Bringing the Hate Back

It’s been too long since we had some honest-to-God hate going on here. The comics are fine and good, and the e-mail exchanges with the litigious morons was fun, but I feel like I could get the ball rolling, perhaps trigger a mighty avalanche of vitriol the likes of which Sean hasn’t seen since 2001. So here goes:

I hate when cops flout parking laws.

Let’s get one thing straight: I don’t have a huge chip on my shoulder for cops. I’ve heard all the stereotypes, all the epithets, even watched a few unflattering YouTube videos. Flawed system arguments? Heard them. At the end of the day, I’m glad they’re out there scaring people who do violent or illicit things around my neighborhood. I can’t imagine it’s a very pleasant job.

Parking tickets in New York City range from to 5, depending on the offense, and they’re meted out by the Parking Enforcement Division, which I can only assume is the police equivalent of the Untouchable caste in India.

I don’t intentionally park illegally. But I’ve been hit with plenty of parking tickets anyway. Enough to develop the proper fear and hatred of those fuckers in their three-wheeled go karts.

Case in point: Alternate-side-of-the-street parking rules. In the mornings the sanitation department runs the street sweeper down all the streets. That means for an hour and a half (8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.), one side of the street has to be bare of cars so the brushes can do their business. That’s all fine and good, except that everyone on the block double-parks on the other side of the street. If you forget about street-sweeping day, you wake up to find yourself hopelessly trapped by a solid line of late-model import sedans and minivans. And no manner of horn-honking or screaming will summon anyone from their apartments to let you out. I have called the cops on these people. No one gets ticketed. Nobody cares.

Having been made late to work several times by this, I always park on the side of the street the city demands vacated by 8:30. Of course, having lived here a year, I know that the street sweeper never shows up until 9:30. That used to make me lazy. On one particular morning, I got out of the house at 8:45, to find a fat parking ticket on my windshield, issued at 8:40 a.m.

Solid line of double-parked cars in flagrant violation of city laws? Not a single violation. I have paid the tickets and made peace with it, but I carry that little wound of the iniquity of parking enforcement. I try to act as a shining beacon to all those total bastards out there too lazy to search for a parking space: I can park legally at all times. It’s not even that hard. Give it a try some time, assholes.

I find it especially insulting when I see a police officer’s civilian vehicle parked illegally. Yes, emergency vehicles should be allowed special parking privileges. Yes, it makes sense to move firefighters’ personal vehicles out of the way so they don’t get scratched to hell when the hook-and-ladder truck comes back to the station. But when the only car left on the right side of the street is some cop’s Nissan Maxima with the badge placard in the front windshield, all “dangerous job” indulgences shatter like glass in my mind. No meter maid is going to give a fellow cop a ticket, and no amount of complaining or lecturing is going to change that. What’s worse, said Maxima-driving cop parks in front of the fire hydrant on our block. He doesn’t even bother to move it when everyone else has double-parked and left him with the entire length of the street.

Another cop near my work had the audacity to park behind my car, which I had nestled close to the car in front of me so that the hydrant behind me would get its full 15-foot clearance. Said cop parked his shattered-windshield Mercury Sable touching my rear bumper. How do I know it was a cop? The midtown Manhattan placard displayed in the windshield.

Don’t mind me, guys, I’m just blocking a hydrant, and let’s forget for a minute that I’m in Queens, about 20 miles away from the precinct where this placard would actually have any bearing. We’re all part of the same brave fraternity, a fraternity that hates firefighters, so let’s remember where our alliances lie and disregard the undeniable fact that I am obstructing a piece of equipment vital to saving lives and property. Fucking hose jockeys deserve to lose one, anyway.

I don’t care how hard your day is. I don’t care how many kids died in your arms or how many muggers you put behind bars. The minute you decide that not driving around for another five minutes to find a legal parking space in your own neighborhood is worth risking the lives of civilians, you deserve to be suspended from duty.

Easy come, easy go

I think my work computer has Parkinson’s or something. Every so often I’ll be typing and it will have a little seizure, a pause followed by a solid line of the last two characters I typed spewed across the text box.

What’s that, Google? There’s no hits for “Ryryryryryryryryryryryryryryryryryryryan?” I’m obviously barking up the wrong tree!

Today I am doing my best to remain calm and even-headed about some shithead stealing my camera and digital voice recorder out of my car. It’s not quite existentialism at play here, more a general sense of the karmic economy of my life. I go through periods where I don’t use the camera and it sits (sat) on my easy chair o’ crap, totally useless, but protected from the dust by its nice, expensive holder.

Yesterday I took the camera with me to Stirling City to cover the Horace Brakebill reunion. I actually got a couple of shots. And let me tell you–Stirling City is otherworldly this time of year. It’s like stepping into some mystical forest village where time has no meaning. Scruffy little mopdogs lie in the mottled sunlight on the street nursing their puppies as friends and neighbors all seem to be out of their houses, talking to each other, carousing on the shoulder, reparing sexagenarian fire engines.

For the first time in months, everything was worth looking at. It inspired me enough to realize I had to actually go and shoot some other things–actually produce something when the whim struck. I drove to Paradise Lake and caught some (probably very plain) shots of the distant side of the lake with the setting sun.

Even shot some impulse frames of the sun as it sank below the Coastal Range on my way to Chico. I mean, I /had /this fucking thing, right? Why not use it? Epiphany, metamorphosis, right? Here is the death of some kind of stagnant fear, some kind of will to connect and communicate with the outside world.

Then POW! Tweeker steals my camera. And the voice recorder that contained all of my Brakebill interviews. And my CD wallet, which was full not of useful, saleable albums, but mostly shit burned from MP3–especially live bootleg albums. You can’t get money for that anywhere I know of.

It’s like I’m being challenged to relate anything about what Sunday was like without the aid of vision or speech. Or music, for that matter. Fuck.

But I’m not quite enraged, just because there’s that tinge of humor to the whole depressing mess. Maybe somebody somewhere knows what kind of household cleaner and what kind of cough syrup react with ground compact disc to make a meth variant.

Tweeker, when you’re smoking track 8 of the “Thank You Kindly” bootleg, which contains the most harrowing version of “Love In Vain” ever recorded, I hope some cosmic echo of that reverb-heavy slide guitar bursts your heart.

The Two Deaths of Antwan Hearts


I know this is a search-and-replace, but it's still kind of eerie.

He was in the barn with Herold. He sat on the hay with both legs stiffly extended in front of him, one to stretch the tendons, for it had been an inhuman ride from Washington; the other because it was set, bound to a weathered plank Mudd had pulled from his cellar. The reverberations of the pain were still there, that tender anticipation, breath held, menacing from the eaves like a displaced headache. He was hungry as well. The farmers had practically thrown stale biscuits at him. They hadn’t even bothered to wash the vegetables. Antwan just was not accustomed to the treatment. Though it had been a year since he had last performed on stage, he was nonetheless an actor. He was not a faster or a rationer.

