It was 4:30 p.m. by the time we got on the road. Me, Melinda, and Jane.  The sky over the southern San Joaquin Valley was heavy with rain clouds. I drove. The road was slick.  The San Emigdio Mountains were topped with snow.  “You sure are quiet,” I said to Jane. Normally she was ruling the conversation. She called it a “Janeopoly.” I figured she was plotting out her novel, Puro Amor.  Not long ago she told me she could write entire paragraphs in her head and remember them for transcribing later.

An hour or so later we zoomed down the Hollywood Freeway, took the Highland Avenue exit and headed west onto Hollywood Boulevard, on our way to Book Soup. We were nearly late for the reading.

The bookstore was small, cramped, packed floor-to-ceiling with shelves. The reading area was an aisle essentially, a few folding chairs leading to a podium.  Bunched in the crowd were some writers from TNB, several of whom I’d never met. Kimberly M. Wetherell, filmmaker and writer, wore black glasses, her red hair a fire of loveliness. She mentioned that I was no longer two dimensional—no longer just words on a screen. I said something about being a figment of her imagination.

Duke Haney, author of Banned For Life and Subversia, stood in a corner wearing a black newsboy cap and a leather jacket. He was talking to Rachel Pollon, another TNBer.  She stood about half his size and got shy when I asked her to talk on camera.  “Meet Hank,” Duke said, pointing to another tall guy.  Hank stepped forward and handed me a photo of a face with the word “awesome” on it.

Lenore Zion had long, curly hair—different than when I last saw her.  She looked younger.  She asked what I had been up to. I mumbled something about 2010 being a year to write off and later bought her book, My Dead Pets Are Interesting.

Greg Boose came up and offered me a friendly hello.  He was taller than I expected, and handsome. His wife, Claire Bidwell Smith, was taller than expected, too. Both have striking eyes the color of the sea.  Greg asked me how long I was staying in town. I wanted to say a week. I wanted to say I had a suitcase and was looking for a nice padded bus bench.  “Probably headed back tonight,” I told him.  “Though maybe I’ll just stay and find my way back in the morning.”

Joe Daly, TNB’s music editor, came over and introduced himself.  His hair was shaggy, he was unshaven, he looked like rock and roll.  For some reason I had expected his hair to be short.

I met Ben Loory, too.  He has a gentle soul and a contemplative smile. Later, when he read a story of his called “The Well” and said he might cry, I almost started crying myself.

I didn’t get to meet Victoria Patterson. She read an essay about farts in literature, and her hands were shaking as she read.  It was hilarious.  Everyone laughed and held their gas.

Then there was the master of ceremonies, Greg Olear, author of the new novel Fathermucker.  A dark sweater covered his “Brave New World” T-shirt.  He gave me a guy hug and we made small talk.  I met his wife, Stephanie, too—not a writer, but a ferocious singer.  Steph was all hugs. She talked to a college friend from Syracuse, and they laughed about old times.

 

 

WATCH: GREG OLEAR/TNBERS AT BOOK SOUP

VIEW: JANE HAWLEY PHOTOS FROM BOOK SOUP

 

After the event, many of us headed over to Mirabelle, a nearby bar and restaurant. Brad Listi carried a sack of books and asked what I was up to and where I’d been. I didn’t want to dish out my sob story right then, so I just talked opportunities, my new book of poetry, the interest of an agent in my novel Anhinga, and so on.

Inside the bar, Jane came suddenly to life. She talked and talked and I grew quiet as she and a new friend walked to where Ben, Duke and the others were hanging out. Greg was at the bar drinking a beer. He ordered me some water.  I listened to Stephanie and her friend talking about their college days. I was content.

Melinda was quiet. She used to write (Lenore recognized her from her defunct blog), and she does have a voice. But now, for the most part, she just comes to my Random Writers Workshop, where I prod people like her to write novels and dream big. Jesse from the workshop was there, too. He downed a few drinks and talked shop with Ben Loory.

We were there for about an hour before heading home.  Jane fell asleep in the back of the car and began snoring. Rain poured over Interstate 5, turning into slush as we hit the Tejon Pass, the hump over the San Andreas Fault that marks the downward slide into the Central Valley.

“You okay?” Melinda asked. She could tell I couldn’t see the lines on the road.

“I’m fine,” I told her. “Just gotta see the lanes. I don’t mind driving in storms.”  I was smiling a little, eyes  straight ahead. I felt strangely at ease, like I was passing through a kind of personal storm, releasing it, washing it away on the rain-slicked desert road.

As we rolled back into Bakersfield, Jane woke up. By now it was one o’clock, and still raining.  I pulled into Melinda’s driveway.  We got out.  Jane said a quick goodbye, ran to her car, and drove away.  A pile of leaves in the neighbor’s gutter had caused a flood in front of Melinda’s house. I grabbed a hoe from the garage and started moving the pile. Melinda watched me briefly, then went inside, to bed.  I stayed outside and pushed and pulled and hacked at the pile of leaves and branches until a stream was created.  I stood alone in the rain and watched the water flow down the street.  Rain came down against the lawns and streets of Bakersfield in the night.  It was quiet otherwise, no signs of life, and I stood alone in the rain, content to know that the flood was gone.

 

It was kind of a poem, TNB’s Rich Ferguson cursing about ten times in a row, rattling off “Fucks!” in spoken-word, submachine-gun fashion while at CSU Bakersfield. He knew he wasn’t going to get to cuss at the family-friendly Russo’s Books. So he had to let go.

None of us get to cuss much at Russo’s. And that’s OK. I get it. Bakersfield is a conservative city 110-miles north of Hollywood. The local Barnes & Noble and the now-dead Borders Books are the same way. Rich still wowed a crowd of CSU Bakersfield poets and guests, mashing together a few of his ditties into a twenty-minute performance as his body swayed beneath shadows cast by his dirty straw hat.

The week before, poet Michael Medrano of Fresno wowed the same class while at Russo’s with selections from his 2009 book “Born in the Cavity of Sunsets” (Arizona State University’s Bilingual Press). Michael rode into town on the Amtrak. It’s a nice ride from Fresno. I’ve taken the route. It swings through Central Valley farmland and cuts through little towns like Hanford and Wasco, places where gangs are out of control and mom-and-pop restaurants are still as tasty as ever.

When he stepped off the train he pulled along a black bag filled with his books, notes, an unpublished manuscript for “When You Left to Burn at Sea,” and some pages from a young adult fiction novel.

I pointed at him and we hugged like brothers.

After a Thai food lunch we grabbed some coffee in the sweltering heat and headed to class at the CSUB OLLI Program poetry course I was teaching. He took the reigns and taught about community. In fact, all weekend we spoke about working together, how poetry scenes in towns and across the nation are dead without writers and poets linking arms and digging in.

I was careful to mostly teach from Medrano’s book as well as Bakersfield poet Gary Hill’s works (including “From a Savage City”) and T.Z. Hernandez book, “Skin Tax.” All three poets, I believe, are part of a poetry brotherhood that needs to further help connect the Central Valley to itself, to Hollywood-L.A. (that would be Rich Ferguson and others I know) and even to Colorado. In fact, T.Z. Hernandez is a Central Valley writer now living in Boulder, Colorado. I’m really looking forward to an Oct. 12 gig at Innisfree Poetry Bookstore & Cafe with both Medrano and Hernandez. Hernandez mentioned calling it the “Vagos Locos Tour: Poetry, Stories y Mas.” Fitting for a bunch of crazy wandering Latino poets from California’s Central Valley.

After our gig at Russo’s we all ended up at an old mortuary converted into a mansion home with two basements and enough Chinese artifacts to fill all the secret tunnels supposedly beneath Bakersfield. Poets Philip Derouchie and Terry Telford showed up as I was whipping up some salsa and drinking too much Moscato. Derouchie brought beer. So did Medrano.

Poet-literary writer Jane Hawley was there talking up a storm, telling stories about the house. Melinda Carroll, who is the quietest poet on the planet, hung out (actually a tie with Veronica Madrigal, who brought some carne asada and helped me make some rather forgetful Spanish rice. Medrano later said, “Maybe it’s the mortuary that took your rice mojo”). Poet Sofia Reyes had to be talked into showing up.

I cooked the carne asada and talked poetry under the stars with Medrano. “An epic night of Central Valley poets connecting between cities,” I said. It was about then I dropped a tortilla, picked up and flung over the fence into an alley.

“Looks like a spaceship!” a voice from the darkness said.

