Monday, December 29, 2008


11:45 p.m.
“Look at that bunch. Tell me, are those people you’d be comfortable dying with?"

Strange question. I have no answer. So I hand him his scone, blueberry, and his change, sixty-five cents. But he lingers. Still fifteen minutes until he boards and becomes the flight attendants’ problem. For now, I guess, he’s mine.

“That’s what I ask myself whenever I fly. I look at my fellow passengers and I say, ‘Billy, worse case scenario: would you be okay falling from the sky and meeting your maker with these folks?’”

This is graveyard shift. This is Molly’s Muffins, a coffee-stand in the international terminal. It’s rare to work in the service industry and have no regular customers. But here people come and go. From everywhere and to everywhere and at all times and I never serve the same person twice.

“You know,” he says. Pretty much a monologue by now. Couldn’t call this a conversation. “People always say, ‘you’re born alone and you die alone.’ But that needn’t be true. Me for instance, I have a twin. And if I die in a plane crash, I’ll have proven the exception to both rules.”

Can I get him with anything else, I ask. He stares off at the crowd. “They seem alright,” he says.

3:23 a.m.
Working nights, sleeping days. You fall out of rhythm with the rest of the world. I never see my friends anymore. Same for family. I can’t catch the primetime television lineup and I eat my dinner at eight in the morning. I’ve lost touch. I no longer empathize with the problems of day dwellers. So when some cranky old lady, red-eyed and sleepless, moans something awful about our over-priced water bottles, I care so little I don’t even try to justify it.

“Four dollars! Four dollars for water! It falls from the sky for Chrissakes. And you’ve got the nerve to charge four dollars. This is one hell-of-a racket.”

After the summer 2006 revelation that terrorists had planed to blow up transatlandic flights with chemicals smuggled aboard in water bottles, all outside liquids were confiscated at the security checkpoint. In the wake of this development, my manager inflated the price of bottled water an extra buck fifty. So yeah, it’s a racket

“This is robbery. I ought to call the police. Ugh! How do you sleep at night?”

But of course, I don’t sleep at night. “Ma’am,” I say. “There’s a water fountain near the restroom. Maybe you can find an empty bottle in the recycling bin and fill it up.”

“You’d have me root around in the trash like a bag lady? My Lord! You people are despicable…” And on and on she went. Until finally, she ponied up four dollars for the bottle. They always pony up the four dollars.

6:55 a.m.
When the sun starts its rise, my stomach turns. The clear, cool morning forms underneath the dense night. No more mystery. All is laid bare.

And waiting for my shift to expire, I find myself privy to a thorough explanation of the benefits of child dentistry. “Another thing, they don’t have coffee breath. Oh man. Back when I dealt with adults, used to drive me ill. Reminded me of grandma’s kisses.” And while he says this, I should point out, he’s finishing his third cup. Forty-five minutes into his layover.

“Oh oh oh,” he starts so suddenly. “I almost forgot the best part. Baby teeth! When the kids start coming to me, I don’t even pay attention. Cavities? Who gives a shit. Those are just practice teeth.”

I shrug. “And when the baby teeth pop out,” he taps at his chompers with his index fingers. “Then I have half a mouth worth of work. Fucking cake walk. And my hygienist does the lion’s share. Most of the day I’m in the back, dicking around on the computer.”

Across the terminal, my daytime replacement has arrived. She walks through the metal detector and past the newsstand. “Ha ha. And all these suburban mommies, I can charge whatever I like. Nothing’s too much for their babies.”

And I reach in the drawer and pull out my timecard. My sunglasses. I punch out. Grab a danish for the road. And behind me, as I work through the terminal’s morning crowd, I hear, “Four dollars! Who the hell do you think you are?"

Monday, December 22, 2008

Three Scenes of Christmas

In the stool next to mine is a man with a blood red suit, furry white trim. He orders eggnog and says, “Gotta stay in character.” I think he’s talking to me. But I don’t know. I don’t look up from my pint.

Only a special breed of loser congregates in bars on Christmas Eve. The sort without family or friend or sense of tradition. One rung up from hermits and vagrants. Our only consolation, the bed—or futon, or cot—to which we’ll eventually retire. That and alcohol.

The man orders a second eggnog. It’s thick and milky-yellow and looks pretty much the same way it will when it comes back up. “You the Macy’s Santa?” I ask him.

“No.” And I can smell the bitterness in his words, even over the brandy. He pulls at the silky beard hanging from an elastic band around his neck. It snaps back hard. “That's the major leagues, dude. They only hire Santas with real beards. A year long commitment for a five-week job.”

I nod in sympathy. The clock reads five past eight. Happy hour’s gone and I’m not one to pay full-price. Even if it is the holidays. “Take it slow,” I tell Saint Nick. “Rudolph’s the one with a red nose.”

And he laughs but his belly doesn’t really shake. Total second-string Santa.

* * *

From the bar, I take a scenic route home. So cold out, the air is almost unbreathable. You have to suck hard to get anything and it burns your lungs like a kid’s first drag on a cigarette. The week-old snow has either turned into some sort of soft-serve mud in the gutter or a slick, well-trampled layer of ice on the sidewalk. Twice I nearly slip and brain myself. These extra-few blocks, I’m not walking for exercise. What I want is to hit up the market, grab more drink.

The big glass door is bordered with multi-colored lights. Has been since Thanksgiving. I push through and walk to a cooler in the store’s rear. There are clear bottles and brown bottles and green bottles and slapped across are labels in every color. Add to this the glimmer of Christmas lights.

I allow myself a minute of window-shopping. In the spirit of the holidays. But really, I haven’t any option. I grab a forty-ounce bottle of malt liquor and turn towards the counter. There’s a reason every other commercial is for Bud Light but you never see one for malt liquor. Cheap brew with high alcohol content, that sells itself.

Waiting to pay and some guy enters talking all loud into his cell phone. Everything is, “Do you want me to pick up some milk?” and “I’ll be home in a few honey.” When he passes, I see his scarf is Burberry, tag facing out. So he makes more than you. He claps his phone shut and sidles to the counter. Of course, he’s buying a sixer of some micro-brewed winter ale. Labels on the bottles, very festive.

I pay partway in change. When I move for the door, the micro-brew guy says, “Hey buddy, enjoy your Christmas.”

I mumble something like, “Fuck your mother,” before almost eating it on a patch of ice.

* * *

In space—I’ve been told—No one can hear you scream. Well New York—where people commute underground and work high in the air and live one stacked on another on and on—New York sure-as-shit ain’t space.

So sitting on my couch, sipping my bottle, it’s really hard to hear the weatherman on the news tell me Santa’s slay has passed over Ottawa. My neighbors are yelling. About responsibility. About money. About drinking too much and screwing too little. Then three blessed beats of silence before, “Get your ass back in bed or I’ll tell Santa to fuck off.”

Tomorrow maybe—just some hours from now—maybe they’ll cheer up. Over torn wrapping paper and Tonka trucks and waffles with sausage. I think, if I wake early enough, I can listen to them come together on Christmas morning. And how creepy that would make me, I’m embarrassed by the thought.

Tired and drunk and looking forward to New Year’s, when getting blitzed is a mainstream custom. Roll my empty. Uneven revolutions until it clanks against the far wall. Slouch. When I fall asleep, Santa has just been spotted above Boston.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Troll's Decline

Once was, folks feared the bridge. On its far side grass grew tall. Beyond was anyone’s guess. But in time, all that remained was a well-worn path to mundane countryside. The change in condition, a testament to the poor work ethic of The Troll.

Time was, nobody dared step foot on the bridge. The Troll, he would bellow from below and his inhuman growl would freeze blood and liquefy bone. He requested neither money nor services from would-be travelers—the shrieks of children, the hurried footsteps of once-courageous men in retreat, this was reward enough.

But The Troll got sloppy. In later years, one was likely to find the poor sap sprawled on the creek bed. Sleeping off a case of cheap beer or stoned silly on a stick of weed. His roar regressed to nothing but a mumble and he did little to dissuade townspeople from crossing the bridge that—not long ago—he had tended with territorial fervor.

At most he’d toss a few empties—of which there was no shortage—at an oblivious wanderer and fall back to sleep. On one occasion, he caught a young girl with a drained fifth of Jack Daniels. The thick glass and squared-off bottle resulting in seven stitches. The locals were angered, even a little disgusted. But not frightened much at all. Mostly, they shook their heads at the fallen creature. The pathetic beast.

Listen good, I tell you what’s what. Troll still hate people much as always. Still hate sad little girls and big angry men. Troll hate and hate because that what trolls do. But here my point: I such a troll, I even hate trolls. Really, this make Troll most troll of all.

Townpeoples say, “oh, that Troll. All he like is drink boozes and smoke dopes.” But townpeoples—how Troll hate them so—they is wrong. Troll hate the drinks and the smokes too. But it make I think less about hating little sad girls. And it make I think less about hating big angry men. And it make I think less about hating trolls. Also, make Troll sleep good.

So, one day, as happens to those in a freefall of spirit, The Troll hit bottom. What occurred was this: After draining four Olde English tall boys and punctuating with a joint—fat as a baguette—The Toll succumbed to a comatose slumber. Upon waking with a killer hangover-headache, he discovered the townspeople had played quite a prank. His hair—once black and oily and streaked across a blemished forehead—was dyed the most obscene shade of green. And more than that, it was washed and combed and spiked into some sort of Don King styling. It goes without saying, The Troll hated his new ‘do.

And I wish I could say The Troll rebounded. That after this unfortunate episode he went back to the same fiend all of us wanted him to be. I wish I could, but it just wasn’t so. Truth is, no one knows for certain whatever became of The Troll, though rumors abound.

Some say he moved to the city, developed a smack habit, blended in among the dirty, misshapen addicts of urban alleyways. Some say he filled his pockets with stones—from bitty pebbles to near-boulders—leapt off the bridge that once he protected and into the icy creek below.

Other folks—those more into the whys than the whats—they see the Troll as a tragic figure. A wretch who realized all too late that he was full of love. A pitiful soul whose broken disposition had skewed a passion for menace and uncrossed creeks and tall stalks of unmolested brush growing like over-moussed hair.

