Recent Work By Tyler Stoddard Smith

It had been a long night in Madrid, but I didn’t anticipate seeing the sun so soon. I had no watch and had thought that while I knew I had been out late, it couldn’t have been sunrise. I danced with friends at a club, a number of clubs, but I left after a meaningless lover’s quarrel with my girlfriend at the time, the kind that occurs after couples are separated from each other for a length of time, yet remain still in the same place.

Outside, a soft breeze made everything around me seem lighter, more fragile. I felt like I could topple over city blocks by just leaning on one of their buildings. Passing Madrid’s Arc de Triomphe, I thought about how much smaller it looked than the one in Paris. Was it actually bigger, or was it some trick of product placement on Napoleon’s part? I was happy to be outside the pulsing and suffocating atmosphere of the dance club. Next to the Arc de Triomphe was a small park with pear trees. I had never eaten a fruit right off of the tree and thought I might try it, but the idea of biting into a worm disgusted me. I wasn’t sure if pears were ever possessed of worms, but I knew that apples sometimes were, from those images in picture books you see as a child. I decided against eating a pear and instead sat under one of the pear trees for a while, smoking, aware of everything important and thinking of nothing.

The sun began to rise and I felt a touch of anxiety that comes with knowing you have so much day in front of you. I have always hated taking in the sunrise, because I know I am either up too early, or out too late. I began to walk back to my apartment building near the Cuatro Caminos, a part of town mostly inhabited by students and younger families. I wasn’t tired yet and it was a pleasant walk, for the most part. Occasionally a group of drunken teenagers would set upon me like harmless ghouls, asking for money or making fun of me for being a foreigner. I laughed awkwardly at myself with them and nodded in agreement when they would persistently ask if I knew Michael Jordan or The Red Hot Chili Peppers.

I came to a crosswalk and noticed a man with a cane standing toward the side of the street he intended, I thought, to cross. The sign indicating it was okay to pass flashed and still the man had yet to cross the street. I arrived at the crosswalk as the light had just turned to red and although there were no cars at any of the intersecting streets, I stopped anyway. I stood next to the man at the corner a few moments before I realized he was blind. The man turned toward me; he had no sunglasses on and I could barely see the outline of his iris or pupil through the gauze of his cataracts. His eyes were two small pebbles drowned in saucers filled with milk.

“Did I just miss the light?” he asked. He dressed nicely, as all old Spanish men do. He wore a blue pinstriped suit with a somber black tie over a starched white shirt. His face had succumbed to gravity, but there was youthfulness to it.

“I’m sorry?” I said. I had, and still have a hard time understanding questions in Spanish, when I’m not sure they’re coming.

“I missed the light, didn’t I?” he asked again, patiently.

“Oh, yes, I think you just missed it. I missed it too,” I assured him.

“We’ll get the next one,” he said, smiling.

“Yes, we will. Besides, you can never be too careful.” The man looked perplexed. I’m sure I had translated myself poorly. “It’s good to be careful,” I tried again.

“Yes, it is.” He smiled at me again. “You’re up early.”

“No,” I admitted. “I’m out late.”

“Ahh-yahh. You sound young. Where are you from?”

“I’m American.” He coughed, covering his mouth and gave a nod. We waited a few moments and the light flashed again.

“Let me help you,” I said, putting my arm in his and leading him gingerly out onto the crosswalk. Another pack of teenagers bounded by next us shouting something either at him or me or both of us. We reached the other side of the street and I unlocked my arm from his.

“Thank you, son,” he said.

“You’re very welcome.” The man gently put his hand on my shoulder and asked,

“What is your name?”

“Tyler.”

“Is that an American name?.”

“I think so.

“Sr. Ignacio Galban,” he said, extending a withered blue hand. His flesh had thinned and a geometry of veins overwhelmed it. “It’s a pleasure.”

“The pleasure is mine,” I said. “Take care.” Such exchanges are not uncommon in Spain. The simplest interaction often results in a formal exchange of names, geography, how the day is going and almost always, the soccer scores from the previous day. I felt a sense of satisfaction in helping an old, blind man across the street—the iconography is as familiar to me as the worm in the apple.
Should I keep walking toward my apartment to resume the argument with my girlfriend, or continue up Cuatro Caminos to nearby Retiro Park? While I stood debating my next move, the old man turned in my direction and seemed to say, “Tyler, do you believe in God?” I was sure I had heard this incorrectly.

“Pardon me?”

“Do you believe in God?” he asked in the exact tone as before.

“Yes,” I lied.

“That’s good. I do too.” I dreaded the inevitable offer of a “Jesus Saves” pamphlet, the lecture on the patience of Job, or a warning on the impending end of the world. “I’ll buy you breakfast,” the old man offered, cracking the corners of his dry mouth with a smile. I panicked. I recalled going to breakfast once with someone to whom I confessed my lack of faith, and receiving an excruciating, interminable sermon.
There are times when a person does something that they wouldn’t normally do. But then if you accept an invitation to do anything, at that moment it creeps into the category of something you would normally do.

“Do you like churros con chocolate?” he asked.

“Yes, yes I do.” I was hungry, but I don’t think that’s why I replied what I did.

“Have churros with me, then.”

“Alright,” I said. There was a small café just up the street and the old man led us to it. I mean that. He led us to it, although I did hold him by the arm as I had when we crossed the street. It could not have been later than 6:30 in the morning, but the café was heaving with people. We stood at the entrance to the café for an awkward moment until the old man instructed me to find us a table. I imagined how we must have looked walking into the café together, and I felt guilty because I was embarrassed, even more guilty because I had no reason to be. I found a table looking out toward the intersection and we sat down. The old man deftly placed his cane against the windowed glass of the café, hung his coat from his chair and slipped into his seat. When he was settled, I made my way up to the counter to order. In Spain, they have waitresses, but they never come. I ordered two cups of hot chocolate and a plate of churros to split. I should have gone back to the table, but I waited at the counter a few minutes until our food was ready. I carried two cups of hot, thick chocolate to our table, and a waitress followed languidly with the churros.

