Monday, March 31, 2008

S. Dixon: Interstate

I only got into Stephen Dixon on account of the shape of Frog. It is a supremely thick, square-faced novel, designed and packaged to draw in the clueless and dim-witted. I only bought one copy, though a hundred-dozen copies would have made for an interesting flooring.

Sometimes the chance purchase brings the greatest gains. There are no expectations or competing interests, pre-judgments or swayed impressions. If you have a winner on your hands, its impact is intensely personal. Dixon served up what I had been lacking since Updike’s Rabbit series drew to a close - the male psyche in all its insecurity and animal selfishness – though Dixon grants the reader a backstage pass to the central figure’s leading thoughts.

It feels a little “stream of consciousness”, though better informed on the average intellectual’s tendency to not be so lofty in what they’re thinking. Each sentence hits you like an impulse, an urgency – something more aligned with the way we think. You can feel the words hitting the frontal lobe, perceiving what is seen or initiating what needs to be performed.

Though there are some difficulties with Frog: you lose your bearing, and there is no meta-narrator to tell you whether you are re-imagining certain events, anticipating them, or truly living them. Dixon has a tendency to rework the same subject matter: whether this is to his own discretion or his own insecurity and dissatisfaction – we’ll never know.

However novel or idiosyncratic this retelling is, it becomes perfectly fitting for Interstate. Interstate is a nightmare. The retellings are the re-living of the nightmare, with details changed as fear and hope allow it. This is its strength: Dixon has taken the most heinous event that a parent can experience, and done in word what any parent would do in thought: continued with multiple retellings of the event – the events leading up to it, tangential references to it, the things that could have happened if only it never happened.

It’s a strange sensation to the reader. After the emotional exhaustion of the first chapter and pages into the second, you realize you just got back on the roller coaster. Go with it. It may not be the most pleasant or entertaining reading experience, but by the end of this repeating nightmare, you will feel like you have experienced something special and unique. You never see anyone reading Finnegan’s Wake on the beach, right?


I'm not sick. I don't think I've been fully healthy since the day before new year's eve. It has always been something: sore throat, cough, congestion. I've suffered three distinctively unique flu strains since year's beginning - each riding the tail of the previous bout. Being sick was second nature, and I was as resigned to its perpetuity as though it were a new scar or a colostomy bag.

It has taken several days for this to register. I think I've been well through the entire weekend. It's hard to pinpoint where things turned, when you've stopped asking yourself how you're doing in the morning.

Also, from 3:45 PM friday until 9:00 AM today: I did not work. I was not paged. I achieved a mental dissociation from work - and completely failed to notice it. This follows five consecutive weekends where I at least had to work five hours; on one weekend, twenty. These spells have been mostly unplanned. I would leave for the weekend thinking every minor detail was accounted for, every requirement automated - then get a call on Saturday AM that would chain me to my home office until after sundown. When it was planned - it was some unique, unusual request that required my attention Sunday night into Monday's wee hours. All of this had the affect of keeping me on a tight leash, not wanting to stray from the nearest fire hydrant. I could never tell when the next fire would erupt.

But this weekend, nothing erupted.

This weekend, I did nothing at all - made no plans - not appreciating how fit I was for anything; everything.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Impossible Stains

In 1986, Elvis Costello promised a windfall of albums, claiming he would release four. He made it halfway. Blood and Chocolate, reuniting him with the Attractions, was released in September of that year - a recording pissing fire and murky production – that many Costello completists escorted to the top of his catalogue. Its vitriol is chilling; the etched scenarios of love tap into our lowest emotional troughs and insecurities. It is the perfect soundtrack for lovesick suffering. From start to finish, there is a catharsis of spiteful jealousy, naked betrayal and abandonment, completing in the final kiss-off, “Next Time Round”. And that’s just three songs.

This was my introduction to Elvis. I was sixteen, dating a girl a year older than me and way out of my league (she was a hair model – whatever that means). Kelly was dark and mysterious and always out of my control; I was pliant, impressionable and needy. After a couple months, she just disappeared. It anticipated Murakami by a couple years. Her mother would tell me over the phone how much trouble she’d gotten herself into, that she was staying at her aunt’s farm – surreal things that would set my imagination boiling. She turned up in the arms of Eddie Goldsmith, a nob sharing my junior year at high school (point-oh-two Goldsmith, a nickname derived from his G.P.A. It was a Catholic all-boys school – it didn’t matter what you achieved, it mattered what you tithed).

I played “I Hope You’re Happy Now” twenty-seven times in a row. Made me feel a little better. “I Want You” gave voice to all my adolescent, sexually repressed anxieties. “Blue Chair” served a dish of sarcastic comfort and “Next Time Round” gave me some sense of closure.

This is not the easiest album to fall in love with, and it doesn’t serve as a welcoming entry to the Costello oeuvre. There are some challenging, purely depressing songs. “Home is Anywhere You Hang Your Head” feels a little too obvious in its self-pity; “Battered Old Bird” is a trudging but poignant memory recall of Elvis’ childhood building that makes one feel they had to be there to really ‘get’ it. Though his singing is at his most animal on this album – bordering on self-parody at times – these are the songs where the vocal despair is most apparent. They weigh the album down a bit, but they don’t kill its momentum.