Monday, December 8, 2008

No Good Deed

Often the phrase is repeated, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. And poetic though it is—cute and clever and pleasing to the ear—this saying amounts to little. For if no good is ever intended, than all good is left to chance. And that’s just no good.

But this thought has not yet come to Kenny. All that tomorrow. Right now he is settled into the well-worn ass groove of his sofa. The television on, tuned to CNN and Kenny reads the quick moving ticker at the screen’s bottom. Looking for a clue or a hint. Anything for encouragement. Anything to reinforce his theory.

But all he gets: last night’s hockey scores and something about a tornado that tore across central Kansas. Then the threat level, still yellow, not at all promising. So Kenny flicks off the set and ponders. What, oh what shall he do.

Finally, a decision: action before apathy. If he does not act. If his fear is actualized. The guilt, it will gnaw at his core. More every day until nothing exists at which to gnaw. So, rubbing the small piece of paper between his thumb and forefinger. The little scrap that plunged him into this mess. Rubbing the piece of paper until the ink smears and colors the contours of his fingers a dirty blue, Kenny resolves to make a trip to Henry Clay Middle School in the morning. Personally, he will tell them terrorists have plotted a bombing. On their campus. In three days.

* * *

Any number of things can drive a man mad. One factor, quite possibly, is the piercing, unavoidable cold known only in select corners of our often-temperate country. The sort in which you dare not chatter teeth for fear the impact will splinter your taut, frozen cheeks. Another, waiting in great hurry for your bus, long past the time you are expected at work. Watching bus after bus pass in the opposite direction and wondering what your eighty-dollar Metro Card, what your thousands in taxes have bought.

So, it is understandable if, experiencing both these aggravations, Kenny was not quite himself when finally he boarded the cross-town earlier that morning. And if mistakes were made—and no doubt they were. And if someone must bear the blame—and no doubt that someone is Kenny. Well then, let us remember this: his mindset was colored by forces outside his control. Let us not be too hard on the fellow.

And it was in this sour mood that Kenny found himself in the rear of the bus, staring at his watch and cursing with vile disregard for any who sat near him. Damn this and screw that and other words as well, too distasteful to repeat. And then he saw it. Just a torn corner of notebook paper, some figures scrawled across. Maybe that, but maybe more.

On one side, a possible codename, a location: #108, Henry Clay Middle School. On the other side, something slightly more sinister: 11-21-08 Pop! And today being November the eighteenth, Kenny knew: if he intended to intervene, the road to valiance ever-narrowed.

* * *

So let us jump ahead. Now, twenty-four hours removed from that vexing bus ride. A sleepless night past his ill-fated decision. Now, Kenny sits in the administrative office of HCMS. His ass half stuck in the misshapen groove of a couch where many a sick child has awaited the nurse. He pled his case, delivered the single damning clue to Mrs. Feldworth, the principle. All to do now is wait. Wait, he assumes, to be declared a hero.

But then this, Mrs. Feldworth returns and with a curl of the forefinger, beckons Kenny follow. A sucker for authority, he obliges and finds himself in a nearly desolate hallway—it is, after all, smack in the middle of third period. Nearly desolate, except for Mrs. Feldworth and a freckled boy of about twelve.

“Michael, please demonstrate to our visitor the meaning of your note,” this being Mrs. Feldworth. And his face flushed so red his freckles almost vanish, the boy walks to a dented locker. On its door a plaque reads 108. The kid twists a combination lock right until it aligns with the number eleven. Left to number twenty-one. Right again to eight. Then, pop! And the locker swings open. “Thank you Michael. Please return to the computer lab.” And red as Michael’s face had been, Kenny surely beat it. But such is the road to hell, they say.

Monday, December 1, 2008


I have full faith in karma. I’ve seen it move swift and accurate right before me. How an ancient will attest to hearing the roar of God in an earthquake. So too I believe in the ebb and flow of karmic justice. A belief so embedded in personal anecdotes that no amount of scientific evidence to the contrary could ever change my mind.

The way a man, having just stiffed his taxi driver on the tip, is smacked across his head by the side view mirror of a passing bus. Not with the force to brain him, just wake him up. I’ve seen it. The way a middle school bully finds himself in the emergency room. Nothing serious, just a broken hand. I’ve seen it.

And this was on my mind the day Gunther asked me to hit him. He jogged up, sucking wind while I finished off a cigarette break. And he said, “Punch me. Hard and in the face. Make sure to leave a mark or it’s all for naught.” And I almost forgot to ask him why. Just let myself become a vessel of universal balance. Because this was Gunther. And karma’s a bitch.

* * *

There’s a reason Caring Christmas Charity won’t allow you to wrap Wish Tree presents. Gifts bought for disadvantaged children, likely they’ll receive nothing else this holiday season. There’s a reason Caring Christmas Charity requires all gifts be donated in their original packaging. And that reason is Gunther.

Two years ago Gunther selected three cards off the Wish Tree—a giant aluminum Douglas Fir that each year cast it’s shadow over the strip mall. Every card with the name and address of an underprivileged youth. Also, a present they hope to receive. The idea being: those whose circumstance permitted could fulfill the holiday wishes of a child. Like I said, Gunther picked three.

What these kids discovered on Christmas morning wasn’t a Tonka Truck and it wasn’t a Barbie Doll. It wasn’t a Gameboy and it wasn’t a stuffed unicorn. The three kids Gunther chose, what they received on Christmas was a box of coal. Kingsford self-lighting charcoal briquettes to be accurate. Maybe the only gift they got. So this year, when you give to Caring Christmas Charity, don’t wrap your donation. Thank Gunther for that.

* * *

Now, this much I’ll admit. For the longest time I had wanted to shake Gunther. Just grab him by the shoulders and shake him and demand to know what his goddamn problem was. For so long I’d wanted to do this, that when he asked me to hit him, I shot a quick uppercut before asking questions. This because I figured it wouldn’t leave a mark. A free shot.

“Fucker,” he said after his jaws clacked. “In the face bro. Bust my lips, blacken my eye, get my nose bleeding. No uppercuts.”

“Woah, woah. What’s the score here? What are you getting out of this?”

And funny thing was, Gunther thought about it for a second. Like he could say, “nothing,” and I’d buy it. As if this was for kicks on both our ends. But then, “I can’t be late. Maurice said I clock in late again and he’s gonna fire me. Just be a pal and bust me up. I’ll tell him I was jumped on the way over.”

So while his plan seemed pretty weak, I happily obliged. A quick jab to the crook of his nose, then a hook to the eye, then a slap or two just for the hell of it. And repeat until I drew blood. Because I figured, no matter how it ended, Gunther deserved this. Plus me, I was having fun.

* * *

Two weeks before, we had been out barhopping. Returning home down damp sidewalk, I figured I had bought a good three rounds more than Gunther. That, and I spent the whole night playing wingman. Still, only the two of us passing over the dark boulevard. This, at 2:30 in the morning.

“Check it out,” Gunther said and made a quick b-line up the stoop of some random apartment building. Like giving a high-five, he slapped the buzzers for all fifteen units. Even from the street I could hear the dull ring. The wrong letter guessed on Wheel of Fortune. Then, “Let’s go.”

And as we ran down the block a chorus of “Hello’s” and “Who’s there’s” and “What the fuck’s” called after us. Angry and part-asleep.

* * *

So things went like this: I finished my break and moved inside, commenced working. Gunther held tight, this to ease any suspission on Maurice’s part. But believe me, I stuck by the boss man’s side. Waiting for Gunther’s enterance.

When finally Gunther pushed through the revolving door, he looked even better than when I’d left him. Or maybe worse. What you see depends on where you stand. Anyway, he was still bloody and bruised but the guy had torn his t-shirt so it hung loosely over one shoulder. And he must’ve been doing jumping jacks or some such shit because perspiration dripped from his busted nose like a leaky faucet.

“Maurice, Maurice,” Gunther panted as he hurried to make audience with our boss. “Man, so sorry I’m late. But these guys, they jumped me in the park. Maurice, they beat me bad, they took my wallet.”

Maurice scratched at his beard. He looked at the caked blood and the purplish eye and the glassy sweat. And he said, “Well Gunther, this must be the worst day of your life. Because you’re fired.”

And karma caught right up with Gunther. Just how the man, counting dollars in his wallet, doesn’t see the oncoming bus. Just how the bully missed my face and cracked his fist on the locker behind. Karma caught right up with Gunther the way it catches us all. By our own invitation.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Oh Well, Fuck It

I. (Oh Well)
They played the game often. Not a game really, for there never was a score. Never much in the way of winners and losers. More an ongoing conversation. But unlike a conversation, where one subject begets the next and onward. The way tides wash ashore but no two waves contain the same water. Unlike a true conversation, the topic never changed. Stagnant.

“How about this one,” Dan led. “Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe.”

“Excellent,” Tommy now. “Both creepy middle-aged dudes.”

“Emphasis on the creepy.”

“Totally. Also, bonus points since each has played a whacked-out Vietnam soldier.” Of course, there never were any points.

It went like this: name two actors who are exactly the same. That’s all. Where one makes the other redundant. Unnecessary.

“Okay, my turn,” Tommy says. “Brad Pit and Matthew McConaughey?”

Dan squints like he’s reading the fine print, then “Naw. I can’t give you that. Certainly you have the beefcake, eye candy thing going…” (At this point, it should be noted, Tommy squints right back at Dan). “But really they play completely different roles. Brad Pit has some chops. McConaughey, he’s a bum.”

“Okay, Matthew McConaughey and Keanu Reeves?”


And the two sit for a while, mull it over. Neither comes up with a new pair. Maybe because both are out of ideas. Maybe this. Or maybe sometimes, giving up makes you less a failure than continuing on. Sometimes.

II.(Fuck It)
It was a total chicken-shit thing to do. Ronny figured this much. Anyway he sliced it, they had fucked him so hard he couldn’t even walk right. Metaphorically of course. Literally, they had fired him at a completely inopportune time: the Friday before Thanksgiving. For them, a good move saving some paid holidays. For Ronny, a majorly shitty Turkey Day on the horizon.

