Hic-to-the-Ippity-Ups

 

Noon moon,
city sidewalk
a gyro draped in aluminum.

The child holding his coat
aloft by one arm is held
aloft by one arm.

Park leaves breaking into color.
Two blind men
compare dogs.

Even the old dog
in snow
wonders at its breath.

The cow under dogwood
is the glove
nuzzling away the hoarfrost.

Blinded by the first flakes
the ambulance
cries for what it carries.

Early workaday. Two women
recognize each other revolving
through revolving doors.

My hands under
the cubicle lights.
Autumn? Spring?

Nights at the Advertising Firm

Quarter moon over
the Empire State Building,
unbranded.

Chron*OS

First published in Art World (UK), 2009. The editor was looking for an ekphrastic poem. I had written a poem inspired by Olafur Eliasson’s 360 Degree Room of All Colours (2002), which she accepted. I had walked into the Eliasson art space & was immediately freaked out by how easily time became unhinged for me in this room designed so you couldn’t tell how close the walls were.

Here is what was published in the magazine:

“While visiting the Olafur Eliasson exhibition at the MoMA in New York, I entered a donut-shaped room with walls of indeterminable fabric glowing softly in shifting bands of color. The saturation of light immediately began working on my sensibilities. I had been reading Foucault’s Discipline & Punish, about panopticons and how lighting is being used as a torture device, where prisoners have no escape from the all-seeing eye of their guards. Also, my father was a jail guard for 16 years, so I’ve met a few prisoners in my time. They used to peel the lead paint from the walls, make a ball out of it, drop it down a sock and beat the hell out of each other with these things. Prisons to my mind do little but to train people to be better criminals or to hold them still, both mentally and physically. It was a very intimate, sad sort of experience.

The suffix OS in the poem’s title stands for “operating system” (eg, Windows OS, Mac OS). In “Chron*OS” that operating system is Time, working upon the wrecked consciousness of a newly released prisoner.”

 

Chron*OS

 

One zebra skin wallet, won at the tables

One exit

One pocket watch, one arm wickedly awry

Two strikes

One epicenter of free will

One Fodor’s Guide to Internal States, abridged

One chalice full of luck

One mallet, rubber

One rubber, busted

One ankle-biting snot-nosed brat

One biblical allegory, memorized, forgotten, lingering

One more missed opportunity

One gaffing scar, won poaching gators in the marshland of Malabar

One whimpers in the dark

One exwife, brunette, battered & fried

Two bits, bitten

One hundred dollars in ones, sequential

One war, retired

One paint ball, peeled from the lead walls and thrust down a sock (confiscated)

One exwife, a blonde, a-blubber

One ticket to the Metrosexual Lyceum of Snort, white (rehabbed)

One porn mag, onanated

One more gesture toward the infinite

One memory of snagging a line drive hit by a neighbor boy turned pro

One means what one does

Three brothers, one biker one bugger one above-it-all

One jingoistic racist worldview, emboldened

One fierce feral face to meet the faces, embittered

One panopticon complex, illuminated

One begs indifference

One less store clerk

One more slice of key lime pie

One “trust in the commonality of experience,” expired

One job laying brick on the outside

One wishes it were so

One more cosmos trapped in a bubble on the lips of a babbling fool

One worn copy of Blood Meridian, bloodied

One last motherfuckin chance

One vacuum-sealed vacuum, call it eleven-dimensional space

One point of entry, here

One man

Once

No Exit: a Short Story (full text)

No Exit

We stood together in a church emptied of its fellowship. I was eight and practicing a hymn for that night’s Wednesday prayer meeting. My father had quit attending church altogether but allowed me to participate in the choir practices because it was so close to home and cheaper than daycare. As I finished the song the minister approached the pulpit and leaned over me. He was obese and his breath came heavy as he made two fists and held them up. ‘I broke each of these knuckles on a different face,’ he told me, clenching them for my admiration. His sermons often included lessons gleaned from the sinful glory days of his youth spent in Chicago, where he reportedly led a street gang working jobs for the mob. His knuckles were meaty and crowned with the colors of a bruise. ‘And now the Lord uses me to crack though the skulls of those who’ve strayed from the Path.’ When I smiled, he asked me if I wanted to touch them. They were huge and magnificent. I imagined the sound of them breaking.

He’d brought along two deacons when he arrived at our church that January, just three weeks after our regular preacher failed to show up for a service, disappearing along with the church secretary and several hundred dollars in tithing. Of the deacons, one was tall and hulking, the other was squat and hairy, with some kind of brain problem. During the sermons they stood behind the rear pews, blocking the exits, a gesture some of the elderly women found uncomfortable. They summoned the new minister to a meeting the following day at the church’s undersized dining hall. I offered to help make the desserts, which allowed me to eavesdrop from the kitchen. When the minister arrived he refused to sit, saying he could only stay a minute. It became clear that he wasn’t there to apologize. ‘The difference between a minister and a preacher,’ he began, buttoning his jacket, ‘is that a preacher is beholden to his congregation. I am beholden only to our savior Jesus Christ. He shared with me His Word, and if you attend my services, I expect you not only to listen, but to pay attention, and to arm yourself with the Spirit. Because every single member of this church, under God’s Law and my tutelage, will be expected to travel these country woods and do some ministering themselves. There are no term limits to being evangelical, ladies. There is only one retirement age in the eyes of Christ. If this does not coincide with your Faith, I hear Sunset Baptist has a wonderful Bingo facility.’

After he left, our organist and choir leader, Ms. Hendrickson, donning her usual blue cape, was the first to arrive back in the kitchen. She picked up the carrot cake I’d finished icing earlier and dumped it face down in the sink. Then, passing without a word, she closed the doors of the walk-in pantry behind her. That was the last I ever saw of her.

The henchman resumed their posts the following Sunday. The minister was late to arrive, and people half-expected he might not show up, given how sourly things had gone the previous Monday. But he did arrive, carrying several brown paper bags up to the pulpit from the door near the baptismal pool leading to his chambers. He did not address the controversial affair, nor the noticeable absence of several prominent members, but instead leaned into the microphone to ask that everyone stand up, that very second, and walk with him a mile down the road to the corner of New Haven Avenue. His plan, or God’s, was to shoot bottle rockets through the front doors of the local gay bar.

First off, let me say that our church rested in the middle of some pinewoods bordering the estuarial marshlands of the St Johns River. All of us were poor—most living out of trailers and single-bedroom houses. A high school diploma was, to many, as culturally and financially divisive as a PhD. Suffice to say, our prejudice against people we viewed as outsiders, homosexuals included, ran deep. Still, the idea of launching fireworks—which were illegal except when used to scare away crows (in all my years in Florida, I’d never seen a single crow)—into a legal establishment not blocks from the fire station stretched far beyond the pale. When his plan was met only with a few claps and even fewer amens, the minister accused us all of lacking the courage of our faith, and led us into the longest prayer I’ve ever heard, before dismissing us.

The next week people arrived to find we’d lost half the congregation. Our new minister seemed to take pride in the disparity, likening it to boiling down water for the salt. His sermons grew increasingly demanding of our participation. Each Sunday and Wednesday evening he’d thunder down charges against us as listless co-conspirators in the savaging of God’s Great Plan (‘Because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth, the scripture reads.’) He never shied from instructing us on what methods, however radical, could be employed to disrupt the evildoings of the Beast. One week he brought in a turntable, playing vinyl records backwards to reveal the recording artists’ true intentions, devised in a way to penetrate our subconscious. We squinted to hear Robert Plant cry out, “Oh here’s to my sweet Satan!” And it took a few tries, but I finally caught Freddy Mercury squealing, “It’s fun to smoke marijuana.” The Beatles apparently enjoyed referencing sexual acts, which I gave up trying to parse out—the words were mangled, the music convoluted and scratchy. But the minister played each record incessantly, until he had most of the adults nodding in agreement. He also taught us how KISS was an acronym for Knights in Satan’s Service, and showed us an album gatefold where members of the Eagles stood outside a house supposedly owned by Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. If you looked closely, you could spot LaVey on the balcony, arms spread wide, welcoming home his flock.

After taking the needle from the last record, the minister grew gravely quiet, bouncing his fingers in the air to silence our muttering. I remember watching our newly appointed choir director, Ms. Holly, rub away her goose bumps. I felt the same strange tension settle upon the room, and pulled my arms into my sleeves.

The minister raised his head and said that before arriving at our church, he’d been in Alabama, and that while there, he had exorcised a demon of Rock n’ Roll from a teenager in the storage room of a convention center. The experience had been traumatic, and left him fearing for his soul; but it was his duty, his calling, so he pushed on. ‘At first I wasn’t sure why God called me here to June Park,’ he said. But now, looking out over us, he understood why: he saw that very same eye-seed of corruption in several of the children in this very room. ‘It’s not too late, though,’ he promised us. ‘There’s just an inkling. The Devil hasn’t taken a hold of them completely.’

I was surprised to find his gaze settling on me as he finished this sentence, partly because the only music I ever listed to was the Amy Grant CD my mother sang to while washing the dishes. But I somehow believed it, and searched my child’s body for signs—a tingling sensation, or a small voice in my head—to prove that whatever was inside me understood it had been recognized, and recoiled.

The next night the remnants of our once robust congregation—thirty or so true believers—returned to the church bearing CDs, records, tapes, posters, and other satanic paraphernalia (‘Whatever is not of God,’ our minister proclaimed, ‘is of the Devil’—which seemed to me almost everything). From rock to rap, jazz to reggae, we piled into the church lugging our blasphemic artifacts. I carried up the aisle the only thing I could risk sneaking from my father’s collection, a spare copy of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. I wanted it out of my hands, so I slipped it into some boxes marked Metal/Thrash. Other members brought along items that had nothing to do with music: books with overtly sexual passages, videotapes they were convinced contained hidden messages. Anything with a whiff of magic or strangeness, too: fluffy Teletubbies dolls, Charmed and Buffy DVDs, Smurf coloring books. We assembled in front to pray before filing outdoors. The church stood on an acre of land, its backyard hidden from the outlying community by a copse of pines boxing each side. We gathered around a black oil drum at the center of the lot, tossing in our things until it overflowed. We prayed deeply and moved about the drum as the minister and his two deacons sprayed fuel onto the heap.

I didn’t refuse when the minister handed me the box of matches. I didn’t even consider running home to my parents or calling the cops. It was up until that moment the most special privilege afforded to me by any adult. The other members, people I’d known my whole life, watched me with a reverence I’d never inspired with any of my songs. The minister dropped down beside me. I was the keeper of the keys, he whispered to me. Did I have the faith necessary to unlock my own glory? Was I the child to lead them?

This was before the minister took vengeance on his wife for her betrayals out in back of the Home Depot nursery department up on Palm Bay Road; before the tall deacon ran off with Mr. Perry’s seventeen-year-old daughter to Fort Christmas, and before Mr. Perry went to go get her back; and before the deacon with the brain situation messed with a boy privately, reaching up into his ripped jeans while he was sipping from the water fountain, then disappearing hours before the cops were ever notified. I’m not going to tell you which boy. But what I can tell you is that on this night, the flames of the bonfire seemed to rise higher the more deeply and loudly we prayed. Young and middle-aged and ninety-four years young—we circled the drum in the wafting heat and spoke in tongues and cried rejoicing and prayed to our god from our bowels, deeply, because we all finally knew who we were and what we stood for, and because we all knew where we were going.

***

We divided up the acid.

A1A was suddenly a strip of jackpot lights and then it wasn’t. We parked the minivan on the sandy shoulder and lay head-to-toe along the highway’s broken yellow lines rehearsing our deaths until our giggling fell off to the martian sound of the ocean operating just beyond a dark cluster of palmettos. It was like anything could be stolen from us at any moment and now this beautiful gift. We had been told our lives were as useless as chewing gum wrappers and believed it, but now it seemed we were being called to something greater. Across the highway a wire fence bowed with the heads of inquisitive cattle. I didn’t think the salty air was good for them and found myself crying. Their big dumb heads went up and down like meaty gavels. I waited by the roadside as the others piled back inside and jacked the music. When the next pair of yellow lights rounded the bend, I stumbled forward and thrust my suede jacket into the car’s path, catching its mirror as I yelled “Toro!” The little car swerved but caught itself and suddenly the night sky above erupted with the sound of a thousand tiny white trumpets. I ran across the road but the cows scrambled. I tied my jacket to a wood post and tried whistling them back from the darkness. There was something I needed to explain to them about loss and renewal. About forgiveness, and how in other countries they could be worshiped as gods, but that they needed to make the best of their lives here, because the other cows relied on them, as did their owners. At the time my intentions were clear, but all I’m sure of now is that I lost my phone.

A short time later I was walking on water, a quarter moon opening a path to the waves.

The thing about true joy is that it retreats abruptly as a continental shelf, except along New Smyrna Beach, where in the shifting tides you can walk out a hundred feet and still have the ocean lap against your ankles. Back in the van they slapped my hands from their foreheads. They’d filmed me earlier on the beach and now huddled around the camera to watch. I’d taken on the role of a television evangelist, walking down the line and holding each of their heads in my hands. Following a short prayer, I called out and released whatever ailment was plaguing them. One by one they shrieked and collapsed to the sand. As a kid in Vacation Bible School, this had been my dream, and I relished going through the motions. Once my job was finished, I turned and walked into the ocean. They let me go for a little while, then stripped down and went in after me. My jeans were wet to the waist.