“Don’t eat all my churros, American!” the old man said with a laugh, pawing at the table. I set the plate of churros in front of him alongside his hot chocolate. He felt both items and smiled.

“I’ve never been here,” I said, trying desperately to avoid discomfort, hoping the old man would say something.

“It’s good,” he said, wiping a moustache of hot chocolate from his mouth. I dipped a long churro into my cup of hot chocolate and agreed with a nod. Embarrassed again, I agreed aloud, “It is good.” We ate and drank in silence for a minute or two until the old man looked up, rather, raised his head and said, “I’ve made you uncomfortable.” I felt horrible before and after I said it but I did. “A little.”

“I know,” he said, wiping another moustache of chocolate from his mouth. “I’m sorry I asked you if you believed in God.”

“It’s okay,” I said.” It’s just an odd question—only because it’s a dangerous one.”

He gave an odd smirk, “Why is that, you think?”

“What if I had said no,” I asked.

“I would have still invited you to have churros with me.”

“Do you ask everybody if they believe in God?”

“No, just today, I think.” His face grew somber and a tear welled up from one of those clouded eyes. “My wife died the other day, two days ago.” I felt horrible.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“She was old.”

“How long were you married?”

“Thank you for not asking me how she died.”

“You’re welcome.” He grabbed for his cane, made a frantic motion to get up, and stumbled over his chair. I caught his arm and helped him right himself.

“Will you do something with me,” he asked, picking up his jacket from the back of the chair. I stood up, nervous and without a clue what to say.

“Yes.”

“Let’s go.”

I led him out of the café, maneuvering through the customers who paid no attention to us. We stood silent on the street corner. The old man turned his head from side to side, I imagine just a pedestrian reflex we all get, whether we can see or not.

“Do you really believe in God?” he asked again.

“Yes,” I lied again.

“I don’t,” he said.

“Excuse me?” I asked, certain I had again mistranslated.

“I don’t believe in God. I never have.” He secured one arm under mine. “I feel like I should now.” The morning was coming along in swing; cars began to honk their horns, going somewhere.

“Why now, because of your wife’s death?” I couldn’t think of the way to say “your wife’s passing,” as I wanted to.

“Yes, I suppose. Even if I could still believe in her, it doesn’t help me. It fills me with more sadness.” I was more uncomfortable than I have ever been in my entire life.

“Do you want to know something?” he asked.

“Of course.”

“They say that if you inhale forty breaths and then exhale them at the same pace you drew them, you will know death, you will know God You liberate the soul.”

“I don’t understand.” I said.

“Because you’re an American, or just because you don’t understand?”

“Maybe both.” He repeated what he had just said about the forty breaths and stopped his gait.

“No, no I understand what you said.”

“I can’t do it,” he said, defeated.

“Do what?” I asked.

“Draw the breath, the last one.”

“Maybe you don’t want to yet.” I wished I had gone directly back to my apartment. I might be in her good graces by now, making love, watching the day begin through a window.

“It seems I don’t,” he answered.

“Are you from Spain?” I asked, desperate to change the subject.

“Yes and no.”

“How is that?

“I fought in the war, the civil war. The one we lost. Franco’s stupid war—a stupid war filled with stupid hate. I fought for Spain, I fought like a dog for Spain. My parents, though, they were gypsies. From nowhere. Morocco. That is why I am not a Catholic.” He stared me in the face, he did, with those languid, baleful eyes. “You came from where tonight, Moncloa?”

“Yes.”

“Along the street Isaac Perál?”

“Yes.”

“You can still see the bullet-holes in the buildings. My friends died there. They had the luxury of God.”

“The luxury?” I asked.

“Somewhere to go. I have nowhere to go.”

“Everyone has somewhere to go,” I ventured, aching for the right word or words.

“Will you take me to confession?” the old man asked. As we walked along I drew breaths and exhaled them at what I thought to be equal intervals. I felt silly doing it, but I have found that whatever superstition is the most relevant or immediate, I, or almost anyone, will embrace it. I would stop at around thirty breaths, arresting the deadly cadence the old man had described. This is obscene and idiotic, I thought. But I did it.

“Confession?” I asked, knowing I had heard the old man correctly.

“Yes, doesn’t it help? Help with something?” I had never been to confession in my life, but I answered,

“Yes,” I said. “It ought to.”

“Will you take me to a church?” he asked. I stood scanning the streets, as aimlessly and as fruitlessly as he had earlier.

“Sure, let’s go to confession.” There are points of no return—this was one of them—and the prospect frightened me.

“Will you show me how?”

“I’ve never done it in Spanish.”

“Done what?”

“Confess.”

“You speak Spanish pretty well,” he said.

“I don’t know la liturgia,” I guessed at the word.

“I’ll tell them what we’re there for,” he said. I remembered there was a church a few blocks north of my apartment, next to a veterinary clinic. We walked in silence, our arms intertwined. The whole time I repeated the breathing exercise that led to death, to God, stopping just short of thirty-five this time around. I wondered if he did, too. His breathing was heavy and disconcerting. I didn’t feel like counting anymore. We passed the veterinary clinic and turned up a small side street, I can’t remember the name. As we approached the church, I smelled shit.

“I smell shit,” the old man said.

“I do too.” I looked at my shoe and I had stepped in a pile of it, it was all over my shoe. “It’s me,” I admitted.

“That’s good.”

“That I stepped in shit?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s good. That’s good luck. Here in Spain.” The church was open and we walked in. While I hadn’t ever been to confession, I was familiar with the protocols of entering a Catholic church. I dipped my hand in the holy water and crossed the old man with my index and middle fingers. He seemed pleased. I dropped 100 pesetas in the donation box and had the old man hold up a candle that I lit with my lighter. I craved a cigarette all of a sudden, as I realized (and felt) I’d been without one for almost two hours. I hadn’t the slightest idea of how to enlist a priest for confession, so I led the old man to the very back pew, took his cane, and helped him out of his jacket. We knelt without bowing. I didn’t pray and he didn’t know how. A priest appeared out of the dimness to light candles in front of a mural depicting the Gift of the Magi. I told the old man to wait and he nodded in silence, kneeling devoutly the whole time, his head still facing forward. I approached the priest and asked him if we could make confession. “Both of you, correct?” the priest asked.