So after stewing for the whole of the weekend. For the whole of the weekend plus Monday. Plus Tuesday. After stewing, Ronny boards a downtown bus heading toward his office. His ex-office.

What he meant to do was this: let his former boss know exactly how heartless Ronny’s termination was. Because really, even if he was a horrible employee. Lazy or rude or smelly. Even if he were all these things, to fire him on the eve of Thanksgiving was just plain fucked. And Ronny would let the boss know and Ronny wasn't about to mince words. It was not like he had been counting on the reference.

But when he enters the tall building’s lobby, the grizzled security guard greets Ronny same as always. Ditto the young (and Ronny always thought cute if it weren’t for the buzz cut) receptionist on the eighteenth floor. In fact, on his march to the corner office, no less than four of his ex-coworkers smile and welcome Ronny like nothing happened.

And then the realization: whether or not he was around, these people noticed no difference.

So Ronny turns and moves in the direction of the elevator. Maybe he lost his nerve. Maybe this. Or maybe sometimes giving up makes you less a failure than continuing on. Sometimes.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Work That We Do

The kid drove down the block at a crawl. Entering license plates into his phone, not every car but just those likely. For the most part anything manufactured in the past five years. Nobody’s going to owe much on some ancient rust farm.

Outside was gray and threatening rain. Late autumn, but pretty much winter already. It was so damn cold. The kid loved this weather. All calm and peaceful. At the stop sign, he sent a text to dispatch. Stating the area—seven hundred block of Cedar Drive—and a list of license plates.

Out of maybe fifteen cars on the block, only five had been worth listing. Out of five, the kid would be lucky if even one hit. Still, there was always the eight hundred block. And the nine hundred block. And after Cedar Drive, there was Maple Lane. Twenty-five bucks a hit and the kid was set on recouping his gas money today. At least that.

* * *

The truck left the yard, heading north on the Boulevard. “The fuck are you listening to?” Chester, he was in the passenger seat, kicked the tape deck. Lightly. But still. You don’t do that.

“Bob Marley, man.” Arnold pronounced it “mon” in some sort of wannabe island speak. Really, the dude was fifty-six and so white his undershirt looked tan. He sounded foolish but at least he didn’t go off about Chester’s kick. “Everyone loves Bob Marley. He’s like the pizza of the music world.”

And when Chester didn’t say shit, just looked straight ahead, Arnold asked him, “Seriously?”

“Gluten allergy,” Chester said. “Pizza rips my insides apart. Same with all sorts of breads and cakes and crackers and…”

“Well, fuck me. If you aren’t the most anti-American bastard ever to ride shotgun in my tow truck.”

“Anti-American because I don’t like Jamaican music and Italian food?”

So Arnold only nodded, acknowledged the point, and drove ever northward. Eventually, “I hate making pickups way out here. In the city you jut nick some car right off the street and the shithead owner will spend three hours trying to remember where he parked. Here, you’ll likely get shot just walking up the driveway. Fuck me.”

Chester agreed, but didn’t ask for further exposition. He had heard the speech before. Then finally he called out, “Target on the left.” This just as the tow truck lumbered onto the 700 block of Cedar Drive.

* * *

Parked at the bottom of the driveway, the tow truck of course, blocking any hasty exit. And this is where Chester waited, looking to the cloud covered sky and leaning against the rig’s front bumper. Waiting as Arnold walked to the house, knocked on the door, maybe convinced the owner to submit easy. Maybe. If they were lucky. And maybe the owner wouldn’t be home. And they could nab the car and go without static. Maybe. If they were really lucky.

But no. Chester saw the door swing open even while Arnold still knocked. And though he could hear but bits and pieces of the conversation, what with posting up thirty yards from the house, there was no question the owner wanted to keep his automobile. Arms in the air and the dude was babbling without pause, no opening for Arnold to work with. So this would take time. Chester reached into the front pocket of his shirt and removed a cigarette. He blew smoke straight up and the plumes disappeared immediately, camouflaged by overcast sky.

Always, Chester had liked the crossbars on back of the tow truck. He couldn’t help but think of a crucifix every time he looked at them. Each time they hoisted a vehicle up, it always felt so damn poignant. What this meant, Chester could never be sure. Maybe machines are the gods of our time. But no, he didn’t like that. Maybe he sacrificed these people, displayed their troubles on the cross. They suffer in order that he be saved.

Then, “But I need my car to do my job!” This the owner screamed so loud as to be perfectly audible across the yard.

“No.” Arnold, just as loud. “I need your car to do my job!”

Even if they had to call the police, Arnold and Chester, no matter what, the car was theirs. Another sacrifice. Another payday. And Chester asked himself, why? And Chester answered himself, because of the times.

The owner, trailed by Arnold began out into the yard. Further from the house. Closer to the car. Overall, Chester took this as a good sign. “Listen buddy,” Arnold to the owner. “We got no real use with your car. We don’t want it for keeps. Just make a couple payments and it’s yours again. Simple like that.” And the man nodded and bowed his head and handed his keys to Arnold.

Chester pulled some leavers. Lowered the crossbars.

* * *

A couple chimes sounded when the kid entered the convenience store. He walked to a cooler in the back and removed two large cans of beer. At the register he handed a twenty to the clerk. Covering the drinks and a few gallons of gasoline.

Back in his car the kid held up a crisp white envelope. Inside, the remaining few dollars. His sack of gold. His day’s work. Then, he kissed his cell phone gently and drove off down the boulevard.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Drunk Tank

The crust rubs from my eyes and I crumble it to the floor like a clump of granola. My mouth tastes sour, gummy saliva. I roll around from my back to my side to my belly to my other side. No matter how I lay, I’m thirsty as hell and really have to pee. I wonder why these problems don’t cancel each other out. Then I push myself into a kneel, eyes still closed.

And when finally I peel the lids apart and look around, I want to lay right down again. Me on a smooth, cold, concrete floor. A drain right smack in its center. Cinderblock walls dimpled where people have tried to carve initials. Or punched over and over. A deep sink and a rusty faucet. And of course, the bars. So I cup my hands and slurp from the sink. So I piss into the drain and it leaves me winded. Then I collapse back to the ground. And I try to sleep. Hope to wake someplace other.

But nothing. I crawl to the cell’s corner and prop myself against the wall. I cough hard and deep and feel like something’s about to come up and nothing does and I try to spit toward the drain but mostly it runs down my chin and my neck. Must have had a massive night.

The air was cold and sharp and even though there wasn’t anything in the way of a breeze, I ran so fast my hair blew wild behind. Whatever they spoke of, now it was so far back. And now even further. And now further. Sucking wind but still not about to slow down. Did I tip enough? When will they look for me? Will they look for me? Further.

So at the stoplight I stopped. Not because I had to, I was on foot. Not because I was tired, though a tightness gripped my chest and soon weaseled outward. Why I let up there, the sunburst of traffic light grabbed me. Needed inspection. Like a red, glowing sea urchin reaching out to puncture. Some crazy stuff. And I huffed hard and saw my breath float before my face and swatted it and only tired myself further. Then, when the burning in my lungs became a sinking in my stomach, I leaned down and puked on the candy-apple red hood of a parked car. Chicken wings and liquor and stomach acid.

For a second I stood. Cocked my head and looked at the lumpy mess. Like pink oatmeal with brown curds. Something like that. Then with my finger I swirled it around, spread it out. Like a big sunburst, like a sea urchin. Something like that. And the paint, it was eaten away. Beneath was dull metal and nothing more. I sunk down against the car. Tried to recuperate, find my bearings, rest. And maybe I slept some, I can’t recall. But next I knew, a police officer was hustling me to the back of a squad car.

“My problem is this: every time I shit, I masturbate. Because, you know, I’m just sitting there and I’m bored.” This was what I had to listen to. This was an interesting conversation. So I flagged the bartender, I ordered another drink. “Dude, ever heard of reading?” Another friend asked. “Okay, okay. But check this out man. I think I’ve trained myself into a fecal fetish. Like, I’ve done this so many times that now, turds get me horny.” And this was an interesting conversation. So I drank.

“Get this dude,” one of my friends, it matters not which, said this. “How come when something is child proof, it means a child can’t do it. But when something is fool proof, it means even a fool can do it?” All sorts of intellectual musings. So I drank. This was what I looked forward to all week. At my desk. With my reports and my coffee breaks. The thought of Friday night. This was it.

So I drank. And when someone, it doesn’t matter who, when someone asked me what I was thinking, all I said was, “I gotta run.” Not like a euphemism, I just had to. So I chucked a fistful of ones onto the bar, a tip. And I walked into a jog into a sprint and out the door. And my friends’ eyes, they burned holes in the back of my head. Blistering, hot, warm holes. Just holes.

Monday, November 3, 2008


You say, don’t vote. That nothing good ever comes from it. You say, when somebody votes they’re just cannibalizing themselves. Like eating fingers right off one’s own hand, it might provide some nutrients. But the short-term benefits don’t equal the never-ending inconvenience. I ask you, like sticking your foot in your mouth? But you’re not amused.

When one votes, no longer can they complain. You say this, but I beg to differ. No, no, you raise a hand and shut me up. Then, if you didn’t vote, you’re not responsible for any problems, the mistakes of those elected. It’s the other way around… I start but you’ll have none of it. Think if nobody voted? Nobody at all. What would happen then? And while the prospect frightens me, you just smile and gaze at the horizon

If I must vote, you tell me, if I’m too brainwashed by all this ‘civic duty’ bull. If I’m caught up in the whole ‘make my voice heard’ scheme. If I must vote, you tell me write-in candidates are the way to go. Instead of throwing my lot in with the narrow choices provided, pick the real best person for the job. You say, vote that friendly grocery store bagger for head of the Tourism Bureau. You say, vote Jesus for president. You say, only if I must vote.

