In kindergarten, I accessorized my “Save The Planet” t-shirt collection and kelly green stirrup leggings with a Fisher Price doctor’s bag. I was going to be a doctor, probably a heart surgeon.  My delighted parents added kindling to the dream by providing me with doctor stuff to play with – a subscription to the Time-Life Science Library, a chem set, and best of all, in fourth grade, a projection microscope.

Rafe went to the City of San Francisco to tell his story. I explained that he should only say what he was comfortable with. Neatly undermining that advice, I then said it would be impossible for him to say anything wrong. Really, everyone was just excited to have him there. Talking.

Cornmeal laminating our tongues, we snake the streets aimlessly, but with a vague feeling for the Zócalo. It hides its skewed quadrilateral just out of sight, guarded by row after row of apartment, bank, food stall, market, stacks of carpeted speakers, their black and red wires massing for some kind of tangled revolution. On one street corner, a tight unit of white people. We hear their teenage English on the hot wind, too loud, oblivious. Various accents—East Coast, Midwestern, Southern… Their chaperone, a middle-aged woman with a Bostonian bent, bears the thick-necked, thick glasses, stiff perm of their church group leader. Her forehead is pursed, placid but purposeful. Clearly, she feels there are people here in need of saving.

One boy with oversized teeth and pimples on his ears spanks the ass of a willowy girl in black stretch pants. She turns, raven-haired and red-faced to him, as he high-fives another boy with a side-turned ball cap. In her look is patience, pity. She shakes her head and says, “Stop,” meaning, You’re lucky I don’t take your balls, buck-tooth. Another girl, hay-bale blonde, shows her something on her cell phone. A photograph. I’m guessing it’s of the man before us, rolling along the vaulted arcade across the street. Both girls giggle, then turn away from him, possibly ashamed, but too young to admit it. They cross the street, and we cross too, but we keep our distance. We don’t want to be too near these other Americans. As nucleus, as core, Mexico City is leagues ahead of Buffalo Grove, Illinois.

When we step before the arcade on the other side, the sky goes glassy as bath tile, and the beggars jockey for space and attention. This arched passageway seems shadowless, holds more light than the sky itself, sponging the sun. The man, the one who the girls likely photographed can’t be dated. He seems to have side-stepped definition-by-age in that way that people with missing limbs often do. When there’s less of the actual body, there’s less to determine age by. A lack of evidence. He is without arms or legs, perched on a palate of wood with crooked wheels and somehow propels himself along the arcade with his stomach muscles and the remains of his pelvis. The buck-toothed boy looks at him, then immediately turns away. He does no imitation, no virginal air-humping, and I am happy for this. The palate of wood is decorated with a few odd coins, almost enough, I hope, for one tamale. Happy…

Two women who look far too old to be the mothers of infants, parade with their babies, holding them out to the passers-by, imploring looks burned into their faces. They do this for a few minutes, then, as if their shifts are over, their faces melt into smiles as they approach each other, swap stories, regain a measure of youth. When this brief break is over, they age their faces again, sadden their eyes, lift the wriggling children, wrapped in pink scarves.

One of the church group boys spits to the stone and I know he means nothing by it; he’s used to spitting on sidewalks and lawns; to him, it’s habit, reflex, but the people here take notice, scowl as he passes, his in-process backbones poking from his jersey, a grounded bird, amputated wings. A man in a rickety wheelchair, the seat constructed from an onion sack, clasps his hands in prayer or deference as we pass. He is legless, but has flipper-like feet at the bottom of his torso, the toes fused, the nails haphazard like a handful of coins tossed into cement and left to dry where they stuck. He is smiling, graying stubble surrounding his mouth, a patron saint of manners. Hands still clasped, he nods to us and utters the most optimistic “buenos tardes.”

Bells are ringing in the distance, penetrating the city with some ancient music, Mexico City giving itself over to all reverberation and gong. Even the pollution seems to get along with the sky, agreeing to elicit this palest of blues, some estranged dropout cousin to some brighter ocean. A hunched old man in a torn navy windbreaker holds a shaking hand to us as if caught in the sound-wake of the bells. I think of my aunt with Parkinson’s, of everybody’s aunt with Parkinson’s, as his fingers dance and his torn windbreaker voice manages, “por un taquito, por un taquito.”

The entire world is this small rolled-up tortilla, deep-fried in bell-music and the grease of beautiful dirty sky. Of ancient excavations and cathedrals that had to see blood before they saw worship. But as if to rail against it, to assert some stubborn human force, surely destined to fail, but packed with electricity, so many men playing so many accordions, so many upturned hats not yet full of paper, violins and saxophones and guitars beating back the invisible bells, the stupid nervous double-dog-dared hands of all buck-toothed white boys with the most melodic of the world’s Fuck Yous, holding the fort so the captain can emerge from his sentries. And here he is: just a teenage boy himself, standing behind a pot-bellied beast of an instrument—wide as a park bench, the sickly premature offspring of piano and violin, and he’s cranking the shit out of it, eliciting the most pathetic circus music, one of miserable underfed elephants, their ivory dying and sloughing into the ring, just out of sight of the audience, deep into their popcorn, these elephants who the ringmaster loves, his only real friends… Drawn closer, we can see, printed on the front of the instrument in gold lettering, the words, Harmonichord and Berlin.

It’s the sort of instrument that should require at least two people to operate, to make this kind of sound, but the boy is doing it without sweating. How it got here from Germany… The pigeons are log-rolling overhead, preparing for back-flips over the chimneys and spires, rolling their throats like mantra. The flies are closer to us, circling our scalps as if runways, places to rest. To them, I whisper, “Medieval,” “Organistrum,” “conquest.” Louisa mutters something in her first-language about love and learning. I feel I am learning to do both, to open up, to ornament my vocabulary with Sí, Sí,, Sí, but it’ll take some time. We wipe our faces with our shirt sleeves. A small girl blows soap bubbles at us through a blue plastic wand. She wears no shoes. Walks the arcade stones in white cotton socks. Her mother, younger than we are, touches Louisa’s hand, says, in barely-accented English, “Don’t be sad.” In our chests, the elephants stand on their hind legs, perform their best trick. In this, what can do but age, look like our parents? I pull a handful of coins from my pants pocket, not sure yet what to do with them. I am learning, but it will take some time. So much to clap for.

 

An old man with six fingers total saws lugubrious anthems of loss and love on a zither with a caved-in box and crooked plectrum. His only lyric: ¿por qué? repeated over and over like incantation. He sits on an old barber’s chair perched against a crumbling wall along one of the Zócalo walkways. He has breadcrumbs in his moustache, and the graffiti behind his sombrero’d head, reads, in Spanish: Fuck Your Mother. We drop a few sweaty coins into the empty yogurt dish at his feet. His eyes drop like bats feeding.

Vendors flash their wares. Leather wallets with big silver snaps. Purses of all sorts of hides bearing the ecstatic faces of the toothy gods, handbags made of tortoise shell and obsidian. Earrings of snail shells, snakeskin belts. Something about this commerce stirs in us a sly uneasiness, but admiration. This is a market without middleman, and the directness of it—the chance to place the pesos for a turtle purse into the durable hands of the man who, just last week, ripped the small wriggling body from the shell—is chilling, as it is alluring.

Like somnambulists, we zombify the market, wide-eyed and stiff-legged, not saying a word or looking at each other, Mexico City the only reaction shot we need. I want to know everything Louisa is thinking, if thoughts of Chicago evaporating like tea steam rush her with their thin whistle, if she is only in the moment or already forcing upon it reflection from some unknowable, but probable future. I want to know, but stare straight ahead until she speaks.

“I’d really like an agua fresca.

Her voice is like the hand that pulls me from the bottom of the pool, where I lost myself gathering pennies to the point of drowning; the same penchant for blind engrossment that caused me as a child to piss myself while watching Sesame Street. I suck air. It’s filthy and wonderful. All sewage and roasting corn.

“We have to find the kind that’s all fruit, or mixed with milk,” I say, “the ones mixed with water can hurt us.”

“It’s so tempting though,” she whines, gesturing to a stand mixing prickly pear drinks, cantaloupe, coconut, tamarind.

“Those are the water ones, baby,” I say, “Trust me, you don’t want to get sick.” And immediately I hate playing the role of reason, of lack of surrender, but I’ve been struck with parasites many times before; once, years ago in Mérida, Yucatán, when I couldn’t help but eat a guyaba berry rolled in chile powder, handed to me by a cloaked 100-year-old Mayan woman sitting streetside on a blue plastic crate. I paid for such surrender with high fever and higher intestinal duress for weeks, cut with no sleep and freezing cold sweats. It was only later that I found out that, in Taíno mythology, that the guyaba was typically reserved for opías, or the walking dead, who would parade the Ceiba forests and make of the berry the edible centerpiece for their night-feasts, taking the form of pale navel-less humans, or bats. In fact, according to the legend, the ruler of these dead bore the name of Maquetaurie Guayaba, Lord of Sweet Delight. The nectar of the berry was often used as the base of a black body paint used to evoke the nature of death in various rituals and rites. So, maybe that had something to do with it.

“Oh, I know,” Louisa croons as we pass the fruit drink stands, “but they look so good.”

Restraint, especially when it comes to ingestibles, when we’re traveling has thankfully never been our strong suit as a couple. But pass the stands we do. Soon, as if antidote, we’re looking to buy a knife from a short middle-aged man in a tank-top, serpentine scar tattoos adorning both of his shoulders, moustache guyaba berry-death paint-dark, straw sombrero ripped open at the top, exposing his wet knotted hair. Surely we need something sharp with which to excise our agua fresca loss. We make this transaction wordlessly. The scarred man shows us various knives—thick-bladed, thin-bladed, switch-bladed, stone. Bright knives inlayed with jewels, knives used and stained with old blood and rust. When we shake our heads, he retrieves a new one from its slumber on his crowded blanket. He is barefoot and his foot-tops bear old puncture wounds.

After seven failed attempts, he retrieves a stunning obsidian knife with an Aztec design carved handle of green onyx. It is ancient-looking and beautiful, fresh from some painful sacrifice—agua fresca or otherwise. This is the one. The eyeballs convince us; carved into the handle, they bug-out at us, hypnotic enough for Louisa, continuing our opera of silence, to grab my unscarred shoulder. The man sees this, nods, and immediately wraps the knife in bubble-wrap and scotch tape. We pay him the 150 pesos (about twelve bucks) without bargaining, he touches our scalps as if blessing us, his tepid hands the texture of hessian, and we move on to the section of city on the other side of the Zócalo, where we have not yet been. Stone knife safely sheathed in packing material, we stroll the streets, teeming with life and neighborhood, dollies overloaded with wares of all kinds—carpets, jugs, cow heads, clothing—small cars honking, open flatbeds rattling, bicycles swerving, barely navigating the madness of street stand and pedestrian. We think of that man and his zither, can’t decide whether everything or nothing we see answers his endless question of Why? We barely navigate this madness ourselves, oblivious to the rules, the imbroglio of smell and sound, looking for anything alive to eat.

My mother was the one who sent me Donald Ray Pollock’s first book, KNOCKEMSTIFF.  She had heard him on NPR, called me that day and told me about the interview.  Then she read the book and it was all over for her, true love.  It’s sort of like my daughter with Justin Bieber.  KNOCKEMSTIFF is a captivating, extraordinary book that will knock you over but, amazingly, Donald Ray Pollock’s second book, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME, is even better.  It was a pleasure to talk to Donald Ray Pollock about his new book.  He is modest, kind, and one of those people whose success makes you happier than it does jealous.