Soon enough, everyone was eating, even my terrible rice, and talked it up about mortuary ghosts, including one in the house of a cat named Blackbeard. Don’t believe me? There’s even a painting of the cat hanging in a dark room above a bed. Another animal from the mansion dropped dead of a heart attack just days after our shindig. “Cardiac arrest,” Hawley said. “The trainer tried animal CPR.” Apparently you do that for show dogs named Rudy. You rip their little doggy chests open if you have to. But as I mentioned, the little guy didn’t make it. His owner was in Berlin.


(Photo: Dolls found in mortuary mansion closet)

Maybe there was forewarning at our party, because in the middle of dinner, Hawley, whose gramps owns the mortuary mansion, suddenly ran in an odd sort of gait, away from the rest of the poets and launched herself into the pool fully clothed. I can’t think of any other reason than she was possessed by either Blackbeard the cat, who may have wanted her or Rudy dead, or the spirit of poetry infusing her with vibrant energy for a symbolic journey of renewal.

When she emerged there was a june bug in her hair and she screamed.

The next day I got Medrano to the train station barely five minutes before the Amtrak was scheduled to leave. I watched as he ran and boarded one of the big silver passenger cars.

I think I might have worked off an entire cup of coffee in that lone jog,” he later said, grateful he came to Bakersfield and broke bread with a host of tireless poets.

Mom’s scalloped potatoes in a creamy grey milky sauce looked like something you’d see coating a Paper Mache monkey, or what I would later realize in an “oh wow” moment, covering the android Ash in “Alien” during his barf and whacking scene (Actually, the scene reminded me of both Mom’s potatoes and spaghetti).

The grey goop sat in a steaming rectangular CorningWare dish with little polka dots of pink spam poking toe-like at every angle. Mom’s cooking was always a sort of building caved in on itself. Splashes of pink in food could have been anything. Anyway, she had cut the spam into brick shapes. Odds and ends. Curves. There was never any real order to her cutting anything. I couldn’t even say her bricks were stackable, which is why they looked like toes.

A big heaping spoonful on my plate meant watching a soupy gooey mess slop off the potatoes, not much unlike flesh caught in a flash fire and falling apart. I figured if potatoes could scream they would. But they didn’t. And neither did I. Not for the first fifteen years of my life anyway.

Seconds, please?

When I think about Stevie Wonder sitting at a grand piano tink-tink-a-tinkling those keys and singing about whatever is on his mind, I imagine he still sees beauty. There’s still a gorgeous world, right? You know, Mary Ingalls, she imagined beauty too while standing at the window in her family’s little house in Walnut Grove, or on a street corner, just gazing, like pretty stars were everywhere (and big angel wings on everyone). It was all beautiful.

I know it’s just TV. But the blind can see beauty. Yes’m.

Then you take something like food. If you’re blind to the nuances of its varied bland tastes practically your whole life (until you’re a teenager) then you’re really messed up. The good thing is, when I was around fifteen, food became epic as the fast-food nation craze in the Eighties saved my ass. And I have to say, thank God my parents’ relationship fell apart in the Eighties. Mom’s cooking disappeared and Carl’s Jr. was the Buddha. And thank God for Asia Market, because as greasy as that little store’s kitchen noodles were, it was my first foray into exotic foods. Moo shoo salvation.

Back to the Seventies.

Sure, those years often revolved around TV dinners. Little foil trays filled with goodies cooked in the oven. There was lots of Swiss steak. Mountains of it. Talk about another soupy gooey mess. Mom made her version of it too. Only, I’m not sure anything covered it but some weird gravy and onions. And the meat was tough and probably ripped right off the cheek of some cow (Pops was always finding a deal, and he carried lots of big knives and a gun).

Come to think of it, Swiss steak was a real delicacy in our house. As plain as it was and as canned as the mashed potatoes were, it was just a fucking treat. I gobbled the shit like it was straight from some old fat European cook dumped right on my plate (I’m a quarter Swedish. Mom was half. So maybe she loved the Swiss! Wa-la! Wasn’t like she was going to get to sleep with one).

And yes, her delicacy smelled a little like dog food. But that could have been because our fat sheltie’s dog dish was always a big splattered mess under the kitchen table. Every dinner smelled a little like Alpo. Or the generic equivalent.

It was great preparation for the years I worked in a dairy.

Now, Mom’s corned beef hash made me gag. I wouldn’t touch the shit. Give me her crummy attempt at chorizo and eggs anytime over that plate of dog crap. I’m half Mexican… Warning: Never let a white Midwesterner from Iowa cook your family’s Mexican food. You will be fucking screwed up for years. Although, why the hell Pops never complained is beyond me. He ate the shit like he was the dog getting a plate of mom’s salty spaghetti. Our dog, Candy? She wouldn’t touch the corned beef hash either. Poor thing. Probably what killed her in her sleep. I loved the little bitch. But I don’t even know what was in the hash mash, and I refuse to describe its texture, so let’s move on.

A real family delicacy down in the south side of Bakersfield where I grew up could really fill the house (and the neighborhood) with a foul smell. You think Mom’s corned beef hash could turn away a starving army? Or that her chorizo was all that could give an entire ghetto of my Mexican cousins the shits? Try a hot steamy cookie sheet filled with hot dogs carefully sliced down the centers (because Mom took care in slicing her wieners) and then heap (I mean fucking heap) mounds of fake mashed potatoes on top. Take that shit and slam it in the oven for an hour, so that no juice is left in those dogs (By this time every particle is in the atmosphere scaring the little cholos back inside their houses). Then, pull those dogs out of the oven and put those bad boys on the dinner table. That’s where we all sat, Pops at the head in his big wooden chair (us on benches). Once in a long while he blessed the food (Don’t remember what he said because I was usually holding my breath). And then chow time.

You’ve never seen such burnt potatoes slide eagerly down so many throats. I mean, we would have eaten that shit raw Mom’s cooking was so bad.

Oh, man, Pops. He sat there in his shorts (never wore a shirt) with his big brown hairy belly smashed against the table, and he would slop on half a bottle of ketchup. Leaning forward, he ate those bitches like they were some kind of fancy French eclairs some fat fucking Frenchman would buy all warm and tasty on the way to the Paris Metro. And there Pops went, eating three helpings, and the dog whining cause she didn’t get any, and me eating my food, trying like hell to crane my neck to see the TV because the “Wonderful World of Disney” was on and this was a bonafide Sunday evening treat.

I can go on. But I just wanted you to know why I boycott spam, or anything that claims having been scalloped, or chorizo from even the best Mexican restaurants, and most skinny noodles (Mom cooked Fideo and it looked like some poor soul’s brains had been cooked with the meninges melting away into a noodle stew).

Ah, the delicacies. I sure hope it’s dinner time for you. Word to your mother.

Performing is always tough for writers. I mean, we’re not typically stage-trained theatre experts amped up on auditory performance steroids when reading our prose. The reality is, most writers are just average Joes like me. We stumble, stutter, are monotone, and really are quite boring when we get up in front of people and open our mouths. I don’t know why this is, and have been guilty of it for years. I’ve droned on like a pontificating robot. I’ve blathered, buzzed, and really was in need of a good oiling of my vocal joints.

An hour passed. I sat in the quiet of my office and ordered a bus ticket.

Within two hours I was dragging my suitcase down a street that paralleled Interstate 15. I walked past Palace Station where OJ was caught and thrown in the slammer. I turned east on Sahara Avenue and made my way through the hundred-degree heat over the freeway. The Sahara Hotel loomed in front of me. I’d stayed there for several days when I moved back to Las Vegas. Then I was at John’s house, living in his spare room. Now here I was walking back to the Sahara, pulling my suitcase along a dirty street and looking down at piles of broken glass on industrial rooftops.

That night I sat on the edge of my bed and stared toward the window as darkness flickered with casino lights and hummed with the monorail’s monotone singing.

In the morning I packed my suitcase for the last time. I walked out of my room. No hint of remorse for having quit my job. I simply began my journey as some journeys begin—an invisible string tugged my ass along.

The elevator had a musty odor. The doors opened and I passed the Sports Book and the lobby. The casino was nearly empty. In a few corners sat sleepy drunks. They streamed money into machines. Just a little slower than usual. Rusted automatons.

Outside, an endless sidewalk stretched along a horizon of heat. I started walking and stopped at the corner of Sahara and Las Vegas boulevards. The air was hot. I wore a black backpack that I’d stuffed with my laptop and clothes and dragged a black suitcase that looked like an old pregnant Labrador about to spew a giant litter of cloth puppies. It sagged, but I had a good hold of its flimsy plastic handle.

About that time the transient came.

