Forming

I am realizing that my desire to be known and know is based in a desire for respect and not need. I am realizing that my need is small. I am realizing that my respect is limitless. I am realizing that my reticence is not birthed from fear, but from an ability to feel a misguided need or a misunderstood want that hums just underneath the melody.

******

[18NOV2012]

I have come to a terrible and incredibly freeing understanding with myself:

Without the death of my father, cleanliness/sobriety/abstinence would have been impossible.

At the center of my desire for self-destruction was a whirring thing, a ticking voice that echoed while belittling.

******

[2000]

A young woman who worked for me was having some issues with an older man who was stalking her. He came to the restaurant once and I could see the change in her, the way her entire body went rigid and her eyes clouded over. I watched as he purposely sat in the area of the restaurant she was working, and as he followed her every moment with his eyes, smirking. She did not speak to him; she only made gestures with her hands and yelled at him with her face. As he was leaving the restaurant, I followed him out the front door and very calmly told him never to come back. He just stood there staring at me with the same smirk.

I underestimated his resolve.

He continued to harass her. At one point he slashed all the tires on her car and I ended up giving her a ride home. During the ride, she kept on crying. I told her to go through the music I had in the truck and put in whatever she wanted. She started laughing at me, asking me why I had so much jazz and punk rock.

“That’s pretty much what I am — jazz and punk rock.”

She laughed, took a smoke out of my pack and stared out the window while Coltrane smoothed out the rough.

“You are here as a protector. You are a gift.”

******

[2012]

Recently I read about the suicide of someone I once knew a little bit. Because this person had a murmuring within them to try and expand and accept life on terms that went beyond the surface and paleness of outwardly human appearances, the suicide ended up plastered all over the Internet. Comment sections ablaze with disdain and judgment. Snark-filled sentences reducing a life to assumptive anecdotes and hardly-concealed ignorance to the pain one might hold in the chest, and how freeing it might be to refuse that pain any longer.

Community is never what we believe in our hearts it can be.

This human being transformed. This human being was brave enough to look inward and upward and risk the life that everyone else has and takes for granted for the life that felt right for them. This human being could easily be labeled “unstable,” or even “fucked in the head.” This human being was a human, transforming itself into what it felt as if it should have always been allowed to be.

So many broken and lost children, looking for love in all of the most obscene places.

******

After I was fired from that job, the young woman was the only person who reached out to me. She left a voicemail thanking me for being kind to her, and told me that she felt lost there without me and had quit after a couple of shifts. She left her phone number and told me to call her so we could catch up, get coffee.

I was already working in a different world, a world where I was surrounded by people who felt like they were pushing their envelopes—both spiritually and physically—through body modification. Everywhere I looked I saw flesh: tattooed, branded, pierced, scarred, transformed and shifting. Most work days involved exposed genitals, skin glistening with fresh blood, endorphins flooding the air around me. Dust from machined steel in my eyes and mouth and lungs. Every day was filled with a soundtrack of Bacchanalian cries and ecstatic moans.

Did I tell you about all of the blood?

There was a lot of blood.

******

[Ongoing and Unfolding]

There is always a knife. Whether it is seen, unseen, or unknown—it is present. The knife can be metaphysical. The knife can be rusty. The knife can be fresh out of the shower and smiling at you in the mirror. The knife can be a combination of syllables and breaths. The knife can be a screwdriver, driven into the meat of your thigh by someone who felt the need to attack you because you did not show them any sign of fear. The knife can be the blinking light that tells you that you were so fucking high you forgot to get gasoline. The knife can be an exploded view drawing of your heart, taped to the inside of the door to the medicine cabinet. The knife can be you. The knife has been me.

Motive, whether hidden or implied or finally unveiled, is always at the center of conspiracy.

******

[1986]

When I first started openly—walking out of the house with a joint in my mouth or defiantly drinking a beer on the couch while watching cartoons—dabbling with drugs and danger, my mother thought it wise to try and find a mentor for me, someone to guide me and report back on me to her.

My risk-taking behavior had led to being brought home in the middle of the night shackled in the back of squad cars, to being removed from a school and having to beg to be allowed to attend another. To me, this just seemed the normal trajectory of exploration. How else was I supposed to figure out what the fuck I was? Was I supposed to just keep my head down and act like every other kid, mindless, hopeless and living in a shell of fake faith and under the weight of the albatross of expectation and potential?

My mother chose a mentor based on hearsay from a co-worker—this woman claimed her son was a reformed “bad kid” and would be a good influence on me—and slyly set it up to have their family over for a cook-out so he and I could meet and he could size me up.

I could tell I was being set-the-fuck-on up just by the way my mother said she was really hoping he and I would click.

******

At night I was working construction on an open and bare space, converting it to look like a doctor’s office/travel agency. This was for a friend I had met through the blood and steel people. This was her grand and insane thesis project for her MFA. A few of us would go to the space and drink while framing walls and hanging sheetrock and I always referred to her as “The Mother Fucking Artist,” which would make her laugh and smile.

Making people new to your meadow laugh and smile is an important thing. Much more important than anything anyone else will ever tell you.

A lot of the chatter and noise was about the formation of a church. I had just left a situation that was under the cloud of the word cult, a mystery school in a condo with a poorly-hidden hum of agendas ice cold wrapped beneath the guise of Gnosticism. The church being spoken about by the blood and steel people started as a joke—a way to stop work-place persecution for visible tattoos and choices made—and had shape-shifted into something an arrogant and self-serving few thought could benefit many. I tried to stay in the cut, an observer, but ego always breaks out of the shell when confronted by an affront to actual wisdom and good will.

That part of the story could and should—and someday will—become a book. For now it is a knife.

The young woman who used to work for me lived near to the space we were transforming. I had spoken to her earlier in the day and told her where it was, and told her that she was more than welcome to come by and hang out, drink some coffee. I had been so lonely. I felt this burn for human touch of any kind that didn’t involve some kind of manipulation or some kind of hidden hum. I wanted a hug from someone who saw me as me and not me as they needed me to be.

I was atop a ladder screwing two-by-fours into a wall to create a false wall when I heard her laugh beneath me. She was holding two very large coffees. She was smiling and glowing.

“I know this is going to sound very strange, but my mother asked me to tell you that you should give me three hundred dollars. It’s important.”

All I could do was say yes.

******

The mentor candidate grew up in Nebraska, playing eight-man football and listening to KISS records. He had a child. He had been arrested a few times for really petty and dumbass things as a teen. He quit school to do the right thing and try and help raise his daughter but he was a natural born fuck-up and that didn’t work out for him so well. He was only allowed to see his child during supervised visits. He had a bad habit of dating girls who were too young for him. He had a bad habit of fucking up at work. He had a bad habit of being a really bad liar.

These are all things I was able to pull out of him within the first ten minutes after getting him high in my bedroom directly after meeting him, while the two families converged and ate and made nice with one another.

Nothing like marijuana and barbequed chicken to take the well-intentioned plan of a parent and leave it a pile of glitter on the carpet.

******

I barely had enough money to survive, but I gave her the three hundred. My truck had been repossessed already, and I was smart enough the morning I was fired to make sure my rent was paid up for two months. She was shocked when we walked a few blocks over to an ATM machine and I pulled the money out and handed it to her.

“Aren’t you going to ask me what the money is for? Aren’t you curious?”

“Nope. That’s not how prosperity works.”

“You really aren’t anything like I thought you were when you hired me.”

“I know.”

We took our time walking back to the space, smoking cigarettes in silence while sipping the coffees. The air was getting cooler and the sky was much darker than it had been and the stars felt closer and alive. I felt something inside of me. I wanted to hold her, to kiss her. I wanted to know if the light in her eyes stayed the same after, or if they muddied and mulled. I wanted to know her warmth.

I went back to work on the space with the blood and steel people and she hugged me goodbye in a way that told me the things I wanted to know were things she already knew and I did not need to know them in the way that I burned.

When I got home with the sun there was another voicemail, thanking me and telling me that in three days I was to go to Sedona for her mother’s wedding. A ride would be arranged for me and I should be ready by noon on that day.

I said yes quietly to myself and went to sleep.

******

[2:11AM EST]

There are times when I am completely overwhelmed recognizing the vast and unbelievable number of people there are in the world and how each one of us has something inside or outside of us that is familiar and alien to one another.

******

Things with the mentor candidate progressed in a way that my mother and his mother felt good about: he took me to see auto racing, an air show, playing mini-golf with his supposedly do-gooder pals that weren’t such do-gooders when I got them high as a giraffes ass and sold them amphetamines stolen from a friend’s mother. We’d be out and he would try and get me to talk to groups of young girls, so he and his supposedly do-gooder friends could try and get some head. He’d call my mother and keep me out way later than she wanted me to be out because I knew where he could score some coke and she’d go for it because he was the mentor candidate and she bought all the way in.

One night he took me out to see some horrible local metal band he really liked—he had met one of the dudes at a pool hall and said he was “fuckin’ cool as shit, man”—at some really fucked-up indoor soccer arena. The bouncers weren’t going to let me in because I didn’t have any identification on me, but he somehow managed to talk them into letting me inside. He could be charming if it was good for him. He tried to pull off some sort of street tough swagger, but I think most people saw through it as easily as I did and realized it wasn’t worth the hassle.

Inside the arena was a sea of hairspray and leather. I was so high it was impossible for me to tell gender. He was so high his jaw was the end of a loaf of bread hanging off of his face.

As soon as the terrible metal band started to play, he went nuts. Sweat flying off of him as he shook and headbanged. Hoots and hollers. Lots of “FUCK YEAH” and lots of “isn’t this fuckin’ cool, man?” action coming out of his face. I tried to watch one of the guitar players but was distracted by how much he looked like a girl I had put my fingers inside of in the back of a Chevelle and then I thought about that girl and how I took my fingers out of her and put them in my mouth and she kissed me hard and made a sound from the back of her throat while she did it. I stood there among all of the metal people and that was all I could think about and the erection was completely noticed by some girls standing near us.

I smiled and then shrugged while nodding my head toward the mentor candidate.

When the band stopped he was still seizing and yelling. The girls had moved closer. He noticed them and then started unfurling his rap on them—all of the “oh, yeah—this is sort of my kid brother and we have a car do you girls wanna get some beers and go hang out somewhere?” shit—while I just stood there, remembering how my fingers tasted that night.

******

I told the blood and steel people that I needed a day off to take care of something personal. They didn’t pry too much, but the Mother Fucking Artist did and I made a mistake and told her what was happening. She then proceeded to ask me a lot of questions while I was not only high on paint fumes and running on empty from hanging sheetrock but also high on a fistful of benzos and some weed.

This became a knife later on, when I least expected it.

******

[1992]

A cell on a ship anchored off the coast of a city—separated from the other cells and the other prisoners—is as good a place as any to have a nightmare about a future you who doesn’t get to hug anyone or say you love anyone or breathe peacefully.

******

I ended up in a car with a very nice husband and wife. They showed up right on time and I stamped out my cigarette and got in the car like a hitchhiker and introduced myself. They had a young boy with them who was very quiet and wise and I could feel him as he kept on studying my profile while I looked out the window on the climb up the desert to Sedona. The adults in the car knew my name and knew I was the former boss of the young woman. They had been told kind things about me.

None of this felt forced to me. None of it felt out of the ordinary.

I woke up as we pulled up to the house. I had been asleep in the car for a while, so I let the family and the boy go inside ahead of me as I stayed out by the street and smoked, trying to shake the fog in my head. I somehow knew the boy was not their child.

I walked through the front door of the house and everyone who was gathered stopped talking and a woman I knew to be her mother smiled at me and started to walk toward me.

“The most important guest of all is here. We can start in a few minutes.”

She hugged me and took my hand and led me out to the back yard. She and I stood there, looking at a pond. She was quiet and radiant and held my hand so tenderly that it didn’t even bother me. Here was the human contact I had been burning for.

“Thank you for the pond, Sean.”

“You are very welcome. It looks beautiful.”

She squeezed my hand and hummed something and then I felt a burning sensation between my ribs under my heart and I got a little wobbly and she squeezed my hand a little tighter and put her mouth next to my ear.

“Your mother wanted me to tell you Happy Birthday, Sean. She loves you very much.”

I lost my breath but felt immense. The tears that came out were a relief and I was unashamed. The burning under my ribs stayed and moved around inside of me and felt like it was warming my blood. I laughed a little. Sighed a little. Hugged her again.

“Come inside and see how beautiful my daughter is?”

We walked back inside and through all of the people, down a hall and there she was—sitting on a bed in a robe and writing into a tiny notebook. Her eyes lit up when she saw me and she jumped up from the bed. Her robe popped open and I could see her breasts and a scar in the middle of her chest. She pulled the robe closed and hugged me. She cried into my shirt and her mother left the room.

“Thank you for being here. I don’t think this wedding would be something I could stomach if you hadn’t made it.”

“You told me I had to be here, so I am here. Are you okay?”

“I am now, yes. Did my mother give you the message?”