While we’re on the topic, while you’re on a roll, don’t pay taxes either. Refuse to buy bombs for wars you don’t support. Refuse to bail out companies that would never bail you out. And I say, that’s illegal and you just shrug. And I say, what about building hospitals and paving roads. And again you shrug. So what if we build hospitals, you declare, not ask. Paying taxes won’t cover our health insurance. And roads? You say that you don’t own a car.

Sounds like you have a problem with democracy. I say this to you. I say, maybe it’s not perfect but surely it’s the best we’ve got. And you thank me for that chestnut. You ask, did I eat a big bowl of cliché this morning? So what, I scream, what is any better? And, acting all cool, you say, anarchy. Like riots and violence and lawlessness, I ask. You tell me I’ve listened to too much punk rock. You say, true anarchy, everyone governs themselves. Responsibly. It’s the ultimate one-man-one-vote. Anarchy, it’s the ultimate democracy.

Closed minded, you call me. Ignorant and naïve. You ask me what I studied in college and you shake your head when I answer chemistry. Even though you knew this already. I say, what about you and your liberal arts degree? And a smile on your face like this was all set up, you ask if I know what liberal arts means? You say, it’s not painting pictures of blue states. It means the processes and disciplines used by free peoples in order to remain free. And you chuckle like all that crap you said before is now gospel.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Torn Genes

The album held hundreds of pictures. Polaroids and photo lab developed. Candid amateur shots and old sepia hued professional portraits. Every one of them, the subject is someone I’m related to. Somehow.

A great great great uncle in Union Army uniform. My Mother’s cousin with long greasy hair and a bright poncho. Some guy with some woman and some child standing in front of some house, all of us sharing some DNA. Dad, with a crew cut and a football.

And on every page a half dozen relatives, though few of us have the same last name. How I’m a Stevenson even though I’m just as much a Goldman. How my Mother’s a Goldman even though she’s just as much whatever Grandma’s maiden name was. How I’m that too, even though I’ve got no idea what that is. But connected only to my Dad’s Dad’s Dad’s Dad. Even though dozens, hundreds of people are kin just as close.

A family tree, more like a family forest. Genetics losing out to tradition. Somewhere, a common ancestor.

Over a cup of pink grapefruit tea, one afternoon my neighbor told me he had engineered a half-chimpanzee half-human. A himp, he said, that’s what they called it. Same idea behind mules. And just the same, the himp ended up sterile.

But a mule serves a purpose, I said. The temperament of a donkey and the strength of a horse, a perfect pack animal. Whatever purpose could a himp serve? Why would you create such a thing? And my neighbor—a long retired government scientist, old and approaching senility—he said, because we could.

The creature made in a lab with beakers and microscopes. By people who wore baggy white scrubs with baggy white caps and thick plastic goggles and thought how not why. Implanted into the womb of a female chimp. Probably, he told me, it would have worked better with a human mother. The way a female horse carries the seed of a male donkey, the superior species allowing the fetus to develop within. Probably, he told me, that would have worked better. But a woman giving birth to such an abomination, it would have been cruel.

A freak of nature, I said. A freak of science, He said, if you need to be accurate. Nature gave us a common ancestor. Science, a common descendent.

Once a friend of mine—and maybe he was just an acquaintance—drunk he told me a secret. This was three in the morning, in the lounge of our college dormitory. Nursing the final third of a bottle of Southern Comfort. Mixed with Dr. Pepper it tasted just like bubble gum.

What he told me was, he had fallen in love with his cousin. And at this point maybe I should have up and left. Or said, bro you’ve had too much. Or just laughed real hearty and allowed him to play it like a joke. But instead I didn’t. I didn’t and instead I asked him, bro is she hot?

My acquaintance, he mostly ignored that. Instead he answered whatever question he wished I had asked. He said, we didn’t grow up together so it ain’t weird or nothing. He said, we met for the first time last summer, at a family reunion. He said, she’s like a stranger. Like a total stranger. Her being my cousin, it’s just a messed up coincidence.

So I told him, sure bro. And when he made me, I promised not to tell anyone. What he said was, it’s just a messed up conscience. What I think now, there’s something to be said for a common history.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Chrome Horse Diplomat

What most people never think about is, there’s so much goddamn road. For days I could ride straight. And not like a car, where everyplace I go really I’m still in one spot. On a motorcycle I’m somewhere new every mile. Every inch. On a motorcycle I’m everywhere all at once.

And today, on my Sunday. On my day off. What I’ll do is ride out for five hours. Ride out and then ride back. Then sleep into tomorrow and another workweek.

This, what I’m about to say maybe it won’t sound like anything too agreeable. But once I rode right through Iowa with no stop. What it must’ve been is something like the time of year to sow. And through the whole of the state, all told just more than two hundred miles, only thing I smelled was fertilizer. And like I stated before, maybe on paper this doesn’t sound too agreeable. But nobody I know ever caught a ride on paper.

Like once, in the mountains near Lake Tahoe, when I guess the butterflies were in migration. Each one against my visor like the impact of bubble gum popping. Until they hit with such frequency that I couldn’t wipe the beige splatter away fast enough. And waiting it out in a hardware store dwarfed beneath the pines, I listened to a guy play Billy Joel’s Piano Man on an acoustic guitar.

And when he’d finished I asked him, aren’t you being irrelevant? And he told me, “Sometimes that’s the point.”

But in a car I’d never have felt the hundreds of insect kamikazes. Just turned on the wipers. The way I’d never have heard Piano Man as played on guitar. Not even noticing the hardware store in my rearview. The way I’d have thought Iowa smelled of dangling tree-shaped air fresheners and stale coffee.

In a car, my Sunday would be a waste. My day off.

* * *

Halfway through I roll into the parking lot of a diner. All tall steep roof and giant empty windows. Inside, twenty maybe thirty booths. And not one occupied. Here, as far as I go. Everything after, just closer home.

Before I can walk through the greasy glass door, a man standing outside and smoking a cigarette, he grabs my arm. “You’re running from something,” he says. And I say, no. “You’re running to something,” he says. And I say, no. “Out of guesses,” he says. And I say, just trying to move.

The man tells me long ago he was a preacher. Or a priest. Then one day he came to the realization, if there’s a God, then we’re all screwed. And if there’s no God, then we’re all screwed. So the man, and maybe he’s an ex-pastor, he says, “Now I aim for peacefulness. A standard more concrete than Godliness.” He says, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. Gandhi said that.” And as I walk into the diner I say to the man, no. I say, that leaves the whole world with piss-poor depth perception.

I sit at the counter in the vacant diner and order a hamburger. The waitress looks at me for a beat. Two beats. Three and I know she expects something from me but what it is I can’t tell. Finally, “How would you like that done?” And she sighs. Medium. I ask what beers she might have and she lists, counting on her fingers, “Budweiser, Bud Light, and Heineken.” Then, “Oh, and cans of Milwaukee’s Best for a buck.” And I say, if it’s the best of Milwaukee than it’s good enough for me. She walks back to the kitchen.

When she returns and I pop open the aluminum can, I ask her, is she alright? And she says, “Yeah. Yeah I’m alright.” And I wait a beat. Two beats. Three and she goes, “That’s the problem. I’m always alright. Time was, as a little kid, I would be over-the-top happy one moment and devastatingly sad the next. Time was, just a candy bar, a stubbed toe would get me going. Now, I’m always alright.” I say, time does that to us. And she says, “It does.”

When my burger arrives I bite into it and then pull a few flakes of oatmeal from my teeth. The grain added to the meat like coke cut with baking soda. Stretching the product. The waitress asks me what I do. I say, all sorts of things. “Like, for a living,” she says. And I tell her, I’m a mailman. “So you drive a truck down the street at a crawl. Same few blocks everyday?” And I say, Yeah. Exactly.

I tip well and then walk to my bike. Through the window, I see the waitress pocket the cash and smile.

* * *

The sky shifts from red to black and I’m thirty miles from home. Tomorrow, another day of work. Another day that will be alright.

But nothing like the day I drove through Texas. Across roads freshly paved and so smooth I could’ve mistaken them for polished marble. And I thanked the Lord for mild weather and rain would’ve killed me and I laughed and sped up and left Texas behind.

Nothing like topping out at 120. The way I don’t even feel like I’m moving anymore. I just stay still and watch as all around trees and fields and mountains sail past. Like a rollercoaster. Like flight

Nothing like the way I can ride straight for days. Because there’s more than enough road in this country for anyone, I don’t care how wild you are. There’s so much goddamn road.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Boom or Bust

From the waitress Ben orders a cup of coffee, Doug a turkey sandwich. “And two pickles,” he says to her back. “Coffee for lunch?”

“Times are tight buddy.” Ben coughs into his hand. “Looks like I may lose the rental on my chair. A lot of guys I used to see every week. Now they aren’t about to part with thirty-five bucks for a haircut.”

“That’s how you do it? The chairs?”

“Yeah, I pay every month for the right to cut hair. What I make beyond that is my living.”

“Shit, Ben.” Doug shaking his head. “You must be the only fucker I know gives his boss a paycheck. You took a hit?”

“What can I say, plight of the Lower Manhattan barber. When things were rolling, sometimes I’d give the same guy a shave five days a week. Lots of clients like that. But it went south.”

“Well next time one of those Wall Streeters comes in for a shave, cut the fuckhead just a little. For me.”

“Next time?” Ben reaches over the table, accepts a cup of black coffee from the waitress. “Ha. There’s no next time buddy. A few haircuts a day I can pull in but nobody’s buying a shave. Hot lather and a straight razor, easily replaced by a can of foam and a disposable.” And he winces. Maybe the coffee burns his mouth. But probably not. “Fucking economy.”

“Let’s be real man. You lose your job. What then? Work out of your apartment?”

“No, no. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll travel around. Like during the Great Depression. Ride the rails, eat beans from a can, play the harmonica. Didn’t you have a cousin who was a hobo?”

“Not a hobo, a drifter. There’s a difference. And my family doesn’t talk about him much anymore. Got thrown in prison. He was a cat rapist.”

“A what?”

“He would climb through windows and sexually assault woman. Like a cat burglar. But worse. We don’t talk about him anymore.”

