magical familiars. In their world you can talk to animals and they can talk back. It’s what Shayla, an adorably-pudgy sixth-grader, calls: “The language of instinct.” It’s a very involved theory. In Shayla’s words, “instinct is way more important than English cause instinct is what makes survival and if we didn’t have instinct we’d all be dead and there would be no people to speak English with.” I’m one of those teachers that learns as much from kids as they learn from me, plus I remember being a kid, having those same ideas, refusing to buy into the superiority of the human race. As part of our educational exchange, I informed Shayla about the hypothalamus, which is centered at the base of the brain, below the thalamus and how it integrates our primitive instinctual drives, things like hunger, thirst, fear, anger and aggression. She nodded at me blankly and said, “Mr. S, it’s a lot more complicated than that.”
As a result, I now talk to animals.
Buddy, however, didn’t seem to understand me at all, so I looked him in the eye, hoping to engage him on the instinctual level (as defined by Shayla), and repeated myself. He reacted like I said, including curling up his jowls to bare his formidable teeth. A jolt of fear pulsed through my chest. Maybe the old wives’ tale is true, I thought: stare a dog long enough in the eyes, it’s akin to invading his soul. The expression he had on his usually happy-go-lucky face, was like he had just caught me uncovering some dark secret no human is supposed to know. I thought about how I’d have to talk to Shayla about this.
Since Buddy’s the neighbor’s dog, I didn’t feel an obligation to put up with his shit. I buried the fear, and got forceful. “Okay then, you don’t want to talk, go home.” I pointed the direction as if he didn’t know. The aggressive stance dissolved and he raised his ears and cocked his head as if to say, “Dude, are you serious?”
“Yeah, I’m serious. Go,” I said with ultra-alpha emphasis. He slumped to the ground, and, thumping his skinny powerful tail on the floorboards he gazed up at me with a fresh innocence. Like he was hoping for me to change my mind or to say, “Dude I was just kidding, here have a meatloaf.” When I didn’t, he stood up, turned around like saying “whatever,” and strode with his head slumped, off the deck and into the woods.
Dogs, like kids, have short memories, especially when it comes to being reprimanded or hurt. Maybe it’s because they forgive easily or because the present is just so overwhelmingly there that it takes up too much space in their being to spend any time or energy on stuff that happened so long ago. Five minutes after he scampered off, Buddy was back. Right now he’s curled up on the rug next to me and in front of the sliding glass door, every tenth breath or so, a deep sigh.
I moved to this cabin only three weeks ago. It’s a nice place for a cabin. Toilet, shower, stove, propane heater, refrigerator, phone, and next week, for internet access, Wild Blue will be installing a satellite on the roof. I had to move out fast from my previous residence and was lucky to grab this place so quickly. The neighbors, who own Buddy, are also my landlords. A family of four. Husband, wife, and two adopted boys. One of the boys, Michael Jon, is my eighth grade student, and is pretty much the reason why I landed here.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Peace Time