All I could do was smile and say yes.

******

[As Always, Forever and Constant]

I spent the majority of my life trying to make someone proud of me when they were incapable of even being proud of themself. This is apparently normal, but still frightening as fuck. Even when that person would mumble “I am proud of you” it was far from enough. The words never connected, they just hung out in space and evaporated right before my eyes. The alcohol and the pills and the cocaine and the women—oh God, all the women, I am so sorry—and the marijuana and the heroin and the amphetamines and the sugar and the sadness and the anger and the violence and the tears were all coming from the same sad little hole in myself that not even Hans Brinker could stop from leaking out.

I know now that the hole was made by me.

The illusion of control is just as poisonous as the need for control.

******

After the night with the mentor candidate and the girls—ending up in someone’s apartment blowing lines of methamphetamine and drinking beers and having some random dude show up and pull a gun and put it to the temple of the mentor candidate and the girls run screaming and I just sit there silently until I rise from the chair I am sitting in and calmly take the gun from the random dude and walk outside and throw it into the street where it goes off and shatters the window of a parked car—I had to concoct some way to get my well-meaning and loving mother to allow me to cut him loose. This became easy when we were invited to his family’s house for a meal and his mother lit up a joint of her own.

My mother was a lot of things, but she could never stand hypocrisy.

She never tried to find me a mentor again.

Whether I needed one or not is still up to the jury.

******

Missing pieces are always people. People are always missing.

******

The wedding was beautiful and the young woman looked happy and her mother was a glow and a smile and kindness. All of her people were uplifted by the wedding and the room felt light and fair. Everyone hung around for a while after, and as they were all leaving her new father came to me and put a set of keys in my hand.

“Use this car to take you home. We’d really like it if you took our children with you for the night. Can you do that for us?”

All I could do was shake his hand and nod yes.

The young boy was her brother. He had autism and a congenital heart defect, the same heart defect the young woman had. She told me these things as her brother slept on my couch, my cat curled into him. We were in my bed with the door open, still wearing what we had worn to her mother’s wedding and curled into one another and processing so many things that one tries to process when there really isn’t anything one should waste any time trying to process.

She cried when she told me that the man who had come to the restaurant was a former professor who she had a relationship with and she broke it off when he gave her herpes and tried to claim she had been the one. She cried when she told me that she had four heart surgeries for a faulty valve that would always be faulty. She cried when she told me that her mother used to be normal but after the fourth surgery—the one where her mother was so depressed she consulted a shaman and took peyote to try and see her daughter’s future—her mother became this new person, a person she knew and a person she trusted but also a person who spoke in riddles and a person she no longer felt close to, was no longer her mother.

We stayed that way for hours. We stayed that way until not only did the sun rise, but all the doors were opened. She asked me about my life, about my mother, asked me why I no longer spoke to my father, asked me why I was so sad and so kind and so lonely. I tried my best to answer with my real self and not the self I used when someone tried to get inside.

She kissed me goodbye when she and her brother were leaving. I never heard from her again.

******

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Punch The Geek, or, “Adjacent Angles Are Supplementary”

This motherfucking heat is something else. This motherfucking heat is making me irritable and it is causing the circuitry in my head to go a little haywire. Haywire as in — a little paranoia, coupled with some anxiety and an added dash of awkward nostalgia.

Nostalgia. That’s the oil that greases the writing engine. For me, at least. Probably for a lot of folks.

******

This dude named Gary was standing in my garage. Our drummer had driven all the way across town to pick him up and bring him back to my house so he could listen to our band and see if he wanted to book us to play at the club he had just opened. Gary was what you would call a little sketchy. Gary was from Los Angeles, and he was shifty and had a shaved head and was wearing filthy jeans, Vans, and a Mickey Mouse shirt that looked like it had seen far better days. Gary didn’t bother asking—he saw my pack of smokes on top of my amp, picked it up and pulled two of them out, putting one behind his ear while lighting the other. I didn’t say anything to him because he was sketchy and because I didn’t want to blow whatever this was—an audition or whatnot—by being a greedy prick to a dude who was standing in my garage ready to decide our fate after watching us play.

Gary looked way more nervous than we did. Must have been something about unknown territory. He looked even more nervous when my father came into the garage to tell us that we had one hour before he was going to light all of our equipment on fire and send everyone out in ambulances. Gary looked like he was going to shit his pants right there, the tough punk rock guy from the brutal streets of Los Angeles, afraid of my father. When my father went back inside, the rest of us broke out laughing. That was just how my pop was—he loved to fuck with people he didn’t know.

We—Grave Mistake—all made eye contact with one another and got into our respective positions. We had already worked out the set we were going to play for Gary a couple of hours earlier, and we were ready to melt his face.

******

The first time I ever really ran away from home, I ended up staying with a friend of mine who had dropped out of school and taken his GED and was now taking college classes. We weren’t that close, but we seemed to dig one another. We met through some friends we had in common—a guy I had worked with introduced me to him and another guy I ended up working with—and we both played guitar and loved punk rock and the early thrash metal bands. This kid lived with his mother but was basically on his own 24/7. She was never there and when she was she seemed to be off in her own world, not paying a lick of attention to anything he did at all. She didn’t even realize I had been staying with them until the beginning of the second week or so.

While I was hiding out over there I stopped going to school. I pretty much spent my day running around with him and his girlfriend—she was so punk rock she had a fake cockney accent and wore so much eye make-up that she looked like a raccoon—hanging out at the mall while they shoplifted and bummed smokes and spare change off of people. They’d sometimes disappear and leave me hanging alone in the food court, only to come back with marbles for eyes and a wobble in their gait. I just figured they were tired or had just found some secret place in the mall to get it on and were in a post-coital haze.

It did start to dawn on me that I was wearing out my welcome with my friend, though. After a few days he started to get short with me, and his girlfriend would sneer at me whenever I would enter into a conversation. At one point they tried, but failed, to sort of set me up with one of her friends. This friend was not a very nice person — she never stopped whining or talking shit about people, and she had an air about her that said she came from a home that was worse than the one I had just run away from. She was pretty, but the scowl on her face made her look mean. We all went to a small desert party one night and she got very drunk and tried to make out with me, but I brushed her off. I was not very slick about it. She ended up puking on me in the back seat of someone’s car on the way to my friend’s girl’s house. She passed out with her head kind of lolling in my lap with her puke and the other people in the car were making fun of me and I was mortified not just for myself, but for her.

When we arrived at my friend’s girl’s house, we carried the other girl inside and put her on the couch. My friend told me to stay out there in the living room and keep an eye on the passed-out girl.

******

Gary isn’t watching anyone else but me.

I can feel his eyes on me. Every movement I make—and with a guitar strapped to my body and volume and a rhythm section, I move a lot, uncontrollably so, like a kitten shot-up to the gills with methamphetamine—Gary’s eyes make as well.  We move violently as a band through our entire set of songs, cutting out twenty-five or so minutes of careening teen aggression and distortion from the ether, our limbs on fire and our own eyes glazed in that holyfuckingshitwhatdidwejustdo kind of way. We are spent. Totally tapped-the-fuck-on-out. We all look at one another and psychically acknowledge that this sketchy Gary dude just fell in love with us and we will be getting booked to play show after show after show.

I try not to make eye contact with Gary. Our singer is talking to him, telling him we will play with anyone as long as it is not a racist band. He is telling him we’d love to even play with all the straight edge bands—we just want to play. Our drummer is dicking around with his kit, smirking because he knows we just destroyed this dude. Our bass player keeps on nodding at me—this is something he and I will do for years, the nod that lets one another know we’re good and we work well together and we know how to rock—and I toss him the pack of smokes from the top of the amplifier.

Gary is now standing directly in front of me.

“Dude. What’s your name?”

“Sean.”

“Shit, Sean. You are fucking ridiculous, man. How do you do that shit with only one guitar and make it sound like three of them are playing?”

“I don’t know.”

Gary just stands there looking through me. Gary is making me uncomfortable. I shuffle my feet a little and turn to grab the pack of smokes I had tossed to the bass player. That’s when it happens.

“Do you guys think it would be cool if you played one of your harsher songs and let me sing?”

We all just look at each other. Nobody moves.

“I have my own lyrics I can sing over the top—I just think you guys fucking kick ass and I haven’t been able to jam with anyone for a long time. Is it cool? Can we jam one song?”

We all look over at our singer. He looks at all of us. He shrugs. Gary grabs the microphone. Gary leans into me, far too close.

“I want to steal you for my own band, Sean. I’m going to show you why right now.”

We lurch into one of our songs and Gary pretty much turns into a monster. He has the microphone halfway down his throat and he is crouched down like a crab and he is screaming and the veins in his face are huge and we sound like a completely different beast. Gary’s voice is a jet fighter. The drummer looks up at me from behind his kit with a look on his face that is half bemused and half whatthefuckishappeninghere. The bass player is trying to stay in line with the shaky time the drummer is laying down. I look over at the singer and his arms are folded across his chest and he looks back at me and nods his head as I rip into a very distorted and evil-sounding guitar lead as Gary falls to the garage floor and looks as though he is in the middle of some kind of seizure. The song ends.

Gary is still on the floor.

******

The passed-out girl is snoring and she sounds just like my father.

I am sitting on the floor next to the couch with a bucket, just in case she wakes up and needs to puke again. The light from the television flickers epileptically, muffled voices and used car commercials. I found a pack of smokes under the couch and keep firing off one after the other, using an empty beer can as an ashtray. The light from the television looks spooky in the hanging smoke. I smell like desert and puke and vodka. I already tried to scrub the puke from my jeans with a washcloth and some dish soap, but the smell hangs on me. I even snorted some warm salt water to try and rinse the stink from my nose, but it didn’t seem to work.

Hungry, I get up and go open the refrigerator to hunt for scraps. I know this isn’t my house, but I have not eaten for most of the day and need to put something in my stomach or I will end up just like the passed-out girl, puking and stinking up the place. I find a container that has some spaghetti and meatballs in it, and I rinse off a fork and start eating it, cold. I can feel the sauce on my face but I do not care. I turn to open up the refrigerator again and my friend is standing there, stripped to his boxer shorts.

“What the fuck are you doing, Sean?”

“I was hungry.”

“We’re not even supposed to be here—her mom will be home from her night shift in half an hour. You need to go home.”

“I don’t have a home, dude.”

“Yes, you do. You should go home. Seriously.”

“I don’t want to. I don’t want to live there anymore.”

My friend just stands there, staring at me. His girlfriend comes up behind him in a tiny tank-top and her panties. Her bright orange hair is a nightmare around her head. Her raccoon eyes are runny. There is blood in the crook of her elbow.

“Are you eating my mother’s food, Sean? What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“I was hungry?”

She makes a hissing sound from between her teeth. My friend takes the container from my hand and puts it in the sink. He picks up the phone receiver from where it is and hands it to me.

“Call your parents and tell them you want to come home.”

“I’m not going to do that.”

“Fine. I’ll call them myself.”

“Please don’t? I’m just not ready to go home and have my ass kicked right now. I’m drunk and my guitar and shit is at your house.”

“Fuck your guitar, dude. I can bring it to you tomorrow. You need to leave.”

I don’t know how I started crying, but I totally started crying. Not full-on childish weeping, but grown-up type tears that just leak out and glisten under kitchen lights. My friend puts his hand on my shoulder then he hugs me close to him. He smells like sweat and something other. Sex. Her. She sees us hugging and me crying and she stomps her feet and punches my friend in the back.

“You promised me you would get rid of this fucking kid. Why are you hugging him? This is bullshit!”

“I’m hugging him because he is my friend. Don’t be a bitch. Your friend is passed out and smells like fucking puke and death. At least he’s not afraid to cry.”

“Fuck you. My mom is coming home. We need to do something about this shit. Now.”

******

Gary’s club is in a warehouse in an industrial park in a shitty part of town between the riverbed and the airport.  There is nothing in the area but warehouses and giant earth-moving vehicles. To the south are what passes for projects. To the east is a road the runs along the river to a university.  To the north is the airport. The closest place to buy a soda is a Circle K more than two miles away to the west and that Circle K has bulletproof glass.

The inside of the club is bare brick and concrete. The stage is bare wood that looks like it was scrabbled together from old pallets and other scrap material from the street. There are red curtains on either side of the stage and the brick is spattered with ridiculous graffiti—band logos and bullshit punk rock colloquialisms—half of them misspelled. There is a giant spotlight on a stand near the back of the concrete floor pointing toward the stage. The lights affixed to the front of the stage look stolen and wired together in a haphazard way.

We’re here early to load in our gear and do a soundcheck, but Gary is nowhere to be found. The only people around are a ridiculously large skinhead who goes by Kong and a dude in a wheelchair who goes by Kirk The Crippled Jerk. Kirk is the dude who has been drawing all of the flyers for the shows at Gary’s club. Kirk doesn’t have use of his arms, so he makes them by putting pens and pencils in his mouth and using his head and neck to move them around on the page. They keep on telling us Gary is on his way and that we should just take our gear to the stage and set up.