“I guess so. I mean, yes.” I felt disrespectful. It seemed that in a sacred place, “I guess so” is a ridiculous thing to say. The priest motioned for me to escort the old man to the confessional. I confessed first; the old man insisted. I began in Spanish, but I didn’t know how to begin in Spanish or English.

“Say it in English, I speak English,” The priest said. This was worse. I knew to say, ‘Forgive me father, for I have sinned . . . but then what?’

“Just talk to me,” the priest said. So, I confessed everything in recent memory that had offended me about myself, which I assumed would have also offended God. The priest listened well. I felt comfortable. Contrary to what I had seen in movies and read in books, I wasn’t instructed to say a Hail Mary or an Our Father. The priest, I thought rather strangely, thanked me. I waited for a moment, but he said nothing else, so I left the confessional and sat back down. The priest then spoke with the old man, and lead him to another confessional. I wonder how much the priest listened to me. I’d like to think he took it in.

While I waited for the old man to finish his confession, I walked around the church, admiring the stained glass. The Virgin has always fascinated me, and I stood looking at a window depicting her with the dead Christ, “La Pieta,” is the only expression I know for that image. I was still standing there, when the old man, led by the stone-faced priest, touched my shoulder gently.

“We can go,” the old man said. I nodded to the priest and he nodded back. I led the old man out of the church and out the door into the light of day. I was very close to home and I didn’t know what exactly to say to the old man.

“That was interesting,” he said.

“It was,” I agreed. “Very.”

“You don’t believe in God,” he said.

“No, I don’t,” I said.

“I don’t either.” He smiled toward me and swiveled his blind eyes, again, about the neighborhood, the city, the world. The jowls rose on his face and I saw a smile appear.

“I hope that was comforting, or helpful,” I said.

“It was,” he said. “Now I can go home to breathe.” I tensed up and again, felt uncomfortable.

“Breathe how?”

“Breathe as I do.” I asked the old man if I could pay for his taxi fare, flag him a taxi. He agreed and I saw one right away and hailed it. The taxi stopped and I led the old man, my arm intertwined with his, into the backseat. I gave the driver 2000 pesetas and asked for his car number, just in case. The old man crumpled into the backseat and let out a sigh. He turned his head in my direction and nodded politely. I nodded back at him and closed the door. The taxi left around the corner of the side street and down Cuatro Caminos. I walked back in full daylight toward my apartment, smoking.


I have a long history of becoming far too invested in my prime time TV shows. For a period, I went around telling friends and associates in various states of legal trouble that “a writ of mandamus must be issued” or that “these things usually sort themselves out in voir dire,” along with other bits of unsolicited, erroneous legal advice mined from “Law & Order” episodes. I employed, usually to little effect, modern forensic techniques learned on “CSI: Las Vegas” to create a time-line for those moments spurred on by my late-night roistering. I know I went to Taco Bell late-night because there are beans on my face this morning. But wait. Perhaps I am confusing correlation with causation. I’ll need more grant money to close the book on that case. But this is different. I’ve got a big problem now. The folks over at FOX have really done it to me this time.

“House, M.D.,” which usually airs at 8/7c, is a show that features the brilliant and ornery infectious disease specialist Dr. Gregory House, his three minions, Drs. Chase, Foreman and Cameron, along with Dr. Cuddy, the Dean of Medicine at Princeton Plainsboro and oncology specialist extraordinaire, Dr. Wilson. The show follows Dr. House and his colleagues through the Byzantine world of medicine, “where the villain is a medical malady and the hero is an irreverent, controversial doctor who trusts no one, least of all his patients,” at least according to a FOX network statement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WELL WHAT?

For me and my girlfriend Allison, this show has become an overwhelming presence, not just in our quotidian routine, but in the bedroom. Initially, my reaction to House, M.D. was a predictable one. I am a failed pre-med student, and even before the advent of Dr. House and his crew, I often resorted to offering ill-advised medical advice to those in need, falling back on my elementary training in medicine along with reruns of “ER.”

“Where does it hurt?”

“It’s my stomach. I think it might have been the fajitas.”

“Hmm, it sounds like your liver is shutting down. We need to start lactulose, 30 cc’s per NG and a get a stool and urine sample to see if there’s any blood in there.”

“It’s just a stomach ache.”

“Stat!”

“Tyler, we’re at a Chili’s. What’s the matter with you?”

“Fine. It’s your life. Do you want the Mudslide Pie to go?”

But “House, M.D.” is a completely different kind of monster. Instead of breakneck emergency room procedures, House and his team are consistently faced with medical mysteries and procedures that would throw the common ER doctor for a loop. Just the other day House had to treat a man with electro-shock therapy for male menopause to wipe out his memory because the man was also sick with love for his brother’s fiancée and the only way to get him better was to fry his brain and erase the memories to keep heart attacks brought on by his brother’s fiancée’s presence away. Not the run of the mill motorcycle vs. pedestrian so common on other medical dramas.

After Allison and I decided this was a worthwhile show and one worth purchasing on DVD, things took a turn for the worse. Innocuous medical issues became intense projects, as I would eschew the common diagnosis for a more bewildering prognosis.

“You wouldn’t believe it, Tyler. Everybody at work is sick. I think the flu is going around. Maybe I’ll take tomorrow off.”

“I see. Has anybody in your office been to Africa in the last six months to a year?”

“Why? I think Amy might have gone to Miami last summer with her husband, but I don’t think anybody went to Africa.”

“So you’re not sure?”

“Well no, not totally.”

