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.

Monday, August 11, 2008

In Wolves' Clothing

He never much cared for kerosene lamps. The shadows cast, steady and foreboding. Always, Lockley had preferred the warm flicker of candlelight. But here, in this small hotel room, here was only kerosene.

He looked at The Brother, sprawled on the room’s only bed and cupping a shattered jaw in one hand. Ice melting through the fingers and allowing a thin steam of water down a hairy arm. The Brother gripped an unlit cigar in his other hand and there it would stay. He could not hold it in his mouth.

Below their room men shouted and laughed. Shot dice and drank. A lush was perched at a piano and steadily the music grew sloppier and more disjointed until it ceased to be music and was only noise.

Lockley turned from The Brother. On a table, next to the lamp, was an old revolver. It had belonged to their father. He thought about putting a bullet through The Brother’s temple. After all, there was no money for a doctor and The Brother could not make the ride home. He thought of smashing the lamp and burning down the damn hotel. The damn town. He thought of starting over as a new person, someone better than he was. But what he thought would never win out over what he knew. What he knew, he could never pull the trigger. What he knew, he could never be anything but what he was.

* * *

Last night they had slept on cold, coarse sand three miles outside the town. Just West, torches lit the street and lamps burned in windows. At this distance, looked as though stars had sunk from the sky and settled just above the earth. A jar of blackberry jam was shared between the two, Lockley and The Brother. But their bread was too stale and the remainder they fed to the horses.

Though the night was cold neither man proposed a fire. It was understood that stealth could not be sacrificed for any degree of comfort. So they curled around each other in the dark and tried to sleep but could not. In the town, so close now after all those days on horseback, in the town was Carver. And where Carver did reside, so too did wealth.

Neither fully understood what Carver had done. But they understood anything vile enough to warrant a $5,000 bounty was likely something to hang for. Neither knew how to go about catching the fugitive. But they knew money of that sort could not be made through rational means. And what was more, they knew where Carver had run.

* * *

What sounded like guttural hissing was really The Brother asking for more ice. His broken face allowing little clarity in communication. So Lockley went downstairs to the bar, being in the odd position of wanting terribly to be out of that room and at the same time wanting terribly to hole up. Wanting terribly to be nowhere.

All that evening the bartender had refused Lockley a glass of ice alone and so charged him for a whiskey each time. A whiskey, hold the whiskey. Little could be done. Lockley was in a strange place, far from home. And the only thing worse than being blatantly fleeced was listening to that awful noise The Brother made when he needed something. That God-awful noise.

* * *

Earlier, as dawn had broken, The Brother kicked the door in. Both men entered Carver’s hotel room, Lockley bringing up the rear and holding the revolver level. Carver, awake long before, rose from his chair. His confusion gave to fury. Gave to understanding.

When all three had been in grade school some twenty years previous, Carver regaled the siblings with stories of a town five days west. The elder Carver had relocated there and sent the rare postcard recounting his hazards and victories. No doubt exaggerated. So when Carver ran, a price put upon him, Lockley and The Brother took an educated guess.

In the hotel room Carver and The Brother stood close enough to kiss. Lockley, a few paces back, still with the gun. We’re going to take you in, The Brother said as if it were agreed upon. But just as he spoke, a quick uppercut on the part of Carver snapped The Brother’s head back all fierce. Teeth and blood, mucus and spit flew. The Brother fell. And Lockley found the only thing worse than having no gun to pull, was pulling a gun and having no intention of pulling the trigger.

Carver walked past, walked down the stairs, walked out of the hotel. Lockley gathered up The Brother, laid him on the bed and closed the door. $5,000 so far gone. But when a man with something to gain faces a man with everything to lose, the same man will win every time.

* * *

Sunrise brought with it a few hours of silence. The Brother had passed out or gone completely into shock, Lockley could not tell which. The lamp extinguished and in its stead hung sober, grey morning.

The revolver on the table still. Generally untouched and completely unused. Lockley picked it up and gave good thought to its weight. The weight of everything he was not. Everything he would never be. He gave good thought to Carver, how he pushed right past the day before. Lockley had figured himself a real vigilante but Carver did not believe for one second. And where do we really exist? In our own mind or in the minds of others?

He gave good thought to pistol’s weight and decided he would do anything to lessen the burden. Anything, if only to lighten the load by a single bullet.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Problem With Hindsight

You have a one-night stand. And for six months, whenever you think about it, all you remember is smashed sex. Dirty and drunk. Fairly pleasant. Then your dick starts to rot. And all of the sudden the context changes. What once was a successful night of barhopping, now it’s your biggest mistake. Time has a way of doing that. Of bending your memories over a chair long after the fact.

* * *

Ted and I went to a baseball game. This was three months ago. For a couple hours we drove. Narrow mountain highways. Two lanes flanked by redwoods and curving left then right then left again. Every mile the sky grew darker and darker, early afternoon looking more like night.

By the time the highway expanded, eight lanes across and shooting straight through cityscapes and suburbia, by then rain was slapping the windshield like a jockey prodding his horse forward. But of course, it only slowed us. Left us just another set of red taillights in a procession stretching miles. And even though the radio assured a rainout, we crept forward. No way we’d turn back over that serpentine pass with the weather so fucked.

Of course, the game was rained out. And Ted and I, eighty miles and a waterlogged eternity from home, we posted up at a stadium-side dive. Drinking flat pints that tasted of saw dust we waited out last call. Then we pulled Ted’s car into the stadium lot and slept on reclined seats.

I woke up sometime around dawn to strips of pink sky flying past and a sinking feeling deep within—like my stomach was collapsing on itself. I grunted for Ted to pull over, vomited all down the side of his car. Lay back, comatose until we reached my apartment.

Even in bed I rolled around all fitful, unable to sleep off the hangover. Thirsty as shit and wishing anything I’d stayed home the night before. Wishing I’d smoked a joint and watched a movie. What wouldn’t have been better than that miscarriage of an evening?

* * *

And there were other times just the same. Times pissed away on hard drink and soft threats. Times I would have lived a dozen different ways if I could have. Always what I could have.

Then last week, Ted passed. How isn’t important. Just gone. And what could have been is nothing. Just what was. And all the bullshit that now adds up to all of everything. Just fuck what I said before about that night.