Taking the restraint from his delivery works in other places – when he sings, ‘I knew then what I know now, I never loved you anyhow’ – you hear the affected lie. Or the lines that open ‘Uncomplicated’ – ‘Blood and Chocolate / I hope you’re satisfied what you have done / you think it’s over now / but we’ve only just begun’ informs the listener they are following the singer into uneven, romantic madness. “I bet she isn’t all that’s advertised / I bet that isn’t all she fakes”, “I suppose she never said to you / you were just in the way”. Oddly, the Costellian wordplay is kept at minimum in favor of brute, barked poignancy. “When you’re over me, there’s no one above you”. That’s about it.

Despite the standout cuts and some memorable pop songs, the strength of the album lies in its evenness and unique recording. Costello wanted a sound that couldn’t be pigeonholed to a time period, and he was successful: the recording of all instruments in the same big room, the bleeding of instruments' sound into each other's mikes…there’s a lack of reverence for the final product that puts the lyrics and song naked and center stage. At times experimental, it is mostly raw, and it supports the passion of the subject matter.

Litter Box

It was another perfect summer day, winding down. These were days wherein a comfortable pattern had been established and he never had to stop to ask what he was to do next, never had to be bored, because his loose itinerary answered these pressing things.

He would awake as soon as his partner left for work. Having the house to himself drew him into his day, put him at ease – inspired him to action. He inaugurated the day with 90 minutes of meandering guitar playing on a tinny acoustic electric. Reams of paper had printed guitar tablature scraped from the internet, and thanks to the passionate efforts of others, he was able to re-create the works of his favorite, obscure, artists. He would occasionally sing along - not heartily - but in a baritone voice designed to measure strange shifts in timing. It never felt like he was progressing or getting better. He did it to maintain the relaxation of his night’s rest, and ease into the work the day would require. His hands would eventually sore and he would shower.

Shorts and an expensive collared shirt. Socks were optional. For 7 months of the year, this was his uniform. He would appear at the coffee shop reading, on this occasion, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom (impressionable as he was, he was inclined to believe that human emotion did not exist until the bard directed humanity in it’s direction). He was enthused that his favorite barista was working: he had a benign crush on her. He would wait until her shift ended and she joined him on the café patio – they would talk of music, movies, and literature. There were times when he felt like he fed off her youth, inhaling all the projects she juggled and her romantic ideas about where she was going to be in two years. Talking to her like this, in public, made him feel more attractive and desirable. He listened enrapt until one of them needed to be elsewhere, and they would part. She was leading role in his masturbatory play - the occasional understudy could never quite fill her jeans.

He would stop at a Korean Deli to get a sandwich as noon approached. The woman at the deli, Cantonese, would pose questions about the American idiom as she assembled his lunch – “What does it mean, Yankee?” and he would feel like a saint for answering these challenges. Today, he needed her to elaborate where she heard Yankee, and she replied - Dr. Phil! “Yankee your chain.” He elaborated; she understood - and he regretted that the puzzle wasn’t as difficult as originally interpreted.

After lunch, it was time for work. A month prior, he had set to painting the house. It was a project that eluded estimation and provided no definite end. He knew that his slow approach meant less would be accomplished today - that he would have to contend with a sun at its highest intensity. But this was his way. He quit his job and cashed in his 401k so he would have it his way. He defied the script so he could have things his way. He did all of these things so he could be adrift without pressing responsibilities, as an adult – even if for only a short while. Today, he would paint for a solid six hours. Or as long as he wished to. He had earned this convenience a long time before, paid up front, and the fact that he was getting away with what most adults don’t reap until their ending years, only filled him with a fullness of pride. He could afford to be meticulous in the application of “Mossy Rock” to each horizontal siding. Each pass of the painting pad was a confirmation of his attuned sensibility.

As the sun went down, he would have a beer. Or two. The paint brushes and paint pads soaked, and he would lose all clothes but his shorts: slide the lawn chair into place, and soak up the last rays of the day. The lawn chair had a little beer cozy, and he loved it for it. He might remember to cinch the knee length shorts up to his groin, maximizing his tan. Perhaps the next door neighbor would come home while he reposed as such – she was a gorgeous woman, going to nursing school – and she could look away demurely as she did on one occasion when she saw him in this state. But not today. Today, he was completely alone, exposing and rotating his sun-facing flesh.

His partner was not yet home. He could, if he acted, be absent when she arrived: it would be a treat for her to have the house to herself for a little while. He grabbed his book and headed to another coffee shop where the evening brought live music and the décor was more hospitable. He took his book with him and read. Incredible headway into the book today, and he feels a little guilty about it. The book breaks down into chapters separating Shakespeare’s plays; 32 chapters that deserve to be read over the course of a month. He had ploughed through seven of them in one day, and questioned his ability to retain all he had taken in. He was always second-guessing whether he was reading too much, too fast. He wondered this intermittently as he broke to listen to the folk singer in the next room. The singer’s songs were melancholy, slow paced, and he projected his own clumsy playing on the stage. What does this artist have that he doesn’t? He chalked it up to the artist’s initiative to call the café and book an appointment. Really, that is the only difference.