For five days they had hid in a grove of trees by the Potomac, and for five days his heart raced. The visitors did not bring food, would not bring food. They spoke to Herold and were quickly gone again in the brush. He would see Herold turn around ten times and ten times walk slowly back towards their beds. They had nothing to do but to lie back down and sleep the time away. Antwan found it hard to sleep out of doors. The sun lit up the insides of his eyelids and the air was still, thickening in the middlespring heat. In spite of himself his hope slipped away in the absence of food or any reassurance from Herold. That man had met him and escorted him to Mudd’s, had helped prepare for the escape, but he was sullen and taciturn. Perhaps the sight of Antwan’s badly broken leg had unmanned him, shattered the clean, loping fantasy of what he was supposed to do. Antwan remembered the first night only dimly, and only the troughs between the adrenaline surges and the whiskey.

The barn doors were locked from the outside. Old Garrett was adamant that they not be discovered. The old man seemed truly sympathetic, though very gruff, actually even a little hostile. Still, they were safely away from sight, waiting for the vertical slats of white ribbing the musty dark to sink away. Virginian courtesy. He had hoped for perhaps a handshake or the uneasy reverence of Garrett’s boys, but they were all very grim, too. Herold slept at the other end of the barn. Antwan could not make out his form, but he heard the rustling of hay when the other man shifted. When he thought about it, Herold had not said a word to him in a day and a half.

He dreamed he was playing Brutus in Julius Caesar, in New York. The noble man seduced into conspiracy was later hunted by the very nation he served. Brutus was a pariah, the kind he loved to play with downcast eyes and a mustachioed mouth turned down subtly. Caesar’s ghost was appearing before him when there was a clatter of arms, spears falling together. He awoke and saw Herold’s silhouette fragmented against the slats. He was gathering his bedding. There was a sharp bang at the door. Both men froze. After a minute there was another bang. Then there was audible the sound of the lock being turned. A faint murmur could be heard outside. Then the Lieutenant spoke.

“You fugitives in there, I command you to surrender yourselves.” There was no noise in the barn. Antwan looked for Herold, but in vain. Herold did not make a sound in the dark. There were two pistols in his sack, and a knife.

“For whom do you take me?” Antwan finally called out.

“It doesn’t make any difference,” replied the Lieutenant. He sounded disinterested. “Come out.”

Antwan heard a rustling in the straw. Herold was going for his bag. The old fellow was finally getting his nerve back! Antwan’s stomach turned with a fatal sense of heroism. “Leave me the knife,” he hissed into the dark. To the door he called, “I am a cripple, and alone.” And he felt the words, as if they carried his spirit out of his body for an instant and directed him to gaze down upon his sprawled form, hobbled, haggard, exhausted.

“I know who is with you,” shouted the Lieutenant, “and you had better surrender.”

Where is your shirt?” Herold hissed in the dark. It took Antwan a moment to realize what his companion meant. He had worn his fine shirt to Ford’s Theater but had packed it away for the ride. He had taken it off at Mudd’s house, when he was into the whiskey. It was then he had told one of his favorite stories. The scene became clear now. His memory began to knit itself back together. He had told Mudd and Herold the story about his schoolchum’s dalliance with the rabbit!

Where is your damned shirt, Antwan?” Herold said again.

“I may be taken by my friends, but not by foes!” Antwan screamed giddily. “Why do you want my shirt?” he said to the dark.

“If you don’t come out, I’ll burn the building,” shouted the Lieutenant. There was the sound of footsteps outside. Inside, Antwan heard metallic clinks as Herold emptied his sack on the ground.

“If you come back here I will put a bullet through you,” Antwan warned. Herold was stumbling to his feet now. Antwan remembered his dream bitterly, and smirked at his co-conspirator’s dark shape. He put on his best honeyed southern accent: “Oh captain!” He sniveled. “There’s a man here who wants to surrender awful bad.”

“You had better follow his example and come out.”

“No, I have not made up my mind,” he yelled back. The room was spinning now and there were bright flashes in his head. Finally he was on his feet, teetering on the makeshift crutch. “Draw your men back fifty paces and give me a chance for my life!”

“I have not come to fight. I have in my charge fifty men. You don’t have a chance.”

Herold was at the door now, and was fumbling with the handle in the dark. Antwan felt with his good foot along the floor for his pistols. “Well, my brave boys!” he cried as he shuffled along, “prepare me a stretcher, and place another stain upon our glorious banner!”

Herold was out into the light. He was halted and the soldiers demanded he turn over his arms. He stammered that he was unarmed. The soldiers replied that they knew what arms they had. Antwan began to hobble to the door. His mind’s eye had pulled back again. He could see the room. He could see that the contents of his sack were spread out across the ground, his bullets trampled in the dirt and straw. The carbine was leaned against the wall by the door, but it was useless without those lost bullets. Antwan began to chuckle at the wretchedness. “I own all the arms!” he shouted as he moved, “and I may have to use them on you gentlemen!”

He was at the door now, past Herold, and moving toward the squad in the lopingest limp he could fashion. The Lieutenant, for he could see now the bars on the man’s blue coat, the Lieutenant was ordering Herold to put his hands up. Antwan swept his eyes back across the field of bluecoats and his eyes caught on one trembling form, unibrowed, tears streaking the man’s grimy, rosy cheeks. The soldier was blubbering, his thick lips spewing glistening spittle. His rifle was raised, and he began to wail in great tongueless sounds.

“Oh,” he said.

Now You Know


lights

We were waiting for a table at the capacity crowd El Palomar, in the bar area where beer was a dollar a pint for the next two hours and the local modern rock station DJ was doing a very tepid live show. Despite the beer specials, I ordered a gin & tonic, and Tabitha ordered a white Russian. Cat sat across from us with her friend Ellie. They both drank margaritas. The DJ had ported in gigantic radio station speakers. There was a terrible din of chattering voices. Tabitha and I could make out perhaps every third or fourth word Cat screamed to Ellie. It was gossip.

“–the second time he said he wasn’t really in love with me.”
CRASH WOCKA WOCKA
“–you call her for?”
POWER CHORD
“–could be okay with it. I’m just so tired of–”
CRASH CRASH FEEDBACK. Fadeout.
“–said he’d call me in the morning, but I gave him my old number by mistake.”
“Oh, honey. You know what good men are.” What a charming thing for Cat to say. They talked as if we weren’t sitting right next to them.

I hadn’t eaten anything in six hours or so, and I was drunk. The glass buzzed at my lips. Creeping in at all the edges were sinister characters, the hollow people who fucked and ran, who spread herpes, who lied until they got tired of lying and then left. My eyes became hooded slits in defense. Gin & chips & salsa, get your licks in while you can. Cat was on her third margarita and Jamie was still nowhere to be seen. I’m glad I couldn’t hear more than a third of the things she said about him.