April Fools

By M.J. Fievre

Memoir

In front of the school, I kiss Papa and he waits until I’ve bought a humongous gummy rat from the old woman with a straw hat. Then, my father’s gone and Sister Therese is at the entrance, rushing the students inside. She wears a long navy blue habit and a perpetual scowl on her face.

My friend James and I played basketball every Thursday afternoon when we lived together in Madrid. He was always exceedingly happy to play, although he would bitch, ad nauseum, about the Spaniards’ “bullshit” game.

“They can’t fucking dribble, T. And the fouls, fuck! This isn’t soccer, you hookers…I’m legitimately mad. Aren’t you? They hack you to pieces. You need to stop taking charges if you’re not going to call a foul.“ Hearing these tirades made me relax sometimes. He still had conviction.

On one particular afternoon, there was no Spanish bullshit. On this afternoon, four Americans ran court—a beleaguered cement court in Parque Oeste, a little west of the Arco de la Victoria, Generalissimo Franco’s pretty little door. James and I were engaged in a warm-up game of M-I-E-R-D-A, when we heard the thud of a basketball on the cement behind us. Mormons.

You can spot a Mormon on a mission from a mile away: Athletic, suspiciously Teutonic, clad in white starched, button-down short sleeves and a tie. Mormons especially stick out in Spain, so they’re usually easy to dodge. But sometimes the Latter-Day Saints come marching in from nowhere.

 

“Oh, hell no. It’s the tie guys,” James said, a little too loudly. I couldn’t help but snort. It was curious: James was raised a Baptist, but had for the most part abandoned whatever faith people had pumped through him during his youth. However, and I’ve found this to be the case with most people who have ostensibly forsaken their religion, he had a kind of “Hey, you can’t beat up my asshole little brother—only I can beat up my asshole little brother” mentality about the Church.

The two strapping LDSers came strolling up.

“Soy Moylen,” said Moylen, jamming his hand out. “Muchos gustos a conocerty.”

“I speak English,” said James.

“Hey, how about that!” said Moylen. “Where are you from? “

“Texas.”

“Cool!”

“Hi, I’m Xarek,” said Xarek, pumping his hand into mine.

“Hi, there.”

Proselytizers are like pistachios—intriguing, but seldom worth the trouble after it’s all said and done. I had a perfunctory talk with Xarek about my relationship with Jesus Christ, giving him just enough of a carrot to hunger after, while James practiced layups to avoid talking with Moylen. The two men, boys really, changed out of their “work” gear and into shorts and basketball shoes, but they left their shirts off.

“I guess we’ll be skins,” announced Moylen. Of course they would.

“You can shoot for outs,” said Xarek. I shot for James and me, missing. Xarek drained it. Mormon ball. Aside from being sculpted and in shape, these Mormons were good at basketball, executing passes with surgical accuracy between our legs, around our defending arms, above our overzealous heads. Have you ever seen two members of a religious sect execute a perfect alley-oop? I have.

“Cover him, Smith!” James roared. He called me by my last name when I frustrated him.

“Smith, get big.” James always used that expression when we’d be in line at some hallowed European tourist sight. James hated that nobody had any sense of decorum in the queue. “Getting big” entails swinging your arms out like a marionette on amphetamines and spreading your legs as wide as they’ll go to ensure nobody cuts around you in line. So, when James told me to “get big” against these mammoth lambs of God, I assumed it was a metaphor for defense. The only problem with playing defense at this moment was that Xarek and I were both covered in blood.

“Whoa, whoa. Somebody’s cut,” I said. I had blood smeared all across my shirt. I could taste the acrid syrup. Maybe I’d been hit in the lip. I felt nothing. “Hey, you okay?” I asked Xarek.

“Oh, yes. I’m fine.” Xarek had apparently taken the brunt of this mysterious injury. His face was covered in blood. The crown of thorns. “I feel nothing. Maybe I’m just sweating blood,” he giggled. I’m sure I fouled the shit out of him. I always do.

“Luke 22:43-44. Christ’s agony at Gethsemane,“ said Moylen.

“That’s right, Moylen,” Xarek grinned with smug approval.

“What the fuck?,” James whispered to me in passing. “These dudes aren’t right.” In an effort to reverse the throttling, James ordered me to switch up, so now I’d be covering Moylen who wasn’t covered in blood (yet), and who, James assured me, “wasn’t respecting my outside bombs.” “Tyler,” James went on, “I’m going to mix it up with that bitch-ass gory motherfucker down low and you drain threes on the other hooker. Word?”

“Word,” I said, with feigned confidence.

Down low soon began to look like a hematic sprinkler. A number of Spaniards descended onto the blacktop to watch this peculiar spectacle. In the paint, James and Xarek elbowed, shoved, shin-kicked, crab-blocked and generally banged away at each other like two deities in combat—a modern day Titanomachia. The Mormons continued to dominate and won the first game 21-6. My allegedly devastating three-point shot would not fall. “The fucking ball is covered in blood, James!”

“Don’t you make fucking excuses, T. FIGHT!” he screamed in my face, his teeth covered with a gruesome patina. “Do you understand, T?”

“Best two out of three?” asked Moylen. Any communication from the Mormons was now directed to me, as James refused to acknowledge them as anything but objects to beat the mortal shit out of. James had killing in him today. You don’t want to have killing in you too much of the time. I don’t know if I’ve ever had killing in me.

Game two became increasingly violent. Moylen threw an elbow that splashed into my nose, an extra avenue of blood flow, this time unattributable to divine magic on the Mount of Olives. I recoiled, but managed to drive the slick ball around him, and found James under the basket for a layup. I raced back to the outs line, received the ball back from James, checked and passed it back to him on the perimeter.

James intoned, “But with the precious blood of Christ…you cocksuckers. Bucket.” Ball in. James and Xarek, battling low for a rebound, slipped on the court, making obscene blood angels on the concrete. James roared up from the mess and lay the ball in. “Son of man coming with power and great glory….Bucket.” The Mormons kept silent during the second game, which we won, 21-12, James quoting scripture throughout.

I’ve always been impressed by people who can recite scripture, or poetry, or anything. I can barely remember “Fire and Ice,” the Frost poem that everybody learns in “Reciting Things 101.”

Game three began in heightened reality and ended in gauzy fog. We, the aging camels, the yellow camels, the angry, moving divine camels, started with too much intensity. I shot three errant bloodballs in a row, throwing James into a rage.

“Focus, T. Focus. Focus. Hit me low if it’s not falling. Fuck, Smith.” It wasn’t falling. But how can you stop? It feels right coming out of the hand, but when the shots don’t fall, the shots don’t fall. It would have to be James down low, outmatched, bloodied beyond recognition and snarling like the rat-faced man in the corner of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Christ Carrying the Cross.”

The basketball court was a ghastly sight. The backboard looked like a wall behind which executions took place. Blast radii of mammoth blobs of coagulating bloodsputum littered the court. Xarek and Moylen screamed at each other to play defense, to get open, to focus. They invoked scripture. They seemed rattled. Their ball.

Moylen drove to James’s left. I moved over a little to try and cut off his lane, but was waylaid by Xarek with a crushing pick. As I lay in a heap, Xarek stepped on my head and popped to the outside, behind the two-point line. James made a valiant effort to get a hand on Moylen’s outlet pass, but slipped and collapsed next to me on the wet concrete.

Xarek spoke before he shot: “Behold, I will give you the victory.” Bucket.

Final score:

Latter Day Saints: 21
Heretics: 19

Xarek and Moylen high-fived, their bloodstained bodies glistening in the Madrid sunlight. James began to weep. I’d only seen him cry once, when he talked about his mother. He was just a boy and thought she’d written the note after she’d done it. The poor kid. From that day on, his eyes were too wise for a child. They still were.

The crowd swarmed all over the Mormons, cheering, clapping, and slapping them on the back. Everyone was given a Book of Mormon and Moylen and Xarek went about their mission, their church, their victory.

I did my best to console James. “Let’s get a drink,” I suggested.

“We should have won that game, T,” he said, then went supervoid.

I, along with five other friends served as pallbearers for James. Outside the church, there was a long discussion about carrying the casket. We all naturally thought pallbearers had to carry the thing.

“Don’t worry, it rolls,” said some church official. Then there we were in a line, taking communion. Everything in a line. The priest had to get more wine. We raided the church stash—the blood of Christ was much more appealing than his body. “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Nice try, Revelations. But we’re thirsty.

I walked around during James’s wake, carrying his basketball for three hours like a goddamned fool. What else do you do? You play basketball. So the pallbearers played a game of three-on-three with James’ basketball at his parent’s house while people looked sad, the way you’re supposed to look at these functions. Strange glances were thrown. It wasn’t the same. We should have won that game.

But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate…

In New York’s Whitehorse Tavern there’s a table held sacred by many, table five. A quick glance suggests nothing out of the ordinary about this piece of battered furniture, its surface worn smooth by the bottom of countless glasses, its landscape dulled by the tears of broken dreams. However, this table holds a distinction held by no other table in the literary world. It’s the table that Dylan Thomas had his last drink at before being carried across the street to Saint Vincent’s Hospital where he died shortly thereafter. The Tavern has become a Mecca for wannabe writers and misunderstood artists, all trying to capture a piece of the agony that fueled their hero’s creativity. Pathetic hustlers of the English language, all trying to one up themselves by walking on the razor’s edge, flock to places like the Whitehorse. Those in the know want to sit at the table where the great bard himself finally met his end after playing a game of whiskey roulette with hand of death.

It’s sad that writers feel the need to emulate their idol’s demise, following in the footsteps of someone else’s self-induced madness. Many of us write, trying desperately to stay one step ahead of the emotional train wreck, begging fate for an end to the destructive storm that is our world. Our words keep us one step away from the darkness, those desperate hours that haunt us when the silence falls. We never get ahead of our insanity, always running in place and never going forward. One step from the madness and ten miles from sanity is where I stood at any given moment.

I sat at that table, whiskey in hand, not pretending to be a tormented writer, but because I wanted to toast the man who gave all of himself to his art until in the end, there was nothing left but the shell of a withering soul. I came because I was thirsty for something else in life. I came for the rightist of wrong reasons.

It was a cold winter night when I stumbled into the Whitehorse, desperate for something other than the void that my life had become. I was going through the motions, breathing with the shallowness of a man with no convictions. I was a man with no past or future, just a stagnant mechanized existence. I had just spent the better part of two hours listening to the relentless ranting of a fashion designer, a woman who went on and on about how brilliant she was. The first rule of literary survival I learned was simple; anyone who claims to be brilliant usually isn’t. They’re rubes, simpletons who’ve thumbed through college outlines of all the great books, higher learning through a series of Dummy’s and Idiot’s Guides. They’re pretenders to an intellectual throne far beyond their grasp. They’re the people that say all the right things at all the right times, always making a point to throw in the names of whoever is on the top of the avant-garde heap. “Blah, blah, blah… Andy Warhol. Blah, blah, blah…” On and on again until you want to die. “Blah, blah, I know more than you, blah.” My mind was spinning from an evening spent in a room full of cultural vampires. Enough was absolutely enough. Having told this room full of simpletons “I’d rather cut myself with broken car glass than listen to one more nanosecond of this dribble,” I was out the door and into the tavern in under five minutes.