He tried to draw out his time away from the house. The paint brushes would be fine and his partner the happier for it. With a little light left, he skittered past interstices of golden sidewalk and charcoal shadow, deciding to do a little grocery shopping. He is feeling good, relaxed. This is why he loves summer; his body is always warm and his muscles feel so loose and his metabolism is operating at an optimal level. He does not care that he has traced these steps a thousand times, the path from café to grocery store. He read as he walked, knowing each crack in the sidewalk: each time he makes this route it is at least a little different for him for the pages he reads.

After his circuitous trek, he arrives home. His partner is there. The doors are all open, but the screen doors are shut to circulate a little air through the home. He asks how her day went. He asks her what she thinks of the south side of the house. It was a hectic day for her, she has noticed, and she approves.

- You look pale.
- Well, I was up and down the ladder a hundred times. My blood sugar is probably low. I’ll make myself dinner right away…
- Have you checked your blood sugar?
- Nah. Let me get this started, then I’ll check.

He begins to make the same meal he makes every evening: toasted cheese sandwiches. Two starches, three proteins (3 oz. of cheese). To maintain his seventy percent carbohydrate to thirty percent protein diet, he will round things out with some orange juice. Perfect, because he does feel low. The OJ will act quickly. But he feels frenzied. All he is doing is getting bread – from the bread bag; cutting cheese – from the cheese loaf…but he feels like this is confusing. Like he might try and slip a slice of bread between squares of cheese. He goes to grab the catsup, because catsup is necessary to the enjoyment…and catsup is necessary to the nine grams of carbohydrates he wants to factor…

- No seriously, you are scaring me. You aren’t making any sense at all.
- I’m fine. We’ve been through this before. I’ll eat and I’ll be fine.
- You are shaking all over.
- Just, I expended a lot of energy today. I just want –

And he recognizes his heart rate; this is one of the bad episodes of low blood sugar. His heart isn’t racing from running a marathon; it is racing to outpace the point where it has no energy to race with. And his body gives. He can only maintain complete muscle failure before everything, the whole body, collapses on itself. He’s been exposed to this before in less severe doses: he becomes ecstatic, he talks emphatically and quickly, he gets euphoric, and as the brain synapses let go of one another, he sees everything so clearly and harmoniously and he thinks he is Jesus. This time, he’s skipped all the fun parts. He is on the floor. He has the mental faculty to breath, and that is about it.

- Here – drink this.

She holds his head up in one hand and helps him to drink from the carton of orange juice. Even as he does this, he feels all the muscles in his face pulled taught, and he feels a little better knowing he can notice anything like this at all. He notes and imagines how much he must look like a suckling baby right now. There is only so much orange juice one can drink, and as he does so, he factors how much he needs to ‘get back’. He gulps down twenty gulps. More than he should need, but he has to be sure. He is drained, he is weak, and although he feels immediately better than the moments before, he knows it takes a good fifteen minutes to digest food and in the case of orange juice – get it into the bloodstream where he needs it. He continues to lie on the floor. When he straddles this borderline, he micromanages what takes up the slightest amount of energy: fast breaths versus slow breaths, sudden movements versus the slow and deliberate. Getting up of the floor is like booking a vacation he hasn’t budgeted.

- I hate to ask this, but can you finish making my toasted cheese?
- Oh no, no problem. What did you do today? You know that terrifies me, when you get like that?
- It might just be the ladder. It seems like you aren’t expending a lot of energy, but maybe it takes its toll after doing it repeatedly.
- Just, will you wear that medical bracelet now? I bought it for you and you never wear it.
- Okay, I’ll do that. I don’t know how much it will help if food, or you, are not around. I guess it could help a coroner.
- It’s just, I don’t know what I would do if you were to, you know…

Something was not right. He could feel himself sinking. The confusion enveloped him again, and he was sinking. He could not afford to pretend things were okay.

- Michelle - I think I did something stupid.
- What –
- I think I took a shot before dinner. It’s coming back to me. I gave myself a shot before my walk, I never checked…and it’s been like ninety minutes since I took the shot.
- What does that mean -

And he was gone. He could feel the life draining away from him. He could feel himself dying. So this is what dying feels like if you want to do it at a creep without breaking the skin. There’s a vacuum at the center of your body, and it just sucks everything from inside, spits the ethereal out through your belly button. Or your asshole. You feel and watch everything: the blood slowing to a crawl in your veins, each beat of your heart struggling and sputtering through its last pumps. You feel your eyes flicker and cannot fight them rolling backwards in a deadman’s float. And your dick. It is useless, lifeless, and when they find you it will be at its least flattering ebb. And you will be drained to an alabaster hue. And all will be tight, so tight that your thick shocks of hair will look like a receding hairline as you recline in your open coffin.

- Hey.
- …
- You ate your dinner. You can’t do this to me again.
- (throat is dry)
- Ben, you have to take care of yourself. I can’t have you die like this. Do you know what this does to me? Do you know how terrifying this is?
- Thank you. This doesn’t happen every day.

He was still on the floor. His body was on its side and he was spooning the cat litter box. They both got a laugh from this. He felt like he was coming out of anesthesia or a coma. He recollected a xerox posted on the wall of one of the break rooms at his old job: it listed signs of low blood sugar, and the last two on the list were ‘coma’ and ‘death’. Is death a symptom of anything?