“Look, after we put your office in quarentine, I’m going to need to check Beta 2 protein levels and do a lumbar puncture on all the employees. I’m leaning toward cowpox, but it could be amyloidosis or lymphoma. However, if the biopsy and abdominal CT scan are negative for cancers, I’m going to need to check for scurvy and African horse sickness along with hypergonadism. You all may also have a mild case of Addison’s disease.”

“Did you say ‘hypergonadism?’”

“Yes, of course. Why?”

“How do you explain a case of hypergonadism in an office full of women?”

“Exactly.”

And unlike her distaste for my other forays into pseudo, prime-time science, Allison was oddly tolerant and even encouraged my maverick House M.D.-induced diagnostic career. In fact, it now occurs to me that her long string of coughs, sneezes, yawns, ticks and alleged night sweats over the past year was a ruse to get closer to Dr. House and his colleagues.

“Babe, my head hurts. Do you think it’s anything,” she’ll say, prompting me to list a litany of ailments. Dr. House is never one to rule out any scenario and neither was I. Of course, my database of disease increased with every “House, M.D.” episode: Bwamba fever, Potato leaf roll virus, Mafucci syndrome, adrenal hypoplasia, Touraine-Solente-Golé syndrome, cat-scratch fever, oral-facial-digital syndrome types I-IV, you name it.

“Maybe it’s nothing. Why don’t you come in to the bedroom with me?” In the bedroom, Allison was nice to me and these niceties continued for quite a while. I hadn’t noticed the correlation, however, between our horizontal antics and their proximity in time to our viewing of “House, M.D.” I don’t believe men have the capability to reflect accurately on why or how they are treated nicely; we accept the situation with an awe and wonderment reserved for the contemplation of Machu Picchuor the Edelbrock intake or Buffalo wings. Once again, I confused correlation with causation, assuming my vast knowledge of pathology was the catalyst behind our new and improved love life. Alas, it was not my knowledge of medicinal arcana that provoked Allison’s amorous behavior; it was Gregory House, M.D.

As season one moved to season two, Allison’s and my fanaticism for the show grew. After the first season, you have a good sense of the characters—their motivations, a look into their skeleton-packed closets—and you begin to relate to them. Gregory House M.D. suffers from some kind of untreatable condition that led to necrosis in his quadricep, causing the brilliant doctor significant discomfort. I have a few ideas about what could be ailing House, but my humility prevents me from divulging these notions to strangers. Ok, I don’t really have a concrete idea about what could be wrong with Dr. House, but neither does he, which is why we both flirt with a Vicodin addiction. Dr. House needs a few handfuls a day to cope with the agonizing pain brought on by his condition and the stupidity of the hospital administration and his patients, while I, on the other hand, require a few handfuls to offer “moral support” to House and because my friend Brent has some left over from when he had his wisdom teeth removed. As for what’s ailing Dr. House, I’ll put it this way: Fulminating osteomyelitis is still on the list. But then again, so are a thyroid hormone plasma membrane transport defect and scabies. As you see, my enthusiasm for the show increased with every episode. Allison, however, began to “present” symptoms of a similar, yet more corporeal fanaticism.

Around the middle of season two, Allison, who is not much for idol worship, proposed we buy a poster of House, M.D. and his team on E-bay. During college and far too long after, I inflicted upon my roommates posters featuring green space aliens that glowed eerily under a black light, that Bob Marley poster that everybody has where he is smoking a joint the size of the Hindenburg, and the requisite poster of Anna Nicole Smith before she ballooned and fell into a quaalude/chicken fried steak-induced torpor. I thought I could manage another juvenile poster; time and maturity relegating them all (aside from the alien poster) to a dumpster at the behest of some style-conscious former love. We looked online and saw a House, M.D. poster signed by all the doctors, so for Christmas, I endeavored to purchase on eBay this one-of-a-kind item for Allison.

A 24 x 36 poster signed by Dr. Gregory House, M.D. and his staff (including Dr. Cuddy and Dr. Wilson) hovering over what looks like an exam table, the eminent doctors backlit by a surgical lamp, was available on eBay for $100. I went to work and during a lull, logged on to the site to put in my bid on the poster. I bid $150 and went back to work, confident that in two days, nine hours, and seventeen minutes the item would be mine. I checked on my offer a day later only to find I had been outbid by house_lover22. This devotee had pushed the bid up to $200. Fazed, but still possessing a little of the fight that has kept my alien poster up all these years (although I was told I’d have to lose the black light as it was, according to a former girlfriend, “the drippiest, crispy, weed-smoking patchouli bong resin relic I’ve ever seen”) I went whole hog in for $220. Only the best for my gal! But the next day, as I went to check my bid, house_lover22 dropped a $260 bomb on me. War. Without flinching, I offered $275 for the poster, certain that this would scare off the little House, M.D. tourist. Then, 45 minutes later, I had been outbid again, sure enough, by house_lover22. Three-hundred god damned dollars. I was done. He wins. I left the bidding arena feeling like a victim of acute cadmium poisoning.

I arrived home from my office and found Allison all worked up into a tizzy.

“I got it! I got it! That House poster we were looking at. Some fucker tried to snatch it up, but I hung around and got it.”

“Do we even have three-hundred dollars?”

“How’d you know it was…oh shit. Gift of the Magi. Sort of.”

The poster arrived and Allison hung it above our bed, where a mirror used to be. This is when I first came to suspect that Allison’s love of House, M.D. had taken a distinctly different shape than my own. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have a massive crush on Drs. Cuddy and Cameron and a bit of a man-crush on Dr. Chase. Obviously, Gregory House M.D., is included in this list, but my attraction to him is less physical—I’d like him to stay and chat over scotch and then maybe something happens. . . . But Allison, it now became clear, had only a selfish interest in my prognosticating. My diagnoses were mere vehicles on which she could ride away from the “real world” and into the arms of the wildly attractive knot of doctors at Princeton-Plainsboro.