When Hollywood left rehab, broke and forgotten, and the only job it could get was shipping crystal meth up and down the east coast, it bailed on California, got that tattoo it always wanted, bought a brand new Harley Sportster and changed its name to Daytona Beach.

People from nightclubs and bars overflowed the sidewalks, smoking and chattering, sword fighting with long plastic tubes once filled with fruity alcoholic drinks. It seemed the partyers didn’t find us all that strange, and if we were dangerous, probably not much more so than themselves. At the beach I drifted from the group to find myself alone before a great open-aired amphitheater set before two rows of concrete benches. The sand floor glittered like tiny hummingbirds caught in glass webs. Approaching the dark stage, I watched a figure rise within. He’d been lying down and had stripped a blanket off and now stood at the edge of the proscenium. I pulled the pocketknife from my back pocket and waited. For a moment we watched each other. When I realized who it was, I dropped to my knees. I shook in that spot until His sandals appeared before me.

‘Verily, verily, I say unto you: Son, thou shalt not. Thou shall. Thou shalt not. Thou shall and thou shalt not.’

‘I don’t understand,’ I replied through clogged sinuses.

‘The Kingdom of Heaven is in you.’

With those words, he strapped a jet pack to my back, and I ascended straight up through the stratosphere.

The next day, watching the digital footage, a certain number of things became clear to me. For starters, in the ring of drug abuse I was a welterweight, at best. Second, in a world of human misery and savagery, the mis-fits somehow find each other. I’m not saying that we’re more capable of empathy; I’m just reminded that when a person finds himself in the company of a stranger in despair, eye-to-eye, being to being, we often show an amazing affinity for tenderness.

I imagined the homeless man (if he was in fact homeless) sleeping off an honest drunk when he was first awoken by the sounds of laughter, a group of young men trying to get a fire going nearby. He thinks perhaps they will share their food, if they have any, and maybe even their alcohol. After throwing off his blanket and performing a few stretches, he’s startled to find one of them approaching the stage, swerving between benches. A second individual with a camera follows him, a small light trained on his back. The first young man appears to be, I can assure you, absolutely bonkers. As their eyes meet, he watches the intruder’s hand slip back to retrieve a knife. This isn’t an altogether unexpected development. But then the boy collapses to the ground, weeping. For two or so minutes the homeless man doesn’t move, convinced, I’m sure, that this is some kind of trick. But after a while he walks to the amphitheater’s edge and takes the stairs down to the beach. In his hand he’s carrying something, a bottle perhaps. Although it might as easily have been a gun.

The camera following me mostly captured darkness but also managed to record a little of our exchange.

The homeless man approaches but stops a few yards short, yelling, ‘I’m telling you, boy, don’t do it. Do it and….Don’t even try it. You do and you’ll never do nothing again.’

‘I don’t understand,’ says the boy.

“You fucking dumb? Maybe even retarded, aren’t you.’

‘Father,’ the boy says.

The homeless man doesn’t seem to know how to respond. This isn’t something he’s perhaps ever heard before. He spits and looks at the camera. ‘This your fucking friend? You think this shit’s funny?’

He could have done any number of things. He might have tried coaxing money out of me. He could have kicked me to the sand and gone after the idiot camera man, but these were actions with defined consequences, and if anything he feels vaguely undefined and mysterious, holy even as the waves echoed through the concrete rafters behind. Or at least that’s how my own thoughts unfolded as I watched him standing over me, looking around as if for guidance from a nonexistent audience.

Instead he steps forward, one hand kept behind his back as his other reaches nervously for my shoulder.

‘Hey, are you okay?’ he asks. He looks over at the camera. ‘Is he okay?’

I suffer his gaze as he lifts me from the sand. When he’s convinced I can stand on my own, he turns me around and pats my back, guiding me toward the firelight the others have successfully started down the beach.

Watching the movie, I searched for his eyes, cast in darkness by a thick brow and the moonlit sliver of nose, but all I could distinguish was the intensity with which he watched me go. It’s like he could hardly believe it himself. He’d almost called me son.

***

Big Jim brought over a special batch of his aunt’s corn whiskey he kept bottled in a mason jar. The party was going strong, but I sat folded on a couch by myself, sick with the thought of my father lusting after my girlfriend. The previous night he’d woken me up again, the low timber of his voice a surprise in the dark. He sat on the edge of my bed, and by the end of his confession he was bawling in my pillow. I imagined clubbing him to death with the lamp. He repeated what he’d said over the last few nights, that he didn’t know who she was when he found her on the computer we shared, that he thought it was just nude shots of some random girl I had downloaded. He apologized again for not hearing me open and close the front door, which was not his fault, I’ll admit. Then he pulled me off the bed and made me kneel beside him. As he led us into prayer, I felt the blood leave my hands, he was squeezing so hard.

Big Jim poured an ounce of the alcohol into a plastic cold-syrup top he carried. ‘One shot’s all you need,’ he said, so I took three. When I tried to stand later the world shimmied out from under me. Nobody offered to pick me off the floor. They laughed so I laughed too. I lay there until Burgen squatted down and asked me if I wanted to go to Snake Lake and blast off a few rounds.

The ride out to the lake sucked serious ass. The trail was made for dirt bikes, and with each breath I took over the humps, I tasted vomit.

Burgen passed the shotgun back. It was about a foot long and gleamed like green silicone in the radio light. Someone had taken an arc welding tool to the barrels and filed down the edges. I stuck my fingers down the holes like Bugs Bunny. Big Jim snatched the gun away and gave me this look like I was the crazy one.

We parked and stepped out into a clearing populated by all manner of insect. Cameron, who had been driving, walked us out to the silted edge of the lake. Ever since I’d drowned as a kid I’d been afraid of water, so I held back, propping myself on the hood of the car and smoking.

The drowning took place during a daycare outage at Roach Park, which was named for the jazz drummer, not the insect, though it might as well have been. I hand-paddled my black inner tube past the floatation devices attached to a rope that bisected the pond, separating the shallow end from deep. The act felt manly and dangerous, something my dad might have done at my age. Somehow in the excitement of doing wrong I managed to flip myself over with the inner tube still grasping my waist. I remember the struggling and flailing, and I remember giving in. It’s true about the peacefulness you experience—I watched the greeny underwater plants sway in slow motion as the water settled into my lungs. I experienced a goopy sort of quiet. I remember very clearly the thoughts of my child-self dying, and they were much more beautiful than the thoughts I think I’d have dying now. I was young, but I prayed for a second chance. As my vision grew purple and then black, my body suddenly convulsed so violently that the movement flipped me back over. Patches of vomit drifted about me like wild sargassum. I was so tired I just sank into the tube and drifted. As the tube made its slow rotation and the shore became visible again, it became apparent that no one else had witnessed the event. Children patted down mud castles; adults dove for the volleyball. It was like that picture where the boy with wax wings fell from the sky and no one noticed, not the ship sailing into the sunset, not the horse plowing some field. Just a splash in the corner. It was like some test I had failed but my failure was living.

Big Jim startled me back by discharging the shotgun overhead. Until-then invisible birds took to the moon. The shot echoed over the lake and returned with a warning.

Burgen set up the milk jugs in a snatch of palmettos and we took turns demolishing them. It’s easy to imagine what it could do to another human being. Bits of plastic clung to the fronds like broken teeth.

That was when Cameron, in a hurry to shoot next, accidentally elbowed the mason jar full of alcohol from the car hood. By this time we were all wasted. Burgen just laughed. Big Jim didn’t think it was so funny. He said it would cost him another week of snorkeling golf balls from the water hazards at the country club to pay for another, even though we all knew he scored the liquor from his aunt for free. The argument hit a wall when Cameron said the facts in Big Jim’s case were incongruous. Since Cameron had taken some courses at BCC—and dropped out—he knew what that word meant. Big Jim did not, and stood there staring madly across the lake. ‘What the hell does that mean?’ he finally asked, looking to me. I said I didn’t know, but that I thought it meant asymmetrical, a word I’d picked up from a trigonometry class I once took. Big Jim understood what that meant and pointed the gun at Cameron’s car. The side window exploded with a shout.

‘What the fuck you crazy!’ Cameron yelled, hopping from beside the car.

‘Asymmetrical,’ said Big Jim, and blew on the barrels like in a Western. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

They fought at length before Big Jim handed over the gun, unloaded, and agreed halfheartedly to pay for Cameron’s window. On the way home, all anyone could talk about was how we felt when the window exploded. We were joyous. Big Jim kept his hand on Cameron’s shoulder. This would give them a story together.

When we hit Eldron Road, Cameron asked me where I wanted to go and I said Laura’s. It was the middle of the night, but I was sure I could knock on her window and convince her to let me in to sleep off my drunk. The last thing I wanted to do was go home and find my father at the kitchen table, smoking cigarettes with the lights off and my mother’s picture in his hands.

A few blocks from Laura’s, I got this weird sensation in my stomach. The houses in the neighborhood were all out but I sensed people watching. As we headed alongside the high picket fence of Laura’s yard, another car turned the corner ahead of us, its low beams crystallizing our windshield. Cameron killed the headlights too late and the vehicle stopped approaching. We waited together. Then it sped up and flew by us. I looked for his face but the driver was turned away. It didn’t matter; I had recognized the car when it first rounded the corner.

Burgen sighed loudly and pulled the bag of weed from his underwear. Then he turned around and asked me why I wasn’t getting out.

I turned to Big Jim. He had a finger over his lip and a thumb on his chin, watching me. It was like we were on opposite sides of some huge gulf.

‘We’re better than any of this shit, man,’ he spoke through his fingers.

‘What the hell does that even mean?’ I said, and spun out the door.

After they took off I waited a half hour for my dad’s car to return, even though I knew it wouldn’t. Using a green energy box to stand on, I hopped the wood-spiked fence, and after a few knocks, Laura opened the curtains and hiked up the storm window. She had been asleep and talked softly, pulling the hair from her eyes. I could see right down the front of her nightgown but it didn’t do anything. I used my stomach to slide through the window and onto her floor.

In bed I wouldn’t talk. I didn’t even take off my shoes. She kept asking me what was wrong but I couldn’t answer. Finally she got the hint and pulled the covers up over us. She drew me onto her chest and wrapped her legs around mine. I could tell she had closed her eyes. Then she brought her index finger up and smoothed out my eyebrows, delicately, then my ears, taking her time, and then my forehead, relaxing each furrow. She touched my chest over my heart, my clavicle, the tips of her fingers sliding slowly over the length of my palm and up my forearm. The whole of me began deepening into a reservoir of inner quiet. She touched my lips and my chest and my head. And with each blessing, speaking so softly that I might have been imagining her voice, she said, ‘And this part is getting sleepy, and this part is getting sleepy, and this part is getting sleepy.’

***

A few nights later I stole my father’s car and drove out to Indialantic Beach. Cop cars traveled in pairs up over the causeway, but at I couldn’t give a damn. I had my license back and there were no warrants out for my arrest that I knew about. The air was clouded with a fine mist I let collect on the windshield. There was a private beach entrance in a rich neighborhood you could go to if you kept your headlights off and I parked across the street and took off my shoes and hiked a path through the sand dunes. The ocean unraveled in the darkness before me. The tide was coming in and washing up shells and crabs and plastic. Nothing can cling to the ocean; it just throws up everything it can’t stomach back onto the beach, which was something I always admired. Tonight it moved with an underlying urgency, it seemed, the waves stuttering forward like someone at a party who kept getting interrupted mid-sentence. I figured this would be the last time I would ever come out here, and concentrated on the features of the beach to form some lasting memory, but it was not any part of the beach I really cared about. I looked south towards the Tracking Station and remembered the time I’d unwittingly stumbled upon a party of cuban kids that scared the shit out of me by forming a large circle around my car, only to offer me a beer and ask that I crank up the music. North was Patrick Air Force Base and the Cape, where both sets of my grandparents worked into retirement sending people into orbit and, occasionally, to the moon. I wanted the whole history of the place to gel around me in some comforting way, but that’s not how history was operating this night. This night all it wanted to do was pulse in and out of consciousness like the hotel tower lights bending along the shore’s curvature, coming and going, leaving me lonely and anxious of the future.

An hour later I showed up to Lucien’s pad. He’d recently returned from South Carolina where he’d done construction for a month before getting fed up and heading back home. He’d traveled farther than any of us and now he was back living in his old first floor apartment near the riverfront. His neighborhood was like a drug amusement park that never closed, staffed by lazy hookers and popular drunks.

I opened the outer screen door and entered the shared hallway. I knocked twice and tried the knob and found the door open. A mute television stared into an empty living room, broadcasting fuzz. I walked through the kitchen and toward the light in the bedroom.

There I found a woman naked from the waist down straddling the corner of Lucien’s bed. She wore a shirt that read (Double) (Trouble) and smoked from a small glass pipe colored in fiery auras. Seeing me, she smiled, then fluffed her pink wig, which I recognized as belonging to Lucien’s ex. Clothes and porno mags littered the floor. Lucien himself sat bare-chested against the wall, the covers pulled up over his legs, his orange workboots peeking out. He was a handsome kid, black sunglasses propped on his blonde head, staring out with a child’s wonder. The prostitute tapped the pipe with the lighter, scooted forward and switched one leg over the other. She looked amused. I’d heard rumors that Lucien was on rock and had asked him about it before and he’d lied to me, saying he had tried it once, as everyone should try everything once. That was before he gave up his surfing sponsorship and dropped out of school. All he had left over from that life was my friendship and this crummy old apartment he refused to sell. Not that he could have.