“See, I was thinking something different.”

“Huh? Oh, well that’s fucked up too. They’re both fucked up. Either way, this whole idea you have about hitching west with a knapsack of essential tied to a stick, it’s a bit romanticized.”

“True, I’m just thinking out loud.” And snapping his fingers Ben makes the waitress’ eyes, points to his cup. “Maybe I could work with you. Or for you.”

“Don’t think so man. My job, it’s not something you can jump into. And besides, you have a real skill. There’s always been a place for barbers. Really, it’s not something a machine can do.”

“True, I’m just thinking out loud.”

Back against the brick wall and smoking a cigarette, he looked at the skyscrapers. Manmade mountains. Unable to withstand erosion. Filled with used to be clients and sometimes their used to be offices. His whole day had been a cigarette break.

Ten bucks a pack in this city. Ben stepped to the sidewalk’s edge and threw his butt into the street. Can’t pay rent on the chair means can’t pay rent on the apartment means ten bucks for fucking cigarettes. He turned and faced the barbershop window. Five empty chairs and a stack of unread Playboys. The kid who swept hair was fired Tuesday.

“Whoa, Mr. Richmond. How’ve you been?” Ben waved to a man rounding the corner, waved him over. The man, wearing a suit and with a paper under his arm and a briefcase in his hand. A hat. Ben forced a smile. “Mr. Richmond, how’ve you been?”

“Well, you know.” Said the man. He looked from side to side but never into Ben’s eyes. “How has anybody been around here? Around anywhere lately. Bumpy. It’s awful bumpy.” Side to side, then at his watch. “But things will straighten out. I’m sure they will. They always do. Maybe next week I’ll be in for a shave.” And the man moved to step past.

“Sure thing Mr. Richmond. Hey, maybe even a haircut. Hell, you haven’t been around in three weeks.” Ben patted the man’s arm as he shuffles by. “Must be awful shaggy.”

The man stops. Removes his hat, his hair trimmed short. Buzzed close to the scalp. “See, I bought myself a set of clippers. An investment.” And he laughed at his own choice of words. “Cost about the same as a cut. And well, I think I did a decent job.”

“Sure Mr. Richmond. Sure. You’ve got yourself a nice shaped head.”

“Well Ben, I’ll be seeing you.” He set off.

“Sure Mr. Richmond. Sure.” Then to nobody, “Guess I’ll take my lunch break now.”

Ben stares into his third cup. Doug crunches a pickle. “Man, I told her two.” Staring holes in the back of the waitress’ head.

“She probably didn’t hear you.”

“Maybe. Or maybe you got her pissed, snapping for attention. And I suffer. You know that’s really fucking obnoxious right?”

“I guess, but it works. Three cups and I’m feeling a forth can’t do no harm. Got to make a meal out of it.” The cup tilted to the ceiling, drained. Ben raises his hand, about to snap but the waitress is already on her way over. “You can’t argue results.”

“You’re gonna be buzzing out of your mind man.” Then to the waitress, “Dear, do you think I could get another pickle? Thank you.”

“There you go, show a little initiative.” Ben stops a beat, sighs. “Election’s in three weeks. Who’s your man?”

“You know me, raised by my grandma, a total FDR Democrat. So that’s where I’m at. Plus the guy wants to set a date to end the war. Man, eight years ago we were peaceful and prosperous. Look at our sorry asses now.”

“Where you’re coming from I can appreciate. But for me, there’s a moral code above regular black and white, right and wrong. For me, nothing’s more important than loyalty. Like if you, my buddy, like if you got in a brawl. Called some dude’s girl a whore. I’d have your back. Even though you were in the wrong, it’s the right thing to do. That’s where I stand on the war. We may be wrong. But my loyalty lies with my people. And we fight to win.”

“Goddamnit Ben, that’s the most ridiculous shit I’ve heard all day.”


“I mean, what you said about being a hobo was pretty bad. But this, you topped yourself man.”

“But,” Ben holds up a hand. Stop. “The situation I’m in now, I have to vote with my pocketbook. And your guy’s offering the tax cut. Long as you’re pulling in under two fifty. I don’t know if that applies to a big shot like you.”

“Doesn’t matter. I don’t pay taxes.”

“You don’t pay taxes? Kind of nullifies your stance as a Democrat.”

“It is what it is man. But drug dealers don’t get W2 forms.”

“So how do you handle your money?”

“Some is in the bank. But I’m careful, a deposit around my birthday, a deposit around Christmas. Keeps things looking legit. The rest, it’s hidden. None of your business.”

Laughing, Ben rolls his eyes. “Come on buddy, just a hint. Please.”

“A lot of gold. Been valuable in all sorts of civilizations for thousands and thousands of years. I figure if shit goes down, if the dollar isn’t even worth its paper or if zombies rampage. No matter what, gold is fucking golden.”

“How’s business been lately?”

“Surprisingly man, never better.”

Walking up the stairs from the 79th Street station, he saw the van right away. With curtains along the side windows and the color of split pea soup and totally the most conspicuous place to transact. Like everyone’s mental image of a stoner-mobile.

All day long going uptown then downtown then midtown then cross-town. He was winded from so many jogs over the subway stairs. And now this prick might as well have a sign suction cupped to the window, Pothead on Board. Doug popped the passenger door, hopped in. And staring straight said, “Around the block, my man. Drive.” Because like they say about moving targets.

Inside, the van smelled of cigarettes, the guy dressed in mesh shorts and a Knicks T-shirt. “Christ,” Doug said, hiked his thumb toward the van’s rear. “You got Shaggy and Scooby back there?” The guy grinned, looking far prouder than the situation warranted.

“So what’s up,” Doug, the paranoia evaporating. “No work toady?”

“Called out dude. Not about to be canned with a month and a half of sick time in the bank. I earned those days.” The guy made a left onto 76th.

“The normal?” Doug said. Then, “Worried about your job?”

The guy, he nodded and reached into his shorts. “Nobody’s said anything. But you know. We’re in New York, the total epicenter of this shit.” And he pulled out a wad of bills, sorted them with both hands, using his knees to steer.

“I’m not looking to talk myself out of business. But if you’re so concerned, maybe you shouldn’t blow cash on a sack.”

“Dude,” said the guy, arched his eyebrows and tucked his chin. “Dude, I’ve had tuna sandwiches for dinner all week. I make my sacrifices. But peace of mind is a fucking blue-chip.” And he laughed a little.

Doug opened his book bag and felt inside. Quick eye contact between the two and they shook hands. Slowly, clumsily. The guy, all that time driving with his knees. “Can I take you anywhere?”

“Actually I’m trying to get downtown. Wall Street.”

“Whoa dude. I was thinking more like the subway station.”

An empty coffee cup and a plate of crumbs. And a pickle. “All that bitching and you didn’t even eat the thing,” Ben says this.

“How’s she going to bring it after I finish my sandwich. That’s way past pickle time. Go ahead man.” Doug points to the slimy thing with his chin. “Get a little food in that stomach.”

Thinking for a good moment but then Ben grabs the pickle and eats it in three bites. The brine dripping from his moustache. “Thanks.”

“Back to the barber shop?”

“Suppose so. See if I can wrangle up some business.”

“Well, there’s always next week.”

“There’s always next week. What about you?”

“Me, shit I’ve had five pages since we sat down. I’ll be traversing this island till midnight.” Doug pulls some bills from his pocket, smoothes them on the tabletop. “Don’t worry man, coffee’s on me.”


“Same time next week?”

“Always. Next week.”

Monday, October 6, 2008

Fortunate Son

“I know you,” said The Voice. “I know who you are. I know what you have coming to you.” And The Voice was smooth and syrupy and all Jason Barnes could get. Around his head, wrapped like the invisible man, four or five yards of duct tape. His eyes covered so tight he was getting a migraine.

“Scratching his way to the top,” said The Voice. Jason knew the headline well. “Local resident Jason Barnes of River Drive came up big in the Pot O’ Gold scratch-off lottery game.” Reading, louder as the sentence went on, The Voice. “Now he’s set with a cool hundred grand.” The dollar amount spit like spoiled milk.

What Jason wanted to do was yell. Yell for help. Yell for mercy. What Jason wanted to do was yell but he couldn’t do more than taste the bitter adhesive side of duct tape. And thinking maybe he shouldn’t have agreed to a profile in the local paper. Or at least not posed for the picture.

“So what will happen here is three-fold. First, I’ll tell you what I need. Then, I’ll demonstrate the gravity of the situation. And third, you will graciously assist me. Understood?” And Jason mumbled something through a gluey mouth. “Nod,” said The Voice. And so Jason did.

* * *

“I don’t believe in luck for the same reasons I don’t believe in God. First, neither can I see. And second, neither has done me any favors. Everything I have, I have not by the grace of God. Not through good fortune. Everything I have, I have because I took it. Everything you see around you is mine because I grab opportunity by the proverbial balls. Well, of course you don’t see it. But imagine.”

Jason imagined he was in a mildewed basement, maybe a single overhead light bulb swaying from an extension cord. Nothing but grease stains and concrete and a roll of duct tape. Places like that were for situations like this. So Jason imagined.

“And moreover. I recognize no claim with a basis in luck. What has randomly fallen in your lap may just as well have fallen in mine. I have just as much right to the fortunes of fortune.”

Hollow footsteps bounced off the floor, further away each clack. Then the sound of rummaging like a tin of Altoids shaken. “What I need of you,” The Voice now across the room. “Is your PIN number. And before you decide whether or not to abide, let me prove how serious I am.” And like punctuation on his sentence a low mechanical hum rose from the same corner in which The Voice now resided. Bruuuuuuummmm. Bruuuuuuummmm. Then the footsteps again. Advancing this time.

“We’ll only do this once.” The Voice so close Jason could feel its heat. “So long as you cooperate.” And now louder this time Bruuuuuuummmm, the unmistakable roar of an electric drill. He thrashed and squirmed and jumped but Jason was duct taped tight to the chair. And as the bit burrowed through his jeans, his meat and chinked against bone, Jason prayed, oh Lord let me crawl from my skin. Bruuuuuuummmm. His whole body tightened. Legs flexed, asshole puckered, stomached clenched, his teeth bit down and splintered. And his mouth filled with grit. And blood. And then he slept.