This was a rare occasion where they stayed close together through the evening. They would go to bed at the same time. They would break from their normal patterns in order to not let the other out of their sight. When they each awoke in the morning, everything was back to normal. He waited until she left, and he popped out of bed. But he felt like he was a ghost now. He felt like he had already died, and he was only a ghost now.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Week In Review

The Opposite of Murder

“There’s a dead mouse on the roof of your car.”

“How does that happen?”

“Dad says the crows have been all around your car today. He just now noticed the mouse. The crows probably left it there.”

This seems aggressive for a crow. They don’t kill mice. They hunt smaller game, I think. This is strange and discomforting. And eerie: a dead mouse. I need to take a look at this. “Your father already took care of the mouse.”

I walk curbside and size up my 1984 Camaro. Fire engine red. I wonder if it has to do with the color: perhaps it enraged them? I think about such a strange event occurring a weekend after my first car purchase. Did I take away some territory of theirs? They couldn’t have killed a mouse, could they? It had to already be dead.

Next time round, they were more aggressive.

I was late for an Economics 201 class; there was a light mist and no one was about. As I walked the back path between Kane and Savery Halls, I felt the clawing at my head. The talons tangling in my hair passed in an instant as my body twisted to the ground. I expected to see a lone bird retreating from having mistaken my head for a nest…what I saw were three of them, circling me several times before alighting upon the architecture. Waiting to see what I would do next.

They clicked and cawed to each other as I slowly inched to a doorway. I wanted to be out of their sight, made uneasy by their boldness. I was convinced the act was overt and intended. These are intelligent birds. They are organized. I searched all of my past deeds for some wrongdoing, but I could not single out some provocation that could earn me this distinction. For some unknown reason, they had me marked.

Years would pass. I bought a home and became a static target. Each morning I would walk to the coffee shop, and the crows would announce from telephone pole to telephone pole that I was coming. They did little more than this. But they would only do it when I was alone, as though they wanted to convey to me and me only, the tenuousness of our co-existence.

The summer day was moving on as I returned home. Walking along the side of the house, I kicked a small object that could have been a large stray beauty bark or a cat’s dry turd. It skidded lightly along the hard ground, the weather beaten dead grass. I moved to it. With the side of my foot, I flicked it on its side. There was a pinpoint moon reflected in its tiny black eye. A baby crow. On closer look, I could see it expanding and contracting in its tiny rapid breathing; I could see the damaged wing. I could feel its terror, and my chest burned when I realized how I added to it.

I played out scenarios. I could go inside, and I know myself well enough to know: it would haunt me. I would wake up in the middle of the night, come outdoors, and check on it.

I could step on it. I could crush its neck and put it out of its misery. I would always feel dirty about this moment, I would feel especially bad tonight, but there would be a resolution.

I set down my book and my bag of groceries. I could not leave it. I could not. I chose to save it. Always the hardest option, because it begs a ‘how’ and a ‘what for’.

I picked up the bird to examine it. The wing was bloodied and the bird looked in shock. It could not defend itself. Taking it and nursing it would be a strange intrusion into nature. I could not see this playing out; I could not see myself slowly watching it live or die. I resolved to find a place of greater safety – somewhere where it could not be a neighborhood cat’s fatal play toy.

I walked about my property, dismissing various nooks and ridges as too human-made, too uncomfortable. A tree in my neighbor’s yard presented itself on the landscape: last year he had pruned all the branches to a base no higher than my chest, and this year it had fought back with a tangle of branches at eye level. Perfect. I found a nestling cross-section of leafy branch that would hide the tiny crow from predators, and tucked it in its new home. I stood back and looked at it. I never see baby crows. I only see these aggressive adults that hate me so.

I resigned the little bird to its fate. Perhaps it would survive, perhaps it would not. Death happens, and I felt at peace with my level of interference. Between life and death, I could at least lean in a direction – I could give a little nudge.

As soon as I awoke, as soon as the day broke, I had to check on the baby bird. I approached the tree scanning the ground all about; half-expecting to see the little mass expired below the branches. It was not. Nor was it where I left it. It was gone.

As I continued on my walk, the crows watched me. But today they were silent.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

September Fourth

- Dr. Bertrand’s line?
- Dr. Bertrand. This is Rueben Frazier. I saw you for the first time Thursday, and I think, I think I wasn’t honest about how depressed I am (the tears are beginning again). I do want to kill myself. I had to walk out of work today. I kept breaking down.
- (his voice raised an octave, but calm) Ok, did you try the number I gave you in case you feel this way?
- I’m going through the papers. I plan to call it, but wanted to call you first. My five day waiting period was up, I’m supposed to go get my gun. I would have gotten it yesterday but it was a holiday. I didn’t find out til I got there. They were closed.
- This is good, I’m glad you called me. So you do not have the gun, you are not in any immediate trouble –
- No. I called you instead. It’s there, there at the pawn shop.
- Okay. We’ll leave it there for now. Do you have any questions about calling the hotline number I gave you?
- No.
- You will find they are very helpful and attentive, and you musn’t forget they work specifically with situations such as this.
- Yes.
- Do you have friends you can stay with tonight?
- Yes.
- I think you should also contact them afterwards. When are we set to see you again? I have the fourteenth. That is quite some time off. If you’d like, we can schedule this sooner, sometime this week?
- I don’t know why I scheduled it so far out. This Friday, 11:00 ok? Same as last time?
- Okay, we can do that.

