The other day I had a phone conversation with the head of sales for my distributor. As readers of this column know, we had a good lay-down (i.e. sales to wholesalers and retailers), with about half the books going to airport stores. Information on retail sales (sell-through) has just begun to trickle in, and that information is incomplete: BookScan only tracks 70% of bookstore sales, and sell-through data at the airport stores won’t be available to us for several weeks. From what we know at the moment, hardcover sales look modest, but not discouraging, since first-time fiction nearly always requires building from the ground up.

You seem to be having a hard time picking a first question to ask yourself.

Thank you for noticing. I mean, what’s the difficulty, right? We ask ourselves tough questions everyday. Yesterday, my plumber Javier was telling me about customers that owe him money—people who engage him to do big jobs then claim they don’t have their checkbooks with them, will pay him later, will call but never do. Javier was talking really loud. He was getting worked up and my ears were starting to hurt. “Do I put an end to this or suffer silently?” I wondered. There’s a question for you.

 

What did you decide?

I spoke up and it was no big deal. He apologized, lowered his voice, and continued with his story. People are always remarking on my willingness to say what’s on my mind.

 

What do you do when you aren’t writing poems and essays?

I’m working on my slash identity these days. I’ve gone back to school to study physical therapy. Soon I’ll be a “writer-slash-physical-therapist-assistant.” I’m also learning how to dance with a partner.

 

Is that some kind of metaphor, “dance with a partner”?

No doubt, although I am, in fact, learning to salsa and two-step. About metaphors… I met a man at an art opening. We talked at another event a week later and I suggested that we hang out sometime. He had a great rejection line. He said, “I like my tranquility.” A Facebook friend posted a music video, writing: “Since I won’t allow any drama in my life, I get my daily required dose from country songs.” I’m interested in these two statements, though I don’t know why. Yet. For me, that’s often how a piece of writing gets started—euphemisms, metaphors, bits of speech that seem to pop with a larger story. What kind of people aim for ripple-free lives? I know I’ll write about it eventually.

 

In a poem?

Probably, although I’ll end up with something about me, of course, not them. Or them and me. You can’t know who you’re writing about. Once you tap in to the mainline of the imaginative force, all metaphysical hell breaks loose.

 

I’m sorry. Did you just go cosmic on me?

Forgive me. But I’m telling you, freaky stuff happens when you let yourself go deep and begin to unspool the imagination like a reel of film. Readers will tell you, later, how eerie close you got to things you couldn’t possibly have known about them.

 

Moving on to climate change… are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of life on planet earth?

(Funereal silence. There is a dire cast to Tanney’s facial expression.)

 

You’ve written three “Modern Love” columns for the New York Times and you also wrote about your love (and sex) life in “Dirty Words.” Any regrets about revealing so much in your writing?

Sometimes I wish the Internet was set up in a way that let you select what items are Googlable. I don’t regret the things I’ve put out there in my writing. I’m proud of my work, but I cringe when I meet somebody for the first time and know they are going to go home and check me out and inevitably come to conclusions, after reading my work, before getting to know me even a little. So it goes.

 

Do you think you’ll write another novel?

It’s possible. I stopped pressuring myself about it several years ago. I love to write. I started young and can’t stop, even when it’s just for me in a notebook that no one will ever see; even when I think I’ve moved on and secretly wish my friends would stop introducing me as “a writer.” I’ve switched interests so many times in my life, but the writing doesn’t die.

 

One more question?

(And poof—she was gone. Interviewer and subject reintegrated.)

 

Please explain what just happened.

I just followed instructions, hoping that obedience will be rewarded. (I’m still in the “Are You My Mother?” stage of emotional development. Plus, my father was a decorated bomber pilot who taught me, through terror and osmosis, the power of an “I was just following orders,” duty-driven life: it exonerates you of all emotional responsibility!)

When I was in Edinburgh one summer, performing my monologue in the Festival Fringe, there was a remarkable work of conceptual theater called The Smile Off Your Face. The stage manager for my show had texted me late one night, “I just saw the smile on your face and I loved it!” Me being a monologist i.e. perhaps self-absorbed, as well as a bit randy, I thought she had seen the smile on my face, and wanted to see more. But when I texted her back to continue the flirtation I made the somewhat embarrassing discovery that she loved The Smile Off Your Face (the correct name of the show), not the smile on my face, and that she was suggesting I see the show, not that we have illicit relations.