God said his angels are all around us. They look like people. For all I know street performers are a breed of angels meant to watch us when pretending they’re desperate to be seen. They stuff their big feathery wings into jeans pockets. They tuck ripples of pink-skinned wing muscle, all feathery and silky into raincoats and cloaks, and, though they may be a little below us, carry invisible swords and magical timepieces that compress our paths into mere moments.

Those are the holy jugglers and poet rappers of the Word. The men of sleight of hand flashing jokers, and ministering minstrels with guitar cases open like bloody mouths eating dollars. They are the homeless locust eaters watching us come and go and breathing on us their angels’ breath and God light.

Before the light could change there came the transient talking up a storm. Talking fast. “You’re going somewhere special,” he said. “You’re going somewhere special with bags like those! Hot enough for you? I’m going to see destiny. She’s this way,” he said.

He stepped into the street before the light could change. He looked sun-worn and carried a bag of plastic bottles. His eyes were wild with uncertainty and the cosmic insanity that fills the universe at such moments in the desert. His clothes were urban, old; they fit him like a sloppy dishrag sliced to fit with a dirty butcher’s knife.

My destination was the bus station downtown on Main Street next to the Plaza Hotel. It was the dirtiest place I’d seen in Vegas, with its broken down restroom and shit-coated urinals corralled by strands of yellow tape.

My shoulder was already sore just dragging my life to the corner. Already forgetting about the transient, I stepped into the crosswalk just as the light changed. I crossed Sahara and gazed through car windows at empty morning faces. I looked up at a boarded casino dressed in black awnings. Just past that I saw the Stratosphere Tower. There flew a helicopter, while down on the street a motorcycle with a big moustache riding it roared past. I saw security guards wandering to work. I saw druggies hard up for the question of life to smack them in a fix of morning clarity.

Across the Sahara I made my way down the long snake of Las Vegas Boulevard. I yanked my bag along, which flipped over more than once as I dragged it. I barely missed the toes of bus riders waiting on shaded benches. Hard faces stared into the heat, past me and my bags. Some looked up at the Stratosphere Tower, at its moving amusement park machinery more than a thousand feet above them.

Further along I stopped to rest at an abandoned swimming pool. I snapped a photo and went on my way. My hand and shoulder ached as I walked up and down parking lot driveways and street curbs. Near one casino, the same transient sat on a small cement ledge. If he had angel wings I couldn’t even see a ridge of feathers beneath his shirt. He grinned at me and watched me pass into the heat. I finally took a longer rest by a wedding chapel, only to be passed again by the giggling transient. He rattled his bag of bottles and laughed as if spooking some ghost he saw inside of me.

Abandoned pool on Las Vegas Boulevard taken on day I quit job.

I didn’t have any water and didn’t want to sit in the bright light. So I continued on the sun-baked sidewalk. I reached Charleston Boulevard and crossed it, heading into the old Huntridge District. I cut along streets, and passed through a transient park where bodies littered benches in multi-colored rags, and carts made their slow way, pushed by dirty hands. One group of transients sat against a wall by a fountain. Even in the heat they wore heaps of clothes. Their innermost layers, I imagined, were fused to cracked and caked lesion-covered wings, and to scabs where needles had burnt pools of coagulated blood onto drug-hot arms.

I dragged my bags slowly through, looking to see if the transient from outside the Sahara had made his way here. I looked to see if he was dancing a jig, or had miraculously transformed old plastic bottles into a puppet show of tales of the Vegas underworld: dancing demon can-can 7-Up mermaids, Coca-Cola devils of casino executives, big boss radio Fanta clowns with explosive-painted faces and forked tongues riding a carousel of Papa Johns pizza boxes and McDonalds fast-food toys—all lit on fire from the burning desert slot machine handles pulling reels of endless flames.

Several streets further, outside a Bank of America, my mouth was parched. I had nothing to drink so I just licked my lips and headed up some steps to where I pulled some of my last cash from an ATM. Heading back toward the street, I saw one of the most lonely of women and so smiled at her, the Queen of the Sin City Transients. I’d seen her many times before as she sat on a bench like it was her throne. Surrounding her were bags of food from trashcans, generous well wishers and back alley refuse piles. She was plump, rosy-cheeked and had the brittle hair of a sunburnt aged maiden of fire. She held a carton of soup and drank deeply as pigeons wandered past her feet. Piles of blankets and a cart sat nearby. I was a sweaty mess as I passed. I looked over but she ignored me, except through the farthest corners of her eyes, as little girls do.

I looked back, half expecting my transient friend to be there bowing at her feet and rattling his bag of bottles. I imagined a cloud of fire springing up at her feet, orange reflecting in her once shadowy black eyes, and her waving a wand, casting demons into the desert and demands to be carried out at midnight by fallen angels.

The bus station was close. I scooted on a sidestreet to Fitzgerald’s Casino, where years before I watched green-haired old ladies laugh and spin penny slots. Now the penny machines were even more gimmick-plagued. Their seats were filled with anxiety-ridden souls. It was a New World casino order, where penny slots tricked old ladies out of hundreds of dollars rather than the mere ten bucks they were used to losing. Those days of free martinis and enough cash left over to get a new green wig had gone.

Now I walked among a new generation of forlorn faces. With them I finally sat dehydrated and thankful. I ate at a McDonalds with a blank stare before eventually making my way to find brief refuge in the Plaza Hotel. There, I sat on a bench and changed my shoes and socks and prepared myself for the bus ride to California.

*This piece was written entirely on an iPhone

Jumpers

By Nicholas Belardes

Memoir

I saw the horrific billboard on Las Vegas Boulevard and instantly pushed it out of my mind.

Riding with John, we drove past, in slow motion. I couldn’t bring myself to mention it. Who could? It was far easier to bring up the porn billboard with the girl on it holding a cupcake saying, “Wanna taste my muffin?”

“Absolutely incredible billboard,” John had said staring up at the cartoon version of a bald cupcake.

Now I was walking toward the Sahara Hotel. Couldn’t get a ride from work. I could handle the walk I told myself. Just had to get over the freeway. Only now I was lost, headed north on Western, having cut under the freeway, past a Metro Police vehicle that pulled into the dirt behind me, just to check me out.

Hoping for a street to slice past the girly joints to Industrial, I had no such luck. I was stuck on an hours-long walk, just to traverse a freeway, and ended up on Wyoming Street and having to double back down Industrial, southward, and into a neighborhood of streets as ugly and lonely as any American island of lost streets could ever get.

Trying for a shortcut somewhere along the way, I took a walk down a sidestreet only to end up circling through past a gym as boxers in full gloves jogged past. They glared like they wished I was twenty years younger. Fresh sparring meat. I ducked tail and pushed back out to the main thoroughfare to search for a way through to the Sahara Hotel, which I hadn’t been able to see since first looking at it from right across the freeway. Now my only landmark was the Stratosphere Tower. And even that I found was now far to the southeast. From where I was originally it stood north and a bit eastward.

I took a long look down West New York Avenue and thought to hell with that. Looked like an endless string of drug deals going down in the dusty dank of the sweaty summer street. I plodded onward to West St. Louis Avenue and found a lonely long walk past a transient in pigtails leaning on a fence. She gave me the eye like she wanted more than a Shirley Temple and a fix of street crack.

I left her to her stares and eventually came up to lines of decrepit apartments, the kind you would find in any small desert town, with clothes strewn over rod-iron balconies, and mamba and cumbias blasting through open windows. Outside, there were kids toys, smoking red-eyed Mexicans in trucker’s caps, and the smell of greasy refried beans made from fresh pintos. Ahh, I told myself, I’d found the dens of the housekeepers, dishwashers and drug dealers of the finest hotels on the Strip.

When I got to Fairfield Avenue I made a right and looked up at the awful towering machinery of the Stratosphere Hotel. Its gargantuan height pushes over the broken industrial cityscape like a rocket ready to blast off into some Eighties-themed casino space station. There, I imagine heavy metal Earth hits rule, and guys Like Reno Romero shred to Alpha Centauri interstellar activists whose pointy ears bleed from amp feedback as they protest the cancellation of intra-celestial Dio tributes.

I walked down Fairfield along the back edge of the tower and kicked up dust as I crossed a gravel lot. In the near distance I saw another row of apartments. Their balconies faced the tower, and pot-bellied men, down to their last greedy nickel, eyed me and the tower through drunken eyes, as if we both held some kind of secrets they considered pulling a gun to find the answers to.