That wasn’t so hard. He pours tequila into a shot glass, takes a tiny sip. His heart is still racing, a tempo maintained for the past 10 hours. when he awoke at 2 a.m. The physiological signs are the ones that terrify him the most. They validate his intent – tell him that he’s as capable of destroying himself as he is of delaying this. He balks at ‘delaying this’. That these are his two alternatives, that saving himself is not one of them, brings him back. He dials the number.

- Suicide Hotline? (a calm voice. All sweetness)
- Hello. I’ve already spoken to my therapist, Dr. Bertrand? He believes I should speak to you. I’m suicidal. I guess.
- First off, have you eaten today?
- Sure. Well, not lunch yet.
- Okay, the first thing I’d like for you to do is get something in your stomach. You have food in the house, you can make yourself something to eat?
- Sure.
- The next thing I want to know, do you have friends or family that you can stay with tonight?
- Yes, friends. They know what I’m going through (trying to lead the conversation to what he is going through).
- Okay, I’d like you to call them and arrange for this. And get something to eat. Can you do that?
- (starting to feel like he’s being spoken to like a child) Yeah, I can do that. Is that it?
- I just want you to focus on those things.
- Okay, I think I can do that.
- When will you be able to be with friends? It’s the middle of the day; do you need to wait until they are off work?
- Yes. But I know who I want to stay with. They’ve been supportive through all this.
- Okay. But food first.
- Okay.

He makes himself a sandwich. It isn’t much. But the act of putting it together, the rhythmic chewing of each bite, has a calming effect. It seperates him from the moments before. He makes one more call.

- Did you get my message?
- No, I’ve been in meetings.
- I sent you an email. Look, I think I had some sort of breakdown at work. That is why I didn’t show up at the meeting. Two times I just broke down crying and had to go to the STP room to be alone this morning. I thought I had composed myself, and I’d fall apart again.
- Are you all right? Do you want to talk about it?
- I just, I just want to die. Today was supposed to be it. I know I had to pick up the gun today, and I think everything became more real. Like I knew this was it.
- Oh, Reuben. I want you to talk to HR.
- that was what my email was about. I walked out of work to get some help. They mostly want me to eat and be around people…
- Do you have those things? Have you –
- Yes. I won’t be here tonight. It was terrible. I didn’t expect this physical reaction to everything. I’d been so steady up until now.
- You have been through a lot…
- I thought I had everything together; I headed to the meeting, got there, and realized I’d forgotten my calendar. When I got on the elevator to return to my desk – the moment I was alone – I was crying again. Just heaving crying. That’s when I emailed you and left. I’m sorry about that.
- I want you to do whatever you have to do to take care of yourself. And this isn’t going to be just today.
- I can work from home. I think I can handle things from here through the week, and I’ll stay in contact with you.
- Are you on any medication?
- No, Dr. Bertrand is sort of against it. I guess this will make me stronger? I don’t know.
- I think you should look into it. Even if it for a temporary situation, it can help you through.
- I'll talk to him about it. As soon as I get everything settled, I’ll give you another call.
- Okay, Reuben. You know everyone here cares about you. I want you to take your time.
- I appreciate that. Thanks.

He goes to his computer and quickly remotes into his office PC. He feels a pang when he sees that he typed up the email but never sent it: “I can only think of killing myself and I keep breaking down. I can’t be here. I’m going to get some help and will call you when I do”. He closes it, feeling there’s no need to send it anymore. He pours half a shot glass of tequila down the sink, gets into the car, goes to the pawn shop, and picks up the gun. He declines buying bullets and wonders if he’s the first person to buy a gun and then not buy the bullets, whether this might make him suspect. He goes home. He calls his friends. He gives the gun to them, to keep hidden in a safe place. They are all surprised it weighs as much as it does when they hold it in their hands.

Easter Notes

I have a wonderful relationship with my mother. I feel pretty fortunate about this. Really, there is only one thing that is, I'd better say annoying...that she will inevitably introduce into our conversations.

Money. Investing. Four Oh One Kays. The Roth Ira. Where to find a bargain (Walmart). Online Banking. Suzy Orman. Suzy Orman. Suzy Orman. What I should be doing with my money. How much she has lost. Where she's moving it now. What happened to the money because dad didn't listen to her. When to be conservative. When to be aggressive. How having a Democratic president will negatively affect her retirement. What should have happened. How paying any interest on anything in any little way is a complete waste. How to suck the glue off a dead-letter stamp. Really, how easy it would all be if we were smart enough to take care of ourselves, so the wise ants don't have to carry the grasshoppers of this world.

When the talk begins, when the topic of money is broached, I tighten up. I just let it on by. If she asks for my input, I go with my standby answer: 'oh, I'm really more focused on the quality of life side of things. I just need enough money to not worry about money.' I avoid dissent on things that, really, if I did argue, my ass would be shredded (though there are times when I'm tempted to ask her how she resolves all this common sense to the dozen trips to Reno she makes each year).

Easter was no different. As the topic turned to my father's government job and the purchase of 3 - 48" monitors for a twelve by ten foot office space, I drifted from the room. I could sense my mother seeing an opening, I could hear her weighing in and commanding the room.

She caught up with me later, as I vibrated away on my grandmother's vibrating chair.

- What size jeans do you wear? I want to get you a pair of designer jeans.