The place was empty, as if the plague had just rolled through Greenwich Village. That was fine by me. I liked an empty bar, devoid of people working hard to preserve their livers in a bottle of whiskey. I didn’t drink a lot but when I did I didn’t need some buzz kill sitting next to me, waxing on and on about his broken dreams. New York is filled to the brim with tales of heartbreak and guaranteed schemes that fell apart just before the payoff. It’s a city that serves as a beacon to the mentally unstable artist and greedy yuppie alike, both of whom were big fish in the little ponds of their hometowns. Now they’re surrounded by bigger fish in the biggest pond of all, nasty giant fish with a taste for blood. In the end they’re eaten alive by the unforgiving nature of life in the city. The bowery is paved with the carcasses of some of the most brilliant artists I’ve ever met and the jails are filled with scheming yuppies. New York’s a town designed for hustlers and tricksters out for their own gain.

The waitress came back to the table with my drink, a double shot of Black Label Scotch, neat no ice. I stared down into the placid amber liquor, peering into its depth as if Buddha would swim to the surface with a lifesaving piece of wisdom written just for me. Nothing happened, other than the soothing smell of the double malt wafting up to my nose. “God I need some fucking peace,” I said to myself. My nerves had just started to calm down, as I lifted the heavy glass to my lips. The silence was perfect, dead like me, empty and void of the sounds of desperate bar people desperately trying to sound as if their lives had meaning. There was no blah, blah, blah to kill my buzz.

The first slug of scotch went down, burning my throat with that acrid warm feeling hard liquor has. My shaking thoughts suddenly started to smooth out like a plane after it’s flown through a turbulent patch of sky. I could breathe again, taking in the squalid barroom air with renewed faith. It was a perfect moment in time, one that could never be repeated, so I savored it with the enthusiasm of a man who discovers a hundred dollar bill in an otherwise empty wallet. For that brief moment all was well in my world. Everything was, as my wife would say, peachy.

Suddenly the silence was broken by the slamming of the tavern’s door. Looking up to see what idiot ruined my perfect moment, I saw him enter the bar, the worst possible sort to run into when you’re out for a quiet evening of destroying your liver. Sammy the Gimp scanned the room looking for a familiar face he could extract a free drink or dollar from. I quickly lowered my head but not before his eyes met mine. “Shit” I muttered. My evening would now be spent trying to get rid of Sammy. I looked back up knowing his smiling junkie face would be beaming in my direction. Sure enough it was, his scrawny wrist limply waving in my direction. No point in putting off the inevitable. I nodded which was the universal gesture amongst junkies to “come on over and waste my precious time.”

Sammy was one of those old time junkies that had the word loser burned into his forehead from years of failed schemes, broken promises and too much time on Riker’s Island. Getting involved with anything Sammy planned was a sure fire ticket to the joint. He was an idiot but he did have a certain charm. Sammy had an innocence reserved for the mentally retarded that made you feel bad for him, bordering on almost liking him. His toothless grin lit up like a roman candle as he limped over the table.

He got the name, Sammy the Gimp, after being shot by a junk dealer on Avenue A down in Alphabet City. He bought a large quantity of dope on credit and didn’t pay his bill on time. Unfortunately, the dealer had a large number of other deadbeat junkies also behind on their payments, so an example would have to be made. Sammy was that example, being stabbed 23 times. One of his injuries was a lacerated leg muscle that caused his cartoonish limp. When he was in my presence he was a nuisance at best. When he wasn’t around to step on my last nerve I felt bad for him. He was somebody’s little boy once, a son born to proud parents who could never have imagined their boy becoming a junkie. I watched, as if hypnotized, as his left foot dragged across the sawdust floor making the sound of sandpaper on steel. When he got to my table he clumsily pulled out a chair which sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard as it scrapped against the floor. He finally settled into it. God, this man was noisy.

“Johnny my man, how the hell are you?”

“Just fine Sammy. What brings you uptown? This isn’t your normal watering hole?”

“I was looking for you. Well, actually I was coming back from Harlem and I ran into that loud mouth skirt maker…”

“Fashion designer, Sammy, fashion designer, there’s a difference” I added.

“Yeah, whatever, she makes skirts, doesn’t she?”

It’s amazing how a simpleton like Sammy can somehow come out ahead in a conversation. He was right, the “loudmouth” did make skirts, and it was a funny thought to think of her as a skirt maker rather than that know it all fashion maven. I tried to keep quiet, as if my silence would propel The Gimp out of the tavern but Sammy picked up where he left off.

“Where was I? Oh yeah, I ran into the skirt maker and she said you insulted her then stormed out of the party over at Izzy’s place.”

“I didn’t want to listen to another second of those wannabe art-types rambling on about the state of art in New York, as if any of them really knew what was going on. Jesus, the shit that pours out of people’s mouths would lead you to believe that there’s a bad case of verbal diarrhea going round.”

“Verbal diarrhea?” he asked.

“Verbal diarrhea Sammy, didn’t you have something pressing to say?” I knew I was about to get the lowdown on some surefire scheme guaranteed to get me rich, loaded or both. Wanting to get it over with, I forced him to get to the point. There’s nothing worse than having to wait for a loser to spit out their plan knowing that you’d end up having to get involved in order to get rid of them. He continued, spitting wet lumps of peanut out of his mouth.

“Here’s the deal.” A chunk of gooey nut lands on my hand. “I was up in Harlem, going up there to cop this new shit that’s supposed to be off the charts but there’s no one home at the Buster’s place. I mean no one in sight. I knock on his door and nothing, not a peep. I bang on the door for ten minutes. I figure they’re in the back room so I try the door knob. The doors unlocked so I walk on in and guess what, guess what the fuck I saw?”

“Tell me Sammy, just tell me and get it over with.”

“Hey man, I’m trying to do you the favor here.” More peanuts fly out.

“Yeah, you’re right. Sorry Sammy, go on.”

“So I go inside and they’re all fucking dead. I mean shot up, guts hanging out, faces blown off dead. You couldn’t tell the boys from the girls.”

This was more than I needed to hear. The Gimp managed to show up at Busters after someone had put the fix on the dealer and now his big mouth is guaranteeing me a spot on the morning police report. This is what I meant about losers, they go to do something as simple as coping dope in Harlem and end up walking in on a gangland slaying. Then they start telling everyone who will listen, their tragic tale which eventually means that the guys who pulled the trigger will find out. They’ll start looking for Sammy which means they’ll talk to everyone who knows him with my name appearing first on their list. God damn gimpy footed little bastard had dragged me into his sad sack pathetic world once again. Even with my glaring eyes burning a hole through his forehead, my eyes saying “I’m going to skin you alive,” he kept talking.

“So I look around to see if there’s anything of value and I see a paper bag.”

“What paper bag?” I asked, knowing that the bag most likely contained drugs, money or both.

“The paper fucking bag filled with the purest heroin I’ve ever tasted.” My mouth dropped open. I was now officially sucked into one of The Gimps fucked up schemes because I couldn’t resist that damn drug.

I sat with Sammy at table five in momentary silence as if he’d shut up long enough for the enormity of his great fortune to sink in. To his left I could see the ghost of Dylan Thomas smiling as if egging me on to indulge my addiction. I’m sure Dylan wanted me to take my own version of that last drink and join him permanently at the table. The lure of drugs had overpowered the knowledge that anything Sammy touched turned to shit. All I could think about was that bag, that big fat bag.

“So Sammy, what did you do with the dope?” Saliva was now dripping from my mouth, slowly pooling on the table’s surface.

“What do you mean, I have it right here.” At which point he started to pull out an enormous freezer bag of white powder.”

“Put that away man. Are you crazy? You can’t walk around with that, you’ll get caught.” This was becoming a nightmare at a hundred miles an hour but I was too blinded by the thought of getting loaded to care.

“What am I supposed to do with all this junk man? Hey man, you want a little? You can have it for free since you always looked out for me.”

“Sure Sammy, I’ll take a little.” The drool started pouring from my mouth until I had to wipe it away with a napkin for fear of someone thinking I was having a medical emergency, a bad bout of dope-luster’s disease. Unbeknownst to me, The Gimp had prepared some “to go” bags of junk back at Buster’s place.

He signaled me to reach under the table, which I gladly did. My hand slid past a hundred years of chewing gum stuck to the table’s underside, past the rusting piss stained post that held it up until I felt the soft plastic skin of the bag. Taking a quick glance before shoving it in my pocket, it appeared to be close to an ounce. I looked back at Sammy who looked almost thoughtful yet resigned in the dim red lights of the bar. It was then I realized that Sammy wasn’t long for this world. His eyes were begging me to help him. Whenever drug dealers got shot up and some junky came along and stole their stash, they ended up paying with their lives. Nothing is free in this life, especially drugs. I felt bad and had to give The Gimp fair warning. As I started to say something Sammy cut me off.

“Listen man that stuff’s nearly pure so don’t use a lot. In fact, maybe you should smoke or snort it.” There was a glimmer of genuine concern in his beady little eyes.

“Yeah, I’ll keep that in mind. Listen Sammy, you need to get rid of that stuff. It’s going to bring you a world of hurt. Someone’s going to be looking for it.”

“Yeah man, I know. I’m going to start selling it one dime bag at a time.”

“That’s the wrong answer Sammy. You’ll get killed if you try to deal it on the street. The first thing everyone’s going to ask is where a lowlife like The Gimp got such good shit, no offense.”

“None taken asshole” he muttered. I continued.

“Look, we need to take this to Nick the Wop over on Grand Street and dump it. He’ll give you half of a fair price but you’ll be alive to spend the money.”

“What’s your end of the deal?” There was a sudden note of hostility in his voice.

“You just gave me an ounce of primo shit that will keep me high for weeks. I also sort of like you and I don’t want to hear about you getting killed.”

“Everyone laughs at me Johnny. They call me a loser behind my back.”

“That’s because you are Sammy. We’re all losers. Look at what we do, swinging smack everyday at the end of a spoon. We’re all fucking losers, one no worse than the next.”

“You’re not a loser.  No one ever calls you that.”

“I am. You just can’t see it because I hide it well. Let’s call Nick and see if we can get this mess cleaned up. Go ahead and keep some for yourself and we’ll dump the rest with Nick.”

I left Sammy at the table, getting up and walking to the payphone by the men’s room. I got a hold of Nick and filled him in, giving him as little information as possible, saying my “friend” needed to make a fast transaction of dope for cash. He figured my “friend” was The Gimp. Nick agreed to meet us in an hour. After a little chit chat about Sammy’s ability to fuck things up, I said goodbye and walked back to the table. Sammy sat with a smile on his face and powder hanging off his crooked nose. The look of disgust on the bartender’s face filled in the missing pieces. In my absence, Sammy had snorted a pile of product in plain sight and was now in the twilight zone, the good twilight zone. I filled Sammy in on my conversation with Nick, having to stop and start as Sammy fell in and out of a heavy nod. After having tipped the bartender an extra twenty dollars, I had him call us a cab. As the Tavern started to fill up with the usual repressed homosexual college jocks desperate to save their masculinity through alcohol abuse, Sammy and I shuffled out to meet the cab. In a moment we were off towards Grand Street. I took a big snort from my bag of dope and within three minutes I was pleasantly numb.

The city at night, with lit up windows and neon signs, becomes a visual wonderland passing by in a blur. It’s like a perpetual string of Christmas lights spread throughout the concrete landscape, a warm fuzzy fist full of eye candy for those on the nod. Everything suddenly feels great. Everyone’s suddenly your best friend. Nothing hurts anymore and you become the dream of yourself you could never be in a state of sobriety. Everything is just a pleasant state of flux. Even riding in the yellow cab of death is fun. Even the driver amped up on crack for three days makes you smile. He’s your friend, your best friend. The normal potholes and torn up asphalt that jarred your kidneys to the point of no return feels like the gentle bounce of a trampoline as we sped down 3rd Avenue, towards Nick’s office.