It took Lucien a moment to notice me in the doorway, but when he did he chuckled. I stood there saying what I came to say, that I was leaving Florida for good. To parts unknown. I’d come to say goodbye. He’d been my best friend once and I wanted him to be the last person I spoke to before I left.

Truthfully, on my way back over the bridge, I’d fantasized about Lucien offering to join me in my escape. We would throw together a pillowcase full of his stuff, taking nothing but the essentials. I’d ditch my dad’s car and we’d take his VW Bug instead. ‘We can make it to Kentucky by dawn,’ I imagined him saying. ‘We can stay at my mother’s place until we get jobs.’ But the cartoon smirk he wore now meant only one of two things—either he’d just recently checked out, or he was only now returning leisurely from the void. The prostitute tilted her head and smiled wide, as if I were an old friend whose name she couldn’t quite place. She looked so comfortable sitting there that I half expected her to offer me something to drink. She shook her head no, but I hadn’t asked anything.

Lucien sprung forward, full of adrenaline, his eyes gone silly. “You used to sing!” he exclaimed with a voice both shrill and discordant, a small vibration dragged to the end of a soup can. A tumbler of brown liquid I hadn’t seen emptied into the covers at his crotch, but Lucien didn’t seem to care. “That was a long time ago,” I replied.

“Sing something for us!” he pleaded. “Sing us a going away song!”

The prostitute, overjoyed, began clapping. She was in the ballpark of legal, but if she was eighteen, I was an axe murderer. My secret reason for visiting the apartment crept back into my conscience—I’d come hoping to witness a situation that would sum up any future I might have if I stayed. And now that I had that, I could leave.

“Hey bro, wait up,” Lucien called as I turned to head out. He looked paralyzed from the waist down—an invalid and his squalid caretaker cracking jokes among the ruins. “Do you ever still go to church?”

“What the fuck are you asking me?”

“No, I’m serious,” he said. “I’m being serious forever about this. Did you know this cat used to travel the whole state singing in Baptist churches? I’m not lying. Tell her!”

The girl’s eyes widened in staged anticipation as she lit another bowl. I raised my hand to leave.

“Yo, man, hold up,” Lucien said in a voice both deep and familiar, the same voice I’d once heard over the telephone asking me to help him choose between rehab facilities. “I have a serious question for you.”

I hugged the doorframe and waited.

“If you were God, would you have made someone like me?”

I thought about it. “Why would you ask me that?”

“Me neither,” Lucien said, lying his arms flat out before him. “But do me a favor, hoss. There’s a camera in the bathroom. I want you to get it and take a picture of me, right here, just like this. I want to remember myself this way when I’m famous.”

Then Lucien snorted out a laugh and twisted in the bed sheets. He came up pushing his fingers over his eyes and peeking through them.

I walked back along the wood-paneled hallway and out the front door. Back in my father’s car I sat in the darkness, smoking. Some part of me was trying to wrench itself free from another part, and I began doubting my convictions, if that’s what you would even call them. It wasn’t the first time. The effort to leave seemed more like a put-off chore lately than any real struggle. I had a good job as a line cook at Bennigan’s, and the week before Jesse had offered me his old motorcycle for three-fifty cash. He’d even help fix the engine. I could move out of my dad’s house. All these things were possibilities, and the devil I knew. Versus what? Laying block or busting my ass roofing in a town I had no real ties to? Eating alone in diners and scavenging love from the local waterholes, instead of the ones where I knew the bartenders? I’ve seen that kind of freedom played out before, but in the long run, it doesn’t end much differently. Even if I no longer believed in God, I still believed in fellowship, and it felt like I was drowning in the misery that comes with owning up to that responsibility. If Lucien wasn’t somehow worthy of my congregation then I had no congregation to hope for. If we couldn’t save each other then no one could be saved. It wasn’t about being worthy, it was about sharing the inner life we each kept within us. It was about keeping those you love afloat for as long as possible. And I refused to kid myself that anywhere else there were people who lived without sacrifice. There’s no movie in the world that could make me believe that.

But even then, I reconsidered my option to leave. Maybe that was the point of all this internalized fussing I’d been doing. Maybe I just needed to find a way to give myself more options. And I didn’t have to leave to do that. Down the street some poor bastard was howling and smashing glass with something heavy. In its own way it was beautiful, an individual sort of truth laid bare. I must have sat around for another fifteen minutes before finally turning the ignition key. I could probably even make it home before my dad ever noticed the car was gone.

***

The day was breezy and we had the windows rolled down at all corners. We drove past the strip malls and car dealerships of Minton Road and headed south on Babcock to where the overgrowth of woods drew up close to the shoulder. In each of our minds we held the wilderness growing at the edge of the dreams of men. The single-lane highway stretched before us in twisted procession. We drove past radio towers steepling skyward and thin pools patroned by goose-necked birds lapping water in the paling heat, and cut a right near Valkaria and into a region of the state that remained unexplored for us. We passed through backwater towns without names or listings, our arms cocked and hanging from the windows, hands surfing the wind. Past swamps populated by deer and wild boar and the panther, where folks poached alligator with unflinching voracity for the meat of the tail and the storefront celebrity of the skull, past wrecked farms infested with horseflies and no-see-ums and wild psychotropic mushrooms growing out of patches of cowdung, past forgotten estates and their short white road signs bearing street names stenciled in black, past parsed earth and cracked macadam, past land scorched and land drained of scumwater, past failing barbed wire fences, past groves and lazy canals and beyond the visible curve of the earth over sea and those places that knew us too well.

We sat close together, slumped in our seats, two in the front, three in the back. The wind seemed gratuitous, almost, shepherding itself into our clothes and our mouths with wild abandon, a free thing without reason or guilt or an understanding of its own necessity. Outside our windows the green world floated in a soft light specifically designed, it seemed, to keep us quietly guessing at how far we could go before it vanished behind that horizon. And nobody spoke. None of us needed to speak. It was all about the driving.

To the south lay Miami and the Everglades and Hemingway. The east held the Atlantic. The west, Disney and the Gulf. North was America. But none of us knew what lay at the center, and that’s where we were heading.

No Exit: a Short Story (a foreword)

Skip ahead to THE STORY if you want to begin reading the actual story “NO EXIT.”

Also, this was serialized the first time I put it up online, a few weeks ago, but now that it’s over, & my database was erased, & everyone already read it, I’m going to put it up in two parts only:

The following story is based on true stories. More importantly, in writing it I was trying to capture something more important than the events comprising the single story, I was trying to capture the feeling of being a young man experiencing community in a religious context, & the act of self-exile, which becomes alienation, if you’ve ever experienced the loss of religious fellowship, which is, I think, like losing a leg, & later enjoying the phantom feelings that haunt that part of you. I meant the word enjoying there in the same way you might enjoy a depressing romantic movie where one lover dies at the end & you’re left feeling alone as the living other person feels alone but somehow better at having experience this fullness. & it is a fullness. & it is a phantom.

 

When I write about Florida, for these stories in particular, I have to re-experience the place first, & do so in layers. The first layer is my (fallible) memory of Florida when I lived there, from roughly 1-18 years old. The second layer is the language of the place: yes, the language of Florida, the variety as spoken by its inhabitants–Southerners, New Yorkers, bikers, fisherman, rocket scientists, engineers, murderers…but further back even, to the folk songs & writings, to Zora Neale Hurston & Hemingway, to the language propagated by the land itself, the ocean tides, the muscular swamps & inhabiting animals, the blood drive & desperation of the land. The third layer is the character created by the language of a given moment in time: people are much how they are made by what’s around them. You can argue nature vs nurture to a certain point, & then you have a breathing human either surviving in its space or perishing. If it’s surviving, it’s adapting, because change continues. & to adapt, it must live in close relationship with the place it lives, with the people and the language of the place, the human language and the rhythms of the place, or else it is an outsider (& even then, it seeks to understand the forces against which it struggles, even if the struggle is against an internalized exterior, or what is presupposed as exterior). The fourth & final layer, at this stage of production, is the present moment I wish to encapsulate: a person in a field at a particular time, working against or with the pressures of the space he/she inhabits. So, to give you an example of how I experience the development of a narrative, of an “I” and its point of view: I pretend to remember a person, or a scene, or an image, or even a word…that I believe could have occurred when I lived in Florida. Then I think of that person or scene or image or word (etc) as a local might describe it. And while doing that, voices inexplicably chime in–voices from the past, voices from the present. There is a body of knowledge accumulated in the environment, & it tries to speak itself in relation to this person or scene or image or word (etc). & from their talking arrives the time they’re speaking about: Key West in the 30s; Miami; a Malabar motel in 1977; a school in 1986; etc. & so arrives more speakers–Al Capone riding the trains south; Roosevelt on the beach; a father who’s abandoned his family once he’s discovered he has an incurable disease; a young boy playing duck-duck-goose on a soccer field as the Challenger explodes overhead. After I have all this, the story begins–and all this can occur in the shower in 3 seconds. This happens all the time. The fourth layer is the perspiration part. The outside world begins affecting the character, & the character reacts to it. Interaction is the human part. & the hardest part to encapsulate.

So, the next post will be the beginning of a story I wrote about Florida.

What’s in a Name?

Letters & histories, lovers & leftovers & livelihoods, lies & enemies & anomie, amphibian symphonies cresting with anapests crashed upon the rocky crags of spondees. My wife’s middle name is Pan. Pan’s only name is Pan. I like the global stretch of pan-. I like its involvement. I like that in radio communications “pan-pan” repeated thrice means that there’s an emergency, but not one from which there may be no survivors. “Pay attention now” is listed as a backronym. Pan, the genus of chimp, closest relative to humans. Peter Pan as the trickster who never grows up and into the old type of god. & above all of course the frying pan, sizzler of delectables. How many poems will I write as a Pan?

Or perhaps a play, with words linked like sausages, inked segues with kinks…

Ext. Dark DUMBO street near Brooklyn Navy Yard

A twink in gay gingham assuages a tween to rethink minks as blood lozenges, offer condolences for inchoate actions redolent of old-fashioned ways.

TWINK

But anyways, eat your bacon, brother. That father of fifty likes fatties, not futures. You want work, better work it. Until you get on your feet you can crash at my place…

TWEEN

Hard to party if your body’s hardly ripe no more & portly as a pig nobody’d ever pork & would probably part with, Hardy.

Joe Pan–The What that Is the Why & Why I Heart Ert

& what is this space for? How should I approach it? As a platform for speaking to potential readers? As a way to lay out my thoughts as they arrive (the last being “these syncopated occupations occupied by post-ink letters…posting clutters…thoughts as Occupied Moments in Sequence…the colonial manifest of memory…the future as crossbreeding possibilities, a synthesis of secrecies…the ungraspable ungettable present, how it is us & how that us evades us…how the present & I syrup through each others fingers…how best do I write that?…is that how I best write that?”).

Perhaps I will each day just tell you, dear delicious reader, what I’ve been thinking. As of now I am thinking that I am 35 years old, which means half my life is now finito. Fucking done. The men in my family tend to be early clocker-outers. I’ve been luckier than most, though. Happier than many. Traveled quite a deal. Met interesting people. Married for love. Created a small publishing house. Burned every candle I had on both ends. Wrote about things I’ve seen & things I’ve experienced but never fully truthfully in the way doorknobs are truthful to the experience of doorknobs. I write every day. Every day. Nine hours. Most of which is editing, staring, thinking. & yet I feel marginalized by the thing I love most, this writing, this lung-sucking work that undresses me, each day, in the hollows of my most hallow places, where I put little things on shelves & take them down & rework them & place them back up, each day. I feel vanished, mostly, when I think of my life in words, even though the most powerful moments of my life have come at the end of a sentence. Or the falling off of a poetic line. Some murmuring telephone wire downed by a passing storm you happen upon & stoop to touch thinking it’s just another tree branch & zap, petite eternity. I have few writer friends now; most that I’ve known have moved on or now protect their own lily pads with the same fierceness & meanness & scorn their predecessors protected their own lily pads with as these once youngsters swam about as terrifying tadpoles in tutelage. Grab it & growl, my father says. A few I’ve kept close still do the yeoman’s work, as L. Zacharias once said of me, in the corner of a story I turned in which I’m still not sure she liked. A few I keep the hours with, still, arguing aesthetics, honing our character if not our craft & whittling each other’s works to finer points of mutual enlightenment, if not art, or exhaustion.

So 1/2 a life lived as Joe Millar. The next, Joe Pan. I’ve decided to write & work myself down the drainhole. I’m sick of traveling. I’m tired of your parties, good Fridays! Goodbye Blue Mondays! I will write short fantastical stories to my brother in prison, who loves receiving my fantastical stories! I wish literature to go fuck itself with its own asshole! I’m tired of the cult of appeasement. I’m tired of trying to swim next to lily pads & grapple with their owners. I will try to write Hiccups, which are quick & if good stop the heart for a beat. I wrote a novel about meth-running in Florida, based on true-ish stories, & my own life, which rather than wait for a bottom-priced offer I may do better to publish myself. & many more like it. I caught hell for self-publishing my first book of poems. But you know who liked it, my wife. & Don DeLillo. & a woman who found it on Amazon.com for free, & wrote the most amazing review, which touched me more than the Y, the Academy, & the NPS. Back-patters each, thanks, but none takers, & so no readers. Readers, I write for you now, for your not-undiscoverable charmed ears, I imagine. For a trinket I’ll tell you a fortune. Not your own, necessarily. But a lively one. I invite your comments. I invite your criticism. Long live Ert, step-brother to Art! To Ert goes the forgotten fables, the fantasies, the failed attempts. To Ert I sing, e’er I err or ire I air as art. In the heart’s aerie I hear Ert. The heart of art I heart is heartless Ert; neither inert, heartless art or artless, but Ert, an art one hearts to artlessness.