I caught Allison engaged in House M.D. chat rooms, vigorously smashing away at the keyboard to harass other members of the otherwise innocuous chat room and reinforce the notion that these brilliant doctors were misunderstood by the cretinoid masses here at the Forum: http://forums.fox.com/foxhouse/.

“You dumb sons of bitches. Dr. Chase is merely trying to live up to his father’s wild, unattainable expectations. Of course he’s going to be wound tight, you sanctimonious fucks.”

Eventually these rants found Allison banned from a number of “House, M.D.” chat rooms and left to stew in the thought that there existed people out in the world who would disparage perhaps the finest team of doctors ever to be assembled. Speaking of the real world, I began to feel my first pang of jealousy, as our love life, at least in the bedroom, had become a decidedly canine diversion. Now, I love to watch House, M.D. on Tuesdays at 8/7c, but I don’t need to see the staff above my bed, examining my every move, judging me, diagnosing me.

“Hey, Dr. Foreman. The patient looks odd and manic. Do you think it could be Japanese encephalitis?”

“Well, Chase. I don’t know. Certainly neurological. Maybe metachromatic leukodystrophy. Dr. Cameron, any thoughts?”

“Yeah. Is that all he’s got? Jesus. Poor bastard.”

I remained tolerant of our signed House, M.D. poster because I am no fool and I know a good thing when I’ve got it. But, I really felt I had to establish myself as a plausible substitute for Dr. House and his colleagues. I met with my friend Ben at a sushi restaurant over Camparis to try and orchestrate a plan. We spent the afternoon sipping our Italian aperitifs and pinching at spider rolls, my confidence rising with the alcohol and Ben’s completely misguided advice.

“You should fucking apply to medical school, man.”

“What do you mean? I already tanked in pre-med and any relevant medical knowledge I’ve ever had is shaky at best, Ben.”

“Why are you so hard on yourself?”

“I’m not trying to be hard on myself, I’m trying to be honest with myself, Ben.”

“Oh, sorry. I guess I couldn’t tell the difference. I’m also on mushrooms.”

Everyone needs the friend who will actually ingest all the ridiculous psychedelic chemicals used for the occupational vision quest. I would never have conceived of applying to medical school in my current state—fragile, insecure and possibly suffering from delusions of grandeur or angina pectoris. But Ben planted this seed, and after tracking him down in the bathroom where he was organizing a bowl of edamame to resemble Che Guevara, I patted him on the back, stuck him with the bar tab and went to the half-price book store to purchase a guide to taking the MCAT.

Allison supported my decision to apply to medical school, but her behavior turned from one of trepidation toward to outright disgust. After delaying my attack on the MCAT a half dozen times for various reasons (“Who’s to say I don’t have cadmium poisoning?) I discovered medical school and even the medical profession at large, involved more than the rote memorization of obscure diseases and dosage amounts. There’s also quite a bit of mathematics and chemistry, two subjects which I would characterize as my weak suits. I sat on the couch going through MCAT flashcards featuring calculus and covalent bonds most evenings except for Tuesdays 8/7c, when House, M.D. would take me to a loftier position, in particular, the head of diagnostic medicine at Princeton Plainsboro hospital. Allison would sit transfixed, her tongue probing the air as if to catch some renegade particle escaped from the sweet breath of Dr. House through the phosphorous and the ray tubes of the television and onto her pursed and eager lips. The only time she ever strayed from her seat was when she would have to throw the cat against the wall for stepping on the remote control. Wednesday through Monday, however, I worked like mad toward being accepted to, “you know what? Fuck it,” I said, “Princeton Medical School.” Alas, Allison’s feelings of disgust at my obvious lack of aptitude for the sciences came to head one afternoon when she barked,

“How can you not know the difference between aromatic and alicyclic compounds or even less an atom and a god damned molecule? Baboons know that shit! I’m going on-line. You’re a mess.” I was, though. I was terrible. I began to copy test answers from the previous owner of this study guide’s practice tests. No doubt this whiz was already chief of cardiac medicine somewhere fancy. I allowed myself to be swept up in the idea that I had, like Allison and Dr. House’s molecules (atoms?), somehow become intertwined with this book’s previous owner. Another practice test. Another near-perfect performance. Allison came to trust in my capabilities, noting, “Maybe it’s just weird. Maybe you just sound like an idiot when you’re talking.” But I knew better and as the date of my MCAT came upon me, I was seized with fear. I was a fraud. All that legal jargon, all that ridiculous recitation of House’s diagnoses, not mine…puerile, stupid, show-offy, greasy kid stuff. What was I thinking? “Law & Order” never had me applying to law school; I saw “A Brief History of Time” and I didn’t go rushing off for a doctorate in space physics; “The Karate Kid” did see me enroll in karate lessons, but only for one day, as I wore my gi out in public sporting the never-menacing beginner’s white belt, and was quickly set upon by local hoods who locked me in a Port-o-Potty for 45 minutes. What the hell was this? Who did I think I was? I’m not a doctor, I’m a guy who makes a watermelon helmet at the end of a barbecue when I’m half-crocked on Carlo Rossi burgundy. I aimed to come clean to Allison and to myself, but I just couldn’t bear it. Not to mention, season three of House was coming to a close and a general malaise took over the apartment. Allison lost all interest in my imminent medical career and sex, I became overrun with guilt, monotonously going over practice MCATs executed to near-perfection by their previous taker, and even the cat seemed downtrodden, occasionally throwing herself against the wall in a touching display of nostalgia and abject boredom.

The day of the MCAT came and I lumbered off to take the exam in a nearby high school at eight in the morning as Allison dozed away.

“Good luck, doctor,” she italicized hopefully, unconvincingly.

“Thanks.”