Here’s how the show worked: you sat in a wheelchair, blindfolded, and got rolled around some space whilst different people, male and female, asked you to feel their Adam’s Apple (awkward, if you are straight) or whispered lascivious double-entendres in your ear (awesome, if you are straight) or stood you up and pushed you backwards onto a bed and asked, “Are you in love?” (horrible, if you are married and your marriage is on the rocks). At the end of the show, back in the wheelchair, someone removed my blindfold, and I stared at a man who told me, “Please put a big smile on your face. Now, whatever you do, keep smiling.” As I am obedient (see above), I obliged. Then I was wheeled away from him, slowly, backwards. And he started crying, weeping really, tears streaming down his face. This raised the conundrum: Do I honor my word and keep smiling? Do I empathize and stop smiling? Or do I feel manipulated and tell him, Are you kidding?

It was very confusing. I kept smiling, thinking, Are you my mother?

Mx Bond, you’re so pretty! Have you always been this pretty?

Well, thank you for noticing! I’ve probably always been this pretty, it’s just that lately I feel so damned good about myself. I, uh, think it must have something to do with my insides. They say beauty is on the inside. I don’t know what’s in there, but whatever it is, it’s really trying to get out.

 

Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels, is your first book. Did you imagine that your first book would be published by the Feminist Press?

No. I didn’t. I was fairly certain it would be published by Simon and Schuster. When I was a kid I heard of Simon and Schuster, because Carly Simon’s father ran it, and she was a big pop star. I thought it would be fun to run around with a group of friends who were really into music, who read books, and who had access to great drugs. But now, I’ve discovered, most rock stars are old and tired and feminism is where it’s at. Carly Simon is still fierce, but there is no other publisher that could impress me more than the Feminist Press at this point.

 

Your book is about your childhood between the ages of 11 and 16. Considering your lifestyle, how can you remember back that far?

Oh, my, what an interesting question! It’s true that I may suffer severe memory loss incurred during certain periods of time in my life, but I recently read an article about Alzheimer’s, and in it the reporter told me that most Alzheimer’s patients can remember nearly every song they learned when they were around 13 years of age so odds are our childhoods remain with us—at least our 13th year—and it’s a good thing, because I was 13 when I was de-flowered in a tree house!  You can read more about that in my book. Anyway, because of this theory, I think there’s a pretty good chance most of the memories in this book are correct. It was a difficult time in my life; I don’t think anyone remembers puberty as their greatest moment, and because it is a very specific time period, it doesn’t give a general overview of my relationship with my parents, which has for the most part, been very positive. But, I’m glad it seems to be resonating with a lot of other trans and queer people.

 

When you wrote this book were you writing it as a way of illustrating life from a trans-child’s perspective?

No, that’s the funny thing. I’ve been surprised by how many people have picked up on the book as being written from a trans-child’s point of view. At the time I didn’t think of myself as a trans-child, I just thought of myself as being me and I was telling the story of myself and a boy who grew up in my neighborhood who, like me, was diagnosed with mental health issues later in life that I believed were there all along. In telling this story, I was looking back through the lens of someone who had recently been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. I consciously chose to leave a lot about my experience as a transgendered person out of the book because that part seemed to me to be another story altogether. Evidently, I was wrong. I now realize the fact that I am a trans-person makes it obvious that my story would be perceived as being told by one. But at the time I was writing I wasn’t thinking in those terms.

 

You’ve said in previous interviews that your favorite fictional heroine is Mariah Wyeth from Joan Didion’s book, Play It As It Lays. What’s so great about her?

I like that Mariah Wyeth experiences a lot of what I aspired to as a child: living in Hollywood, having a handsome husband, being beautiful, a movie star. These were things I thought would make me happy when I was growing up in a small conservative town in western Maryland. But when I read Play It As It Lays, I realized that wasn’t necessarily true. Mariah in the end came to the determination that nothing mattered. This may seem like a bleak outlook, but I think that once you realize that nothing really matters, you are free to decide which things actually matter to you and invest your time and energy in them. You are able to write your own story and are free to attach importance and relevance to whatever you choose as you tell yourself the story of who you are and what your life is all about. I don’t necessarily agree with all of Joan Didion’s ideas or perspectives, but I’m grateful that by creating the character of Mariah Wyeth, she gave me that insight. Now my life is a story that I tell myself and I don’t feel that I have to be annexed or oppressed by the stories other people choose to inhabit regarding their own beliefs or how they choose to perceive me.

