Goodbye Again, or, “Wherever You Go — There You Are”

Hindsight is a motherfucking wrecking ball.

Sometimes I have these moments of an almost spiritual clarity that are so overwhelming that I can do nothing other than stare off into the void and then every molecule in my body feels like one giant tear welling up and trying to work its way out through my face. These moments always happen when I least expect them — pretty much confirming for me that to truly seek answers one must consciously cease seeking answers, which is something I have always felt intuitively.

You know what I am riffing on — those moments when you are standing in line at the bank and in the innermost part of your mind you suddenly see a face from your past and realize that the thing you said to them when you were angry not only really hurt them deeply, but also sort of freed you up from having to deal with being their eternal sounding-board for every little fucking thing in their life they were incapable of dealing with solo?

Yeah, that type of shit. It happens to me all the time. When I least expect it.

Being the type of cat who always seems to be looking for a much deeper spiritual/Universe-level type of meaning, I invariably end up spending some time digging through the mental hard drive after one of these episodes. Looking in between the interactions, trying to find nuggets of infinite wisdom that slipped between the cracks. Trying to make sense of the nonsensical.

Some folks might find that to be a waste of time, but not me. I find it to be fascinating and energizing — nothing feels better to me than learning something, even when it is something I thought I already had all figured out.

That’s why this here piece of ancient wisdom matters so much to me —

It is not good to settle into a set of opinions. It is a mistake to put forth effort and obtain some understanding and then stop at that. At first putting forth great effort to be sure that you have grasped the basics, then practicing so that they may come to fruition is something that will never stop for your whole lifetime. Do not rely on following the degree of understanding that you have discovered, but simply think, ‘This is not enough.’

One should search throughout his whole life how best to follow the Way. And he should study, setting his mind to work without putting things off. Within this is the Way.” — from Chapter One of The Hagakure

*****

Free advice from a salty dog: you could take that there piece of ancient wisdom and apply it to every last thing you do.

*****

Fithian, Illinois is a very small town. There are maybe five hundred residents that receive their mail there, and on a good day there might be two or three hundred people in the town proper. Fithian is not the smallest town I have ever been in, but it is very close — the smallest being the four days I spent stranded at a small roadside diner outside of the Zion National Park in southern Utah, where it was almost impossible for me to hitch a ride out of there. Probably had something to do with my heat stroke-driven delirium and all of the tattoos right there in the heart of Polygamy Nation.

Interestingly enough, I did get picked up by a long haul trucker who took me all the way to Flagstaff, Arizona — which sort of ties in to my experience in Fithian, Illinois.

*****

I was moving back home. Back to my roots. Back to what was left of my family. Back to Brooklyn. I was making my way across the country in a Mitsubishi Eclipse that was dangerously overloaded with the weight of far too many personal belongings, a couple of angry and scared cats and a girlfriend who was in the middle of a nervous breakdown. Driving through Oklahoma in the dark of night, I rocketed right through an armadillo at ninety-five miles per hour. The under-carriage of the Eclipse felt like it was about to fall out at the moment of impact. I let go of the wheel, secretly hoping that the car would careen into oncoming traffic and kill the both of us.

The car had a mind of its own and worked its way over into the soft shoulder of the highway, out of harm’s way. My girlfriend woke up screaming at me, demanding to know what had just happened and why we were stopped in the middle of nowhere.

“What the fuck, Sean? Why do my feet feel like they are on fire — is something wrong with the car? What did you do?”

I didn’t say a word. I just opened up the driver’s side door and stepped right out onto the highway as a semi went roaring by — the rushing wake of air felt like a blast furnace, like a crematorium. Crouching down next to the car, all I could see in the darkness was blood. I had put my hand down into something wet beside the left front tire, and when I picked up my hand it was covered in the gore of the armadillo.

I took off my shirt and put it on top of the hood and then slowly slid myself underneath the car, to where most of the remains of the armadillo were stuck to the under-carriage. It was hot and sticky, and the smell was unbearable. I managed to break loose most of what was wrapped around the beginnings of the drive train and scooped as much of the armadillo out of the brake pads as I possibly could without taking the tire off — there was no sense in having that mess cooking itself to the brakes and hampering my ability to drive. When I pulled myself up from underneath the car, I could see the look of horror on my girlfriend’s face — she immediately began writhing in her seat, covering her face with her hands and crying.

This was an atypical outburst — I‘m the one covered in the blood and inner-workings of a recently deceased armadillo, but she is hysterical.

*****

Part of the reason why we were in such a rush was because her step-grandmother had passed away. Granted, I had never in the period of time we were together heard her mention this woman other than to talk shit about how mean she was to her — but she was sure as shit flipping out on us somehow driving 1700 miles in twenty-four hours to get there in time for the wake/funeral. We slept for brief periods of time in rest stops — usually no longer than half an hour or so — cats crawling around at our feet, the car full of so many different scents that I didn’t know where I ended and the smell of beef jerky or cat piss began.

“Do you want to take a couple of these pills I have?”

“The fuck are they?”

“Erin said they were Adderall or something? They’re like uppers. You should take a couple of them, and then we can just drive all the way through. I have to get there, Sean. I just have to get there.”

“I’m not taking some fucking pills you got from some cunt of a co-worker. This is the same fucking girl who fed you lines of meth at your going away party you neglected to tell me about nor invite me to, right? The night you came home spun the fuck on out, grinding your jaw and decided it was cool to hit me? Fuck that.”

“Fuck you, Sean. I have to get there.”

*****

The first time I met her, she came into the coffee joint I was working in. I had just got off the streets and landed a job as a barista. She ordered a large coffee — “leave an inch of room for cream, please.” She tried to pay for a $2.07 cup of Sumatra with a credit card. When she handed me the card her hands had that alcohol poisoning shake going on. The card was declined. So was the second one she shakily handed me. I just stood there half-smiling while she rummaged around in her purse for enough change to pay for most of it, then I told her to put her money away.

*****

When she finally fell asleep, I crept out of the car and went to a picnic table to smoke and gather myself. I pulled out the cell phone and called her father — a long-haul trucker who chewed tobacco and liked to joke around with me on the phone, his big raspy voice saying things like “I never once in my life thought my little girl would go with a New York Jew — how come you don‘t sound like Jerry Seinfeld?”

He picked up on the fourth ring.

“Hey — it’s Sean. Unless you know some magical back-door route where I can somehow do two-hundred miles per hour and not get caught, we’re not going to make it in time for the wake or the funeral.”

“I figured. How’s my little girl holding up?”

“She’s a fucking mess. I hit an armadillo a couple of hours ago in Oklahoma and that set her off pretty bad. She’s sleeping now. We’re at a rest stop just inside Missouri.”

“An armadillo? Did you fuck up the car?”

“Nah — it was a hell of a mess for me to clean up on the side of the highway in the middle of the night, though. That fucker exploded something terrible.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t get killed. I’ve seen those little tanks take out whole semis — that’s why I refuse to work in fucking Oklahoma.”

“Can you do me a solid? I need for you to wait about an hour or so and then call this phone. Please try and tell her that this idea that we can make it there in time is impossible and insane? I’m doing the best that I can, but I cannot take her freaking out any more. It’s insanity.”

“You got it, buddy. I’ll call her up in about an hour. See you guys soon. Please be careful.”

*****

When she and I first started dating, she lived in a two bedroom apartment stacked from floor to ceiling with boxes, four cats, and her bi-polar mother. She was bi-polar as well, but she went untreated. Her parents divorced when she was young, and the custody battle was told to me as a horror story. From everything that I was told, her father was a very intelligent man — and in some ways his arc reminded me of my own, an outsider with intelligence and the albatross of potential hanging around his neck — who ended up falling into a life bound by his environment as opposed to his natural intelligence and abilities. The marriage fell apart because he took it upon himself to work hard for his new family, but working hard meant being away from home most of the time — taking long haul jobs all across the country.

When a partner is away, well, we all know that type of story.

The first time she and I had an argument I totally lost my shit — so riled the fuck on up and full of pressure that I actually screamed inside of the fuselage of the car, causing the windows to rattle and shake. I should have known right then and there that what had just happened was the biggest and brightest red flag I could ever ignore — losing my shit should never be on the menu.

I moved in with her and her mother shortly after.

*****

We arrived at her father’s house only a couple of hours after the funeral. Everyone was milling around in the yard, folding chairs scattered all across the driveway. As we pulled up I felt queasy — like I had been up for days on crank and the world was just settling around me like flakes in a snow globe. I had never met any of these people before, and here I was, meeting them for the first time at a fucking funeral after party.

She shot out of the car before I had even turned it off, racing across the yard toward her father — a fucking mountain of a man with a huge beard and a can of beer in his hand. As I was closing the door to the car I got another whiff of the armadillo — like the fucking thing was haunting me, taunting me from Critter Heaven. I watched her father pick her up in his arms and squeeze her. I watched the faces of everyone else gathered and saw so many different emotions on display at our arrival — some people looked totally gassed-out and drained, other people looked nothing short of annoyed.

I’m sure it was a big to-do.

I slowly made my way over to her and her father. I nodded my head at a few people who were staring me down — I am sure I was a sight to see for people in a town that small. A man they had never met who was dating a member of their family — moving her to Brooklyn of all places — covered in tattoos, shaved head, road-weary and completely tapped-the-fuck-on-out.

“So — this is Sean, eh? Come on over here and shake my hand.”

In person, his voice was even louder, raspier. Kind of like how Wolfman Jack sounded to me as a kid. Familiar. He stuck out his hand and I put mine in it, his huge meaty paw enveloping my hand like it was a child’s. He started to laugh this amazing and booming laugh and pulled me into him, giving me a hug. He reeked of Copehagen and beer.

“You want a beer, Brooklyn? We’ve got plenty of them over in those coolers — since you’re taking my little girl to New York City, I suppose what’s mine really is yours, isn’t it?”

“Thanks. Actually — I’m not much of a drinker. Is there a cooler full of soda?”

“What? Are you some sort of New York sissy? Get a load of this guy — ‘not much of a drinker.’ You sure can pick ‘em, honey!”

Everyone got a good laugh out of that one. I noticed that my girlfriend already had a beer in her hand. She liked to drink — so much so, that during our relationship I hardly felt the urge to drink, because her levels of consumption made me ill inside. She could not handle her liquor well, even though she professed to being a Professional Drinker.

I found the cooler with the sodas in it and opened myself a 7-Up.

I was then paraded around the front yard and introduced to everyone. They were all very polite and seemed to be good, decent people. Someone made each of us a plate of food, and told us to go ahead and sit and eat, as we looked like we hadn’t had a meal in while — which was true.

Things started to settle inside of me, the queasy feeling fading into the background.

*****

I am sitting on a stump beside her father’s woodworking shed and smoking. I made my way back here to kind of give everyone some room to breathe and mourn. Death is always such an odd thing, the way it brings people together or drives a wedge between them. Every family goes through those things eventually.

I am watching as a squirrel jumps from branch to branch in a small tree at the far end of the yard. I hear a crunch of a footfall behind me, and then I hear the bang and recoil of a gun go off as I watch the squirrel explode into a mist of blood and fur and fall to the ground behind the tree. I turn around to see her father, huge grin sneaking out from behind his beard, slowly lowering the .38 in his hand and pointing it at my fucking head.

“Please don’t point a gun at me.”

“Aww — I’m just playing around, Brooklyn. Can you believe the way that little rodent blew up like that? Damn, that was a good shot.”

“I’m serious here — please do not point a gun at me. It isn’t something that’s going to make me feel very comfortable, you know what I mean?”

Her father lets a slow whistle seep out from his teeth and lowers the gun. Nobody from the rest of the family even bothers to come into the part of the yard we’re sitting in — as if the gunshot is something that they are all too used to hearing. He stands there for a minute, half glaring at me, possibly trying to gauge what kind of motherfucker it is that is dragging his daughter off to the wild jungle that is the Brooklyn in his mind.

“Come on into the shed, Brooklyn — I want to show you something. I think it’ll flip your wig.”

*****

One of the things that I learned very quickly while cohabitating with a mentally ill mother/daughter combo-platter was that they spoke to one another without speaking most of the time. The verbal cues they used had much deeper meaning — mentioning something about one of the cats was usually some sort of secret code that was actually referring to something altogether different. There was also some kind of preternatural sexual energy floating around in the apartment which always left me feeling unsettled, as if the two of them and the swirling nature of their mental illness were up to some form of witchery unknown to me.