Nick’s office was a loft space above a dim sum joint on Grand Avenue. While Nick was Italian, thus the nickname Nick the Wop, he felt more comfortable in Chinatown where, according to him, “everyone fought for a better deal but no one ever fucked you for a buck”. Nick was a connected guy, having worked his way up in a Brooklyn numbers crew, but was forced to quit when he got strung out. The Family doesn’t allow junkies. However, even without the Mob to back his play he still carried a serious reputation. Fuck with the Nick the Wop and you’d discover pain you never knew existed.

By the time we got to Nick’s office, Sammy and I were heavily sedated. Exiting the cab, I was hypnotized by the numerous neon signs, their Chinese symbols becoming more interesting when illuminated in a red or green glow. Sammy grabbed me by the arm as I started to walk into a Chinese record store in search of something other than what we had come here to do. Apologizing, in that whiney junkie voice we all get when smacked back, I turned towards Nick’s office.

Nick was in the business of fencing stolen goods. It didn’t matter what you had, from tubas to goldfish, from diamonds to women’s diaphragms, Nick could find a buyer for everything. Of course he’d give you pennies on the dollar but he assumed the risk and no one would ever know where the merchandise came from which was what I wanted. Sammy liked to brag about his big scores which usually amounted to nothing, except in this case. He’d be found out via the junkie internet, a series of payphones up and down Manhattan’s east side, within twenty fours which would earn him a trip to the morgue. Setting him up with Nick would keep him marginally safe.

To get into Nick’s, you had to walk through the dim sum joint, through the kitchen and up the world’s worst set of wooden stairs. This routine worked well since you’d never know Nick was here unless you had prior knowledge. After convincing Sammy that Nick really had an office here and he wasn’t being set up in some awful way, we made our way through the kitchen and its nonplused workers.

“You’re kidding Johnny, Nick’s back here?”

“Yeah I know, it seems a bit strange but it’s the perfect cover.”

“I don’t know Johnny.” He was getting nervous, like a cornered rat.

“I don’t know Johnny” I replied back, mimicking that dopey dog from the Davy and Goliath cartoon. “Look, I’m doing this to help you, you little fuck. I’m trying to save your sorry ass.”

He muttered something, looking at me like a broken hearted puppy which made me feel worse. Man, why did I get involved in this fiasco in the first place. I knew The Gimp was trouble and I still sat there listening to him. Before I had second thoughts, thinking about kicking him to curb, I smiled and pointed to the stairs. “Get the fuck up there Sammy,” bringing the kitchen’s conversation to a standstill.

We made our way up the stairs which lead to a large hallway covered in garish red felted wallpaper. Nick once told me that the rest of the building was a whorehouse and its madam had a thing about the color red. Everything was a shade of red. The hallway was lined by doors every twenty feet or so. However, finding Nick’s door was easy. We just looked for the door guarded by a three hundred pound gun totting thug. Straightening ourselves up, we approached the humorless man with the shotgun in his paws.

“What do you want?” He was brief and to the point.

“We’re here to see Nick, he’s expecting us.”

“Hey Nick,” the goon shouted. “There’s a couple of fucking junkies to see you.”

That’s great, I thought. Fifty nine minutes with Sammy and I’m lumped into the category of “fucking junkies.” Of course it didn’t help that I was nodding while I stood there, the perpetual string of drool now extending past my jacket well on its way to the floor.

“It’s alright Bruno, it’s just Johnny from Brooklyn and The Gimp. Let them in.”

“Get the fuck in there and don’t make any trouble, assholes.”

“Relax tough guy. I’m a friend of Nick’s.”

“Tough guy, fucking tough guy, you little shit?” The goon was pissed.

“Is there a problem out there?” Nick screamed.

“Nothing boss.”

Before the tough guy with the shotgun could do anything, Sammy and I slipped through the door. Nick smiled when he saw me, his smile suddenly turning to a frown when he saw Sammy. He didn’t like Sammy but business was business and this was well worth the trouble of bringing The Gimp along. I had Sammy hand him the bag of junk, which he immediately tested.

“Jesus, this stuff is nearly pure. How’d you get it? I hear that Buster’s place got shot up a few hours ago. It’s too bad Buster wasn’t there or you would have got away with it clean.”

My heart sank upon hearing those words. I assumed that Buster was killed since nobody would be stupid enough to steal from Buster unless Buster was dead. Nobody would be stupid enough… then there’s Sammy. Shit, I knew the loser’s credo, “everything they touch turns to rust, all schemes fail then crumble to dust.” Not only was I with Sammy now but I had an ounce of Buster’s product in my pocket. What the hell was Sammy thinking?

“Fucking Sammy, what the hell were you thinking? Didn’t you look around to see if Buster was dead? Do you know what’s going to happen if Buster finds out you walked off with his stash?”

“Relax” Nick said in his deep raspy voice. “No one is going to know anything about this. Here’s the solution, the fix to your problems.”

“Here we go” I muttered to myself. We were on the losing side of a coin toss and Nick knew it. We and I say we because I was with Sammy which made me guilty by association regardless of the actual facts, were screwed. There was one way out and I knew what it was even before Nick uttered a single word. We’d get to leave here alive and without fear of Buster ever knowing Sammy took his junk. The only drawback was we’d only get that out of the deal and nothing else. There’d be no money handed over, only the promise of silence. Nick continued.

“You’re going to give me the heroin and I’m going to keep my mouth shut, get rid of the junk and that will be that.”

“What about my fucking money.” Sammy whined.

“Your money you shitty little gimp? There’s no ‘your money’ involved. This stuff wasn’t yours to begin with and I’m doing you a big favor, saving your life by fixing this problem. Actually you owe me.” The Gimp looked like he was going to blow a gasket so I chimed in.

“Just shut up Sammy. Nick’s right. We walk away now and it’s a case of no harm no foul. Nick gets rid of this stuff and you’re off the hook.”

“Johnny, you told me you’d help me,” Sammy whined.

“Yeah, but I didn’t know that Buster was still alive. You might have taken a look at the bodies to make sure he was among them. I’m sorry Sammy but this has to play out this way. It’s either that or Buster’s going to come for you.”

On that note Sammy started crying. Another great scheme fallen apart, burning the word loser just a little deeper into his soul. I felt bad, hell even Nick looked upon The Gimp with pity filled eyes.

“Listen Sammy, I’ll give you an ounce for your troubles. This way you can have a good time and you won’t feel so bad. You just have to keep quiet about this or I’ll kill you myself. Are we square on that Sammy?”

“Yeah, I guess so. I mean abso-fucking-lutely.”

“Listen Sammy, I need to talk to Johnny about something so go wait out in the hall and for God sakes don’t get Bruno pissed off, alright?”

“Okay, Nick,” he said in that damn dopey dog voice.

After Sammy left I sat down on Nick’s couch to talk to him. Sitting next to me, his expression told me the news I was about to hear would not be good. I knew Nick from the old days. He always took care of me and vice versa, but time had changed us both to a point where we ran in different circles these days. We weren’t as tight as we used to be. I couldn’t ask for the favors I used to ask him for. Sammy was headed for a fist full of hurt.

“Johnny, this isn’t going to bode well for The Gimp. I mean I’ll get this stuff out of here and more importantly away from you two but Sammy’s got a big mouth. I can’t have this blowing back on me. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“I got it Nick. I don’t like it but I got it.”

“You’re a good kid Johnny and I’ll keep you out of it but you know what has to be done if push comes to shove.”

I knew what had to be done. I knew I couldn’t say anything to Sammy because I was a “stand up guy.” Mind your own business where I came from and you lived a long life. Walking out into the hallway and facing Sammy was more painful than I thought it would be. I wasn’t a thug and didn’t have the stomach for this life. I had one chance to do something right which was protect The Gimp. I begged Sammy to let me send him out of town for a few weeks, anywhere he wanted my treat. The only condition was that he left that night. He thanked me for the offer but said he wanted to go home, catch another buzz and think about it. What could I do? I couldn’t repeat what Nick told me because I gave him my word I’d stay out of it. On the streets you’re only as good as your word. When your word’s gone so are you.

I took Sammy home by taxi, offering to stay with him until I could convince him to leave town. He smiled and told me to go home, he’d see me tomorrow and we could have a good laugh about it then. I left his rundown tenement building on the lower eastside, knowing there’d be no happy ending yet silently praying for one. I made my way back to Brooklyn, finally nodding off at about five in the morning.

I awoke the next afternoon to the phone ringing, echoing through my empty loft, pounding my ears like a jackhammer on crack. Picking it up, I mumbled

“Yeah, who is this?”

“It’s Nick. I just wanted you to hear it from me rather than some fucking junkie on the street.”

My heart dropped to depths I didn’t know existed. I knew what was coming as if the story would have some other ending. I constantly played a dangerous game with people who played for keeps, playing it for years but always escaping injury and death. However, at this single moment it all caught up to me, all the close calls and narrow misses. It was payback time and it was long overdue. Someone had just paid for my fucking sins, Karma with a sideways payback.

“Buster’s people found Sammy this morning. They cut his fucking left hand off. They cut his fucking… they shoved it down his… never mind. I’m sorry Johnny. I know you tried to help him.”

“Yeah I tried but obviously I didn’t try hard enough.” I thought I was going to start crying. Nick sensed this as well.

“Look Johnny, it was only a matter of time before Sammy’s mouth caught up to him. This wasn’t your fault. You’re not part of this world kid, you’re better than us and that’s a good thing. You don’t have to live this way. You don’t have to be an animal, but you have to quit using dope. It will kill you in the end. I have to hop but I wanted to tell you that you’re not in the loop on this one. Buster was convinced that you had no part in Sammy’s bullshit.”

“Thanks Nick, I mean that.”

“Listen Johnny, I got more than expected for Sammy’s score. I felt bad about jerking you for the money but Sammy would have blown the deal back to me so I had to play it the way I did.  I left something for you in an envelope. Bruno stuck it under your door this morning.”

Looking across the room I could see the envelope near the front door. After hanging the phone up I opened it up, finding roughly four thousand dollars inside. I pulled out the ounce of junk I still had, poured out a line and soothed my trampled nerves. Calling a travel agent, I discovered that this was a great time of year to head west. Booking a one way ticket to San Francisco for the following week, I decided to go back to my hometown. Nick was right. I could get out of this way of life. I could go out on my own or in a casket, my choice. Sammy’s death was the final straw. I didn’t belong in a world were men’s hearts were tempered like cold hard steel. My metal was weak like tin, rusted from tears of regret and sorrow. Before exiting New York, I stopped by Nick’s and took him out to lunch. When we parted he said something that stuck.

“Kid, I wish you well out California. Go follow those dreams of yours. Write that book you keep threatening to write but don’t ever come back here again and don’t use my real name if you write about you and me. Don’t come back to where you don’t belong. Me, I don’t have the devil’s chance of leaving this life but you, you have a ticket out. Use it or the last thing you’ll see will be Bruno’s shotgun right before it takes your head off.” He didn’t have to say another word. I became a ghost and simply vanished.



I. 1987

I’m eight years old and everything is different.

We live in a new house, one we moved into after my mom finished divorcing my dad and she and her boyfriend G. sold our old one. This one has an extra bedroom where G.’s daughter can stay with us on his visitation days. My little sister and I have to go to a new school and make new friends.

The reasons for the move are never explained to us. My mother simply lets G. slip into the void left by our father and place his firm disciplinarian hand on the tiller of our lives. All the rules we now follow are his.

Nothing I do seems quite good enough for him, though he never actually says so. The disappointment and disgust are veiled in perpetual comments and criticisms. There is always a shake of the head or a disdainful grunt whenever he sees me in the yard with my toy dinosaurs instead of skinning my knees in a game of street football with the older boys up the block. The way, I am endlessly told, that he did at my age.

