Archive for fiction


Posted in published with tags , on October 25, 2010 by Dean

you can’t say we didn’t see it coming… people rising up into the sky… rising up, to paradise or another fate… rising up, as chosen ones… or sinners caught and summoned to reckoning…

now we are ascending… some, not many, with their arms stretched wide in graceful surrender… some dumbstruck… some terrified by freedom, come at last…

I myself am clinging to a garden hose… dangling a hundred feet in the air… just luck I was washing my car when gravity decided it had had enough of us… for as long as I can hold on, not long, I am a fountain of clarity…

the novelty is exhilarating… it is what we miss when youth is gone… when too much is known… life too familiar… contentment dried and curled at the edges… now, I am at the end of my tether… arisen…

I had always thought of gravity as being uniform and utterly without prejudice… indifferent to human artifice… unimpressed by opinions… it cared not at all if you were large or small… brilliant or vacuous… moral or mean… animal, vegetable, mineral, solid, liquid, gas, particle or wave… it embraced all with equal affection… a reliable and impartial arbiter in every instance…

it appears to have changed its mind about that… there are no other objects launching themselves upward, only ourselves… gravity has become selective… taken judgment into its own hands… perhaps it has decided to play the perennial trickster’s joke upon us, and give us what we asked for… to be the highest of all…

I can understand gravity’s disdain for us… it creates wheeling galaxies… shapes stars and sets them afire… molds planets and bathes them in light and tides… it has called us into being, and we have replied… we have given it calculus… and robbed it of intent… added fantastic formulas to our collection of grizzled gods… made of them all the toys of our childhood… we have imagined ourselves the proper center of all attention, surpassing even gravity with our grasping…

I don’t know if there’s anything up there except cold and breathless death… but what does anyone know until their time has come… and even then, we are all adept at believing untrue things… and deflecting the encroachments of the obvious… it’s how we tolerate our confused existence… why would we abandon those comforts at the end…

well, I’m off… wish I could see how it all turns out… I will assume it is all for something and not for nothing… it’s the best I can do, under the circumstances…

Discontinuous Cows

Posted in published with tags , on August 17, 2010 by Dean

They were just two middle school teachers on summer vacation, trying to see a little country, get away from the wilderness of Los Angeles, get somewhere you could actually see stars at night.  They were middle-aged, but fighting it off with vegetables and athletic shoes and yoga classes.  They were driving up Nevada state highway 379 north of Duckwater, on the way to the Alkali Desert where they intended to camp out and go hiking.

It was late June, not too hot, and they had the windows down and Jack Johnson playing on the CD player.  They had seen some green pastures and hay fields around Duckwater, but now they were out in the desert again, driving along about sixty-five on a mostly empty two-lane blacktop road.

A farm truck came up behind them and went on around with its engine roaring and its canvas tarp flapping.  It was a good sized truck with wooden slats for sides and a back gate that split in the middle to swing open for loading and unloading.  There were cow legs sticking out between the wood slats, and the sudden, nauseating smell of rotting meat.

The legs stuck out in random places, some up pretty high, which gave the impression the truck was full to the brim with dead cows that could not have walked in on their own.  And then there was that smell.

Most people have encountered some dead and rotting meat by the time they are middle-aged.  Some dried out road kill pancake or a dead mouse in the back of the closet or some baloney tucked behind a stack of low-fat yogurt containers—those ones in a flavor you don’t really like but you got because they were on sale.  And they can tell the difference between old, desiccated flesh and fresher stuff, stuff that is still moist and turning strange colors, or maybe looking eerily in motion with maggots crawling all around on it, or a swarm of flies.

Dead fairly recently, is what I mean, with that smell that about knocks you over, and that’s what this truck with the legs sticking out smelled like.  Enough to make you gag as it passed you on a desert highway going eighty miles an hour—the legs bouncing up and down with the bumps in the road.  Going much too fast for any flies to linger outside the truck, but you could imagine them under that canvas tarp.

That’s the first thing Norma imagined—about six billion flies buzzing around under the tarp, some of them wandering too close to the edge and getting blown off into the desert.  What a surprise that must be for them.  Thinking things were going pretty good.  They were going to eat some meat and lay some eggs, complete the cycle of life as nature intended, and then that’s all gone, and there you are, tumbling in the turbulent desert air, cycle of life pulled right out from under you, maybe ending your short life going splat on the windshield of two school teachers.  Norma taught biology, among other things, and egg-laying was as close as she ever had to get to explaining sex to children, for which she was grateful.

Louise’s initial thought was how the cows had gotten in the truck in the first place.  She could tell by the legs that they weren’t standing.  She imagined the cows in there sort of sliding around on top of each other.  Maybe they had just been dumped in by a front-end loader, already dead.  One leg stuck out the top through a hole in the tarp, its hoof angled forward like some weird-ass periscope.

“Get a picture,” Louise said.  Her voice sounded muffled because she was trying to talk without breathing.

Norma reached into the back seat to find her camera.  The truck was steadily pulling away.  The truck driver in a big hurry to get somewhere, or away from somewhere, or outrun the stink, or maybe just crazy… who knew?  Louise sped up to try to stay with it but she was still losing ground.  By the time Norma turned back around and got the camera ready, another strange thing happened.

An F-16 swooped down right over their heads about a hundred feet off the ground.  It swooshed on over the truck and started climbing, a faint black smoke coming from its tail.  Norma got a shot of the truck with the jet fighter beyond it—nose slightly up and banking to starboard.

A truck full of dead cows barreling down the highway in the middle of nowhere.  A nauseating smell that made you want to be just about anywhere else.  And a jet fighter fiercely asserting its presence.  Did it get any more weird-ass than that?

Louise only said things like “weird-ass” during summer vacation.  She taught arithmetic, and the thing about arithmetic is that it has dependable rules and ordered relationships you can count on—there’s nothing weird-ass about it.  Louise wanted the students to understand that.  And she wanted their parents to know they could count on her to give their children something stable and solid to help them cope with life.  She wanted to keep her job.

This, however, was a very weird-ass business, this truck full of dead cows with jet fighter escort in the Nevada desert.  Weirder than even Las Vegas, where they had just spent a day and a night.  Las Vegas had a fake sphinx and fake volcano and fake castles and thousands of people faking having a good time, but it didn’t have anything as weird as this.  Well, maybe.

“Can we slow down and get some breathable air?” said Norma.

In fact, there were some fairly weird-ass things about arithmetic, when you stopped to think about it.  Like when you multiplied and divided fractions.  Or that if you added all the digits in a number together and if that sum was divisible by three then the number itself was divisible by three, which was practically like numerology.  But thankfully there weren’t too many you had to deal with in middle school.  Mostly things were pretty simple and straightforward and some rules—like, no dividing by zero allowed—you didn’t have to explain because they were just true and always the same and that was that.  And if you needed six decimal places in the value for pi you just looked it up in a table in the back of the book and you didn’t have to worry about how they figured that out or if it made any sense or if you could trust them to be right. Everybody else used the same table and even if there was a typo somewhere what did it matter as long as everybody agreed?  It’s not like the kids were trying to land a space craft on Mars or anything.  What mattered was that there were things you could count on.

“How did the picture turn out?” asked Louise.  She eased off the gas as the truck disappeared over a low hill.

“Too far away,” said Norma. “You see a truck and a jet.  You can’t really see the legs sticking out, or that the jet swooped right over him.  What the hell was that?”

“It was a truck full of dead cows.”

“It was a jet fighter.  They fly around in the desert all the time.”

“He was just curious.”

“He could smell it even up there.”

“He was practicing his attack dive.”

“He was messing with the truck driver.”

“He was showing off.”

“He knew there were two cute school teachers in the car.”

“They died of mad cow disease.”

“They ate radioactive hay.”

“They were killed by space aliens.”

“It’s a government cover-up.”

“We’re going to get sick and die horribly.”

“I want a shower.  Please stop the car.”

“Maybe we should go back to Vegas for another night.”

“He’s going to blast him as soon as there aren’t any witnesses.”

And this, boys and girls, is why you never divide by zero.  Because you might blow up your engine chasing a truck full of dead cows and get stuck all alone in the desert with no cell phone coverage and all you can do is wait for a van full of scientists in white biohazard suits to show up and spray disinfectant all over you.  Then they will take you to a secret underground military installation for intensive debriefing and make you sign a non-disclosure agreement in your own blood.  There will be veiled and not so veiled threats about being disappeared from normal human society if you don’t keep your mouth shut.  Is that what you want?  Or you can just be a good citizen and go along and everything will be fine.  What’s it gonna be?