I came to find out later that their collective history was intertwined with far too much for me to ever reveal to anyone — so much so that even they would never dare speak of certain things while together, with only hints and allegations slipping free in singular conversations. Names muttered in quiet tones between bong hits. Scenarios revisited after a mouthful of vodka, told to me as if I myself were there.

Lord have mercy if I wasn’t able to connect for pot — the two of them would go into death throes. My girlfriend once obsessed and freaked out so badly she scared off my most consistent connection by calling and leaving harried voicemail after harried voicemail while I was sleeping. She even accosted a friend of mine in a tattoo shop, getting into her face and personal space and saying “well, if you don’t know where we can get some pot, you should at least roll us a joint or two of what you have on you, you know?”

Every day was a party around there.

*****

Her father walked over behind where he had his array of table saws set up and pulled a very old and weathered-looking footlocker out from behind a false wall. I stood back a bit, watching as he dusted it off with the back of his hand. He bent down and worked the combination on the lock while holding his can of beer clamped tight between his teeth. Looking around the room I noticed there were a lot of unfinished projects hanging around — what looked to be bookshelves, a rocking chair, what could possibly be part of a bed frame.

“Come on over here, Brooklyn — I ain’t gonna bite you. Check this out.”

As I walked over to where he was standing I could see that the footlocker was Army issued. He had the top of it propped open, and inside there were some compartments with memorabilia and flags. That’s when I saw what he was holding in his hand.

“Look at this thing — ain’t it pretty? You think the handle is made out of real human bone?”

My heartbeat. My heart was beating so hard that it felt like my entire ribcage was about to burst and splinter across his workshop. I could feel the cold sweat breaking out on my forehead. It felt like my balls had decided to turtle up into my body. My eyes got blurry as I stared at what was in his hand, what he was holding out to me as some sort of offering.

“This here is a genuine article, Brooklyn. Got it at an estate auction not too far from here. I have a lot of this stuff — never served my country like you did, but I sure do have a lot of respect for everyone who has. Go on — you wanna hold it?”

“No. No I do not want to hold it.”

“Aww, c’mon. How many Jews you think were skinned alive with this knife, Brooklyn?”

My mouth would not work. All of the saliva was hardening inside of it like cement. I had to put my hand on a table to steady myself. As soon as he noticed how pale I had become, and how I could not really hold myself up under my own power he broke out with his giant laugh yet again.

“Oh, man. I’m sorry, Brooklyn. I figured this would be something you might want to see. I didn’t mean anything by it. Look — I’ll put it away. I’m really sorry.”

I just stood there, frozen. I had no idea what had really just happened. Did this man, the father of the woman I was moving back to Brooklyn with me — did he just in a span of no less than five minutes not only point a gun at my head, but also just pull out a genuine Nazi dagger with a bone handle? How was any of this real? Why am I involved in this?

*****

Later on that night I was pacing back and forth in their driveway, smoking a joint and chewing up a handful of Xanax while talking to my cousin on the phone about what had happened. I was trying very hard to relay the terror I felt without coming off as too alarmist, but failing miserably.

“You already knew this relationship wasn’t going to work. Just try to make the best of it and get yourself home — everything else will work itself out when it needs to.”

She was dead right.

*****

One of the things I learned way later on — after the dust and carnage of the relationship settled and I was able to look at my own actions and truths clearly — was that she and I were on similar trips.

Me? I was trying to pull a Prodigal Son type of return to my roots. I wanted to be close to my family. I wanted to walk the very streets that spawned me. I knew there was no other place in the world I was supposed to be, and that I had no choice but to try and escape from the life I had out in the desert that I never wanted to be a part of to begin with.

Her? Well — she was trying to escape her past as well. Trying to erase that small town she was born five miles outside of in a trailer. Trying to take herself and put herself into a place where she could spread her wings and be who she always wanted to be. I know it seems corny, but New York City appeals to a lot of people in the same way, people from small towns all across the world get caught up in the romantic ideas that surround a place like this.

Irrespective of the emotional terrorism of our doomed relationship with one another, we both ended up getting to exactly where we needed to be.

*****

May you have the hindsight to know where you’ve been, The foresight to know where you are going, And the insight to know when you have gone too far” — Traditional Irish Blessing

*****

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Cure For Pain, or, “Stop Trying To Hit Me, And Hit Me”

Some people find comfort in food — like their mother’s meatloaf. Some people find comfort in a television show they grew up watching. Some people might even find comfort in a scent that reminds them of someone.

Me? I find comfort in the things that make most people uncomfortable. The things that make people squirm or feel like the world is ending.

Violence — and not bullshit television violence, either — toward me or even the slightest hint of violence occurring within my immediate vicinity? Check.

Screaming and yelling? Check.

Someone cursing me out and telling me all of the things that I have done that makes them hate/dislike me? Check.

Constant streams of criticism and belittling? Motherfucking check, y‘all.

This doesn’t mean that I am someone who actively seeks out violence. That would be far from the truth. At this point in my life, I will do anything I possibly can to avoid any kind of violent altercation — I’ve been hit in the face enough to know it hurts. A lot.

What it does mean, however, is that violence is something I am far too used to. Like being rocked to sleep. Like a well-worn pair of sneakers.

I am well-aware of how this must sound to people.

*****

The first time I purposely struck someone in the face I was maybe nine or ten years old. It was right around Hanukkah, and my teacher had asked me to explain the meaning behind the holiday to the rest of the class, which in retrospect seems really dumb considering how many Jewish kids were in that class. Either way, I have never been very good at public speaking, and at that time in my life I still had a horrible speech impediment where all of my “S” sounds would whistle and wheeze out from between my teeth like a tea kettle.

Plenty of kids picked on me for that.

During recess, I was waiting patiently to get my turn on the swings when a much bigger kid decided to shove me from behind. I stumbled face-first right into the steel support beam that held the swing-set in the ground. When I turned around, the kid had his right arm stiffened out in front of him in a Nazi Salute.

“Heil Hitler! Sean is a Jew! Heil Hitler! Kill the Jew!”

He yelled it so loudly that almost everyone on the playground was now watching us. I didn‘t know what to do. I was confused because he was also a Jew, and I wasn’t sure if he was playing some sort of joke or not. I also knew I could not let him get away with what he had just done, but at the same time he was so much bigger than me and I was afraid he was going to attack me and hurt me. My face already felt hot and swollen from running into the steel beam.

He did it again, only ten times louder this time.

“Heil Hitler! Sean is a Jew! Heil Hitler! Kill the Jew!”

I felt myself filling up with something hot from my feet. I didn’t know what it was then, but it was rage.

“Why are you doing this? You’re a Jew, too. Stop saying that.”

“Fuck you, you can’t even talk right you’re such a Jew. Heil Hitler! Sean is a Jew!”

After he shouted it this time, he lunged at me with his big flabby arms, trying to grab me around the neck. I don’t know where it came from in me, but I somehow cocked my right arm back behind my ear and uncorked a shot right to his nose as hard as I could. He kind of yelped and garbled when I did it, but he was so big and his momentum carried him right into me, knocking us both to the ground. I tried to roll out from under him, but he was so heavy and he had me pinned down pretty good. I grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled as hard as I could to try and get him to get up off of me, but he started punching me in the gut and I had the wind knocked out of me.

Right around then is when another teacher came running over and pulled him off of me. Right around then is also when I saw all of the blood — all over his face, all over my hands, all over my shirt, all over the grass. The other kid started crying, lying to the teacher and telling him that I had attacked him for no reason. Some of the other kids who were standing around told the teacher I had attacked the kid because the kid called me a Jew and gave me the Sieg Heil. As soon as the teacher heard that, he dragged us both to the Principal’s Office.

By the time my mother finally showed up at the school to talk to the Principal and the other kid’s mother, the Principal had already been secretly showing me some basic boxing skills behind the closed door of his office.

“Never let anyone physically attack you, Sean. You have to learn how to defend yourself. The world is a mean place sometimes.”

*****

I was leaning up against the wall outside of a shoe store right near the entrance to the Herald Square subway station around two o‘clock in the morning. I had just finished a fifteen hour day printing and shipping over one hundred thousand square feet of blueprints. I was fucking beat. It was pissing down rain so hard that I could barely hear the woman I was seeing on the other end of the phone. I was smoking and trying to convince her to pick me up on my way back into the bowels of Brooklyn so we could have a few drinks. A few laughs.

“Yo, gimme one of them smokes, son! I just got out The Pen! C’mon, son?”

Looking up, I see a very shifty and large black man standing in front of me in the rain. He is bouncing on the balls of his feet. He is still wearing the slip-on shoes they give you in prison. For a second, I think to myself that maybe he is asking me for a smoke to distract me, so he can maybe rob me. I also realize he has made the mistake of thinking I am an easy mark.

Here’s the thing — I have this horrible affliction. Nothing pisses me off more than people who try to talk to me when I am on the telephone. I hate using the telephone as it is, so whenever someone has the gall to try to speak to me when I am in the process of using one I lose my ability to be polite. I mean — it isn’t like they’re being polite, is it?

“Excuse me? Sorry, man. This thing in my hand attached to my ear is called a phone. I’m on the phone right now. You have any manners? Get the fuck out of my face.”

I watch a grin crack across his face. Out of the corner of my eye I see two of New York’s Finest standing at the hot dog stand. I watch him take two quick steps toward me, the muscles in my legs tensing, my face staying the same. I take a slow drag off of my smoke and I can hear my lady friend on the phone saying “Sean? What the fuck. Sean? Don’t you dare get into a fight, I do not have any bail money.” I smirk at him.

“Oh, you’re some sort of bad dude? Gimme one of them smokes, motherfucker. I just got out The Pen — you know what I’m sayin’? Just got out The Pen tonight, motherfucker. Tonight!”

As the last syllable snaps out of his mouth he also snaps a quick and hard right uppercut into my stomach. I don’t budge at all, and I continue to make eye contact with him with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth. He steps back quickly — almost like a rabbit hopping backward — and puts his hands out in front of his face.

“Did you just fucking hit me, man? No. This is why you ain’t getting shit from me, man. You think I’m someone you can just roll up on and punk out? Fuck you, man — I don’t give a fuck if you just got out of hell, let alone The Pen. Fuck you.”

“I’m just playin’ with you, dude. C’mon, son? I knew you could take a punch, big guy! Just gimme a smoke. I just got out The Pen!”

The adrenaline rushing through me was making the screaming coming out of the phone sound like crackling messages from a long-lost satellite. I took one quick and hot drag off of my smoke and then pulled it snug between my thumb and index finger, aiming at it my obnoxious new sparring partner. The cops were slowly creeping their way over to where we were standing. I must have been yelling.

“You want a motherfucking smoke so bad — here, take this motherfucker and step the fuck off! Get the fuck out of my face and learn some fucking manners before I fucking kick your ass!”

And with that, I flicked my still burning hot smoke right off of the dude’s face.

When it hit him, he jumped back and made a yipping sound. It was still pouring down rain, so he hurriedly bent down and picked it up, putting it right into his mouth and dragging on it. I just stood there glaring at him, garbled transmissions floating in the space between my phone and my ear.

The two cops walked right by me as the guy took off down the block. They just gave me the simple NYPD head nod, as if to tell me they saw what went down, and totally approved. I took a deep breath and went back to my call. My lady friend was breathless and still freaking out.

“What the fuck just happened, Sean? Are you okay? Did I hear you say someone hit you? What the fuck?”

“I’m fine. Some dude just needed to learn some basic etiquette about phones and asking people for things. So — you want to pick me up at the 36th Street station?”

*****

A girl I went to High School with hit me with her car in the parking lot of a Denny’s one night. I stood in the middle of the parking lot, trying to get her to listen to me about something, but we were both very drunk and very young, so she got into her car and accelerated right through me. I flew up and over the top of the car and landed in the middle of the lot all twisted.

She snuck in through my window later on that night and we had sex.

A couple of weeks later, she told people I had impregnated her. I knew this wasn’t true, and that she had said it because I had stopped talking to her after she and I could not stop arguing all the time. One of my friends asked me what I would do if she was actually pregnant.

“Hit her with her fucking car, I guess.”

*****

When I first went back to school after my extended stay at a psychiatric facility, things were immediately awkward on that first day. The school I went to was an “alternative” school — we went to class Monday through Thursday from three in the afternoon until nine at night. Most of the kids who went to that school were either teen mothers or guys who had been in and out of juvenile detention.