* * *

The room was bathed in the swath of light from a desk lamp. Floored with hardwood panels. Not really how Jason had imagined. Then he looked down and saw the drill bit still deep inside his knee. Denim, brown and sticky with congealed blood. And it struck him, his head was no longer wrapped tight. And it struck him, this whole deal was totally fucked.

“What…fuck…what’s happening?” Jason coughed through broken teeth.

“What is happening?” The Voice standing behind him. “What is happening is, you are about to give me your PIN number.”


“Because if you don’t, I’ll take your other knee.”

“1486…1486, what the fuck. What fucking good will that do you?”

“Are you in shock? Have you forgotten who you are? Or what’s in your bank account?”

“I’m Jason Barnes. And I won the lottery. $100,000 to be paid over twenty years. That’s five thousand a year before taxes. And I won’t receive my first annuity until next month. I’m broke bro. I’m fucking broke.”

What seemed like an hour passed in only a few beats. Then The Voice, it said, “Goddamn Jason. I guess we’ve both had some horrible luck today.”

Monday, September 29, 2008

Starting Lineup

It explained so much. This little folder of spreadsheets and graphs. Almost like any of the hundreds maybe thousands thrown about the office. An easy accident to slip into the copy pile. But not like other folders. It explained so much.

Milton made the discovery. Not discovery really, but figured out what it was. Something a little more important than discovery. Halfway though the copy job and half an hour after the office closed. Just the two file clerks left to finish the day’s load. Out of the corner of his eye, Milton saw his name on one of the spreadsheets. This at six in the evening.

So what they did was what anyone would do, the two of them. They let the Cannon imageRunner finish. Then they each—Sarah and Milton—grabbed a copy of the file and sat at the long maple table in the conference room. At seven o’clock they punched out to avoid suspicious timecard activity. But still they sat around the table. With the files. Late into the night.

* * *

The documents titled Office Fantasy League 2008. Each page listing all employees as divided into two teams. One managed by Mr. O’Leary. The other, by Mr. Rabinowitz. Graphs tracking every employee’s statistics across a range of categories. Among them, Coffee Pot Refills.

Over Chinese take-out the file clerks studied papers. Milton, slightly jealous that Sarah doubled his output in the Pages Copied category. But even so, he was a head above everyone when it came to Filing Efficiency.

Still, more than settling personal wagers. What this folder provided was answers to longstanding mysteries. Why had Bruce—the low-billing lawyer with a coke problem-not been fired months ago? Well it was Bruce who single handedly won the Most Bathroom Breaks category for Mr. Rabinowitz. Every week of the year. Of the season.

Why did Molly serve as secretary to only one lawyer? All other secretaries handled the workloads of two, sometimes three. It was a nasty trick by Mr. O’Leary. A sabotage of the Phone Calls Answered category on his opponent’s roster.

Closer to dawn than sunset, the file clerks at last went home. Each retaining a copy of the folder. The original returned to the oversize desk in Mr. Rabinowitz’s office.

* * *

The next morning office business went as usual. More or less. Milton made sure to brew the day’s first batch of coffee. The gurgling hot pot then finished almost solely by Sarah. Which of course resulted in numerous visits to the lady’s room.

Gradually through the week both Milton and Sarah made more and more calls to Molly. Mostly saying, “Uh…wrong number.” Sometimes just hanging up. Either way. So long as the stat was counted.

In a month Bruce was gone. No longer keeping pace with Sarah’s caffeine-fueled piss breaks. Molly assigned a second Lawyer. O’Leary figuring she was taking personal calls with the free time. Figuring his plan backfired. And slowly Old Man Rabinowitz began addressing Milton as “Champ.” Just an office nickname. More and more O’Leary would call Sarah his “MVP.” Out of affection. For a job well done.

Monday, September 22, 2008


A Story In Dramatic Form

[Two men sit at a foldout card table. Bottles of beer, packs of cigarettes and an ashtray lay about].

Ralph: In life, few pleasures compare to reading. A movie, a television show, even music, these entertainments unfold at an established pace. Everyone who saw Titanic, they each lost three hours. Listen to that Titanic song, four minutes. But with a book, each takes the time they need. Pour over every line in search of meaning. Or skim to the climax and have one more title under your belt.

Georgie: For shit’s sake my man, I wish you were a book. I’d skim my way right to the fucking point.

Ralph: Georgie, I don’t know if you’re much of a reader…

Georgie: Box scores on the crapper. Once in a while my bank statement.

Ralph: Are you familiar with a piece of literature entitled, If you Give a Mouse a Cookie?

Georgie: [Laughs] You mean the kiddie book? “You give a mouse a cookie and he’ll want some milk.” And so on until he fucks your daughter. Teaches toddlers to be greedy little bastards.

Ralph: That cute picture book, you may have read the words and glanced at the illustrations. That cute picture book, look close and it’s an allegory. It’s the appeasement of Nazi Germany that led to World War Two.

Georgie: If you give a Hitler Poland.

Ralph: Exactly. If you indulge your problem, you only get a larger problem. A larger problem with a sense of entitlement. But not a solution. Maybe a rodent that chewed through three boxes of cereal. Maybe a despot plowing through a whole continent. Maybe an ungrateful nephew who expects a paycheck based on genetics instead of hard work.

Georgie: So what you’re saying here, I’m Hitler?

Ralph: If you want. Or if you’d rather, you can be the mouse. What you can’t be is a drain on my business. A drain on this family. Not anymore. I love you Georgie but I can’t allow this problem to grow.

Georgie: Problem meaning me? Like I’m some fucking tumor?

Ralph: Tumor. That’s one I hadn’t thought of.


[Ralph and Georgie stand outside. Behind them is a worn down American-made automobile.]

Georgie: So what now Uncle Ralph? Mice get their necks snapped. Hitler, he died too. What’s my fate?

Ralph: Oh kid, you’re too dramatic. Let a problem multiply, grow out of control and true, it has to be destroyed. But catch it early, there’s a humane solution. A mouse, you can release to the wild, so long as it hasn’t nested and bred. A tyrant can be exiled, so long as he hasn’t scorched the earth and bunkered down. And you Georgie Boy, you can keep on keeping on.

Georgie: Up and leave? Walk away from Ma. From everything here, what I’ve worked for?

Ralph: When it comes to your mother, she’d be more than proud of her little boy out in the world, finding himself. As far as everything you’ve worked for, I can’t imagine what that is. I put you to work straight off expulsion. And despite an insistence on producing fuck-all, I continued to employ you. To support you. But that ends tonight. Move on or stick around, I won’t bleed for a damn parasite.

Georgie: I can’t just drive into the night. Where man, where? My whole fucking world is here. I wouldn’t even know what direction...

Ralph: Kid, it doesn’t even matter a slight bit. Go to a small town and make a name for yourself. Go to a big city and become anonymous. What I’m saying to you is quit skimming through life. You’re getting nothing from it. Find a way to live at your own pace. And even then, if you don’t find meaning, kid, at least look for some.

Georgie: You set a mouse loose from one home, likely it’ll be a nuisance in the next.

Ralph: Then keep running Georgie Boy. Cause if you don’t, they’ll snap your neck.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Cruise Altitude

Seat 14A (Aisle)

When the flight attendant hands me a Coke, I tip her a buck. Probably this isn’t a tipping situation. But it couldn’t hurt. Sort of like an investment in karma. Maybe my dollar is the only thing keeping this plane in the air. Probably it isn’t. But it couldn’t hurt.

My business in Chicago, I’m going to a funeral. My uncle died, his liver like chewed hamburger, a lifetime drinker. But a long lifetime. And if you’ve got to die—and you do—then maybe dying for something that gave you kicks is the way to go. Better than being gobbled in gears at the factory where you hate working. Or headplanting off the roof while scooping fists of leaf-mush from your gutters. Besides, he was a happy drunk.

And damnit, the circumstance might be a bummer but I sure do love a plane ride. Watching the cars below shrink to peanuts shrink to nothing. Perfect geometric parcels of farmland. Looking down and seeing clouds, for Chrissakes. A view reserved for the Lord himself until man figured to make 200 tons of metal float on air.

Plus sometimes I’ll even meet some real nice folks. All these strangers stuck together, going from the same place all of them to another same place. With different reasons entirely. All of them with the same where and when and how. All of them with their own whats and whys. But today not so much. Next to me this dude twists and squirms and looks at what must be an expensive watch. One seat beyond and some guy stares out the window. Looking down on the clouds, no doubt. And could you blame him?

If I might complain about one thing though. And I feel ill mannered. But if I might complain about one thing, I’d say being perched next to the restroom is a drag. What with the airline food rushing through everyone like it’s got an appointment to keep and leaving me stuck in the odor collage.

What I’ll do, and you’ll have to excuse the crude speech. But what I’ll do, add mine to the mix. On the off chance smelling my own handiwork will be more bearable. Probably it won’t. But it couldn’t hurt.

Seat 14B (Center)

Here’s my issue. And I hate to complain. But I’ve never heard of downgrading somebody’s ticket. Upgrading, sure. Flights overbook, it happens. But bump a schmuck up to first. Don’t drown a bite of caviar in a sea of mayonnaise. And downgrading is a euphemism. They’ve stuck me in the middle seat. Near the lavatories.

Believe me when I tell you, under different circumstances I would’ve settled for the next flight out. My meeting though, only four hours away. And I’m primed. Gonna sell the shit out of this account. And there’s no rescheduling for tomorrow. Gonna tough it out in the cheap seats. And all the stress has my hemorrhoids flaring. Gonna get myself some complimentary Bloody Marys. Like I’d pay $5 a pop. Not after this bullshit.

Here’s the thing. And it’s not like I’m complaining. But for me, planes are never ideal. Humans being ground dwellers. Something about soaring in the air just isn’t natural. Boats too for that matter. To a lesser degree. I know cars kill more people than planes. Than boats. I know this. But I’ve been in car accidents. $500 for a new bumper. Higher insurance. When planes crap out you fall 30,000 feet. When boats crap out you drown. Still I’m not about to drive to Chicago.