As I passed there was a scream. A long howling scream. One that was both terrifying and death defying at the same time. I’d heard a few in the distance, but this was closer, and I found it odd as I eyed the men on the balcony watch me suddenly look up at the jumper falling in full sprawl from the dizzying heights of the tower.

I rounded a corner, still within eyeshot of the derelict apartment behind the tower, and walked on a cracked sidewalk that looked like it hadn’t been repaired for sixty years. Just across the street was a bright green strip of grass. That surrounded a brand new condo that jutted upward into a shiny steel tower. A woman walked nervously on the grass as her little white Maltese sniffed around prudishly. I sensed the woman knew it was dusk, about the time those pot-bellied men creep from their rusted balconies, looking for wallets to lift and little dogs to kidnap and sell for easy Sports Book cash.

Soon I found my tired way to Sahara Avenue. A security guard on a bicycle pedaled past, heading toward the freeway overpass that I tried to find a shortcut around. Maybe he worked at the Palace Station, or some girly joint along the way.

I crossed Las Vegas Boulevard and was nearing a McDonalds when I heard a faint scream and saw a young couple looking up. The girl held a pink camera that surely couldn’t capture the person leaping off the edge of the tower.

“Would you?” I asked the man as I passed.

He looked at me with red eyes that could barely focus from a face of sunburnt skin. His hair was a greasy mess. “Already have,” he said.

I continued past, thinking of the terrible billboards advertising JUMPERS, and knowing full well, that some idiots on 9/11 would be up there, pretending they were in some virtual reality where nothing but smoke and flames would determine their final path through life, a long leap into the acrid air.

*NOTE: This piece was written entirely on an iPhone.

Image by Nick Belardes

The bellhop had one eye. He didn’t wear a patch. So I just gazed at the scar.

As if he had a little of Oedipus in him, he looked at me sadly. “Right this way, sir,” he said. “You’ve been waiting.”

“Not very long though,” I said, gazing past him into the Sahara Hotel Sports Book. There were several rows of tables and chairs, and a wall full of TVs. A few days before, a group of Algerian nationals had gathered. They hooted at the television in unison, taunting as if Landon Donovan would never score a goal. Now the Sports Book was nearly empty. Except for one Asian man. His head nodded toward his chest as if he just went ahead and died there.

“Right this way,” said the bellhop. His uniform was golden. It shined against his deep black skin. His hair was slightly receded. He looked like he’d been working the casino for so long that he might have known Elvis, who himself stood in ghostly iconic history in a nearby black-and-white photo that hung poster sized behind the front hotel desk.

The bellhop followed me into the elevator.

“Sorry to trouble you,” I said.

He fumbled with some keys as I punched the nineteenth floor.

“Ain’t no trouble,” he said. “We’re just short staffed is all. I can’t do everything. So some people just gonna have to wait.”

“I hear you,” I said.

The elevator felt old. The building sighed, sagged. The smoky casino had carried itself into these steel walls. When the elevator stopped, my twenty-eight-dollar room was only a few steps away.

Down the hall was a set of rooms where a minor league baseball team was visiting Sin City. Their organization must have struck a deal for cheap rooms. It was just a straight shot down Las Vegas Boulevard to the Las Vegas 51s homefield. There, a parking lot held a ghost town of washed up casino signs. Golden Nugget, Moulin Rouge and Stardust all lay in rust and decay with piles of others. Unlit bulbs in the thousands rimmed the dozens of signs, evidence that history’s lights wink and go out in the bleak asphalt desert.

The bellhop and I walked to my door—right around the first bend from the elevator. I pulled out my plastic room key. I’d taken it down to the lobby once already and got it replaced. But the latest key didn’t work either. “Here,” I said, swiping the key, only to hear a beep and a buzz and see a red light flash. “Just temperamental, maybe.”

“That ain’t no good,” said the bellhop.

I tried not to look at the scar where his eye had been. But who can help staring into mystery? My eyes shifted. I saw a man who had suffered. Behind him I imagined the real Oedipus. He stood down the yellow hall with black holes for eyes. He looked for his mother but could only fumble past two prostitutes scarred with tattoos, suffering all Jesus-like themselves as they disappeared into a room.

“I got a master key,” said the bellhop. He pulled out a metal card shaped like my plastic room key. He swiped it and the red light flashed. “Isn’t that something,” he said swiping his master key again.

I saw beads of sweat on his dark brow. He leaned forward, shook the boxy keylock device attached to the door.

“You’ll get it,” I said.

They oughtta replace some of these,” he grunted.

I’d taken a walk. McDonalds across Sahara Avenue stood next to a black-painted abandoned casino. Another casino wrapped in glitter and Big Mac big screens was really a second McDonalds around the corner on the Strip. Giant cranes stood near that. They hung over tall buildings with shiny grey-blue windows that reflected a decayed urban sky, where even dusty smog seemed to break apart and drift to the earth. It fell from above those of us who walked beneath all the scaffolding on porn-covered sidewalks with nothing more ahead of us than promises of helicopter rides, girls in pits dealing cards at the Riviera and Peppermill pancakes.

My feet hurt from all the walking. The dollar-menu burger had long drifted its way through my gut to more hunger pangs. I just wanted to sleep. I wanted to get inside my room and gaze out the window down at the streets, where the sleek monorail station was a soft whoosh, and the tower where Latoya Jackson lived in a high room upon infinite desert comfort stood over it all.

“I gotta get maintenance,” the bellhop said.

Pancakes weren’t sounding so bad. And the Caravan Cafe was just an elevator ride and a quick walk past rows of empty slot machines anyway. “I’ll get something to eat,” I said.

“It’ll be fixed by the time you return.”

“Ain’t no thing,” I said.

“You just don’t know about these machines.”

“Not your fault,” I added as I imagined both of his eyes gone just then. Behind him I saw Oedipus laughing. I saw the casino; his mother; the city mother. His lover. She was a big glittering sagging bitch with her finger wagging for a few more rings.

As I headed back to the elevator I imagined him in his golden uniform ascend through the floors and sail over the casino, across her glittering eyes and neon breasts.

*NOTE: This piece was written entirely on an iPhone.

There was one seat left at the diner bar next to a white-haired gambler. I sat down as he ordered a soda and bowl of chili. I ordered the $4.95 Binion’s Burger, potato salad and a two-dollar Coke.

The white-haired man didn’t say a word as he waited for his food. When it arrived he took a couple of bites, washed it down with a sip of his drink, then paid for it with two five-dollar casino chips.

“Keep the change,” he said.

A female worker with sunken cheeks and poorly dyed hair stood behind the counter and shrugged after he wandered away. “I sure hope he was finished,” she said.

As she tossed his leftovers in the trash, a soft-spoken black man with a beard walked up on my right. He put a bag on the chair between us. “What kind of beans you got?” he said.

“Pinto,” said a Binion’s diner worker named Mel. I swear he worked the same counter ten years before. He was so matter of fact that I considered ordering some beans too.

“Give me some of that. And some corn bread. And a water,” the black man said. His food arrived almost as fast as he ordered it.

My burger was juicy. There were three tomatoes along with other fixings on the side. I carefully placed the tomatoes on top of the patty, replaced the bun and took a bite.

I looked over at the black man. He’d dismantled his cornbread and mixed it into his beans.

In the morning I saw a woman asleep in the warm Las Vegas light. She sat on a chair and leaned against a pole. Her dirty head was flopped forward and to the right. She leaned slightly against black and blue bags. Both had been silkscreened with the words, “Las Vegas.”

She’d been there all night.

My first night in town I walked from the sardine-packed crowds of Fremont Street to find the Downtown Transit Center. I was going to start taking a city bus to my new job.

The streets were nearly empty along Main Street Station. I rounded a parking garage to find a limping black man talking to his friend about getting in a club. One of them said something like, “We can get in there.” They disappeared into an alley lit by historic neon signs that led back to the tens of thousands partying under the Fremont Street Experience.

Up ahead, glittering blue and pink lights lit the top of the transit center like a slot machine just hit a jackpot. I walked through its doors to find a man sleeping on a chair. The long hallway was empty, silent. If it weren’t for the flashing lights on top of the building I would have thought the bus station slipped into hibernation.

A young hustler slunk past closed cashier windows. A Latino janitor pushed his cart through the station. He didn’t look like he wanted to work. I checked the price of bus fare. Seven dollars a day. Steep. Those are deadly prices. Tourist prices. You have to have a hell of a good job just to afford the stale bus air and a spot on seats that rarely catch a whiff of hand sanitizer.

I walked back out through the same set of doors that I entered.