Okay, now that is for real, contentious. 'Designer' jeans are personal. And my mother? I couldn't avoid picturing myself in pastel baggy blues.

- Mom, I work for a clothing store. I already have a discount. It would be a waste of your money. Anyways, my waistline fluctuates throughout the week; I couldn't tell you. (And, as a precaution) I think I'm allergic to elastic.
- No really, I want to do something nice for you. Do you need any new shirts? What's your favorite brand?
- I could go for two months and not wear the same shirt twice. I'm set. But I really don't get this. There is nothing you could get me that I can't get myself for less. I think it's really cool that you want to do something nice, though. I'm still trying to decorate my place? Pier One gift card?
- Oh, nevermind. It's just that I get double the points on my department store card now. They love me there!

And that was it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Giving Tree

My grandfather was the only one in the house.

It was not him that I wanted to ask for the book - he probably in fact did not know the book even existed. I had to modify my plan, first by shedding all the emotionalism of it.

My grandfather had been through two wars and silently, paternally, held sway over seven children. He awoke early each Sunday to attend mass at 6 a.m., always alone, so that his faith would be personal and not influence the others. In his retirement, he had secured three pensions. He meticulously tended to his large yard and garden during these autumnal years, making time for a weekly round of golf. He would complete the New York Times crossword each day with a small Dixie cup at hand and a pinch of Copenhagen in his lip. He was a large man, a commanding presence, and he only minced words to tell the occasional joke.

He became Catholic to appease my grandmother. He embraced the religion, which helped him to convert his sins and personal demons into unrelated humanitarian efforts. He was a maintenance alcoholic. He had a gambling problem. He could not conquer these things, so he gave to every charity that knocked on his door and held from judging the actions of others. He did not preach behavior, but would be stern about things such as money or performing chores – things that obeyed universal law. As his children grew into adults, he would never reprimand or speak to their reckless behaviors. He wanted them to find their own deliverance; something he knew could only be found when you choose to pursue it.

My visit took him by surprise. Normally, we would only see each other at family gatherings - where conversations only touch the surface of our life events. He gave me the rundown on where everyone was at. He asked after my health.

- You could do me a favor. There’s a book that grandma’s had since I was little, and I’d sort of like to have it. It’s a children’s book.
- Well, you could ask her when she gets back. Stay awhile.
- But it’s urgent, and I’m. To be honest…I want to give it to someone else. It has sentimental value to me, and it would mean a lot to me to give it to her. I wouldn’t be returning it.
- I don’t think she would miss it. Take it if you can find it. I’ll try and remember to tell her.
- Thanks. You don’t know how much I appreciate this.

I raced up the stairs to one of the rooms that his children would inhabit whenever they were between jobs or marriages. I knew exactly where it was - it had been resting in the same place for the past fifteen years. It was sitting on a stack of books next to a single bed, its apple green book jacket standing out in all the muted colors of the room. Having the prominent spot of the stack probably meant I was not the sole person who cherished it so. For a moment I second-guessed taking it - making use of it this way just seemed a little disrespectful. A fanciful, romantic notion.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Project Management

3 hours. A photographic memory. An Oxford Dictionary. Other People's Stories. Internet Resources. Forgiving Friends (can substitute with Oblivious). Emotional Pain. Relatability. A knowledge of contemporary language. Verbal dexterity.

Building Specifications:
More cadence. Less convoluted diction.

1. You will be called to work.
2. You will lose your enthusiasm or get discouraged after writing the first line.
3. You will be obvious. Or infantile. Or trite.
4. You will let immediate frustrations have a veiled voice, undermining your intent.
5. In your most honest moments, you ape Stephen Dixon.
6. You won't bother to draft. You will write and publish. Zing.

1. You will read the product over and over until it makes sense. Because you have more time on your hands than anyone else.
2. You will not use a Thesaurus, because it is always obvious when you do.
3. If you aren't completely spent by the ordeal, you could at least proofread.

Your own ego. Your need to become immanent, relevant. Your folly. Your purging.

Mission Statement:
There's rarely a plot.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

She Moved Through the Fair

Even though he’d done this one time before, he still felt shaky from the anxiety. He rode this familiar infirmity, telling himself it would pass once he was sitting down.

The only other time he’d been to a tittie bar, it was with a group of friends – and the whole experience was novelty and humor. That was – what was it – fifteen years ago? With his wife and another couple. Far from the debauchery of a bachelor party and light years from going to one alone, isolated from his home by a tiresome, week-long conference. He had to arrest this line of thinking. Making comparisons was only making the moment more intense.

Red and magenta-lit women were performing at their assigned tables. The main stage was empty as dancers were in transition; the music stripped to a rhythm while the DJ dismissed Peaches and blurted encouragement for Trinity. He searched for a kindred spirit – before he could concentrate on where he could sit, he needed to focus past all the twists and bachelors traveling in packs to reassure himself that he was not the only man here alone and friendless. He saw many like him. He felt more comfortable.

He immediately identified with Dharma – olive skinned, brunette and voluptuous – and took one of the three empty seats at her table. He glanced about and realized that hers was the only table that had any empty seats. That she was the only non-blonde dancing tables. That she wasn’t so skinny that her rib cage was exposed (this degree of skinny had always deterred him). He felt indignant that his tastes must be unique or acquired, and resolved to treat Dharma especially well. He put a five dollar bill, flat and face up, on the table in front of him. Abe would have thanked him, if he could.

