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.”