“What do you mean it’s not open twenty-four hours? What the fuck am I supposed to do after hours?” said a man into a cell phone. The world around him was a big dark mess lit in the distance by neon and schools of light bulbs that swam through the Vegas night. He had a black bag slung over his shoulder and looked to be in his late fifties. Maybe he had grandchildren. He could have been a drifter. Maybe he was like me and just found a job in a big city far from where unemployment still dipped near twenty percent.

I slipped past into the glittering night.

Walking south I could see the closed Lady Luck had spent her nine lives. I remember when it was open. When I worked in Las Vegas ten years before as an artist for the big canopy of lights above Fremont Street. I remember a midget Charlie Chaplan twirling his cane outside the casino like he was some kind of shrunken Alice in Wonderland street performer. I had waved at him.

“Look at all the casinos,” said one of two men in front of me. I couldn’t hear anything else they said. My ears practically deaf from too many factory jobs.

I lost sight of them walking toward the Gold Spike.

I made a right turn and snapped a foggy, lonely photo of the El Cortez after a herd of cowboys slunk past toward the raving party on the promenade.

Across the street, a gutted room basked in white light. Empty bench stools hung under the weight of ghosts.

I made a left, toward the shadows of shady motels. I passed the old glittering historic Aladdin Hotel lamp and a flickering vertical sign that was nearly burnt out. Only two letters worked at all. They flashed and buzzed “FR-FR-FR…”

Tired, I turned around and headed straight toward Fremont Street.

A man in a wheelchair sat at a corner. His thinned grey hair on his big round head looked like a mess of moonlit grass. Two men leaned against newspaper racks about ten feet away from him. They waited.

“I’m going to hustle her,” one of the men said about a woman across the street. She stood by herself on the corner as if crack was going to flow from a nearby storm drain.

I shuffled across the intersection, past a club, a nearly empty Cuban restaurant, and an Albanian pizza parlor. A 7-11 that once flashed its gaudy convenience store sign had closed since the last time I lived on Fremont Street.

Since the last time I lived in a casino.

Further ahead, tourists stared into the big metallic sky. They waited for more lights to explode. I soon entered the hotel where I was living. I peeked at a tank where two sharks slowly circled with schools of fish. They look like they’d been gambled out. This was it, their last show. Out near the pool someone hit it big. Or maybe they just didn’t bust. Or maybe they were enamored by the lumbering sharks.

I went up the elevator to the 22nd floor. Outside, there were shouts from an alley. The walls shivered with conversation. I shut the blinds, the curtains and the lights and eventually fell asleep.

Recently at the Random Writers Workshop in Bakersfield, Calif., we held a little creative nonfiction contest. Nothing big. I just promised to let the winner hijack my TNB account!

I got a stack of entries and carefully read through them. I wrote lots of chicken scratch in the margins. I crossed out phrases. I offered advice. I even begged for more detail and storytelling from some members.

One piece stood out. Joyce Kennedy’s “The Dog Whisperer” grabbed me as not only an interesting read, but one that enlightens us a little about who she is as not only an author, but someone who has special powers over talking to the beasties of the world.

I’ll let her tell you about it. Let the hijacking commence…

******************************

I’m known as an animal whisperer to my friends.

So I wasn’t too surprised when a friend stopped by one afternoon with a pet carrier. “Please, take her,” she begged. “No one seems to be able to do anything with her.”

Opening the carrier door, I looked in at a raggedy mutt that not even its mother could love. I wondered how anybody could mistreat such a small bundle of trembling flesh. The poor thing was so frightened that we had to drag it out by brute force.

It was such a skinny little mite, that overpowering its timidity wasn’t all that hard.

Now, I already have two dogs and two cats, so having another animal to communicate with wasn’t high on my list of things to do. Besides, I had just brought my old Tom, “Duke,” home from the vets after surgery. It seemed he’d been “catting” in one of the neighbor’s yards who owned a Pit Bull that managed to tear his face and throat open.

“I can always put him down,” the vet said when I complained about the cost of surgery.

“Over my dead body,” I stormed. “This is my ninja cat. He took out an intruder who broke into my house. I won’t let him down now.”

My time was already taken up with caring for Duke. But who could resist those terrified, owl eyes that looked up at me from the tattered remains of a puppy now stripped of all its fur. It had been so filthy and matted, nothing else could be done.

She fell at my feet, too frightened to stand or move.

I’ve always been a softy, and I didn’t disappoint my friend this time. I reached for the trembling bundle and cuddled it up under my chin. “I won’t hurt you,” I whispered. “Do you want to come live with us?”

About this time Tiger, my two-year-old, tailor-clipped Maltese, had to have a closer peek. His curiosity had him bounding waist high to get a better look. He kissed her face, checked out her badly infected ears, and greeted her with a few encouraging nudges.

“I think she’s deaf,” my friend explained. “She doesn’t respond when you call her. And she won’t mind. She’s just a bad girl.”

“Well, it’s obvious you don’t understand poodles,” I said. “They’re a vain animal and she’s in disgrace with all her hair cut off, but I can fix that.” Rummaging through my storage closet, I located the box of critter supplies, and pulled out several small sweaters. “Okay, little girl,” I coaxed her, “Which one do you want to wear?”

She timidly rose and checked out my offerings and finally indicated she liked the orange sweater. “But of course,” I exclaimed. “She has a new orange collar. Told you she was a special lady.”

Her ugliness now covered, she rose to follow my boys about the room, although she didn’t seem to understand the art of playing. She didn’t understand much of anything that was happening. When I called her name, she stepped toward me, then stopped. Her big questioning eyes kept looking at me.

With mind-melding ESP, I listened to her mind chatter, but I didn’t understand her thoughts any more than she understood mine.

“What kind of a home did she come from?” I asked.

“Well, my neighbor kidnapped her from his grandparent’s back yard,” she explained. “They hadn’t been feeding her, or allowing her in the house. She’s had nothing but a bare, dirt kennel to live in. And they’ve never brushed or groomed her. He just couldn’t leave her there.” She also said four other people had taken the dog in.

I listened to the young poodle’s mind chatter again.

“Of course, she doesn’t understand what we’re saying,” I said, realizing the problem. “She doesn’t know any English. She only knows Spanish.”

**********************************
Joyce Kennedy writes as JoEllen Conger with her twin sister, Joan Powell. They have released seven books including two historicals, “The Queen of Candelore,” (2003) and its sequel, “The Future King,” (2009). Their latest book is a “true lies” type adventure. “Freedom to Ride the Wind (2009). Although they live far apart, their writing career keeps their twinship active.

“We’re designed for worship.”

I’d heard it before, somewhere. People all giddy and into their sports teams like zealots at a witch burning. Or a stadium of screaming people in Kabul watching the Taliban blow heads off women.

Pastor Josh shakes hands like he’s one of the bros. It’s sometimes a bump. Other times there might be three or four parts to the process, followed by another bump. His paw is thick. He says, “dude” every two sentences like Hugo on “Lost.”

I feel like I’m at a sports bar and not church.

This is a mostly white church. I leave my dual ethnicity at the door. Actions are tempered. Not many people raise their hands like they even want to touch the feet of God. Me included. I’m usually too pissed off to raise my hands, or too torn up inside to even sing along. I don’t play games. I’m just one of the infirmed and I know this.

There’s indie rock on the stage. It’s all bass and drums. I go complain to Josh because he’s in the sound booth next to Nathan, who should be on stage shredding. Another shredder is missing. That would be my son Landen who is busy pushing carts at FoodsCo. I want the distortion. I want to feel like I’m about to watch Korn, U2, or the moment Wilco’s Nels Kline freaks on “Impossible Germany.”

“I’m four rows back and I can’t hear the violin,” I complain.

I don’t know if Nathan cares and I still can’t hear the shredding fiddler. I’m pissed. I get up and walk out of the church service.

Later I read Nathan’s Tweet: “Where’d you go?”

I scoot out the side door, walk into the daylight and head for the only security I know. It’s a bench over by the main building.

The main building is circular. It oddly resembles Space Mountain, which makes me think that Disney’s designers wanted one of their most popular rides to touch the cosmic alliance between science and a fancy American worship center. “We’ll make it look like a church. It’ll be our most holy of rides.” Until the Indiana Jones temple ride comes along.

“Ah, mom,” I say at the bench as if it could sprout a head of grey hair and some old freckled legs. I want its wooden slats to form a mouth and talk to me. I don’t even sit. I just stare down at it.

“I am so proud of your boys,” the bench says.

I wander into the main building. Some guy eyes me like I’m a jerk. I sit in the back row. All the children are missing. Everywhere there’s a suit, a head of grey hair, or some old floppy hat on a hairdo that looks like the twists of a vanilla soft serve cone.