I went to school there because I could not play well with others at the regular school I was supposed to go to that was full of rich kids, and because I was so bored there that I never went to class — choosing to get high on whatever illicit substances I could find and roam around all the time.

I was the only kid at the alternative school to ever take the SATs.

We had a twenty-five minute break between classes at the alternative school. Most of us would go across the street and hang around the parking lot of a strip mall that had a Burger King, a Hallmark Store, and a Chicago-style hot dog place called “Cub’s Park” — which had the best fucking cheese fries I have ever had to this day.

There was this kid I went to school with there who was my nemesis. He was this really big and goofy Mormon hessian named Brady who had Tourette’s. I had met him a couple of years earlier, and from the first moment we met this fucking guy never let up on me, always talking shit and trying to bait me into fucked up situations. I never made fun of him for his Tourette’s, because I figured that would be unfair. I did make fun of him pretty harshly the day he came to school wearing those ugly-as-sin knee-high moccasin boots that were semi-fashionable back in the early-to-mid 80s. He also only seemed to own three t-shirts he deemed worthy of wearing: an Ozzy Osbourne shirt, a Krokus shirt, and a really beat up and ugly Dokken t-shirt.

I was standing around smoking with my closeted gay friend and a couple of girls when this older guy I had never seen before walked over and got in my face.

“I hear you’re some sort of bad ass and know kung fu and shit? Is that true?”

I felt my face getting hot. I was so loaded on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills that I could feel my tongue getting fat in my mouth. I was terrified but excited at the same time.

“No, I don’t know kung fu. You must have heard wrong. Sorry, dude.”

I looked over the guy’s shoulder and saw Brady snickering with a couple of his other stoner buddies. I knew right away that he had probably put this guy up to this, since he was incapable of getting me to fight him no matter how hard he tried. I wanted to crawl underneath the nearest car and cry. This was my first day back at school after being out for almost three months, and I already felt unsafe there.

“Well, I heard you know kung fu, dude. And I’m about to kick your ass, so you‘d better know something.”

As soon as he said it he got right into a fighting stance. He bounced one leg forward and one leg back, putting his hands up in front of him with a huge fucking grin on his face.

“Sean’s a fucking pussy — he’s not going to fight you! He had to be hospitalized because he’s such a pussy. Isn’t that right, pussy?”

Brady was now standing directly behind the guy he had put up to fucking with me. I could feel the sweat running down my back. I could feel the tears starting to bubble up toward the light in my eyes. I felt flushed and like I couldn’t breathe at all. I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t going to fight some guy who looked like he was in his twenties who was obviously some sort of kung fu guy, and I was too terrified to move.

“Fuck you, Brady — leave Sean alone. What the fuck has he ever done to you except take your shit all the time? You’re lucky he hasn’t kicked your ass yet, you twitchy motherfucker!”

I turn to see who is standing up for me, and realize who it is — there were only two black kids at my school, twins named Ronnie and Reggie. Ronnie was standing by my side now, sinews in his neck standing out, arms flexed and tensed at his side. Their cousin Scott was notorious for being the baddest brawler in the part of Phoenix we all lived in. Because of that, and probably because all of these rich and spoiled white kids had never been around black people before, all of these supposedly bad-ass stoner and metal guys were terrified of the twins.

“This has nothing to do with you, Ronnie. Sean’s a fucking pussy and he’s been talking shit about him knowing kung fu. Kevin here is just going to give him a little lesson.”

At this point I had to be visibly shaking. Everything around me was starting to get blurry and weird, like when I would get into fights with my father and he would stand in my doorway after beating the shit out of me, his shadow making crying sounds and apologizing with a beer can in his hand, saying things like “it wouldn’t be like this if you didn’t push me to it — I never wanted to hit you, but you take things too far and I have no choice.”

I watch as Ronnie, and now his twin brother Reggie step right into this Kevin guy and Brady. There is a lot of shouting. I feel my gay friend grabbing me by the arm. I see a car door open. I feel myself getting pushed into the back seat. I hear more yelling. I hear the dull slapping sounds of fists into flesh. I hear my name being called out. I hear someone yelling something about the police being called as the car I am suddenly hidden within quickly backs up and pulls out of the parking lot like a rocket. Someone hands me a cigarette. I can feel the tears rolling down my face.

I dropped out the next day, only going back to school after a couple of my teachers showed up at my house and convinced me that everything was going to be okay.

My nemesis never fucked with me again.

*****

The stereotypes about Irish fathers and their sons are true. My father loved me very much, but he would also belittle and berate me for things other people would easily let go of. To add to that, I was a terribly outspoken and boisterous motherfucker as a teenager.

You can only imagine what it was like to live under the same roof with the two of us.

It’s no wonder at all why I do not want to be a father.

*****

A kid that ran in the same punk rock circles as me and some of my friends committed suicide underneath a bridge on a local golf course. I didn’t know him very well, but a lot of my closest friends did. We decided to go to the wake together, but because I went to school at night, I had to cut school to go.

After the wake, a few of us were sitting around in the very same Denny’s where I had been hit with a car in the parking lot. We were all sitting together in a big booth, trying to joke around with each other. Kyle’s body was probably the first dead body most of them had seen, even though I had already seen my fair share at that point.

I remember reaching across the table to put more sugar in my coffee when I saw a shadow moving quickly toward the area we were all sitting in.

It was my father.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing? You’re supposed to be in school, Sean. Is this what you do all night — you cut school and hang around in here with your fucking loser friends drinking fucking coffee?”

Everyone at the booth froze. My father was red-faced, vibrating, and his fists were balled-up tight like he was going to hit me. One of my friends squirmed like he was going to get up and out of the booth, but my father slammed his fists down into the middle of the table, sending coffee mugs and ramekins full of ranch dressing flying everywhere.

“Dad — stop it. We just went to a wake. This kid Kyle committed suicide. We all knew him. Just stop it. Please go home? I’ll be home later, I promise.”

My father stood stock-still. His face started to turn purple. He scanned the group of us sitting there, seeing me and all of my punk rock friends wearing shirts with collars under our leather and jean jackets. He noticed the girls wearing dresses. I saw the recognition in his eyes that I was telling him the truth.

It didn’t matter, though — he was already beyond the threshold and through the doorway.

My father leaned in closer to where I was sitting and backhanded me across the face. Hard. The smack echoed throughout the already silently watching dining area. The waitress who had been waiting on us screamed. A man in a cowboy hat at the next booth started to move, but my father turned his head and barked a stream of anger at him, and then he cracked me again.

“When you get home all of your shit will be in the driveway. You have a decision to make, asshole — Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines. Fuck you and your friends. And fuck your dead friend, too.”

When I watched as my father turned and started to march out of the restaurant, I saw my mother standing in the doorway, mortified. I could feel the sting on my face, and I got out of the booth and asked the waitress for a towel so I could help clean up the mess all over the table. My friends all kind of sat there in shock. One of the girls asked me if I was okay, and I ignored her, choosing to focus on making that table cleaner than it was when it was brand new.

As I was being dropped off at home a little while later, one of my friends decided he was going to come inside with me, because, as he put it “someone should be there to protect you — he’s not going to hit you if someone else is around.” I laughed at him, and reminded him that my father had just struck me in front of an entire restaurant full of people — even though a small part of me was hoping he was right.

Right inside of the front door were four or five black trash bags, obviously full of my things. As soon as I picked one of them up to lug it back to my room, my father came around the corner and grabbed me by the arm. My friend started to protest vocally, but my father said to him “If you think I won’t kick your fucking ass too, you’re as stupid as you are fat, you fucking dumb shit. Get the fuck out of my house, now!”

I watched the front door slam shut behind him.

*****

A few years ago, before my father died, a friend of mine told me that I had no choice but to forgive him. I heard my friend out for a few hours, and then the next thing I know that friend was killed in a terrible accident. After that, I felt like I was truly obligated to forgive him, if not for any other reason than to honor my late friend and the advice he had given me.

Turns out, to forgive someone, you also have to learn how to forgive yourself for your role in things. That doesn’t excuse the other party from the things they did, but it surely makes forgiving them seem a little more understandable and true.

Violence and I kind of broke up for good as soon as my father took his last breath.

Now that I am older, I can almost smell it in the air when violence is about to happen. I have found myself sitting in city parks reading a book, and suddenly I catch that tingle, that scent — and in no time flat there is something going off around me. I think all the years of walking on eggshells and worrying about where I was going to catch my next beating from has made me almost like a radio antenna tuned to pick up on these disturbances.

I sometimes find myself filling up with sadness. Not the typical depression type of sadness, but a type of sadness that only a junkie really knows — the type of sadness that appears when you know that no matter what you do, nothing will ever come close to the way it felt the first time. There are times when the only thing that can relieve that sadness is someone getting in my face, or even sending me an anger-filled e-mail or text message. I have caught myself at times acting purposely obtuse and irritating toward people just to hear them say my name with anger attached to it.

I’ve worked really hard over time to understand and deal with the violent parts of my own nature.

I will say this, though — there are times I really miss having someone call me a pussy and punching me in the mouth. There is something powerful in that exchange.

Something true.

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Strays, or, “Every Little Memory Has A Song”

The first night I was on the streets I was pretty terrified. I had been able to coast by for the first little bit of almost-homelessness because friends of mine would offer up a couch or a section of floor. As soon as those offers ran out, that’s when shit got sideways for me. An ex-girlfriend of mine who was in the process of moving had allowed me to stay the last few days she had left on her lease in her vacant apartment. Those few days were spent in complete silence. Well — other than me laying around in a puddle of sweat on the floor, listening to the creaks and groans of the apartments surrounding it. Not to mention the middle of the night screaming and weirdness going on. She left me a couple of days worth of non-perishable goods and was kind enough to buy me a couple of packs of cigarettes.

I ran out of food and smokes pretty quickly. Probably the second night.

I remember being completely fucking ravenous and rummaging around in the dumpster behind the grocery store near the apartment at three in the morning. In one trash bag I found a goldmine of just expired yogurts that still had the chill of the refrigerators on them. I also found loaves of bread that had been baked in the bakery, some dented cans of pork and beans, and a couple of smashed cans of a coffee drink. There was also a Burger King in the parking lot, and the next night when I was just as starving as I was the night before, I waited until I saw the last of the employees leave and then popped open their dumpster and did the same disgusting thing. I found a few burgers that had been cooked but were still in their wrappers and took off my shirt, filling it with whatever edible remnants I could carry.

When I got back to the apartment, I emptied out my findings on the kitchen floor. I sat and opened up each burger, looking for creepy-crawly critters or anything that would give off tell-tale signs of food borne disasters waiting to happen to me. I remember crying when I took a bite out of one of the burgers, because it tasted so dry and felt awful in my mouth — like a mouthful of meat-flavored sand and grit. I really had no idea what the hell I was doing — most of my life up to this point I had somehow managed to take care of myself and my business enough to not be in this type of situation.

*****

I must have been around five or six years old the first time I really saw a homeless person. I was with my mother, and we were headed from Bensonhurst into Manhattan to see my father at work. I remember walking with her, and seeing a man who was wearing ratty and torn clothing, shoeless and really disoriented-looking. He was standing just outside of the entrance to the subway, and was drinking out of a paper bag. This was in the mid 1970s, and New York City was definitely a much different place then. My mother wasn’t really good with dealing with shit that frightened/upset her, so I remember being led away pretty briskly by the hand.

Something inside of me, even in that fleeting and foggy moment, always knew that whatever that man was experiencing — I would know that place at some point in my life.

*****

Like most red-blooded American teens, I had done the typical running-away-from-home shit that we all do at some point — basically camping out in a park for a night or two and then knocking on the door, tail tucked firmly between the legs. I remember an extremely heated argument with my mother when I pierced my ears that resulted in me going and staying with my friend and his father for a long weekend where we ended up going to a lake and doing fun shit I never did with my own family. Then when we got back, my friend and I went out for a few hours, came back, and then we caught his father in the back office with a street hooker.

*****

One of my earliest memories ever is of me waking up in the darkest part of the morning before the rest of my family. I wandered around the house in my feetsie pajamas exploring everything in the dark. I even went down into the basement by myself. I couldn’t have been older than four or five, but I might be wrong — parts of the memory are really clear, and other parts are really kind of foggy. I do, however, remember being down in the basement and going through the cabinets underneath the bar that was down there. I picked up something that was in a purple velvet bag — it looked like some sort of treasure that I would find in one of my comic books or something. Inside of the velvet bag was a little bottle. I remember opening the bottle and smelling what was inside of it. It smelled hot to me, and the vapors that wafted up and into my nose had me curious, so I took a long drink from it. I still remember licking my burning lips afterward, and how my stomach felt like it was on fire.