Posted in published with tags , on August 1, 2010 by Dean

Lecture: “Actuarial Science analyzes statistics with mathematical models to determine probabilities. Probabilities only function meaningfully on a scale large enough to successfully absorb individual anomalies. What is an anomaly? An means one. An anomaly is the one thing that actually happens. It is what actually happens to you or me and nobody knows what that will be. It is entirely unpredictable. Entirely. If you want to know what will happen to you, you should consult a fortune teller (pause for predicted displays of servile student amusement). If you want to know why it will happen you are in the wrong classroom, although I do not know what the right one for you would be (pause). Actuarial Science is not about what will happen to you or when it will happen or why it will happen. It is about rigging the game so the house wins more often than it loses.”

John Smith Esq. died on the courthouse steps on his way to file papers in an inheritance dispute. He was late for his appointment and was checking his papers as he climbed the steps. A man coming down the steps was trying to read a text message on his cell phone. The man bumped into John Smith, causing a (very important, original, signed, witnessed) document to start slipping from his attaché case. John Smith lurched to his left, stumbled and fell forward into Ellen Sings at Night. Ellen Sings at Night was coming down the steps with an attaché case in her left hand. In her right hand was a ceremonial pipe that had belonged to her great-great-grandfather. As she fell backward, she swung her attaché case behind her to break her fall and held the pipe out in front of her to protect it from damage. The pipe was wrapped in deerskin and the stem end stuck out slightly. Instead of putting out his hand to break his fall, John Smith clutched his papers to his chest to secure them. When he fell on top of Ellen Sings at Night the pipe stem penetrated through his left eye into his brain, killing him instantly. Ellen Sings at Night was bruised painfully by the granite steps. The (original, signed, witnessed) document blew away and was picked up several hours later by a bicycle messenger who used it to scrape dog crap off his shoe.

What were the chances of that happening, that one thing and not something else? The chances—at least by retrospective logic—were 100%. John Smith became dead by a complex sequence of seemingly random and unconnected events. Nobody could have predicted it but nevertheless, he was absolutely dead. And his own final act was an acquired reaction meant to protect what he had come to value and thereby to protect himself. And what could you say about that reaction except… it had apparently worked just fine until it didn’t.

Lecture: “Do not suppose it is ever about anything but profit, which we measure in dollars. Do not look for morality or justice or the egoic illusion that you are somehow bettering human society. Do not suppose Actuarial Science is about the cold, hard facts. The cold, hard facts only exist after something has happened and it is too late to do anything about it. Actuarial Science is not about making guesses, although you will make guesses every day. You will make guesses by analyzing the flawed guesses, incomplete data, misleading statistics, superstitious beliefs and outright lies compiled by other people.  Your job, as a practitioner of Actuarial Science, is not to predict what will happen. You are not a fortune teller. Your job is to rig the game so the house wins more than it loses.”

There were many witnesses to John Smith’s death. One claimed John Smith had assaulted Ellen Sings at Night and she had merely defended herself. Another claimed Ellen Sings at Night had attacked John Smith deliberately and–even though her hair was braided in American Indian style, she looked like an Arab–had they searched her for explosives and automatic weapons? The man with the cell phone had managed to read his text message while John Smith was dying, and tried to walk away from the incident. He was detained by a policewoman who was standing at the bottom of the courthouse steps and had observed the event. The majority of witnesses stated that it looked like an unfortunate accident, just one of those things.

Ellen Sings at Night answered many questions, declined medical treatment and inquired about the pipe. She was told the pipe would be released to her in due course, once the investigative protocols demanded by this unusual event had been completed. John Smith was hauled away with the pipe still stuck in his head.

Lecture: “Profit is measured in dollars, that is, a dollar sign with a number after it. The word trade implies one thing is exchanged for another thing of similar value. There is no profit in that. Actuarial Science is not about trade or commerce or free markets or supply and demand or gross national product or any other such elusive concepts that economists entertain themselves with (pause). The most efficient way to acquire profit is to deal with the dollars as directly as possible. I give you five dollars, you give me four dollars back, you make a profit. This is why the vast majority of career opportunities in Actuarial Science are in the insurance and financial sectors. These businesses strive to minimize their involvement with the inefficiencies of producing goods and services. Currency traders [sic] are the most efficient of all. They produce no goods or services whatsoever, only profit (pause) or loss (pause). In modern society these kinds of businesses constitute the house. They will hire you to help rig the game in their favor. You are here to learn how to do that.”

James Smith was notified of his father’s accident and requested to identify the remains. Ellen Sings at Night was notified she could retrieve her pipe. As it happened (the coroner wanted to get these things done and go home), they arrived at the coroner’s office at the same time.

Ellen: “I’m here about the pipe.”

Coroner: “You are Ellen… Sings at Night?”

James: “You’re the one who…?”

Ellen: “Well, you could say it was my great-great-grandfather.”

Coroner: “And you are…?”

James: “The… James Smith. His son.”

Coroner: “May I see some identification?”

Coroner: “I’m sorry. Both of you please.”

James: (showing his ID) “Why could you say that?”

Ellen: (showing her ID) “It’s his pipe. He died in 1889.”

James: “What did he die of?”

Ellen: “He was lynched by a white rancher for stealing his own horse back.”

James: “So this is his revenge or something?”

Ellen: “I don’t know. They say he was pretty mad about it.”

James: “You sound pretty mad about it too.”

Ellen: “Look. He fell on top of me. I wasn’t stalking him with my primitive native artifact. I’ve already been accused of being a militant Indian and an Arab terrorist and the jilted concubine of a paleface lawyer. The pipe is over a hundred years old and it means a lot to me and I never saw your dad before in my life.”

Coroner: “Follow me please, Mr. Smith.”

The coroner leads James Smith into a room where his father lies on a stainless steel table with wheels. The coroner reveals John Smith’s face and gaping, ruined eye socket. Even covered by the sheet, the rest of his body looks nakedly old, scrawny and discarded. James Smith nods to the coroner. Ellen Sings at Night watches through the window in the swinging door.

James: “That’s him. That’s my dad. John Smith, Esquire.”

Coroner: (replacing sheet) “Thank you. I’m sorry.”

Coroner: “The body can be released from here to the funeral home as soon as those arrangements are made.”

Coroner: “I’ll just need your signature on the identification form. Please follow me.”

The coroner, followed by James and Ellen, returns to the counter joining the office with the hallway. James signs the form.

Ellen: “Why do they call them homes?”

Coroner: “They used to call them parlors.” (like ice cream parlors)

James: “They just want something that sounds like… not like what they are.”

Ellen: “Is it hard to work in a place like this?”

Coroner: “The deceased are not hard to get along with.”

James: “If you didn’t know them.”

Ellen: “I’m sorry about your dad.”

James: “Not your fault, but thanks.”

Coroner: (placing a plastic bag containing the pipe on the counter) “The pipe has been cleaned and sterilized in an autoclave. We had to do that because the uh… material on it is legally considered a biohazard. I don’t think it was damaged in any way but we are not guaranteeing that. Please initial here and here and sign and date here.”

James: “Dad’s brains… biohazard.”

James: “Sorry.”

Ellen: (signing the form) “Was he…?”

James: “A decent man? A good father? I suppose. I don’t know. He was a lawyer.”

Ellen: “Meaning…?”

James: “He didn’t engage real life much. He had a good brain.”

James: (snort) (cackle) (shudder)

Coroner: (sigh) (here it comes) (not a bad place to work until the living showed up)

Coroner: “Thank you both very much for your patience. I’ll show you out. Please follow me.”

James: “You’re limping, did you get hurt?”

Ellen: “I hit the steps pretty hard. (I’ll live) I’m all right.”

James: “Why were you there?”

Ellen: “I’m a lawyer. For the tribe.”

Ellen: “What do you do?”

James: (I insert foot in mouth)

James: “I’m an Actuarial Scientist. That is, I have my degree. I’m looking for a job.”

Ellen: “What kind of job would that be?”

James: “Making sure the house always wins.”

Ellen: “Isn’t it like that already?”

James: “Well yes, but you want it to be your house.”

James: “What do you do for the tribe?”

Ellen: “File papers so we can open a gambling casino on the reservation.”

Coroner: “This is not the way you came in. Here is 16th Street. Fremont and the main entrance are that way. Thank you for coming.”

Coroner closes the metal door. James and Ellen stand silently. Traffic passes.

Ellen: “Would you like to get a drink?”

James: “Absolutely.”

They walk a block down 16th Street to a neon sign that says “MCs”. They enter, sit at the bar, order beer. On the mirrored wall behind the bar is a smaller neon sign that says “Mitigating Circumstances”.  Ellen lays pipe on bar.

James: “So (gesturing vaguely)… you’re ok with this?”