A church choir sings hymns as if stale bread is good for the people. I start to touch a hymnal. I probably picked it up before. When my kids were babies. The books looked old then.

I wonder how long it will be before the rock band service becomes mainstream and takes over the Space Mountain sanctuary. I think about my twenty-year-old son, Jordan. He’s the fiddler. I’m missing him perform as I sit listening to the dying service. Even Space Mountain gets old. I get up and slip past the man who eyes me again.

Soon I’m outside. The hymns drift away as fast as they came. I pass the bench where my mom sat twelve years ago, dying on a Sunday morning. I imagine the ambulance sirens tearing along Victor Street. Somewhere during that day her chest got ripped open. She died.

I don’t care if I can’t hear my kid playing the violin. I hurry back to The Great Room. I sit in the back and eagerly listen to a song. Jordan’s fiddle bow is an apostle’s staff swinging along a horizon of strings. A few moments later, Pastor Josh talks about his favorite show, “Lost.” Then he mentions eating a hot dog outside of a closed Wrigley Field.

“The idol factory has started up in our hearts,” he says as I see images of factory smoke belching across the skies.

Last spring, shortly after my novel, Banned for Life, was published, my actor friend Jeremy Lowe sent me this photo via Facebook.

The sun was breaking behind me when I hit Highway 58 heading north. I had a head full of coffee and a head full of questions that didn’t have any answers. For what was up ahead, what would transpire, I didn’t know. There was a girl at the end of the road. A beautiful girl. She told me over the phone that she loved me. Told me to come see her. Play guitar for her. Write her poems. I loved her, too.

On both sides of the road the desert spread out like a sea painted in tans, browns, and pale greens. Joshua trees sprouted from the ground in jagged angles—its spiny blossoms splayed out like sharp star light. A train track followed along side the highway carrying the weight of rusted trains marked in faded graffiti. Vacant concrete homes stood lifeless on the hard desert dirt. I hit the gas and pushed forward.  

I was just outside of Bakersfield when my phone rang. It was an old high school friend. I told him that I was on my way to northern California, that I was packed to move there, but didn’t know how long I’d stay.

 “I’m winging it.”   

“That doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “Good luck.”  

Radio stations cut in and out, but the one constant was her face before me. She was smiling. She was across the table sipping wine. She was sleeping next to me as I brushed my hand over her back feeling her skin, feeling the rise and fall of her breath. I could hear her voice coming over the line. “Hey,” she’d say, her voice familiar and warm. “I just called to say that I love you. A lot. Got to get back to work. Have a great day. I’ll call you as soon as I get off. Bye, baby.”

Three hours outside of my destination I pulled over for a bite to eat. A hard wind was coming from the north. Flat agricultural land was to the right of the freeway. On the left was a wall of mountains where the freeway weaved around and disappeared. I sat on my tailgate and watched two crows sitting on a fence, necks swiveling, their feathers lifting and dropping into the black.  

I contemplated what brought me here. The choices I made. The ones I didn’t. My failures and my successes. I thought about my friends and family; most of them not knowing where I was and where I was going, much less what I was thinking. And just like I’d hike the Montecito Hills alone as a kid, here I was moving over a strange highway with no one in the passenger seat. A seat that she’d soon be sitting in, her face turning and catching my nervous profile as it moved through her city.  

How long she’d be in that seat, I didn’t know. She didn’t either. But the drive would be made regardless.

We were at Leo’s Burgers. Alex Raffio stuffed his face. His mouth looked like Pacman with an Italian moustache right before he bit down. “Oh I have secrets,” he said with his mouth half full. He chewed on his burger like he knew what it was really like to be hungry.

“Whatever, Alex.” I said. “You’re always saying you have secrets.”

“Don’t believe me?”

A. was there too. She had big green eyes, dark skin, long light brown hair. She could talk a gorilla into being a tightrope walker. She was good. And he was lusting after her. We both were. He didn’t know it but I had the upper hand. I rescued her one day from the university library. He was her tutor and rattling on about loyalists, the American Revolution. That sort of thing. Long-windedness was his norm. The man had lungs. A book summary critique for him in the CSU graduate program was a 45-page treatise. She looked off in the distance. His moustache bristled. His stubby hands articulated as if he had been a pamphleteer or a loyalist preacher. I sat at the table and sparked a conversation. There was a sigh of relief. Next thing I knew A. was staying over every night.

Raffio took another bite of his burger. 

“Alex. If you have secrets, then you’re going to have to share,” A. said. “You can’t just tease us. If you’re going to do that then don’t say anything at all.” She wore dark lipstick and ate fried zucchini like each one was a little Raffio wiener. Bad girl. She knew what she was doing with those lips.

Raffio was shorter than me. And that’s shorter than five-and-a-half feet. I looked over at him. “You look like a bald Yosemite Sam when you keep secrets,” I said. He really did seem that way. He was stalky. An Italian bulldog. He had that angry look, like any second he would explode with guns a blazin’.

He didn’t care what I said. It was all about A. She had him at a happy moment. He was eating. He was sitting next to her. He’d told me he wanted to get laid by her. I didn’t tell him I already had. Maybe he had too come to think of it.

Her voice softened. “Come on. Who are we going to tell?”

His eyes shifted. His jaw tightened as he chewed harder.

It was 1995. I was still in my twenties. A. was barely twenty-one. We didn’t fit the mold of CIA moles. Yet he was worried as hell. Paranoid. It was beyond the kind of paranoia that you and I probably know. He probably thought the zucchini was bugged.

People had to use secret knocks at his apartment door to even get him to acknowledge there was a knock. My classmate Tony said that when he brought Raffio school documents, he had to slide them under his door. He would yell from inside: “Just slide the goddam thing!”

He thought people were after him. And not just any people. CIA. The ex-military sort. The kind who had people assassinated sort. The kind who ripped out hearts in jungle wars sort, and who funded jihadists and had ties to the biggest secrets ever in the history of U.S. secrets.

Alex Raffio. Certifiable. A student of history. Afraid of his own shadow. Nuts, right?

Right.

It was sometime around the Leo’s Burger conversation that Alex had started talking about his life. Just bits. Pieces really. All of it mysterious.

He made whopping claims. The sort that you shrugged, disbelieved and went back to your video game. Sonic the Hedgehog was way more believable than anything that spilled out of the pacmania chompchomp of Alex Raffio.

“I co-authored a book. I was on the ‘Today Show.’ I was in Vietnam. I was paramilitary. Do you know what cluster fuck means? We were dropped way behind enemy lines. We weren’t supposed to be there. Laos. Cambodia. Recon. Intelligence. Drugs. Torture. Assassination. And then the cluster fuck went down.”

Abandonment? Heart of darkness? Colonel Kurtz? You mean that Martin Sheen shit? Apocalypse fucking Now?

Nuts.

That was a typical Alex Raffio conversation when he spoke of his estranged past. “I wrote a goddam book,” he bristled. I swear steam came out his ears. Raffio was off his rocker.

I should note that Alex Raffio wasn’t his real name. He claimed it had been changed. He really claimed people were after him. CIA. Mercenaries. Maybe even the Libyans. You name it. In fact, I didn’t change his name for this story. If it’s not his real name, then why worry? Right?

Right.

Alex Raffio doesn’t exist.

Raffio kept talking about a Vietnam cluster fuck. THE Vietnam cluster fuck. He said the words so much that I had to start laughing. And why not? Alex was a bumbling sort of guy. How could I picture him as special forces with HALO parachutists (not the video game), but the high altitude, low flying ODA team paramilitary forces who parachuted into enemy territory during Vietnam with the likes of Sgt. Major Billy Waugh.

Waugh once expected a few NVA while he was far behind enemy lines. But there were more. He had to play dead after being severely injured as 4,000 Chinese troops descended on his ass. He lived to tell the tale. Google him and pray he doesn’t slit your throat just for looking up information.

You might as well give him a CIA tattoo. Because that’s what Waugh did after he retired in 1972. OK, after a short stint with the U.S. Post Office (Post Office, really? Why? How?) In the mid-1970s he got dumped into the Libya mess. The Soviets were tied to Libya. The U.S. wanted to fuck it all up. Arms deals. Possible death deals. Surveillance. Mostly under Edwin P. Wilson.

Here’s where it gets sticky.

Wilson set up front companies under the guidance of the CIA. You know, fake puppet companies for covert operations in Libya? That kind. He called his companies Consultants International and raked in the millions. He had been with the CIA since retiring from the Marines in 1956. But in 1971, Wilson jumped ship to the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) to build his fake companies.