One late Saturday evening when he and I are home alone I take a couple of my favorite dinosaurs out in a far corner of the back yard to play. The damp soil clings to my shoes and when I come inside to watch TV I track some on the couch without noticing.

When G. sees it he shouts my name and lunges at me. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t touch me, but his arms corral me in on either side and his face is less than an inch from mine. Once at dinner he let me sip from his beer, and now his breath smells the way it tasted. I retreat as far back into the cushions as I can.

“What is this?” he barks, pointing at a spot on the couch where my shoes have been. “You got mud on the couch.” I steal a glance, and just see some loose dirt, which could be brushed off with a swipe of the hand and not even leave a stain. “What the hell is wrong with you, boy? Don’t you think? Or are you just a dumb animal?”

He demands an answer and I don’t know what the right one is, so I just say, “I’m sorry.” When I do G. cuffs me across the face with his open hand. The shock of the blow winds me up into a ball of raw fear, too terrified of further punishment to even think.

He stares at me for a long minute. “Clean it up,” he growls, then returns to whatever he was doing elsewhere in the house, leaving me alone again. I sweep the dirt up into my hand and throw it out in the back yard. Then I go huddle in the corner of my room farthest from the door with my favorite paleontology book. The words slip around the page a little bit when I try to read them.

Because I believe G. parents with my mother’s full consent, I don’t ever mention it to anyone.

Not long after G. and my mother get us kids out of bed early one morning and have us dress in our good clothes. We go down to a botanical garden, where a Justice of the Peace marries them. G. is now my stepfather, his daughter my new slightly-older stepsister.

Afterwards we take a family trip to Disneyland. At one point my mother takes me aside and informs me that it would really make G. happy if I started calling him Dad.

II. 1989

I’m nine years old, almost ten. A dental abnormality requiring surgery has been discovered in my upper jaw, and I’m wearing a set of uncomfortable braces intended to space my teeth out enough so they can operate. I’ve become that kid who never really smiles when adults are around and who prefers to play by himself behind a closed bedroom door.

It’s early spring and we’re moving again, this time into a house we’ve bought in the eastern part of town. The entire upper floor is a single master bedroom with a walk-in closet and bathroom.

We have a sort of picnic celebration in the new empty house the day before move-in, sitting around eating pizza cross-legged on blankets and inflatable mattresses. My aunt and uncle are there with my little cousin, who is almost two. He’s recently started walking, and toddles around aimlessly with a big smile like it’s the best thing in the world.

After lunch we kids are sent up to the master bedroom to play with the few toys we brought with us while the adults drink beer and talk amongst themselves. The girls entertain themselves by improvising dances to the pop music station playing on my stepsister’s little radio and by doing somersaults and other acrobatics. My stepsister, who is taking gymnastics, demonstrates her handstands.

On impulse I tickle her during one of them. She collapses in giggles just as my cousin toddles past, pancaking him to the carpet. He starts bawling, and my aunt, like any first-time mother, comes running at this sound, whisking him downstairs. My sisters follow, telling the adults about what I did.

I wait until all the crying and fussing from the living room quiets down before slowly approaching the stairs.

G. is waiting for me halfway up, in a wide stance so I can’t rush past, his arms outstretched to either wall. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asks, quietly. His voice reminds me of unsheathed knives, flat and cold and hard and ready to hurt something.

I know enough about alcohol at this point to know that G. is drunk, even though he never stumbles or slurs like the drunks on TV. I’ve seen him drink an entire pitcher of beer by himself without effect.

He takes me into the walk-in closet, and here he rips into me, about how I’m just a horrid, loathsome kid, rotten through and through, for daring to do something like that to a little boy. He prods me into the far corner with his finger, advancing as I retreat until I’m backed up against a wall that still smells of fresh paint.

This time I don’t even finish saying “I’m sorry” before he thumps me across the face so hard my head bounces off the wall and I slump to the floor. Because I am prone to nosebleeds I know the taste of my own blood as it seeps from my sinuses into the back of my mouth. I sniffle, trying to keep it in, because I’m sure he’ll kill me if I bleed on the new carpet.

He thinks I’m starting to cry. “Fucking baby,” he spits at me before he goes downstairs, leaving me in the back of the closest.

After I’m sure he’s gone I go into the bathroom to clean myself up. My already-tender gums are bleeding too, little red rivers seeping between the braces. Because there are no towels I have to dry my hands and face on my shirt.

I go back into the closet and stay there until someone calls up that it is time to go. No one really speaks to me. I’m sure they’ve all been talking about what a bad kid I am.

III. 1991

I am eleven years old, and on perfect trajectory towards becoming a teenage malcontent. My family considers me humorless, mostly because I don’t laugh at G.’s incessant teasing. I almost never speak around adults.

Standardized aptitude testing has revealed a higher than average intelligence in me, and I am shuffled into advanced education classes at different schools every year. No one ever explains what this means to me, or asks if it’s what I want.

I have no social life to speak of. Because I change schools so frequently I no longer really bother with making friends, as I know I’ll lose them once the academic year is over. When I am bullied at school I simply take it without fighting back, as I am conditioned to believe I deserve it.

At home I spend much of my free time in my room reading science fiction novels and comic books or building models, mostly sailing ships and spacecraft. My interest in prehistoric life has taken a backseat to space travel and adventure stories, and I spend my allowance money on the supplies to build these tiny vectors of escape.

G. is showing more and more gray in his hair, and has taken to working out more frequently. He swims laps in our pool most mornings and runs a few miles around the local park in the evenings. He’s mounted a basketball hoop over the shed at the far end of the yard, and sometimes drags me out there to shoot hoops with him.

One afternoon he comes into my room without knocking, as usual. His basketball has gone flat and he’s looking for the handheld bicycle pump I won at a school raffle. It came with a needle attachment for inflating athletic equipment, but the one time I tried to use it the needle detached inside the ball and I needed pliers to get it out again.

I explain this when I hand it over, but G. brushes my warning away. This is common; even though I am frequently told how smart I actually am nothing I say is treated with any merit.

I return to sanding down the mainmast of the two-cannon pirate sloop I’m working on. I barely have it fitted to the deck when I hear G. roar my name from outside. He storms back into my room, clutching the ball in his hands. Just as I predicted a half-centimeter of the needle is poking out from the rubber seal.

G. shakes the ball around like he wants to throw it at something, angrily sputtering about how he thought I meant something other than what I said. “I told you so!” I blurt without thinking. It’s the first time I have ever back-talked to an adult.

The ball launches out of his hands like a cannonball and hits me square in the face, immediately sending a gush of blood out of my nose. Either the ball or my flailing arm sends my model crashing to the floor.

I clutch my hands to my face and double over on my desk, expecting a rain of similar blows to crash down on my back and sides. The warm blood pools between my palms and my face.

When I open my eyes G. is gone, having taken the ball with him. Out my window I can see him in the backyard, sitting on the diving board and taking long pulls out of a bottle of beer. His face is unreadable.

I know that I did absolutely nothing wrong and yet was punished anyway. As the blood drips out onto the plastic drop cloth on my desk I begin to understand for the first time that I do not deserve the treatment I am receiving. And that I should not have to take it.

The next spring I tell my mother I want to start taking karate lessons.

(For John Rybicki)

John, I’ve been holding in the howling.
It wears me out to parties and dinner;
a cheap evening jacket, its pockets bulging
with receipts and bent daisies and freight
trains and God and nickels and it spills
from me, John.  The animal sneaks
through the tears in my seams,
it opens my mouth and it spits.
The stain on the sidewalk,
it looks like my face, John.

Used to be, I would bleed on command.
Now I’m chasing rivers with a spoon,
trying to save something for later.


The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

From "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop


So, I had this toothache. It was in a tooth that I knew had a cavity. I knew there was a cavity because the last time I went to a dentist, which was about eight years ago, I had noticed a dark spot on my lower right molar. I noticed it because I am the type of person who compulsively looks in mirrors and inspects everything. Everything. I opened my mouth wide to check out the fillings in the back teeth, and I noticed a spot on one tooth, and I mentioned it to the dentist and he goes, “What, this?”* And at the time, it wasn’t even enough of a spot to call it a cavity, so he just said be sure you brush good, and it’ll be fine, and he suggested that perhaps I should tone down the self-inspections.

Which would’ve been fine, right? Except that this was my last dental checkup before going off to college, and though I’m ashamed to admit it, there were many nights when I drunkenly went to bed without brushing, and many mornings when I stumbled out of bed just barely in time to make it to class, and several other times when I mostly just failed to care because I was 18 or 19 and figured my teeth weren’t going anywhere. And for a while, they weren’t, until I was long past my college partying days, making a sincere effort to brush at least once a day, and getting regular medical checkups. The little spot on that back tooth had grown. I was still in the habit of checking out those back teeth. It had developed into the habit of looking mournfully in the mirror, knowing that eventually I’d have to make a dental appointment to get that filled, and wondering how complicated the insurance was going to be. Foolishly, I waited. It didn’t hurt. No need to go to a doctor for something that doesn’t hurt, right?

But then, one day it did hurt. Something was stuck in it. I gave it a good brushing, rinsed with salt water, and it stopped hurting for a couple days, but it started again. I went through this cycle for a few days until it became clear that I would need to see a dentist.

Appointment One:

After calling my insurance company to verify that I did indeed have dental coverage with a $5 copay for office visits, I had the company fax my insurance information over to the only dental office in town that (a) had openings and (b) accepted the particular insurance plan I had. Obviously, when everyone else in town is telling you they can’t get you an appointment until the end of next month and this office says, “Well, I have several openings this week,” you should consider whether you could stand to wait a month. But when there’s a crater in your molar and you find yourself compulsively picking things out of it with the aid of various improvised tools (tooth pick, paper clip, safety pin, earring hook), waiting a solid month just doesn’t feel like an option.

But when I arrived for my appointment, it wasn’t to get a filling or even have a tooth pulled. Since the tooth was not actively hurting at that moment (I had successfully rinsed all the food bits out of it for several days in a row), they gave me a cleaning. A good, 45 minute scrubbing, a painful scrubbing, too. And when I told the hygienist I hadn’t seen a dentist in eight years, she said she’d have to split my cleaning into two visits because there was “so much tartar build up that we won’t be able to get it all in one visit.” Oh, but your insurance will only pay for this type of visit once every six months, and we really can’t wait six months for this, so lets try and get you back in a couple weeks. That’ll be $75 today (you get the discounted rate), and you just pay your $5 copay next time. Oh, yes, I know it’s an unexpected expense and everyone is under pressure in this economy, but this is an investment in your health. You really need this, and you’ll be glad once you’re done. Granted, it’s completely your call. We could just do everything we can for now and then see you back for another regular cleaning in six months, but you will look sortof pathetic if you admit to being bothered by this unexpected yet entirely manageable expense. No pressure, of course.

All this was explained to me as I sat in the dentist’s chair, feet in the air, with what amounted to a small, sharp-edged, dual-action, vibrator-sprinkler jammed into the crevices between my teeth. This went on for 30 minutes before I found myself very briefly the object of attention of one Dr. B, who looked and sounded frighteningly like Ben Stein but with whiter hair and an eerily younger face. He glanced at me, then at my x-ray, made scraping noises with metal objects in my mouth, and told me I would need a root canal. Oh, and those wisdom teeth? They’ll probably need to come out (even though your dentist back home said to leave them alone as long as they’re not bothering you, and they aren’t). But we can talk about that later. After the root canal. For now, give her a treatment plan and schedule a root canal, and I’m out of here because I am a busy man, and it’s not my fault you didn’t brush your teeth enough in college, ya floozy.