When I visited my brother about three summers ago, I found out a couple strange things about him. Nothing life-shattering or anything, little things really, but they stand out more when it’s about someone you think you know so well.
I’d been living in Northern California for five years and I make it a priority to visit friends and family in New York and Ohio, at least once a year. Being a middle school teacher, that time generally takes place during the summer. My brother G still resides in the same town we were brought up in – Dunkirk, NY – a blue-collar factory town off the southwest coast of Lake Erie. When I arrived, he had just moved from the east side to the west side for his first attempt at home ownership. It’s a three-bedroom, two-story house with functional basement and large A-framed attic. His two kids live with him: Morgan, a highly responsible Junior in High School, and Evan, a goofy and awkward Eighth-grader. G’s wife, L, had left him for a large black guy right before the move. According to G, she had been cheating on him for some time. They both had gained so much weight and were fighting all the time, the combination had a deleterious effect on their sex life to the point where they weren’t having any. L began hooking up with strangers via the internet, behind his back, until one day she told him everything and told him she had met this guy, a roofer who lived in Fredonia – the neighboring town – and that he could satisfy her and that he didn’t always want to talk politics and books and movies. He was a man, a real man.
G never replaced her. He dates a lot, but, at the time of my visit, he wasn’t troubling himself with any long-term commitments. In a lot of ways he was regaining his youth. Started working out, started running, and as a result, he lost a lot of weight. Looked really good, the best shape of his life. Ironically, on top of that, he started smoking. Got up to about a pack-and-a-half a day during the weekends. The other five days of the week G spends in Allegheny’s high security prison, teaching English Literature to inmates. Not a lot of opportunity for smoking, but he manages to sneak one every now and again. Most of his smoking, he does at home, in the attic.
When he gave me the tour, he saved the attic for last. He pulled open the flimsy, unpainted door, which was hanging on from a single hinge. “Gotta fix that soon,” he said. Neither one of us have ever been accused of being handymen. When it comes to fixing shit, we embrace the procrastination gene like some last vestige of hope. I’m the same way about moving into places. I never finish unpacking. I can’t quite motivate myself to completely set up house. When you’re renting, you live in a temporary world, a rented space, a rented time. You’ll have to give it back at some point, you don’t want to fool yourself by making it too much your own. Strange, I know, but that’s what I’m talking about. We all develop peculiar habits, the ones we try to shield from public because if the public found out they’d judge us for being less than normal, odd, strange, maybe even disgusting. Which itself, is odd, when you think about it, since we all do strange, peculiar things, you think they’d understand, they’d suspend judgment. And that’s how it usually works out in the end. We might judge each other, we might judge ourselves, but we adapt. We get used to how fucked up people can be.
When it’s about a friend or family member, it hits you like something from out of left field, and you think, hmmm…that’s kind of strange. But it’s no big deal, so you move on, storing it as a mental note about that person and how refreshing it is after all to have discovered it because now they have more color, more character, and you feel better about yourself, because you might do some strange things – and believe me, you do – but at least you don’t do that.
My last girlfriend, K, for instance, likes to chew her toe calluses. She kept that habit from me for three years, until we finally moved in together. After that, she let it all hang out. It just goes to show, even beautiful women can do ugly things. “God,” I’d think, watching K on the side of the bed, hunched over, her foot balanced on a knee, digging into her foot like it was breakfast time. “I’ve been kissing those lips for three years?” That was my initial reaction, but after seeing it for the umpteenth time, I got used to it. I liked the way her lips tasted and if her foot chewing habit flavored those luscious lips, who was I to complain. When it comes right down to it, isn’t that what love is all about?
My brother warned me, just as he pulled out a Marlboro cigarette. “It’s a little gross, I know,” he said, sounding confessional and matter-of-fact at the same time. I could smell what he was talking about before I could see anything. The aroma of used cigarette filters, carried by the thick, musty attic air, assaulted my nostrils. “Damn, dude,” I said and borrowing a phrase from one of my seventh graders, I added, “it smells like butt ass up in this place.”
We climbed the creaky narrow staircase and G paused three steps from the top. “Yep,” he said, “that’s exactly what it is.” He pulled the chain to a naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling, and it flashed to life, illuminating the smell’s source. To our left, between the stairwell and the wall, covering a 2’ by 10’ cranny space, were several containers of all kinds, from ash trays to plastic bags to mason jars, all filled with cigarette butts. Thousands and thousands of them. He had five mason jars, standing in a neat little row, filled to the rim, two clamped shut, the crooked and smashed yellow butts spilling over the top of the other three. The last time I had seen mason jars was at my mom’s house in Ohio. She keeps a stock of jarred tomato juice in her basement. Whenever I visit I like to use the juice to make bloody Mary’s. Looking at the jars in my brother’s attic, I couldn’t help but shutter.
G pushed open a window and lit his cigarette. “I don’t know why I don’t throw them away,” he said in the tone of a scientist trying to explain the erratic behavior of a certain lab rat. “Look over there,” he pointed to our right. A long row of stacked empty Marlboro hard packs lined the stairwell railing and led to a three-foot high mound of cartons. It looked as though he had lost patience with his initial project of organization and said “fuck it,” and just started hurling the empties into an ever-growing pile of thin, neatly painted red and white cardboard.
“I don’t know G, why don’t you throw them away?” I was trying not to sound too disgusted. “Do you really want to know how much you smoke?”
“It’s about three year’s worth,” he said, looking around the room as if he was just now recognizing the oddity behind his collection.