To keep the entire table enthralled, Dharma made several enticing moves as she made her way to his place on the octagon. She got down on spread knees and arched back to pick up the bill with her teeth. Style too, he told himself. She took the bill from her mouth, seductively folded it lengthwise once, and lodged it at her hip. She moved into him, kissing him once on the cheek then leaning closer to whisper into his ear. Impossible to hear over the techno music, but certain he heard a lazily conveyed “relax”.

She took off his glasses. With the same grace that she folded the bill, she folded the arms of his specs and tucked them in the front of her bikini bottom. Still maintaining her pyramidal pose, she traced a heart with her fingertip on his chest. She wrapped her arms around him and played at suffocating him with her cleavage. She did this for quite awhile before leaning back. She retrieved the glasses – holding them to her mouth, she emitted a breath to steam each lens before placing them back on his face and tapping his nose.

He was blind without his glasses. He saw nothing. He didn’t feel like he could say anything. He was the last at the table to get any attention from Dharma before she turned duties over to another girl.

He wanted more. He felt locked in. He was beyond the trepidation now, the fear that always kept him from these places when he had to leave town. The fear that if he did it once, he would make an expensive habit of it. That it would change him as a person or apply a stigma. No, he felt like he had jumped into the water, and his body was quickly acclimating. That his first taste of this was so clumsy – so blurry – gave him a chuckle and only tantalized him more.

He searched the room for Dharma. There was much confusion as he made his way among the bodies. He turned down several solicitations for lap dances, being diplomatic and polite about it – making sure to leave the impression that he wanted a lap dance, but that he had a type. He didn’t want to get tagged as a gawker: these ladies probably have some code about that. But he saw Dharma alighting from side stage. As he made his way to her, he reached to his back pocket.

His wallet wasn’t there.


I’ve gone to great length to erase her existence from my home. Despite the ample chunk of life I’m cutting away, I’ve done away with nearly all photos, any belongings that carried a ‘shared’ status, letters, keepsakes, holiday gifts…even giving the mutual friends who found their way to me, through her, - a wider berth. I tore up the house; put my stamp of approval on anything that she wanted and gave much of what we had in common, away. Caring friends performed Indian rituals to remove her presence – fumigating every corner of the home with punked herbs. Not wanting to kill this part of my life entirely, I pared down our twelve years to a few spare items (self-incriminating letters from her that would justify my feelings of betrayal; a few photos of us in which I look particularly stunning) – small enough to fit nicely in a shoebox where all my momentos from failed relationships are laid to rest. The basement wasn’t smudged during the ritual, so I may have exposed myself to haunting thoughts on laundry days. If only that were all.

We still work at the same company, four floors apart. Eight hours a day. I walk by conference rooms and see her in meetings. I see her coming and going on the streets downtown, in the hallways, in the lunchroom. It came with the territory; we both knew when we split, we would still be thrown into each other’s presence. That we would continually be forced to read each other’s faces.

But she only has one face now. A single look.

It is a sheepish look, like all the animation is siphoned away with our mutual recognition. This might be what salty sorrow or regret look like when the water’s been boiled away. And when this look overtakes her, she holds it in place, frozen until we disengage. No questions get asked or answered. I don’t know if she’s cognizant of it. I don’t know if she has premeditated it - whether she feels that my seeing anything substantial in her eyes is the least she can do to protect me. Or whether it is all that I deserve.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Dynamic

- and then we are going to Eastern Washington. Do you know where that is? And we have to drive for five hours. It’s going to suck.

It was to see his great uncle. He was going to be taken by his grandparents; he never knew his real parents. But he had a stage now - a captive audience of one - and continued.

- I don’t know what we’re going to do there. None of my friends will be there. I’m going to ask to take my Atari. I went there once last year and there was nothing, nothing to do. But he has a pool. That will be cool. I don’t know. Do you know Jeff? He has to go to a camp for like, two weeks. I guess I’m lucky, it’s just the weekend. What are you going to do?
- I’m just going to be here, I’m…
- I’d rather just be here too. I just got an Atari and I want to play with it. You should see it, its fun. Do you want to play basketball? Have you played horse? I can show you how.
- Okay.

Ronnie would take some liberties while teaching horse. Rules would be adjusted as he sensed a disadvantage. There was no real threat, however – just a moment when his friend made a lucky shot that tagged him with an “H”. He had suggested the game intending to skunk his opponent. Maintain the dynamic.

- So, if I can sink this shot, I have to do it twice? Because you have the lead?
- Yeah. But it only applies to first-timers. Next time, you don’t have to do it.

The quiet one knew it was untrue, but played along with it. The promise of future relief was alleviation. Despite his young age, he was not wholly unaware that he had a place in the pecking order.

Though they were the same age, he adored Ronnie. And his young mind grasped this much: he was always the one who would adore. He’d been adored before - his next door neighbor - and it was too much. He could still feel obligation without ever having used the word. He felt and he knew his place. He would adore, and there would be a time when that which he adored would go away – it was a pattern with which he had become familiar. He felt okay about this, too. There were other things and people to love, to spend time with, to preoccupy himself. He would find something.