That was probably the first drink.

After that I went back upstairs and looked in on my parents sleeping. They weren’t stirring — my father was snoring like a bear. I then went into the room I shared with my little sister and watched her sleeping for a minute. These moments, even when I think about them now — there is something about the way I observed everyone in those tiny moments, something that has never gone away, this curiosity that I have inside of me to see people when they do not know they are being seen — these moments alone in the house before the sunrise were the beginnings of the me I have turned out to be.

I remember quietly pulling myself up and onto the counter where the sink was, and then watching as the sky changed colors outside. From the darkest sky to a slow bruise to a low simmer to rays coming through the blinds. I waited until I couldn’t really sit on the counter anymore because it was starting to hurt, and then I went and got back into bed, falling fast asleep.

I still love the stillness and solitude of watching the sun rise. It might be my favorite part of the day.

*****

The first girl I ever kissed was a friend of my sister’s, Suzanne Lewis. It was her birthday, and she cornered me and told me I wasn’t allowed to leave without giving her a birthday kiss.

I never saw her again, but I used to walk by her house all the time, wondering how many other boys at the party she did that to.

*****

I think it was probably the second or third week I was using the bathroom at the Starbucks on 16th Street and Camelback as my personal shower/get-yourself-cleaned-the-fuck-on-up-so-nobody-knows-you’re-homeless center of operations when one the girls that worked there knocked on the door. It was maybe ten minutes after six in the morning.

“Hey — when you come out we need to talk to you, okay?”

I was stripped all the way down, scrubbing out my white t-shirt in the sink with a bar of Dr. Bronner’s while my socks and underwear were hanging off of the safety railing for the toilet, dripping onto the floor. I had already washed myself down and brushed my teeth and all of that. I figured that they would eventually get wise to my routine and ask me not to come back.

This was the routine I was doing to keep me from losing my mind: I would get there right as they opened, order a coffee with a bunch of change, and then go into the bathroom. Once inside, I would strip down, wash out my underwear, socks, and t-shirt — being sure to wring them out as best as I could before putting them into a large ziplock baggie to put into my satchel. I had the clothing I had washed the previous morning, and swapped them out. Then I would go back out into the Starbucks, grab my coffee from the girls and then go sit outside on the patio, drinking coffee and reading the paper while I rolled a bunch of cigarettes from the halfsies I pulled out of the sand ashtrays at all of the grocery stores in the neighborhood.

The moment I walked out of the bathroom, one of the girls was standing outside of the door, holding out an envelope toward me.

“We know that you’re homeless. We also know you probably won’t take anything for free from us, so we’ve been pooling our tips together for the last couple of days and want you to have this. Please take it — we can’t keep watching you roll all of those cigarettes.”

Not really knowing what to say, I just shook my head at her, smiled, and went about my regular routine. As I was sitting at the table rolling up all the smokes, the other girl came outside, put her hand on my shoulder, and then shoved the envelope in my satchel. The moment I started to make even the slightest sound of protest, she shot me a really awful look and said —

“Fuck you, man. You know what really sucks about this? We actually feel safe here in the mornings with you here now. Before? There were always these creepy fucking joggers and suits making gross eyes at us and shit. Take the fucking money and don’t be a dick about it.”

I quietly thanked her, and as she went back inside I couldn’t hold back the tears that were welling up as soon as I came out of the bathroom.

*****

I was working at the Swensen’s Ice Cream Parlor at the Paradise Valley Mall the first time anyone ever put a loaded gun to my head. It was a Friday night, and we had been pretty busy. I was making my last rounds through the restaurant while the other busboy/dishwasher was finishing up the last of the dishes so we could split. I was concentrating on finding all of the shit that kids typically threw on the floor underneath the booths, so the sounds I heard coming from the kitchen area were pretty garbled and didn’t register at first.

It totally registered when I looked up and saw the crazed-looking guy with the gun pointing at me while he had one of the waiters in a chokehold.

“ARE YOU FUCKING DEAF? GET YOUR ASS IN THE BACK OF THIS MOTHERFUCKER RIGHT NOW, BEFORE I FUCKING SHOOT YOU!”

He stood there at the double-doors leading into the kitchen and waited for me to walk by him until he followed, kicking me full-on in the ass and knocking me to the ground. This guy was out of his mind — he told everybody to lay down on the floor and not to look at him, all while he was screaming at the manager to open up the safe. I was sitting on an empty pickle bucket when he realized I was watching him and studying his face.

“MOTHERFUCKER — WHAT IS IT WITH YOU AND NOT LISTENING? I AM GOING TO SHOOT YOU IN THE FUCKING FACE. GET OFF THAT BUCKET ON YOUR BELLY ON THIS MOTHERFUCKING FLOOR, NOW!”

For a really brief second I actually thought I might be able to knock the gun out of his hand with a sheet pan or something, but then realized if I was wrong he was going to shoot at least a few people. As I was getting down onto my belly on the floor, he threw an empty glass jar that shattered on the ground right next to my face, some of the glass hitting one of the waitresses in the face.

“Asshole, stop fucking throwing shit — you cut her face, and you‘re scaring everyone.”

As soon as I said it, he leapt over the top of everyone who was laying on the floor between us, shoving the barrel of the gun into the back of my head so hard that my teeth crunched into the tile floor. I saw stars and heard nothing but a torrent of screaming and yelling about how fucking stupid I was for messing with him, and about how he “FEELS LIKE KILLING A WHITEBOY TONIGHT,” and about how I “JUST MIGHT BE THAT MOTHERFUCKING WHITEBOY.” Then he hit me across the top of my head with the gun, and I do not remember anything until I heard one of the waitresses screaming from outside the back door.

When the police came, I found out that after he hit me, he got the manager to open the safe, took the money, and then grabbed one of the waitresses to make sure nobody tried to stop him on his way out. When he got her outside, her took her engagement ring and her other jewelry, and then ran to a waiting car. The police had all of us separated throughout the dining room, but I could overhear everyone saying that I almost got everyone killed by acting like an asshole. The policeman that was asking me questions asked me to describe the guy as best as I could, since I was really the only person other than the now shell-shocked waitress who got a good look at his face.

“He was black. His eyes were black and glossy, like they were filled with gasoline. He was wearing a green baseball hat. The gun was black with a brown handle. He was wearing work boots. He smelled like alcohol.”

The other busboy/dishwasher looked the policeman dead in the eye, and then said “Sean is just being polite — he looked like a typical nigger high on PCP, that’s what he looked like.”

I watched the policeman’s face change when the other busboy/dishwasher said that. It was like seeing my father when he got angry. The policeman then asked us a few more questions, took down all of our information, and asked us if we would be available to pick the robber out of a line-up if the need ever came about.

Later on, I was sitting in Denny’s with the other busboy/dishwasher. We smoked a joint in his car, so we were pretty high, enjoying plates of fries with ranch dressing and bottomless coffees. I asked him why he said that, why he said what he did about the robber.

“I said it because it was the truth. And everyone is right — you could’ve gotten all of us killed.”

He was probably right, I wasn’t thinking about ramifications at that point. What nobody else noticed, was that the robber didn’t touch any of our tips that had been stuck to the order wheel on top of the counter at the ice cream bar. When everyone was still freaking out waiting for the police to show up, I went out front into the dining area to make sure nobody else was around. When I saw that money on that spinner, I just casually walked over and put it all into my pocket.

Fuck it — it’s not like anyone else got hit in the head.

*****

When I ran out of couches to sleep on and people started backing away from me a bit, and after that period of time in the vacant apartment was through, I slept in a city park, Los Olivos Park, on 28th Street and Glenrosa. The park was pretty quiet most of the time — I think the first four or five nights I was there I didn’t see another stray at all, mostly drunks in cars coming to the park to make out or fool around. Every now and then I would see a crew of teens hanging out on the fringe areas of the park, passing bowls back and forth, which made me feel really nostalgic — my friends and I used to do the same shit.

Because it was Summer, the park would sometimes get irrigation — water flowing freely into the park, creating a grassy lake between small berms. I remember one night watching as the water slowly crept its way through the park, almost like time-lapse. I had scrounged up enough change from all of the church fountains to buy myself some granola bars, a bottle of red wine, a hunk of mozzarella and some dried pineapple, so I was enjoying my little feast at a picnic table while I watched everything become submerged. I kept the wine in a paper bag to not draw any attention to myself, and was scribbling in my notebook when a police car drove right through the water in the middle of the park to the bench I was sitting at.

“Please step away from the bench and get down on your stomach with your hands to your sides.”

The police hadn’t even left the car — this was the voice coming out of the speakers. I was already embarrassed enough as it was about being homeless, or a “vagrant,” so I felt really awful that this was happening. It was so loud. I was afraid that the people in the houses and apartments that lined the park had heard them, and I was going to get run out of the safest place I had been able to find for me to sleep.

I stepped back from the picnic table and got down into the grass. The water level was rising, so I was completely soaked. I felt scared and angry at the same time. One of the police officers, the male, came over and was shining his flashlight in my face. He asked me for identification, and I told him my wallet was in my back pocket. As he took it out, the female police officer came over and stood to the side of me, talking into her radio.

“You know this park closes at 10PM, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Why are you here, then?”

“I don’t have anywhere else to go — I’m homeless.”

“You could go to a shelter.”

“Have you been to one lately? I don’t think so.”

Her partner called her over to the car and she told me not to move as she walked away. I could hear them talking quietly, and then I could hear them walking back toward me again, their boots sloshing in the water that I was craning my neck to keep out of my face. The male officer told me that I didn’t have any warrants, and then started asking me really personal questions about why I was homeless.

“Are you a drug addict?”

“No.”

“I ran your Social — you’ve never been in jail. Wife kick you out?”

“Not married.”

“Are you a Veteran?”

“Yes.”

As soon as I said that, they changed the way they were dealing with me. They told me to get up and sit at the bench again, and actually the both of them sat down as well. I kept on hoping that neither one of them would be able to sniff out the tiny bits of marijuana I had in my satchel. I realized I had a dry shirt and socks in my bag, but wasn’t about to open it up and change in front of them. The female officer asked me if I had looked into the homeless shelter they had over at the VA Hospital, but again I told her I wasn’t going to go to a shelter — I was better off on my own.

“Well, you can’t stay here in this park. It’s either let us drive you to the VA, or you go to jail. You choose.”

In the car on the way to the VA, the female officer asked me if I had any family I could call, or if there was anyone they could call for me. I told them that I didn’t have any family anymore, and that anyone they would call would probably not know what to do — I had already slept on every couch available.

When they dropped me off at the VA, the female officer asked me again if there was anyone they could call. I just smiled at her, and politely thanked them for being kind enough to drive me to the shelter, and thanked them for not taking me to jail. They seemed pleased with themselves, like they had done something nice for someone, and I wanted them to know that I genuinely appreciated their concern.

I waited a good ten minutes after they drove away to start walking away from the VA.

*****

Sometimes when I am staring off into space, I am not really staring off into space at all. The inside of my head is like my very own movie theater, full of recollections and faded Super-8 footage that spins around with no real purpose. I could be sitting at a table outside of a coffeehouse sipping on a latte, but in my head I might be on the beach in Pattaya, watching the way the sun reflects off of the Gulf of Thailand. I might be sitting on a crowded L Train with a book in my lap, but in my head I am crawling into some Oleander bushes to try and go to sleep during the hottest part of a Summer day in Phoenix. I could be waiting for the guy at the deli counter to take my order, but in my head I am standing in my parents’ walk-in closet, taking money out of the secret place they stashed it, so I could go buy a bag of pot.

I know a lot of people who tell me that my memory, or my ability to remember details of my life is something they wish they had. I’m not so sure if that’s what I would wish for if a genie popped out of a bottle in front of me. Sometimes it can drive you closer to the edge of what you would call sane. I think that my memory is why I tried to destroy myself with drugs and alcohol for so many years — to try and use the chemicals to blast myself free of the ghosts of who I used to be, of the things I had seen.

Now that I am clean, I embrace these memories. They make me who I am. I’m no longer afraid of who I have been, because without being that person, I would not be the person that I am right now.