I imagine now this is a public notebook. My Blue Book. Kafka meets Kelly. Keep up. My White Book, my cockatiel, my Cocteau, from cock to toe to cap & back. My loves. Take what you want & leave the rest to me.

Operating System: Eg*OS

I published this poem with Scapegoat Review not this spring but last. It was one of my first Operating System poems, which I already thought of in terms of being another form of autobiomythography (read past poem to learn a bit more about what these are). It feels a bit sparse now. Jabby & rabbit-punching, parrying, until the end, when I let the character breathe a bit more. All poems start with language as the breath breathing life into the line. Later, when the lines begin breathing on their own, when the words in kinesis work off each other, a friction like sex, you must allow them to function according to their own building rhythms, much like any organism. Here in the end I give the character some space & let him speak largely vs describing himself as in the beginning in ways that box in & encapsulate him, building his spirit as he builds his own form, moving from I to social We to I again, which is the true grasping of individuality, and perchance in this instance, humility.

***

 

Eg*OS

Wall Street Confidential

I gave up Nancy my wife for the private and inauspicious love of a komodo dragon. I gave up my vegan roots for Xanax, FOX, Ugandan beef. I traded Pabst Blue for Blue Tooth, my nipple ring for a ranch in Naples. I learned everything has a price, especially money. I gave up money. That is, I gave up paper. I gave up the cause for the good fight. I gave up tax reform for motion sickness, welfare justice for the military-industrial complex. I encouraged bootstraps. I still fry my own bologna. I once sold very very high. I shorted LEH to EKG as you tore through ARMs like RPGs. I was finding Sensex not so nifty so I fabricated futures, hedged my bets. I huddled, negotiated, undercut my mentors, missed a catch, caught a block and punted, wept openly and showered with the team. We agreed it was a job for nobler men. We agreed it was a job for cannibals. We ushered each other dripping through the corridors, patenting our bruises. We were our parents’ helioscopic somethings, peripherally viewed; a poorly inked Woodstock woodcut, the tambourine and the sound of the tambourine snapping. Sometimes I still blush when people ask for directions. Sometimes I still worry to think.

 

***

This past September the poet Matt Shears & I exchanged emails regarding his work & my own, & I’m going to excerpt a piece here, written by me, as I think it describes, not fully but with a good thrust, a bit of how I see the creation of my own artforms (extending even beyond poetry).

TL;DR: Language informs character first, then character language, & off they run together to get hitched.

“(These poems of yours) mirror my own in ways, as I’ve found the delineation of narrative & multiple voices engaged in various modes of speech a titillating enterprise. My own poems, autobiomythographies, as I call them, are little more than character studies, the character being language itself, often intensely lyrical & flimsy reality-wise, out of which I grow speakers. I dip less into the prophetic or ecstatic, though I’m opposed to neither, & find your use the language associated with such unraveling of unconscious surprising & fun. Masks and grotesques, of the commedia dell’arte variety, are pretty much my bread & butter; they’re unlimited in their ability to enchant a reader because they’re expected to be surprising, unconventional, malleable, etc, & so you can explore their understated elements without the fear of offending or boring the reader. I love a good non sequitur, too, especially those whose natural response, although seemingly irreverent & out of place, is to frame a gap in thought a reader might not otherwise be capable of making herself; that leap from known to unknown and back done right can feel like riding the fast humps of roller coaster. Your work traffics in games, incantations, evocations, which brought together under one roof, this book, works in its entirety because the pleasure is contained throughout & leaves the reader wanting more.”

These words don’t explain what’s happening in Eg*OS, precisely, but they do show what’s been on my mind when I begin to drawn conclusions and connections between the Operating Systems poems as a project.

NYC Marathon

I love living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for reasons too various & manifold to name in a single post, but one of my favorite Autumn experiences is to wake up to chanting & well-wishers screaming a few doors down on Bedford Ave as the tide of NYC Marathon runners make their way past the 11th mile. I enjoy the experience of getting dressed & going out into the chilly morning for coffee & a sausage-egg-n-cheese sandwich at Elle & watching the first few runners pass. Today I saw Mary Keitany surge nearly two minutes ahead of the pack only to lose it in the end. I watched Amanda McGrory and Masazumi Soejima whizz by on their way to win the women’s & men’s wheelchair division, respectively, though I sadly missed Geoff Mutai earlier on his way to a setting new course record. I can’t explain the excitement that surrounds this event other than to say imagine hundreds of thousands of people lining a sidewalk shouting support for their fellow humans of global ilk, each throat-closingly, burning-thigh deep in a personal battle with endurance. The cafes are filled with the buzz & chatter of people with friends in the race & folks from the neighborhood & families who’ve made the trek from other states just to stand here in the cold & root the runners on. It’s all very exhilarating; friends of mine say they feel the same way about the Tour de France, but for now I’ll have to settle for being a hometown cheerer-onner. Also, after I ordered breakfast from Ella, I realized I was on the wrong side of Bedford Ave & had to wait for the right time to sprint through the onslaught of runners. The Times published a photo that better speaks to this difficulty:

Jonathan Allen’s Big Show

Last night was Jonathan Allen’s big solo show at the Lu Magnus gallery in the LES. JC Hallman was in town, & we met Adam Courtney & some friends at the gallery, where Amelia & Lauren had worked hard to put on an amazing show. Having published Jon’s work in book form, we brought along some BAP copies to sell. “Layer Cake” was my favorite of his new works. The top layer is comprised of cut-up dollar bills. I love it immensely:

 

Many people were intrigued by a large piece aptly titled “Behemoth,” seen below. Behemoth, Jon explained, was one of God’s monsters, more or less a pet, along with Leviathan. The word has many associations and connotations, of course, & in this piece takes on a socio-economical meaning, a stacking that amounts to a blockade, both over- & underdeveloped; empty, beautiful structures facing all directions; it reminds me of the favela shanty towns built up along Rio de Janeiro’s hills, the same where artist JR placed his faces.

You can visit Jon’s site at: JonathanAllen.org

Then we all went to a secret bar in the back of a closed art gallery (from the Home Sweet Home folks) & celebrated through the night, taking a break to grab tacos & some delicious high-end tequila. Saw some folks I hadn’t seen in a while, like the always vivacious Jason Colvert & the newly married Ed Berrigan. All-in-all a wonderful night.

Voyeurism & a Subway Suicide

I’m just going to get this post out of the way.

A Ride on the L, Disturbed by Blood on the Tracks
http://eastvillage.thelocal.nytimes.com/2011/09/27/a-ride-on-the-l-disturbed-by-blood-on-the-tracks

Before you ask: Slasher title not my own. The history: About six weeks ago I was at the Charleston again for Tuesday night trivia with Cook. I’d made my debut at the Bowery Poetry Club to exactly seven attendees, which included the bartender and sound man, my wife, Cook, two guys at the bar & Joe V who’d walked over from Harper’s to listen to me read a reckless mashup of Allen Ginsburg poems & then a puree of my own stuff for exactly 29 minutes. Afterwards, walking to the L, we bumped into Daniel Maurer, who I found out later edits the Local for the NYTimes, & his girlfriend, both of whom Cook knew & invited out to trivia in the Burg. Several shot-hours later I was being asked to report on an unfortunate experience I’d related to Mr. Maurer concerning an L Train suicide I’d (not actually) witnessed (thankfully). I was aboard the train that did the killing, but saw no body; what I did witness through one subway car window was pure chaos, & out the other a disturbing lack of human empathy, which in some small but villainous way I felt drawn to participate in, which is why Daniel asked me to write about it, which I did. I had already conducted most of the research I needed the very night of the suicide, intending to prove to myself that this thing had occurred, to frame it in history, relating my own experience to that of others. Instead, given how little info was available on the incident (2 blog posts), I stayed up all night reading about the post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by train engineers and witnesses to train suicides. I read accounts of short-term disability that became long-term disability, waking nightmares, breakups, divorces, & in some cases, joblessness, when it was clear the drivers could no longer ride in a train much less drive one. When I wrote the Times piece in a whirlwind 36-hour order-in no-calls weekend, the voyeuristic aspect pervading the scene of the subway death was contained within the first four of eighteen pages, and in the final paragraph. The other fourteen pages dealt primarily with the second & more persistent tragedy, which was the affect train suicides have on the lives of survivors and witnesses, & with the fact that subway deaths go unreported by the MTA & the police, & rarely appear in the media. The piece I’d written was condensed & the sections devoted to voyeurism were printed by the Times, which you can read by following the link above. I think the piece, for that particular discussion, works well at that length. However, having read all those accounts that night, & having revisited the subject many times since, I’m moved to further investigation. I think there is a larger story here, one which I will try to extrapolate upon in the future. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this piece, which is my first real foray into nonfiction apart from the writing I did for music magazines in my teens & twenties.

The New Newer

 

How can I put this? Star Wars is the new Odyssey. No new news but still news. No? If one believes in a populace representing their own beliefs & choosing new characters as heroes. If not, there’s always academia. There’s always an -ism, which means an earlier stab at dominant theory revived into council as the ultimate way to believe a priori. Liar. You dream better than you feel the truth of that. Yet God is chosen much, mostly, or anti-god, muchly, and Chris Hitchens dying choosing writing as God, into the final hours. Much love.

Some more hiccups:

 

Spring rain taps the window.
My refrigerator
hums its one tune.

Spring rain,
and all the books here slouching
on their spines.

Sound of a saw—but
when I look—child
smiling from a tree fort.

Each Day, a Crumb

 

So I’m going to try & post something new each day. A poem piece, a little nugget of text, fragments of a story in progress, something. So today, four hiccups (haiku-like poems) that began & ended my last attempt at blogging: onward, upward, forever westward eyeing eastly, uneasily & perhaps awkwardly, but openly, hopefully:

 

On Mt. Rainier

Log cabin porch swing—
bugs practice shadow puppets
behind the green leaf.

 

3 Hiccups in WA

Is that my cat’s ghost
or the computer
breathing?

New snow, old snow.
World looks the same
in an oilslick.

Following a Korean dinner over oranges
arranged in a white bowl
she finds the rhyme in Stonehenge.

Ode to the MQ-9 Reaper

I spent the summer doing many things, including traveling to South Africa and writing an ode to a killing machine. This is the first of nine sections of that ode. It will be one of the “Operating Systems” poems when I figure out which *OS best suits it.

Ode to the MQ-9 Reaper

(EDIT: I’ve modified the poem since it’s beginnings, & now that it’s being published, I’m putting up the newest version.)

Tree Fort Blues

Tree Fort Blues

(an excerpt from the novel Midnight & I’m Not Famous Yet)

I am thirty-five years old & I live in a tree fort.

The fort sits perched inside an enormous loft space in Williamsburg, which is still considered for the time being a section of Brooklyn, one subway stop in from Manhattan & 14th Street. Hipsters & weirdos abound. If you’ve ever caught film students comparing Smurf tattoos over PBR’s, you’ve been to Williamsburg. If you’ve ever seen a naked man roll around in fish guts and French-fries for a gallery opening— If you’ve ever bore witness to a tranny marrying a vibrator onstage, before proceeding to consummate the union before your very eyes—

Sheets of drywall balance precariously to form the fort’s outer two walls, hidden by a ragtag overlay of colorful quilts & curtains. There is no door to my bedroom & consequently little privacy. It is, as one lady friend remarked, nose a-wrinkle, an upstairs dungeon. She actually used the word oubliette, but that’s only because I let slip where I went to grad school. In short, it’s a shit hole, with pipes overhead to brain those who insist upon walking upright & thus encouraging visitors to adopt my own humpbacked flat-footed lope. The back two corner walls are red brick, with a ruined Japanese lantern being my single light source, unless I move a wall, which I will do on occasion, to watch the sunlight fill our apartment & power the hardwood-floor with a waxy amber glow.

I sleep on a futon with a down comforter that somehow continues to secrete the zesty melon scent of my former-girlfriend’s body lotion. My plywood floor is covered by a rug of hard, biting rope that reeks of smoke & spilled beer & condoms, chronicling in pungent smells my rapid decent into squalor. In this neighborhood, if anything, my lack of care seems the norm, is expected & possibly even desired. Hostel chic for urban cave sloths. A few well-placed items hinting at arrested development or a passing obsession with ironic nostalgia—an Atari hooked to flatscreen, a Gremlins lunchbox filled with Garbage Pail Kids—would certainly round out a certain Pratt student vibe I could try to pass off, but truthfully I find that approach a bit irksome, if not altogether tiring. It speaks to a certain relationship with the world I could never pull off convincingly. I already spend enough time & energy trying to convince people of what I’m not, without having to worry about convincing them of who I am. I’m not, for instance, creepy. I am, for instance, when under-the-influence, bold. That is, I’m often so terrified at social gatherings that I inevitably push myself into the spotlight, willing to wager everything for a smile. As for the tree fort, I’d rather people think of it as something akin to a broom closet, a peculiar conversation piece outfitted in an otherwise normal space.