I pulled out my pack of American Spirits, withdrew a cigarette and put it between my lips. G lit it for me with his silver lighter. “I don’t think I need this cigarette,” I said pulling it out of my mouth. “Just inhale this room and I got all the stale nicotine I need for a week.”
“I like this room,” he said. “It’s not about the smoking, though, it’s about having my own space. My own time, you know, to reflect, to just relax, to get away from the kids, the tv, the world.” He looked up and casually swatted the light bulb’s chain. He looked at it snaking in the air, pinging against the bright bulb, and then he grabbed it, let it slide gently from his fist, to remain still. He looked at me with his brown eyes, the look that brothers get when they are letting you know this isn’t just bullshit. This is them, opening up to you in some little way, giving you the truth of themselves, if but for a moment. A moment that will be left behind by all the others that jockey for attention.
“Being here, smoking, thinking…it’s the one time I feel like I have control. You know what I’m saying? I don’t have to do anything. Just look out the window and inhale and exhale and think. Each of these butts represent, what? five, seven minutes? Seven minutes of peace.”
“That’s one way of looking at it,” I said. We smoked in silence and I climbed the rest of the stairs and investigated the rest of the long room. Cobwebs glimmered dully in the shunted light, looking like hammocks weighed down by dust and rocking between both sides of the angled ceiling. Boxes of books and records, a multi-stained mattress, empty picture frames, an old tv set, speakers, vacuum cleaner, bags of clothes. The stale smell of cigarette smoke clinging to it all. It seemed so haphazard and depressing, especially compared to the rest of the house, which was always neat and put away, everything in its place. Polished wood flooring, plush black leather couches and chairs, a wide, hi-def flat-screen television, a computer in every room, all the latest in technology. Both Evan and Morgan own cell phones and i-pods and played their dozens of Wii video games.
It just didn’t match up, was the thing. If G were living in a trailer and was an alcoholic who beat his kids every morning before breakfast, this deplorable collection would make sense. I’ve seen homes where the occupants, usually elderly folk, refused to throw out newspapers and magazines and they were stacked all over every nook and cranny forming furniture for more junk, furniture made with yellowing paper and filled with crumpled fading words no one would ever read again.
Compared to me, G’s life seemed so stable and secure. He’d had the same job for years, lived in a big house, drove a nice car, paid all his bills, took care of his kids, dealt amiably with a manipulative, half-crazed, 300-pound ex-wife. He seemed to do it all with an almost saintly, non-judgmental air. I was thinking all this while skimming through his LP collection, smoking my cigarette, when G said, apropos of nothing, but shocking nonetheless:
“Two days ago, one of my students hung himself.” I let the Jane’s Addiction flop against Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast and raised my head. He was wearing a faded purple t-shirt with holes around the belly section and the sleeves. Some kind of compass design logo adorned the chest. His blue-jeans were likewise haggard with a hole at the right knee. Red flip-flops revealed his black-painted toenails. Painting his finger and toenails was a habit G acquired in high school. He never explained it and never applied any other makeup – say eyeliner or something – but I always took it as a sign of rebellion. There was always something of a rock-star wannabe in G. It’s probably why he DJ’s at pubs, and why many of his friends are musicians. G himself, like me, doesn’t sing, play guitar or any other instrument.
G was looking at the wall more than at me and the way the light glinted from his thin, peach-fuzz facial hair made him seem a lot younger than his 35 years. Despite all his lost weight, G still maintained a round baby face, an attribute that made him quite attractive to the ladies. He was always going out with women much younger than him.
I didn’t know how to respond, so I waited. Still looking at the wall, he bit at one of his fingernails. I noticed that all his fingernails were chewed down past the finger line. All but the pinky nail which was extra long and quite feminine looking.
“It’s fucked up, man,” he said. “One day you’re discussing the imagery of T.S. Eliot’s ‘J. Alfred Prufrock’, and the next morning you come in and are informed, in this business, matter-of-fact tone, that John Runningbear hung himself in the middle of the night.” He looked at me, an angry glint in his usually soft brown eyes. “With his own goddammed shirt. What the fuck am I supposed to do with that? I mean, talk about imagery. I didn’t have to see him or anything, it’s all here,” G tapped his head. “I can see him hanging there, his eyes rolled back, his head at a fucked up angle, the blood gone from his face. Just hanging there like some heavy sack of lard. He had these huge dimples too and he was always smiling, you know, like he wanted poetry in his life, literature, books, something other than the shit and misery of prison. You think maybe you can do something, make some kind of positive impact.” He shook his head and looked back at the wall, took out another cigarette and lit it. Inhaled a lung-full of carcinogenic smoke and blew it out in a giant cloud that climbed the ceiling and billowed into non-existence. “And it doesn’t even matter. His life was totally worthless, you know, as far as the ‘system’ is concerned. They just replace him with another felon and I get a new student.”
I had to say something, so I stood up and walked over to him, wanting to put a hand on his shoulder, but choosing not to. “Heavy shit, dude,” I said, sounding pathetic in my attempt to be reassuring. “God, I mean the worst I ever have it is worrying about a student getting expelled or turning to drugs.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry for sounding like a downer. It just happened you know. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
Suddenly we were interrupted by the sounds of banging furniture against hardwood floor and we could hear Evan screaming at Morgan and Morgan screaming back at Evan, and then footsteps pounding up the stairs and the attic door crashing open and Evan sobbing in explanation: “Morgan…(sob)…Morgan…(sob)…turned off…(sob)…guitar hero…(sob)…right…(sob)…in the middle…(sob)…of my game…”
G looked at me and sighed then smiled an ironic smile. He dropped his cigarette to the dusty floor, coated with streaks of smeared ash. He stepped on the cigarette and ground it into the floor, picked it up and tossed the remains into a white plastic bag, to join its countless brethren. “Well, bro,” he said to me as he started down the stairs. “Looks like peace time is over.”