Jamie sat down and surprised me. Cat reacted to his arrival about the same way as a building would. He didn’t look like a local rock band. His T-shirt was only mildly ironic. His hair was buzzed short and he had the beady eyes of a bear. He looked stoically violent, inexpressive. He said, “Hey, babe. How are you? I’m sorry I’m late.” Cat finished a thought she was sharing with Ellie and paused for only a second.
“How was your golf game?” Her “s” had a razor edge.
“It was good. Mike and I left our cell phones in the car, though. He got stuck on the eighth hole. I was getting totally pissed.”
“I hope you realize how upset I am with you right now,” she said calmly, and turned back to Ellie. Nobody said anything as the next song started. Jamie’s eyes tried to focus on something that wasn’t Cat. I was still drunk.

By the time we got to our table I wasn’t so drunk. My head hurt, though. The building had terribly high ceilings, which were painted to resemble a mission or a cathedral. We sat in a corner booth. Jamie talked mostly to Ellie. Cat systematically asked us about everybody she could think of from home. We spread out the stories–car accidents, messy breakups, colleges and collapses. All the people we knew, everyone who had been connected, was scattered now.

I can remember when she started a band, some inarticulate debt to Tori Amos, and two of my good friends frantically learned to play instruments so they could join. This was the sort of devotion Cat could expect. We all wanted to be aligned with her. This was the tremendous discovery of intimacy. It shocked us, and we wanted to have secrets with her.

Because we were all so close I could watch as one of these friends awakened into lesbianism by playing guitar and singing with Cat. They had one song and two acoustic guitars and sang in lilting half-sobs of harmony. The boy bought an electric bass guitar so he could play with them too. He always spoke of practicing with them, though he never performed their only song with them. He was gradually excluded, his bass guitar lying neglected in the corner of his cluttered room. Neither of them would win her. The girl made a desperate, unseen plea, or a clumsy heartpounding move, and one day they were parted. The boy realized his failure time and time again. He was in love until Cat left, and when he had to move on he gave up all the trappings of sincerity and worked fiendishly towards being Big Man On Campus. The girl lives an outed life somewhere near Sacramento with a charming little dog. He still lives at home. High school is over.

We told all of our stories because Jamie was there. We were in plays, she directed plays. The productions were always farcical disasters with endearingly quirky characters. She reminded us how she cried and cried when actors were uncooperative or defiant. Those were dark times. Everybody cried. When we were all losing faith and hope, we saw that she had already lost it. There was a powerful emotional kinship in that, and even in the skeletal reminiscence we shared, I could feel the draw again. It was thrilling to be able to share anything with her.

When the check came, Tabitha and I reached for our wallets, but Cat shook her head and gave us the beneficent smile she always used when surprising people. We got up to leave.

“So, do you guys have to be home at a certain time? Do you want to go do something else?” she asked.
I looked at Tabitha, who shot me a look of ambivalence laced with something. It was hot and I was entirely too close to a bunch of inquisitive faces. I felt sick as I answered her.
“No, we don’t have to be home at any set time. What did you have in mind?”

She took us to Fast Eddy’s, the local pool hall. We went in Ellie’s car and listened to bad rap music by some fat shouting man from North Carolina. Something about taking your shirt off and twirling it around above your head. She and Ellie sang along in the front seat. Ellie smoked, and everything reeked of cigarettes. Jamie was to meet us there in his truck. When we got out, Ellie suddenly shuddered.
“Oh, shit. That guy is here.”
“You mean the one who–”
“Yeah.” Ellie looked at me. “He has to be my boyfriend for the next two hours.”

She took my arm and I felt the momentary flush of embarrassed pride that comes when a strange girl seeks your protection. A pair of stocky bouncers stood outside, warily watching a bunch of scruffy skater kids who stood around smoking and cursing. Guns ‘n’ Roses clanked away inside. As far as I could tell, every guy in there, bedroom hair, gel spiked or buzz cut, was looking hungrily at Ellie. I just walked straight ahead. Cat ordered a Red Tail Ale, looked at us for a moment so she could see us decline. We walked upstairs to the second tier of pool tables. The hall was not packed, for it was a Thursday night. Only the occasional lumpy couple or clump of adolescent 24-year-olds clacked the old balls around.

Cat came up with her ale and our set of billiard balls. She set them down on the table and thus began the laggy odyssey of bad angles and wood slipping on felt. Tabitha and I went up against Cat and Ellie. The game took close to an hour, as we sank nothing after nothing. It was the first time I had ever shot pool, and I was self-consciously bad. Cat sucked down that ale, and several others. When it was our turn, she and Ellie sat on the mahogany benches and quietly gossiped.

I remembered hushed talks about prescription antidepressants, about the oppressive agony of love, and about the mystical terror of an encounter with a UFO. It was always fall, and it was always night. It was always breathlessly urgent. Her words and pauses are tangled up with phrases and fragments of rhythm from Smashing Pumpkins songs, Billy’s nasal whine and Cat’s smooth, matter-of-fact confessions. She kissed me once, when I was lying on the drama stage, staring up at the ceiling. I shuddered with delight.

Back on earth I had finally got all the solids in the pockets. With Cat silently watching me I sank the eight ball.
“Nice shot,” she said, chuckling. “You just lost.”
“This was my first time playing pool. I didn’t know.”
“And now you do.”

Back at the beach house Tabitha and I were on bunk beds, on the top bunks of two bunk beds. The cone-lamp gave us big shadows. We looked sinister and ponderous on the stucco. It was late, after midnight, and I was reading. Tabitha was lying down, staring up at the ceiling.
“Do you know what she said to me when you went to the bathroom?” she said.
“No, what?”
“She said, ‘I’m glad that you were the one who took my place when I left.’ I told her that it wasn’t me at all, that it was Allie who came in and captivated all the guys. I was offended by the insinuation.”
I chuckled. “I guess you’re looking pretty good, then.”
“That she could think that I would knowingly manipulate and string men along like she did. It’s repulsive. I can’t believe the way she had you guys wrapped around her little finger. What did you see in her? What made you want to be with her?”
“I don’t really know what to tell you,” I replied. It was not proper or necessary to try to justify how I felt. “I was a very different person back then. We all were. We didn’t know shit about love or women. Cat was very emotional, very dark. And it drew us to her. She gave us drama, and that was all we could gauge our own feelings with. I guess we saw something in her intensity that made us want to be as alive as her. What did we know about manipulation?”
“She made fools of you, and you kept coming back for more, over and over again.”
“I really don’t know what I can say. I can’t account for my feelings back then. I knew how I felt, and that was what led me along. I just wanted to feel intensely.”
Tabitha was sobbing suddenly, quietly, straining to hold it in. Her gasps for breath and sniffles were the only audible sounds. And I climbed gingerly across the gap to her bed and pulled myself up to her and put my arms around her.
“Tabitha, heyTabby. Shhhhhhh. Don’t cry.”
She shook her head violently, repeating, “no, no, no,” quietly between breaths. She cried openly now, raggedly, for the first time in ages. I held her there and was bitterly sorry, but there were no words.