In fact, according to a page out of the “Toledo Blade” which you can google for yourself, our sticky-fingered spook, Wilson, was part of the Navy’s supersecret Task Force 157. And like I said, pocketing millions. What about the $70,000 for that Russian mine? He never bought it and lost the money. What about the $9-million socks that were ordered and paid for in full by the Iranians? He delivered 100,000 socks and kept the difference.

Sorry about that.

But there’s more bad news. Wilson sold $6 parts for $250. He made millions off the Libyans and Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi was not happy about it at all. The Libyans did use Wilson’s funds to train the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine under the leadership of Ahmed Jibril. He’s an ex-Syrian Army officer and suspected of being behind the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. According to some, that’s a conspiracy theory. Either way, the BBC said in 2002, accusations against Jibril were dropped by courts after Syria joined the alliance to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. Interesting coincidence. The BBC also said Jibril launched the first suicide attacks in Israel in the 1970s. Three men blew themselves up near Kiryat Shmona. Eighteen people died.

Thanks Wilson.

The truth started coming out before Leo’s Burgers. Before THAT conversation. I was sitting in a meeting I shouldn’t have been sitting in. A professor—an ex-Air Force intelligence officer who spoke and wrote fluent Chinese, was talking to another history professor. I was in the room. By the looks thrown around, we had all thought Raffio was full of shit.

“Raffio checks out. He did write a book,” the professor said.

Apparently, Raffio, along with Joseph C. Goulden, had co-written “The Death Merchant. The Rise and Fall of Edwin P. Wilson.”

In fact, Philip Taubman had written in a 1984 New York Times article titled, “Books of The Times; Intrigue at the C.I.A.” that Raffio had testified against another ex-CIA guy, Edwin P. Wilson. Notice, Taubman said “another CIA guy” indicating Raffio was CIA at one point.

As a result, the article states Raffio was presented with a new identity by the Justice Department.

Yes, that Raffio. The Leo’s Burgers Raffio. The Italian Pacman.

Wilson was convicted. He had taken millions in government monies and invested them in arms, explosives and military equipment that he had shipped to Libya.

How did they catch Wilson? He was tricked into flying to another country because, to no big surprise, he thought the Libyans were going to have him killed if he stayed in Libya.

No shit.

It’s unknown if Raffio was in on that. The rat that caught the mole.

And it doesn’t stop there. Wilson really had it coming when he tried to have Raffio, along with a host of others, killed while on trial for illegally selling arms to Libya. According to the New York Times, Wilson had plotted “unsuccessfully, to kill Federal prosecutors, his former associates and his former wife.” Wilson’s third conviction was for trying to kill Raffio and others.

So Raffio was right. He was paranoid for good reason. Wilson’s associates could still be lurking. Revenge killings weren’t unheard of in Libya or the good old U.S. of A.

You don’t have to go far to find other Raffio ties. The CIA cluster fuck in Libya actually trailed the Vietnam cluster fuck that took place behind enemy lines.

When Raffio spoke, he always spoke of Vietnam first. The look on his face made the Libyans look like child’s play. Cold War vs. the Vietnam War? You choose. Raffio was pompous and scared all at once. At least that was my interpretation. And why not be pompous? He lived to beat death at every corner. He kicked death in the nuts.

He said that U.S. paramilitary forces in Vietnam that fought the secret war all parachuted in together. He said they went into various countries.

One can only imagine the kind of people who could make up an American special forces unit in the geographical side and back alleys of Vietnam: smart, brave, cunning, genius, terrible. You know, the ones who crossed borders.

An Internet document from the Christic Institute in Malibu, Calif., links Raffio to Anthony Poshepny. Just a name right? Like Wilson, you’d have to read books upon books to really get who the kind of people were that Raffio had consorted with, and hid from.

Poshepny was special. He happened to be the man the “Apocalypse Now” character Colonel Kurtz may have been based on.

Poshepny, Raffio, Wilson, Waugh. All four names and just a few dozens of others turn up on a grid of secret U.S. war history of the 1960s and 1970s.

In this case, it was the CIA’s secret war in Laos.

Poshepny was born in 1924. He’d seen action on Iwo Jima where he was injured. In 1958 he helped try to overthrow the government of Indonesia. In 1959 he helped organized the escape of the Dalai Lama. During the Vietnam years, like the Marlon Brando character, he was the older guy, the CIA cowboy. The shitkicker of the jungle. As early as 1961, Poshepny worked alongside General Vang Pao. He even married the niece of a prominent Hmong leader.

In my brief exploration of Poshepny, his background becomes muddy, but then he gets back with the U.S. secret war, Wilson, and most likely, Raffio. This is the cluster fuck of the mid 1960s secret CIA drug trade in Laos and in the back-end war that explodes into the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

During these years the elder statesman of secret military operations was brutal to his enemies. One Internet source claims Poshepny later admitted to collecting enemy ears, dropping human heads from the air on enemies and sticking heads on spikes. He fought terror bloodily against North Vietnamese troops who sought to invade ethnic Hmong and Lao lands. He sought to empower villagers and tribesman as their leader, a god-like Kurtz if you will, who would rally a terrible jungle war of Medieval proportions.

And yes, he was terrible. According to Roger Warner in the book “Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America’s Clandestine War in Laos,” Poshepny said, “I used to collect ears … I had a big, green, reinforced cellophane bag as you walked up my steps … I still collected them, until … I saw this little Lao kid out there, he’s only about 12, and he had no ears. And I asked: ‘What the hell happened to this guy?’ Somebody said, ‘Tony, he heard you were paying for ears. His daddy cut his ears off…”’

After retiring in 1975, Poshepny lived in Thailand another fifteen years. He died in 2003.

Raffio took another gargantuan bite of his burger. He chewed. His eyes shifted around, landing on A. “Secrets huh?” he said.

She pouted.

“I was in the CIA.”

“You already told us that,” A. laughed.

“I had clearance. I could go anywhere.”

“What do you mean go anywhere?” I said.

“Anywhere.”

“Like where?”

“Secret places.”

“Whatever, Alex,” A. said, goading him for more.

He looked at her like she should pay up if he accepted the challenge. “Area 51. I’ve been there,” he said.

A. and I laughed. We were hysterical.

He was pissed. He could tell we didn’t believe shit.

He ate a handful of fries. His lips were greasy. “You don’t have to believe me. But I was there.”

“Why were you there?” A. said.

“I was passing through, alright? Jesus!”

“Lighten up, Alex. What did you see?” I said.

“I saw this metal. I got to touch it. It was tougher than steel. But I could move it around in my hands like it was some kind of foil. It wasn’t from here.”

“Spaceships?” A. said.

He got a look on his face like we were fucking morons.

“Spaceships? Did you see spaceships?” A. said.

“I saw things.”

“Right, Alex,” I said.

“I believe you,” A. said.

He took his last bite and started shoving fries in his mouth. The room smelled like salt and grease. His eyes shifted and A. smiled.

I sat in the Big Red Garage on Fremont Street in the dark. My chat program was set to “available.”

Outside in the hot Vegas night, the light show began. Men and women carrying beer footballs stopped in their tracks. They looked up at the seventy-million-dollar vault of lights. Animated submarines battled overhead. On the promenade, Japanese tourists whipped out video cameras.

I was working on storyboards for an upcoming show while the smell of propane whirled heavily into the room. Next door, forklifts filled their tanks. I felt lightheaded.

Suddenly there was Julie. Her words had wrapped halfway around the planet to reach me in cyberspace. “I’m on an island,” she said. Paradise.

That was eleven years ago. She was in her early twenties.

Julie still lives on the island. She usually only steps off-island to go sailing, dive with great whites, or go on secret missions. That’s my perception anyway.

She never tells me about the secret missions.

She works for a government. She’s good looking. She once found out someone following her at a dignitary function was snapping photos of her ass. I think she had soldiers confiscate the film. She sent me one of the snapshots. I felt lucky.

Julie speaks dozens of languages.

She often comments on TheNervousBreakdown.com and on its Facebook page.

A soldier’s guard dog once rescued her from a would-be rapist. I’m almost certain the accused was executed. Julie doesn’t talk about it. She kept the dog until it became blind and crippled.

Around the time the dog died another ran to her home, jumped on her, and licked her face as if to say, “It’s OK,” then left.

A shaman once gave her a shell shaped like a heart. He disappeared down a long strip of sandy beach.

Recently she watched a wild dog come out of nowhere and bite off a young man’s nose.