Ellen: “Yeah. Hi, my name is Ellen and I’m not a redskin alcoholic.”

James: “Don’t be so touchy. I’m supposed to be grieving.”

Bartender sets two beers on bar, takes money.

James: “I take it back. Here’s to being real.”

Ellen: “To the real red way.”

They drink some beer.

James: “You’re not too keen on that casino thing are you.”

Ellen: “The tribe doesn’t have the capital to do it on its own so it will be bankrolled by an investment group who’ll take the biggest share of the profits. Gambling, alcohol and dehumanizing jobs will be more readily available on the rez. What’s not to like? We’ll make some money to improve social services but what will it really cost us in, you know, further destruction of culture and assimilation into the great American way of life?”

James: “You’re a lawyer and it doesn’t seem to have destroyed you.”

Ellen: “Ok… point taken. You’re an actuarian, how’s that going?”

James: “The word is actuary, but I like yours better. I should put it on my cards. Analyze statistics, identify trends and patterns, assess risks and predict profits and losses. My professor used to insist we did not predict the future but of course that is exactly what we try to do. Or maybe we’re creating it. Maybe that’s what bothered him. Except it’s the future of nobody in particular so it has nothing to do with actual life–but it has everything to do with making money, which apparently does have something to do with actual life.”

James: “I like the math and setting up computer analysis and I’m not good at anything else and it’s what my dad would agree to pay for but it all seems very unreal sometimes.”

James: (sipping beer)

James: “Hi, my name is James and I’m an actuarian. It’s been three months since I calculated anyone’s death.”

James: (crying briefly)

Ellen: “You miss him.”

James: “I’ve been missing him for years. It just reminds me of that.”

Ellen: (sipping beer)

Ellen: “You’re not too bad at talking to a complete stranger.”

James: (looking at pipe) “Why did you have this with you?”

Ellen: “I thought it might help.”

James: “How do you mean?”

Ellen: “I never knew my great-great-grandfather of course. My father left me the pipe. He used to put the pipe in my hands and hold me in his lap and tell me this is all we have… each other. He didn’t mean just him and me. He meant the tribe, the people. I just… thought it might help… make things better… somehow. I don’t know what I expected, maybe nothing. Not this.”

James: “Your father is… gone too?”

Ellen: “He worked high steel. He flew off a skyscraper.”

Ellen: (the other way she remembered him–flying through the air, arms spread like wings, hair whipping in the wind, hard hat tumbling far behind him, bound for earth, smiling, thinking about her)

Ellen: “It paid for law school.”

James: (this we call cold, hard facts?) “I suppose I’ll inherit something now.”

Ellen: (don’t think) “I don’t think the tribe has any actuarians.”

Ellen: “We probably need one.”

James: (touching the plastic bag)

Ellen: (just fly) “Why don’t you hold on to that for a little while.”

Ellen: “You can give it back to me at the funeral.”

James: “I…” (predicting the future)

James: “…suppose I could work cheap if I inherited something.”

Ellen: (nodding) “Not much profit in working for the tribe.”

James: (putting hand on pipe)

Ellen: (putting business card on bar)

Ellen: (go now) “Call me.”

Yacht Club

Posted in published with tags , on March 23, 2010 by Dean

I met her in a guitar shop.  I became aware she had been there a while and never got too far away in the big store, that she was actually listening, that we had become aware of each other.

Attention is a strange thing.  You can feel it.  You can sit in a restaurant full of people with your eyes on your guitar and tell which direction it is coming from.  If you look up without thinking about it too much you will find yourself looking right into the eyes of somebody looking back at you.  And feel a certainty the music you are playing is being heard for what it is, and so is the joy you take in it.  When that happens you know your life and your art are a complete success, at least in that one little moment.  You feel lucky you dared to do such a ridiculous thing, being there, doing that.

I was picking Martins out of the hanging racks and trying them out, taking my time, looking for that special one.  The one that felt like we already knew and understood each other.  The whole this is the one thing may be a delusion, but it seems real enough when it happens.  I had already come back to one particular guitar three times.  I already knew it was the one and I was going to buy it.  I was just trying to be reasonable and rational about it, since I had driven 300 miles to come to this shop and was going to spend over $1500, on top of my $1200 trade in.

Which was silly, because I was actually there to correct my own misguided rationality.  I had bought the guitar I was trading in as an effort to accommodate my limitations.  It had a little wider neck to make a little more room for my lack of precision in the tiny movements of picking the strings.  I had been playing it for two years by then and I knew it didn’t matter.  No amount of tricks or special exercises or hours of practice or a wider neck was ever going to make me any faster or overcome this bit of clumsiness.  And because I had sat in restaurants and art galleries and had those perfect moments, I knew it didn’t matter.  What mattered was that I really meant it, being there, doing that.  I didn’t have to be a master guitarist, I never would be a master guitarist, I just had to mean it.  Fingers doing the best they could.  Wood vibrating against flesh and bone.  No lies being told.

When I first started playing professionally, a guy I knew told me the secret was just to be yourself.  He wasn’t a master guitarist either, but he had been playing in bands and in bars for a long time.  He was like me, musically competent but nothing special, except for loving it enough that he kept at it all those years.  You could see it when he played, that he did it because he loved it.  He worked in a grocery store for thirty years and played rock and roll in bars on the weekend.  He probably knew when he said it that I didn’t have a clue what it really meant, but I might understand some day, and that it was especially important for me because I played solo.  Just me and my guitar and mostly my own compositions or arrangements.  I didn’t sing or tell jokes or wear a funny outfit or have any sort of act.  I did like to improvise, and I was even good at it occasionally.  But you have to be at ease to do that well.  You have to be willing to let things happen and to screw up once in a while.  Not get all serious about some imagined thing you have to be or ought to be or wish you were but you aren’t or that you think people will demand of you.  You have to be yourself, just being there, doing that, which is harder than any of those other things at first, but easier in the long run.

Four years later I understood that.  I understood what it meant performing music, and I was starting to understand better what it meant in life, this mysterious secret of just being there, doing that.  So I was in the guitar shop to trade in for a Martin, which had always been the guitar that felt the best in my hands, and the one I really wanted to play.

After about an hour she finally walked up and introduced herself.  She said she had promised a friend she would entertain at her wedding reception at the yacht club.  She said she sang and had many songs of her own, and played the guitar, but not nearly as well as I did, and a little piano.  She said she liked the way I picked up on the guy at the other end of the building, when he was trying out a synthesizer, and jammed along with him.  She wondered if I’d be interested in doing the gig with her.

I said I lived 300 miles away, but it sounded interesting.

She said she couldn’t pay me, she wasn’t getting paid herself, it was a favor she owed an old friend.  But she had a guest room and would feed me and she thought my style of playing would go really well with her songs and that it would be fun.  She said she had all the sound equipment we’d need.  I could come down and we could rehearse a few days and I could go to the beach and it would be like a vacation.

She was an attractive woman.  Not like magazine photo-shoot air-brushed attractive.  Like forty year old grown-up real-life woman with no make-up attractive.  It mattered that she was a woman and I was a man, but not in an overtly sexual kind of way.  The natural affinity of genders was like an extension, some added spice and energy, to the affinity of two people with a musical connection.  That was plenty seductive all by itself.  And it was novel.  And flattering.  Nice to be wanted.  Nice to get some beach time.  Nice to get away from all the usual people and usual things and do something a little weird.  And play at a yacht club for people who had no idea how many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I ate or how many thousands of hours I practiced or that I was fulfilling a childhood dream every time I got up in front of people and played a tune I had written myself, even though I would probably never break even.

Sometimes people who would spend more in a weekend than I made in a year would tell me they enjoyed it and leave me a nice tip.  Sometimes people said I made it look easy, one of the best compliments of all.  I got a kick out of being around wealthy people, up on a stage while they ate their dinner or looked at paintings and sculpture, making it look easy.  It made me feel like a secret agent subverting the powers of darkness.  Showing them something money couldn’t buy.  Being there, doing that.

Oh yes, it was plenty seductive even without any suggestion of sex or promise of money.

We talked about it some more.  I said let me think about it.  We exchanged contact info.  She said she’d send me some samples of lyrics and music.  We said we’d be in touch.  I bought the Martin and got it set up to my liking and drove 300 miles back home.  I wondered if I was just being stupid, or if her song lyrics would be awful, or if there was really something to the feeling I had that she meant every word she said and we might really do a little art we would be proud of.  At a yacht club.

She sent me a tape with a few tunes and some copies of her lyrics with chord changes scribbled in.  I liked her poetry a lot.  It was moving and honest.  It had an understated psychological power.  Some of it was eerie and dark, full of pain without a shred of whining.  The sort of thing that made you suddenly realize you had stopped breathing while you read it.  It was not awful.  It was better than any poetry I ever wrote.  Better than most of the poetry I ever read.