But here they’ve got me in the middle seat. The aisle with an easy exit. The window can lean and sleep. The middle you have nothing but a jerkoff on either side to fight for armrests.

And I don’t mean to complain, but these guys are some purebred jerkoffs. And I know jerkoffs. The one to my left, nothing but a goofy smile. Like he won gold in the Special Olympics. The other just stares out the window and captivated. As if Nebraska looks any different than Wyoming.

So I’ll sit here and count the seconds. Look at my watch, worth more than most of these dopes make a year. And I’ll count the seconds until I can escape this seat near the shitter. Where every five minutes another asshole contributes to the bowel movement cocktail. And I’ll count the seconds until I’m free of the jerkoffs book ending me. The one on the aisle now the umpteenth bastard to drop a duce in my vicinity. But really, I don’t mean to complain.

Seat 14C (Window)

Miles and miles of nothingness between myself and the ground. I almost expected a perfect line dividing an orange Nevada and a pink Utah. Like the layout in my grammar school geography book. But all I get is square after square of yellow and green and brown and on and on. No matter California or Iowa. And how could I have been so foolish to expect anything other. Still, in sixty years this is the first I’ve been further up than a fourth floor balcony. And how could I have been so foolish. Except that being foolish is damn easy.

So why I’m going to Chicago is not much a reason at all. Truth is I once told myself I’d see Jordan play. Go to a Bulls game and eat hotdogs with pickles on poppy seed buns. And then he retired and I said that’s that. Easier this way. Then he came back and I said, I’ll go to a Bulls game. I’ll drink beer then beer then beer to warm myself from the brutal winter. And he retired again. Easier this way. But now I’m flying. Tickets to a game. A decade late for the man. But timing can be hard.

And timing means less when life is static. When you live in the same town from birth through adulthood through old age and you say, this is who I am. When you work for a freight company for too long but not quite long enough. You say this is who I am. You unload trucks every day and this is how things are. An easy living and an easy life.

But that’s done now. And to be quite honest this air travel deal isn’t so bad. One thing though, it smells like the stables at my grandfather’s ranch. When I had a grandfather. When he had a ranch. The way stench hangs heavy and raw and you never quite get used to it. But that happens. And some of the folks crowded here, they’re a trip. This peckerhead next to me flashing his watch then looking if anyone noticed he’s sporting more than a Timex. Next to him a kid all giddy and passing out dollar bills like they’re business cards. Like he’s General Washington. Characters.

So why I’m going to Chicago is not much a reason at all. I quit the freight company last month. Three years shy of my pension and retiring with half my top pay. Three years shy of doing nothing professionally. An easy way to wait it out, sure. So I quit. And I bought a ticket to Chicago. And from there New York and from there London and from there anywhere. Because when it’s all over, the one thing I’d hate to say about life: it was easy.

Monday, September 8, 2008

American Dream

Uriah Samuel Anderson’s early career was marked by several minor achievements. A handful of his work had been preformed in community theatres and he even took the grand prize in a one-act competition. Nothing to boast of but as far as young talents go, he was respected.

With the publication of Weak Weary Travelers the reputation of U.S. Anderson took an incredible turn for the better. Better than better. A turn for the best. While unexpected might not be the word, unprecedented could certainly describe his success. Never in anyone’s recollection had such a young playwright rocketed to the head of the industry. In the wake of WWT, nobody could claim to be in the same league.

* * *

Anderson enjoyed not only the wealth his arrival brought but also the admiration. In years following WWT he may have let his ego inflate to unsafe levels. Certainly, he grew accustomed to a style of living that was beyond maintainable for any considerable stretch of time.

As both his public esteem and his bank account began to settle, U.S. Anderson released a follow up, Vicious Weather. And while his previous effort had a straightforwardness that attracted the masses, this newer work’s convoluted plot meandered and snaked and proved unpalatable to most audiences and critics. The general consensus being the playwright had failed, Anderson managed to escape with enough money to continue his comfortable lifestyle. Anderson managed to escape with enough respect to hold his position at the forefront of his contemporaries.

* * *

Time went on as time will do and the writer found himself once more in the position of needing to prove himself. For the physical comfort success afforded him. For the pride success had cultivated. Anderson premiered the first act of his upcoming drama long before the entire piece was finished. The snippet, with a working title of Old Dusty Storefronts, was lauded as a return to form for the now veteran dramatist. Short and unsatisfying but enough of the old spirit to maintain Anderson’s elite status.

But then, like the continual cycles of history, came a new disappointment. Renamed Imaginary Waters, the completed work proved further validation of better days behind. While warmly regarded in previews the new piece soon fell with a thud. All the complaints leveled at Vicious Weather returned: drawn out, needlessly complicated and without any real point.

While some believed Anderson could redeem himself, many considered the latest letdown an end to his career as a serious artist. His legacy tarnished by this grab for a quick buck. Never would another work be given it’s fair due. All of his yesterdays and tomorrows he had traded away for the fleeting comforts of today

Monday, September 1, 2008

6 People, 5 Stories, 1 Night

This guy, he asks if he can drive the pedicab. And yeah I should’ve said no but what the hell, right? I was tired and if the dude’s gonna pay to drive me around, shit. So he starts up the sidewalk and splitting pedestrians and making couples unclasp hands and dive in opposite directions. And I’m yelling, dude, dude not on the sidewalk. And I’m yelling, dude, dude you still pay full fare.

But yeah dude, not in good judgment letting the guy drive. I should lose my permit for that, you know? He was in a hurry I guess. No time to walk and not about to let me drive all proper. Craziness dude, craziness. I should lose my permit for that.

Did I ask him for money? Naw, naw, naw. Kid just sat on the stoop there and he reeked of well scotch all terrible. Myself, sure I do have odors about me. Like sour feet, I been told. But the kid had some cheap shit on his breath trumped all that came off’a me. And he said this, tell me a happy story. Just straight off he looks me in my eyes and said something to that effect. And I said, do I look like a fella’ with a happy story? I said, kid don’t be acting foolish.

But he don’t head nowhere. So I gave it but a couple and then said, maybe fifteen years back. Back when I was only slightly a’mess. A day once when I took my daughter to that hot dog shack on eighty-sixth. That was happy. And so the kid nods and runs off to hail one of them bicycle rickshaw thingies.

So I see a guy hop off a bike and just puke all over the sidewalk. I mean floodgates opened. Then he shook off a long string of spit and walked right up to my counter. I could’ve guessed before but the guy smelled like my Auntie’s kisses. You know, the sauce. Because that’ll do it. Once, it was my birthday, and I drank a fifth of rum and then sprinted naked for five blocks. Like sprinted. Like naked. But as soon as I stopped I let loose the fifth and then some. Exercise and licks will get you every time.

But right, the guy. He asked for three franks with relish and I figured he just meant to replace whatever it was went right out of him. So I serve them up and he goes to the counter. Eats each dog in four even bites. Twelve bites later and he walks on out, steps over the pile.

It comes with the territory, this I know. But the same way a doctor must tire of patient after patient asking about an ass rash is the same way I tire of drunk after drunk crying all pathetic in my ear. A bummed out alkie is essential bar décor just like a dartboard and a jukebox, this I know. Even so, nights come when I wish these assholes would grow a pair.

But the guy was relentless. Ordered just so he could bitch about what-have-you when I poured him one. Boohoo, some broad. Boohoo, some job. All that time ordering the cheap stuff so not even a good tip was coming my way. And finally I’m done with it. Like a doctor fed up with asses. But a bartender fed up with asses. I said to him, buddy, lots of guys out there with no broad and no job and a whole lot less beyond. And these guys, they can find a way to be happy from time to time.

True it’s not much to look at. But I’ve lived here thirty-five years and the apartment’s rent controlled. To leave now would be ridiculous. The gentleman in 4C though, he only moved in last fall. And paying two grand a month for a box like this, I can’t imagine. Still he does. His business.

But always a quiet neighbor. Never even knew his name. Always quiet except that morning. Or night, depending on the hours you keep. I had been awake since four, had my coffee and was heading out for a paper. And up the stairs comes the young man, smelling awful to be sure. Whiskey and sweat. Or meat and stomach acid. As I passed he grabbed me. Not to hurt, not to scare. More like he was pulling me to safety. And he says, kill your priorities. Then on his way and on mine. Isn’t that the strangest bit you ever heard?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Punchline Life

10:35 pm

“See, another thing. Spending every day at the computer, my eyes have developed a sensitivity to light.” On and on with this petty shit. I would have slammed the phone on him fifteen minutes ago. But hang up on a caller and you’re nixed. “You don’t think I could write off a pair of Ray Bans, huh?” Even prank calls you need to pass to a supervisor. “Also, I am fairly certain my assistant is a Scientologist. Which, you know, I’m not intolerant or anything. It just weirds me out.” A call like this is exactly the opposite of why I’m here.

“Sir, I understand these are difficult times but you’ve called Crisis Line. Maybe you should hang up and allow somebody with a genuine crisis to get through?” I say it but I shouldn’t. Another no-no is trivializing the caller’s problem.

“Listen pal, this is important stuff. Did I not just give you a good half dozen crises? How the heck can I run an office with all these extraneous issues? I’ve been going for half an hour and nothing in the way of answers.”

“Sir, I am a fully trained volunteer tele-counseler. I believe what you are looking for is a Magic 8 Ball.” And just as I say this, nothing in my ear but a dial tone. Adios.

I get quite a few of these. People who’ve had it so good for so long their definition of crisis runs parallel to the hired help botching a dish of frog legs. Over that, I’d take a lovesick teenager anytime and twice on Prom Night.

And still, after eighteen months, I’m waiting on a real-deal depression case. That would just be the tits.

* * *

To say my day job was bottom of the barrel would be generous. More like some shit stuck to the underside of the barrel. Like forty pounds of felt and foam rubber fashioned into Mopey the Mole and burrowed deep beneath the barrel.