While we’re on the stage setting up our gear, Gary comes bounding through the door with some long-haired hippie guy in his wake. The hippie comes up on the stage and starts moving microphones around and setting us up for the show. Gary is in the middle of a very animated conversation with Kong and Kirk in the middle of the concrete floor. I try not to eavesdrop and try not to make any kind of eye contact with Gary. The hippie is standing near the amplifier I am using and he is looking at me with a weird look on his face.

“Gary tells me you’re a bad motherfucker, kid. Is this all you play through—this little combo amp?”

“Yeah. It’s not even mine. My history teacher loaned it to me.”

“Don’t worry, kid. Gary told me to make sure to crank you up in the mix.”

I don’t say anything else to the hippie. I just tune my guitar and look at my band and try not to think about how awkward this sketchy Gary dude is, and about how uncool it is of him to blatantly act like I should be playing with him and not my friends. We do a quick soundcheck by fucking around with a couple of cover songs. I watch as Kong pushes Kirk The Crippled Jerk across the giant empty floor in his wheelchair to the sound of us dicking around with a medley of Misfits songs.

******

I am pretending to be asleep.

I am on my friend’s girl’s sheetless waterbed, next to the passed-out girl who is still snoring and continued to snore as we carried her into the bedroom. There is a puddle of drool forming on the rubber mattress next to her face. She still smells like puke and now the puke smell is mixing with the smells in the room—cigarette smoke, sex, sweat and a cage full of rats in the corner—and even though I am pretending to be asleep I feel like puking, too.

I can hear my friend trying to goad his girl into sex. They are on the floor in the far corner of the room, just out of my vision. She is sitting with her back to the wall and he has his back to me and he keeps on muttering what sound like sweet things to her, trying to get her to fuck him. He has pulled her tank-top off of her, and in the darkness I can see her breasts, much whiter and larger than I thought they would be. She keeps on looking over his shoulder to make sure that we—passed-out girl and myself—are asleep. I watch as my friend leans back on his elbows and then her head disappears into his lap. He groans and I hear mouth-night-sounds. I put my hand in front of my face so they cannot see my eyes. I can feel myself getting an erection and then I feel passed-out girl’s leg across my hip as she snorts and rolls over.

I am pretending to be asleep.

She lifts her head from his lap and rolls herself out on the floor in front of him. I watch as he enters her and his strokes are slow and deliberate. Her shock of orange hair is glowing and her breasts are moving around and he keeps moving in and out of her as her head stays fixed on the ceiling, mouth agape and half-words coming out of it accent-free. I am pretending to be asleep and I am watching them through my hand. He finishes quickly and dismounts, rolling over onto the floor, close to where I am in the sheetless waterbed. She gets up and pulls her tank-top back on and goes out of the room to the bathroom, leaving the door open and a sliver of light from the hall illuminates my open eyes. He reaches up with his hand and grabs hold of the hand in front of my face.

“Did you enjoy the show, Sean?”

I am pretending to be asleep.

******

We play first. The club is surprisingly populated for a new place that is so far out of the way for every kid who normally goes to shows in Phoenix. Granted, a bunch of them are our friends, but it is still nice to stand on a stage and see a lot of heads out there in the dark. We played the night before with Social Distortion so we have a little bit of a swagger to us, the singer taking the microphone in his hand and barking at the crowd as we turn some other local band’s semi-hit into our own little intro—the members of that band are in the crowd, so it is especially sweet to see their faces.

We sound incredibly loud in this large room, with each chord struck bouncing back at us through the crowd. Every thump of the bass drum makes the shoddy stage feel like it is about to collapse. We are on fire, though—ripping through our set with reckless energy and violent fun. I break a string during a guitar lead on our third song, which causes a slight hiccup and I get my other guitar out to finish off the set. The hippie sound guy mumbles something through the monitor directly in front of me, but I cannot make out his words. We start up our next song and suddenly there is a strobe light going off on us, blinding us.

We stop playing.

“Turn that fucking strobe light off — we’re not Ted Nugent, asshole!”

I cannot remember who said it. All I remember is laughing and starting to play “Cat Scratch Fever” and then we went back into our own shit. I remember the crowd moving in waves and people shouting and remember that at different moments during our set we all looked at each other with huge and demented grins on our acne-riddled faces.

To this day, nothing beats that feeling of playing in a band with your friends and having a fucking ball.

******

The next day we are back at my friend’s place and I am bugging out because I have a guitar lesson and cannot miss it and nobody will give me a ride. My friend is indifferent to me at this point, and I am a little freaked out about what happened in the dark of his girl’s room and how nonchalantly he touched me and mocked me for watching them fuck. I felt exposed and like I was about to be abandoned.

“Dude, why don’t you stop being a pussy and just walk to your lesson? It’s not that far.”

I felt my face getting hot.

“We’ll come pick you up after. Just walk.”

We shared a joint and then I put my guitar in the heavy-as-fuck hardshell case and left. From his place to the guitar shop was four miles. In the Arizona sun, four miles is like four hundred miles, especially when you are a teen who has run away from home and you are high and thirsty. I almost gave up and walked home, but I didn’t want to give in and do what everyone else was telling me I should do. I am sure I looked ridiculous to people who were driving—a goofy kid lugging a guitar case covered in punk rock stickers, stumbling along the side of the road all covered in sweat. I kept on thinking about my friend’s girl’s breasts the entire walk, about how they moved to and fro as he did and then I thought about the way the room smelled after they did what they did and about how quickly I was able to force myself asleep after he grabbed my hand to fuck with me and about how when I woke up the passed-out girl asked me if I wanted to fuck and I just got up and left the room.

When I finally walked into the guitar shop, I saw my mother standing there talking to my guitar teacher.

******

Stay cool, motherfuckers.

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Cuts Like Drugs, or, “Sometimes Life Gets In The Way”

Three times in the last week someone has approached me and tried to sell me something illegal. The first — a young man with dark complexion and a nervous hitch in his game — tried to make small talk with me as I walked by him with my dog. He was standing around outside of a bar and pretending to be in the middle of a phone call. The local police precinct is a decent line-drive away from the very spot where he stood.

“Yo, is that a pitbull?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t like pitbulls – they’s killers and shit. Yo, you wanna buy some weed?”

“What? No.”

“I got dimes. It’s pretty good.”

“No thanks. Not looking to buy. You know this is a bad spot, right? The precinct is right over there.”

“You a cop?”

“No. Are you?”

“Fuck no. Everyone smokes weed, son. I gotta get rid of these dimes. I’ll give you two for $15.”

“No thanks, man. Good luck.”

Weed Guy looks me up and down and then walks in the direction of the precinct. Me and the dog go the opposite way.  I had never seen him before and I have not seen him since.

******

I’ve never been really good with the whole idea of “family” in any way. I am just not someone who is wired for any of the stuff that goes along with the word. At times I find myself thinking that maybe if I just tried a little bit harder or if I spent more time observing the way other families work I would get it in some way, but it just doesn’t click into place properly for me.

That entire paragraph is a lie.

******

The second person who tried to sell me something illegal was a homeless-looking dude in the McDonalds at the corner of Greenpoint and Manhattan Aves. I was walking by and decided in that very moment that eating a Quarter Pounder with cheese would totally make my sauntering down the block way more enjoyable for me. As usual, there were fifteen people in line and only two people working. The entire seating area in the restaurant was full of immigrant Poles sitting around and talking in their native tongue.

As a former drug user, I am well aware that the Golden Arches are also a YOU CAN SCORE DRUGS HERE beacon. As a former drug user who has been on the straight and narrow for a while now, I try to redact that knowledge from my head and just buy whatever awful foodstuffs I am there for and not think about anything other than “get in, get out.”

Junkies are interesting critters. They will study you for a few short moments, make an assumption/judgment based on their innate understanding of you as a whole person from that short period of time, and then pounce on you using that assumption/judgment as an avenue to create a discourse that will either lead to them selling you drugs or them begging you to tell them where they can get drugs. If you doubt me, please do spend some time in your local McDonalds. You’ll see.

I’m not sure if it was because I had pushed the sleeves on my hoodie up to my elbows, but the gentleman who was suddenly standing to my right as I was standing in line waiting to have my order taken took a look at my tattoos and bullied his way into conversing with me. Either I was already daydreaming about walking down the street with that burger being shoved in my maw or I had smoked too many cigarettes already that morning, because I should have been able to sniff him out when he was still a shadow in my peripheral vision.

“That’s some sweet ink, my man. You didn’t get none of that shit around here, did you?”

“Nope.”

“I mean, you can’t get good work like that done around here at all. I don’t have any, but I seen plenty to know you spent a lot of money on them shits.”

“It’s not a cheap hobby.”

“Speaking of hobbies – you lookin’ to buy, man? I got brown. Small pieces.”

“Nope.”

“You think you could help a brother out and maybe buy me a cheeseburger or a cup of coffee or something? I’m real hungry. Hard out here, bro.”

“I’ll see what I can do. Let me just place my order, alright?”

“Alright, cool. Thanks, man.”

I figure this will get him to ease off my shoulder and move back to wherever he was simmering – the promise of things to come. The young woman working the register asks if she can help me and I move to where she is and place my order for the burger I want to eat while walking down the street. I also try to order a cheeseburger for homeboy, but as soon as the words start to come out of my mouth he is standing next to me again, his stink so overwhelming that the counter girl puts her hand over her mouth and steps back away from the counter.

“Man, you think you could just spot me the money for the food? I don’t mean to be a bother, I swear. Times are just tough.”

“No. I’ll buy you a burger. Please just go sit down and I’ll bring it over to you.”

“I just really need that money, bro.  C’mon?”

“Do it my way or get nothing. You decide.”

Mr. Brown shuffles off to a table near the door and starts chewing on his fingers. The girl behind the counter hands me a bag with my delicious burger and the one I ordered for Mr. Brown. I walk over to where he is sitting and I just put it on the table without making any kind of eye contact and walk out the door.

I saw him again this morning, asleep at a bus stop.

******

My parents are “buried” thousands of miles away from where I sit as I write this. My mother is interned in a very beautiful Zen garden type of area in a cemetery in San Diego. I have visited her three times since she passed away in 1996. This is something I sometimes struggle with, even though my adult brain is more than capable of parsing what “it” is. My father’s ashes are buried in a very small cemetery in the very small town of Melissa, Texas. He is interned next to the remains of the stillborn daughter of the woman he married. I have not visited him. I did hold the box that contained his ashes in my hands for the last time in the parking lot of the crematorium. I wanted to speak to his ashes but the woman he married and her son were standing right there in front of me with glassy eyes and trembling hands, so I said things to my father’s ashes in my head.

I sometimes feel as though there is no reason at all for me to think about where the remains of my parents are. I do the very best that I can to try not to think about it, to try not to think about what an awful and terrible son I am for not calling, for not writing or visiting. I try to delude myself with oddball logic like, they are with me in my DNA so traveling across the country to sit and stare at a marker and feel the things I feel all the fucking time is a silly exercise and not very frugal. There are moments when I want to steal a car and just rocket out west and sit in front of the markers and cry and yell and hiss at people for staring at me. I try to let those moments pass. I try to allow myself the room to have those moments and then I try to allow myself to move on.

They are only my parents in my memories and in my dreams.

******

The third person who tried to sell me something illegal was an employee for the gas company. He rang my bell and told me that my bill was past due and he had come to collect or they were going to turn off my gas. The bill was relatively small, so I paid him with cash I had on me. When he saw me pull money out of my pocket he then pulled an iPhone out of his coat pocket and offered to sell it to me for cheap. I did not buy the stolen iPhone.

******

Grief is probably the most unpredictable of human reactions. It’s like dusted weed –- you think you’re doing fine and then all of a sudden you are on the floor in the kitchen because the tile is cold and feels good on your face and offsets the heat in your tears and there is only one window in the kitchen and you know that nobody can see you if you hunker down real low-like.

Because of their proximity to important dates on the calendar, my parents’ deaths are like magnetic poles: my mother on Mother’s Day, and my father on my birthday. They come close to splitting the year evenly, which means I come close to splitting myself evenly. Oddly, as time has gone on it has become easier for me to accept my mother’s death — of course I get sad and feel her loss when I see others buying flowers for their mother in May, but it isn’t nearly as bad as it used to be. I am able to cope and put on a mask and act as if everyone loving on their mother doesn’t make me pine for my own. Plenty of practice at that, yes. What is surprising to me is how much I feel her loss piggybacking on how much I feel the loss of my father as my birthday approaches each year.

The last week or so I keep on finding myself reading and rereading The Four Noble Truths and spending time curled up inside of my own head trying to pound that wisdom into dust that can move around inside of my blood and keep me from wanting to jump off the roof. I keep on seeing their ghosts in my eyes in my reflection. I keep on wishing there was a phone number I could call so that I could hear them tell me things. I wouldn’t even mind if there was a recording somewhere of some of my worst moments, just so I could hear them talk to me again.