One of the songs on the tape was a train song.  God knows how many train songs have been written since the steam engine was invented.  It’s not hard to understand why.  What else captures so well the feeling of being swept along by something too powerful to resist?  Her song was about losing things she loved, losing all but the sadness and the memories, and still being on that train of hope, because she just couldn’t stop it.  It made you want to cry and laugh for joy at the same time because you were rolling with her.  There wasn’t any smoke belching from the stack or any chug-chug or woo-woo.  It was just hope barreling down the tracks in your heart and your imagination.  Rocking you along to wherever it was going and you were glad to be on it and you never wanted to get off.

I played it about ten times in a row.  I was stunned.  There was no way I was going to pass this up.  I gave up a gig and cancelled some student lessons.  I not only would not get paid, I would give up money and buy my own gas.  How many chances would a guy like me get to work with someone like this?

The wedding reception was on a Sunday.  I told her I could be there late Wednesday afternoon, ten days before the gig, and we’d have plenty of time to get ready.  Meanwhile I would work on what she had sent me.


I found her house a couple of weeks later on a quiet residential street not far from the university district, a few blocks from the nearest busy boulevard.  When I pulled up in front I saw a very big, newish-looking pickup truck parked in the driveway next to a small travel trailer.  Behind them was a  heavy steel gate on wheels and behind that was a silver Airstream trailer and a two-story detached garage.  The house was small and looked like it had been built in the 1940s.  The front yard had a few coastal desert plantings, but they and the house looked kind of neglected, like nobody payed much attention to them unless they had to.

She showed me around the place.  I would stay in the Airstream.  The music studio was in the garage.  There were amps and microphones and music stands and stools to sit on, though I had brought my own.  There was a half bath.  There was a baby grand piano and several acoustic guitars and piles of sheet music and magazines.

Her room was above the garage, one big room she liked better than the house, she said, because it was small.  The back yard was surrounded by a wooden fence eight feet tall.  All you could see of the neighbors was the roofs of their houses.  In the center of the yard was a pond full of tiger lilies and a fountain that didn’t work.  On the side of the garage was an outdoor shower that did work.  It had no walls or curtain around it, but it didn’t matter because of the fence.

In the house was a small kitchen.  Chipped and cracked formica and linoleum, a stainless steel coffee maker, a stained sink and faucet that dripped, a modern double-door fridge with sprouts and vegetables and fruit and expensive cheeses and organic bread inside.  An almost unbearably cramped and uncomfortable built-in nook to sit and eat, with the local underground/punk newspaper spread out on it.

A tiny bathroom off the hall.  Another small room with paints, brushes and an empty easel.  Art books, baskets, pieces of cloth, pottery, an assortment of things you couldn’t tell if they meant something or had just been put down and forgotten.

The living room had a big TV and stereo, a couch and arm chair, bookshelves with books and art objects, a threadbare rug, dusty curtains, a pile of shoes by the front door.  An oil painting of her that had all the intensity of her poetry and a van Gogh quality of relentless observation mixed with madness.  I didn’t ask if she painted it.  I thought I knew the answer.  If it was by her own hand or someone else’s didn’t seem to matter.  Either way it was her self portrait.

Where the money for all this came from was not apparent, though I did get some clues eventually.  What was apparent was that she was an eccentric, intelligent, highly creative person… and fascinated with herself above all, which didn’t seem unusual really, I think most people are.  So far, I would agree she had more to be fascinated with, and more inner focus to bring to the task, than most.  But I was also beginning to think she might be a little crazy and I should be cautious.  She never asked me anything about myself the whole time I was there.

After I got moved in we played music till around midnight.  She wanted to do some of her own songs and some standards from old musicals and the big band days.  She had cheat books.  I had cheat books.  We talked about what we already knew and what we might learn.  She said there would be a piano at the yacht club.  She could do a little bit solo.  I could do a little bit solo.  We ought to be able to fill two or three hours without much trouble.

She sang consistently a little bit flat.  Lots of people wouldn’t even notice it.  I have a good ear for pitch and that sort of thing usually bothers me, but in this case it didn’t.  It was like it was just enough off to be, like a style, something done deliberately to draw you in more completely.  It made everything sound like the blues.

She got a phone call and went up to her room for a long time.  I went to bed.

The next morning I made myself breakfast and worked by myself for a while.  She appeared around noon and asked me if I wanted to go to the beach.  She disappeared into her room for another long phone call.  When she came back we headed out.

She drove the big pickup with competence and relaxed concentration, changing from one lane to another, one freeway to another, and passing nearly everyone with the silent smoothness of a limo driver.

I’m not a guy who likes to hang out at the beach.  A little bit of people watching and wave watching is all right, but what I want to do is get in the water and swim.  It didn’t seem like the singer and I were even there together, which I guess we weren’t.  She brought me because it was part of the deal.  I swam straight out to sea until the people were dots and the buildings above the beach were like little boxes.  I rested there, rising and falling in the swell.  You wanted strange.  You got strange.  I swam back and sat in the sun drying off.

A young woman came down to the beach from one of the condos on the hillside.  She spread a big towel in the sand and started doing some exercises.  She had a great tan and long, gleaming black hair.  She was about seven months pregnant.  She was wearing a thong.  Strange but beautiful.

The singer came back wet.  She picked up her dress from the pile of our belongings in front of me and pulled it over her head.  She squirmed out of her one-piece bathing suit and dropped it on the pile.  She got a pair of panties out of her beach bag and pulled them on.  The sinuous motions were very sexy.  It seemed like a performance just for me.  Not for me the person, the man… for me the audience.  The one who, more than any other, at the moment, was paying complete attention and was fascinated.  Strange but beautiful.

I had the feeling by now that the only real meeting ground between us was the music, and my fascination.  It was disappointing, disturbing, that she had so much awareness of herself and so little awareness of the rest of the world.  No, that’s not right.  Driving the truck, she was aware of everything.  Playing music, she was aware of me as a musician.  On the beach, she was certainly aware I was sitting six feet away watching her get naked.  More than naked.  There was just this kind of remove, of isolation, of being untouchable, as though nothing in the world was quite as real as herself.  As though all the world was composed of objects to be managed and an audience to be enthralled with her siren song.  Strange but beautiful.

When we got back to her house we cleaned up and had something to eat and then worked on music until around midnight again.  It was going pretty well, we worked well together.  We gave each other a boost and it was all very lively, satisfying and fun.  We made some of the choices about particular tunes and put some others on the table for consideration.

The next day, Friday, was much the same, except she told me about being in prison.  She was pulling a horse trailer full of marijuana with her previous big pickup truck and got busted and did two years in the women’s correctional facility.  She said when she was processed into the prison she set two goals for herself–that when she got out she would still be able to walk and still have all her teeth.  She said she had even organized her prison mates in a cell-cleaning effort at one point, which got them better privileges.  Apparently, her charisma worked with women too.

Saturday was similar, except she said my Speedos were corny and out of style.  She was right of course, if looking trendy at the beach was your goal, but I wanted to swim.

During rehearsal we had a disagreement about our repertoire.  She suggested a movie tune I really didn’t like.    Ballrooms and diamonds and champagne and some stupid fake romance.  All glitter and no guts.  She said she wanted to do the tune because she thought it would please the old folks who would be at the wedding reception.  Remind them of the good old days during World War Two I guess.  You know, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, Guadalcanal, the firebombing of Dresden, death camps, all that.  Some fond memories.

I said if you’re going to sing you ought to make it mean something real and your own songs are better than that.  She looked at me like I was missing the point, and maybe I was.

I began to wonder if I had not completely mistaken everything.  I wondered if her songs were just accidental products of a talent she didn’t even value herself.  The art was just something that happened, it didn’t really mean anything, it was all an illusion.  It became like a contest of wills between us, but ended before it got out of hand because we had to go to a party.

The party was the second anniversary of the death of an old boyfriend of hers.  She said he had been beaten to death in a parking lot late one night.  Some kind of drug turf rivalry or something.  No one was ever prosecuted for the murder, but she thought she knew who did it.  Friends and family would be there.

I’m not anti recreational drugs really, or prescription drugs either for that matter.  I think they can all be abused and have casualties and victims and profiteers and so on.  I’m less open-minded about physical violence.  The psychological violence we all have to contend with every day can be damaging enough, but at least we can still walk and still have our teeth.