A makeshift set of stairs drops a hole in the floor & into the living room, where a giant fern traverses the northern ceiling, framing the enormous wall of windows of the 3200 sq feet that my two roommates & I occupy illegally in a former textiles warehouse, still zoned commercial. We pay eight hundred bucks (each) a month to a shady landlady from NJ, but this is the first place in NY I’ve lived that doesn’t have mice. It does have an industrial heater, though, & when you flip that boxy motherfucker on, two blades whip into action & blue flames shoot out the back. At night it looks like a jetpack, or at least that’s what one woman thought. I told her to hop up & I’d fly us someplace tropical. Anywhere you want, baby. Anywhere but Florida.

We’ve got five hand-me-down black leather couches & a mixing table for visiting DJs. Sometimes we let photographers shoot here, so long as they pay in advance. By all assessments, it’s a bachelor pad, which means as a member of they newly broken hearted I’ve had to adjust certain aspects my life. For instance, there’s a music venue located directly below us, with a secret back door along the staircase we share, so I never have to pay for tickets, but this also means that everything from swoony indie bubblegum pop to hardcore thrashing death metal screams up through the floorboards 9PM-4AM, rattling wine glasses & displacing stacked bowls. The size of our loft also means traveling voices & echoes. So when my roommates are fucking I get it all in stereo, & vice versa. Sometimes we’re lucky to all be having sex at the same time, & among the spanking & groaning & begging, you sometimes catch a giggle of self-consciousness, usually from guests. These are one of many potentially souring elements of loft-living you fight to overcome, especially if you’re the last roommate to move in, & by law of seniority find yourself relegated upstairs to the 8x10x5.5” tree fort.

Whenever someone leaves the loft, they leave massive amounts of shit behind, like these calligraphic paintings by a Pakastani artist who’d rented the room before me—lines so desperately produced, it seems, & strangely vulnerable that I finally had to hide them in the makeshift dark room downstairs, which is itself stockpiled with heavy photography equipment that will remain here until Betelgeuse implodes since some asshole hauled it upstairs & built three walls around it. Otherwise we’d sell the stuff. As a group we’re always desperately low on cash. Ogre has finally given up on working altogether. He was fired from the electric company & a thai restaurant the same day, & since then hasn’t held a steady job or paid rent for six months. The landlady refuses to kick him out—for reasons unknown; hence, shady—& calls to scold him several times a week, speaking of karma & personal responsibility, which Ogre finds belittling but puts up with. Each week finds him sinking further into a sphere of obsessive internet use & chemical states of feel-goodery, paid for by the State via unemployment checks. Ogre wakes up early each morning & positions himself on the couch & smokes pot & waits to terrorize us with the viral videos he finds online, a laundry list of human pain & atrophied empathy, often sad or hilarious or a mixture of the two. He eats spaghetti from the pot. He waters the fern & checks his email. He has no self-pity but acre upon acre of self-regard.

Beyond the huge windows lay the remnants of a former golden age of Brooklyn & the in-medias-res progress of potential developments. These graveyards of warehouses & packinghouses & the reticulated ironworks of the old mayonnaise factory up the block will soon be gutted & revamped for a new era of glittering, overpriced condos in this to-be-rebranded area we jokingly hazard names for: NoBro or West Billy, Cockhole or Hip’stacheberg. But since the advent of the Great Recession the cranes have disappeared & the work lights put out, & our overpopulated ghost town has returned to its previous focus on night life & street art & gourmet eats & the Hasidim & Poles & Italians & transplanted urban barbarians, if only for a brief delightful period.

If you gaze through the windows & left, you’ll find North Sixth Street stumbling towards to the East River. The Empire State Building towers in the distance, lit green, pink & yellow this week, amid a Chiho Aoshima skyline in silhouette, changing it seems to suit a viewer’s mood, buildings that go from boxy & bookish to cartoonish & awkward & alive. Sometimes the distance between BK & NYC feels like the gulf between heaven & hell. Sometimes in the darkness of the loft the old city really grips you, & an intimacy creeps into your consciousness as you try imagining everyone who’s ever stood on these banks overlooking arguably the greatest city in the world, with its gloss of a million advertisements coupled with the reality of a million dreamers fleeing Ohio, Kyoto, Zanzibar to stake their claim in the theory of this place. I know how corny that sounds, but try it sometime, & if you don’t experience the tiniest inkling of an urge to run outside & take part in it, to glut yourself on the city’s profound capacity for fun & interconnectiveness, then you’ve been here too long, are possibly emotionally bankrupt, & may I recommend a fresh start in the suburbs of Orlando.

& I would understand why you would choose to do so. “Being a human battery has its plusses & minuses,” puns the health magazine on my toilet. But it’s true, we all store up energy & expend it according to our desires. The choice being, would you prefer to expend your energy in small, easily rechargeable doses, by say attending a community theater production of Heaven Can Wait & overeating Oreos on Netflix night & daydreaming in traffic & watching your kids grow up & studying the human experience with a lovely sense of calm & purpose? Or do you prefer to burn yourself out in one fell swoop snorting lines in a cab en route to a jazz bar followed by a brief stint at an art opening followed by the after-party in SoHo, the after-after party in the East Village, & a breakfast experience in the altogether dingy & neglected wee hours only to arrive home & immediately shower & rush to hop on the subway & ride to work where you’ll pretend you’re fighting off yet another untimely bout with the flu in mid-July? This is not every example ever, or an either-or, or possibly even fair, but you get the gist. You get one battery; you make a choice.

But sometimes our batteries get stolen by other people & are forced to work indefinitely powering someone else’s ridiculous machines. People can suck & they can drain you, which is why I might prefer scenes to people now. I’ve grown fond of objects, too—their relative quietude, their bold stance on being one thing. There’s a quiet powerfulness in stasis, & certainly a lovely sort of calm in how objects do nothing but what they do. /rant.

This happens more often now, this breathy internal chatter, this back & forth. My former love & occasional soundboard is gone & here I am in bed, the new day trickling into my consciousness, & waking up now is like a slow walk down a country road & up through the corn sparks a tornado & I can see it & I know what it carries within itself because it is what I carry too but I keep my pace anyhow, because I’ve grown to love the tornado & cherish its torrential winds & because the radio clock is blinking red again & I feel if I had that kind of face I’d wear the same dumb lost expression too & I will never set it to any permanent time because that would be a lie & I am not in the business of changing people’s bad habits.

Only a few months ago I was living in Park Slope, in a cushy little brownstone in a cushy little neighborhood by Prospect Park. I had two cats, a balcony, two fireplaces, built-in bookshelves & a built-in girlfriend of eleven years.

I have none of that now.

I have no reason to believe that the living room has changed since I last saw it, so I imagine that there’s an egg-shaped swing bolted to the roof & a dartboard bolted to the wall & a sixteen-foot metal table bolted to the floor in the kitchen area. Sometimes my other roommate Nate plays strip poker at the table with girls & couples he brings home from clubs. Sometimes they just coke up & fuck on it. & if I happen to want a glass of apple juice from the fridge, please, don’t let me interrupt.

I have no reason to believe that Ogre is not, at present, sunk into the couch reviewing porn sites to add or delete from his browser bookmarks.

Ogre’s real name is Abe, & he must have caught some psychic waves, because he’s suddenly yelling for me to come down & watch a short clip on his laptop of a man accidentally shooting himself in the head with a nail gun. & Oh! Oh!, I’ve gotta see this one where the donkey mounts a farm hand. Mornings here are a veritable buffet of gore & porn. When I acknowledge I’m awake, he reminds me about the party we’re hosting next month. Each day he adds some ridiculous new oddity, like how we should hire security guards & busboys & triple the number of DJs & speakers for the roof & downstairs. We need hor dourves & kegs of Brooklyn Lager & red wine & vodka. Still, I’d rather discuss this than fall back into our regular conversations: UFOs, politics, the wars, sex, 9/11 conspiracy theories, or worse, his ex-girlfriend, a breakup that haunts him a year after the fact. It occurs to me we’re broken men, but we’re not, we’re just the floating headaches of our own imaginations. If you wander too far into our lives we’ll try to bend you to our yearnings, our fears—tack our mothers’ faces onto your body, dissolve you with our frenetic psychies, etc.

When I don’t respond this time, he amps the stereo. Walk into our place anytime day or night & it’s either electronic music powered by Ogre’s iPod, noise from the club downstairs, or MSNBC talking heads blaring disorienting info @ a pitch that would murder bees.

“What?”

“Abe! I can’t hear myself fucking think, man! Music—DOWN!”

Not many people address Abe as Abe. He’s known in broader circles as Marquis de Loft, or Marc, or MC MDL, or among those not of his ilk, the Israeli Ogre, or just plain Ogre. Abe considers his current inability to hold a job a derision of his genius, for knowing how to do his bosses’ jobs better than them. This doesn’t matter, though, because when the call from the FDNY finally comes, no matter if he has a job or not, he will drop everything & join the Fire Department. He applied ten years ago. Apparently after the Towers fell the FDNY received resumes from all across the country. It was a cry to arms, & Abe responded. But he will never be a fireman, for reasons I will explain later. In the meantime, Abe smokes pot, updates his Facebook page, chats with women on instant messenger, & waits. He’s on the phone twice a week sweet-talking the landlady. Luckily, we don’t have to cover his share of rent. Our parties, for which we charge five bucks a head, is Abe’s only source of income, so we end up throwing a party every two months. & since Nick & I both have jobs, we don’t mention it when our split of the profits seem suspiciously lacking.

“Sorry,” Abe says, tremoloing the music to a distant heartbeat. “Oh shit, man, come down! You gotta see this. I got this howler monkey jerking off on a panda bear.”

Today’s menu: Darwinian smackdowns, or interspecies sex & the wanton desires of beasts.

I tug up a pair of jeans & descend.

“Jesus you sleep. You still depressed over la chienne? Two months already!”

It’s the Marquis de Loft’s responsibility to know bitch in 24 languages, including Yiddish and Portuguese. He actually speaks five languages fluently, skills culled for the sole purpose of bedding chicks, one imagines.

It’s actually been three months since my breakup with X. Sometimes it seems longer & sometimes shorter. I’m still finding her tanktops in the laundry, inexplicably tangled up in my longjohns. The fact that he calls her a bitch is nothing to shrug at. Everyone’s a bitch in Ogre’s eyes.

“You have work today?”

“Noon,” I say, heading straight for the smell of coffee. A few sips & I wander over to watch the monkey masturbate. The panda in the adjacent cage, it seems, is not simply an unlucky chance recipient—this was planned. The monkey is aiming. This is a belittling act of vengeance against a life foe.

“You up late writing?” he asks, stretching a robe over his large belly. “Saw your light on.”

I haven’t written anything for three months. The book I’d been working on is now surfing the channels of the publishing industry, hook line & sinker. My agent says it’s got a shot, but since Friday there’s only two more publishing houses standing between the novel & oblivion. Or self-publication, which would ensure at least 65 “friends” dropping me on Facebook. Editors agree, the craft is there, the story is there, but something is just not quite right. One guy had the nerve to say that my account of underprivileged teenagers growing up along the Space Coast seemed too over-the-top, was too seedy & perverse in its exploration of sexual entanglements, & so attempted to persuade me to shift the book from fiction to memoir. He said it was for the sake of believability, but it’s really all about units shipped, & memoirs ship more units, as a rule. My worry was that if I let out the fact that the bikers & the drugs & the sex & the murders are based at least partly on real events, I’d end up facedown in a Florida swamp, sucking tadpoles. Not really, but the possibility is there to some extent. I was more nervous about hurting my family by exposing them to my former drug abuse than anything else. Or embarrassing the friends I still visit whenever I go back home. If it’s labeled fiction, I’d still have the artificial reef of authorial intent to hide behind. Sure, it sounds like you, but that character was only modeled on you. Which is of course partly true. But it’s also partly bullshit. But I made up a whole lot of the book, & memoir is just as fiction-y as fiction, & even autobiographies for that matter, so I chose to keep it fiction.

Ogre lights up a joint & passes it over. What time is it even? I take a hit and head back upstairs to get my clothes. I need to shower.

“We need to decide on a theme for the party,” he calls after me.

“Surprise me.”

“Hoes & CEOs,” he says, stubbing the roach.

I retrace my steps to the porch edge of the upstairs. “No. No hoes, no CEOs.”

“Why not?”

“Because people won’t come. Because its sexist. Or sounds sexist.”

“Ah, but it’s only sexist if you think of CEOs as being only men & hoes as being only women. That’s your own issue. This is not universal.”

“Do you know the ratio of men to women CEOs?”

“No. Do you know the ratio for hoes?”

“Can’t we just have a masquerade ball, or just a dance party, why not just get people dancing? We’ll get DJ PartyLiquor up in here, switch him up with MaxFX. Get it hoppin’, & just let people have a good time.”

Abe globes his hands, fingertips to fingertips, & puffs his cheeks. I don’t know where he learned this, but it started after a judge forced him to attend an anger by after being fired from La Cirque, where he cold-cocking a patron who’d called his own date a whore & then called Abe, his waiter, an Israeli ogre for interfering. (Ta da, nickname). The gesture is a time-out, meaning he’s preparing to explain something he’s already explained, or thinks he’s already explained.

“Lucien, I told you, if I’m gonna make this thing work, every single party has to be the greatest party ever. You don’t know who’s in the audience! There could be club promoters, actresses, producers, hotel concierges, doormen, & let me tell you, these people expect perfection. They expect Cristal & Dom & Armand & VIP treatment. I can’t give them that, I’m broke! But what I can give them is a scene, an event, a happening. A party they’ll never forget. And if I’m gonna get my company rolling, be a bigshot coordinator, I gotta make shit work, bro. I gotta be the Murakami to their Louis Vuitton. So c’mon, give me some lovin’. You’re the wordsmith. If you don’t like Hoes & CEOs, then come up with something better.”