I don’t know if this is how it works for anyone else.

I just know that this is how it works for me.

*****

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Excitable Boy, or, “One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others”

You wake up to a strange voice asking you if you’d like to take a shower before breakfast. As much as you want to open your eyes, the fluorescent canopy overhead stings them, making it hard to make out the blurred form that is speaking to you. Mumbling incoherently, you say something about a cigarette, and the strange voice clucks in disapproval.

“You need to get some food in your belly so we can give you your first round of meds, buddy.”

You sit up a bit and try to focus on your surroundings — two bed room, other bed currently unoccupied. The room has dorm furniture. Your right wrist has one of those plastic hospital bands wrapped around it, name, date of birth and allergies listed in smudged black ink. Looking toward the disembodied voice that is now telling you where you are, you realize where you are.

“West Valley Camelback Hospital. You and your mother admitted you last night, saying you were going to hurt yourself. You did the right thing, buddy. We’re going to help you get well, don’t you worry.”

You worry.

You worry when you head toward the bathroom, and the voice that now belongs to a six foot seven inch black man informs you that he has to shadow your every move.

“I know it seems awkward, but we have to take precautions, buddy. You’re here because you felt like you were going to hurt yourself, so I have to shadow you for the first seventy-two hours to make sure that you don’t.”

You put some toothpaste onto a brush that you’ve just pulled out of a plastic wrapper. You run some cold water over the brush, and then step into the bathroom to piss — your shadow leaning against the door jamb. Your shadow hands you a plastic reservoir to piss into, because they need to run a tox-screen, even though they have already taken pints of blood from you after they sedated you the night before.

“They just want to be sure, buddy. No need getting your meds all messed up and having it interact poorly if you’re already on something.”

You remember the look on your mother’s face again, the look she gave you as they were taking your blood. You remember holding her hand and telling her everything was going to be okay, that this was the right thing to do.

*****

Your shadow is sitting with you while you eat your breakfast. There is nobody else in the cafeteria, because everyone else is off doing their thing. Your shadow has a name, Darrell. Your shadow used to play basketball at Wake Forest. You tell him that you watched him play on television once, against Ralph Sampson. Your shadow laughs at you.

“You like basketball, buddy? I’d have picked you for one of those skateboarding types.”

This will not be the first time something you say surprises people in this place.

*****

You are sitting in a plush leather chair in the office of the psychiatrist assigned to you. The plastic cup in your hand had just held within it three pills. You asked your shadow what they were, and he just told you to take them because they will help you relax so you can talk to the doctor. You try to figure out a way to keep your sneakers from flopping around, as they have taken away your shoelaces. To protect you from yourself. They have also taken away your belt. Your shadow was kind enough to take you outside to smoke half of a cigarette before bringing you in to see this doctor who is running late.

You look at the framed diplomas on his walls. There is an American flag stuck into a little plastic replica of Plymouth Rock on his desk. There is a painting that depicts a tiger being brought down by savages in loin cloths. There is the slightest musky smell in the room — almost like pipe smoke or cloves. The door opens.

“Sorry to have kept you waiting, I’m Dr. D’Javadi, I’ll be your primary physician here.”

You shake his hand, which feels calloused and dry. You introduce yourself, and the doctor then goes through a rambling mess of treatment plans. All of this is happening as he reads your intake folder without asking you a single question about your current state of mind or feelings. Twice you ask him about the medication you have been given. Twice he raised his hand up off of the folder he is holding to give you the stop sign.

You begin to feel furious.

When the doctor finally engages you about your feelings, you take your time with the opportunity to speak. You explain to him that you do not, under any circumstances, want to see your father. You tell him that as a voluntary patient, you understand you have rights, even as a minor. You express to him repeatedly that the crux of your depression and desire to hurt yourself is due to the fact that you feel like you have driven a wedge between the members of your family with your bullshit, and that by allowing your father to visit you, you will do nothing but submarine any progress you might be able to make.

His fingers are tented from the tip of his nose across his mouth. The doctor takes a moment, and then tells you that he will do the best he possibly can to honor your request. He then asks you if there are certain people that you would be willing to see, so you tell him that your mother and sister, your personal psychologist — whom you have known since you are fourteen — and your English teacher are the only people you want to see. He scribbles into the manilla folder. He asks you questions about your relationship with your psychologist and your English teacher and scribbles some more.

You ask him again about the medications they are giving you, because you do not want to take Prozac. The doctor laughs audibly at this, and then finally relents.

“I have prescribed Imipramine, which is a mild anti-depressant. I have also prescribed you, for the first few days that you are here, with Lorazepam, a benzodiazepine that will help you with the anxieties of adjusting to being in a new place. These medications will also help you to adjust to the intensive talk therapy that you will be participating in. There is no smoking in the building, and because some of the other patients do not have parental permission to smoke, your cigarettes will be kept by the nurses and rationed out to you throughout the day.”

You shake his hand and go back out into the hallway, where your shadow is waiting for you.

*****

That whole first week is now a dull blur. Your shadow is gone, replaced by a nurse named Sarah. Sarah works the night shift and took a shine to you the night you were admitted. She was charged with going through your personal belongings, and tells you repeatedly that she had to fight really hard to get the administration to let you keep your tattered copy of The Hotel New Hampshire. She tells you that John Irving is her favorite writer, and that you have excellent taste.

You have asked multiple administrators repeatedly if it would be okay if your mother brought you your guitar. You have expressed to them all that it would be therapeutic for you to be able to play, and have explained that if it is a distraction to other patients, you have a headphone amplifier you can play through.

The administrators say no.

Sarah tells you that they had to lock up a lot of the cassette tapes you brought with you to listen to on your Walkman, because as they listened to them, the music felt violent — not to mention the lyrical content. Sarah also explains to you that the reason why they would not let you keep your Jimi Hendrix tapes or shirt was because he “died of a drug overdose, and that is not what we’re all about here.” You calmly try to explain to her that Hendrix died because the woman who was with him at the time was an idiot and watched him choke on his own vomit instead of doing anything to help him, but Sarah isn’t buying it.

“We’re all a little bit older than you — I think we know what really happened.”

You wonder to yourself why it is they will let you keep a book that has incest in it, but won’t let you play your guitar or listen to Jimi Hendrix. You look in the plastic bag that has your approved items, and find an unmarked cassette tape. You smile, because if they had really listened to everything, they would know what was on this tape. You realize that you now possess something they would not want you to have, and you fill up with warm blood for the first time in over a week.

Sarah asks you a series of questions about your current mental state while she takes your vitals. Her hands feel warm and kind, unlike your psychiatrist. She seems to genuinely care about your well-being. Sarah tells you that she speaks to your mother every night, letting her know how you are doing. Sarah also tells you that tomorrow, you will be switching rooms and will now have a roommate.

After Sarah has turned out the lights and left, you masturbate, thinking about how soft her hands are, and about how you will have to share a room with some other fucked up kid.

*****

You are sitting in a room with twelve other patients. They have seated you boy/girl in a big circle. There is a counselor speaking about the rules of the group. Nobody is allowed to talk over anyone else. If someone feels as though they cannot participate, that is fine, but you must not become a distraction to the people who do choose to participate. You feel uneasy, because the girl on your left is attractive. You also feel uneasy because your new roommate, Raymond, is making faces at you from across the circle.

The counselor asks you if you would like to tell everyone why you are there with them.

Instead of just speaking up, you look down at your feet for a moment. The counselor takes this as a sign, and starts to speak again. You put up your hand to stop him, and he, like so many other adults in your life up to this point, exhales forcefully.

“I’m here because I felt like I was going to hurt myself. I bought a gun, and was planning on killing myself.”

One of the other guys in the circle coughs. A girl sighs. The counselor, his name is Richard, asks you to continue. You then spend a few moments explaining the reasons why you wanted to hurt yourself. You realize, as you are speaking, that these reasons are no different than anyone else’s, that this thing you have felt afflicted with is the same thing that each one of these children are afflicted with — a lack of self-understanding. A lack of self-love. A hole in the heart where joy should live.

This was the moment that you realized you did not belong in this place.

You finish speaking, going through the motions. Richard thanks you for sharing why you are there, and then asks the group if they have any questions for you. The girl to your left, the cute one, raises her hand slightly. Richard acknowledges her, and then she beings to speak.

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

Everyone bursts into laughter. Well, not everyone — you feel paralyzed by the question. Richard gets red-faced and angry. Raymond shouts from across the circle that he thinks you are a faggot. Another girl asks if you are a faggot. Richard’s face reddens, and he starts to raise his voice to quiet everyone down. The girl next to you who asked the question slyly grazes your shoe with her own, causing you to start to get an erection.

“Do you have a drinking problem? Do you use drugs every day? Are you violent? Do you cut yourself? Have you ever hurt an animal?”

All of those questions come flying out of Richard, spitting venom as he asks. You respond to each question calmly. You shrug your shoulders about the drugs and alcohol questions, because you’ve already witnessed how they march all of the other kids off to twelve-step meetings three times per day, and you’d rather not do all of that talking — this group session was more than hard enough as it was. You explain to the group that you grew up with violence, and that you yourself were only violent if you felt the need to protect yourself. You explained to them that you had a bad habit of bullying your little sister, because your father bullied you. You make it perfectly clear that you value the lives of animals over those of other humans.

Richard moves on to the rest of the group, but throughout the session he makes sure that you see him watching you.

*****

Richard corners you after the group is over. He has red hair, and resembles Cousin Oliver from “The Brady Bunch.” He makes you feel uneasy even though he is supposedly there to help you. Your palms start to sweat and your tongue feels fat in your mouth.

“Let’s go outside and smoke and talk, okay?”

Richard goes over to the nurse’s station and gets your cigarettes for you as you wait for him by the door to the patio area. As he walks back toward you, you see that he has a slight limp and that he tries to conceal it. He puts his key into the lock for the door, and you hold it open for him to go outside before you.

You are sitting at a picnic bench with Richard, smoking, as he tells you how much you remind him of himself when he was a kid. You’ve heard this rap before from plenty of people — each one of them more sincere than the next. You try to act as though you are truly listening, but each word he utters distorts and becomes a part of the previous stream of words now echoing in your head.

“I’m here to help you. If you ever need anything, just ask, okay?”

*****

Raymond will not stop. He does the same thing over and over again, and each time he does it he howls like a wolf at the top of his lungs.

The windows in this place are three inches thick. Unbreakable. Raymond will back all the way up to the door of the room, plant one foot on the back of the door like a sprinter, and then he takes off — full speed, head lowered like a ram, right into the window.

BANG.

“If you weren’t such a faggot, you’d be trying to break this glass, too.”

*****

The Imipramine causes you to have dreams that scare you. You keep on picturing that last night, when you were sitting outside in the gravel with the gun. The clouds are scattered and the moon is bright. You can smell the sulfur and gunpowder. You are slumped against the wall outside of your window, blood streaming from the wound on your head. You should be dead, but you are still alive, slowly bleeding out. Your hands are numb and you feel cold. You can hear your mother calling your name from inside the house, behind your locked bedroom door.

You wake up calling her name, but the only thing you hear is Raymond calling you a faggot and telling you to go back to sleep.

*****

You are sitting in Dr. D’Javadi’s office, waiting for your mother to arrive to talk about how you’ve been doing. You feel anxious. Your head feels muddy from the medications they have been giving you. You’ve felt for a while like you should be able to go home, because you’ve been playing the game in Richard’s group sessions and he’s been telling you that you’re getting better.

You worry about the incident, though.

There was an incident with Raymond that caused you to get put into a solitary room for twenty-four hours. You’d had more than enough of being called a faggot, so you purposely low-bridged him on the basketball court, causing him to fall and hit his head. When Raymond tried to get back up and in your face, you punched him in the face repeatedly until your former shadow pulled you off of him, muttering “Goddamn, son. Goddamn” as he did so.

You felt like your mother would understand. There was only so much someone could call you a faggot before you retaliated in some way.

Dr. D’Javadi comes in and sits at his desk, smiling. You still feel anxious, but make small talk with him about how things have been going. He appears to be proud of you for your progress, and his tone of voice seems warmer than before. He mentions that Richard is very fond of you, and that a lot of the staff is very impressed with your demeanor.

As the door opens, you immediately feel betrayed.