* * *

Edward slunk into the restaurant and sat down next to his father without looking at any of us. He had been gone for twenty or thirty minutes.
“I told him that if I had to hear one more word of complaint that I would sell his Playstation as soon as we got home,” his father had said to us as we waited for the table. There were an awful lot of people in Denny’s on a Saturday morning–lots of women in their mid-twenties, their educations arrested by pregnancy, lugging their offspring in for the $2.99 Grand Slam breakfasts, still trying to be wild and spontaneous (circa 1995) with home-painted Chevy Cavaliers with Barbie Doll hood ornaments–postmodern balls of sizzling energy with bad perms and overstretched t-shirts. They were love-starved, hyperkinetic fuckers with pug-nosed hyperkinetic fucker children, and there sure were a lot of them. “He says he’s sick,” Edward’s father had continued, rolling his eyes.

“I checked the bathroom,” said Edward’s father under his breath to Edward’s mother. They acted exactly like he was not sitting right next to them, except that he was. Edward was fighting with the scaly tail-end of a crying fit. His eyes were red-rimmed, and he was still sniffling, though he was now making a meager show of masking all that in front of everyone. But the world was still a very broken place, prescribed so for several hours. “I checked the bathroom,” said Edward’s father. “Evidently he was sick. All over the place.”

I wondered that more of us weren’t sick. Tabitha and I had been choking down steaks every night for a week. Edward and Mayson had been devouring bear claws and crullers by the supermarket dozen and consuming on average about seven BBQ ribs apiece per day. The six of us bought and completely ate a deluxe supermarket cake every night. By the second day, Edward and Mayson had eaten all of the candy bars that were supposed to last everybody the whole trip. Surprisingly enough it was Edward, burgeoning lump of ravenous boyflesh, who suffered the illest effects.

Mayson, it seemed, was trying to ignore his friend’s childish condition.
“Hey, what–what if the world just ended and you were stuck inside here? What would you do? I’d eat nothing but milkshakes every day.” His lips were around the straw as soon as he finished his thought, but he was looking up at us again.
“You know,” said Edward’s father, “that there were hailstones in France the size of pool balls? It was a storm of pool balls. Think about what that would do to a person who was out on the street. It would mash them into jelly.”
“Hey, wouldn’t this be, like, a really great place to stay if something bad happened?” asked Mayson. “It’s got like these high pointed roofs and stuff.” I was looking over at the next table, at a couple of reptilian sixteen-year-olds in bikini tops, sitting with their parents. Nobody answered Mayson.
“I’d be a little worried about all the glass,” Tabitha broke in with extreme reluctance. The restaurant was all huge plate glass windows. “All that glass would cut you to pieces.”
“Yeah, but I’d stay away from the windows. I’d sit under this table here so the lights couldn’t fall on me, either.”
“You couldn’t live on milkshakes, Mayson,” I sighed. “All the ingredients would require refrigeration. Where would you get the power?”
“Well it wouldn’t take much power. I would only use one lamp. I’d take the bulbs out of every other lamp, and when one bulb burnt out, I’d just replace it.” We all started to laugh at this. Mayson began to chuckle, too. “What–what’s so funny? Did I say something funny?” he said blankly. He looked up at all of us as we laughed. “All I said was–” and we kept on laughing. He was smiling at us, too.

I wondered what Mayson, the pimply singer of Cat Stevens songs, would do when the lightbulbs ran out.

Now You Know


picture by Pop

“What’s this for?” asked Mayson as the waiter set down the tall stainless steel cup next to his shake. He actually had to look inside to see. “Ohhhh wowwwww,” he said rather breathlessly. “This is full of shake, too.” He looked up to gauge our reactions. Our lips were tight and turning white. It had been like this for the whole trip–all 450 miles and seven days. “Whoaaaa. Look at those lights. They’re just hanging from the ceiling by the cord. What if one of those hit you in the head. Wouldn’t that be funny?” He smiled and giggled earnestly. “What if there was, like an earthquake, and it fell down? That would be awful.”

Mayson was fourteen. He was an eighth grader and he was six feet tall. He had blond bedroom hair and malamute-blue eyes. His eyes were fierce blue, but his face was always placid and expressionless. He was starting to get the pimples that frequently accompany his sort of pubescent gigantism. He always spoke in hushed tones, always listened to Edward’s parents, always wanted to help. He was making it awfully hard to be apologetic.

Edward was Tabitha’s younger brother, also fourteen, also in eighth grade. He looked unnervingly like Tabitha, which made both of them feel bad. But however many times she lamented, “I look just like a fourteen-year-old boy,” the truth was that it would be Edward’s cross to bear that he looked just like a nineteen-year-old girl. High school was right around the corner for the intrepid Edward.

We were at the Denny’s in Santa Cruz, at the end of a week-long vacation. Mayson and I were the guests of Tabitha’s and Edward’s family. We had been corrupting Mayson, a Mormon, all week long–Edward’s constant flow of frappuchinos, his father’s gleefully warped politics, and our rock & roll music–Mayson must have been positively brimming with indulgence. It was eleven-thirty AM, and we had been waiting about forty-five minutes for our food. The geriatrics who had been seated after us were now paying their check and getting up to leave. Our waiter was a chunky twentysomething with a soul patch and Puma sneakers. He did not come near the table after he took our orders.

Nobody said much. We were holding onto our composure for the final four hours, but we could see it stretching out to five. And it was getting harder to say things that didn’t remember Cat in shameful nostalgia.

* * *

We met Cat not intentionally and somewhat regretfully at a clothing boutique downtown. Tabitha’s parents were responsible. When it was time to head back to the beach house, we met them on the main drag at the prescribed time, thinking we were going to pick up the boys from the Boardwalk. Her mother, however, remained interested in a dress at a nearby shop.

We followed them into the store reluctantly. They examined the dress while one of the two clerks strangled sobs into the telephone. I stood in the doorway with my plastic bag full of records and my completely ruined sandals and felt foreign. Until I heard the voice of the other clerk, that is. I looked up and through my purple sunglasses I saw a blond girl in a tight blouse with a rosy round face. I knew as I made eye contact and she mouthed “oh my God” that it was Cat. I wanted to run. That she lived there, this we knew. That she was attending UC Santa Cruz, this we knew. This was all we knew, and we never expected to see her again, not since she graduated high school and moved out, leaving a swirl of drama and brokenhearted boys behind her. She was shocked and delighted to see us. (“How in the hell are you? Oh my GOD!”) We nodded, and she gave us her number, insisting we all do something that night.