I drop my clothes from the perch to the floor & climb down & walk over to Ogre & get him in a headlock he easily breaks. He’s built like a tank with a magnificent gut & a shaved head & these big sunken puppy dog. He’s a good man, better than most, & lost in the way a lot of folks are lost. He smiles & I light a cigarette on the way to the bathroom & he tells me again, “smoking’ll kill you, bro,” & I yah-yah him & he chuckles like someone who at your funeral would say “I told him this would happen” & then eat all the pasta salad while hitting on your sister. That thousand-yard stare, like in ‘Nam, but in upbeat chuckle form.

Three of my uncles were in ‘Nam. One was a Navy Seal. When we were kids my brother & cousin & I used to burrow tunnels through the saw palmettos & underbrush & play Vietnam all day until dusk. Then one night my cousin wandered into his dad’s room to ask for a glass of water & my uncle put a knife to his eyeball & told him he ate gook cunts like him all day long, & after that we started playing baseball.

When you’re flailing, your best bet is to hang on to people who are flailing themselves, because slippery morals keep things interesting, & because any argument from either party can be ignored as coming from an unreliable source. This is why Ogre was in some ways the perfect roommate: you could trust him all day long to say things you could ignore, & the world kept on spinning.

When X broke up with me, my initial reaction was to remain subdued. Eleven years is a long time for anything. But I’d stumbled into some emotional vacuum, & so saying nothing struck me as a perfectly legitimate response. I’d just returned from a canoe trip along the Pecos River in southeast Texas with some writer buddies—one week of rowing solemnly beneath the canyon walls, fishing & cooking up freshwater bass with angel hair pasta & skillet scrambles & hiking backwoods trails in search of red & black pictographs of fiery, snakelike shamans & deer-headed gods. I rode the train home instead of flying because I wanted to see the countryside. Three days later, I’m back in Brooklyn, drop my bags in the hallway, & I hear X blubbering on the couch. I’d spoken to her on the phone not half an hour earlier from Grand Central & she seemed fine, even asking me what I wanted to order from the Peruvian café down the block. When I walked in & heard her crying, I knew someone had died. & I was sure that someone was my brother Jason.

But no. What died was our relationship. A few seconds in & I understood exactly where the conversation was headed. I didn’t once interject. Not even to tell her that my laptop with every bit of writing I’d done since college died on the train ride home through the Midwest. Nor that I’d just learned, attempting to withdraw money from an ATM, that someone had apparently stolen my checkcard number while I was away & blew six hundred dollars on gas charges & Mets tickets. These things were not the makings of high drama, but served as mere aperitifs, choral leitmotifs, to what I now refer to as the Big Fuck. The conversation with my ex lasted fifteen minutes. Suddenly we were laughing together, freed from familial pretentions & worrying over each other’s feelings, the call & response of ‘Don’t you think’ & ‘Wouldn’t you agree.’ We made moving arrangements & promised to be best friends 4-ever. Afterwards I went out on the wood balcony & watched the stars slip in & out of being. I smoked & thought that this was a good thing, plump with the pride one feels after doing something that feels vaguely adult. I imagined having sex with other women. I imagined rising from newly laundered sheets damp with sweat & carefully closing random doors & walking out onto the rain-slicked streets under the low hanging fruit of streetlamps & into the breech of eternal night like some noir angel of noncommittal sex. I was going to be the Kokopelli of the Lower East Side.

Replaying the conversation now, I still feel very little. We sit on opposite ends of the couch. When I go to touch her, she dips her head. She feels she isn’t living her own life. She feel’s like she’s never struggled, not really, which is not true but okay, you can’t argue someone out of insecurity. She says she feels like my sidekick. I monopolize conversations. She argues that my gregariousness allows her to fit snugly into the position of Listener, which she enjoys, but which has effectively stripped her of a voice. More than that, she feels that I’ve lived a fuller life than her, never mind the fact that we’d spent a third of our lives together. We hooked up after high school, after the perceived ‘lived’ part, when I was a juvenile delinquent with friends dying left & right from drug overdoses & gunshot wounds, & she was a solid A- student making her way through community college. She had this plan to get out of town, & we were in love so I jumped ship & ran away with her to North Carolina, where we rented a pay-by-the-week room in a seriously no-joke rat infested motel. We both got jobs at separate music stores selling CDs & saved our money for school. After waiting a year for in-state tuition, we both applied and were accepted into separate schools, her at NCSA for modern dance, a revered arts conservatory, & me in the continuing adult education program at the state university in Greensboro. We traveled Europe and Mexico. We used our credit cards as bank accounts & suffered together the death of kittens riddled with feline leukemia. So how can I, after all that, still feel zero? Would an MRI out me as a psychopath? Is it because of my mother’s strict no-veggie diet when she was carrying me? Did the doctor cut the umbilical cord too quick? Did I ingest too much Play-Do as a kid?

Online I catch a marathon of shit from chatroomers chiming in to say I should be grieving, that I should allow myself to feel the loss of her, that I should hurl things through windows & bawl for all that was lost & burrow myself into the armpits of strangers (into any recess of strangers, really), & attempt to work through the obvious contradictory emotions I must be experiencing in agonizing, structured detail. But I don’t have any contradictory emotions, I typed repeatedly into the message box. It ended, simple as that. It was a clean & amicable break. The faucet cut off, & there was no more water, not even a drip. Just nothing. They said that my seeking out a chatroom a priori means I was instinctively searching out help from my peers. Not necessarily, I typed. I was just interested to see if anyone else had experienced something similar & came away feeling the same way I did. & fuck you, you enabling jerkwad armchair shrinks. Ayn Rand is God! You fuckers should have been aborted & Fruit-Roll-Upped & fed back to your retarded parents! (As all users are anonymous, this sort of gratuitously vulgar sign-off is an anxiously awaited protocol. First off, I do not believe Ms. Rand was messianic or ever fully approached a coherent understanding of Darwin’s revelations. Secondly, I later anonymously posted on the same site that THAT SCUMBAG who used the word retarded probably has never met a person with a disability & should be forced to care for such a person for one month, after which he or she should then be taken out back & shot, a comment for which I received 32 ‘Likes,’ earning a blue ribbon next to my post).

In the bathroom of the loft I decide to shave, but when I get the lather on my face I just stand there. There will be no crying. It’s just not in me. When I search for those filed-away emotions actors rely upon for crucial Oscar-baiting scenes, I can summon nothing beyond my present awareness of the hot steam gathering in my lungs, the faucet bleating. The process itself makes me self-conscious. Maybe the cybermoonlighters were right. Maybe what I’m experiencing is prolonged shock. The truth, more likely, is that I have nothing to purge. I have a very clear memory of my time with X, our ups & downs & the points of contention we sought to rehash in successive arguments, points that sent subtle fissures crazing up though our happy little iceberg. If locked in a basement & forced to decode & reengineer our relationship, I could probably detail the incremental ways in which our once ardent love had morphed into a friendship—how our exchanges had turned bland & inauspicious, compartmentalized by habit & passive listening. & when all that ended, it felt good. I felt good. She felt good. We had loved each other fully & deeply & then nostalgically & then in a different sense. & then she set me free. & like a good friend, I returned the favor.

I shave and dress & think fondly of X. It wasn’t a waste of time. Knowing the outcome, I’d do it all again, I would. & here comes shuffling behind like a shunned lapdog the memory of my father leaving my mother, & him & I sitting together in a hammock strung between pines in our backyard in Florida as he tries to explain why he’s just moved in with another woman. How do you describe to a child the inches lost to time’s formidable sinkhole, or how each hushed sentence of a tense dispute enacts the sturm & drang of quiet resentment that slowly eviscerates the spirit of a person you always imagined partnering with in shuffleboard, two old blue birds popping pills & serving aces on the court? My dad couldn’t explain it then—& I couldn’t forgive him for not trying. But I understand it now. I love you dad! Wahhhh, wahhhh! Here comes my Reichean catharsis! Wahhhh!

Fuck it. One relationship is not like another. My life is not the suffering repercussions of my father’s infidelity. & if it was, how fucking lame would that be?

I shower, towel myself off & head upstairs. I find a filterless cigarette poised on a bottle cap I use as an ashtray & light it up. I snap on some boxers & lie back on my bed & stare over at the brick wall, where a Jake & Dinos Chapman print depicting a boy & girl fused together at the abdomen & ass, respectively, hangs slightly askew. The boy has a dick for a nose & the girl, bent forward, a vaginal mouth. They are looking in opposite directions. It is not mine but I have not taken it down yet. The picture disturbs me beyond words.

“Hey!” yells Abe. “Check out my Facebook page if you’ve got your computer on! Hot I mean hot pussy RSVPing! If we’re gonna change the title, I’ll need it ASAP!”

Exhibit A at Ogre’s stalker trial will his personal Facebook page, which consists of women sought out for their proclivity for taking photos of themselves half nude in bathroom mirrors, often with sandwiched breasts offered up buffet-style. I wish I could say I am not impressed by his ability to bed a good number of these women, that his methods are coarse & his standards subterranean, but the truth is I am in awe. Ogre is a big-game hunter, & I am a get-to-know-you type guy with a mediocre track record for closing deals, so I rely on him & the three-hundred-plus-attendee binge marathons we host (for which Ogre’s invitation list draws three quarters of the females who show up) for the possibility of my cornering a girl who’ll find my collections of historical sugar cubes & film documentaries illegally downloaded or my wall of poetry books impossibly cute or drunkingly pathetic, perhaps enough to make out with me or possibly even stay the night. I find no shame in attaching my remora suckerfish lusts to Ogre’s great white shark body, catching the scraps thrown off as he tears through a party. I find no shame in how gay that sentence sounds in my head. If I could be a big gay great white I would savage Chelsea with the second coming of Rock Hudson alongside my friends Forrest & Gary, who are also sharks but resemble more the tiger & nurse than a great white (slender & aggressive, pouchy & laissez-faire), respectively. But it’s all about confidence & right now mine is trapped in a suckling remora mutated for eyelids whose every blink signals my desire to be killed or mercy fucked, or mercy cared-for, mercy walked down to the river where we could share stories about bad dates gone hilariously wrong & growing up in different cultures & being at present the ages of our parents when they divorced & what dishes to serve to house guests who are both lactose intolerant & suffering from celiac disease. Because if I don’t force myself out into the world & into contention, I will be settle into my default state of masturbating panda, the one with the bulging belly & creepy, curiously intelligent eyes. Other people help clarify one’s sense of self, & I need that kind of scrutiny, which through conversation helps map out my insecurities & doubts but also brings to the fore my own sense of humor, my likes & dislikes, my eccentricities & knowledge—in short, my humanity. I do not want to be one of those people whose bodies & minds are merely shapes they inhabit, relegated by others to descriptive elements signifying certain aspects of a personality that I, living in my squishy self, adopt in order to appease. I want interaction that leads to self-creation, which paradoxically depends on interaction & other people.

With this in mind I decide I will not call in sick, a thought I was bouncing around there for a while, so I pocket my phone, keys, wallet, & snap on my golf hat. Heading down the back stairs I can hear people tuning guitars in the adjacent practice rooms rented out & a vocalist reaching for a falsetto that hopes to marry morose with misunderstood. Outside, young musicians in black logoed tshirts unload equipment from a van before the open doors of NorthSix, which is the club directly beneath our apartment. Down the block I begin thinking that North Six, the street, could be any main street in the Midwest, with all these red bricked buildings & curtains fluttering out of windows, but then I pass a environmentally conscious designer clothing store & the record shop & every other non-sustainable enterprise that’ll be replaced in six months with another non-sustainable business & even though it remains in part a Polish working-class neighborhood, despite the Us, with a butcher shop & a bread factory, I know I’m living in a place undergoing transition, in an era of transition, during which I’ll gather memories to later share at bars with others like me, the here-before-you-were crowd of aging hanger-ons, our eyes glossed with pretense as we update our current status on whatever new social network is out there. “Wish you were here. (You can never be here.)”

I’m keeping a beat with my cigarette in the air, a breezy May cold snap the last vestige of winter attacking my eyes. I’ll grab some coffee & hop on the L-train. There’ll be hipsters & I-Bankers & seahorse veterinarians, I’m sure & comic stage actors & hedge funyuns & Chloë Sevigny & loud buskers & profane spiritualists & welfare grandmothers & we’ll all be in it together. I will take note that Post readers spread the newspapers across their thighs while the Times gets folded before the face. We’ll shuttle underwater together & into the dark boxy rattling earth & change trains underground & emerge in a bungled line pacing the stairs up into the great, gray phantom halls of Grand Central & into American light cut from the bullet-shaped concourse windows & striking the floor in patterns like stills from a film. On the street I’ll break from the pack & head towards the Chrysler Building en route to the News Building, aka the Superman building, where an enormous globe spins uninterrupted in the foyer, the building itself conscripted for use as the Daily Planet newspaper headquarters in the movie. But before I arrive at my job & swipe my badge, I’ll get a phone call on the corner of East 42nd & 3rd. It’ll be my literary agent, Lev McIntosh, & he’ll have news.