I understand this is a cycle. I understand this is all a part of a bigger motion, my own aging and facing the inevitability of my own mortality. I get it, I do.

******

I am not the best friend someone could have. I do the best that I can, but there are things that people go through that I am just not very adept at dealing with. I don’t handle dramatics very well. I’m not very empathetic when it comes to someone being upset about something they could have easily avoided had they really looked into themselves before making a poor choice. I’m a decent listener, but my filter is always off because I try not to have one for myself and reminding myself to put it in place when listening to someone vent is hard to remember. I have deluded myself into thinking I am patient, but I am not. I have also deluded myself into thinking that I can surf, which isn’t true. I cannot surf.

I am sometimes the type of monster who will sit and watch someone tread water for whole lifetimes because that is far easier than saying the one true thing which is “I don’t really care about your problem in the way you want/need me to.” I have deluded myself into thinking that by being this way I am helping people untie their own knots and they can find their own way to the surface and they can heal themselves. This is a brick wall that I have put in place to keep myself from pushing myself out into traffic. This is a self-defense mechanism that has kept me not only alive, but alive and looking forward as much as possible so that I may see what is coming for me and be prepared for that. The problem within that construct is that I always feel alone. I feel alone because I make myself alone. I make myself alone because alone is safe.

******

There are things that I am supposed to be doing and I keep on making excuses and conflicts out of nothing to make sure I am not doing them. This is called self-sabotage and it is my albatross. I try very hard to work hard and be a better person, but you can have all the self-knowledge in the world at your disposal and if you are wired like I am you will still find a way to fuck off and make excuses and not do the things you worked so hard to be lucky enough to do. You can put on masks and dance for people and follow through on things that you think other people want you to do, but the reality is that you will at some point [hopefully] understand what it is that you want to do and you have to stay focused and get that shit done. I try to remind myself every day that I am lucky and blessed and that I have worked very hard and all of these good things are things I deserve and that I need to be thankful and dutiful and do the things I am supposed to be doing, but then there is that tiny voice that starts inside of my belly and works its way into the front of my brain and it is always saying I don’t deserve shit and then I back down and go sit on the couch and stare at my dog and cry.

This is what is going on.

******

Tonight when I was walking my dog we came upon a very drunk homeless man who was crouched between two parked cars and shitting on the street. Sometimes I am amazed that I got off the streets and I am living the life I am living now. Sometimes I am amazed that I survived that part of my life. Sometimes I wonder if I really did.

******

I never felt like I fit with my family. For the most part, they are all gregarious and smart people who are overflowing with love and kindness. I tried, when I moved back to New York, to build those relationships. I tried to connect and become a part of a larger whole. There was always this thing inside of me that felt as though I had been abandoned by them when we moved out west. I knew that wasn’t the truth — my mother is the one who broke off a lot of the interaction and controlled the communication. She had her reasons. She had her demons. Now I have my own reasons. Now I have my own demons.  All of the elders I actually looked to for guidance and understanding are gone.

This is not a blues song, this is just my truth.

******

Earlier tonight while I was standing in the kitchen washing the dishes, I made myself a promise. Well — maybe not so much a promise as much as I made a deal with myself.

I am going to be honorable.

I am going to put my head down and do the work.

I am going to be a better person.

******

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Accident Prone, or, “The Perils of Playing House”

A few years after my mother had died and the dust of my Cocaine Era had settled, I got involved with a woman who had a young child. I had somehow conned my way into a gig as a Training Manager for a regional restaurant chain and was living in and out of my own reality. Some nights I would close the bar and other nights I would come straight home from work and sit on my floor in my boxers playing video games and smoking pot until I would fall asleep, only to wake up late and hope against all hope that my boss didn’t call the store yet.

How I met the woman was through one of those telephone chat lines — the ones that have the commercials late at night. I’ve written about these chat lines before, so I will spare all the silly little details about the hows and the whys. We exchanged numbers during a series of messages and then agreed to meet up for a cup of coffee. She was lovely and sweet, and we had an almost instant camaraderie. We saw one another again the next night. And then the next.

We had a lot in common, really. She had been a methamphetamine user, so she was able to understand the quirks and strangeness in my post-cocaine behavior. She didn’t necessarily like that I still smoked pot, but understood that is was the lesser of all of my former evils. I had just begun suffering from panic attacks, and she had suggested that I go and see a psychiatrist to possibly get on some medication that could help with that. Her father was a counselor at the VA, and he recommended a shrink to me that had years and years of experience, so I went and the old doctor put my monkey ass on way too much Paxil.

******

We were probably into our third week of dating when she mentioned that her husband — her son’s father — was in prison. She had brought him up from time to time, but only to see if I was open to talking about her past and her troubles. She would let something slip out like dipping her toe into the bath, then retreat and either snuggle up with me or talk about school. She had gone back to college to get her nursing degree and it was very important to her to finish at the top of her class.

“What’s he locked up for?”

“Attempted murder.”

“Oh. Who did he try to kill?”

“Me.”

“Great.”

She went on to tell me that her husband, Troy, was a methamphetamine addict who, when high or even un-high, would fly into rage at the drop of a hat. She told me that things were so bad that they even tried the whole “let’s move across the country to see if things will be better in a different place” idea to no avail. It was in Columbus where he tried to kill her and their son. It was in Columbus where he pistol-whipped her, bound her, and drove around for hours with her in the trunk of her car. He kept their child in his lap as he drove, pointing his gun at other cars and screaming streams of obscenities at anyone who was on the streets. It was in Columbus where he left their child in a running car with his wife bound in the trunk as he walked into a gas station convenience store and flashed his gun at the cashier and told everyone to get on the ground or get dead. The cashier gave him the money and then he went outside and just sat on the hood of the car, spun out of his mind with the gun in his lap.

When the police arrived with their lights and their guns drawn, he didn’t put up a fight. He threw his gun on the ground and started to cry and scream. She told me she could hear him from inside the trunk, screaming her name and howling out about how she was tormenting him and pushed him to be this monster he didn’t want to be. When the police saw the baby on the floorboards among the empty glassine packets and the methamphetamine dust, they stepped on her husband’s head while it was on the pavement, busting the blood vessels in his eye and tearing his face. She told me she tried to be as still and as quiet as she could until she realized they were going to try and take her son away from her for this, that they were going to brand her in some way akin to how they were going to brand her husband.

She told me that when the police opened the trunk and set her free all she could do was laugh. The tears were coming out, but she had no other reaction but uncontrollable, unsettling laughter. The police asked her a series of questions as they took her husband away in the back of a squad car. The police asked her a series of questions as someone from Child Protective Services arrived on the scene and waited patiently to talk to her. She didn’t know anyone in Columbus other than the people she worked with. She knew she wanted to go home.

******

My job made me miserable. My boss — a District Manager who, when he hired me told me, “you can be a star in this company, Sean” — was one of those guys who was really enthusiastic and supportive around all of my employees but a total by-the-book dick who rode my ass nonstop out of their earshot. Most of my employees were high school kids waiting and bussing tables, while the rest were all illegal aliens who worked in the kitchen. I drank at work. I hid a bottle of whiskey in the overhead in my office and would keep some in a thermos under my desk. I would take an extra long time going to the bank every morning to smoke a joint in my truck in the parking lot. I was very kind to my employees and even kinder to my regular guests, but no matter what I did I just couldn‘t shake the feeling that my job was murdering me.

A lot of the kids who worked there I inherited from the previous manager. He was my boss for a month until he realized I was his hired replacement and then he freaked out and tried to pull a bunch of shit to pin on me and get me fired. As his last act of defiance, he hired a girl I could quite easily describe as the most incapable person I have ever worked with in my entire life. She showed up for work on her first day in a pair of cut-offs with her plump ass cheeks hanging out, a pair of sunglasses on her face that she refused to remove because she had herself a “bye-grain,” and an inability to count money that would make an accountant jump out of a window. Her name was Lacey.

Obviously, he had hired her to be the cashier.

Even during our busiest rushes — the late afternoon and then the dinner rush — I would catch Lacey slumped on a stool behind the register with her head down on the counter or even sitting in a booth sipping on iced tea and not even noticing she had a line of folks who were waiting to pay and leave. I made it my assistant’s mission to either get Lacey to get her shit together, or find some way to convince her she didn’t want to work with us any longer. Lacey confessed to my assistant that she had just been fired from her other job — working at a Pizza Hut — for getting caught having sexual relations with her manager in his office during work hours.

Now — I’m not one to be cruel — but Lacey was far from an attractive young lady. She sort of looked like a dwarf who had been stretched to an almost-normal size. Her attitude was abysmal. She dressed like a slob and was completely unrepentant about it. Hearing that she had been balling her boss at her other job made me queasy and uncomfortable. What kind of asshole must that guy have been to take advantage of an unattractive and borderline special needs employee like that?

More than once I found myself getting so annoyed with Lacey and her work ethic that I would just send her home for the day fifteen minutes into her shift and take over her job myself. I just couldn’t take it.

One day, in the middle of a dinner rush, she just up and walked off to the back of the restaurant toward the bathrooms without asking anyone to cover for her. I noticed her walk to the back and went up front to run the register and take care of the guests. Twenty minutes pass and still no sign of her. I call over one of the waitresses and ask her to go check on her. When the waitress comes back she is covering her mouth and trying not to laugh.

“What’s so funny? Where is Lacey?”

“She’s in the bathroom, puking her guts up.”

“Well, shit. I guess I’ll just have to send her home again.”

“That girl is fucking pregnant.”

“What? How do you know that?”

“How could you not know? Her other boss got her pregnant. That’s why she doesn’t do shit here — she thinks he is going to take care of her and she won’t have to work.”

“Fuck. Go back in there and tell her I said she can go home for the day, okay?”

******

For her next four shifts, Lacey averaged being half an hour late. Each time she would stroll in like she didn’t give a damn and would keep her sunglasses on and wouldn’t engage with the guests in any way. During the course of these insubordinate actions I pulled her aside and followed the proper procedure for writing up an employee — verbal warning, written warning with stipulations, and then a final written warning. In a telephone discussion with my boss, he made it clear that he wanted me to terminate her employment. When I told him she was pregnant by her former boss at the other job, his response was “I don’t give a fuck — fire that girl no matter what it takes.”

Lacey was over twenty minutes late for a mandatory staff meeting. All of my employees knew she was on her final warning and watched as I was calm and polite when she showed up late for the meeting, and watched as I continued to run the meeting to the end as if it was no big deal. I then pulled Lacey aside again.

“Lacey, you know I’m going to have to let you go, right? I gave you plenty of chances, but you were on a final warning and I just cannot rely on you to do your job and be present and on time like everyone else.”

“You can’t fire me because I am pregnant.”

“Firing you has nothing to do with your pregnancy, Lacey. Firing you has to do with your inability to be responsible and accountable.”

“You’re a fucking dick. I’m gonna send my brother and his friends in here to kick your ass.”

“That’s great, Lacey. This is part of what I am talking about.”

“Fuck you, Sean. Fuck you!”

******

A few days later we are in the middle of an insane dinner rush and I am working the register. I am making my way through a stream of guests trying to pay and leave when a woman comes through the door next to me and asks me if my name is Sean Doyle. I tell her it is. She stands patiently as I work my way through the rest of the line. I am polite and kind to each and every guest.

“Thanks for being patient — what can I do for you?”

“Did you recently terminate the employment of a young woman named Lacey?”

“Yes. Why do you ask?”

“Did you know that Lacey was pregnant?”

“Yes. What does that have to do with the termination of her employment?”

“That is what I am here to ask — I’m from the EEOC. Did her pregnancy complicate her employment here?”

“No. If anything, it accentuated and pointed out that she was not a good fit here and was a very irresponsible employee who couldn’t show up on time nor stand here and do this simple job.”

“So, you didn’t fire her for being pregnant?”

“No. I’m not a monster. I fired her for being habitually late and insubordinate. Her being pregnant is her own problem, not ours.”

“Thank you for your time, Mr. Doyle. Have a good night.”

******

When I asked her why she was still married to Troy, she responded that he refused to sign the divorce papers. He had been in prison for over a year and she figured she was just going to go on about her life and not deal with it at all until he was released. She moved herself and her son back to Mesa and she enrolled in school. She put all of it out of her mind until I brought up the fact that she would probably get better financial aid as a single mother, not to mention she would be able to make sure he was incapable of any type of custody. There was already an order of protection. The fact that he was behind bars in Ohio made her feel safer, but for some reason she had, on occasion, allowed his parents to spend supervised time with her son.

I asked my father about his attorney, asked him if he was a good man and if he was willing to sit down with us so I could help her. Made the necessary and introductory calls. The attorney contacted the prison and found out that her husband was about to be released and extradited back to Arizona to be put on house arrest and then spend time in a halfway house work release program. The prison did not let her know this beforehand. She would have never known if I hadn‘t contacted the attorney. I never would have seen Troy’s last name if the attorney had not drafted new divorce paperwork.