Appointment Two:

My tooth started to hurt again, even when I brushed, and using my improvised cleaning tools didn’t help, either. I was rinsing with Listerine several times a day. When the small bottle I carried in my purse ran out, I stopped by Walgreens on the way home from work one day and couldn’t stop myself from taking a swig in the parking lot. Immediately I was confronted with the problem: Where to spit? I couldn’t just lean out the window in rush hour traffic and spit on a neighboring vehicle. I couldn’t open the door and spit on the ground and risk looking like a drunk or a tobacco chewer or both. So, I wedged the full Listerine bottle between my thighs, removed the cup/cap, and spit into it. I drove very carefully the rest of the way home, breaking gently, slowing to a crawl to go over the speed bumps, and merging ever-so-politely in order to avoid upsetting the shot glass of spit and mouthwash that was threatening to ruin my pride and the upholstery of my car.

I called the dentist the next day.

“I have an appointment for a root canal, but I want to know if I can come in sooner. My tooth is really hurting.”

“You don’t have an appointment for a root canal. Your appointment is for a cleaning. You have to go to the other side of the office to make an appointment with the doctor.”

“No one told me that. I thought I was making an appointment for my root canal.”

“Nope. But I can get you in for a root canal … next week?”

“Well, no one told me that was an option. I really need to think about this, but let me make the appointment now, and I’ll at least get to talk to the doctor when I go in.”

I made a lunch time appointment because I don’t like to take time off work when I can avoid it, and they didn’t have any evening appointments available soon enough. In the interim, I sought advice from people I knew who’d had root canals. Everyone seemed to think it’s best to save the tooth if you can, I chose to proceed with the root canal rather than extract the tooth. I arrived early for my 11 a.m. appointment but sat in the waiting room until 11:15 anyway. By the time I reached the dentist’s chair,  I had made up my mind that I was there to have a root canal. I told Dr. B as much, he administered anesthesia, and began drilling away. The procedure was painless, Dr. B put a temporary filling in my tooth and told me to schedule the second half of the root canal at the front desk.

At the front desk, the receptionist told me I didn’t owe anything since the procedure wasn’t finished yet, however the total cost would be $580 at the end of the next appointment. What happened to the $5 copay? my inner voice screamed, but all I could say was, “They didn’t tell me that.” Then the tears began to flow. An old man who had been sitting the waiting room across from me earlier appeared to smirk at my tears as the receptionist said something about a treatment plan — the treatment plan, yes, that was supposed to explain what was involved in this root canal business. That was supposed to explain all the costs. What happened to the treatment plan? I never got a copy.

I put down $50 that day, left the office sobbing, and left my husband a voice mail in which I could only choke out the words, “Hey, it’s me. I need you to call me, okay?” He called me 30 minutes later, afraid I’d been too drugged to drive back to the office. I did drive, though. I stopped off at Smoothie King to get a liquid lunch, and as I sat in my car, in the rain, in the parking lot,  I struggled to get it together enough to go inside and order a medium Angel Food. I stopped crying and heaving hysterical sighs long enough to get inside, but before I could order, I realized my wallet was missing. I ran out to the car, got the wallet, and came back. The other customers applauded, but one woman looked at me and saw how distressed I was.

“You have too much going on,” she said. “You just need to slow down.” I took a deep breath, nodded, and tried not to cry.

“Are you ok?” She said.

I nodded.

“Do you want a hug?”

I nodded again.

She walked right up and hugged me.

“Ah jeeze,” I said. “I’m really going crazy. I’m hugging a complete stranger … but that’s OK.”

“I’m not a stranger. My name is Tanya.”

Tanya was amazing. She gave me hope. She told me to take care of myself. Don’t make myself sick. She had been a victim of sickness, she said. She was diagnosed with breast cancer just a few months before losing her job. She was living off savings, and she would have her last radiation treatment in a few more days.

“You’re amazing,” I sobbed. “I want you to get better.”

“I am better,” she said. “I have claimed my healing.”

I couldn’t believe I was crying over a root canal. I didn’t tell her. I thanked her profusely and went back to work with a sinus headache (the inevitable result of crying). I tried to tough it out through the day but ended up going home at 4 p.m., at which point I slept, whined, and apologized to my husband for being a burden. The only food I managed to stomach that evening was about four spoonfulls of some kind of mediocre soup and a slice of a baguette.

Appointments Three and Four:

At appointment three, I received the second half of my cleaning, which was far less painful than the first. It was unremarkable.

By appointment four, I had figured out that my extreme emotional reaction was more likely due to the anesthesia than being told the cost of the root canal. I knew I could afford the procedure, even though it was an unexpected an inconvenient expense, so it had to be the drugs. Not to mention that loss of appetite is not at all how I normally cope with bad news. I asked to be treated with a different type of anesthesia if possible. The doctor’s assistant explained that the usual anesthesia actually contains adrenaline, which causes some people to have nervous reactions. Only then did I realize exactly how bad for me that particular anesthesia had been — we’re talking about someone with an anxiety problem, panic attacks, and trouble spending extended periods in groups of people — even if those people are close friends and family. Giving me an extra dose of adrenaline before telling me I owe nearly $600 just doesn’t go over well.

As I sat in the chair pondering all this, the doctor and his assistant prepared and administered a different kind of anesthesia, one which they said was slightly less potent and might wear off more quickly (not a problem, I figured, since the last one had left me numb for much of the day). I few needles to the jaw later, I was numb and just waiting to get the drilling done. Perhaps they didn’t realize how quickly the drugs took effect because Dr. B walked away for a good ten minutes, and in the mean time, my face got droopy, and his assistant remembered something.

“Oh, has anyone given you one of these yet? She said, handing me a form.”

“No, what’s this?”

“This is just a release form giving us permission to do the root canal.”

Should I have stopped her at this point? Should I have protested? Should I have said, “What the hell? You already started the root canal last time I was here. You didn’t give me a treatment plan, didn’t tell me what was involved, didn’t tell me how much it would cost, gave me drugs I wasn’t prepared to cope with, drilled the center out of my tooth and suckered me into a long, drawn-out, multi-visit process, and NOW you’re giving me a release form?” Yeah. I probably should’ve said that. But I didn’t. I signed the form and let them drill into my tooth again because realistically, what dentist would take a patient who was half way through a root canal someone else started? Then they strapped a humiliating device on my mouth. It involved a rubber sheet and something like an old-fashioned head-gear, and I couldn’t stop the mental images of disturbing pseudo-medical porn from flooding my brain. I stared into the blindingly bright light overhead, and decided I would need to see a different dentist as soon as humanly possible.

As the anesthesia wore off, I began to twitch and squirm, and eventually even to moan and jerk away from Dr. B, who administered more anesthesia and soldiered on. Still, he was unable to finish the root canal. I learned later that it was at least in part due to the fact that the root of my tooth formed a 90 degree angle at the bottom, which made it particularly hard to drill. Had I known this earlier, I might have chosen to save myself the pain and extract the tooth right off the bat. But there I was: tooth drilled, root canal nearly finished, thinking if I could just finish this mess, I would reward myself at the end by finding a better dentist. Knowing that at least another $700 in dental fees lay ahead, I paid what was left of my nearly $600 root canal bill although the procedure wasn’t finished. This would allow me to space out the payments and make the $700 seem slightly less painful when it came due.

Appointment Five:

I made my appointment to finish the root canal and to start to post-core and crown process, and in the mean time, I sought out recommendations of dentists. I explored every possible option, and I even considered flying home to Louisiana to see a dentist I trust so I could end this charade with the local dental office once and for all. But within a week, the tooth broke. I swear to God, I was following all the rules, but there you go. The side chipped right off while I was eating French fries, and I must’ve swallowed it by accident. It left the temporary filling exposed. I called the dental office, which was closed. The answering service woman explained that the dentist on call doesn’t respond to anything after 11 p.m., and as it was 11:15, I could choose to either go to the emergency room or just wait until the following morning. I wasn’t bleeding out, so I chose to wait. As I lay in bed that night, I coached myself on what to say the next day. I would tell them to pull the tooth. I would never go back. I would find a new dentist. And if anyone tried to make me feel bad about removing the tooth, I would tell them, “I’ve lost more important things than this tooth.” Silently, I enumerated the many things I’ve lost.

It was the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, and I got a 9:15 appointment with a Dr. M. I was expecting another Ben Stein look alike but was surprised to meet a young female dentist not much older than myself. She had a brunette bob with near-blond highlights. It was apparent that she put some effort into her make up that morning. She looked like someone my age who I wouldn’t be likely to be friends with because we had nothing in common even though she was, by all accounts, a really nice person. She didn’t look like a dentist. She didn’t look like Ben Stein. I had a brief feminist experience in which I came face-to-face with my own ingrained sexism as I realized I wasn’t 100% confident in this young, attractive, friendly and well made-up female dentist. I made a conscious decision to trust her because (a) at least she was nicer than Dr. B, (b) she was my only hope to get rid of this damned tooth, and (c) I needed to get over that sexist bullshit because I wouldn’t have let anyone else get away with saying the same things I was thinking. Be the change you want to see and all that.

Dr. M took a look at my tooth and noted that the break looked rather superficial and she could probably still cap it, and I’d be able to go ahead with the post-core and crown. She took an x ray to make sure the break wasn’t worse than it appeared. She offered to cap the tooth for me, but — and this was my moment of triumph, strange as it may seem — I looked her in the eye, willing my tears back into their ducts, and said, “I really just want to pull the tooth. I want to be done with this. I’ve been round and round with this tooth. I can’t keep taking time off work for this, and I honestly can’t afford it, and I just want you to pull it.” She patted my cheek and said she would do it. She conferred with another doctor about that 90 degree root. She numbed me up with my preferred anesthesia. She worked quickly with her assistant, who happened to be the same person who dealt with me sobbing embarrassingly at the receptionists’ desk a few weeks before. She warned me before doing things that might hurt, “You’re going to feel a lot of pressure here.” And she stopped when I raised my hand to ask for a break. he was everything I wished my first boyfriend would be. It crossed my mind to stay at that dental office as long as I could only make appointments with her. I was in love with Dr. M.

After much pushing, prodding and pulling, I heard and felt a crack somewhere beneath my gum line, and Dr. M produced a tooth.

“Cah ah heee?”

“Huh? Oh, sure, just let me get this cleaned up quick. Once we get the root tips out, you can get a look at this.”

There was more digging around in my mouth, then the application of a suction tube to remove the blood, then Dr. M and her assistant left my side briefly. They wanted to take an x ray to be sure all the bits of root had been removed. While they were gone, I lifted my head just enough to see the paper napkin on my chest. It was stained with blood. I felt a little sick and a little proud. Dr. M came back with good news. The x ray showed no pieces of the tooth remained. Dr. M put stitches in my gum; told me how well I’d done; gave me instructions for caring for the wound, 800 mg of Ibuprofen and a prescription for Percoset, which I ended up never taking. She sent me off with a firm warning to eat something before taking any medications. I didn’t get to look at the tooth. I really wanted to see that 90 degree root.

Through the next few days, I poured over the instructions for caring for the extraction site. I meticulously avoided acidic foods and beverages. I did not eat turkey or cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving but stuck to stuffing and other foods soft enough to be mashed with my tongue or chewed on one side. I texted a friend in a tizzy when I found a piece of noodle slouched in the hole where my tooth once was. The noodle did not respond to the “gentle rinsing” described by the dental assistant. My friend texted her mother, who was also a dental assistant. Word came back: I could rinse, but no spitting, sucking, or sneezing was allowed. The noodle was defeated. On Friday, I sneezed. By Saturday night, I allowed myself beer, the effects of which were heightened by several days of a mostly liquid diet. We had a party, and at 1 a.m., we went to the Double T Diner, where I had baklava.