A summer job as a cartoon animal at Good Times Town and five years later I was manager of mascot affairs for the entire park. What that means, I dressed as whichever character needed a body on any particular day. And with a staff full of pierced dropouts and crystal-head townies, pretty much every day I was somebody new.

The trick to such a fractured existence, understand every character has a basic action. And if you performed this action for six straight hours, the kiddies cheered ferocious and your supervisors kept you around long past the point of wasting your life.

Check it out. As Crabby the Crab, just shake your head and place hands on hips. As Manic the Monkey, jump up and down and dance the twist. When you’re unfortunate enough to be stuck with Beauty the Butterfly, courtesy and prance and try to dodge the teenaged boys grabbing for your ass. What I always said, I had a bad job but I was damn good at it.

Still the buzz wears off fast when marinating in the sweat of so many deadbeats. The joy of a thousand tots never beats out the one little bastard who kicked you in the junk. So nights, I took to manning phones for Crisis Line. Thinking other people laying down some dark shit would make me feel okay about my punchline life.

* * *

11:47 pm

Tonight moves slow around the volunteer office. Only so much time I can kill imagining soft grey cubicle walls fashioned into some sort of elephant costume. Or a mouse. Only so much time I can kill waiting for time to kill me.

The phone goes off and I let it ring three times. Always this to weed out the insincere. Those who solve their own problems in the first two rings. Three and then soft and even, “Hi, you’re talking with Greg. What’s up?” Friendly, informal and never “what’s the problem?”

“Uh, hi. Hi Greg…” The dude gives it a beat. “Man, this is not something I do. Call these numbers and look for pity. No…just, I couldn’t sleep.”

“That’s fine,” I say. Always “That’s fine.” Never “No worries” or “No Problem.” You wouldn’t think there’s much difference but any negative language can set the more troubled callers off. The type I’ve been waiting for. Going on a year and a half. But forget that now. What I tell this guy is, “That’s fine. Just talk about whatever you like.”

“Man, I don’t know if you’re a father,” he says. Me? Shit. “But I am. Or’s been a tough month. Tough.”

“What happened?” I ask this and maybe I’m pushing. But my whole purpose here: get these folks to talk it out. Solving problems isn’t my bag. Even helping them solve their problems. Getting folks to figure out what their problems are, that’s a little closer.

“We were outside. Walking. He wanted to push his own stroller. Just. Just trying to be like Daddy. I guess.”

“It’s okay,” I say. My big utility phrase. Always keeps things moving.

“Just. Just. Just out of the sky, this branch fell. Right on him. Right there. Just. Just. Just out of nowhere.”


“And man, you know. So random.”

* * *

In August sun, peering from the wire mesh eyes of Fussy the Fox, I posed for photographs. All smiling plastic teeth and brick red fur. All upset because I had been hoping for Nasty the Newt that day.

What happened was I leaned down to refasten my lower left paw. Tighten the buckles and all. But as I bent over, my fluffy tale goosed a young lady. Who yelped. And then there was her boyfriend. Who punched me out.

So what could I do? Just so happened, I had a concussion. Just so happened, the fox costume maybe gave me body lice. Just so happened, this was my profession. Just so happened.

* * *

12:19 am

The phone call, it ends. If any comfort came the guy’s way, I have some real doubt. If any comfort will ever come the guy’s way.

To know a Grumpy the Gopher suit is no fate too severe, it provides nothing like satisfaction. If you’re wondering.

So I leave typed notice. Tonight, my last at Crisis Line. I leave a voice mail. Yesterday, my last at Good Times Town. Because could be life is short. And could be life is long. But always random. So fucking random.

Monday, August 18, 2008


This is all what they told me. I was out on vacation but I guess the whole mailroom smelled like sun-baked trash. All day and more and more the later it got. Like how, even if you breathed through your mouth to avoid the reek, you’d still taste it in the air. That bad.

The box it came from was something about 18 inches cubed and waiting to be shipped out for an overnight delivery. And as I said, I never saw this but what I was told, Dino went and sliced through the packing tape with a pair of scissors and pushed away a few handfuls of Styrofoam peanuts and had a look inside. That he totally shouldn’t have done. Like the absolute best way to lose your job. Wrap the box in a plastic bag or store it in another room or just throw the bastard out or anything. But opening the mail, totally not cool.

So then this. Dino straightaway vomited all on his shoes. What I heard, like five gallons of noodle soup. And the poor guy looked up to the ceiling and his head kept going back like trying to look directly behind and he fell hard and was out. In the box, a head. Mostly a skull but still a few clumps of flesh like beef jerky and a dried black tongue. Of course, that’s just the way I got the story.

* * *

The Monday next, starting back up after my break, I’m called to the Manager’s office. I wait in a nice plush chair while he finishes up important business on the telephone. A whole lot of “uh huh’s” and a couple “certainly’s” and once even a “let me run that by some people first.” Every couple minutes the Manager holds up a finger to ask more patience.

“As maybe you know,” he says once the phone is on the cradle. “Last week we had something of an issue involving one of the packages in your area.” What he meant was, you heard some crazy shit went down in the mailroom while you were out. And I had.

“Of course, there is a completely satisfactory explanation for the macabre happening, which you may or may not be familiar with.” This too I’d heard. Supposed to be, the skull was on its way from some county office to a university anthropology department upstate. Had I been in that week, no way something of that sort would go off without dry ice. Those shipping forms, I check like a handicapper reading box scores.

“Our friend and coworker, Mr. Pennington, will no longer be employed at this site.” Again, he meant to say that fool Dino screwed the pooch big time when he opened the package. Still, to keep everything on the down-low, the higher-ups were totally willing to let him stay, long as he didn’t drum up a ruckus. But the kid was like completely shell-shocked. Couldn’t but look at a box without dry heaves and tears. So they let him go with a three-month severance package. No hard feelings.

“Finally, if you ever consider opening an article of mail, you will be terminated without any benefits. We can’t have these situations becoming the norm.”

Okay, I say. You have a point.

* * *

“In our line of work, we tend to get very comfortable. Gather the outgoing, rate the postage, deliver the incoming. Everyday a routine with no variation. We take for granted this security of the mundane. Then out of nowhere comes an occurrence—better still, an accident—and we are forced out of our womb of safety, birthed into an alien world of risk. Of hazard. It’s fucked up.” Peter strokes his goatee with a thumb and two fingers while he explains this to me, what’s up with Dino.

Peter, I say. I feel you but maybe it was the smell. Like Dino couldn’t get past that smell. Or maybe he was embarrassed over puking all on himself. You know, that’s probably it.

Shaking his head and clucking his tongue and giving me a look Peter goes and says, “No, no, no. You forget my friend, I witnessed the entire event. It was neither odor nor humiliation that did Dino in. And truly, it wasn’t even one single head in one single box. The realization that we live in a world in which boxes can contain heads, it was too much for him to accept. That tomorrow he might happen upon a foot in a crate or a finger in an envelope. The wave of this reality breaking right over his head, that was what happened to Dino. I could see this with my very eyes.”

Okay, I say. You have a point.

* * *

Outside I catch Marty mid cigarette break. Two thick darts of smoke fly from his nostrils. He flicks ash at me. “Dude,” saying this but more like, Doo-ood. “A pleasant week off, I presume?” Not a real question because he keeps on talking. “Missed the real craziness, dude. Old Dino finally got some head.” Laughs up a plume of Marlboro.

Cute, I say. From what I hear the guy’s pretty shook up.

“Naw, you kidding? Fuckface made out like a bandit and don’t he know it. Didn’t even make him mop up his own lunch. Shit, just last night I was having beers with the dude. Made him buy though, asshole’s getting paid for nothing.”

But unwrapping a rotten dome is going to leave an impact, I say. He must be a little spooked.

“I guess dude. But he seemed cool to me. Says he’s working on his dream job. Writing reality television shows.”

Yeah, how goes that?

“Well he hasn’t made any money yet. Says that’s not how it works. First he’s gotta write a proposal, then he sells it to the studio. What he ran by me was called something like Historical Injustice Olympics. Competitions between teams from different countries but they’re handicapped based on the ways they’ve screwed each other over. Like check this out. If it’s Japan versus the U.S., the American team would get a big jolt of radiation before they play.”

That’s absurd. You can’t tell me Dino ain’t a tad gone.

“Yeah, sure. The dude would run out of change if he tried to give you his two cents. But he had some whacked ideas before the jack in the box. Remember the night he challenged us all to a tequila contest. Dude held it down after the both of us coughed up every last shot. That’s just Dino.”

Okay, I say. You have a point.

* * *

The floor of Jimmy’s Tavern is covered with peanut shells trampled so thoroughly they’re pretty much sawdust. A good thing when one must clean the spilled contents of stomachs. I see Dino down the bar scribbling ferocious in a marble composition book. He doesn’t look up when I approach, just speaks while he writes. “Tell me something, my man. Would you be tempted to watch a volleyball match between Germany and Israel if first the German team was…”

Why all the trouble, I say. Like, if you wanted out, just quit.

Finally, looking up from his masterwork, “What are you saying now?”

Got it all figured, I say. Somehow you discover this, this…thing’s shipping out. Me on vacation, you decide nobody will catch the missing dry ice request. Then you make sure that dramatic shithead Peter is watching.


And you force yourself to puke. The night you drank Marty and me under the table, you boasted complete control of your gag reflex. When I remembered that, it all made sense.

“Yes, yes.” Dino closes his notebook and swivels on his barstool. “Noodles, they come up easy and look impressive. So what now, you go tell the Manager of my evil scheme?” There was some kind of dare in all he said but right now I wasn’t looking to cause trouble.

Just out of curiosity, I say. Tell me, why all the effort?

“Why? Because I was stuck in a nine-to-five, paycheck-to-paycheck shit-cycle. Couldn’t interview for a new job being I was always at work. And just quitting? How would I pay my rent, my bills while I hunted new employment? They had me, my man. So I found a way to free up a little time and income. A way to better my position. A way to get ahead.”

Okay, I say. You have a point.