On our way to the party she put in a tape of Charles Bukowski reading his poetry.  I had never heard Bukowski speak, but I had seen some of his poetry, many years earlier.  I didn’t recognize the poems so much as recognize the intoxicating bleakness, the dark perception, the drunken humor, the… wastedness.  One of those unexpected moments when immediate impressions and long gone memories meet and spit out a name and an image of something you knew was true but not the life you wanted for yourself.  Brought to you by this dark woman in a white pickup truck on the way to celebrate death.  You wanted weird.  You got weird.  Way to go.

The party was boring and depressing.  A few people were passingly courteous.  Most either tried to give me cocaine or ignored me completely.  Somebody, somehow, owned a whole hillside of little houses above the beach, an enclave gathered around a long set of stairs.  In the little house at the top lived the dead guy’s mother, to whom I was introduced because that was how things were done there.  You paid your respects to the matriarch.  The entire setup had the same dusty, neglected look as the singer’s house.

I thought what I guess anyone would think who wandered into a scene like that.  Old money, but not vast, liquid amounts of it, and mom still had her hand on the bank book.  In all the conversations I overheard, nothing sounded like what people did because they were actually interested, had a career or a vocation or any kind of goal other than amusing themselves and making money.  Nobody was talking about the dead guy.  I suppose there might be people in the family who were a little more, I hate to use the word, normal.  Perhaps they didn’t come to the parties.  Perhaps they had moved to another state or another country or another universe.

It was almost like it was scripted, her playing the tape on the way over, the opening scene with voice-over that established the mood of the story to come.  The tape ends.  You get out of the truck and walk right into the smiling black despair.

On the ride back to the singer’s house she talked about moving to India.  She said she knew some people there who had a little hotel that hippies and other tourists stayed in and she could do her music.  What would I think about doing something like that?

I kept my mouth shut because I was no longer in any doubt about her craziness or my stupidity.  I did not want to get into an argument while she was driving and end up in a car wreck because the whole thing was already a train wreck and I wanted out.  You wanted weird.  You got weird.  How do you like it buddy?  It was not seductive any more.  Still fascinating in a way, because it was all so intense and surreal, but way too creepy to be appealing.  Like, picture Bukowski looking deep into a murky glass of booze and seeing his face reflected in there and just diving right in it was so goddamn fascinating, and inviting you to join him.  No thanks.

And I did not want to say what is wrong with you people?  What is wrong with you?  You have a great talent and you just use it to further self-destruction?  Yeah sure, I have my little fantasy about childhood dreams and being a secret agent and I’ll never break even but I’m not trying to be nuts.  I’m not courting doom and making pacts with other people so we can be nuts together.

I was mad.  I was not doing this… whatever it was.

When we got back to her house I said I was leaving and started packing my stuff.  Those were the last words I said to her.  I don’t want to do this.  I’m going home.  During the few minutes it took to gather my things and put them in the car I saw one of the most amazing performances of my life.

It’s good to have a few friends who know things you don’t.  Not just think they do, which is very common, but actually know something and tell you about it.  I had a friend who told me about the codependency triangle.  She drew it on a piece of paper and described it.  Victim-Rescuer-Persecutor.  I guess she thought it might be helpful to me in some way to know that.

In five minutes the singer worked the possible combinations, trying to find the one that would do the job.  Me as Victim, her as Rescuer.  Me as Rescuer, her as Victim.  Me as Persecutor, her as Victim.  I’m sorry, I left one out.  Her as Victim becoming Persecutor, me as Rescuer being turned into Victim.

It didn’t work because I recognized it.  It just made me more determined to get the hell out of there.  But it was awesome to behold and utterly pointless to contest.  Just get away while you can still walk and still have your teeth.

She reached in fast and snatched the keys out of the ignition.  I caught her wrist and started prying her fingers loose.  I was holding on hard because I knew it was going to get even weirder if she got away from me.  I pictured her tossing my keys away in the dark, up on a neighbor’s roof, into a backyard, into her underwear, down a street drain, somewhere I could not go to retrieve them.

I had not and was not getting into a screaming match with her.  I was not going to brawl with her, there in the middle of the narrow residential street, in the middle of the night, or anywhere else.  I had another key, hidden in the wheel-well.  It was the extra time it would give her that worried me, if I had to get out of the car and find it.  Time to start grabbing my stuff back out of the car, kicking headlights, whatever crazy thing came into her head.  This was my one and only chance to use my strength advantage and I wasn’t letting go because I was leaving.

I got the keys away from her, started the car and drove away.  I left her standing in the street, being and doing something I wanted no part of.

Close one.

Channeling Ahab

Posted in published with tags , on January 19, 2010 by Dean

In my third year of college I briefly had a girlfriend who was a Buddhist and was always talking about doing no harm and finding the middle way.

We watched “Moby Dick” together one night.  She saw the folly of Ahab’s ego and adored Queequeg, the noble tattooed savage listening to mysteries, unmoved by clever speeches.

I saw it was the passion of captains men followed, however mad their ambitions might be.  I said, in the end even Queequeg took up his harpoon and followed Ahab to his destiny.

Perhaps Ahab appeared to me much as Buddha did to her… a symbol of something eternal and greater than myself.  We broke up shortly after that.

I knew I was no captain, but I wanted to voyage.  I believed, as all young men do, that I would live to tell the tale.  Ishmael was protected by his innocence.  Why not I?

And so, it is Ahab who comes to fogbound dreams in my middle years–after many voyages and few catches—to continue this conversation begun years ago.

“Chase ye wisps,” he growls.  “Curs on longer leashes, no more, and yet ye stand in dread, bribing them with rotted meat and smiles as false as their own.

“Have Ahab whip them for thee, is that thy purpose, while ye watch, waiting for the leavings?  Scavengers are they, and thyself bait, staked to ground upon which they squabble ‘mongst themselves for flesh, and all, the entertainment of a hidden Master.”

I see his fierce tormented visage, his stovepipe hat and frock coat, his stiff frame rooted like a tree, a second mast grown from the rolling deck, bent and twisted by the gales of fate and his own defiance.

“If I seek only a longer leash myself,” says I, “and some ground to run on.  If I claim that bit of freedom will suffice me, might even be the purpose of that Master, will Ahab call it false?”

“Aye, a taste of freedom’s sweet,” says Ahab.  “Like an island seen on yon horizon after long months at sea, it beckons.  Whispers promises of fresh water and soft breezes, shady trees and solid ground that will not shift beneath thy feet at every step.  But say me, do ye imagine only peace lays there?  Only calm days and restful nights and loyal companions?  Not savages and storms to wreck thy humble dwelling?  And even be it habitable, think ye it too will not soon seem small, once its boundaries are measured?

“Ye have been chained too long, have forgotten freedom is strong drink, an elixir no man gives up willingly once downed, but keeps on with it till he has lost his senses, his sea legs, and mayhap his dinner too.  Think ye will not be the same?  Think ye will not stumble or lose the way, not be frightened by shadows or robbed by brutes who’ll beat the fool’s grin from thy countenance and leave thee wretched and bleeding, mumbling a broken tune through broken teeth?

“What say ye to that, tamed creature?  Speak up man, or go back to the bone at thy feet!”

What insult burns like the one half true?

“But what of your own crew, captain?” says I.  “What of the able seamen who went to a watery doom with you?  Were they free men, or a pack of broken hounds following a lunatic?  And where would your vengeance be without them?  Standing all alone at New Bedford’s dock, propped up by hate and the skeleton of conquest, staring impotently out to sea.”

He laughs.  Ahab laughs?  Rocks back on his one good leg and casts his mirth into the darkness, lifting his arm as in affection for the dead.

“Aye,” he says after a moment.  “Aye.  Good sailors they were, brave and true to the last.  Ought they have thrown me in the sea, and why did they not?  Because of ship’s owners?  Investors with their contracts, scratched on paper?  I say ye not!  Owners are not builders, though someone made the ship’s design, and others made its ribs and planks and joined mast to keel.  ‘Tis no great trouble to take a vessel from owners, once underway.  ‘Tis the common employment of pirates who lurk in coastal waters and fear the deep.  And what strength has paper in the wilds of the Horn?  Can it be hung upon a yard and drive a ship into their icy embrace?

“I say ye not!  Cowering servitude was not their cause, not fear of the lash, nor feigned respect for solicitors, sitting on their soft rumps in safe harbor.

“They put to sea for shares owed to widows of voyages past, and children needing bread in their bellies.  They sailed to feel the ocean’s swell beneath them, and nature’s breath behind them, and against them too.  Aye, Ahab’s captain and compass of the Pequod.  They followed because he pointed them the way in open seas, as he pointed their harpoons at worthy adversity.