When I arrived at the high school, I had to negotiate my way from the parking lot, through a gang fight (Why do gangs get up so early? Seems counter-intuitive.) and past a number of methamphetamine dealers to arrive at the auditorium, a trek that caused me a fair amount of unease. But unlike other major tests in my life, I wasn’t nervous for this one. I didn’t have those paralyzing butterflies or nausea present during my SAT or those other tests that determine whether you’ll be in the class that’s learning long math or the one where there are two kids locked in a cage and another kid rubbing his own feces all over the sack lunches. I was calm. There was a kind of Bach fugue/walking through honey-and-gauze calm that came over me. I was going to get through this. I was going to go in there and try my best and maybe, just maybe I’d pull it out this one time. The onetime cosmic forces all line up in your favor and there is no man, no superstructure, no howling stampede in this blasted world who can stop you! I thought this for a few more moments then decided that that kind of shit only happens on ESPN Classic and went to a bar instead.

I felt awful, not so much for skipping my MCAT as for deceiving myself and Allison the whole time I was allegedly “studying” for this test. Delusional parisitosis, or “Morgellon’s disease” could be a possible cause of my delusional medical aspirations. But then, so could leprosy.

The bar was an old Irish place called “The Blarney Stone.” The Blarney Stone, like the fourteen other Irish bars I’ve been to called The Blarney Stone, opened early—some loophole they must take advantage of by offering an Irish “breakfast” (in most cases a lukewarm hot dog, lukewarmer beans and $2 wells). I sat at the bar and lit a cigarette, taking in the faint smell of excelsior for just long enough to consider that jejune notion you talk about in college after too much marijuana where we are all cosmic guinea pigs, just spinning around that proverbial wheel in the proverbial unknown with credit card debt, acne vulgaris, goiters, elephantitis, jaundice, rush hour traffic and the like in some silly celestial aquarium filled with…

“Yeah, I’ll have a Guinness and one of those weenies.”And after a few Guinness, a quantity of scotch and plenty of lukewarm weenies, I was thrown out of the bar for telling the bartender he looked like he might have thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura and to maybe hurry up with another one of those weenies.

I arrived home around noon to find Allison sitting on the couch with the MCAT book in her hand. I kissed her awkwardly and then paced around the apartment like I often do when I am drunk and hiding something.

“Look,” I said. “I’m going to have to come clean here. I didn’t take the MCAT. I just want…”

“I know, babe. I know you didn’t—unless they started serving scotch for breakfast over at the high school.”

“I think the PTA is considering it.”

“You got a letter from Princeton. It doesn’t look like an application.” I opened the letter, my clumsy, drunken hands fumbling over the envelope. I strained to read the letter, holding it closer, then further away from my face. I was finally able to make it out:

Dear Mr. Smith,

We appreciate your interest in Princeton University. Unfortunately, we offer no graduate program in medicine, nor do we have a medical school.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

____________

Princeton University

The Graduate School

Clio Hall, Princeton, NJ, 08544

 

 

 

 

And so it goes…

I gave the letter to Allison who, naturally, roared with laughter. I sank onto the couch, drunk and embarrassed, intermittently hiccuping blasts of fetid weenie about the living room.

“So why didn’t you take it?” she asked. “You paid good money.”

“It would have been a disaster. They would have had to check the machine to verify a score could dip so low.”

“Well, I’m proud of you, Tyler.”

“For what?”

“Doing something.”

“Thanks. See anything interesting in the study guide?

“No,” she smiled. “I’m just going over my old practice tests.”

“What tests?”

“My MCAT practice tests. I should get my scores in a week or two.”

“What the fuck do you mean your scores? I think I’m on mushrooms. I have to lie down.”

With my dipsomania subsided and a solid nap under my belt, I went to Allison to clarify what I thought she’d been babbling about earlier.

“Yeah, you just let it sit there for weeks. I thought I’d take a crack at it.

“So you took the MCAT?”

“Yeah. I think I nailed it.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“Nope.”

“That’s so ninja.”

“I know.”

“House, M.D. style!

“I know!”

Now that season five of House, M.D. is nigh, our lives have become decidedly different. Allison pores over medical school applications while I go about my routine, making sandwiches and catching smidgens of “Boston Legal,” something to pass the time until “House, M.D.” arrives. We still have the “House, M.D.” poster up in the bedroom, but it doesn’t seem like such the centerpiece anymore. Allison still manages a few tirades on rogue internet chat rooms about “House, M.D.,” but she’s focusing on a big life move. Soon, Allison will be telling me I’ve got gonadal dysgenesis and I’m actually going to have to do something about it. She’ll be surrounded by people who speak this language, people who actually understand it. And where does that leave me? I don’t know. I’m nervous. But, as I’ve always firmly believed, these things do usually sort themselves out in voir dire.



Rejection letters are always a drag; whether they are negative responses from job opportunities, university admissions boards or literary journals. However, there is nothing quite as spirit-crushing as a rejection letter received after submitting a poem. A short-story rejection slip is depressing, but not devastating. You manufacture a story in your head, create some characters and make them talk. Fine. So you didn’t like my characters. Their dialogue is unrealistic. Their motives are questionable. Fine. They aren’t me. But a rejection letter from a poem is, for me, the equivalent of standing out on a street corner naked and having passers-by hand you terse little notes reading, “Your penis is unconvincing,” or “You call those nipples?” or maybe, “You have an affected buttocks.” And that kind of stuff just breaks my heart. You pour it all into a poem: your skeleton, your bile, your oozing primordial remnant—your private parts. To be told that the fundamental you is not up to snuff—that’s hard murder.