He will proceed to tell me that all those early morning caffeine-infused work sessions, all the Saturdays & Sundays, the skipped social functions, the family gatherings when I brought along my laptop, the skipped performances of friends, the bouts of frustrated & drunken monologues, the missed liaisons, the manic pacing & method acting mono-dialogues, the furious scribblings on bus & car & train & plane, the books purchased for the sole reason of writerly self-instruction, the years of dragging characters through undetermined paths with a tired conscious effort, the edits & re-edits, were good for a roundabout cleansing of the mind but were not, unfortunately, necessary for anything but inspiration for the next novel, which I should begin to ponder immediately, if not sooner, since the final publishing houses I’ve been waiting to hear back from have, with glorious praise & genteel thank-yous, passed on publishing my novel.

Lev is a good man, my age, with short dark hair & sweet, serious eyes. He’s affable, meticulous & honest. I will thank him for helping bring the book along as far as it could go. He has done it justice, & I mean that. We make plans to grab a beer later & discuss what’s next.

I have to go. Yes, we’ll talk more about it later, but right now I have to get to work.

As if reliquaries for vanishing thoughts, the grill of each passing car—

The Three Soothsayers of Holopaw

Chapter One

(an excerpt from the novel The Inevitable Death of Hap Ilkarmen)

Hap Ilkarmen knew when he was going to meet his maker—his death had been foretold on three occasions by three separate soothsayers. First by Madame Tawnbisawls, known throughout four counties for her accurate forecasts of the weather; then by Orba Terrocca, the grocer’s blind daughter; and lastly by the most trusted tarot-card reader and palmist in the state, Elder Wisswassy the Omniscient. Each of these women possessed abilities unwavering in their precision, and together they were the very lips of fate, or as the townspeople liked to say, more reliable than laundry hung on a line predicting wind. As far back as anyone could remember, not a single prophecy spoken by the three had ever failed to meet with fruition.

Hap was to die on Saturday, the 3rd of October, at 12:17 in the afternoon outside of Wilson’s Ice Cream and Soda Parlor off Main Street in downtown Holopaw, Florida. He was to be struck down and killed by a rusty red pick-up truck driven by Jackson Plowman, a local farmer and former treasurer of the now defunct Masonic Sons of Native Confederate Veterans Auxiliary, of which Hap’s late father had been a member. Mr. Plowman had at one point been his father’s business partner and had known Hap since he was a child, a pipsqueak bug investigator with a shallow face and long limbs. Wishing the awfulness of his demise to burden no one, Hap least desired it to rest upon the overworked shoulders of one of the township’s meekest patriarchs, and family friend.

But it had been foretold and so it would be. The residents of Holopaw relied heavily on the prognostications to assist in a variety of matters, from larger issues like determining when to plant and harvest their citrus and sweet sorghum crops, to everyday trifles like finding lost keys or determining which rabbit to skin first or what fishing hole would yield the day’s best catch. It was considered an essential investment of time and money to visit one, if not all, of the women for advice. It was not uncommon, even, for the local bank to withhold final approval on its loans until all the paperwork could be properly reviewed by one of the town’s prophets.

It seemed both ordinary and incidental that Hap ran into Madame Tawnbisawls that Friday as he searched the flower vitrines for petunias at Markello’s greenhouse, a gift for his fiancée, the lovely Maria Dosa Ladosa, whom he was engaged to marry in a matter of weeks. He paced the humid aisles, handling the flowers with extreme delicacy, careful to avoid the pricks of cacti resting on the shelves behind him. It was Madame Tawnbisawls, arguing with one of her spirit guides over choice johnfkennedy roses, who first backed into Hap, the bump knocking him into a stand of seed catalogs.

“Ah! Look where you’re going!” Hap heard as he bent down to retrieve the spilled packets. “And you,” exclaimed the Madam, cursing her invisible partner for its lack of forewarning, “sometimes I think your head’s half empty, if you ever had one at all.”

“Sorry, it’s okay, nothing’s hurt,” said Hap, who rose to greet the clumsy shopper only to be sent back on his heels, startled by the sudden proximity of a person he’d only seen on TV. Madame Tawnbisawls, at first glance, was quite grandmotherly, with retreating eyes, gray streaks and a puckered mouth, yet there was an air of mild celebrity about her, an affected leaning-back sort of posture, and long silk scarves that traveled ankle to head, knotting her hair in a bun. Her 9 PM show on Public Access was popular enough for her to make a decent living predicting meteorological events like overcast skies and cold snaps (and the occasional cataclysmic event) with the helpful guidance of departed souls only she could hear. Beyond that, she was known for occasionally slapping children, an act she referred to as ‘wake-up blessings.’

“I’m terribly sorry,” Hap reiterated.

“As you should be,” replied Madame Tawnbisawls. “Among these cobwebs of doubt and circumstantial evidence.”

“I’m sorry?” asked Hap, who didn’t feel he had heard her properly.

“Do you prey on the elderly?” she asked. “Is this how you get your sex jollies?”

“No, ma’am, I would never…”

“Because I will not stand for it. Even now imps in eager caucus raffle for my soul, and I will not have some young punk manhandling me.”

Concerned, Hap apologetically reached for her bicep.

Madame Tawnbisawls’ eyes widened at his touch. She gripped his arm near the elbow and leaned into him, her breath smelling of cherries and cigarettes. Hap instinctively stepped back, but her grip was decisive and strong. Other shoppers began taking notice, adding an extra element of humiliation. The Madame’s jaundiced eyes never wavered from him as she communed with her spirit guide, and even though Hap felt the minor prick of a cactus to his back, he dared not move.

“You, young man,” Madame Tawnbisawls began, “are going to be struck down by a red automobile. Driven by a farmer set with wrinkles. You will have just finished eating an ice cream sundae—mango strawberry lime with hot fudge and peanuts. Between twelve and twelve-thirty on a Saturday very soon. In fact, people will begin releasing the fireworks of the Saccharum Festival after it is finished.”

Hap was dumbfounded, unable to muster a solitary word. The powers of the legendary Madame were inscrutable.

“What will the weather be like?” a stranger called from behind a poinsettia bush.

“Partly cloudy. Humid. In the high eighties,” the Madame stuttered, clutching and kneading her scarves as if they were security blankets. She then quickly turned and fled the greenhouse.

Hap stood alone, his sunken brown eyes blinking in stubborn understanding. So this was how it was going to end. The aisle seemed to narrow and elongate before him, and Hap felt the first murmurs of a panic attack in his chest. Shoppers parted before him in waves. At the exit doors a pot filled of azaleas exploded at his feet, shards everywhere, the dark rich soil on his shoes a brief, indelicate reminder of the cold earth into which he’d soon be interred. Hap glanced up at the lovely woman who’d dropped the plant. She was reservedly dressed in a floral print, the wide-brimmed hat atop her head cinematically askew. She was pretty except for her eyes, which radiated grief.

“She has to be wrong once, right?” Hap asked. “Everyone has to be wrong sometime.”

The woman answered by closing her eyes tightly.

He didn’t even bother to shake the dirt from his shoes. The greenhouse door gave a ding as he pushed through it.

Back in his station wagon, Hap made haste for the Holopaw Feed and Grocery. He took several country roads as shortcuts, pushing the speed limit, and arrived in the gravel lot of the log cabin market sweating like a Belizean roofer. There were only three days left before the Saccharum Festival, for which the town gathered to celebrate the harvest of the year’s sugarcane crops. As a junior member of the League of the Inverted, also known as the Monosacca-Riders (for their group motorcycle excursions to Daytona’s Bike Week every spring), Hap felt a strong commitment to his fellow syrup makers, as well as to the community they served—the bakers, bar owners, chocolaiers, and soda pop makers who regularly purchased his inverted sugar for their delicious recipes. If Madame Tawnbisawls’ prediction was incontrovertible, then Hap had arrangements to make, pronto. Regardless, he believed that seeking a second opinion was certainly excusable, if not outright warranted. So here he was, outside of the feed store, trying to gather his frenzied wits into a genteel sort of calm repose, in hopes that he might secure a conference with Orba Terrocca, the grocer’s blind daughter.

The problem Hap immediately foresaw, his bearings returning with his steadying breath (though he’d still forgotten his keys in the ignition) was the long snaking line of farmers and citizenry in dungarees and denim overalls traveling along the front porch and back around the side of the building, each person figuring out or rehearsing the pair of questions their five dollars would permit them to ask the young Ms. Terrocca. It broke Hap’s heart imagining the inside of the store, too, the weaving line persisting down aisles of canned goods and toilet paper, potato chips and a hundred varieties of bubble gum. The wait-time would be excruciating; reading the ingredients charts on bottles as the dry minutes of his life leaked slowly into the atmosphere. But there was no choice in the matter, so Hap set his sites on the final man in line.

Orba was a rather homely looking sixteen-year-old save for one thing, the dirty-blond hair her aunt meticulously brushed to her elbows. She fancied threadbare dresses with vaguely maritime patterns and spent most of her days sitting on an old pickle barrel with her hands folded in her lap. There she answered questions from visitors and took her arithmetic, history, sociology, economics and spelling, being home schooled. Boys dropped by to ask her questions but never what was in their hearts and besides she seemed uninterested in anything but her fans, of which there were many. A taste of her extraordinary vision required only a personal object from the visitor, like a bracelet or a lucky dime. Orba would rub her hands all over the item and begin shaking. Once she calmed down she’d proceed to answer whatever two questions the visitor felt inclined to ask. The downside was that, apart from agricultural affairs, Orba could only see about a week (week and a half at most) into the future, so no one benefitted from asking about their mortality or the longevities of relationships. Certain issues were strictly off-limits, like state lottery results, which her father, Mr. Dickey Terrocca, the grocer, considered unfair and furthermore un-Christian. Mr. Terrocca adamantly sought to protect his daughter. It had been almost a year since a drifter had stuffed his five dollars into the glass jar at her side and asked if he would be arrested anytime soon. Orba replied in the negative, and two weeks later that man robbed the 7-11 on the corner of Rhoden and Main and the police tracked him down to an abandoned warehouse and made his body nearly unidentifiable with gunfire. From then on, most people mostly stuck to discussing their crops with her. What to plant, when to plant, and when to take it out of the ground. Rumor had it the reason she could forecast crops so well was because as a child she’s lost her sight after accidentally swallowing an insect, the likes of which no one had seen before of since, that had been responsible for killing a great portion of that year’s crops.

Hap had visited Orba on several occasions, knew Dickey fairly well as a friend of his father’s before he passed, and was familiar with the aunt only as Liberty Baptist’s Wednesday pianist. It worried him that his question might upset the family, but after an hour’s wait outside, he tapped the dirt from his shoes, pulled door handle, and walked beneath the chiming bells. Inside the store was cramped and oppressive, a lone off-center ceiling fan responsible for cooling the exceedingly patient but twitchy customers who swatted themselves like cattle. For the next forty minutes Hap endured crop forecasts and land deal warnings and pest deterrents that outsiders might contend straddled the line between wivestale and witchcraft, but the locals knew better. Walk the perimeter of your field at midnight, to be safe. Spill a pint of hen’s blood at the highest point. Sprinkle ladybugs among your crop for the lace bug; moth traps and wasps for the borer; wireworms and white grubs with flooding in May; beware the aphid. Don’t sell to the profiteer—there’s a lucrative mineral under your land. And so on. Orba recommended no pesticide of any kind ever; the earth possessed its own immune system, she believed, and if we ever screwed with that, the land would shake us off it like a bad cold.

The last farmer before him stepped away and Hap approached. Orba straightened up on the pickle barrel, placing her young hands on her knees and offering him a coy smile, her filmy blue eyes dancing like a wave flirting with a coral reef. As he knelt before her, her mouth curved into an affected pout. “Mr. Ilkarmen, are you maybe forgetting something?”

For a moment Hap was lost. He felt the people in line behind him shifting. Then he spied the money jar at her feet. “Oh, oh I’m sorry,” he said, reaching into his back pocket, where he, like so many others, always kept a reserve of five one dollar bills. He checked his other pocket. He pulled out his wallet and looked inside. Five dollars exactly. He stuffed the bill into the jar.

“I need to know the truth,” he began.

“Funny,” she answered. “Most people want me to lie to them.”

This aroused a few chuckles from the peanut gallery.

“Please, Orba, Ms. Terrocca, I need your help. I’m desperate.”

The young girl’s smile disappeared and she reached for Hap’s face, running her fingers along his features as is sculpting them. Her brows arced and she sighed, wiggling her finger for him to approach. Hap turned slightly to check on the others, then stood up and bent towards her.

“I’ll need five more dollars before I can answer you question,” she whispered, her lips almost imperceptibly brushing on his ear. “This doesn’t concern your land at all, does it? And you know Daddy doesn’t like me to talk about such things. If he knew what you wanted to ask, he’d track you down and tan your hide.”

This proliferated odd emotions in Hap, who could only nod in agreement. “But I don’t seem to have any more money with me.”

Orba sighed and pointed at the Jackson Bank ATM in the corner of the store, which spun out bills in five-dollar increments. “Hurry,” she whispered.

“But I’m bone dry,” he said. “I only have my credit cards.”

“Have a little faith, Mr. Ilkarmen,” she breathed against his cheek.

Hap dusted off his blue jeans and went to the ATM, ignoring the others as he took his bankcard from his wallet, lined up the magnetic strip and punched in his code. He’d updated his checkbook a week ago, down to ninety-seven cents after the bills came in, after he’d transferred all his money into a joint account with his fiancé at another bank. The card they’d given him he’d lost, possibly in the wash, and was now waiting for another to arrive in the mail. Until then he had only his credit cards, but Dickey Terrocca’s did not accept them. So he was flabbergasted when the screen showed he had seven dollars and ninety seven cents, covering both Orba’s and the machine’s fee.