“Were they superstitious men?  Surely, no less than I, granting a great spouting fish devilish power and wicked intent.  But if Man will not raise anchor, not make sail to venture against that greater than himself, a thing unknowable and monstrous, that frightens him even in his own safe sleep, then tell me, for what purpose these wooden manufactures?  What good the bindings of whalebone corsets, or oil for lamps flickering in the darkness, or perfumes to cover the stench of living?

“And ye, tamed creature, scurry like a rat on the wharves, tied not by chains but by thy own appetite for moldy scraps.  Have ye called me forth to battle kings or generals, or dragons of the deep defending their own freedom?  Or merely to drive off bigger vermin with my knocked pacing, and kick thee loose a bigger sack of spoil?”

“What of your cargo, captain?” says I.  “Not just common sailors lost, not just baleen or pretty scents or oil for light in the night, men and whales slaughtered for naught.  What of the shares for widows and orphans?  They too sank in the tempest of your greed and retribution.  Your cargo is death.  Destruction.  And how do ye name this voyage?  Glorious quest for freedom?  Magnificent justice?

“You too, run for easy meat, Ahab!  Exalt your vain philosophy, and perish with your pride, and leave your servants lost at sea.”

Ahab gives no answer, but turns away and paces on, the crack of his bony sideways step reverberating on the deck.  I’ll leave him to his nightmare, and wake to my own.


Posted in published with tags , on January 13, 2010 by Dean

The drunk from downstairs is standing on the back porch when I get home from work.  He seems harmless, but I don’t much believe in harmless anymore.  He and his girlfriend moved in below me about a month ago.  At night I hear their voices coming up through the floor, sounding like wind through bare trees in winter… mixed with laugh tracks and gunfire from their TV.

He says his name is Buck.  A country nickname worn by a skinny guy in jeans, same as he wears his faded shirt and scuffed cowboy boots, like he was leaning on a corral gate instead of the back porch rail of this big house in town, turned into apartments now, with more closed doors than it had when it was young.

He offers me a drink from his forty ounce beer.  I say no thanks, my mouth tastes like sawdust and dirt and horse manure and I need to shower and brush my teeth.  He tells me he used to work on ranches but got run over by a flatbed truck and can’t work no more and gets disability.  I’d guess he is a little younger than me, maybe fifty, but looks at least twenty years older, frail and shrinking in on himself.  I pull out my smokes and offer him one.  I’ll give him that long.

I say something about my job, figuring he’ll use it to talk about himself and his former life before becoming a drunk, as though that life still exists and we are a couple of blue jean wearing western guys in work boots, leaning on the porch rail after a day’s labor, tired enough to be satisfied we earned our keep.

I’m not satisfied.  I know I should quit this job but I’m not sure I have the nerve to do it.  I need the money.  I drove in about six months ago, with my pickup truck and carpentry tools and enough of a stake in cash to start fresh if it didn’t take too long.  It took three months to find a job and by then I had seen enough to know this small town had fallen on hard times and hadn’t hit bottom yet.  Empty houses and boarded up store fronts scattered around town and most of the generation between twenty and forty gone missing, which ought to tell you something.  But I’d put my money down and now I was stuck with it.

It ought to be a pretty good job, building a big pole barn out in the foothills.  I drive over an hour to get there by daybreak, the last eight miles on a gravel road winding through the woods and meadows of eastern Oregon.  The pay is good by local standards, and there are plenty of sunny days.  But the boss has what you might call an anger management problem.  At least you might call it that if you didn’t spend ten hours a day four days a week waiting for him to lose his temper and start snarling–stomping around with his shoulders hunched up, clenching his arms like he means to tear the world apart with his bare hands, eat its heart and spit out the parts he doesn’t like.

I once worked with a guy who would throw stuff when he got mad, but he always threw it in a safe direction so nobody minded too much.  When the boss gets mad you feel like it is aimed at you personally, like as a member of the human race, he wants to destroy you so completely even god can’t put you back together again.  Even if whatever set him off has nothing to do with you and you just happen to be standing nearby.

The third or fourth day I worked for him he threatened to get his rifle out of his truck and shoot me.  I had just wasted about fifteen minutes doing something the wrong way and had to do it over, so I thought he had a right to be a little critical.  He was smiling when he said it and I almost believed it was just good old boy gun talk, just part of the noise you hear on some construction sites.  But it made me nervous all the same.  The bastard might be crazy enough to do it for all I knew.  You see all kinds of smiles on people’s faces.

I also figured he had never shot a man in his life which I have, in the war, maybe more than one, I’ll never know for sure.  I don’t like that kind of gun talk.  I think grown men ought to take death a little more seriously than that.  But I have to work with all kinds of people so I just try to tolerate it and mind my own business.

To be fair to him, he acknowledges it when I do good work in good time too.  But to balance things out right, he’d have to threaten me with immortality and to tell the truth, that would be even less tempting than the idea of being shot dead on a pretty hillside in what’s left of the wild wild west.

Normally I’d be more tolerant of a fellow like Buck too.  I wouldn’t begrudge him his memories of the old days when he worked for a living.  If cowboying was what gave him a sense of himself as a man, gave him some pride and dignity and the belief he could hold his own in a tough world, and it all came to an end under a flatbed truck, well… anybody could get run over by a flatbed truck if that’s what life decided was going to happen.  And you’d have to make up your own explanation for it because life wasn’t about to tell you why it did that.

He says he was born and raised here.  And even allowing for the booze he’s poured into himself, I suspect he wasn’t too bright to start with, and explanations were never his strong suit.  May be why he became a drunk, because he can’t explain what life did to him.  May be because it never stopped hurting, where life ran him over.  And maybe he earned his memories fair and square, even if some of them are lies and others have been polished up by repetition.  He collided with something bigger and harder than he was, but it left him still breathing.  And people picked him up and fixed him up as far as the cowboy repair budget would allow.  And maybe that sound of winter wind through the trees was Buck cursing them under his breath.  For saving him so he had to remember what he lost, had to make it seem more than it was, because it was all he was going to get.

I came into town and put my money down.  I did that mostly to prove to myself I was choosing to go forward… to go toward something instead of away from something.  To go toward the rest of my life, whatever that turned out to be.  You might say I had been run down by a flatbed truck myself.  Different make and model than the one that got Buck, but it had my name on it just as sure.  And I never heard it coming anymore than he did, until I was down, wondering if I’d ever get up again.

I chose to believe I was going forward because you have to believe something.  At least I knew that much.  You will believe something.  By your own choice or by somebody else’s, if you won’t make a choice.  It’s just how things work.  You have a little bit of power to choose your actions, and that’s it.  Use it or lose it.  You have to step up if you want to have any say in things, any say at all.  You can’t play it safe because there’s no such thing as safe, just like there’s no such thing as harmless.

Buck acts like we’re buddies already, even though we just met a few minutes ago.  We have established back-porch blue-jean common ground and a mutual distrust of the people in charge, whoever they might be.  It never takes long to do that.  He wouldn’t have offered his beer bottle if I wasn’t his kind, and even though I refused it I gave a good enough excuse and made up for it by sharing my smokes.

People joke about the code of the west and maybe they should.  But even if it sounds lame, it’s how people try to get along.  It wasn’t made up by Hollywood cowboys.  It’s as old as the rocks sticking out of the ground up on the hill we’re looking at while we talk, with a hawk circling above them in the sunlight, got his eye on something.  You meet up and show your hands and offer gifts and try to sort out who’s strong and who’s weak and who’s clever and what you’re both after and try to seem comfortable with the situation by not staring watchfully at each other while you see what kind of deal you can make.

I guess I’m a little ahead.  Buck took the cigarette and I know he’s got his own.  I can see the shape of them in his shirt pocket.  And I have a job and I made new memories today, though he has no idea what they are.  Well, he has an idea about it, but he’s wrong.

Maybe the boss is growing a brain tumor or has an old head injury.  Maybe the son of a bitch needs a new one.  A few nights ago I imagined getting into a fight with him and beating him to death with my framing hammer.  I haven’t felt such a violent impulse for a long time and I don’t think I could take him anyway, for sure not without the hammer.  It left me sweating and shaking and crying in my bed, but I still got up and went to work the next morning.  In a way, I wish I could just meet him like that.  Just the two of us hating each other into oblivion and be done with it.

None of that is likely though.  His son joined our crew a few weeks ago and rides to work with me now.  He says his old man has always been like this, always had trouble keeping workers.  He says he wouldn’t work for him either, if he didn’t need the money.  He says it without any prompting or complaints from me.  I guess the situation is clear enough to him because he’s seen it all before.

The last time I killed another creature bigger than a bug was almost thirty years ago.  I broke the neck of a chicken named Chester and cooked him and ate him.  I named Chester after the character in Gunsmoke because he had a gimpy leg.  Chester the TV character had Marshall Dillon to look out for him.  Chester the real life chicken had me.