 

Oh My Goddess, Mx Bond! That is so intense. How do you come up with this stuff?

Well, I spend a lot of time thinking… but, I don’t get too carried away. I think it’s important to remain in the shallow end of the pool, otherwise you are likely to drown yourself. Just because you know how to swim, doesn’t mean you always have to get your hair wet. Can I say that off all the people who’ve ever interviewed me, you are my absolute favorite?

 

Why thanks, Mx Bond. I’m glad you’re not one of those tortured, conflicted writers who thinks it is important to impress everybody with how miserable you are.

Oh, no. I save the misery and depression for those who know me best. Namely my cat, Pearl, who has a very stoic nature and my most significant other, who has a tremendous capacity to tune me out when I get to be too ridiculous. And if the going gets to be too much, if I really need a break, I just get out of the house and go look at shoes. Shoes always cheer me up.

 

Wasn’t it shoes that got you into all this trouble in the first place?

Yes, in fact it was. If my grandmother hadn’t had such a fantastic shoe collection, it would have taken me a lot longer to discover that my impulses were not “gender appropriate.” Who knows? I might have ended up some tragic looter, raiding Footlockers instead of the glamorous lady authoress you are speaking with today. And let’s face it, in the end of the day, life isn’t about misery and sneakers, it’s about love and high heels.

 

Well said, Mx Bond!

Thank you.

 

A woman of undetermined late middle age, impeccably turned out in an elegantly cut dark blue suit, cream colored blouse and pearls, is standing on the stoop of Elissa Schappell’s Brooklyn brownstone. She has swept her graying blond pageboy back into a headband to reveal a profile that suggests somewhere in her lineage, an ancestor whose face appears on a coin.

Although she is smiling, “How charming,” she says as she enters the home Elissa her husband and two children share with another family, she appears a bit unsettled as she removes her kid gloves, as though the borough is as foreign to her as the Congo. There is a moment of hesitation as Elissa invites her to sit on the sofa, as though she fears there might be cat hair on the cushions, but she, of course, does sit, crossing her legs at the ankle. After Elissa has finished pouring the tea, and Mrs. Post has politely accepted a homemade meringue cookie, she hands Elissa a robin’s egg blue box. It is rude for a guest to pay a call without bringing a gift.

Mrs. Emily Post and Elissa have never met before, although Elissa, who has a passion for etiquette books, is most familiar with her work. When Elissa received the telegram from Mrs. Emily Post asking if they might meet in person to discuss something of great importance, she was intrigued. Now, she is most curious about what is in the blue box.

The fundamental question for each supergroup is whether it represents a one-off side project or a long-term collaborative commitment.

With their sophomore release, the deceptively-named Chickenfoot III, Chickenfoot have not simply established that they are in it for the long haul- they’ve released a monster of an album.

Chickenfoot is the bizzaro conflagration of the arena rock vocals of Sammy Hagar (Van Halen, Montrose), the jacked-up funk of drummer Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers), the 18-wheel grooves of bassist Michael Anthony (Van Halen), and the jaw-dropping virtuosity of Joe Satriani- arguably the greatest guitarist in the world. Hagar and Anthony galvanized their friendship during their stints in Van Halen and began jamming informally south of the border at Hagar’s Cabo Wabo Cantina. Smith jumped in and the trio decided to formalize their efforts with an album. Realizing the need for a full-time guitarist, they opted to approach the unapproachable- the world’s most acclaimed guitarist, to join their little band. To say that Satriani’s acceptance of their offer was unexpected is an understatement. If anything could attract the attention of intelligent life on other planets, it was this announcement.

Ocean’s Banana

By Slade Ham

Humor

Texas is vast.  It is a sprawled out, multifaceted, cocky piece of real estate.  That swagger surfaces early, too, particularly if you’ve ever entered the state from the east.  A bright green sign proudly displays the distance to other cities.  Orange, Texas is four miles away and El Paso is 857, just in case you thought it was going to be a quick sprint from Louisiana to New Mexico.

“Howdy,” says Texas.  “This ain’t Rhode Island.”