Your mother comes through the door with your father in tow. Everyone sees you shift awkwardly in your seat. You ask the doctor if you can smoke in his office, and he hands you an ashtray, a lighter and a pack of Winstons from a desk drawer. You refuse to look at your father, who is sitting on the small couch with your mother who will not meet your eyes. You hear a lot of words coming out of the mouths of adults who you felt had your best interests at heart. You hear tell of your father moving back home. You hear your mother telling you that she is proud of you. You hear the doctor expressing to your father your concerns about him being able to visit you, and watch as your father looks shocked.

Everyone sounds like they are underwater to you. Every syllable is muffled, garbled. Your hands start to shake. You fidget in your seat. You can hear your heartbeat in your ears and the light in the room feels dimmer.

*****

You wake up in a very bright room, strapped down on a gurney. Your cheeks are raw from chewing holes in them, and your tongue feels rug-burned. You can barely lift your head to see the heavy door, but you know it is there. You try to speak, to cry out — but you are too sluggish to make your voice work. You can crane your neck and see that you have been injected with something, because of the cotton and the band-aid on your arm.

“You really did a number on Dr. D’Javadi, buddy.”

Your former shadow, now your shadow in this room, slowly tells you the tale. You flipped out, launching yourself across the desk at the doctor, grabbing him with both hands around his throat. Your father tried to pull you off of him, but you were determined to take care of each one of them at your own pace. Dr. D’Javadi hit the panic button as you grabbed him, and your mother ran out into the hallway screaming for help. Your shadow and four other staff members rushed in to try and pry you off of the doctor, but you put up a pretty good fight.

“You broke Richard’s nose, buddy. Pretty badly, too — he’s going to need to have surgery.”

Your shadow tries not to laugh when he sees the smirk come across your face.

*****

Your new doctor, Dr. Phillips, meets with you openly in the cafeteria. Dr. Phillips is asking you about your aftercare program, because you are going home at the end of the week. You tell Dr. Phillips that you would like for your personal psychologist to administer your aftercare, and he agrees to that. Dr. Phillips then tells you that Dr. D’Javadi will be coming back to work the next day, and that it would be best for everyone on the staff if you apologized to him in front of the staff and the other patients.

You agree.

*****

You are packing your belongings in a room you have all to yourself again. Sarah is sitting on a chair talking to you about the things that have happened with the rest of the patients that you have been kept from. She tells you that Richard explained to the group that his getting hurt was not your fault, as he was dumb enough to try and grab you forcefully in the middle of the violence. Sarah also tells you that the cute girl, Maureen, has been passing her notes for the past ten days that were meant for you.

“That girl has it bad for you, kiddo. Real bad.”

You don’t really have much to say, so you give Sarah the same smirk you gave to your shadow in the lock-down room. Sarah laughs and reaches into her pocket, taking out a fistful of notes and shoving them into your bag of stuff. She hugs you, warmly, and kisses you on the cheek.

“You be good to you, okay?”

*****

You are in a car with your mother, on the way home. Your mother keeps asking you about school, and about what your plans are. You’ve missed almost ninety days, and you have a lot of catching up to do. You tell her that you will work something out with the school, and that you did plenty of work there in the facility that should apply in some way.

Your mother apologizes for blind-siding you with your father, and you tell her how sorry you are for everything. You tell her how you realized very quickly that you did not belong in this place — that this place was for kids who were far more fucked up than you were, and that you feel like you wasted everyone’s time. You tell her how sorry you are that your depression and your inability to get along with your father has ruined the family. You cry. Your mother begins to cry.

The both of you spend the rest of the ride in silence.

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Filed under i used to be an angry motherfucker, i used to be stupid, who is sean?

The Needle And The Damage Done, or, “Objects In The Rear View Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear”

The first person that I ever watched shoot drugs was actually my boss at the time. My mother and a friend of hers had helped me get a part-time gig, working in a small print shop in a really shitty part of Phoenix.

Actually — when I think about it now, this was also when I was going to night school. I had been removed from the regular high school I was going to, because I was skipping classes and being nothing more than a hurricane of disruption for my teachers. Not fully my fault — they were boring me to tears. I was banished to the “alternative” high school.

Basically, this guy, who I will call Don, ran this print shop that my mother’s friend used to print programs and stuff for her baton twirling competitions and newsletters and such. My sister was a baton twirler — a damn fine one, too. World Champion.

Anyway — they hooked me up with this Don guy and hoped I would “learn a trade,” since the betting pool on whether or not I was going to actually finish high school was growing daily. I was just this kid who felt like he was too fucking smart to play the games that schools wanted me to play, and by doing the whole learning of a trade thing they hoped to cut me off at the pass so that I wouldn’t spiral down into some weird world of working construction, pounding beers, and living in a trailer on the West Side of town by the time I was nineteen.

I often wonder how they would have felt about the trade I really learned.

Because my classes at school didn’t start until three in the afternoon, the plan was that I would work for Don from around half-past seven in the morning, until around two. My father would drop me off on his way to work, since his office was only a couple of miles away. My mother would pick me up in the afternoon, and then drop me off at school. The routine wasn’t so bad, actually.

For the first week or so, Don was definitely on his best behavior. He was very patient and kind as he taught me about all of my responsibilities at his shop. The way old school printing used to work, an image would be photographed with a really huge camera that was inside of a dark room [they used to call this “line photography“]. You would use certain chemicals and solvents to burn that image to a printing plate, which would then have to cure before being able to be used to print whatever it was that needed printing. Negatives were also used in a very mechanical cut and paste fashion, which used to be called “stripping.”

Don told me it would be a long time before he taught me how to do the stripping part. I had regular old grunt work like running to the greasy burger stand to get lunch, folding brochures, taking those line shots, cleaning the shop and other things to master first.

Part of me was really excited to learn all of this shit, because this was the industry my father worked in — I felt like maybe we would finally have something to talk about other than him being disappointed in my grades, or him being sick of me pulling the ball when I should have been raking it to every part of the field. I found myself, in those first few days, growing to like this odd little man who was teaching me all about his business. The first day I showed up I was wearing a shirt and a tie, and he mocked me, saying “You some sorta rich kid, Sean? You might wanna just wear jeans and a t-shirt working here — you’re gonna get dirty.”

After that, I would just show up wearing whatever fucked up punk rock t-shirts I had.

*****

I arrived to work one morning in the middle of my second week to find the doors locked. My father had just driven off. I stood around by the front door of the shop, pacing back and forth, smoking cigarette after cigarette. Every now and then I would rap on the door, thinking that maybe Don was inside and working already — the last thing in the world I wanted to do was be late for work. Whatever little money I was making at this gig was paying for my smokes, weed, guitar strings, and pitching in on half-racks of cheap beer on the weekends with the guys in my band.

Obviously, this liquid income was very important to me.

I thought about going around to the back door of the shop and breaking into the place, but then my weed-addled brain remembered that Don had a Doberman he kept in the back room. One of my other responsibilities at this gig was to take the dog out into the parking lot twice per day and let him go to the bathroom. The dog, Alejandro, was really sweet-natured, but kind of dumb. No sense in me trying to break in and get my hand or face chewed off.

I didn’t wear a watch, so I really had no idea how much time had passed — it could have been an hour or it could have been ten minutes. All I knew was that I really wanted to be inside and not out on the street where some Cholo could up and rob my monkey ass [I was in South Phoenix — Cholos kind of ran things around that part of town at this point in history]. Every time a car slowed down and looked like it was going to turn into the tiny lot/driveway in front of the shop, I felt nervous and kind of ducked into the recessed part of the doorway.

Then a really beat-up looking conversion van pulled up right in front of me. I could see Don sitting in the passenger seat, looking like he had just risen from the dead. There was a much older woman driving the van, and as she parked I could hear her admonishing Don for something in a very stern and mothering way. Don slowly worked himself out of the van and stepped toward the front door, muttering something to himself while shaking his head. The old woman followed, looked me up and down slowly and then said “You must be my Donny’s little helper. I’m Dot — Donny’s mother.”

Great.

*****

After following “Donny” and his mother inside, I proceeded to go about my regular routine — I checked through the outstanding work orders to see what I had to do that day, and got myself organized. Normally, I would have had my little cassette Walkman blaring some Black Flag into my ears, but I could tell from the tension in the room that I would miss out on something. I tried very hard not to make my eavesdropping obvious, and went to work in the camera room taking shots of shit to burn to plates.

I could hear Don and his mother arguing. She kept on saying things like “you have to stay clean,” and “I can’t afford to keep bailing you out,” while Don would mumble something incoherent and then shout things at her that made no sense. After about twenty minutes or so of this, Don’s mother told him she was leaving, and that she would pick him up in the morning to take him “to the clinic.”

Right as the door closed behind her, Don flipped the fuck on out — he threw his coffee mug against the wall, screaming at the top of his lungs. He kicked over his light table. Alejandro started to bark. Don went into the back room and started rough-housing with the dog — possibly trying to release some frustration and lighten up a bit.

“Goddamn it, kid! You get your ass back here and clean up this fucking dog shit, will you? I’M NOT PAYING YOU TO FUCK AROUND!”

As weird as Don was, this was the first time I had ever heard him yell. I felt awkward and a little scared, what with his explosion of emotions and everything. I took my time getting back there, making sure to snap on some rubber gloves.

As I worked my way around the corner into the back room, I saw Don standing on top of a step-ladder, his arm craned up and into some of the ceiling tiles. Alejandro was wagging his little stumpy tail at me as I reached down and picked up huge chunks of his waste and put them into a plastic bag. Don didn’t even pay attention or notice that I was there — he just kept on grunting and moving his arm back and forth, popping up ceiling tiles to try and find something.

I didn’t really give it another thought as I went outside to dispose of the dog shit.

*****

Later on that day, I was folding boxes of brochures with my headphones on when a very large Mexican biker came through the front door. Not only did he not acknowledge my presence, he just walked his way on in to the back of the shop where Don was working. I lowered the volume on my Walkman, and could hear Don and this dude bantering back and forth, making small talk. I heard Don mention something about his mother, and then something about him being “good for it.”

The Mexican biker left five minutes later, and as he walked by me on his way out he gave me a little head nod.

“Kid — you got a lighter? All I got are matches — come on back here and gimme your lighter, can you?”

As I walked into the room, I could see that Don was up to something I had only read about before. On the light table in front of him was an unfolded foil wrap that had two twist-tied baggies in the middle of it. Next to that was a spoon, a torn-off filter from a cigarette, and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. Clamped between Don’s teeth was a hypodermic needle.

Fuck me.

Now everything that had happened throughout the course of the morning made sense to me. Hell — everything that had happened since I started working there made sense to me — the weirded-out Doberman watch dog, the telephone calls where people would hang up, the multiple chains on the doors, his mother talking about “the clinic,” and “staying clean” — everything just fell right in line.

This motherfucker was a goddamn junkie.

I tried not to act too freaked out when I slid my lighter across the table to Don. He just sort of grunted at me, and started playing with the instruments of his addiction right there in front of me. I acted as if this was no big deal to me — like I had seen all of this before.

“You gotta get just the right mix of coca and chiva, otherwise you’re wasting good shit.”

Don was now cooking up his little mixture in the spoon, holding my lighter underneath to boil and bubble his drugs the way he liked them. There was a smell in the air that I couldn’t identify — it blurred out the ever-present scents of cigarette smoke, solvents, dog shit and mold that were in the shop. I watched Don take the cotton from the cigarette filter and stick it in his still-bubbling spoon, drawing the hot fluids into the syringe, which he then set on the light table in front of him.

I could not believe I was witnessing this — at this point in my fledgling little life, I had already read everything I could get my hands on by Burroughs, and was slowly working my way into Selby — but seeing Don’s face as he sunk that rig into the top of his hand was one of the most intense things I would ever see in my life. His face, which up until that moment had looked like he was in agony with every movement, suddenly filled with warmth, all of the hard and angular lines smoothing out. His eyes went from beady to glazed in half a second. Even his posture changed immediately as he slid down into himself in his chair, every muscle gone slack.

“You want some of this, kid? I can cook you up your own shot if you want.”

“No, Don. I’m cool. Thank you, though.”

*****

Almost every morning was a repeat of that day — me showing up to find the place locked-down, and Don’s mother dropping him off around a half an hour later. His mother started feeling sorry for me, and would make sure she had coffee and donuts for us — kind of her way of apologizing for her son, I think. I also realized that it was her I was really working for. She really owned the shop, and this was her way of making sure her son had something to do with his time other than shooting dope into dead veins every day.