I was looking out a window at the Vail ski slopes and thought that the skiers in the distance resembled fleas on a giant polar bear. That made me feel fairly poetic, so I went to my girlfriend’s computer to write it down. I’d never seen a ski poem and thought that perhaps there was a niche industry there. Most skiers are rich, most skiers are educated, and everybody loves a hokey poem about their sport, their profession, their passion. I could be the Pablo Neruda of ski poems: “I want to bounce over moguls/like the raindrops in Chile/bounce across your breasts.” Every poet, at one point in his or her life, considers dipping the quill in hackneyed Hallmark ink. But, this is poetry, and the real poet must never compromise feeling, self or integrity. My mind whirred around, thinking of words and meter, then came to a stop and remembered that it had been a while since I last checked one of my “poetry” e-mail addresses. This address (which I will not divulge, as I still may have a poem in me one day) is one of the many e-mail addresses writers have. Most publications assert that their editors will accommodate no more than two or three submissions per writer, per year. So, after those first two rejections, what can the writer do but stew until the coming year nears? I’ll tell you what: The writer can fabricate names and alternate e-mail addresses, assuring at least a few more reads a year (alas, this is inevitably coupled with a few more rejections each year). I have three poetry e-mail addresses. I had checked two of the addresses fairly recently, but it had been over a month since I checked the third. I went to my account, as I always do, hopeful as one is hopeful for making parole (in that this kind of hope is seldom realized and often results in continued forced sodomy, or in the best of cases, a job cleaning those cheese spackle guns at Taco Bell). I have four replies.

Three are in response to a poem I wrote about the death of Federico Garcia-Lorca. One is in response to a Bukowski rip-off that details the deleterious gastro-intestinal effects of drinking gin and eating chicken wings in excess. It looked bad. You can always tell you’re about to be denied when the response reads something like: Re: My Poetry Submission. If the bastards don’t want you, they won’t even bother with changing first person to possessive. Sure enough, I receive all vaguely complimentary albeit offensively generic rejections (I will not even begin to go into the despair upon receiving SASE snail-mail rejection letters. The thought of paying to be rejected makes me want to burrow through an excelsior filled cage with a rent copy of Leaves of Grass.).

Then, something snapped in me. Not exactly snapped, but kind of slurped. As I quickly changed websites to cnn.com/money to see how rapidly my stock was tanking, a warm swell enveloped me. I thought of Whitman and how he went door to door hawking his scrawls. Then to Rimbaud and how if it all went to shit I could just leave for Paris and drink absinthe all day. And finally, to a guy I read about in Saskatchewan who juggles moose testicles for the patients’ amusement in a cancer ward. There are solutions to problems. These men had all been faced with artistic rejection (except for the moose dude, maybe) in their careers and had found ways to assuage their pain. Besides, it wasn’tthat bad. I was in Vail. Of course, I had (still have) over $10,000 of credit card debt, a shit job, an STD I picked up in Nuevo Laredo and the house in Vail was my best friend’s boss’s house that we broke into; but it was still far from hopeless. Maybe poetry would never work out. I could be happy on a beach just drinking boat drinks and making passes at women—who needs poetry? Maybe this was just not my epoch; maybe in 2388, when robots/yetis rule the earth, I will be appreciated as “ahead of my time.” I didn’t need poetry the way I need pornography. I would survive.

My trip from Vail over a little more than a week, I sat in my girlfriend’s and my 300 square foot apartment in Denver, restless. The first few days I never wrote, I never thought of writing. However, after those few days, I started to lose it. I would wake up before my girlfriend and run to liquor store to buy a half-pint of vodka at 9:00am. I sat behind a car, drank the Absolut Citron mixed with Diet Rock Star Energy Drink and then wobbled my way back up the stairs. I would sit through an agonizing episode of ER in which I would lament my abbreviated pre-med career and think how, if I had been more vigilant in organic chemistry, I could have made MDMA and sold hits of Ecstasy to the gentry. The vodka would kick in and around 10:00am my girlfriend would wake up.

“Did you leave this morning?”

“No.”

“That Diet Rock Star smells like booze.”

“I know, doesn’t it?”

“What are you eating?”

“Chinese food.”

“From last night?”

“Yes.”

“We were going to eat that together for lunch in the park.”

“This is different Chinese food.”

“Are you drunk?”

“No.”

“Then where in the fuck are your pants?”

You ask a lot of questions, don’t you?”

“Jesus.”

It went this way for a while until I reached that point of indifference that breeds the most valuable of ideas. Snow was falling over Denver and I sat out on our balcony and watched it. The chill was numbing but the scenery was hypnotic. I saw each snowflake as if I had been taken on some kind of peyote-induced vision quest. Every bit of geometry made sense, much like cheeseburgers; every cheeseburger, like every snowflake is different, yet hauntingly similar. My poems, God help me, were different. My unmetered scribbles were vessels for a universal suffering, a galactic joy. I resolved to sell a poem.

Up to this point, I had published a grand total of one poem (a floundering rant on commercialism picked up by a Marxist rag out of Portland) and had been paid for none. I was going to create and I was going to get paid for standing skinned alive on the street, my own entrails squishing through my fingers as I raised them over my head in Promethean awkwardness. I would become a merchant of my own quill and scroll. I would set up shop on my own—like Whitman—and sell my poems.

“Original Poems: $500 or Best Offer” read my slipshod cardboard sign. I spent almost two hours perfecting the desperate scrawls that adorned my sign. I don’t want to seem too complacent, I thought. Better dirty up the sign. I want to seem educated—perhaps one year of college, then the mendicant breakdown of sociopathic genius. I printed out a quantity of poems and sorted them into three piles. One pile would be for the patchouli-lathered quasi-hippies who might identify with me—people who might buy a poem just because the idea of buying a poem on the street seemed “counter-cultural.” Another pile would be my attempt at a “romantic” poem. Now obsolete, the poem was written for an ex-girlfriend that borrowed heavily from—who else?—Neruda. These poems would be for husbands too lazy to stop for flowers after coming home smelling like stripper perfume the night before. Finally, I managed to track down a poem I’d written a long time ago that amounted to a musing on nature. Nobody knows what to do with nature poems. This poem was the kind of wild-card I’d sell to those folks I couldn’t get a really solid read on. Nature confuses by its very, well, nature. Thus, its appeal in poems is undeniable but still perplexes the reader, which I suppose is good.