As a comedian I have traveled the entire state.  Literally, border to border to border to border, there are very few cities that I haven’t heard of.  Tiny towns – villages really – dot the landscape, often little more than single traffic lights and a corner store set up to service the surrounding farms.  There are mid-sized cities too, with their Wal-Marts and community colleges, and there are larger ones yet, with real universities and more than one intersecting highway.   Then there are the Big Three.  Houston, Austin, and Dallas.

And we pretty much hate each other.  The three cities couldn’t be more different.  Houston is gritty and a little dirty, more Mexican than American it seems sometimes, like a Latino Darth Vader.  Dallas is shiny and pretentious; a rich but overweight cheerleader that nobody thinks is hot but her.  Then there’s Austin, immaculate because the hippies keep it that way.

The comedy scenes are quite different as well.  Houston was home to Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, Brett Butler, Janeane Garofalo, Thea Vidale, and the legendary Outlaw Comics.  Austin arrested Mitch Hedburg.  Dallas, well, Dallas has never really done anything at all.

I was among the group of comics that set off that morning for a down and dirty, Houston themed one-nighter at Austin’s flagship comedy club.  Johnny, Rob, Andy, and I limped onto the freeway around noon, painfully early for people who do this sort of thing for a living.  Every one of us was a veteran comic, but none like Andy.  Andy was one of the original Outlaw Comics and had been doing comedy almost as long as the other three of us combined.  As we drove toward Austin, he told story after story and we happily listened to them all.

“So Kevin Spacey falls down some stairs coming out of this gay bar late one night in England,” Andy says.  His way of saying it is so matter-of-fact that you instantly trust it, even if you can’t confirm the source.  “People are snapping pictures of the injury and he knows it’s going to be all over the news.  He doesn’t like to discuss his sexuality publicly, so instantly he gets on the phone with his publicist and they concoct this whole story about how he was out walking his dog and slipped and fell.  I mean, sure, it was three o’clock in the morning, but he loves his dog that much.  That would be the story they decided.  People would buy that.

“So they set up this huge press conference for early in the morning so he can get in front of the controversy and explain that he was just out taking care of his furry little best friend.  Then Spacey calls his assistant.  Turns out his assistant at the time used to work for Madonna and Guy Ritchie, so this was barely on the radar for weird shit that he’s had to deal with, but still, it’s the middle of the night.  The assistant answered the phone all sleepy, and Spacey said…”  Andy paused for a second, giving it that flawless half-step that comes from thirty years of comedy.

“I’m going to need you to go buy me a dog.”

And so the entire trip went, four comics riffing in a car together all the way up Highway 71 and through La Grange.  After the show that night, Andy retired to the hotel, his hell-raising days behind him, while Johnny, Rob, and I ducked off with some people from the show to finish off the night.  Johnny’s friend Mike knew a bar a block from the comedy club and we ended up on the patio with some Austin locals.

Ninety percent of the 18-34 year old, male demographic in Austin looks exactly alike.  Striped V-neck tee (or a not striped, but with a picture of Che Guevara or a Nintendo controller), glasses (regardless of whether or not their vision is bad), knit cap (despite being summer in Texas), and skinny jeans (how do you get those on? Do you unscrew your foot before you put your leg through and then reattach it?).

I happened to be sitting next to their leader, who had replaced his Chris Martin-esque hat with a pair of sunglasses at 1:45 in the morning.  “I had them on when I got here, man,” he said, which meant he had to have gotten there at 7:00, which meant he either was lying or that he had been at a completely dead bar for seven hours, which meant that either way he was probably a complete loser.  As if to confirm my suspicions, he slid a business card across the table that had the words “The Poet of Funk” printed across a picture of him combing his hair while wearing his signature sunglasses.

“I do alternative hip hop,” he said.

“I don’t know how to talk to you,” I replied, and turned back around to my friends.

Rob was talking to the girl that ran the bar’s karaoke night, or rather was talking directly to her boobs, and Johnny was engrossed in another conversation… and next to them sat an eight-foot tall stuffed banana with a huge smiling face and dreadlocks.  Johnny isn’t a small guy, but the massive fruit dwarfed him.  I blinked a few disbelieving blinks, and when I opened my eyes again it was still there.  I glanced around for an explanation, but a round of shots came out before I could ask.

“That’s our mascot,” the bartender said as he set the drinks down.  “The Rasta Banana.”