She once got swept out to sea in a storm flood. She was discovered by Swedish sailors. She knows a lot of good looking Swedish men. I often wonder if it’s because she was hardly wearing anything when she was spotted bobbing in the ocean.

A guy she knew got chopped to bits with an ax. That had nothing to do with the government coup on the island, which she helped solve. As she did, one of the conspirators sat in a jail cell talking to her. He offered her fifty cows if she would be his bride. She declined. She has a thing for Swedes.

Julie once jumped out of a helicopter onto tangled tree roots and shattered her knee. I wrote her a long letter about overcoming obstacles and pain. I actually don’t remember what I wrote. But Julie does. She tells me about the letter when I’ve forgotten it. I act like it was no big deal, like it’s always on the tip of my tongue.

We spoke on the phone once, maybe twice since we met in cyberspace. Sometimes we chat everyday. Sometimes weeks go by.

We miss each other. We often trade stories.


Julie [4:22 PM]:
hummm  Did I tell you about the naked man?
novelboy2 [4:23 PM]:
No. Do tell.
Julie [4:24 PM]:
I woke up at 1:39 to go to the bathroom. I never turn on a light because it wakes me up. So I come out and there under the skylight was a naked man just finishing taking off his clothes.

novelboy2 [4:25 PM]:
What the heck? I thought you had soldiers guarding your casa?

Julie [4:26 PM]:
Me too. But some guy went into my room, thought it was the guest rooms and got naked.
novelboy2 [4:26 PM]:
Who was the guy?
Julie [4:27 PM]:
Some guest of another person living here. He was a bit drunk. I screamed so loud I woke everyone up  ahah


When Julie is online, her name flashes from red to blue. Soon a little yellow note appears. It’s a little treasure.

She doesn’t say much. When she says hello it’s often in threes: “Hi hi hi.”

Our goodbyes are usually longer. In between we always find a way to say we care. Often, that’s by worrying about each other.


Julie [4:13 PM]:
How are you? I was worried. Haven’t seen you in a few.
novelboy2 [4:13 PM]:
I was at the library today.
Julie [4:14 PM]:
University?
novelboy2 [4:14 PM]:
Yeah. Why would you be worried? Think I was floating away somewhere?
Julie [4:15 PM]:
God, I hope not!
novelboy2 [4:16 PM]:
I could use a boat ride.
Julie [4:17 PM]:
What’s wrong?
novelboy2 [4:18 PM]:
You ride boats all the time. Are boats bad?
Julie [4:18 PM]:
Noooo. I love boats. But you never said that to me in 11 years ahah.
novelboy2 [4:19 PM]:
We talked once not long ago. You said you would take me on a boat. And it’s raining here. Makes me think of boats.
Julie [4:19 PM]:
I would love to sail with you.
Julie [4:19 PM]:
And you can stand right next to me.


Julie is often in secret government meetings. The government she works for monitors her chats. Sometimes she gets really bored and leaves her chat on. No one can see her computer. I try to cause trouble. My goal is to try to get her to spit out her strawberry tea.


novelboy2 [4:28 PM]:
What’s new with you?
Julie [4:28 PM]:
I’m in a meeting.
novelboy2 [4:29 PM]:
Can’t they see your computer screen? Is George there?
novelboy2 [4:29 PM]:
Hi George!!!
Julie [4:29 PM]:
ahahaha No one can see the screen. But he is here.
novelboy2 [4:30 PM]:
Hehehe. Shhh…
novelboy2 [4:30 PM]:
Blow me a kiss. Hurry. Before they all look!
Julie [4:30 PM]:
ahahahahaha spritz one coming. 
novelboy2 [4:31 PM]:
A spritz kiss? What they heck is that? Sounds 7-Uppy.
Julie [4:32 PM]:
Well, you kiss your fingertip and then pretend that you are pumping a spray bottle. 
novelboy2 [4:32 PM]:
Never heard of it. That’s badass. I want two.
Julie [4:32 PM]:
Okay. spritz spritz.
novelboy2 [4:36 PM]:
What’s on the meeting agenda?
1. Julie: your turn to make the coffee.
2. Julie: Your turn to clean the bathroom.
3. Julie: Your turn to host the February “All-Island Chili Leaf Eat-Off.”
4. Julie: You need to take over on TPS reports.
Julie [4:37 PM]:
“Julie. You are brilliant!”
novelboy2 [4:39 PM]:
Julie: you did a bang up job on that cow poop dispute over on the Janga Janga farm.
Julie: brilliant conducting of the sea serpent shadow box festival.
Julie: fine job with your statistical analysis of the intra-island fungus disaster.
Julie [4:39 PM]:
funny funny funny ahaha 
Julie [4:42 PM]:
ahahahahahah Not so far from the truth ahah
novelboy2 [4:44 PM]:
Julie: Chief Wonawango said the constellations to the east aren’t fixed correctly in the sky for late January. You’re going to have to get with NASA and see if they can hurry on that level 7 Earth axis-shifting experiment. Wonawango has put in three requests and one curse.
novelboy2 [4:47 PM]:
Julie: Chief Wonawango said he would have all 7 of his wives surround my car and push their breasts against it if this isn’t done. Julie: My wife might not like to see that kind of de-civilization taking place on my new Honda. And, we’re having the Russians here on the 1st for a tour of the local worm farm. Can you lead that? And, Julie. Dress up for once? You’re acting like this is some kind of vacation. You know the code. Pea coats in January. P-E-A  C-O-A-T-S.
Julie [4:49 PM]:
You are decidedly the best most imaginative man I have ever known.

I’ll get right to it. I could barely pee on my own without shooting a stream like a wild hose was out of control on the bathroom floor.

The problem wasn’t me. The hall commode was a cathedral of tile and fixtures with a throne set almost too high for my tippytoes to help reach.

You see, I was an independent young lad. I could clamber out a bedroom window at three years of age and walk through the dark, out to the edge of Candler Avenue in San Jose, California, and sit on the curb with our dog Candy.

 I’d do that: curb sitting. Just pass the time. Just sit there with our overgrown sheltie dog, watching the clouds, watching people pass in the dark, or during the midday, or whenever.

You’d think that dog could have helped me take a proper piss in the toilet.

I had no problem whipping it out for a leak in the backyard like I was on some great adventure in the outback of my dreams.

Hell, I could drench the side of the house and shoot petals off flowers if I had to. Me and the dog—we pissed together on the apple tree. It was fun. I don’t know why she lifted her leg. But she did.

I gladly pissed in the wild. In fact, I could have been on “Survivor” at age three and won. 

Most challenges of my wayward youth were easy obstacles to defeat.

Getting out of the neighbor’s garage after sneaking in. Simple. That was just a waiting game. He left and turned off the lights. I think I just crawled into a really dark place. I popped out when there was light, terrifying everyone like I was a cat scampering from a tin can.

Once I tried to slither out of a canal as torrents pushed me down its muddy banks, determined to drown me. I escaped. I told my mother I fell into a puddle.

I solved the problem of urgency once by running toward home and pooping in my pants. I hid the evidence in my room. I don’t even think the dog ratted me out.

I found creative ways to turn Tinker Toys into bows and arrows and launched them at my brother’s skull. I could have hunted deer.

But that damned toilet.

The bathroom throne was my greatest challenge at about age three. I’m guessing here since my parents are no longer among the living. Three sounds good. It puts me at that challenging height for a youngster trying to sling his tiny dick into position for a squirt into the commode.

I was proud of myself when I reached such fathomable heights and wasn’t shooting the opposite rim, or firing away at the open door.

I remember pushing up the seat and lid. That was always a minor victory when my pants were around my ankles. Yes, that’s how I peed then. There was no sneaking it out through little portholes. The pants went straight to the ankles just like that one rejected American Idol song: “Pants on the ground, pants on the ground…”

And the dick went on the rim. Barely. That could have been a verse in that song. “Dick on the rim, Dick on the rim! Hat turned sideways, dick on the rim!”

The toilet seat fell in slow motion.

I could have moved. But it took so much energy to yank down my pants, get on my tippytoes, and then try not to shoot the dog that was watching.

I couldn’t react. Little kids can’t react. They just watch. I watched.

I watched the toilet seat smash my tiny wiener.

And then I howled in pain. I howled and did some sort of strange tribal dance, because, well, that’s what you do when your wiener gets crushed.

I howled because I had to pee and I was afraid.

I howled for my mommy. She came running in. She held me as I howled, “I want a Band-aid!”

And then she put one on.

I felt glorious.

I’m guessing it fell off somewhere outside.