I never would have known that Troy was Lacey’s brother.

******

When the EEOC filed a lawsuit on Lacey’s behalf for supposed wrongful termination my boss tried to push me in front of the train with the people at corporate. The company sent their attorney to talk to me and take my statement and my boss refused to leave the room while it was happening because he was afraid that I was going to rat him out for telling me to fire her irrespective of the reason. I explained to the attorney that I followed all proper procedure and showed all of the required paperwork as far as write-ups and whatnot. I was placed on an administrative leave for a week while the case went on, and they made my boss run my store.

He found my stashes of whiskey. He also found an envelope I had hidden in a binder where I was skimming money to pay my best kitchen worker for his vacation time. I had made the mistake of telling him he was eligible for paid time off before checking with corporate, and decided that I was going to do the right thing by him and pay him anyway. I had been jacking twenty-five or so bucks almost every day and stashing it to pay him for ten days’ time.

My boss called me at home late at night to lay into me about his discoveries. She was asleep in my bed and her son was in the playpen I had bought for him at a yard sale. They were hiding out with me after Troy had come to her apartment in the middle of the day and broken in, trashing the place and scrawling all over her walls in lipstick and marker. We took a bunch of photos of the carnage and I gave them to my father’s attorney. There was a new restraining order in place.

“I found your fucking whiskey, Sean.”

“Life is rough, you know? Really sorry about that.”

“I also found the envelope with all the money in it. What the fuck are you doing, stealing from me?”

“Not from you personally, no. It’s for Rodrigo. I fucked up and told him he was eligible for a paid vacation and then found out he wasn’t, so I was trying to do him a solid.”

“I should fucking fire you right now, you know that?”

“Are you? Are you firing me? Is that why you’re calling me in the middle of the night, boss?”

“I don’t know what I am going to do. I do know that as soon as you went on that medication and started dating that woman you stopped being responsible.”

“Listen — I know you’re pissed and I would be, too. But my personal life has nothing to do with my employment. If you have a problem with me being on a medication, well, I don’t know what to say to that. As far as who I am dating goes, I didn’t know I needed to run my lifestyle choices by you.”

“You’re lucky they didn’t fire you over this whole Lacey thing.”

“So are you, dude. You’re also lucky I made sure there was a paper trail on her. Can I go back to sleep now?”

All I heard on the other end of the line was an exasperated exhalation and then the dial tone. I stood in the doorway to my bedroom and watched her sleep. I looked over at the playpen and watched her son toss and turn. I thought about my angry boss looking at his kids sleeping — both of them named after NASCAR drivers — and realized this was not the life I was looking for, not the life I thought about in my quiet and alone time. I packed a bowl and went out onto my patio and smoked it. I saw two dudes sitting in a car across the street, watching me. I knew it was Troy. I could feel him.

Something was about to break.

******

She and I are sitting in a Denny’s with her son, waiting for Troy. He told the attorney he would sign the divorce papers if he was allowed to see his son, and she decided that she would let him see him one last time, but only on her terms. I am extremely nervous and have eaten four Xanax. I do not have a weapon, even though I already know he will probably have one. I refuse to sit with my back to the door and she finds me ridiculous.

“He isn’t going to do anything stupid in public, Sean.”

“Right. You can say that, but this is also the same motherfucker who tied you up and stashed you in a trunk.”

As soon as the words leave my mouth I see Troy come strolling in through the door with two large guys in tow. Troy looks like an albino with terrible tattoos, wearing a white Spurs jersey and a white bandana on his head. He motions for his boys to sit themselves in the booth across from us and stands over us, looming and smirking. I can see the outline of the handle of a gun in his waistband and I start to sweat.

“So you’re the motherfucker that not only fired my pregnant sister but is also fucking my wife and trying to take my kid away from me. You don’t look so tough. Are you a fucking tough guy, Sean?”

“I’m not the one who showed up carrying with two clowns as back-up, am I?”

“Fuck you. You don’t mind if I sit down and hold my son, do you?”

She tells him that he can. He sits and I watch as he picks his son up out of the booster seat and holds him to his chest. I can hear his boys snicker and mutter to each other. I feel like the entire room is a sauna and I am in the middle of a bad movie that is not going to have a happy ending. She pushes the divorce papers in front of him and puts a pen on top of them. He glares at her. He glares at me. He nods at his boys and one of them turns in the booth and shows me that he has a gun in his lap and it is pointed at me. I feel faint and flushed. She kicks me under the table.

“I’m not signing that shit. Fuck your Jew lawyer and your Jew boyfriend. I’m going to get up right now and walk out of here with my son and you’re not going to stop me.”

She starts to laugh. He turns to look at her laughing and I reach under the table as fast as I can and grab him by the balls as hard as I can. He drops his son on the table, spilling the water glasses. I pull him toward me so that he slumps and I pull his gun from his pants with my left hand while squeezing as hard as I can with my right. A waitress sees what is happening and lets out a little yelp. His boys look confused and I let go of Troy.

“Sign the fucking papers and stop being a fucking dick. If you don’t sign them we’ll just up and walk right the fuck out of here and you will never see your son again. Tell your pal to take that gun off of me or he’ll be the first one I shoot, unless you’re such a dumbass you didn’t load this thing.”

“So you are a tough guy. Fuck this, I’m leaving.”

“Then leave. Have those two cocksuckers leave first and you follow them out. I’m not going to tell you twice not to follow us. You follow us and I will fucking break every last bone in your body.”

Troy slams his fists on the table. His boys get up and slowly walk out the door. Troy sits with us for a second. I take the magazine out of the gun and put the gun on the table. He looks at it. He looks at me. I nod at the gun and he picks it up and puts it back in his waistband. She is holding their son. Their son is crying. Her face is red. His face is red. I am sweating and scared and ready to run through a wall to get as far away as possible. Troy gets up slowly and steps out of the booth. He shakes his head and then he spits in my face.

“Fuck you. I will fucking kill you.”

“Good luck with that, Troy. Gonna be kind of hard to kill me from inside a prison.”

Troy walks out the door. The waitress comes over and asks us if she should call the police. She says yes and I say no. I start to gather our things. She is crying. Her son is crying. People are staring over at us. I finally wipe the spit off of my face with a napkin and we start to move toward the door. I can see Troy and his boys sitting in the same car I saw outside of my apartment. I tell her to get into her car as fast as she can and that I am driving. She sees Troy in his car. She flips him the bird as she gets in the car. He revs his engine. I get behind the wheel of her car and start it up and look in the mirror and see him waiting. I back up and pull out of the lot and across four lanes of traffic as erratically as I can.

“He’s following us.”

“I know. I’m going to try and lose him but you have to help me keep an eye out for him, okay?”

I run a red light, carefully. He follows and almost gets hit. I make a rushed left turn into a residential neighborhood and stand on it. Everything feels drenched in my sweat. I can feel my hands becoming part of the wheel. She tells me he is behind us so I make a quick series of turns and get back out on the bigger street and head in the opposite direction to the one we came — back toward the Denny’s. I see two squad cars in the lot and I cut across the lanes of traffic again and pull up right next to them as Troy stops his car in the middle of the street and lays on his horn. As soon as he does this one of the squad cars lights up and starts to hustle out of the lot toward his car. Troy takes off with the squad car following. She gets out of the car and starts screaming. Two officers come over and I turn off the car and get out to talk to them, the magazine still in my pocket.

******

Three months later my boss fires me as I walk in the door after taking a cab to work because my truck had been repossessed. He yells and screams in my face telling me I am irresponsible and he should have fired me months ago but didn’t have anyone he could replace me with and I just stand there with my heart in my throat and trying to fight back tears. I walk three miles home and collapse on my couch. I roll a joint and smoke it in the shower.

She and I had started to drift apart shortly after Troy had been sent back to prison. That night in bed after I had been fired she told me that she wanted to have another child, and when I told her I didn’t want to be a father she started to cry. I waited until she fell asleep and then I crept out of her apartment and stopped answering her calls. After a few days of this she called the police and asked them to do a welfare check on me — which basically meant the police came to my apartment and tried to kick in my door to make sure I was still alive. She had told them on the phone about Troy and told them about the incident and about how I had just been fired and had my truck repossessed so when they arrived they had guns drawn expecting to find the corpse of me.

I think they were stunned when I opened the door.

She was standing behind them, holding her son. I couldn’t form sentences because I was so high. All I could do was shake my head and keep on saying that I couldn’t believe this was happening. The police asked me if I was okay and I told them I was alive and alive is okay. When they left I allowed her to come inside. She stayed with me that night, but it was the last time I ever saw her or her son.

******

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A Small Turn Of Human Kindness, or, “We All Get To Heaven, Leaning On The Arm Of Someone We Once Helped”

When I was fresh off the streets and working at the coffee joint, I met this guy named Luke. I’m not sure how it really happened — either I was genuinely nice to him when he was on line to buy a cup of coffee, or he must have noticed my tattoos slipping out from under the long sleeves I was forced to wear by the dress code and sparked some quick discourse — but we ended up sitting around outside one day after my shift and bullshitting with one another. Luke was also covered in tattoos, but his were all very blackened and angry-looking, like they were carved into his flesh with stones and had soot rubbed into them to make them appear ancient and mystical. Luke was wearing a black skullcap and spoke like a stuttering machine gun with a Boston accent. Luke had a sketchbook with him, and it was overflowing with heavily-penciled, Giger-esque drawings of despair and anguish — the kind of drawings and scribblings you might find on a scratch pad used by a meth addict.

Luke was in a wheelchair.

Being polite, I didn’t see fit as to ask Luke what had landed him in the wheelchair. I just did what I normally did with people, and let them decide on their own what it was that they wanted to share with me. It took Luke all of fifteen minutes to turn himself loose and uncoil the story.

******

I have never been particularly adept at maintaining friendships with other boys/men. I’m not sure if this is a result of the awkward childhood I had or if it is a result of me paying attention to the stupid shit I have witnessed boys/men do time after time. I am much more apt to confide in a woman as a close ally than I am capable of spending anything longer than a few minutes listening to another boy/man bitch or gripe about his situation. Most of the time the types of boys/men that gravitate toward me are usually broken beyond repair and full of venom and anger toward anyone that they do not see when they look in the mirror.

From my experience, most boys/men are completely incapable of verbalizing their feelings without somehow pointing angry and crooked fingers at someone or some entity that they feel is to blame for their state of being.

“It’s not my fault” is almost always the first explanation.

******

“So, like, umm — how come you haven’t asked me yet why I’m in this chair?”

“Probably because it’s none of my business.”

“That’s a little weird. Most of the time the first thing people ask me about is how I ended up in the chair.”

“I can clearly see that you are in a wheelchair. I mean — it sounds to me like you want to tell me why you’re in the thing, so you might as well go ahead. I wasn’t going to ask because it is what it is — you’re in a wheelchair.”

“Yeah, man. It sucks being in this chair. A lot.”

“I’d imagine that it does.”

“You have no idea.”

“That’s true — I don’t.”

At this point, Luke had already smoked no less than three of my cigarettes and shown me his entire sketchbook full of demons and pain. It wasn’t that I didn’t care that he was in the wheelchair — it obviously sucked for him, as it would for anyone. I just didn’t feel the need to have someone unload whatever misery they had inside of themselves onto me at that point. I was miserable enough, and just coming off the streets and landing a job and all of that was the best thing I had going for me. I wanted to keep the positive energy flowing from the tap, not muddy it all up with someone else‘s trauma.

“I broke my spine and my neck in Hawaii a couple of years ago. I was on vacation with my girlfriend. We were living in San Francisco — Oakland — when it happened.”

I pushed the pack of smokes across the table toward him and took another drink from my coffee. I watched his hands tremble as he reached for the pack, and then watched as the tremors continued while he tried to light the smoke dangling from his lips. I fought off the urge to reach over and light it for him.

“I always promised her we would go to Hawaii, man. Fuck. I loved her so much. I had a ring with me to ask her to marry me and everything — saved up a ton of money to pay for the trip and pulled lots of extra shifts working as a carpenter. Have you ever loved someone so much that they just took over every part of your being?”

“I used to think that I had, but no — no I haven’t.”

Luke looks at me for a long pause and then his eyes start to well up, so he fumbles with his sunglasses and puts them back on. I can see my reflection in them — my bald pate glistening in the sun and the shadowy outline of the rest of me sitting in the chair across from him. As he gathers himself, I keep on thinking about his drawings and how much pain I could feel coming out of them. I don’t think I had ever seen anything so dark before in my entire life.

“We were having a great time. Sightseeing and all the shit that people do in Hawaii. We went hiking in this nature preserve and it was the most beautiful place I had ever seen, like a real rainforest out of a movie or something. I kept on thinking, ‘now is the time to ask her, you should do it now.’”

“Well? Did you ask her?”