Chester spent his short life as an outcast, driven away from food because he was defective.  I fed him off by himself.  He came to recognize me and to expect this from me and even started answering to his name.  Every time I saw Chester he would be clucking nervously and watching the rest of the flock–hens and roosters alike–as though he expected attack at any next moment.  Watching with a kind of sideways look like he really didn’t want to know, didn’t want to see it coming, because when it came he would be defenseless against it anyhow.

Buck reminds me of Chester.  Buck doesn’t give a damn about me and I don’t give a damn about him.  We’re not friends.  I might feel a little pity for him if I didn’t know it would only make things worse.  Everything about Buck, the sound of his voice, the way he stands, the way his clothes don’t fit him because they’re too big for him now, makes me cringe.  He acts harmless because that’s all he’s got left.  That and more beer in the house.

Normally, I’d be willing to share his sadness just a little—if that’s what pity is–instead of faking it like I am now.  I might make a little more effort to lighten him up for a minute or two.  Shake his hand and nod and say yeah and chuckle at a joke if he made one.  He knows things won’t get any better, but he hasn’t turned mean.  I can respect him for that.  I know he doesn’t beat his woman, I would’ve heard it.  Some men in his shoes would.  I don’t know who she is or why she’s there and I don’t want to.  Good luck to ‘em.

By normally, I mean if it was better days for me.  I have had better days.  I’m faking it now because what I feel most is contempt.  But I also know that right now, deep down, I am scared I’m becoming like him, and the contempt is really for myself.  I know I didn’t refuse his beer because I’m worried about his spit.  I hate knowing these things, but I’m stuck with them too.

What happened that first time the boss said he’d shoot me was I heard this whiny voice in my head saying I really need this job and please don’t fire me and so forth.  Out loud, I admitted my mistake to him and said I fixed it and I told you when you hired me I was better at some things than at others, and so I generally carried it off all right.  But it shook me pretty bad because inside, I could feel myself taking a step back.

There was a time I never stepped back.  It wouldn’t even enter my mind to do it.  There was a line where if you pushed past it I pushed back and that line was always right in front of me wherever I stood and it seemed like it was somehow visible to other people because when they got up to it they stopped.  That made me feel strong, and fearless in a certain way.  Not that I was never afraid, but that it didn’t make any difference if I was or not.

In those days the voice in my head would have been saying well I’m sorry you think this is a killing offense but if you do then go get your gun and we’ll see what happens or would you rather get some work done.  I wouldn’t have said it out loud because I wouldn’t have to.  It wouldn’t even matter what words I actually said.  I’d just know I would stand my ground and he’d know it too, even if he was half crazy.

That would have been soldier talk, a soldier way of looking at things.  Take a teenage boy who is rebellious and half wild and fed up with the limited world he knows and eager to get out and see the bigger one.  Toss him in that part of the world where people are running around murdering each other and that’s how he starts to think about things.  He knows that death is always nearby.  Always.  And you have to act in spite of that fact.  If he walks away from it on his own two feet he has learned something, but not as much as he thinks.  He knows some things are more important than whether you live or die.  But he doesn’t know what they are.

It was the natural thing to do, what I did to Chester.  I raised some chickens and got eggs steady and had too many roosters and it was time to cull the flock and it only made sense to take Chester first.  I didn’t even have to bring any food.  I just stepped in the chicken yard and called his name and he walked right up to me.  I wrung his neck and cooked him and ate him.  I can still feel the betrayal of it.  I feel silly saying that but that’s how it was.  A damn chicken.

I just wasn’t the same after that, though I didn’t know it for quite a while.  A flatbed truck slipped off its brake and began a long slow roll down to the place we would meet.  I don’t picture Chester behind the wheel or anything like that.  I’m not that far gone.  But I guess I think it was inevitable.  Fate, karma, the relentless and merciful justice of god.  Something.

Once in a while you hear a story about somebody doing the right thing and paying the price for it.  It sounds courageous and admirable and all.  Sometimes it sounds simple too, though it probably wasn’t–knowing what the right thing was.  Not that knowing what it is makes it any easier to do.  You can’t get ready for that.  You can’t know ahead of time what the right thing is going to be, and you can’t depend on somebody else to tell you what it is, though there’s no shortage of people who’ll try.  Mostly, you just have to take your best guess.

This ought to be a pretty good job.  The young couple who bought all these acres down a gravel road are decent people.  They aren’t afraid to get dirty or do some hard work and they get along with their horses.  They don’t act superior or seem to be pretending too much about that either.  I don’t know where they got the money, somewhere in the big city I hear, doing big city things.  No doubt it’s the kind of fantasy only money makes possible–raising horses out here in what’s left of the wild wild west.  But it could be a meth lab, or a psycho survivalist camp, or some demented guru and his followers.  I like this better.

It’s the biggest building I ever worked on.  It will have stables and tack rooms and feed storage and a place to park equipment and a big indoor horse arena.  We’re building massive roof trusses here on the site, and raising them up to the poles with a big fork lift.  There are four of us now–the boss, his son, me, and Jake–barely twenty and learning the trade. We work with power tools and tall ladders and heavy lumber and machinery, stuff that can maim or kill you in the blink of an eye.  The last thing you need on a dangerous job is to be always on the lookout for the boss to drop out of the sky like a mythical beast, breathing fire and scorching the earth around him.

He’s making me crazy.  I’ve gotten hurt four times in the last few weeks because of it.  Not seriously yet, but it’s not a good trend.  I’m thinking if things go on like this, it’s only a matter of time.  When I look at Buck and hear about his accident, I know that might be what’s in store for me if I don’t get out of here.  I knew it already.  I’ve been thinking about it all week, which doesn’t help my concentration any.  If I don’t get away from this angry man he won’t have to destroy me, I’ll do it myself.

I wish I could handle it better, not let it bother me the way it does, not give him so much power over me.  I know I am in kind of rough shape, not at my most confident, not currently living in those better days I mentioned.  But he doesn’t have to know that.  None of his business.

Like I said, the first time he threatened to shoot me I was shook.  I was a little ashamed about taking that step back, inside myself.  I determined I was going to do better than that.  Work things out with the boss like, you’re the builder and pay my wages and I’m a competent carpenter who’s worth the money.  We’re both damaged goods but this is a job not a daytime talk show slash encounter group so let’s just get it done.

So I worked on that, patiently and every day, over the next several weeks, mostly by just showing up on time and doing my work.  I thought I made some good progress.  I listened to his rants without comment.  I turned my back on him and walked away a time or two–and went back to work.  He stopped getting in my face.  It was like that code of the west thing again–hard to explain–mostly happening deep inside yourself, inside your very idea of yourself.  But the eventual outcome is that a line gets drawn somewhere and you both know where it is.

I couldn’t quite convince myself the line was where it used to be.  I felt like I had negotiated this line, and that I never did that in the old days.  Back then it just was where it was.  I felt like I was faking it, but faking it pretty well.  I’d say to myself, if I was still my old self, here’s what I’d do, and then I’d do that.

But I did feel like I had recovered a little ground.  Doing an honest day’s work and having the pay for it in your pocket helps.  See that building rise up out of the dirt and know you had a hand in it.  Not a thing wrong with that.  Swaggering around with your boots kicking up dust, your toolbelt on and your framing hammer hanging where your sixgun would be in a Sam Peckinpah western… you can get to feeling pretty good about yourself and your place in the world.

Anyway, things went better for a while.  Instead of stacks of lumber and components and string lines and holes in the ground, we had a perimeter of poles standing.  The boss talked his son into coming to work for him because we really needed four guys to set those big roof trusses.  We had a lot left that needed to get done before winter set in, and he needed the money.

I picked him up at 4:30 in the morning and he liked to talk.  Between him and Jake I heard plenty of tales about the boss.  A history of being short-handed because people would quit on him.  Two wives who left him before he found one who could put up with him.  He was a good builder, no question.  A guy you could respect a little bit, even if you could never imagine being his friend.  He probably didn’t have a real friend in the world, but then none of us has very many.  Maybe his third wife, but who knows what really went on there.

One way you can tell a good builder is that they know things take time.  You can work steady and be efficient but you can’t hurry things, it won’t come to anything good.  You’ll make a mistake, waste material, damage equipment, hurt yourself or somebody else.  You have to plan out everything you do and set up to do it safely.  And you have to come back tomorrow and do it all again.  A good boss will not say a word to you for taking half an hour to set up a task, or taking the time to straighten up the lumber pile or the tangle of power cords, or stopping to have a snack when you’re hungry.  It’s one of the reasons I like this kind of work.  In a way, you are your own boss, responsible for yourself and your own product, no matter who you work for.