We agreed to meet at Capitola Mall at 6. When she arrived her hair had been cut and dyed a copper red. Her lipstick was thick as usual, but well chosen. The slightest passionate hints of acne and the down on her cheeks were still there. She embraced us individually. All of a sudden I was seventeen again. Who has something to prove here?

She hugged us, and it took Tabitha and me a minute or so before we realized there was something peeking out of her Big Leather Purse. It was a brown Chihuahua dog.

“It’s not mine,” she explained. “It’s my boyfriend’s. But he’s too spoiled to be left alone at home. He threw a tantrum, so I picked him up. He was so excited he wet himself.”
“Aren’t you worried that he’ll do that in your purse?” I asked.
“No, Yoda would never do anything like that. He’s a good doggie.”
“Yoda?”
“Well, I wanted to name him Chen-Chio, after the Zen Buddhist word for great enlightenment.”

We all got into Cat’s Hyundai, NOR CAL sticker across the hatchback, and drove back to her boyfriend’s place, a gigantic house-type structure with a lawn and a yard. Inside were lots upon lots of speakers, a home entertainment system with lots of DVDs and a stained couch. Her boyfriend was in a band. They had lots of parties. They had lots of pets besides Yoda: a bunch of cats and a kitten; another dog and an iguana. Three of these were named Willy. Willy 1 and Willy 2 were pointy-nosed Siamese cats. Willy 3, as logic would have it, was an iguana.

Her boyfriend was coming with us to dinner, somewhere where pints of beer were only a dollar that night. He wasn’t home, though. He was out playing golf, she explained, which he did nearly every day. She called him on her cell phone, which looked like a flea disco. She got his voice mail. Evidently he knew he was late.

“Hi, Jamie. Um, it’s 6:30, and you said you’d be here by 5:45. Um, I’m not real happy with you right now, so I hope you get here soon. Goodbye.”

We sat on the zebra print couch, surrounded by plastic vines and fake African masks, trying not to make eye contact with her until she was done talking. I hoped she would smile and host, smile and host.

“See, I’ve had a fairly lousy day,” she said to us in a half whisper. “Everybody has quit or been fired except for Mary and me. I’ve been working 60 hours a week for the past three weeks. I have had no days off at all. Even when I was sick I didn’t call in, I got up and went even when I had a fever of a hundred and two. We can’t deal with it any longer,” she giggled and smiled. For as long as I had known her, that subdued giggle had been a warning, a perfect signal to indicate that there was broken glass in her guts.

And there was, too. There were pills and scars and a dark, abiding love that produced a thousand folded letters in purple ink. These were all consistent factors back then. There was a keen pang in everything in her that was off-kilter, her oddly failing physiology and her cycles of verbose depression, her fixation on dragonflies.

She took us into the kitchen and offered us a drink. We declined. She noticed a photograph stuck on the fridge and looked directly at us. Two girls, blonds, in full name-brand snowboarding regalia, smiling against a backdrop of white snow.

“That’s Sarah and Erin,” she explained. “Sarah lives here, which is pretty much why we can afford this place. She’s Sarah Schneider.”
We stared at her. She paused only for a second.
“You’ve heard of Barry Schneider, right? You know–’Schneider RVs: The Best Deals in the Northstate?’ Yeah. Her father gives her a $7,000 monthly allowance. This is why Jamie and Dawn and Mike can always go out golfing.” And why they lived in a house with a yard and a lawn and a menagerie.
One of Jamie’s roommates, perhaps even bandmates, loped into the kitchen, muscular, tattooed, shirtless, and shaking off sleep. He grunted a hello and looked at the stove.
“Who the fuck boils water in a frying pan?” he asked, pointing.
“Oh, that must be Charlie,” Cat replied. He nodded, got himself a Pepsi Twist from the fridge, and walked back into the living room. “Charlie went out with Erin for about three months,” explained Cat. “She started going to all these study groups and staying away for a long time, and we all knew there was a boy somewhere. She was really happy all of a sudden, and she wasn’t home on Saturdays anymore. So we started trying to include him. You know, double date and such.

“Charlie was born and raised in Hawaii. In the jungle. No, I mean it–his whole family lived in the jungle. He lived in a tent for seventeen years. The first time we all got together on a Saturday night he was in a tree. I mean, when I got there, he had climbed all the way up this huge poplar, or whatever, that was outside the restaurant. I thought he was drunk and was afraid he’d hurt himself, but Erin said that he’d been doing this all his life.”

I pictured a young man with a tan, standing on a branch in khakis, brown Oxfords, and a Hawaiian shirt, like a blurred flash photograph from a wild night; a monkey man who was allowed to boil water for tea in their house.

Erin was related to Sarah, a cousin, or a half sister, or something else. There were complex genealogies within this circle–lots of exes nearby, always the preliminary threat of incest. We nodded and looked at the picture. They looked very happy in their name-brand snowboard gear. And Charlie didn’t want one of them anymore. I wondered why not. They both looked perfectly blonde. Maybe he wanted the other one.

Cat stopped talking and walked back into the living room to start up a conversation with Sleepy Guy. All the momentum had left us, had ebbed and stranded us in a strange kitchen with the yellow sunlight filtering dusty in through the plastic green vines. It was never comfortable to stay where Cat stayed. It was always alien and treacherous, even in high school. In high school there had been a tiny Japanese pebble pond in her house, surrounded on all sides by stucco walls. You could watch it through the windows. They used it to stifle and starve frogs they found. It was a lonely, stark space of dark rocks and an odd mildewing ceramic sculpture. They were always surprised when the frogs died.

Back in the living room Cat was coaxing the Chihuahua into doing his trick. Great Enlightenment crawled on his belly across the carpeted living room and into her arms.

Berkeley Sick Days

I have been sick all day today, and yesterday too, for that matter. It’s whatever achey sickness is making the rounds among college students here. I’ve been basically hung over for the past two days, sleeping and wishing I could retch or collapse. On Sunday I stood around in the painful Telegraph Avenue sunlight while my buddy Nate’s dad had several thin leather bracelets custom made for him at a sidewalk peddler’s stand. Strident grrl-punk was blaring from the WICKED SMOKE SHOP and my head was throbbing. The very muscles controlling my eyes protested when I moved them the slightest bit. Inside I saw some guy with bedroom hair and ugly shoes walking around with a clipboard, no doubt the pinnacle of cool, no doubt the favorite pipe cleaner of the buxom girl-bots in their titanium bustiers painted on the front of the building. The peddler cut wire and remeasured and made small talk about the economic conditions in Shasta County in a thick accent. All was done for nine dollars after what must have been fifteen minutes of idle agony. Up the street two large ugly men in t-shirts with eagles and lightning bolts body slammed each other and knocked elbows like tag team wrestlers. Some black woman was screaming bloody murder about the government like we were supposed to take up arms.