“That’s some real shit, right there,” the Poet echoed, sipping his Pabst Blue Ribbon.  “It’s dope than a motherfucker.”

And I knew at that exact moment there was no way we were leaving without stealing that banana.

A heist is a difficult thing to orchestrate, particularly if you’ve never orchestrated a heist before.  Every plan that began to form dissolved just as quickly.  I was the Danny Ocean of the group, and I needed things if we were going to get away with something this big – things like a helicopter, a flatbed truck, and Pierce Bronson – and we had none of them.  “Gimme your keys,” I said to Mike.

“Why?  You’re not driving my car.”

“Of course not.  I just want to, um, look at them.”

“Oh.  Okay,” he said, and then flipped me his keys.

It didn’t matter that there was no way the banana was going to fit in his car with the rest of us.  That was a math problem.  I dropped out of college so that I wouldn’t have to do math, and I wasn’t about to take it back up again.  Getting it in the car was not my responsibility though.  I had bigger problems.  The patio was still full of beatnik kids and bar employees, and someone had to get them inside.  I slipped the key to Johnny and whispered some quick instructions.  He and Mike were going to be the extraction team.

Rob’s job was the girl.  I texted him from across the patio, and he glanced up at me to let me know he’d gotten the message.  Get karaoke chick out of here.  Instantly he stood up and headed out into the parking lot with her.  We didn’t see him until the next morning, but I was amazed at his efficiency.  No one had told him about the plan to steal the banana.  He just followed the order unquestioningly, like a Secret Service agent or one of Caesar Milan’s dogs.  It was perfect.  I can’t imagine what he said to her, but it worked.

“Hey!” I yelled suddenly to the remaining few hipsters.  “Shots on me at the bar.  You can tell me about your dope ass hip hop,” I said, and three skinny vegan rappers followed me inside.  Positioned strategically at the bar, I ordered four well whiskeys straight.  It was the rot gut stuff that no one drinks without a mixer, but I needed the extra time that their reaction would buy us.

I glanced over their shoulders as they looked hesitantly at their shot glasses.  The banana was slowly moving across the patio toward the exit.  Maneuvered from behind by Johnny, it jumped another jerky foot every second or so, like a big, yellow, stop-motion Gumby, and then suddenly it was gone, tucked miraculously into the back of Mike’s vehicle.  I dropped a twenty on the bar.  “Enjoy the shots!”

“Yo, check me out on Facebook!” the Poet tried, but I was already out the door.

We descended on Mike’s house like a swarm of drunken bees, each one of us recounting our part of the heist, toasting the banana, and flopping down on top of it like it was some huge, yellow Santa Claus.  It moved from the kitchen, to the living room, to the back patio, finally free of its counter-culture captors and in the company of (in our minds, anyway) giants.  I couldn’t tell you how many pictures were taken both of and with the banana that night, but I know that it was more than one, and that that was probably still too many.

The next morning found us incredibly puzzled as to what to do with it.  Andy just shook his head, happy that he had chosen to retire for the night.  “I’m too old for this shit,” he said, though we knew better.  Rob wasn’t exactly sold on the idea of tying it to the top of his car for the three hour trip back Houston, so we finally decided that we should just return it.  Not a creative return like in The Thomas Crown Affair, where we painted it to look like a Golden Tee machine, snuck it back into the bar, and then set off the sprinkler system, but a simple delivery of the mascot back to its rightful owners with an apology.

“We can’t brag about stealing it if we don’t return it first,” Johnny said, and we all agreed.  It was never about keeping it anyway, we realized.  This was a fraternity stunt, and we were in definitely in a fraternity of sorts.  It was one that went back generations, comedians roaming the countryside, both telling stories and creating them, and the stunt wasn’t worth pulling if we couldn’t talk about it later.  As enticing as the thought of a bar full of hipsters crying over their loss was, a good tale is always worth more to a comedian than any stuffed banana, eight-foot tall and Jamaican or not.

Man oh man oh man oh man. It’s what, FOUR months until the first primary and the Republican field has been bludgeoning itself like a bunch of  tweens at a razor party listening to My Chemical Emo-mance.

When we last met I thought it was the clash of the titans, more specifically, the clash of the V05 hair Product between Mitt Robotney and Rick Perry. But this was not to be. Rick Perry falls apart in debate!  His iron-clad hair shield has been tainted by the Massachusetts I mean Michigan I mean where does Mitt Romney live now anyway?