He was content, until he was away from the interaction. Ronnie always talked, and never asked him anything. He knew so much that never went said. He was sucked into prompting Ronnie to talk all the more. He was beginning to see how important he truly was, seeing how little Ronnie adored him. How small and of little value he was. Ronnie too, would find something if he went away.

But he wouldn’t go away, because of his desire to be near Ronnie. This was his unhappiness - the internal conflict he could not resolve. What he would learn to deal with.

Image One

It is pouring rain, all through the image. Hold on to the rain, since you will read the following words and easily forget about it. It is pouring rain, and it never stops.

A school playground, before asphalt became the default. It is Fairmount Park Elementary School in West Seattle. The eyes of this image belong to an imaginary person with their back to the gym, looking north. Perhaps a quarter-length into the concrete expanse, since the monkey bars are not in the image. But still, a concrete expanse: painted on it’s tableau are multiple hopscotch squares and the United States broken into all 50 states. But these details are lost in the unrelenting rain. The rain is so dense, everything has filtered to a silvery gray. There is no sound save the rain, maintaining its dull static.

At the far end, perhaps 50 yards from these eyes, the concrete gives away to aged beauty bark and a first generation Big Toy. To complete the picture, a baseball cage and grass field lie beyond, a busy main street runs to the left, an acre forest to the right. But the center piece of this is off-center at the end of the concrete: a tiny mass on his back at the base of a basketball hoop, looking up at the rain. The field is empty of children, except for this lone boy. It is me.

I know it is me because I can take some cues from the image. He is wearing a large jacket that is dark brown with an orange arm stripe. Incidentally Cleveland Brown. I’ve seen pictures of myself in a similar jacket. I also cannot shake a feeling of empathy. Despite the bell having rung, despite all the children having returned to class following lunch, I share his need to simply not move. Despite the rain.

I think we all carry with us a handful of images that play over and over in our heads. This one never came out in my brief flirting with therapy: we were always working backwards from what was bugging me at the time, finding images to associate with it. But this is a strong, primary image that pops up infrequently. This one, and the strange clinking of glasses at the New Luck Toy, with it’s blood red interior, as an eleven month old me is caboosed in a bar chair. They are strong, they are recurring, and I’ve never dug at them.

The problem is, I don’t remember the context or whether it ever happened. If I judge by feel, I’m in the first grade, age five, and I’ve been at the wrong end of a fight. Or I’ve given up on a fight, it is hard to say. There is a sense of failure, of giving up.

There are other feelings I get from the image. Sense of urgency is obliterated: I do not want to move. I don’t care that I’m late returning to class; I don’t care that the elements are having their way with me. I just want to hold my position. I want everything to stop, to pause, while I get my bearings. The only way for me to retain control is for me to stop and make the rest of the world wait.

I just want the sound of the rain to drown out all the other sound. I want to become so thoroughly drenched, I have no choice but to start anew. It is a deletion. I want all of it to recede into the fuzzy grey, become nothing. Only then can I contemplate my next move.

The Beast

She called it her economy of motion: the activities of implied drudgery received an expedited treatment or no attention at all. Sleeping, eating, working, even time spent with her family – all were addressed with a policy of containment; an effort to compress their natural immediacy into a tiny ball. She would delay rest until the last possible moment, letting her head hit the pillow only when her inspirations had run their course. She would allow the workday to decide when she needed to awake, mostly successfully for both vested parties. She could have a toasted cheese or microwave dinner prepared in under 5 minutes, though she would keep her hands occupied otherwise when not specifically putting food to mouth. Her family never saw her. When they did, they only had the worst of her. Her mind was elsewhere.

He was outside of himself. All action was a reaction, a rescue, a response to some external need. He waited to be called upon, rather than dare to speak up. To facilitate his availability, he suppressed his own needs and wants. He was a persona non grata. He lost himself, and he was happy with this since the burden of affected achievement became secondary to his heroism. This was the reinforcement he needed. When there was no fire, he rested: he would watch television, he would read, he would diddle with different crafts and hobbies. He would switch them about, becoming the jack of all and the king of none. He felt satisfied with this – fulfilling an adage passed along from his father. So he was a good person. He tried not to think so hard about things; hold strong opinions that would deter or offend. He angled towards the middle. He would absorb the strong opinions of others, try to learn from them, and when they didn’t sit well with him, he would construct excuses for why people fell the way they do.

They fell in love.

For her, it was the security she needed. For him, it was simply the matter of being chosen. It was not an immediate process. She had the time and energy required to land her prize. He deliberated until a degree of familiarity was reached; interpreted her needs, and found himself useful and needed. In this sense, they complemented each other. They found each day to be happy, if not fulfilling. Time wore on, and they had little use for one another. They realized, independently of one another, that what they found in each other were things that could be found elsewhere in abundance. Despite being happy, they independently imagined worlds full of so much promise that only required stepping away, abdicating from their relationship.

This could only work for one of them.

The boy could only look at this imagined life askance. The dreaminess of it all made him wary, and the experience of observation led him to write off these imaginings as a mutual indulgence that should never be satisfied. It offended his sense of responsibility; it meant putting his appetite before his ideals about the relationship he had come to value. When she was the one to abandon, he did not know what to do. Having the girl in his life served the greater need of complement; over the time of the relationship his equivocal “I” found expression in a more certain “us”. He was not ready for the end or the abandonment.

He set to destroying himself.