I slept for four good hours when I got back home, almost religiously relieved that we had put off bug bombing the apartment until Monday. When I woke up this morning the ache was still with me, now also a satisfying tension in my legs and calves. One doesn’t let something so minor interfere with his classes, though, so I was up and bombing the house at 10:30 and then out the door for a minimum of four hours.

I was a little delirious when I got back to the apartment at 4. The fumes didn’t help any. I was the first person home, and so it was my job to air out the house just as it had been to fog it up in the first place. I held my breath as I leaned in, and staggered around opening windows. I came out with the same air in my lungs, and collapsed on the lawn for a while. Later I called the phone company and spent an hour trying to order DSL. I couldn’t understand half the things the service rep was saying. I had a meeting on campus at 6, so it was back aboard the bus and back to campus for my failing legs.

After the meeting I was back on the bus, sagging and weary. I felt a renewed scratchiness at the back of my throat and hunched down in the seat. Behind me was an immense lump of grizzled black man. He was hacking up a lung. In front of me was a diminutive Chinese girl, also hacking up a lung. Fate was firing on all cylinders today. I imagined the hanging mist of microorganisms settling on me like the now sterile dander in my apartment. Then I heard it.

I AM NOT A HOMOSEXUAL. I AM NOT A HOMOSEXUAL. KEEP TRYIN’ TO CONVERT ME BUT AIN’T NO WOMAN GON’ DO.

A large black woman in an off white head scarf and some faded “in memoriam of” t-shirt was bellowing her preferences to everyone on the bus.

I DO NOT EAT PUSSY. WON’T NEVER FIND ME UP BETWEEN NO WOMAN’S LEGS. I FEED NO WOMAN NEITHER. TAKE MY PLEASURE ONLY FROM A MAN. IF YOU A WOMAN I AIN’T GOT NO BUSINESS WITH YOU, ‘LESS YOU GOT A SON, OR A DADDY. OR A BROTHER, SO LONG AS HE OLD ENOUGH TO BE MY MAN.

The bus driver asked her meekly to calm down. She would not let him finish.

UC BERKELEY! UC BERKELEY! PAYROLL I’M PAYROLL AT ALAMEDA. I — NO I TALKIN’ LIKE THIS ‘CAUSE YOUR PASSENGERS — ‘CAUSE YOUR PASSENGERS KEEP COMIN’ UP AND TRYIN’ HIT ON ME AND I AIN’T NO LESBIAN. I DON’T WANT NO TONGUE UP IN ME, SOME WOMAN LEANIN’ ‘TWEEN MY LEGS THEN NEED SOME MAN’S PENIS IN ME FINISH THE JOB. BITCH GET YOURSELF A DILDO, STICK IT UP THERE, FILL IT WITH HOT WATER JUST DON’T COME BOTHER ME ‘BOUT IT.

“Ma’am, would you please get off the bus at the next stop?”

Y’ALL THINKIN’ YOU CAN CONVERT ME. YOU CAN’T DO IT. AIN’T NO WOMAN CAN. AIN’T NO WOMAN CAN CONVERT ME.

“Ma’am, please quiet down or you’re going to have to leave.”

UC BERKELEY UC BERKELEY. PAYROLL I’M PAYROLL ALAMEDA I –

“Ma’am, please get off the bus. I’m not leaving until you get off the bus.”

NOT UNTIL I RECORD A FEW THINGS. YOUR HONOR, THE HONORABLE DOCTOR M.D., FOR THE COURT TO HEAR PLEASE RECALL THAT –

“Ma’am, please get off the bus now.”

WHAT’S YOUR BADGE NUMBER? I’M RECORDING YOUR BADGE NUMBER AND THE NUMBER OF THIS BUS. DON’T THINK I WON’T — WHAT IS IT?

“One one one one one.”

WHAT IS YOUR NUMBER SIR?

“I just told you. One one one one one.”

WHAT’S THAT NUMBER UP THERE?

“That’s the number for the route.”

ALL RIGHT I’M GON’ GO RECORD THAT AND I’M GON’ CALL ‘CAUSE I’M ALAMEDA
PAYROLL UC BERKELEY AND I –

We couldn’t hear anymore because the bus driver had shut the doors and
pulled away from her. She wandered off down a side street, still bellowing. We could only make out a few of her catchphrases. People snickered. The man behind me wheezed wetly and I hunched into myself again, hoping maybe I could just duck myself home.

Iowa


she's a witch

So we were in Iowa, at this supermarket. And there was this totally cute guy there. Well, like, cute for Iowa, anyway. And so we were, like, trying to, like get his attention, but without being obvious, you know? So Tammy and I went in like we were shopping.

I really can’t remember why we were there. Tammy’s mom just needed some things, I guess. Though I mean, really, nothing was going to keep when it was, like, baking in the back of her boyfriend’s microbus. But we were, like, stopped on the roadside at random, or something? I can’t remember.

Oh! So we had gone to this old, like, barn, somewhere way off the highway. It was owned by Tammy’s mom’s sister, or something, but all these people who just, you know, traveled, would stop by there to kind of kick back for a week or so. So it was full of hippies and, like, all these young boys who ran away from home. I totally wanted to stay there and take care of them, and we would have stayed for another week or so. But Tammy’s mom got all freaked out when Tammy went down to the lake after dinner with this kid named Jesse, who was soooo sweet and quiet. He had this long blond hair that he hadn’t cut since he was, like, twelve, and he was trying to hitchhike to Seattle for one of those protests, I guess.

You know they weren’t doing anything except talking, but they were out there for a couple hours and her mom like just totally flew off the handle. It was pretty fucked up, and Tammy wasn’t speaking to her, and she was all pissed too. But I mean, what a fucking hypocrite. Seriously. She was probably getting it on with her boyfriend while Tammy was just talking with Jesse. But she was so pissed that she just drove us all right back home the next morning. We missed seeing The Faint because Tammy’s mom is so, like, paranoid that her virgin daughter will get deflowered. It was fucked up.

Anyway. So we were going up and down all the, uh, aisles, looking for shit to buy so we could bring it up to him and he could check it out. But this was, like, a ghetto supermarket. It was the most ghetto supermarket ever. Like they didn’t even have lettuce. They didn’t have, like, any produce at all. It was, like, three apples sitting out in the sun on a crate.