*answer: he lives in any one of the following states:  California, New Hampshire, Massachusetts
But he is another wealthy regular man-robot hybrid just like you and me.

I was disappointed by Perry’s recent performance. Sure the guy is dumber than a can of paint but he’s a canny politician with a long winning streak, and he was trounced by a guy who makes the GPS voice in your car sound authentic. And Mitt Romney, the most pretend of all pretend Republicans, attacked him from the right on immigration.

We’ve only lost one candidate so far, rendering the debates crowded and pointless. Nine people yapping on stage isn’t a debate. It’s a Facebook wall. And nine people times fifty-eleven debates is not doing anyone any good.

If Sarah Palin has taught us anything, aside from remembering to keep the receipt when we buy a half a continent sparsely populated by lunatics from Russia, it’s that constant media exposure may actually harm one’s chances for the presidency. The continued debates threaten to turn the candidates to caricature, aside from Newt Gingrich, who is a cartoon, and Ron Paul, who’s actually a character from an Ayn Rand novel.

Can anyone tell me where these audiences come from? Were they stocked entirely by Democrats working to make Republicans look bad? I’d say yes if a) Nixon were still alive and switched parties, b) Democrats were organized or c) James O’Keefe  would return my phone calls. This audience was the real deal. First the Republican pro-lifers cheer “Let ’em die” in a question about health insurance and second the Support Our Troops Pro Military party boos at a gay soldier after he asks about the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

You can at least rest knowing that legally married gay partners of veterans are not allowed to receive pensions after their spouses die. As a personal note, I’d like to mention that my mother, who had been divorced from my dad for over twenty years, is still qualified to receive his Naval pension. Because straight divorce is all about American values.

Straw Polls Suck

These straw poles: enough. They cost the candidates a lot of money and time and they’re meaningless. Kind of like baseball’s All-Star game. Or the Move-on.org petition you just sent me.

On the plus side, the straw polls add some fake drama, because they let an unhinged outlier win something, so political journalists can pretend to write serious articles in which they imagine Herman Cain, who won the Florida straw poll, will take over the world until they notice that the Pizzafather has no money or endorsements. He does have a sweet tax plan though, which is abbreviated as 9-9-9, and is something as likely and sensible as the Nine Ringwraiths of Mordor playing Nine innings of baseball against Nine Inch Nails.

Mitt Romney won the Michigan straw poll, because that’s where he’s from. He’s also from Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri and the Moon.

Nothing more than a sad seventh place in Florida for my personal fave Jon Huntsman, who has said that he believes in crazy talk like global warming and evolution and at this point to garner any traction in the polls he’s going to have to set fire to Rick Perry.

The essential problem with straw polls is they  waste resources. The candidates owe more favors to party hacks in each state and need more money from new donors. I don’t mind the GOP blowing its cash on these things, and it serves their own brand of social Darwinism, the only Darwin they let into the room. Survival of the richest. But in a larger way these straw polls are bad for democracy. As much as I enjoy cataloging the village idiots who are on the stage, as an engaged citizen I’d like the guy in the Oval Office, regardless of political party, to be competent enough to do the job.

“Mr. President we’ve confirmed that terrorists have stolen nuclear material from Pakistan. The poverty rate hit 25%, bacteria have developed a resistance to TB drugs and a tornado has leveled half of Kentucky.”

“Is this when I get to abolish the Departments of Energy, Education and anything else that starts with E?”

“That’s not going to help. What should we do?”

“Nothin. Government is not the solution.”

“What about the nukes, sir?

“I’ll let the states handle that.”

Next time: Why President Obama needs a primary challenge.