Don started to get very comfortable with shooting dope in front of me. I soon learned that the big Mexican biker’s name was Ruben, and that Ruben had given Don the dog as a gift for not ratting him out to the police when he got arrested for holding a bunch of dope that belonged to Ruben a couple of years earlier.

Don and Ruben would sometimes ask me to come into the room where they were, and would start asking me about my friends’ drug habits — trying to get me to sell stuff for them in my neighborhood. They knew that the neighborhood I lived in was full of kids with disposable income at the ready, and would often make jokes about how “white” I was. I would always be respectful and decline, even when Ruben would tell me that he would give me a fair split on the money.

After they would make more jokes at my expense, I would usually just put my headphones back on and get back to work. As much as I was fascinated to see these aspects of the drug trade right in front of me, it made me nervous as hell. I was just a kid who liked smoking pot — I’d tried cocaine a few times and found it to be a little crazy for me, and I had already had my battles eating diet pills being sold as speed. I certainly wasn’t about to start selling heroin and cocaine to the kids I ran with. The thought of that was far too much for my adolescent brain to handle. I had no idea what they meant when they were talking about “weight,” or when they would rattle off dollar amounts.

I just knew they were part of a world that I did not belong to.

*****

As my father drove away one morning, I noticed the front door to the shop was open a crack. Instead of just walking right in, I walked around to the back door — something about the way the front door looked didn’t feel right to me.

Coming around the side of the building to head toward the back door, I saw a car idling near the dumpster that I used to throw Alejandro’s shit into. There was nobody in the car, and the driver’s side door was wide open. Looking toward the back door, I could see that it was open as well. I took my time walking toward the door, keeping my eye on the idling car as I crept slowly along the wall.

That’s when I saw the blood.

There was a streak of red on the wall next to the door to the shop, and a trail of it that went all the way across the lot to the idling car. On the ground in front of the doorway there was a massive puddle of it, and a pair of bolt-cutters laying in it. I tried to angle myself so I could see inside the open door, but I wouldn’t be able to do so without exposing myself if someone was still inside.

The sweat running down my back felt like ice water.

Looking back over toward the car and the dumpster, I could see two legs and a torso sticking out from behind the car. I tried not to make a sound but I must have gasped loud enough, because a very bloodied Don came stumbling out the back door. He was holding on to his side with one hand, and in the other was a very bloody pair of industrial scissors.

“Motherfuckers killed my dog! They killed Alejandro, those motherfuckers!”

Don was screaming, wild-eyed and obviously in shock. I had no idea what the fuck to do. I asked him if he wanted me to call him an ambulance, and he shot me a glare that would have melted steel.

“Ambulance? An ambulance will bring the fucking cops, you fucking moron. I’m waiting for Ruben to get here to help us get rid of that fucking dead motherfucker over behind that goddamn car.”

“Us?”

“Yes, us! Go the fuck over there and turn off that goddamn car — if there is a gun in there, bring it back over here to me.”

I just stood there staring at Don. Us? Me? What the fuck did any of this have to do with me — I was just some kid who was working for him part-time, not some fucking dope lackey hanger-on.

“Goddamn it, kid — GO TURN OFF THAT FUCKING CAR, NOW!”

As soon as he yelled at me my fight or flight response kicked into gear. I didn’t even think — I just acted. I marched right over to the idling car and yanked the keys out of the ignition, putting them into my back pocket. There was nothing in the car other than a pack of cigarettes on the passenger seat and some empty coffee cups on the floorboard. No guns to be found.

Stepping back out of the door of the car and closing it, I looked down at the blood trail that led to the body laying in the parking lot. I gingerly took a few steps toward the body, looking back toward the shop to see Don staring at me intently.

“Is that motherfucker dead?”

I looked down at the body — there were huge chunks of flesh missing from his forearms and bloody holes in his pants, obviously from Alejandro. The man was Mexican. There were large cuts in his throat and face, probably from where Don attacked him with the scissors. Three feet away from him, nearest the dumpster, was a small revolver. I pretended not to notice it. I did not want to touch it. I did not want to touch anything.

I turned back to Don and shook my head to indicate that the man was dead.

I am seventeen years old.

*****

The inside of the shop looks like Beirut. Boxes and paperwork littered all over the place. File cabinets overturned. There is even more blood inside the back doorway than there is outside — I quickly realize most of it is Alejandro’s. The dog is dead in the middle of the room in a puddle of his blood, three gunshot wounds that I can clearly see from a distance.

Don was in the bathroom, pouring rubbing alcohol into his open wounds — apparently he managed to stab the attacker after getting shot in the side, but his hands were all cut up from the struggle with the scissors. It was a fucking horrorshow. I felt so nauseated. I had never seen so much blood before in my life.

“Don? I’m going to go over to that 7-11 over on the corner and get a cup of coffee — you want one?”

Don stopped what he was doing and put his hands on the sides of the sink, locking his elbows as his shoulders try to slump in on themselves. Head bowed with chin to chest, he takes a deep breath.

“Yeah, kid. If they’ll sell you a beer, get me a tallboy, too.”

*****

At first I started walking at a regular pace, but with each passing car I felt a sense of dread building inside of me. What if more people were coming to get Don? What if they had been watching the shop for a while, and because I worked there decided that I had to go, too? I could feel my heart beating inside of my brain as I picked up the pace — first walking briskly, and then breaking into a dead run.

I was ten blocks away out of breath at a bus stop when I realized I still had the keys to the dead man’s car in my back pocket.

I didn’t panic as much as I wanted to just throw those keys out into the middle of the street. When the bus pulled up, I knew it was going to take me a long time to get home — but home was where I was headed. About an hour into my ride, I took the keys out of my pocket and shoved them into an air-conditioning vent next to my seat. I got off at the next stop and walked for a while, using my transfer to get on a different bus.

I called my mother at work when I got home, and told her that Don had closed the shop for the day, and that I took the bus all the way home.

*****

I never went back to work for Don.

I told my mother that Don was using heroin in front of me, but I didn’t go into all of the crazy details. At first she didn’t believe me and thought it was just another one of my stories to get out of working. She stopped thinking I was up to no good when I quickly found another job, working at an Arby’s near the mall.

I kept on poring over the newspaper for a few days after the incident, looking for a report about a burglary/murder on McDowell Road — but there never was one.

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Filed under drugs are bad, fun at work, i used to be stupid

Here Comes The Fat Controller, or, "Swingin’ Shiva"

Leviticus 19:28 “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD.”

“Jesus Christ, man – do you ever drink any water?”

My skin is taut. So taut, that it is almost impossible for someone to grab a handful of the flesh across my back, to pinch a chunk of it together. This is a problem, because this is a necessary part of the process. This is an even bigger problem, because in order for me to be able to follow through on what I have set out to do this evening, my flesh has to have some give in it.

There is no other way.

The date is May 12th, 2001. Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. This evening marks five years to the day that my own mother passed away – May 12th, 1996 – which just so happened to be Mother’s Day of that year. Me being the always-suffering and mourning son, I’ve decided that instead of my usual routine of getting plowed on as many illegal substances as possible at one time and making blubbering, incoherent long distance phone calls to members of my family and ex-girlfriends in the middle of the night, I’m going to try something different this year.

Very different.

*****

For the last few months, I have been working with some very interesting people. I stumbled into this weird little world right as my latest attempt at fitting in in The Straight World had flamed-the-fuck-on-out. I had just lost my last gig working as the manager of some chain restaurant because I was so fucking irresponsible and fucked-up in the head that I couldn‘t even get to work on time anymore. My truck had also recently been repossessed – right in front of my boss, which I think helped lead him into making the decision to can my ass, which he did at four-thirty in the morning on a Sunday.

Like I said – I had by then somehow drifted into this very weird and alternate universe type of world. I had become friendly with some people in Phoenix who were pushing the envelope on a lot of fronts – “artists,” if you will. I was a member of an Internet community that was geared toward people who were into body modification, and through that site I was able to connect with some people locally. After spending some time with them, I was asked to help them with their businesses.

Anyway – that part doesn’t matter so much. What matters is that through these people, there were things that I once thought impossible now being shown to be not only possible, but suddenly plausible. I have always been one to sort of let The Universe guide me to wherever it was that I needed to be, and being around these people had shown me that there were plenty of people out there in the world who were doing something akin to what I had always done, albeit in very different manifestations.

I have always, from a very young age, wanted to separate mind and body. Whether it was through meditation, drugs, sleep deprivation, exercise, or even fasting – I was apt to give it a shot. I’d followed seers, shamans, medicine men, and every other type of charlatan out there in the world who had promises of being able to complete, or even come close to this type of separation.

Some of my new friends achieved this goal before my very eyes. I had witnessed some very intense things, and came to the realization as the anniversary of my mother’s death was inching closer on the calendar, that I was going to use this opportunity that The Universe was putting before me for something new and powerful. I was not going to waste this. I was not going to do as I mentioned earlier on in this Ramble and get loaded on whatever I could get my hands on. No, I was going to take this to a whole different level of mourning.

I was going to fly.

[This is the part of the Ramble where I warn you that if you are in any way a squeamish person, you might want to go on ahead and read someone else’s site and forget I ever posted this entry.]

So, after witnessing many flesh suspensions, I came to the conclusion that I was going to do one my damn self. My new friends did this type of thing almost every night, weather permitting. If you wanted to be hung in Phoenix, these were the people that were doing it. I had seen a few suspensions done as performances before I met these people, but they were always run by my new friends anyway. And now that I was amongst them on a daily basis, I was also able to witness private suspensions that happened.

I knew that this was what I wanted to do, and in my meditation earlier in the week, I was able to reach a place of clarity I had not been able to reach before – which was a good sign for me. After speaking with my friend who ran the suspension group, and explaining the circumstances behind my decision, it was decided that we would do this on Saturday night, in the privacy of his back yard. When he asked me how I wanted to “go up,” I asked him which method would constrict my breathing the most, as I was pretty convinced that in order to achieve the state of mind/body separation I was looking for, a lack of oxygen was imperative.

It was then decided that I was going to go up “suicide” style – with four large hooks through the flesh of my upper back. The four hooks would support all of my weight, and also lift my shoulders up and back, which would change the way that oxygen was flowing into my body. I had seen another friend do this very type of suspension about a month earlier, so I knew what to expect to a degree.

*****

The day I was to be hung, my then-girlfriend was acting up something fierce. She was young, and also someone who at that time in her life was struggling very much with being accepted by this crew of people. At one point during the day, she actually said out loud –

I don’t understand why you get to be the only one to suspend tonight? It isn’t fair. Your mother has been dead for five years. Get over it.

Obviously, my blood began to boil immediately. I tried very hard to stay within myself and let the words just slide away, because I wasn’t about to let her childish petulance get in the way of something that was very important to me – especially something that I was taking on in such a spiritual manner. She then asked me if she could call some of her friends, so that they could come and watch. I shot that idea down very quickly, and watched her go stumble over to the computer to pout about it.

I honestly didn’t care so much in the moment. I had much more important things on my mind.

*****

I am now sitting backward on a metal folding chair, as two of my friends are trying to grab up enough of a handful of my flesh to push a hook through it. They are struggling, because my flesh will not cooperate with them. Standing in front of me is the girlfriend of my friend who is in charge of everything. She is currently running the show, since The Universe struck him down with a terrible bout of food poisoning.

I took that as a sign.

She is holding my hands as the first hook pushes through. There is an audible pop as the hook comes through the other side of the lump of skin that my friends managed to grab hold of. I feel a little light-headed, so she shoves a handful of Skittles into my mouth, and wipes my face down with a paper towel soaked in rubbing alcohol. My then-girlfriend is standing in the corner, still pouting and acting petulant.

“One down, three to go – you hangin’ in there, buddy?”

I nod, and go back to chewing on the candy in my mouth, trying to focus on what I am about to do. In my lifetime I have already walked on hot coals and broken glass. In my lifetime I have already fasted for ten days. In my lifetime I have already taken peyote with a Navajo medicine man.

I understand that this will be different, but somehow similar.

*****

Three hooks later, and I am now standing outside in the back yard. One friend is on top of the roof, waiting for the signal to start cranking me up into the air from the two friends who are standing next to me. The hooks in my back are attached to ropes that are attached to an apparatus that is attached to a winch. I am smoking.

“You have to lean yourself forward a little bit, try and get a good stretch going so that the hooks loosen you up a bit. If you don’t do that, you’ll probably pass out as soon as you go up. Okay?”