Luke kind of let his head drop, with his chin almost resting on his chest. I sat and waited, taking notice of the size of his hands — they were as big as catcher’s mitts. His upper body and arms were obviously in excellent shape from being in the chair, but I was pretty sure this guy had always been someone who was in excellent shape. Probably blessed with one of those metabolisms that burned off whatever he put into himself within the hour. I took out another smoke and lit it up.

“I didn’t get a chance to ask her. That’s when the accident happened.”

I wait.

“I just — we were standing on this cliff thing, overlooking a pool of water, and I felt so nervous and fucked up about asking her, so I decided to dive into the water, to cool myself down so I could do it.”

“Jesus, Luke.”

“Yeah. She told me that when I hit the water it sounded like a tree coming down or a car accident. Because we were in a remote area she had to scream and scream for help after she climbed down and pulled me out of that water. Someone ran and got the Park Ranger and he radioed for a helicopter to come and get me. The paramedics told her that I should’ve been dead.”

“Fuck.”

“I was in surgery for a long time — they had to re-break my spine because I had fused some of the vertebrae together when I hit the rocks. They did the thing where they drilled a halo into my head to keep my neck stable. They said I would probably never walk again even before they did the surgeries.”

There was a silence that hung in the air between us. I felt terrible for the guy, but this was exactly why I never asked anyone about any kind of affliction or malady — it always ended up embedding itself inside of me, and then I would start to feel so much shame for the ways in which I had wrecked and abused my own body, taking it for granted with all the stupid stunts and bullshit I had pulled over the years. We sat there in the stillness, with teens and soccer moms floating about us as peripheral ghosts — neither one of us making a sound, just smoking and waiting for the silence to end itself.

******

For a very brief period of time I dated a stripper. I met her one afternoon when I was supposed to be at work but decided that I needed to go somewhere and clear my head and be away from everyone else in the world. Whenever I needed to do that I almost always picked a strip club that was on the other side of town from where I lived. I could go in and sit at a table far away from the stage and everyone else, maybe have a couple of drinks and watch from afar as the girls worked the room and the stage. My mother had recently passed away, so the last thing in the world I wanted to do was be around people. Well — people who would want to talk to me or ask me how I was doing.

The cocktail waitress came over to me and asked me what I would like to drink and I told her I just wanted a ginger ale. She looked at me funny and then said there was a two drink minimum, so I told her to go on ahead and bring me two of them. She shimmied off toward the bar. There was a girl dancing on stage to a Scorpions song. There were maybe ten other patrons in the club. The doorman kept on looking over toward where I was sitting. I had, as usual, chosen a table far away from everyone else. The rest of the patrons were all lined up at the tables surrounding the stage. I didn’t want to associate with them, nor did I want to hear the lurid bullshit that would roll off of their tongues.

“Hey.”

I turned my head from glaring across the room at the others to face the voice to my left. Standing before me was one of the dancers. She had long brown hair and a very white bikini. She shimmered under the ultra-violet light. Under that type of lighting, the whiteness screamed off of her bikini and made the rest of her appear almost an apparition. She smelled sweet from five feet away.

“Do you want a dance?”

“I’m sorry — not just yet. I kind of came in here to get some thinking time in, you know?”

“Thinking time? In here? You’re an odd one. What’s your name?”

“Sean.”

“Hi Sean. I’m Amber. Can I sit here with you?”

“Of course you can, Amber. Nice to meet you.”

Amber and I started talking. She asked me a bunch of questions — what did I do for a living and all that regular stuff — and I answered her honestly. I didn’t even notice when the cocktail waitress came by and set down my drinks. When I noticed them on the table I offered one to Amber and she took it, smiling. I asked her some questions about herself — did she like this gig and things of that nature — and it seemed as though she answered them honestly. We were getting to know one another, and it felt pretty natural. Right as we both seemed to be feeling our connection, Amber got called to the stage by the DJ.

“I’ll be right back, Sean. Please don’t leave, okay?”

I nodded and watched her as she made her way to the stage.

******

After a little while had passed, Luke told me that his girlfriend — the woman he wanted to marry — had basically ran out on him after the first couple of months of his rehabilitation. She had started stealing his pain medications and had become hooked on the morphine the doctors had given him. When he confronted her about it, she freaked out and split, leaving him all alone and broke, with nobody to care for him. He didn’t want to go back to Boston to the family he had there, because like most men my age, he was the survivor of a really shitty childhood. He ended up reaching out to his doctors, and they told him about a program in Phoenix where a neurosurgeon was looking for patients willing to take a risk to get their ability to walk returned to them.

He was living in a nursing home and going to see the neurosurgeon at his clinic four days a week. He was on a ridiculous amount of medication — anti-seizure stuff and all of that — and wasn’t really supposed to be drinking coffee, but he felt like the littlest things he wanted were things he should have. As he told me all of this stuff, I watched his face change colors as if I were on acid. With each new set of problems he would share with me his brow would furrow and he would break out in little beads of sweat all over his face and arms.

“I came here because I had a shot to get up out of this chair, to maybe go and find her and get her back. That’s really all I have to live for, man. Just her. Other than that, I’m just living on borrowed time. I can roll this chair out into traffic and be done with all of it, just like that.”

******

I didn’t wait for Amber to come back. I took out a business card for some insurance agent I had been using and wrote my number on the back of it, and gave it to the cocktail waitress, telling her that Amber and I were talking about how she needed new car insurance. I figured it was worth a shot to get my number to her without pissing off the doorman or anyone else in the club. I walked out without even watching her on the stage — I didn’t want to see her like that, not after talking to her as openly as I had.

She called me a few hours later and told me her real name was Marísol. She told me that she was going to community college and studying to be a nurse. She asked me if I would meet her at a Denny’s over by her apartment to get some food and talk some more — she had studying to do and couldn‘t get any studying done where she lived because there were too many people living there.

I told her I would meet her there in one hour.

******

When I saw her sitting in the booth all by herself, surrounded by all of those books and papers, I found her to appear so tiny and childlike. In the darkness of the club she looked older and unobtainable. In the light of the dining area, she looked young and sweet. She looked up as I was walking over and her smile broke me into little shards. She started gathering up her mess and trying to organize it, to make some room.

“I’m so glad you came, Sean. I’ve been thinking about you all day.”

“I’ve been thinking about you too, Marísol. You sure have a lot of homework, don’t you?”

She smiled that smile again and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I asked the waiter for some coffee. Marísol just kept on sitting there, looking at me.

“You’re different, Sean. Why are you so different?”

“I’m not so sure that I am as different as you think I am. I’m just me, really.”

We went back and forth like that for a little while, like boxers feeling one another out in the first round, trying to look for holes in the defense. After a while of that, we ended up sharing things about ourselves. I told her that my mother had recently passed, and she told me about a little brother who was in prison for murder. She told me about her family’s struggle to keep all of her cousins out of gangs, and I told her about my troubles with my father. It seemed like both of us had a lot of hard-scrabble learning experiences under our belts. I looked toward the windows and saw that the sun was starting to rise.

“Marísol, the sun is coming up. Do you need me to drive you home?”

“I’d actually like it if you took me to your home, Sean. I know that sounds really forward, but — you know?”

I took her back to my apartment. We didn’t really say much more for a few hours.

******

Luke started showing up almost every day around the time my shift was ending. At first it didn’t really bother me — I kind of enjoyed getting to know him, as we had really similar backgrounds. Two kids who grew up all kinds of fucked up because of drugs, punk rock and the freedom we found in it, not to mention being spawned from awkward homes where we both had to learn how to take a punch or two. It wasn’t that I felt bad for Luke, either. After all the shit I had been through, I had started to come to the conclusion that The Universe didn’t test weak motherfuckers. I used to think The Universe did nothing but mold shit into champions, and a part of me felt like Luke and I were both sort of shit on our way to being champions.

One afternoon when my shift was about to end, one of my co-workers came to me to tell me that Luke was sitting outside at a table and crying. She had seen him pull a flask out of his little backpack and pour a bunch of booze into his coffee. I felt a little uneasy, because Luke had already told me about his drug problem he had to kick, and here he was getting his drink on in the middle of the day at the place I worked.

I was nervous, but as soon as my shift ended I went right over to where Luke was sitting and sat right the fuck down.

“Are you drinking, Luke?”

“Yeah, man. Shit’s getting kind of rough for me right now. They’re not sure if the therapy is working. I feel so fucked, Sean.”

“What are your options?”

“The doc says he is pretty sure that even if they changed all the medications, I would still end up not being able to walk under all of my own power again. I’ve been able to jiggle my leg a few times, and my toes have been able to wiggle. But this has been going on for almost a year now, and nothing is really progressing.”

“Fuck.”

I just sat and hung out with him as he poured his heart out. His sketchbook was on the table in front of him, and as usual it was overflowing with really dark energy. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from it — the line-work was heavy-handed and full of implied violence and anger that just jumped off of the page and coiled around my heart. It was killing me to see Luke this way, even though I knew there was really nothing I could do.

“How could I have not seen the sign? Sean, the sign was fucking huge and when I think about it in my mind, I can see it as clear as day, ‘Caution: No Diving, Shallow Water.’”

I just sat there, paralyzed in my own way.

******

Marísol and I hung out a lot over the next few weeks. She worked the day shift at the club because they told her she wasn’t pretty enough to work at night — which was pretty much coded racism because she was Mexican. She didn’t mind though, because she preferred the much more easygoing daytime crowd. They tipped her well because she was more attractive than most of the other girls, plus she didn’t have to deal with getting groped and treated like shit by all the drunks that rolled in once the sun went down.

It made perfect sense to me.

Things were going pretty good for us until she found a small amount of heroin in my bathroom. It was in a little pillbox that I had forgotten about. I used to like to sprinkle a little bit of it into a bowl of pot before getting high, to combat my insomnia. I’m pretty sure that heroin was over a year old at the time she found it.

Needless to say, she was mortified at her discovery and it turned into a huge argument. She didn’t mind me smoking pot — in fact, a few times she had indulged with me — but the found artifact of my sordid drug past was something she was not going to be able to get beyond. She started marching around my apartment gathering up her things and cursing at me under her breath in Spanish. I asked her to reconsider, but she wasn’t having it.

“Heroin is fucked up, Sean. You know how many men in my family are in prison because of that shit? No. No way, Sean. I cannot be with someone who uses that shit. No.”

I asked her if she wanted me to drive her home, and she got even angrier with me and then stormed out of my apartment.

A few days later she left me a voicemail telling me all the reasons why it was better if we didn’t see one another any longer. This message contained quite a few things she had never mentioned before, but I figured that is what happens to people when they have time outside of the bubble to really think about and justify things.

I missed her.

******

“Luke — let me ask you a really personal question?”

“Anything, Sean. Ask away.”

“Does your dick still work?”

“Yeah, actually. Not all the time, though. It really freaked some of the nurses out at the home. Sometimes when they are helping me bathe I get a hard-on and they have to leave the room until I tell them it is gone.”

“Is that even normal for a spinal injury?”

“Nope. The doc says that is one of the things that keeps on giving him hope.”

“I have an idea, Luke.”

******

Because Luke had his chair, riding the city bus was always difficult for him. I decided that since I had just been paid, I was taking Luke to the strip club. There was one not too far from where we were, so I went inside and called us a cab to take us there. I rolled Luke over to the cab when it arrived, picked him up and scooted him into the back seat, and then folded up his chair and put it in the trunk. When I told the driver where we were going, he looked at me all kinds of funny in the rear-view mirror, but I didn’t care. I was going to get Luke a lap dance.

When we pulled up to the club — not the same club where I had met Marísol — the doorman actually came over and helped me get Luke out of the cab and into his wheelchair. When I tried to tip him he smirked at me and shook his head. As we went inside, the girl working the door refused to take my money for the cover — basically giving me the same look as the doorman and shaking her head as well.

As Luke and I went through the doors into the main area of the club, even though my eyes were adjusting to the UV lights and my senses were adjusting to the booming sound — I could still see everyone in the place turn and look at us. I didn’t fucking care at all. This was about Luke and not me. As stupid as it sounds, I just wanted my new friend to have one good day, to have a few hours where he didn’t have to think about anything at all.

“Sean, this is amazing. I can’t remember the last time I was in a place like this.”

When the cocktail waitress came around to ask us what we wanted, it took me a second for it to hit me.

It was Marísol.

“What are you doing here, Sean?”

“Hi. I brought my friend here to have a good time. I promise you I won’t be any trouble. How are you?”

“I’m good. Who is your friend?”

“This is Luke. Luke, this is —”

“Amber. My name is Amber. It’s very nice to meet you, Luke. Can I get you something to drink?”

“Yeah. A Jack and Coke.”

Marísol, realizing that Luke is in a wheelchair, puts her hand on my shoulder and leans in close to my ear. I can smell her sweetness and my mind jumps back in time, to dark and hushed nights.

“Is he okay to be here, Sean?”

“I think he needs to be here right now. He has had a rough road, you know?”

“I’ll let the girls know to take good care of him.”

“Thanks, Marísol — this means a lot to me.”

“Amber. You don’t get to call me Marísol anymore, remember?”