“This is unbelievable,” Hap said. “I could have sworn I had nothing in there.”

Orba smiled faintly. “Well I guess we all get a little lucky sometime.”

Snickering and general agreement resounded across the grocery store.

“Now then,” she said. “Your wallet.”

Hap handed her his wallet. Orba held it for a moment, then her body began its subtle quake like a washer or a floor fan without support, building up. Her teeth rattled and her lips turned bluish-white. She dropped the wallet and her eyes went wide.

“You’ll be struck down and killed my Mr. Plowman on Saturday. Twelve-fifteen. No. Twelve-seventeen. Fudge sundaes. A dog chasing its own tail in the grass. A snake circling through a circular pipe.”

Hap’s bowels turned to ice. The world retreated into dream, events without sequence operating independently of his action, though not altogether purposeless. His lower half numb and his forehead a muddy peat bog he rubbed to shield his eyes. He felt the eyes on his neck, pitying him, and hated them all.

“So I’m gonna die.”

“I somehow feel,” Orba said, in a low tone, “that you knew this already, though.”

“Yes,” Hap said. “Madame Tawnbisawls. The greenhouse. I didn’t want to believe her.”

Orba pursed her lips and nodded. “You should go, Mr. Ilkarman. You have a lot to do.”

“Yeah,” Hap replied. “I guess I do.”

Walking the length of the store was a sentence Hap served with dignity, eyes forward. Outside the morning had come and gone without him. It occurred to him to question why Orba had spoken his fate aloud, in front of everyone, but had required they whisper privately beforehand, but the simpleness of the matter over the enormity of his situation caused him to forget the entire matter.

The reason he had chosen first to visit the Feed and Grocery to see Orba, instead of driving downtown to see Wissawassy the Omniscient, was because the palmist’s shop was located on Main Street, directly across the way from the soda parlor where Hap would allegedly take his last meal on Saturday. Parking along the curb, Hap avoided the parlor and turned to the neon sign of Wissawassy’s shop, a hand with an eye at its center, blinking on and off. Hap had never actually met the Omniscient before; she kept to herself and was fond of Thai food delivery, he’d heard. He’d also heard kids refer to her as the Hog Hag of Holopaw, and it seemed the elder townsfolk didn’t have a much higher opinion of her looks. But her abilities were well established, and her word sacrosanct. Hap rang the bell before trying the door, which was open, and found himself in a small foyer hung with thick red curtains. There were two velvet-upholstered chairs facing a table with a deck of tarot cards laid face down. Myrrh incense burned from within a converted garlic baker, sweetening the air. The windows were double-sided, so people could see out but not in. A tall but slender wooden door, from a sailing vessel perhaps, chiseled with carvings and characters Hap imagined were antidotal hexes, led to where Hap did not know. He knocked but no one answered. As he turned to leave, a voice called out: “Hap Ilkarmen, come in.”

So he did.

The room was blue. Everything, the walls, the furniture, the light fixtures. Even the plate the strange woman sitting before him held in one hand, the other dismantling a blueberry muffin above it, was blue. The furs tacked to the walls had been painted blue and blue ornaments hung from a blue chandelier and there was a blue area rug and a blue couch, which Hap took a seat on. The woman alone stood out among the monochromatic scheme—she was a white woman with pure white hair, dressed in a white jumpsuit.

The room was slightly humid and the furs, Hap assumed, were responsible for the slight pungent odor, like wet ferret, clouding his nose. Hap shifted uncomfortably on the couch as the woman finished her lunch. After the last bite, she wadded the moist muffin paper into a ball and deposited it into the back corner of her cheek like a slug of chewing tobacco. Crossing her legs, she braided her fingers over her knee and looked up.

“Do you like that?” she asked.

Hap followed her gaze. A large mirrored ball spun quietly above them. “That?”

“Yes, the ball.”

“I really don’t have an opinion.”

“I feel it adds something to the place. All those little glass mirrors. Each me can be a different me at every turn, you know?”

“I’m sorry, I’ve never—You are…”

“Judy,” she said. “Just call me Judy.”

“Judy, I just need some information. Is Wissawassy the Omniscient around? May I speak with her? I promise it won’t take long.”

“Sure thing, hon,” she said, spitting her muffin dip into a blue paper cup. “Would you mind waiting in the other room while I get her?”

“Of course. Yes ma’am.”

“You know, Hap, not everyone gets to visit this room. You should feel special.”

Caught between standing and sitting, Hap replied, “I do. Absolutely.”

Judy motioned for him to leave. “The Omniscient will be with you momentarily.”

Hap waited in the front room, staring out the window and watching passersby pass by. Un-illuminated, sweetly, insistently dumb to their own mortality, he found their annoyance of the life-giving sun—evidenced by their hats, visors, sunglasses—perverse and hilarious; dew drops on an ear of corn, as he had been until that very morning. He was almost appreciative of the tranquil depression overcoming him. He wished he could maintain this state until after he informed Maria Dosa Ladosa that she’d be a widow long before she’d ever be married. If he could calmly speak to her, then perhaps he could calmly die, as well. The door opened behind him and he turned to greet Judy, but it was not Judy who entered the foyer.

It was the Hog Hag of Holopaw. Moles, countless numbers of them, and skin tags peppering every square inch of her face, as if she’d fallen asleep in a field and the turkey buzzards had pecked at her living flesh. Hair like a bramble of seaweed spun to a springy, cotton-candy-like tornado dropping off to one side. Teeth like a wicked joke. And her eyes, black snakebites in a gang-green wound. It looked as if several people had tried dressing her according to their own fantastically bad tastes and then had given up at all at once together. As if reading his thoughts, the Omniscient’s eyes narrowed.

“Please sit down, Mr. Ilkarmen,” she croaked, extending her hand toward the reading table. Hap obeyed with a polite smile, hiding his sweaty hands.

“Are you Wissawassy?”

“I am the Omniscient,” she confirmed. “The Light in Darkness. The Fortuna of Florida. The Petite Theophany.”

She seated herself in grandiose fashion across the table from him, then dropped the affectation and leaned in. “Petite…ha! Once maybe. They also call me the Dog Ape of Ditchtown, the Butterface Witch, and the Ugliest Woman Alive…Swampzilla.” Holding his stare, she said, “But my favorite is, of course, The Hog Hag of Holopaw.”

“Children can be so cruel,” Hap replied.

“They’re shits. But these I heard from my mailman. He stands outside the soda shop across the way and talks about me with the others,” she said, letting her eyes wander from the window back to him and offering a weak smile. “I can read lips.”

“Larry is a drunk,” Hap offered in sympathy.

The Omniscient nodded and patted his hand appreciatively. “So. You’ve come here with a purpose.”

“No,” said Hap, resigning to his fate. “I came here with no purpose. No life. No anything. I’m going to die.”

“Yes, you are,” the Omniscient replied. “In due time, like every one of us.”

“No. On Saturday,” said Hap. “Twice today it’s been foretold. By Madame Tawnbisawls at the greenhouse. And then by the grocer’s blind daughter this afternoon, right before I drove here to see you.”

The Omniscient’s spoked eyes glistened. “I know.”

“Of course,” said Hap.

“Give me your hands.”

Hap wiped them on his jeans and offered them up. The Omniscient pushed two fingers under his wrists, holding the palms before her at an angle like a drawing board. Then she reached into her shirt and took out her reading glasses and resumed. “Hmm,” she said, pushing into the meat with her thumbs, turning his hands over. “A man of the community. A man with a simple heart. Not to be taken in the ironic sense of Flaubert, mind you, but a man of great spirit and little animosity. Pride in his relationships. Pride in his work. Simple prides like simple syrups.”

Hap couldn’t contain his smirk.

“Ah,” she said, tilting her head to better focus her vision. “A family man?”

“Soon. Or maybe not so.”

“I see,” she said. “And I see…a headache. A hearth. A heartbreak. A harrying. A happenstance…is that how you received your name, may I ask? Were you a happenstance?”

“No, a Happenworth. Family name. If I was a girl they were going to name me Lily.”

The Omniscient laughed out loud. “Parents are the worst kind of luck.” Then she released his hands to the table. She took off her glasses and sat back. “Did you have any more questions?”

“Is that it?”

“I don’t know, is it?”

“Should we maybe do the cards?” he asked, looking over at the tarot deck.

“No need,” she said.

“Am I going to die on Saturday?”

The Omniscient stroked a particularly long hair protruding from a mole on her jaw. “In order for Saturday to happen, Friday must first happen first, correct? And before Friday, tomorrow. And before tomorrow, today must finish. And there are many hours, minutes and seconds that must happen for today to finish. And even those seconds are comprised of milliseconds, which are themselves composed of microseconds. Each unit of time can be halved, and those units halved still, until we find we are standing still, in a place with no time, in a universe comprised of moments occurring simultaneously. If this is true, Mr. Ilkarmen, then you have nothing to worry about. You are both alive and dead and there’s nothing to be done about it.”

“But I’m not dead,” said Hap, flexing his fists on the table. “And you are not dead either and what a ridiculous thing to say. Even if this were true, it’s not how I experience life. It’s not how anyone experiences it.”

“But I do, Hap. Past and future is all the same to me. The problem is, I have an awful memory, and so much happens, it’s hard to keep up with. The truth is, the future is made up of as many mundane and boring memories as the past. Just right now I’m remembering I’d forgotten to pack the dishwasher tomorrow. And in my sink there’s ants, ants everywhere, Hap. A little crooked line running to a hole in the panel board behind the faucet and just a mess of ants climbing all over my silverware. I could just kick myself. But as for you, wouldn’t you agree that experience and truth are two separate things?”

“Of course,” said Hap, feeling sorry for his outburst in the company of a respected elder. “I was just looking for an answer to my question.”

“Me too, Hap, me too,” the Omniscient assured him. “But I must read further into a situation in order to remember what will happen to you. I take the clues I’m given, accompanied by an age-respected art,” she said, glancing at his hands, “and try to sort them out. Do you see now why people entrust themselves with me?”

“Yes, I guess so,” said Hap.

“I have to tackle things logically,” she said.

“I guess you do.”

“So let’s continue,” said the Omniscient. “Logically. Have you thought about running away? Just packing what you can grab and blowing town?”

Hap admitted that he had, almost immediately, upon hearing the news.

“Why haven’t you then?”

This was a tough question. There were many things to accomplish before he left. Putting the family farm up on the market, writing out his will, selling his business, explaining the situation to his fiancé. If he were to simply leave, the people that relied upon him most, the workers he employed, the Festival Director, not to mention Dosa, would be left alone to bear the brunt of his responsibilities, and Hap couldn’t live with that, no matter how far he ran. But then again, he’d still be alive.

“So then you believe you have a choice, to stay or go?” asked the Omniscient.

“Even though it might hurt the others, I think, deep down, I’m going to have to leave them,” he said, lowering his head.

“Maybe I can help you with your troubles, Hap. Consider this. Let’s say you have a choice in whether you will live or die. Let’s agree that if you choose to stay, you will die on Saturday. But if you choose to leave, then you will not die on Saturday.”

“I should leave,” said Hap plainly. “I choose not to die.”

The Omniscient held up a finger, one eye slightly closed, asking for his consideration. “So let’s say Saturday comes, and you do not die. That means that today, you really did not have it in your power to choose to die, because whatever you did, it resulted in you not dying. But let’s say Saturday comes, and you die. That means that today, you really didn’t have the power to choose to not to die. In either case, you never had a real choice in the matter. All the choices you could have made today eventually led you to what happens on Saturday. You are powerless to fate.”

“What’s going to happen is what’s going to happen,” said Happenworth.

The Omniscient’s green eyes flared like torches. “The ants are in the kitchen, Hap. They are leaving a trail that tells the others where to find the jam, just as I’m sure out there,” she said, motioning toward the window, “your name is being whispered behind the walls of a hundred households. They have already begun to mourn you, Hap. Events are being planned in your honor. The process has begun.”

“Can you help me?”

“You ask as if I have some power to do so, Hap. But I have none. On Saturday, on the street behind you, you will be run down in broad daylight, in front of the people you love and care for, and who love and care for you.”

Hap controlled his impulse to weep right there at the table and instead felt around his pockets for his wallet, remembering then he had no cash left with which to pay Wissawassy for her services. “I can’t pay you,” he said.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Mr. Ilkarmen,” the Omniscient countered, reaching into a nearby cabinet to withdraw an old-fashioned sliding credit card reader. “Our debts are our debts.”

As he signed the paper receipt, she added, “Make your peace, Hap.” She ripped off the yellow copy and handed it to him. “I have faith in you. One way or another, I know you’ll do right by your community.”

“I’ll try,” he said, rising. “And please, thank Judy for her hospitality.”

The Omniscient gave him a queer look. “Judy? My sister Judy? Why, Mr. Ilkarmen, she’s been dead for years now. Or will be dead. Ha!” She tapped her head. “Senior moments.”

Hap couldn’t be sure what the Omniscient spit into her palm as he opened the front door to leave, looking back, but he was sure that it was blue.

Back on the sidewalk Hap stood staring at himself in the two-way mirror of the Omniscient’s shop, wondering if she was looking back at him, and whether she was dead or alive in there, or both.