Sometimes the boss is a boss like that, and it seems real enough.  Other times he becomes the worst kind of bully–trying to threaten and intimidate and humiliate–looking for your weak spot and attacking it.  He knows your sense of yourself is everybody’s greatest weakness.  And like every bully, he knows some people are more vulnerable than others and he just naturally goes for the weakest one.

His son has long since come to some kind of understanding with him about this.  And I figured I must have faked it well enough, because he wasn’t going after me much anymore either.  I was pleased about that at first.  According to his son and Jake, I’ve already lasted longer than most.  And like I said, I mostly did that by keeping my mouth shut and just doing my work.  I refused to engage him in this war he wages against the world.

But now he goes for Jake.  Sly son of a bitch.  He comes up when Jake and I are working on something together.  Sometimes he isn’t even mad.  And he starts poking away at Jake like, hey I’m just kidding the youngster here and it’s all in good manly fun and he’ll be smiling again like he did at me that first time and he makes me a witness to it.  And I stand there doing nothing, saying nothing.  Just waiting for it to be over and for him to be satisfied and go away and leave us in peace.

At first I thought it meant I was no longer a target, which was a relief.  Same as I tried to believe it was just good old boy gun talk the first time, I tried to believe it was just harmless teasing with Jake.  You know, the older guy letting the younger one know he has been places and seen things and done things and you’ve still got a lot to learn boy.  And sometimes he just yells at him.

I like Jake.  He’s a funny and smart young guy and he’s no slacker.  He could be in college, but he wants to experience life and make his own way in the world.  Have some adventures.  Check the place out.  He reminds me of myself at that age.  Sometimes we look at each other and something passes between us.  It doesn’t look like some code of the west bargaining.  It looks like friendship.

I thought I was no longer a target and I was relieved, but I don’t believe it now.  The boss has just attacked from the flank.  Sly son of a bitch.  Proven to us all I will collaborate–sacrifice Jake to appease him—saying nothing, doing nothing.  It happened again today and a look passed between me and Jake that just kicked me in the chest—disappointment, understanding, forgiveness, and some hurt–you can’t not be hurt by betrayal.

Buck is rambling on but I’m not really listening.  I’d pity the man in my shoes too, if it wasn’t me.  Nothing seems simple.  Nothing seems harmless.  I don’t want to fight.  I can’t save anyone.  I know I have to quit this job, but I don’t know what will become of me, here in this town fallen on hard times.  Guess I’ll find out.

Out for Coffee

Posted in published with tags , on December 28, 2009 by Dean

I’m sitting here at a patio table, at the coffee bistro on the corner, just done with my second strong cup, and so I am seeing little bursts of light, and I’m a bit excited, like on the threshold of hallucination.  There are low planters dashed along the sidewalk, creating a mutually agreed upon but permeable barrier between those of us inside, and all the rest, and I’m watching, well, I’m watching whatever comes along and just now that is the man crossing the street with his customized shopping cart.

Ordinarily I find them… intimidating.  There are moments when it seems inevitable I will become such a person one day.  Or more truly, that I am already such a person, and only one or two events, minor catastrophes in my minor life, are yet needed.  And then I might become the thing I fear, that worrys others for their own safety.  A person who was getting by before, but no more.  The loss of material existence combined with mystical inner hardship.  Oneself, fallen down.

Solipsistic existentialism belongs to the young.  It is unbecoming after forty.  It sounds like you’re bluffing, or making excuses, or just feeling sorry for yourself.  Theoretically, you were supposed to become and if you have become not very much, if for instance you are driving a shopping cart, and dressed in castoffs, wearing a pair of aging high-top lace-up sneakers, unlaced, and holding a cell phone to your ear, well, that is proof of sorts that becoming has not worked out for you quite as you imagined it might.

He looks like he is talking to someone, talking and listening.  I assume he is talking to someone in his head.  A dead phone would be consistent with his circumstances.  If it was street theater, it would be brilliant and moving satire… KNOWING THYSELF meets the SEVEN DEADLY SINS.  When he gets up on the sidewalk he stops pushing his cart and begins gesturing with his hand and generally getting more body language into his conversation, though it does not seem to be helping his cause.  Finally he holds the phone at arm’s length, looks at it in puzzled frustration, snaps it closed.

He wheels up to my table, looks at me, looks at his phone again.

“What’s the news?” I ask amicably, nodding at his phone.  The bonhomie in my voice is partially false of course, and I am patronizing him, but is that wrong of me?  I had wanted to carry off my part with just the right tone of transcendental morality, to communicate the rules of our encounter which were, that we were going to behave ourselves, because we were in public.  It is a large and busy corner, there are escape routes all around.  But I am a mediocre actor at best and did not manage to entirely eliminate the dubious smugness from my performance.

“She just won’t listen,” he says.

“What are you gonna do?” I say, rhetorically you understand.

But he looks at me seriously and asks, “Do you have any money?”

A pretty big question.  Could be the opening line to all manner of lengthy disjointed stories.  And let me say now I am not one who believes a beggar should be required to have a good story, and that I am even distrusting of those who do, because we are supposedly talking about poor people and mystical inner hardships here and it is unfair to reward some but deny others simply because they cannot skillfully edit their history or make up a suitable lie, or properly size you up beforehand regarding the type of tale or amount of cash signified by your own costuming.  All the same, everyone, whether they are fallen or not, wants to have something to trade.

“Yes,” I say.  I only say it because it is true, and the easiest, and in my near-hallucinatory state, I feel it is a confidently noncommittal response, coming from a strong position.  I had just been thinking of having a pastry and another cup of coffee.

“I don’t have enough,” he says.

“For what?” I say.

He looks at my coffee cup.

“It makes me feel young,” he says.

He has just condensed my end of the conversation, which I had been planning since I saw him crossing the street.  I had been savoring the moment, after two strong coffees, the flowers in the planters, the subtly electrified sunlight and motion.  One could almost see the bow waves of people walking through air and the intricate turbulent wakes behind them.  I wanted to share this moment with him.  This moment of becoming, where the world seemed vibrantly pregnant with things about to happen, and all I had to do was sit there, and I was enough for a moment, and I had enough for a pastry and coffee and to buy him one too.

Let’s see.  I’ve had two and that’s about $8, and if I have another and a pastry that will be about $15 or $16 and maybe about $20 if he has coffee, and if he wants a pastry too that might come to $25 approaching $30 with a tip.  I’m not sure I have that much.  I have to look.  I don’t want to do this.  Look, I mean.

“What does?” I say.  I’m stalling for time as I try to think of some alternative to looking in my wallet.  And maybe I should be buying him breakfast, but that is not what I intended, and it would be expensive here, and when did I last know what I was worth?  That last question brings back my sense of noble philosophic remove.  I appreciate, briefly and from a safe distance, the tragicomic absurdity of my predicament, and yet do not feel dishonored by it.  If only such moments would last.

But after all, that was why I was here myself, to try to make them last and what, in my drug enhanced innocence, I first wanted to share with him.  Respite from the closing in, as your allotted space fills up with the years gone by and the memories of things that did or didn’t happen.  A few moments now, that are as good as any moments, even if they are made up.

Apparently, I was making the usual mistake of confusing the man with his Platonic Form, the spiritual template of a shopping cart pushing man with cell phone, which was detectable only in my imagination.  It is nice to think those who are mad are, at least to some extent, divinely mad.  And I suppose it must be true, for surely if any one thing can be divine, and the boundaries between things are illusions, then all things are divine.  Quod erat demonstrandum.  Then again, that logic works for madness too.

What do I know of darkness?  Never so far as to lose the light altogether, or some sense of its direction, even if it was made up.

I am looking at him while I’m thinking all this. Everything about him is dirty.  He’s looking at his phone again.

“I don’t have enough,” he says.

He pushes off into the slight breeze and moves up the sidewalk.  I can smell him now.

I admit I am relieved he left.  I am only a little cleaner and less crazy than he is.  Possibly, I have nothing he wants either.  The smell drifts back, pungent smoldering graffiti.

I recover my buzzed tranquility.  I wonder if it is possible to be more alone than this.  I wonder why it hurts.  I read somewhere, in a book about pendulums, that aesthetics are harmonically related to pain, and so each resounds with the other.

There is too much mid-range in the sound around me.  Not enough bass belly laugh or inspiring soprano.  It reminds me of speakers the size of quarters on AM radios in cars decades ago, and the blurred staticky music and important announcements that issued from them.  It sounds distant.  Frozen tension moving sluggishly.  White noise.  Concrete shuddering under the weight of passing machines.  Electrified sunlight and motion, enough for a moment.  I like the apricot tart they have here.


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