Nearly a week after the extraction, I sat dully tonguing the stitches in my gums, trying not to interfere with the healing yet unable to resist my compulsion to fidget. I suckled my beer gently. The stitches were coming loose, and the thread dangled in the back of my mouth like the lose yarn on an of an old sweater. I ached to pull on that thread, to unravel it just to see what would happen. In two days, I would have an appointment to get the stitches removed, but I worried about the loose thread. I simply couldn’t cope with the prospect of complications — infection, abscess, dry socket, which I nearly had panic attacks avoiding — I had been cautious for a week, and I didn’t need a reason to spend even more time and money on my floozy teeth. But that night,  I pictured all the beer I’d had over the weekend, how I’d heard the effervescence from soda could dissolve or dislodge the blood clot and cause dry socket — how much worse could beer be? I lay in bed imagining my stitches coming undone and my precious blood clot washing away in rivers of beer until I fell asleep. In the morning, I worried that the final checkup would result in the doctor conjuring up some other issue for which I would require some other expensive treatment. I considered cutting the last remaining stitch with nail scissors and skipping bail.

Appointment Six:

On the day my stitches were to be removed, the husband and I had to carpool because his car was in the shop. Despite a frantic day at the office, I spent much of the day imagining finally being free of my unraveling stitches. I tried not to fidget, and while standing in line at the Indian buffet where I went to lunch with my coworkers, I had just enough self-control not to say, “Today,  I’m getting the stitches out of my gums from that tooth extraction I had last week.” After work, my husband dropped me off at the dentist’s office and went across the street to get himself a cup of coffee. I warned him: They always run at least 15 minutes late, so even if we get there on time, they won’t see me till 5:30. He planned to be back by six. I walked up stairs, signed in at the front desk, and by the time I finished hanging my jacket, a dental assistant was there to call me back. She sat me down, snipped the one remaining stitch from my gum, and rinsed the wound with salt water. It didn’t hurt at all. It felt instantly better, in fact, as the temptation to fidget was removed. When she went to get the dentist, she left the little wad of thread on the tray beside me. It looked like a small dead bug with a bit of mush (probably rice pudding) caked on the wings. Or like something you might find in the bathtub drain.

Then my Dr. M returned.

“How are you?” She said cheerfully.

“A thousand times better than I was last time!”

“How about the day of the extraction? That was one hell of an extraction, huh? Did you have a lot of pain?”

“Not really. I turned in the prescription you gave me but I never ended up taking it. I just took Ibuprofen for a couple days.”

She was enthusiastic about this news. I gazed into her green eyes (enhanced by colored contacts, but beautiful nonetheless) and noticed how much she resembled one of my heroes, Carlin Ross.

Dr. M leaned me back in the chair one last time. She swiped her finger along my gum line, looking for swelling and irritation, commenting that the healing seemed to be coming along fine. She said it would heal even faster now that the sutures were out of the way. Sutures, I thought. Yes. I had forgotten that word. She reviewed my chart, saw that I had no need to come in for any appointments any time soon, and encouraged me to take a break, rest up, and enjoy the holidays. And that was that. On the way out the door, I checked in with the receptionist about my refund for the root canal. In the car on the drive home, I took a photo for posterity. I wondered if I would ever see Dr. M again. Then we went out for hamburgers.



*Please note that all dialogue in this piece is paraphrased. I wasn’t taking notes in the dentists’ chair as I was hoping all along that this would not be the type of medical experience that merited an essay, especially one of this length. If I had known it was going to be so dramatic, I would’ve brought a tape recorder.


I’ve been thinking about blood a lot lately.

Blood I’ve spilt, and blood I’ve seen spilt. The red fluid gushing out of a beheaded rattlesnake’s body, sizzling as it splattered onto the hot Mexican soil. The crimson seeping out of the crushed chest of a fourteen year-old boy, opened up like a book as the doctors tried to massage his heart back into life. We cut the snake into strips and fried the meat over an open fire. And as for the boy, there was simply too much of him smeared across the front grill of a wrecked car, and his poor heart had nothing left to pump.

I think about my own, the biological magma that during the summers of my childhood would spontaneously erupt in a series of unpredictable nosebleeds, leaving permanent stains on my shirts and pillowcases. Once, as a teenager, I awoke from a particularly vivid dream about murder and mayhem to find my face and hands coated with blood, momentarily horrified to think I had become some murderous somnambulist.

Some of those bleeds were so strong they seeped through my fingers, even though I pinched my nostrils closed hard enough to make my fingers ache. My pediatrician could never find anything medically wrong. It was as though my body was just too small a container for my life.

These days I give it away, one pint of Matt-brand O+ offered up every nine weeks or so. The ladies in the blood mobile love my large, generous veins, so easy to hit with the needle.

It’s a strange thing, blood. You can never predict how a person will respond to the sight of it. Some people faint, some vomit, some are ambivalent, some are fascinated, some stimulated into a state of extreme sexual arousal. Once a month its appearance is a sign of healthy fertility, yet in many cultures menstruating women have been forced to spend this time in exile, somehow marked as “unclean” by their ability to create life. For Indo-European pagans, the act of sprinkling blood on a person during a ritual sacrifice was called bleodosian, a term later co-opted and transmuted by the Christian church into the word blessing.

It never really comes out. Eight years ago my sister’s ex-boyfriend shot two people on our front porch. We sold the house and moved on, but the stains on the concrete remain, enduring sun and rain and the passage of time.

Among its other contents, my blood contains the proper genetic alchemy for brown hair and eyes, astigmatism, male-pattern baldness, a predilection towards cancer, and a susceptibility to chemical dependency. If certain parties are to be believed, it may also contain the right codes for a greater abundance of melanin in my skin, a longer stride, congenital heart disease, and…a susceptibility to chemical dependency. But while being an O+ means I can give to anyone else with a positive blood type, I can only receive from other Os. My blood marks me as a giver, not a taker.

But is that me, these components? If you were to unspool the chain of my DNA and climb it, what would be waiting at the far end? A set of model kit instructions for assembling my physical self, certainly, but while all those pieces make me, do they define me?

They say blood—and thus, DNA—is thicker than water. That it is the inseparable bond which holds families together, the ultimate yardstick for measuring loyalty and allegiance. To feel particularly close to someone is to love them like family. And to go against the family is to commit the worst trespass.

They say an oath written in blood is one that cannot be broken.

I say, fuck that.

For my 1000 Words entry, I detailed the revelation that I might in fact be the bastard child of my abusive stepfather, an event that was pivotal in the formation of my identity as an adult. One of the larger bits of fallout from the detonation of that particular emotional atom bomb was the development of my belief that people don’t get a free pass simply because we happen to share genetic material. This belief, and my willingness to act on it by writing that essay, has cemented my position as the family pariah. Most of them no longer speak to me, and I am not invited to holiday gatherings. I’ve gone against the blood.

Maybe this should upset me, but it doesn’t. Part of this status is self-imposed. The truth is, I’ve long felt closer to those I call “friend.” The people I’ve chosen to have in my life have often felt more like the traditional definition of “family” than the one I was born into.

I suspect that I am expected to cover up or avoid the question of my conception and birth, out of deference to someone else’s embarrassment or shame, but I won’t. I’ll discuss it with anyone who’s curious, and have done so for years. During the recent TNB gathering in Los Angeles, it came up in separate discussions with Lenore, Duke, Simon and Zara, each conversation inevitably coiling around to the question everybody asks: “Don’t you want to know? Aren’t you curious?”

No, I don’t. I reject the notion that my blood—my genetics, my DNA—define my identity. These things may be what I am, but they are not who I am. I’m a being of will and choice. The qualities—and flaws—of my character belong to me, and no one else. The quantitative concept of my Self cannot be measured under a microscope. I would gain nothing from this knowledge.

And yet….

….and yet….

These conversations started the little hamster in my head busily spinning on his wheel. The denial of my stepfather’s claim to parentage has been ongoing for so long that it has, like my blood, simply become another part of me. But things have changed. I became the first person in my family to earn a master’s degree, survived a natural disaster, turned thirty and (hopefully) shed the last of my post-adolescent angst. I’m comfortable enough now with my identity to understand that it doesn’t need to shaped around a question mark. I must admit that I am curious after all.

Regardless of the outcome, I’ll still be my own bastard, not anyone else’s.

My blood, it seems, is relevant again.

I spoke with a coworker, a geneticist by trade, about getting a DNA test done, envisioning some sterile, CSI-like scene: a scientist spinning vials of the red stuff through a centrifuge in some chromed, blue-lit lab while a Massive Attack tune plays in the background. I was crushed to learn that for about $30 I could purchase a kit from any pharmacy in the U.S. All that was required was a cheek swab from myself and another willing donor and a processing fee of about $125, all of which I could mail in. No blood required.

For less than $200 out-of-pocket I could know, conclusively. “Willing donor,” however, is a stickler. The few members of my family who maintain contact with me are either from my mother’s side of the fence, are too distantly related to be a viable candidate, or live too far upstate.

Except one.

I have stepsister, my stepfather’s daughter from a previous marriage, and the knowledge that she may actually be my half-sister weighs on my mind. It’s like a patina of dust, barely there yet persistently reappearing every time you think you’ve wiped it away. Though we are only six months apart, I did not include mention of her in my 1000-word piece because by that point she had written herself out of the story of my life. She went to live full-time with her mother when I was fourteen, and aside from a few letters and one phone call during our freshman year of college, we have not communicated with each other since.

More than anything else now I want to know if the substance that runs in her veins is anything like mine.

She lives here in town. I obtained her phone number a few years ago. It’s written down in my address book, and even programmed into my cell phone. But I’ve never called it. After so much time we’d be strangers to each other. Were it not for the question of a few red cells suspended in plasma we would not be entering each other’s orbit at all. It’s unlikely there would be any sort of joyous reunion in learning we’re really siblings, or that she would even care enough to donate a sample. Her battle into adulthood wasn’t bloodless either, and as someone who has had his own wounds forcibly reopened for another’s benefit, I find that I cannot bring myself to risk potentially doing so to her.

For over ten years I’ve been content, and even proud, to live without knowing. I think I’ve got it in me to keep going a while yet. She is who she is, and I am who I am.

A little blood isn’t going to change that.

*****

A note from the Dept. of Credit Where Credit’s Due: This essay was inspired in part by my recent re-reading of Zara Potts’s excellent “Bloodless.” You do yourself a disservice by not reading it.

Big Sky

By Kristen Elde

Travel

September 2003

It’s late, 12:30-late, and I’m just now pulling into the parking lot of Hubbard’s Ponderosa Lodge in Missoula. The toll of a thousand straight miles on the road won’t register for a while yet: I’m still carrying a charge.

“Hi. I’d like a room—two nights, one person.”

I’m traveling by myself, my preference from the age of five, a time when my version of a solo vacation was putting Mom and Dad thirty feet at my back, all but forgetting them as I crouched low, sifting through frosted sea glass and limpet shells with glossy, purplish undersides—alone on the beach with a green plastic bucket and an active imagination.

Front desk: “I’m sorry, but we’re actually booked solid through the weekend.”

I stare, confused. It’s the middle of September, and I’m in Montana. It simply hadn’t occurred to me to make a reservation beforehand. “Oh man. Really nothing?”

“Yeah, ‘fraid not. Maybe you haven’t heard, but it’s the big game tomorrow night. Hate to say it, but you’ll be lucky to get a room anywhere in the city.”

Ah, the big game. Sure. Of course.