Monday, July 20, 2009

His intermittent, numinous discourse with the universe was a momentary distraction during the bomb threat

The songs that play in his head carry messages. But he needs to behave as if the songs are not playing.

Nothing you can do that can’t be done. Edgar Allan Duck.

He’s standing in the street in a pretty row of pretty policemen and firemen, and they're facing the office building. The Beatles said all you need is love, all the lonely people, all together now, all my lovin’, why don’t we do it in the road?

He lets go a goosey laugh. The pretty policemen give him sideways glances.

The asphalt is shiny from the previous night's rainstorm, and the drainage gutter behind their shoes is dribbling street grit, pesticides and petroleum pollutants down into the storm sewers.

His ex-wife would warn about stress. Adrenaline. These could be triggers. And he’s in the road, that’s obvious. The long and winding road.

She called them “psychotic breaks,” or sometimes, “bouts of mania.”

Such negative connotations. It is my mind that is confusing things.

But he's come to realize he's more of a Fool on the Hill. The man with the foolish grin who's keeping perfectly still.

He notes: The belts of policemen make balconies of beer bellies. He watches the heavy, wooden-handled guns in leather holsters.

Bang bang shoot shoot. See how they run like pigs from a gun.

He hadn’t foreseen this. He’s confident there’s no bomb. Nothing to get hung about. The Universe wouldn’t allow that to happen today. A hard day’s night. Let it be.

Grabbing the gun would be psychotic. Maxwell’s silver hammer, yes, but it’s all wrong. Psychotic breaks are breaks from sanity and are therefore crazy by definition.

No reason to grab the gun. Let it be.

The cop nearest him says something about the bomb threat.

The cop's voice is drowned out by the songs. The songs carry messages. Give peace a chance. The peace that passes understanding. All we are saying.

He wants to tell the cops: Peace is like a dripping bloom—its allure folding outward, opening to the sun and the stars beyond.

He wants to say something beautiful to the cops and the firemen. Because isn’t that his responsibility? To teach about the stars and the planets and the space ice—the billions of swirling galaxies? And the toiling human beings!

Isn't that what we're here for? To learn? While we're stuck to this dim wet rock, while we live out our fugitive lives of consumption and excretions, while we're forever falling toward our little blonde star, but never touching her?

If there is a bomb,” he says to the nearest cop, “that would be something.”

Imagine, he thinks, and he closes his eyes.

The insides of eyelids flash blinding white. The sound is the colossal thud of Life itself. It ruptures his viscera even before it breaks the skin.

Oh, darling. He suddenly feels great sympathy, enormous sympathy for this so-called Big Bang. This pitiable pop-gun expansion into perfectly nothing. This hot, wet spurt of love and light in a vacuum. Nothing to stop it. Nothing to rub up against.

He thinks of his flesh—its molecules and atoms—how it will spray and bouquet in every direction, like endless rain across the universe.

He opens his eyes.

“Bang bang shoot shoot,” he says to the cops.

They exchange uneasy glances.

“Everybody's got something to hide expect for me and my monkey,” he says.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


It was late. Or it was early. it was somewhere in between. the sky had taken on that scared chicken look with clouds and everything inside out or thereabouts. Sometime later I would recall this as a red-letter-day. The shutters tight; a hoot a holler. No one was in the mood to look.

I have never been there, but I have been through there several times. a few as a child and maybe one or two as an adult. who remembers such things. never even tasted the ground, only smelled the air: something like sulpher: old steel towns still reek of it. the sky goes orange at night from the blast furnaces, still.

from the window you can watch an old man make his way up the street. he's always there; walking but making no progress. you want to wrap your wings around him, and shuffle him into your cage, which you have just now noticed blooming in the centre of the room.