What followed was easily one of the most petrifying moments of my life. I gathered my stack of poems and made my way out to one of the busier intersections in Denver—at Hamden and Colorado. My first fear was that I would saunter up to the intersection only to find another “homeless” person with an even more sympathetic if not humorous sign and that I’d have to pack up my gear and find another intersection. I had picked this particular intersection because it was close to our apartment and I thought that if things really got out of hand or the gendarmes decided to go after me for loitering or soliciting (I can never remember which is which), I would have time to make a quick dash back to the apartment, burn all my poems and call my parents, asking them for another loan. I didn’t see any other vagrant with a sign, so I freaked out and ran back to the apartment anyway. The thing was, the closer I got to setting up my makeshift poetry kiosk, I was reminded that I had gone to college with two guys who I knew were in Denver. Denver is a big city, but I was beset by a strong mental image of either of them pulling up next to me in their BMW’s, noticing me, then it’s that whole awkward situation you see in movies where they demand to “take me in,” feed me and give me money until their wives come home and demand that “he can only stay the night, then he has to leave. . . Think of the children!” Or, the other option: The eye contact between former colleagues, one of whom has obviously “made it,” and the other, obviously bat-shit crazy, probably drunk and likely to start screaming about “modes of being.”

When I return to our apartment, my girlfriend is there, which is a bit of a problem, as I thought that she would be in class and that I would not have to explain why her upper middle class boyfriend is wandering around the streets of Denver with a stack of poetry and a cardboard sign.

“I thought you were in class, baby.”

“I imagine you did. What the hell are you doing?”

“I’m selling my poems on the street.”

“You’ve got to be shitting me. Why don’t you call my cousin—he said he’d give you a job at Starbucks”

“I hate Starbucks, no way.”

“Everybody hates Starbucks. You just have a bad reason—they took over your Taco Bell and that Taco Bell was the only one who would still make the Cheesarito?”

“I told you that?”

“Yes, a bio-degradable moment, obviously.”

“You read that phrase in a book.”

“No, you read that in a book. You say it all the time because you can’t remember that you say it all the time.”

“It’s a good line, though, you have to admit.”

“It was a good line. Now you just embarrass yourself with it. . . like you’re doing out on the street. Selling fucking poems, Tyler? Why don’t you just keep submitting to the New Yorker?”

“They don’t reply anymore. They just send me offers to subscribe, completely ignoring my submissions.”

“You shouldn’t have written them hate mail every time they rejected you.”

“It wasn’t hate mail, it was more desperate pleas for a sympathy publication.”

“You called an editor “fit for little more than extinction.”

“I was writing a metaphor.”

“Go sell your poems on the street, then. How’s it going out there, I guess I’ll ask.”

“Terrible. I totally panicked and ran back here”

“For wine?”

“For wine.”

“Get your fat-ass out there and you can have wine after you’ve sold ten poems.”

“Ten?”

“Ten at least.” She ushers me out the door, sort of tenderly, which is nice. But again, I’m scared shitless. I gird up my loins, as I have another flash ushered on by the Ghost of Poetry Future—who looks a lot like a black Emily Dickenson—that has me writing Crayon hieroglyphics on a bathroom wall somewhere in New Jersey with a bottle of something in hand and a case of mild gigantism that has only afflicted my lymph nodes. I walk out of the apartment, this time resolute in selling my poetry.

Again, I walk down to the corner of Hamden and Colorado. I sit for one moment, pondering the possibility (inevitability?) of humiliation and shame, but I am not the most weak-willed person in the world and I take up a spot at the northwest corner of the intersection by the left-hand turn lane. I arrange my poems in their respective piles, I don my sign and try not to make eye contact with any of the drivers. I am sweating ice. I feel an acute sense of fraud. I feel death.

Moments go by and it seems, in my agitated state, that none of the drivers have even recognized this freaked-out specimen standing on the side of the road. The light is still green. The cars whiz by and I long to be in a fugue state, or at least drunk. But I’m here, carrying with me the hope every poet must carry in his or her heart that what they have to offer is valuable, valuable not just to the self, but to humanity. The light goes yellow and it seems I am being rained on by a sulfuric acid cloud. My skin gets hot, my knees wobble and my head feels as if needles have sprung from every hair follicle. The light turns red. An eternity goes by and still nothing. I begin to daydream . . Word gets out. Within a week a writing professor will drive by after reading one of the poems purchased by his wife and take me in and coddle me and cultivate my writing and then I’ll be fighting Jonathan Safran Foer at some art opening in Soho. I think when Annie Leibowitz shoots my photo for Rolling Stone, I’d like to be ass naked holding a five liter jug of Carlo Rossi burgundy with only a Purdue roaster chicken covering my crotch. Art. Just start with one poem. One god-damned poem.

After waiting another eternity on this damned corner, I resolve to engage at least one person on thiscorner. I walk gingerly up to the Ford Explorer stopped at the light. The driver is a 40ish man in street clothes, so I’m relatively assured that he either has enough money not to work or has one of those jobs that allow for free-thinking and poetic tendencies. I make eye contact with the man and he looks back and, noticing my sign, lets out a laugh. He rolls down the window.

“I don’t have $500. What kind of poems are you selling?” He sounds vaguely Texan, something that puts me at ease. I am from Texas.

“I’ve got a few kinds here. Romantic, pensive, natural…”

“I’ll give you five dollars for one of each.”

“Five a piece?”

“God, no. Five for one of each.” I am about to wet myself I am so excited. I reach into each of my little cardboard boxes and pull out one of each poem. I hand him the poems and he hands me a five dollar bill. My first poetry sale fills me with such happiness that after taking the money, I nearly walk out into traffic out of mongloid jubilation. There are souls on this earth that still care! I am the happiest man alive I resolve to stay out on this magical corner for the rest of my days, happily whooping like a Valkyrie and selling poems to this world—this beautiful, artistic, forgiving, gentle world. I regard the Rocky Mountains in the distance and feel I belong here in this place. There is a place for the poet on this Earth!

As my eyes water with joy and Haydn’s “Der Himmel Erzahlen” bellows throughout my very soul, aFord Explorer pulls up and a 40ish man with a hint of a Texas accent throws some pieces of paper at my feet.

“Hey, man—these motherfuckers don’t even rhyme.”