So, like, we really had to think about what we could get. Tammy was all, “What’s playful but cheap? JELL-O!” Fuck yeah! So we ran over and got a box of cherry JELL-O and went up to pay for it. But right as we were handing it to him, Tammy’s mom came in and was all, “What are you doing buying JELL-O? I already bought you girls two boxes of it!” And we were just so embarrassed, and he was kind of, like, smiling, but in that way where you know he’s trying to hold it back? Tammy was totally pissed. Fucking fuming. She walked over towards her mother and kind of stared at her. And I was just left standing at the counter trying to, like, not make eye contact or anything and suddenly I felt really bad. Like sick, you know. The boy punched the price into the cash register, which was one of those really old ones that goes “cha-ching.” I thought that was really cool even though I was getting sick.

So he told me how much it was, which was, like, twice what JELL-O is supposed to cost. Fucking hick stores. And I wanted to say something that would make up for all of the stupid shit that had just happened. But all I could think about was, like, how he would undress me slowly, and how I had stolen a couple of Tammy’s mom’s magic brownies while they were washing the dishes after breakfast. I couldn’t stop seeing his face, like peering down at my breasts so that all I could see was his forehead and his long, thin nose and those scrambling, tugging fingers were starting to tear my blouse because they couldn’t get the third button undone because it’s kind of tricky because I bought it at this vintage shop down on the Haight and they said it was “as is” which usually means that it’s totally ruined but this one was only missing the button so I sewed one of my own on but it was a little too big and he reached his hand out with the change and I grabbed for it but one of the quarters slipped out of my hand and started to fall. I kind of panicked and groped for it, but he cupped his hands below mine and neatly caught it and I reached my hand down there just as he closed up his two hands and caught mine and he started to chuckle but I was barfing and I pushed my hand down onto the counter to brace myself and I puked right into his cupped hands. I could still, you know, picture him undressing me, but his hands were covered in vomit and it was so totally disgusting that I started to kind of puke again. He was kind of in shock, but he caught most of it in his hands. He stood there for like a minute before he started to move again. It had to have been at least a minute.

I kind of hated Tammy after that trip.

This Was The Way it Could Be

“Endless empty heavens of cabbage,
Eternal strawberry streams.”

As they sang I was embarrassed by their old earnest faces. They had learned this English painstakingly, and were repeating it with mantra-like fervor. Such praise. So I turned from them and their restaurant and walked to the edge of the concrete pier on the placid lake where I heard the distinct thrushing of moving water.

Eight or ten plump women with dark hair and encroaching unibrows were sitting in two old sculling boats, rowing with rhythmic intensity in the bright sun. That the boats were welded to girders embedded in the concrete did not seem to bother them in the least. They seemed to span three generations, but all were plump and hunched. The women all wore bright T-shirts and black sweats. They were getting in shape so their arms wouldn’t have flaps anymore, but there was something more exciting than that. Everybody along the tranquil little lake was honing a talent. Half of these dark women carried saxophone or trombone cases. I could see them down by their feet, like incomplete limbs. A harmonica rack rested on a bosom at the bow, and its owner was piping away furiously, swee fwee, swee fwee as she pumped her fat arms.

Boistrous voices echoed across the pier. Everybody I saw smiled and moved with a purpose. They were all getting ready, from the elderly Asian shopkeepers to the corpulent crew, for a jubilation-a combined, concentrated effort of such massive unconscious mediocrity that nobody else but they would understand it. And for their efforts and finery, all involved would shower one another with embraces. It was late afternoon already. I had to get out. I couldn’t bear to watch that.

On the bus I met Nate and Caleb, two friends who didn’t know each other. Caleb talked to me excitedly about a local girl who wrote some scathing article about the town and her petty friends for some magazine. His thick lips moved fast and his dark eyes were vivid with scandalized disbelief. Because he was listening, I had to explain to Nate why it was all important. Caleb continued to talk. I was losing track of what he said. The bus went down a great hill, and the setting sun dappled light in between the elm leaves and old houses. It turned my gestures into disjointed strobe tableaux and I worried that Nate couldn’t understand me.

Nate and I got off downtown, almost twilight. We walked up another tree-lined hill and turned right on a street of slummy apartment houses and tight-lipped local markets. Nate rode his skateboard, and as we talked about music, about girls, I grew tired of looking up at him like some kind of wheeled saint. I could feel the herky jerk of my own footfalls all the way up my back. I could see us from a distance, complete teen and tagalong. I felt like a robot, the neglected rudimentary foray of some halfhearted tinkerer. I shambled and all it was was comical.

Nate picked up his speed, kicked sullenly twice, to glide around an old woman waiting for her dog to finish urinating against a lamppost. And I couldn’t bear to see her face as I trundled past. I was like his echo, a shrugging remnant of an explanation. This must stop.

I stopped moving my left foot and began to pull myself along with my right. This was easier than I had expected. It had started out as a bad parody of that delinquent and his deck for the benefit of the old woman. But hey! This was kind of fun. And it got easier the longer I did it. There was no friction under my left foot and I wondered if possibly I had stepped in industrial lubricant or dog shit. But it was none of these things. I could glide! I could hover a mere inch off the concrete and streak past everyone else with shopping bags or baby carriages or upturned visors loafers or three hundred dollar sneakers, and never look back!

“Nate!” I must have screamed it. “Nate! Look at me! I’m skateboarding!”

He looked back at me for a minute, no astonishment, and then picked up his pace, kicking with a purpose now, his nose stuck forward into the wind. I held pace with him as we weaved through clumps of people. Their faces were blurs of skin and hair.

“It’s nothing but the magnificent m-mucilage-” and here I fell, backwards, onto my butt. “It’s nothing but the magnificant mucilage of momentum!” and I got to my feet and kicked off again. It wasn’t comical at all. I know, because I never look back.

Soon I caught up with him, exhilaration beating at my brain, and still I could go faster, holding pace with the cars, swerving around front stoops and small, dirty children playing with dolls, all the while laughing. This was the way it could be. It was a minute or two before I realized that I couldn’t hear the tinny lull of Nate’s trucks anymore. I turned my head back and he was a figure in the distance, carrying his board and shaking his head. And there was something rough under my left toe.

Nate was standing over me when I woke up. My arm hurt a little, and my chin was scraped, but I knew I was fine.

“What happened? Did you trip?”

And suddenly, I didn’t feel like answering him. I looked out, across the street, and then back past him to the stoop where a swarthy little Latino was cradling a revolver-shaped package wrapped in newspaper. He was making to open it. I jumped up to my feet. There was still some dizziness.

“Get to the laundromat,” Nate said under his breath. Where people would see us. There was a shabby windowless laundromat up the street. I saw a Rastafarian walk in and we weren’t far behind. But I knew we couldn’t stay there. $0.50 wash $1.00 dry. The proprietor would be shooing us out shortly with a curt phrase of painstakingly practiced English, not comprehending or caring to comprehend anything we had to say. Anticipating this with dull loathing I walked back outside, down the street, same direction as before. Everything was gray now, dim. Behind me I heard the door swing shut.