******

The night goes by in a blur. Luke gets treated like a conquering king by almost every single dancer. The manager of the club comes over to make sure he is having a good time, and then buys us a couple of rounds of drinks. He tells Luke about a cousin of his, paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. One of the dancers comes over with a pizza and sits in Luke’s lap, feeding him, his smile so big and wide I can see his insides shining.

Marísol, with her kindness radiating out of her, sits next to me and asks me what has been going on in my life. I tell her about recently being homeless, about getting my shit together, about trying to keep my head above water. She tells me she is almost done with nursing school, and she finally has her own place. She keeps on looking over at Luke and smiling. I start to tell her about Luke’s situation, about the neurosurgeon and the special program. She smiles.

“The world is very small and strange, Sean.”

“What do you mean?”

“I just got placed there. I start working there on Monday. I’ll be one of the nurses working with Luke.”

******

After that, Luke never really came around my job anymore.

A few weeks after he disappeared, one of my coworkers said he saw him on the bus, with a girl.

“You saw Luke? On the bus? With a girl?”

“Yeah. They said — ‘Tell Sean, Amber and Luke said thank you.’”

******

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Kissability, or, “Riding Around In Cars As A Boy”

Weird shit always happens when you’re waiting around in a car. Like — it never matters why you’re sitting in there — some sort of chicanery always occurs when you’re idling in the furthest corner of a darkened and foreign parking lot, or even right out in front of the 7-Eleven under those brighter than the sun lights.

Cars equal action in many different ways.

******

Back when I was working at that ice cream parlor — the one that got robbed and I was a stupid shit and couldn’t keep myself from fucking with the robber — I befriended the other dishwasher kid. He was a couple of years ahead of me in school and had himself a car. Way more connected in the little punk rock scene I was trying to jimmy my way into, especially when it came to girls. This motherfucker knew every girl in the goddamn city. If a girl even had a haircut that remotely looked “new wave,” or even resembled a grown-out Chelsea, he knew them.

I spent a lot of time in his car that year.

Whether we were driving around aimlessly looking for another house party or going to the mall or whatever — his big U-boat of a car felt like the center of The Universe. He didn’t even have a tape deck, so he’d play cassettes on some little tinny-sounding radio he kept on the seat next to him. We’d drive around passing joints of Mexican dirt weed back and forth while he would put in cassettes of shit I didn’t want to hear at all, but somehow I innately knew this was his way of connecting with all of these girls — like I gave a fuck about Bauhaus or Alien Sex Fiend or any of that kind of shit at this point in my life? I wanted to listen to Black Flag or Black Sabbath — nothing in the known world sounded better to me when I was high — but he would always pop in some fruity Goth shit that I would somehow end up understanding was muy importante through some very primal form of Stoner Osmosis.

That fruity Goth shit was the secret handshake into the club. That fruity Goth shit was the gateway to make-out sessions in laundry rooms. That fruity Goth shit would lead to having girls come knocking on my window when the moon hung up in the sky. That fruity Goth shit would get my fingers in a lot of different pies.

******

Sitting in a car while people you barely know go inside of a house in a really shitty part of town to connect to get drugs you know you should not be doing with money you took out of the cash register at the place where your friend works is always an awkward thing. The car is running and you sort of keep on having these feverish ideas of sliding over to the drivers’ seat and taking off with it — it isn’t like these fools know you in any way, so you might be able to get pretty far before they send their dogs after you.

The drugs are worth the wait. The drugs are worth the awkwardness of this. The drugs will make all of this feel better.

You keep on looking over at the doorway to the house, hoping to see shadows moving as people, foaming at the mouth at the thought of the bounty they will have on their shadowy person as they slither and amble back to the car. You also keep scanning the block for any interlopers — you know this neighborhood is notorious for strong-arm robberies and low-level thugs who lurk behind hedges who like to pop out and rob white boys to teach them a lesson. Your fingers feel fat with anticipation and skinny with hunger while you rub them on your pants. You can see your breath in the car and you can smell that stale smell coming from the ashtray.

Full of stubbed-out roaches, you take two of them, and after carefully emptying out the tip you shove them into the end of your cigarette and figure “what the fuck?” and fire it off to ease some of the itch you have going on while you wait for the drugs you came here for.

The smoke fills the inside of the car so you crack the window and that is when you hear the yelling coming from inside the house. It sounds like someone is being beaten, and you hear someone screaming about money. You go to put your head in your hands because you know this means you will probably not be able to get what you came here for and when you move your head everything around you drags and wheezes. Dusted.

You realize you are fucked and start calculating in your head how you can navigate your way back to where you started without having to get dragged from the car by the people in the house who are angry about something that has nothing to do with you.

You realize you are fucked and you are not going to get the drugs that you came here for, so you open the glove compartment and see that within it is a small brick of marijuana wrapped in paper and a small caliber handgun inside of a dirty sock. You shove both of them into your pants, realizing you will never see the money you stole that you gave to the people you barely know that are inside the house — possibly being beaten, possibly running a game that you will end up being punished for — well, you’ll have to weigh this theft as a leavening agent and call it a night. For a moment you think about selling the things you’ve just found in the glove compartment for the same amount of money you stole from the register to balance everything out as best as you can.

You leave the car as quietly as you can and slink down the block in the direction your dusted mind thinks will get you home.

******

These two girls I went to high school with had this weird secret life thing going on. They would get into the smaller girl’s car and drive up north to Black Canyon City one night per week and hang out in this little biker bar that never carded them. Black Canyon City was about forty miles outside of Phoenix in Yavapai County. It was a town totally run by Hells Angels. The bigger girl was way into this whole scene — she was always talking in quirky code-speak about how she had “boyfriends” who were in “a club” and how they lived outside of the city.

One night they took me and my closeted gay friend up there with them. We were in the back seat of the car, and the girls were acting like we weren’t even there. Forty miles of them playing Whitesnake songs really loudly on the stereo and lighting smokes for one another. It felt like some weirdo field trip — my friend and I kept on looking at each other and shrugging.

We pulled into the dirt lot of a bar and the girls just got out of the car and went inside without waiting for us. When we went inside, we realized these people had probably never seen punk rock kids before. The place was pretty quiet — maybe only a dozen folks inside at all. There were four pool tables, so my friend and I immediately went and occupied one of them, trying to pick one furthest away from where everyone else was.

The girls came back with a couple of pitchers of beer and we all started to shoot pool. The funny vibe I felt when we had come in had started to dissipate a bit. The four of us loosened up a lot, and I could kind of feel the room loosen up as well.

At one point, this massive biker — he must have been at least 6’7” and easily over three hundred pounds — shuffled his way over to where we were and started flirting with the bigger girl. It was kind of cool to see her outside of the control group of our school, letting loose and smiling for real. She seemed happy and seemed to enjoy the attention she was getting. The other girl kept on smiling at the two of us, trying to clue us in that this was just how it went with them. I started to play connect the dots in my head and realized this was her way of going along for the ride to make her friend happy, and I felt pretty good about it.

That’s around the time the biker started to talk shit, though.

“I see you girls like to hang out with a couple of fags.”

I didn’t weigh more than a buck and a half. I wasn’t afraid, and the beers I had been drinking probably helped me feel a little tougher than I was — but I was damn sure not going to get into a brawl with a biker in his bar. I knew better than that.

“We’re not fags. Why do you have to be a dick?”

When my closeted friend said it, I could see he was pissed. He had those really long skater bangs at the time — the kind that only fell over one half of his face — and he swung his head to the side so they swept up and over to uncover his face. He just glared at the big biker and then went back to lining up his shot.

“If you’re not fags, well then what the fuck are you? You look like a couple of fags to me.”

The bigger girl he had been flirting with looked hurt but still smiled at him as she put her hand around his waist and sort of led him over toward the jukebox. He kept on looking back over at us, but she was doing her best to distract him. I watched her plant a big sloppy kiss on his mouth and he grabbed at her pretty hungrily. My friend and I kept on shooting pool and the other girl sat on a stool smoking and nursing her beer.

After what felt like a long time, I looked over toward the jukebox and saw that the bigger girl and the massive biker were gone. I asked the other girl where they went, and she just shrugged her shoulders, smirked, and went back to flirting with my closeted friend. I went to go empty my bladder in the bathroom. The inside of that bathroom was a horrorshow — nothing but biker memorabilia and racist graffiti/jokes crudely scrawled all over the place in marker. In the urinal was a Mexican flag, as some sort of target to aim at. Fucking lovely.

Coming out of the bathroom I heard some old timer at the bar mumbling something to another one about “getting his turn to ride,” and the other one sort of slapping him on the back with a guffaw. The first old timer winked at me and then they both started cracking up. I looked over by the pool table and saw that the smaller girl was trying to work her magic on my closeted friend — she kept on trying to kiss his face and he kept on laughing and taking big swigs of beer.

I always knew she loved him.

The front door to the bar was open, so I went out into the parking lot to have a smoke and to let the cool air hit me and clear up my head a bit. As I stood out there I could hear the squeaking of the car and then I looked over and saw the back door open with four really big legs sticking out of it — the bare ass of the giant biker pumping up and down on the bigger girl and she kept on trying to wrap her legs around the back of him. I was transfixed, really — I couldn’t help but stare, nor could I help feeling good for her. That’s around the time I realized that this was her thing. Her secret life.

When we were leaving to drive back down to the city, I reached under the seat and put a towel across the bench seats in the back. My closeted friend was drunk as hell — alcohol always hit him really hard and fast and he would always get loud and kind of crazy when he drank — so I leaned in and tried to whisper in his ear what I had witnessed. His face turned into a ruby and then he tried to kiss me on the mouth. I laughed at him and kind of hugged him a little tighter than usual and he let go of the idea and slunk back into his seat, belting out “Here I Go Again” in all its glory.

I can’t even hear that goddamn song now without picturing that huge bear of a biker pounding away on her. It forces a smile across my face no matter the circumstances.

******

I fell asleep drunk in my car one Christmas Eve in front of my high school English teacher’s house.

This was after I had already served my country and come back. We had been drinking beers, scotch, and smoking a lot of weed while listening to The Stooges at ear-destroying levels all night long. He had sort of hired me to help him do a bunch of work on his house with him — which was really nothing more than an excuse to hang out and get loaded together. We shared the same birthday and the same taste for literature, destroying brain cells, women — all of it.

He was really my first and most influential mentor.

After a day of bottomless beers and stucco, I was wiped out. He had passed out in the middle of his living room floor, so I covered him with a throw blanket and came to the ridiculous conclusion that I was okay to drive home — my apartment wasn’t far, and it was so late I figured there would not be a soul on the roads. As soon as I sat down in my car and turned the key, one of those waves of fucked-upness hit me so hard that I swooned and wobbled in my seat and immediately turned the key into the off position.

I wasn’t going anywhere for a while.

In my half-lidded state, I decided to drop my seat all the way back and try to sleep a little of it off before trying to resume my journey. December in Phoenix is not very cold, so I was fine sleeping there in just a jacket. I remember looking up at the light coming off of the streetlamp and thinking it sure had a pretty halo around it, and then I was gone.

I’m not sure how long I was out before I heard the tapping on my window. I just know it was metallic, loud, and it startled the fuck out of me to open my eyes and see a cop shining a light in my eyes.

“Roll down your window.”

“I can’t — they’re automatic.”

“I asked you to roll down your window.”

“I have to turn the key to roll it down, Officer.”

“Do not turn the key — just open the door and step outside.”

He took a couple of steps to the side and I did just that — I opened up the door and unfurled myself from the position that felt pretty good into one of being upright, which did not feel good at all. He asked me if I had been drinking and I told him that I had. He asked me why I was sleeping in my car and I told him that my friend had passed out on the floor in the house right behind me and I thought I was okay to drive home, but realized I wasn’t, so I was going to try and sleep some of it off.

“You know I can take you to jail right now for sitting in that car with the keys in the ignition when you are drunk, right?”

“No, I didn’t know that. Merry fucking Christmas to me, right? Sorry, Officer.”

“How far away do you live?”

“About two miles or so. I can get there without using any of the busier streets and it’ll take me less than five minutes.”

“I’m going to make you a deal, okay? I’m going to follow you home — is that alright with you?”

“Yeah, that’s really awesome of you. Thanks.”

“Merry Christmas. Let’s get going.”

When I got back into my car to start it up and head home, I noticed I had left what was left of my bag of pot on the passenger seat right next to me, along with a small one-hitter. I must have thought about smoking a little bit to ease me into sleep before I passed the fuck on out. There was no way that cop didn’t see it — it was right in the middle of the seat. Fuck.

The cop followed me all the way back to my apartment, even following me into the parking lot and waiting for me to get out of my car. I walked over to his cruiser to thank him, and then he said to me —

“Be careful with all this driving while fucked-up stuff. It’s one thing if you want to wrap your car around a pole and kill yourself, but don’t go killing innocent people, especially on Christmas, you know? Be careful.”