It started with a bisexual, nymphomaniac girlfriend and went downhill from there. I know it sounds like fun—it’s the ultimate fantasy, a girl with powerful appetites. She not only liked to masturbate in front of me, but went shopping with me for sex toys, both of us flushed and anxious, our heads stuffed with cotton candy, our slick skin eager to be stroked. But then the cocaine came out and the LSD was taken and the next thing I knew she was sucking a guy’s dick in our studio apartment, not really understanding what the word “fluffing” meant, his photograph about to go out into the world, a swinging single looking for a partner. And I was somehow shocked at what happened. There were rules in place, believe it or not, and they were quickly broken. She pulled up her skirt in the back alley of a hotel restaurant, the hostess with the mostest, her blonde waitress friend down on her knees. She jacked up any guy that approached her on the dance floor, and my jealousy surprised me. So I brought home two girls when she was out of town, this opportunity that fell into my lap a once in a lifetime charity that I could not deny. Between the Aussie and the Brit there was only a blur of limbs and a chorus of moaning. The next morning it was all “please take a pair of complimentary sunglasses on your way out the door and thanks for playing.” I was the last fling of a pool hall diva dressed in skin-tight black from head to toe, cleavage and long legs and the sun came up once again.

I hadn’t hit the road yet. I was still trying to leave.

It ended, as all things did back them, the drama of youth, with screaming and tears—whatever had been there shattered into jagged fragments of innocence lost, intimacy turned out for the world to see, and nothing was special anymore.

A road trip was offered up by my Hacky Sack beach bum buddy. How could this possibly go wrong? We would head down to glorious Conway, Arkansas, work some crappy jobs and save up a few grand, buy a junker of a car and head out to California, the wanderlust running across our itchy flesh, eager to find adventure.

Conway was not the place to find it.

The first hint that things would not go well emerged when the plane landed, when my friend informed me that his parents were not expecting the both of us, just him it turns out, the prodigal son. Unpacking our bags, a lukewarm reception was making me sweat, and my bag of pot had disappeared. He had smoked it before we even left Chicago.

A college degree and extensive computer skills did not go over well in the Bible Belt—that kind of office work was for the women down here. There were factory jobs at $4 an hour, and those were the best gigs in town. My friend came home covered in lint—he worked with toilet paper and paper towels. I stumbled home with a stiff neck from looking over my shoulder all the time. I ate out of a vending machine, not realizing that talking to the girls that worked there was akin to fingering them in the back of a pickup truck. Their men didn’t like it. The lifers down in Conway liked it even less when I got promoted to my own assembly line, troubleshooting a massive machine of metal and gears, computer parts flowing down a conveyor belt, grease and hammers and tobacco spit at my feet. Soon, I avoided the break room at all costs. For my dinner I drove the borrowed family car to a nearby McDonald’s, my thirty-minute break at the factory the only time I was alone. It was a quick push of the gas pedal to a liquor store next door. I melted into the parking lot and sulked. Stuffing the ninety-nine cent double cheeseburger down my gullet, I sucked down a forty ounce, the foam filling my stomach. Often I leaned out the car and vomited it back up, a sad existence that only got worse.

I got fired from this dream job when I went home for Christmas, my parents unaware that I was falling apart, lost on the road. I repeatedly asked the girl in the office if I had enough days to take off, if I could go home to see my mama. Would I have a job when I got back? She said yes, you’re fine, you have two days to spare.

I didn’t. She had lied.

This lead to a day job at a pizza joint next to a nearby university, the best thing I could find. I became a waiter on the lunch shift, where they had a buffet—the college kids scattering their spare change over the scarred tabletops, laughing as they strolled out into the sunlight. My tips were pathetic and never made of paper. If I hadn’t been having phone sex with the ex-girlfriend back in Chicago on a regular basis—pulling the phone cord (that’s right, I said phone cord) into the bathroom, stretching it as far as it could go, as she rubbed between her legs, slipping fingers inside herself, coming into the mouthpiece, my shame reaching a new low—then I might have been able to save a few dollars. Instead, I was broke as hell.

At night, for fun, down here in Conway, Arkansas, I decided to take a ride with the manager of the pizza place, his girlfriend in the middle seat, as we sucked down beer and drove around town, cruising the dirt roads and looking for niggers. His word, not mine. He liked to find stray black kids and pelt them with rocks as he drove by. I swallowed my beer and muttered into the dashboard. He asked me to speak up, son. I told him it wasn’t right, any of it, the nigger talk, the rocks—his whole fucked up way of getting off. He dumped me in a cornfield with a couple of beers, and told me to find my way home. You’re a college graduate, I’m sure you can figure it out. As he pulled away his girlfriend turned around, looking out the back window, and I was relieved. I would eventually find my way home, I knew that much. As long as a truck load of angry black kids didn’t drive by and stone me to death. I smoked and drank, staring at the stars, barely remembering which way to head—the limited choices helping me to get back to town, it was only a left and two rights, I thought.