I follow the advice given, and start to lean myself as far forward as I can. My friend’s girlfriend asked me if there was any music that I wanted to listen to, so I had her throw on Adam And Eve, by The Catherine Wheel. I loved that album. Perfect little songs. I imagined myself floating to them as I stretched myself out further and further, pulling the lines as tight as they would go. I was bouncing on the balls of my feet.

“I’m ready to go up, guys. I’m ready to go now.”

I can hear the winch cranking. I can feel the pressure in my flesh as the lines start to get tension in them. I can feel myself being pulled back and up. My two friends are standing on either side of me now, each one of them holding onto my hands as they inspect the lines and the hooks – to make sure nothing will go wrong.


*****

When you are weightless, nothing around you makes any sense. I can still hear the music, but it sounds like it is under water. I know that my breathing has changed, because the lights out here have dimmed. My feet are no longer on the ground, and nobody is holding my hands. The illusion of being held up is gone – I am hanging from hooks in my flesh.

Closing my eyes, I try to navigate the millions of thoughts that are being processed by my mind. There is no pain. All I feel is the pressure of my flesh holding my weight. For a brief second, my mind flashes to the possibility of one of the hooks popping through my skin, but I quickly squash that thought – my friends would not let that happen to me. They are taking this as seriously as I am. They all know how important this moment is for me.


When you are weightless, there is no time. A minute can be an hour. An hour can be a minute. What happens outside of your body is inconsequential. What happens inside of your mind is all that matters. In my mind, I am trying to find her. I know she is in here with me. I can feel her. I can almost smell her.

*****

When I open my eyes, everyone is staring at me. I am still hanging in the sky. It is raining, but none of the drops are hitting me. The rain is light. The ground below me is wet with it, but none of it is on my body. The air feels warm. Someone is talking in hushed tones, but I cannot make out the words. Looking up into the night, I can see a clear patch in the clouds, and I can see the stars.

“I’m ready to come down now. Thank you.”

When you are weightless, and your feet touch the ground again, it is a very awkward feeling. Almost like having sea legs – you just do not trust that the earth will stand still for you. When the initial contact is made, and the sole of your shoe touches the pavement for the first time, you feel something that I cannot even begin to describe with language.

Everything feels like it happened so quickly, but you realize you must have been up in the air for a while when you hear that the album is on the last track. Your friends have huddled around you quietly, offering you sips of water and another handful of candy to go with the cigarette you’ve asked for. You do not feel faint, even though they have all told you that you might.

If anything, you feel just right. As if you actually were able to accomplish what you set out to do.

*****

In retrospect, I am thankful that I took this journey. Would I do it again? I don’t think so. There is no need for me to revisit something that might cheapen the experience that I had with it – which was my main reason for doing it in the first place, to experience something powerful. Over the years, I’ve talked to some people about the experience, but mostly, I never really felt any reason to talk about it at great length. It was my experience. I am thankful that I was able to do this in a safe and emotionally supportive place – the people that were there with me will always have a little nook that belongs to them in my timeline.

If you find yourself ever wanting to take a journey like this, please do seek out someone who knows what the fuck they are doing. If you need to be pointed in their direction, let me know – I’ll get you to the proper people.

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Filed under nuggets of infinite wisdom, the spiritual misadventures of sean, who is sean?

What We Do Is Secret, or, "I Ain’t Got Time For Any More Of My Own Monkey Business."

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

See, as a kid, when you’re first learning to bathe yourself, you just do whatever the bottles tell you to do. You’re still learning to comprehend written words, and why would you question what the people who make the shampoo put on the bottle? Why would you even think beyond the directions?

Plus – your mother told you to make sure you’re clean. Nobody wants to be friends with The Stinky Kid. Girls certainly aren’t going to talk to the boy with the greasy hair. Well – not yet, at least, but who the fuck is a soothsayer at age six or seven? You just follow directions, and try to take a decent approach to whatever those directions are telling you to do. Obviously, if you’re supposed to repeat something, it must be for your own general good. Why would someone want you to waste your time?

Time is a motherfucker.

You don’t realize what a motherfucker time is until you’re much further along in your timeline of events. Your teens rocket by before you realize how many mouths you’ve forced your tongue into. Your twenties? Shit, man – they go by just as quickly, but with a side-helping of responsibility scattered up in there. Some of those responsibilities are probably things you could have/should have learned to deal with in your teens, but you were too busy at desert keg parties, or stuffed into the back seat of a Nova making out with a girl who had mono, high as fuck on PCP and trying to get your mouth around a nipple through a bra.

You don’t realize what a motherfucker time is until you’re standing outside the door to your apartment, and you know the girl you’ve been living with has moved all of her shit the fuck on out, just by the way the front door looks to you from standing out there. Sure – you tried to call her a few times while you were at work, and then phone rang and rang. But she’s gone, daddy-o. She took everything – even the cats. But that’s cool, because now you can stay up until the small hours, smoking pot and playing your guitar as much as you want. Sure, you have a job to go to and all of that, but it’s a family-run joint – why would they fire you for oversleeping three out of every five shifts?

And then they do. Over the phone. Because you’re such a piece of shit to them that they cannot even stand to see your face around them anymore. On the phone, the owner’s son rattles off your litany of indiscretions. You’d been showing up to work high. Showing up hung over. Calling out sick every third shift, too. Hanging out with “undesirable” people on the clock. Disappearing for an extra hour when you were supposed to be out making a delivery. Pocketing tips that belonged to other people.

They even found the stash of empty and half-empty wine bottles you had out back by the dumpster that you’d been glad-handing off of them the entire time you worked for them.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

At that point, the only thing you can do is try and keep your chin up. Keep moving. Stick and move, stick and move. That’s what you think you’re supposed to do. That’s what all of the movies about being in your twenties tell you to do. Again with the instructions. Why would they be telling you to waste your time?

For a little while after that, you kind of coast on by. No paying gig – your rent is still really cheap, and you can make that by moving small amounts of weed and coke on the side. Plus, every now and then your father feels shitty enough to pay your electric bill for you. You just hang out in your apartment all night long, calling phone sex lines to talk to the faceless girls on the other end for some meaningful human-type contact. The problem with that, is that the phone isn’t in your goddamn name – it’s still under her name – and you’re racking that shit up. It takes a little while for it to catch up to you, but just like everything else – it does.

You don’t realize what a motherfucker time is until you’re at your next gig, working in a goddamn call center. You sit there all goddamn day, working as a directory assistance operator. People call you up, and then they breathe all heavy into the phone. Different regional dialects. Different look-ups. You master it pretty quickly somehow – even banging out a center record seven second listing response time. Once, a guy on a call was threatening to commit suicide. One of the people working there in the center raised their hand for help, and you walked on over and plugged in to the call. You traced his number back on the next screen, and told someone to call the local police to get over there. Somehow, through the magical gift of bullshit you were bestowed, you managed to calm the guy down enough that when the police kicked in his door he just dropped the gun. They promote your monkey ass. You think you’re the shit. You start sleeping with some of the women who work there, making your rounds.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

You no longer have a phone in your apartment, because she had that shit turned off. You’re not mad about it, because it actually makes your life easier. People can just hit you up on your pager, and you can decide if they are worth the time for you to walk down to the Mobil station at the end of the block to call them back from the payphone or not. You take the bus back and forth to work, and when it’s really nice out, you like to walk the thirty blocks home. One night, a car with a couple of good-looking girls rolls on by, and one of them leans out the window and asks you if you need a ride. They pull into the parking lot, and off you go into the night.

You don’t realize what a motherfucker time is until two days later, when the three of you are still laying around in your smoke-filled apartment, and one of the girls starts talking to her friend about her not wanting to get kicked out of school so close to graduation. High School graduation.

When you confront them about their ages, both of them start to howl with laughter. You sit there and sweat starts to roll off of you. You feel like a monster. Yeah, you might only be all of twenty-four years old, but this shit is serious. You live in a state where this shit is serious as can be. You’ve been giving these girls drugs. You’ve been stupid. You got conned by your own lust for attention/human touch.

You kick the girls out and get on the bus to go to work. On the bus, you see a cop who keeps on eyeballing you. You start to panic, and you get off the bus early and walk the rest of the way to work. By the time you get there, you have soaked through your shirt. You look deranged. The people who work under you – your team – they see something is off. You go about your shift as normal as possible. Outside on a smoke break, you tell a guy you work with that you feel close to what happened to you, and he tells you to shrug it off – “we all do stupid shit, man.”

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

A few months later, and it feels like it never happened. You’ve moved on, because time is a motherfucker. You’ve held it down at this gig for a while now. You’ve got money saved. You still move little bits of shit for side money, but mostly you get by on what you make at your honest living. You’re sitting in your apartment, high as fuck and ready to pass out, when your beeper goes off. It’s your mother, so you walk your way down the block to call her back.

She has cancer. No, she doesn’t want you to come to see her. She wants you to stay where you are and keep working. She says that she cannot deal with you and her illness at the same time, even though you offer to move there and help take care of her. She says no. Repeatedly. She tells you not to tell her mother, whom you are extremely close to. She tells you not to tell your father, whom she is divorced from. She wants you to stay there. Period.

Time is a motherfucker.

You don’t realize what a motherfucker time is until years later down the road. Your mother is long since gone. So is her mother. And your father. Almost everyone you ever craned your neck up at to listen to them – they are all gone, every last one of them. So are your twenties, and most of your thirties. Like a fucking flash. Boom. Gone.

You find yourself standing in line at a goddamn Dunkin Donuts one morning, and you get a whiff of something that rings off of the brass bells inside your head. Olfactory flashback. You’re pushing forty now, and this scent rolls back the clock in your head to that back seat in that Nova. Sarah was her name. You remember the way you could taste, while kissing her, that she was sickly. You can suddenly taste that taste. You remember how soft her skin was. You remember how between kisses, she was mouthing the words to an Alice Cooper song that is now stuck in your head. The woman at the counter hands you your coffee, and you just kind of stare at her for a second. She smiles, and you take the change she is offering you. You step outside into the street, and the sun is shining down on you. It feels warm. It feels good.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

For as long as you can remember – even back to when you were six or seven, and still not questioning the instructions on a bottle of shampoo – whenever people ask you what you wanted to grow up and be, you told them you wanted to be a writer. In your teens you used to scribble into spiral notebooks when you should have been paying attention in class. You used to write love letters to girls who were dating your friends, and shove them in between the slats in their lockers. You used to write poetry on the back of your math tests. You used to sit outside at coffee houses, scribbling in leather-bound books. You used to enter yourself into Slam Poetry contests and lay waste to people with thermonuclear shit that was all guts and all incendiary anger. You used to secretly call them hate poems, because you hated all of the people who would walk up to the microphone and whisper nonsense about their gardens or their pets.

Time is a motherfucker.

You don’t realize what a motherfucker time is until you remember that during your period of homelessness, you used to write papers for people. You knew a lot of college students who would much rather party than write for their classes, so you took it as an opportunity to sleep on their couch and get a little coin in your pocket. You used to tell them to bring you little snippets of conversation that they observed, and then you’d pump out two, three, sometimes four thousand word pieces for them out of thin air. They would sit back in their cozy, parental unit-funded apartments the next morning, drinking their fifty bucks per pound Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee and soak in what you’d just done for them. They were always in awe of what you were able to do with nothing. Then they’d get you high and drop you off somewhere as they went on to hand in your work with their name on it.

Years later, you find yourself sitting at your desk in your apartment. Lighting smoke after smoke after smoke, staring at a blank screen in front of you. You still want to write. You still believe you can write. When you do write, and people do read it, they tell you that you can, indeed, write. But you don’t believe them. You think they are just petting you, because deep inside of the secret chambers of you, you know you haven’t even begun to try yet. You’ve been coasting for years. Coasting on the fact that you told yourself over and over again that you could write, and other people ate that shit up.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

You stood there for a good long minute, staring at that bottle on your kitchen counter tonight. You’ve been staring at the screen for weeks. You’ve been sitting in that chair, boiling over inside of yourself, angry as fuck. You know you can do this. You know they put “lather, rinse, repeat” on those goddamn bottles just so people would buy more fucking shampoo. It doesn’t have a fucking thing to do with having healthy hair. And it honestly means fuck-all to you – you are as fucking bald as the day is long, son.

All you got, is time.

Time to get to work.

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Filed under "whatever happened to...", jealous insecurities, laziness, nuggets of infinite wisdom, who is sean?