“I will, Officer. Thanks for following me home and making sure I got here safely.”

******

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Horror Business, or, “Abortion Parties Of The Damned”

“The Twins are pregnant.”

“Which one?”

“Not one — both of them. Both of them are pregnant.”

“Jesus Christ. Really? You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Are you serious?”

“Totally serious. Fucked up, right?”

“Just a little bit.”

“You know what this means, right?”

“Fuck. Abortion Party.”

******

The crew I ran with, well, to put it lightly — we were a bunch of misfits, ne’er-do-wells and miscreants. Living in the desert wasteland of Phoenix, Arizona in the mid to late 1980s was pretty much as awful as it gets. Living there while not fitting in and finding yourself a part of the punk rock scene kind of compounded that awfulness. It made everything seem like some codeine-tainted dreamscape. Life was a wash of colors and tracers flying by in slow motion and double-time all at once. Desert parties. Abandoned pools to skate and destroy. Cheap drugs due to our proximity to Mexico. Lawlessness. Bathtub drugs concocted in cookie-cutter tract homes by bikers. Drive-thru liquor stores that would sell to anyone with a whisper of a moustache.

Wealth was usually the main divider among us.

Most of these kids actually came from pretty decent homes — the part of Phoenix we all lived in was pretty well-to-do, although the reasons why I was living in that part of town were misleading. My family did not have any money at all, we were just a family that had sold a home back east where real estate was valued much higher than it was in a rapidly-expanding municipality like Phoenix. Extra loot meant an extra nice home. My family? We were totally out of our element.

The kids I ran with, though — they all had money, or at least were much better at assimilating into the look and feel of having the money my family did not. They all had cars, for fuck’s sake. All I had was a skateboard that I had to work most of the summer to save up for. Very few of them had newer cars, but the ones that did always seemed to be the same kids who always had extra money hanging out of ripped pockets whenever we would all congregate at Denny’s after a hardcore show or something — not just chipping in for the seven or eight orders of fries, but ordering actual meals that they would hoard.

We were an odd posse, for sure.

*****

This circle of people was very incestuous, like most control groups of teens would turn out to be. Whenever anyone new would rotate into our little family, they would invariably end up attached to the hip of whomever was single at the time. Everyone made out with one another, at least everyone in the opposite gender. Some of us made out with each other regardless of gender, but that didn’t happen very often — usually at the aid of some narcotics that were purchased from some scallywag outside of our circle. Sometimes people would drink entire bottles of cough syrup and “Robo-fry,” the effects of the flood of the medicine supposedly being akin to taking low doses of LSD.

We were that bored.

******

“Which house are we going to have it at?”

“Fuck if I know? Maybe we should just get some generators and have it out at The Power Lines?”

“How many bands?”

“We’ll figure it out. Someone is going to have to pony-up some front money for the kegs, too. Let’s get the girls started on making calls.”

******

There were really only a few predators out there that really had any of us worried at all.

Cops were obviously one of them, no matter how inevitable it was that they would show up and shut down whatever thing we had going on. Half the time we would be sitting around somewhere doing our thing when someone would mention the police and we would all snicker because we knew it was a fucking jinx, and lo and behold if they didn’t show up within ten fucking minutes flat. Most of the time the cops would show up at the party and tell everyone to clear out while they stood around and made whichever sad soul whose house it was pour out all the liquor. There were always cops lurking around the usual parks we would gather in, too. Just hiding two or three blocks off the spot and watching until they saw we were actually having a good fucking time — then they’d roll up onto the grass and into the playground with the gumball machines on rotate to shine that awful light on whatever meek attempts at teen debauchery we had going for us.

Parents really weren’t that big of a deal to most of us. Because some of the crew had folks that had important gigs, there was almost always some set of parental units somewhere within our crew out of town on any given weekend — and if not, someone always knew someone who had parents that were in Aspen or Mazatlán. Every now and then someone would also find out that a family outside of our circle that had a guest house on their property was out of town. Those parties were always notorious and legendary.

We didn’t necessarily fear The Jocks or even The Hessians much — most of the time when they ran out of connections for weed or other drugs they would come to us to help them hook up what they needed. Sure, there were appearances to maintain — peer pressure always drove our groups apart, usually with either the threat of violence or actual violence happening. Whenever actual violence would go down, someone would always come and get me so that I could stare/shout down whatever possible assailant[s] there might be.

In most cases, that tactic, coupled with the entire crew standing behind me ready to throw down if the need actually did arise, worked.

Our biggest obstacle at all times were the packs of roving and unorganized Nazi skinheads that seemed to rise up out of the earth at every turn, foaming-at-the-mouth for violent confrontation. It didn’t matter what part of town you were in — at any given time you would spot two or three of them watching you, studying you as if they were taking notes for a history exam. Phoenix was [and still is, really — look at all the lunacy going on over immigration right now] a breeding ground for hate-filled boneheads. The complicated part in dealing with them was also maddening — because the scene itself was so small and insular, most of us knew one another. Hell, a lot of them all went to fucking private school together, since most of my friends all went to the ritzy Catholic high schools because their parents were setting them up to get into better colleges and whatnot. Like I said — I was just white trash from Brooklyn that didn’t really belong, along for the ride with a gang of kids playing the rebel card to the fullest.

Basically, it was mostly the threat of violence from them that kept us on edge. The older punks and “traditional” skins we knew were much more likely to take up fists with them, and many times we would end up taking our lumps from those elders for not matching violence for violence with the Nazi skins.

******

“Everything is set for Saturday. Do you guys want to play first, or do you want someone else to?”

“We might as well. Hopefully we can get a full set in before the fucking cops show up and shut it down. How much are we charging per cup?”

“Five bucks and people can drink until the kegs are gone.”

“How much do we need again, four hundred?”

“Yeah, four hundred. We should be able to pull that in, right?”

“As long as nothing fucked up happens, it should be easy.”

“Did somebody make flyers or something?”

“No — the girls have been calling everyone. This is going to be fucking huge.”

******

The harsh reality of teen sex: someone will eventually slip one by the goalie.

When this happens, it usually creates a ripple throughout not only your peer group, but the splinter groups throughout whatever scene you’re a smaller cog within. In our little punk rock world, we would hear stories about someone across town getting knocked the fuck on up and not believe it until we saw that person at a show at the VFW Hall and saw the baby bump with our own eyes, witnessing whatever poor sad fuck of a guy who was responsible for creating it trying to keep her out of harm’s way in the seething and roiling masses of angst-filled teens trying to destroy one another in the cacophony of a five-dollars-to-see-seven-bands punk rock show. We would see the girls within our own group, and watch the way they would witness this activity — some of them with wet eyes, others with the glassed-over coldness of the knowing.

******

The Power Lines was this place way out in the desert north of Phoenix.

To get to it, you’d have to drive for what seemed like miles and miles on a bumpy as fuck dirt road that twisted all the way back into the northern edge of what was then the unincorporated part of the city, on the back side of a small mountain range. None of us ever knew who really found it or heard about it first — it was just part of the city’s folklore and seemed like a magical place that had been handed down from high school class to high school class as a spot that kids could go and congregate, buying themselves a little extra time to party and get loaded before the police chopper would swoop down and shine that million watt spotlight on everyone, scattering them throughout the desert.

The area was immense. On any given Friday night you would have seven to ten different high schools out there partying around their own bonfires, eyeballing one another and flashing those “you don’t want to step to this” glares that testosterone-filled teen boys are so wont to throw off instead of a smile. Of course, you would have all of the different cliques from each school intermingling with one another around their own fires — Preps, Jocks, Hessians — all seemingly getting along on the surface of things.

No matter what schools we were from, the punks were relegated to our own single bonfire as far away from the other schools as humanly possible without setting the desert on fire. We didn’t mind being outcasts, we were used to it. We were only useful when people wanted drugs. We were only necessary when they were looking for someone to fuck with. We were fine in our freak tribe — if anything, we reveled in it.

Every now and then there would be bands out at The Power Lines. Mostly terrible thrash metal bands, as that was what was all the rage in Phoenix at the time. Bands like Flotsam And Jetsam and Sacred Reich were getting national attention, bringing every bedroom mirror Malmsteen out to try and out-shred the next. Sometimes some of the more daring punk rock bands would trek all the way out there, schlepping their gear to try and plug into their generators and play for all the kids. Most of the time they would get laughed at or have rocks thrown at them by all the Hessians and Jocks.

This was just the natural order of things in that era. We were the lowest on the hierarchy then. This was still a period of time when grown men would jump out of their pick-up truck at a stoplight and kick the shit out of you for having blue hair and riding a skateboard. This was when people still saw that episode of CHiPs with the punk rockers on it and felt a little bit of terror. This was way before the plague of mall punks and t-shirts with tattoos on them.

We didn’t have roadies — we had friends who would help us set up our gear.

******

“We’ll get The Twins to hang out over by the kegs and collect the money while some of the other girls hand out the cups. You guys should pretty much start playing right away before all the other people come over to see what all the noise is about.”

“That’ll work. Who do you have manning the kegs for security?”

“Some of the older guys are on their way — Kong and a few of the old SVS dudes.”

“You think the Nazis found out we’re out here? That would be kind of fucked if they showed up and started a bunch of shit.”

“Look — I heard some of them are coming. I don’t think they’ll start any shit out here in the middle of the fucking desert, dude. They know why we’re out here. Some of them are friends with The Twins.”

“I know, I know. I’ll just never understand why anyone would be friends with dudes who are full of hate, I guess.”

“Do you need any help setting up all your equipment?”

“No, we got it. How much juice is in those generators?”

“My brother said each one of them will probably run for about an hour or so. How long is your set?”

“Twenty minutes, tops.”

******

Whenever a band starts playing at a party where kids are already fucked up on a gang of different chemical libations, there is this really intense moment where time totally stands still. If you’re one of the musicians, the first thing you notice is how loud you actually are, and the moment you strike the first note you see nothing but a sea of eyes flicker to life at the same time. When you’re a punk rock band playing in the middle of the desert and the only light you have is the glow coming off of a row of bonfires, those eyes look like a pack of hungry jackals.

As you’re halfway through your first song you glance toward the gathering storm of a crowd and you see blood being shed — some of the Hessians from other bonfires have made their way over, and they’re doing that fucked up thing they like to do when people are trying to genuinely enjoy a band — they start to slam-dance with no regard for anything remotely human around them. Elbows and fists. Full-on flying bodies. Loaded morons in moccasin boots careening toward the drummer, plowing through the singer.

Someone screams.

As the song comes to an end, you feel flush with endorphins. You see the old heads — the guys who raised you into this scene — trying to keep the peace with the Hessians and now the Jocks, separating them and explaining to them that this isn’t how things are done. This is controlled violence. When the drummer counts off for the next song in the set, the set you’ve all memorized through hours of almost-mechanized precision rehearsing in the garage, you don’t think — you react and dive right into the opening riff.

You look over toward The Twins and the rest of the girls in your crew. You see them counting money, smiles on their faces. You see the shadowy outlines of a bunch of guys in braces and boots skulking around in the shadows near where the girls are stationed, and then you see some of them come into the light near the kegs, plastic cups in hand. You see some of them nodding their heads along with the rhythm, nemeses helplessly caught in the wake of the noise. You feel the rush and roar of your amplifier at the same time you see nothing in front of you but a whirling cloud of limbs and hair in the desert light.

Someone screams again, this time loud enough to be heard over the rumbling and crashing end of the song. The singer says something to the gathered mass about how we’re all out here trying to get along, about how nobody out here should be violent toward anyone else. The singer tries to duck but the bottle hits him in the side of the head, shattering and raining glass all over the drummer. Someone screams. The next bottle hits your guitar and a terrible sound rumbles from your amplifier. You can feel warm beer and glass all over your hands. You see the old heads trying to grab up the throwers, but now the torrents of bottles and cups are almost too much to defend against.

There is nowhere for you to hide.

You cover your eyes and look over to where The Twins and the rest of the girls were and you see them running toward their cars. You get hit in the shoulder with another bottle. Someone screams and then you hear gunshots. The same swirling crowd becomes a scattering, a conflagration of flight. You see hundreds of kids running across the desert floor and into the brush. You see kids running through the bonfires as you hear the sound of a chopper. You see the bouncing headlights and the flashing gumballs. You hear the ATVs.

You hope they made that four hundred dollars.

******

I’m not sure if other groups of kids within that scene ever threw Abortion Parties. I’m not sure if we even realized what it was that we were actually doing — for the most part, it just seemed like a very natural pack mentality way of dealing with something nobody could ever dare go to their parents with. I never heard of anybody in my group ever telling their parents they had impregnated someone, let alone did I ever hear tell of any of the girls telling their folks they themselves were pregnant.

What was clear, was that nobody within our little crew was ready to be a parent. Being a parent meant no more LSD. Being a parent meant you couldn’t hide out on a golf course until the sun rose, huffing engine coolant and playing grab-ass. Being a parent meant growing the fuck up.

None of us were ready for that noise.

*****

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