I didn’t want to be here. I needed to find my friend—we needed to get on the road—we had to get out of this town.

When the girlfriend pulled up in the pickup truck an hour later, I was not surprised. She apologized for her drunk-ass boyfriend, and we sat in the cab and drank more beer. She started to cry, showing me bruises, some of them fresh—pulling up her shirt, stretching a bra strap, unbuttoning her jeans. You could see where this was going. Her life was a mess, her boyfriend a racist jerk with no hopes of going anywhere, her sobs drenching my shoulder, and soon enough, her tongue was in my mouth. I fucked her from behind in the redneck’s pickup truck, a toothy grin stretching across my face. We drove back with the windows rolled down, panic starting to wash over me—he’ll have to smell it, he’ll have to know. I was a dead man, I thought to myself.

The next day at work, sick to my stomach, I walked in the door and he asked me to step into his office. This was it, he knew. I turned to glance at the girlfriend as she stood behind the cash register, her lips pursed, swallowing laughter, eyes sparkling with secrets. This was all a game to her. Instead of a fist in my mouth he stuck out his hand and asked me for forgiveness, apologizing for being an asshole. No hard feelings? I swallowed and shook his hand. No worries, bro, we’re good.

When I got home from work that day, the family scattered all over town—the father at the rail yard, the mother at a daycare center, older sister at the diner, the underage sister lying on the couch, one hand slipped into her jeans, her eyes rolling over me—I discovered that my buddy was gone. The straw, this was the straw—he had joined the navy and left me here all alone. My jaw hung open, the girl on the couch muttering something about a shower, peeling her clothes off as she walked to her bedroom, and everything felt like a trap. I sat down on the tattered living room couch, my feet on the faded rug, all lumpy and crooked. I pulled it back to fix the strange terrain, and I saw dirt underneath a worn hole in the wood floor, and a herniated root pushing through.

This was road tripping gone bad.

There was a bus station in town, a mile away. I grabbed everything I had, which wasn’t much—a handful of wadded up bills and a backpack—and got ready to hoof it into town. I didn’t stick my head into the bathroom and tell the girl, naked now, curtain pulled back, pale white skin and firm breasts, not eighteen yet, definitely not eighteen yet, I didn’t tell her I was leaving and give her a quick kiss, my tongue in her mouth. That didn’t happen. I didn’t lift the lid of a cookie jar high up on a shelf and steal forty dollars—that is a lie. I didn’t go to the master bath and pick up the lid on the toilet to pilfer a pint of Jim Beam that the father had hidden from his wife. He didn’t drink, so there was nothing for me to steal. I was committing no crimes on the way out the door—I was only surviving, trying to find a way out.

Boots on gravel, trucks whooshing by, the corn and dust swallowed me up. I walked, invisible, towards the bus station, bourbon on my breath, a cigarette burning down to singe my fingertips numb. I made my way out. I can’t say as much for the rest of them, and in my departure, I forgave them, and moved on.

I braved the mall for you, walking past the guy pimping the Rosetta Stone, the girl demonstrating the hair crimper, and that odd place that sells weirdly-patterned…what I guess are cell phone protectors. The kiosk salespeople are getting more hawkish in these difficult economic times. Some even dared to speak to me as I hurried by. They were probably high on amphetamine, or the waft of Cinnabon coming from the food court, but I was unswayable in my quest toward our destiny. I only have thighs for you.

At the end of the day I taught one class. That was my training over. Two hours of listening to Debbie talk and seven hours of watching teachers teach. I’d really learned nothing except that appearance was all that mattered. The kids clearly weren’t learning anything, and most of the Korean teachers spoke almost no English. The place was a joke. If I decided to jump about and spout gibberish I would have been considered a good teacher… as long as I smiled and wore a tie.

“You’re different, today,” Alice said.

There was no way for her to know that. Robert had just gotten home, hadn’t even spoken to her yet.

“I had an affair. That’s why.”

He loosened his tie, took off his shoes.

“Wow. Just today? That was short.”

“Well, it’s been going on for a while. But today was especially good.”

Why don’t you start off with the second question?

 

No, no, I’m going to start off with the first question.

All right!

 

I’m going to start off by saying it is Monday, August 22, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, at an undisclosed location, outdoors, on a beautiful day…

I like your hair, by the way.