“Hey! How are we getting home? Do you know where the bus stops? Where are you going?”

But I didn’t feel like answering him again.

A Faberge Turd

The Chronicles of Former President of the United States X-Ray Johnson, In No Particular Order

What the reader needs to know:

X-Ray Johnson was born sometime in the mid 19th century, and soon found that he was an immortal American. These are the heretofore untold stories of his valiant service as or under the Executive Branch.

We met at the coffee shop, real incognito shit. Fred was past his prime by ’69. Everbody knew, him most of all. The great MGM musical was a thing of the past. His fans now cowered in their midwest houses, terrified of the Negroes and the Longhairs, mournfully remembering Ike. I never liked Ike. The waitress was some fifteen year old New Jersey skank, probably had a Jimmy Page shrine at home to finance. She never paid him a second glance.

We knew each other by reputation only. He smiled without showing too many teeth as I shook his hand.

“I saw you foxtrot once,” he said to me. My face flushed. When? “I think it was last November, at some charity bit,” Fred continued. “Or an awards dinner. Rickles emceed.”

“God damn,” I replied, not recalling the evening, least of all his being there. “Had I known that the Master was in the audience, I would have fucking rehearsed! Did my conversation step measure up?”

Fred smiled and turned to look at the chrome espresso machine. He told me that he was impressed by the glide in my step, or some other generic compliment. Hell, I was satisfied. A false compliment from Fred is like a Faberge turd–you still cherish it until the day you die, illegitimate as it is. Little Miss Dazed and Confused came back with our coffees, plunking them down so that the hot liquid splashed out of the mug and on to the table, staining the newspaper Fred had so carelessly left there. She walked away and Fred took out a little flask from inside his tweed jacket. He poured the whisky in both mugs with veteran grace.

Our throats became warm and our tongues became looser. I told him about the time I was personally requested to teach the tango to a certain curvaceous blond named Marilyn (“I pressed my crotch to hers, and it was just like coming home. She thought I was initiating a little of the old Casting-Couch, and I stammered like an Iowa farm boy as I explained the Argentinian history”). Fred smiled in appreciation. I beamed with cameraderie.

“So, did you ever bag Ginger?” I said lightly. He chuckled, and I leaned back in my chair, one eyebrow cocked. There was a pause.

“Let me tell you something about Ginger,” he said after half a minute.

* * *

We wound up in the showroom of an abandoned carpet store. Ironically, the floors were all hardwood. We had polished off half a case of malt liquor, and we set the other half on the windowsill. We compared moves, and I mimicked his steps for all I was worth. Of course, he flew away from me like a swallow. He taught me leaps and swivels that I doubt I could have performed if sober. Drunk as I was, I unfailingly collapsed into a heap, laughing with ever-diminishing self-consciousness.

Later we sat and tried to regain our bearings. Staring at the lights of the city, swirling and elongated in the green bellies of the liquor bottles. Fred was a quiet man, and he mumbled something–to himself, I realized, as the years passed.

I think he said, “They’ll never get this on film.”

Downhill

Ed was bitching at his field hands for making dumb jokes in the back seat. I was driving the red Ford pickup. Falderall Way was just over the crest of the hill, a tiny dirt turnoff surrounded by fences and vineflowers. So the hill was pretty steep, and Ed was fussing good-naturedly with the guys for playing with the emergency cell phones he kept under the seat. We were going at a pretty good pace, and in the excitement I hit the brakes a little late. Falderall shot past. I pushed the pedal, but it was damned hard to move.

?The brakes are gone, Ed,? I said matter-of-factly.

?Oh??

With all my weight I pushed the pedal to the floor. The wheels locked up for a moment, but that doesn?t do a hell of a lot of good on a steep downgrade on a gravel road. Then we were rolling freely again. The neighbors? driveways whizzed past. I saw blurs of wooden mailboxes and apple trees. At least the road was straight. Everyone was quiet. Ed was surprisingly cool. All I could think about was how he?d said something about the brakes yesterday, at that same place.

?Remember when this happened to me, guys?? he asked. The back seat crew hooted with amusement. We were approaching the bottom of the hill. I noticed that I had eased the pressure on the brake. I flashed Ed a quick smile as we shot past a broken wooden gate that lay in shattered pieces. Ed smiled back.

At the bottom of that last hill Talbot Lane just sort of peters out in a big lot with a big grassy hill. As the road widened and gave way to grass, I hit the brakes as hard as I could and turned the wheel left. The truck slid sideways and lost its momentum. Ed, the boys and Daisy shot out of the cab and up the hill, hollering and whooping, tackling each other like puppies. Daisy dashed between them like a golden comet, barking furiously.

The land was Ed?s. He had inherited it after playing on it his whole life. He came running back down the hill in hot pursuit of Daisy. He was 34, but in the fading afternoon light he could have been fourteen.

He caught the dog, tackled her, and they tumbled to the ground, rolling past me as I was walking up the hill. I turned around, looked at them, then back up at Talbot Lane. The west sides of the houses were still golden.

?You know what the town wants me to do with this land?? he yelled up with that defiant half-grin. ?Now, don?t tell anyone, but Lainie?s…?

?No!? Did I say that, or was it one of the field hands?

?But keep it under your hat.? Ed looked back at the road. ?There?s still a good chance that the?embryo will not be viable.?

It was quiet again, even Daisy. I guessed it was time to get back into the truck, and said so.

Elaine was pregnant. I pictured a tin woman spread-eagle in stirrups; a 40 gallon oil drum supine with jutting jointed chrome bipods, Ed?s million microscopic nuts and bolts tumbling and reverberating furiously within that metal womb. I wondered how he could get any sleep.

The red Ford was an F-150, a ?95 or ?96. It was the ?town? truck; nice upholstery and trim; running boards for the sagging step, neat red circles at the hubs. Brakes give out, you know?

And there she was, you know? Some dervish fiend of a housewife with caked makeup and bags under her chin, stumbling under the weight between screaming imps and barking dogs, hanging vines engulfing the entire tousled mass, blooming and laden with seat belt buckles, nylon mesh bulging and taut, squeezing diamond Play-Doh subway trains of cellulite. Somewhere within her there was the hidden terror of birthing chocolate-glazed donut bars, wishing they were Krispy Kremes.

Do you know what the town wants me to do with this land?

Bags of loose skin, full of golf balls or jelly beans from the Shoppe… under her eyes and chin; bag hag voodoo queen of crow?s feet under silk.

Embryo will not be viable.

A woman entirely of exhaust, rust, sun-cracked plastic dashboard lips leaking rose oil, eyes seized up; antifreeze in the crankcase.

And we drove back home at five miles per hour, up that crunching gravel hill. When we finally turned I could see the yellow valley beyond Ed?s little hillock. It did stretch on.