I thank the attendant and drive down the road to my second try: Campus Inn. Again, no go. Two more hotels and I’ve reached the bottom of a sticky note lined with recommendations from a Missoula-born co-worker. Out of leads and just shy of resigning myself to a dicey stay in the backseat of my Honda, I decide to give it one last shot, pulling into the no-frills Mountain Valley Inn.

They’ll have me.

A half hour later I’m stretched out on a double bed, looking up at a popcorn ceiling and half-listening as a local news reporter covers the latest in a string of nasty brush fires. My calves feel cool against the starchy comforter, and I can’t believe that I’m here: far from Seattle, in a place where nobody knows me, in a room that I might easily never have known existed.

I sleep late into the morning, waking at ten o’clock to the sounds of construction workers outside my window. My eyes feel dry and a little achy, and I realize I’d fallen asleep with my contacts in, teeth un-brushed, yesterday’s clothes on. The same reporter is still talking about brush fires.

Once outside, I head east on Broadway, steps later turning off at Higgins Street—according to my co-worker, Downtown Missoula’s most energetic thoroughfare. Her description was apt. I wander in and out of art galleries, antique shops, and gear stores serving outdoor adventure seekers lured by the dips and crests of the Rockies.

I stop at a cheery bakery for a slice of peanut butter pie, which I enjoy under a noon sun, my back pressed up against the edge of a picnic table overlooking a tree-canopied nature trail. Several cyclists and a pair of joggers pass by, their low chatter overlapping the song of a carousel turning circles across the way.

I wander back inside, returning my plate and fork to the counter amid a bustling brunch scene. Thanking the college-aged kid behind the counter, I see myself in her place: hair pulled back at the sides, logo-imprinted apron, a pleasant espresso buzz lifting me through the afternoon. I’d take my lunch break outside, maybe at that same picnic table. Hmm, perhaps following my stint peddling organic veggies at the farmer’s market up the road, and after my apprenticeship with the cobbler back on Front Street. Really, I hate to prioritize. In my head, I could just as easily be doing one over the other, with each pursuit delivering the same degree of satisfaction.

Because I am alone here, this kind of posturing—the harmless, romantic kind—is fairly seamless. With nothing or no one to pull me back into my life, there isn’t the distraction, and the reinvention is cleaner than it would be if I were at home, or if I were away from home with someone else.

I’m sitting on a bench facing a paved walkway that cuts through the lovely, neoclassical University of Montana campus. I’ve got a book open—a Paul Auster novel—but I’m only half-absorbing what I’m reading, too aroused by reality to plunge into one of Auster’s twisting narratives. Although it’s a Saturday, there are still plenty of people around, and it’s the students I notice, heavy backpacks curling their shoulders forward, dingy flip-flops audibly scraping the cement as they pass by my bench. With my cracked book and my casual clothes, I look like them; there’s nothing to suggest that I’m not, say, pushing through the required reading for English 301, nothing to expose me for the UW alum that I am. I blend perfectly.

I make my way to the base of the “M” trail, named for the gigantic Times New Roman letter consisting of white stone and resting three-quarters of a mile up the west side of Mount Sentinel. Said the co-worker, the steep hike up is a not-to-be-missed event, affording exceptional views of the Missoula Valley.

As a distance runner, I’m in good shape. But after eleven switchbacks and a 620-foot elevation gain, I’m ready for a rest.

I catch my breath among a handful of people gathered at the perimeter of the alphabet’s thirteenth letter, stretching my legs as I survey the peaceful vista below: gray cityscape broken up by thick, deep-green parcels of fir trees, split in two by the inky Clark Fork River, ringed by mountains cased in golden-brown brush. Even busy Interstate 90, stretching across the north end of the city, imparts a certain tranquility.

Narrowing my focus, I try to locate my bench. I think I’ve picked out the row of campus buildings situated behind it, but assuming I’ve picked right, a few prosperous maples are obstructing my view. This gets me thinking about everything else I can’t see from here: students napping on the lawn, garage sales in progress, potholes in the roads, the entire east side of this mountain… Part of me is disappointed to have to admit to missing so much, but most of me appreciates the mystery, likes thinking about the infinite scenarios.

I wander away from the M, the earth dry and un-giving beneath my dusty shoes, bleached grasses and rampant weeds distinguishing Mount Sentinel from the lushness below. With the aid of my hotel map, I pick out Hellgate Canyon and Mount Jumbo to the north, the Bitterroot range to the south. The air feels raw and decisive as it enters my lungs.

I’d like to stay longer, maybe take a short nap myself, but the sun’s descent is well-underway, and it’s more than a light breeze that’s raising the hair on my arms. I’m hungry, too, and the granola bar I’d tucked into my bag isn’t going to cut it. It’s time to head.

Back on the precipitous trail, I find that it’s easier, going down, to maintain a sort of restrained jog than it is a steady walk. Certainly more forgiving where my knees are concerned. This in mind, I make my way along the zigzagging path, passing several people moving in each direction. Periodically I get a little ahead of myself, inadvertently picking up the pace and slipping into a near-run. When this happens, I simply make the necessary adjustments and push on.

Halfway to the bottom my track record takes a hit. Reacting to a surprise dip in the trail, my foot falls an extra inch, connecting with the dirt at the same time my pack, stuffed full with books and magazines, jumps up against my back. This repositioning throws me off and suddenly I’m airborne, for a split second flying parallel to the slope before the weight of my load pulls me to the ground—hard. Of course, given the surface gradient, the excitement’s only just begun. I bump and skid headfirst down the trail—my hands, elbows, and knees bearing the brunt of my stupidity—and it isn’t until seconds later that my pack, now hanging for the most part off my right shoulder, slows me to a halt.

“Oh my gosh, are you okay?”

The voice comes from above, from a switchback or two up, and as I struggle to right myself, it merges into a chorus of several voices, maybe four or five. But I seem to be trapped, confined in an awkward, crumpled, downward-facing position by this ridiculous ten-ton backpack of mine.

Panic sets in; the skin on my face and arms is suddenly burning, and not from pain. As hot, fast, embarrassed tears run over the rims of my eyes, I flash back to a mortifying experience: Sixth-grade biology class. I’m tipped back in my chair, my forearm resting on the table behind which Joe C., object of my crush, sits with an adorable smirk on his face. We’re definitely flirting, exchanging juvenile quips about our nerdy teacher, when Cute Stuff takes it a step further, without warning yanking the table in his direction. I follow my chair to the floor, partially catching myself with my hands as I/we strike bottom. It feels like whole minutes pass before I’m able to effectively rise up from that piece of dumb orange plastic, my head low, eyes prickly, as I take my seat for a second time. Pain is not on my radar.

This time is different, of course. No one around me is laughing; more importantly, they don’t know me in real life. Consequently, my initial embarrassment loses potency, and as I wiggle my shoulders a last, vigorous time, finally losing the hated backpack, what I’m left with is coarse pain, pain that alters the nature of my tears, pain that is very much on my radar.

I stand up fast, wincing. Instinctively I move to brush off my jeans, jeans that I notice have sprouted a hole in the right knee. Though my eyes are still watery and unfocused, I can see the bright red of my blood where it’s flush against my skin, the darker red where it’s begun seeping into the sides of the torn fabric. I see my skin, puffy and pale, almost white from the impact.

“Oh yeah, yeah, I’m fine, I’m fine.”

“Are you sure? You took quite a fall there.”

I force a smile, something smart-alecky occurring to me. Oh, silly man, as if these bloodied palms of mine weren’t proof enough! I’m fine—fine as fuck!

“Nah, just some scrapes. I’m sure I can find some Band-Aids somewhere on campus,” I say, addressing the group of four—one couple, two singles—that had loosely assembled nearby. My palms have become pincushions, smarting with each new wave of insertions. My throat feels tight. I want them to leave.

“Well alright. Take care of yourself.”

Take care of yourself. As I turn and start walking, the words of the nice man, the sincere well-wisher, turn over in my head, and the tears in my eyes cease to be motivated by pain alone. Take care of yourself, because there is no one else, no go-to person at your side in case something should happen, in the event that something goes wrong.

The campus spreads wide below, visible from end to end. Ticket-holders have begun filling the white-lit stadium, their energy roving upward. Around them, the day is on its last legs, the sky glowing fuchsia as the sun drops steadily toward the horizon.

I am sharply afraid, disoriented and whimpering like that five-year-old on the beach suddenly scared to find she’s wandered beyond the place from which her parents are visible. Reflexively, I unzip the front pocket of my pack, reaching in for my phone, anticipating my boyfriend’s mild voice…

I don’t call, though, deciding instead to wait until I’m secure on flat ground, wounds addressed, wits gathered. There’s something else going on, too: from within, an appeal for a few additional minutes of solitude.

And without trying, I am systematically relaxing, conscious of my breath slowing, my throat loosening, my eyes gaining focus. I’m still worked-up, my body hasn’t stopped hurting (I’m limping slightly), but it’s my hurting body that is driving the intensity of my experience, authenticating my one-woman journey, the spectacle that preceded it ensuring that I don’t completely fade into the background. Reflecting now, I don’t think I ever wanted to fade completely.

Back at home and in the weeks that follow, I’ll have to explain the scrapes, several times. But the story will never come out as I want it to, lacking the emotional breadth that endears it to me. Writing it all down will be slightly more effective, but the truest way to tell it will be to graze the skin on my knees, or my elbows, which will bring it all back. At once frustrating and satisfying, I will be the only one around to hear.

Lately, I’ve been having this urge: I want to start a fight.

I want to step inside the ring, look into the liquid abyss of my opponent’s eye, and kick some butt.

I want to approach her as if I’m going to tell her a secret, and then hit her with a roundhouse elbow.

I want to insult her mother.

I want her to hit me back for real.

I want to call out my demons one by one and see her face contort as they come forth.

I want to work up a lather.

I want to start a fight club.

I want to pull her hair and call her a cheater. A lowlife. A yellow bellied marmot.

The first rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club.

I would break that rule.

I want her to act all huffy with me, like she has no idea what I’m talking about. But she does. She knows all about it. The pussy.

I want to run up the front of her body and do a back flip off her chest.

I want to observe spittle as it flies through the air, catching the light into a rainbow of death from the one uncovered florescent bulb above us.

I want to feel the satisfaction of watching her struggle to get up, and flop back down like a fish.

I want her friends to come running to her defense. I would take them all one by one. Two at a time. Three for three.

I want to send them flying like they did in ancient China.

I want to strain a muscle.

I want to be able to feel it the next day.

I want to make strange noises at the back of my throat and have my speech come out at a different pace than my lips.

I want to wax on wax off and paint the fence simultaneously.

I want to bust out of the ring and out through the doors. Head on down the street. Rough up an evil punk dressed up as a businessman talking on his cell phone. And an elderly woman. But the elderly woman would be an accident. I would help her back up.

I want to feel the horrified gaze of strangers as they watch the bodies hit the sidewalk all around me.

I want to be surrounded by a team of professionally trained men in black at gunpoint. I would level them all with a single, all-encompassing chi bomb.

I want to then run down an alley, where I would take on a posse of Shaolin monks-gone-bad, who jump me from behind a dumpster. The last one standing would beg me to teach him my arcane arts. I would refuse.

I want to sleep with one eye open and sense anyone approaching within a two-mile radius.

I want to sew up a wound on my shoulder using a rusty needle and thread in the privacy of my sparsely decorated studio apartment.

I want to drink milk from the carton and harbor a runaway.

I want to give birth while running for the train.

I want to taste blood in the back of my throat; feel the sting of scratches at my neck.

I want to face Death and make him beg for mercy.

…Or I could eat some dark chocolate and call it good.