Our apartment complex has a gathering area on the balcony. At the end of a second floor catwalk, there’s a BBQ and two picnic tables. When we moved in, I envisioned BBQ lunches and dinner parties. The area is meant for revelry. It’s used for littering.

After dark, the cherry red glow of cigarettes floats over the bannister up there. The next morning, evidence of burgers and drinks are scattered all over the pavement below. Jim Beam and coke cans, brown paper bags overstuffed with cheese encrusted containers and scores of cigarette butts are the filthy marks of selfish people.

The number of butts is staggering. Are they throwing them down like confetti? We want to say something, but then will one of us find ourselves walking to the car one evening only to stop and scream when a carefully discarded cigarette bites into the back of our neck?

We fear the burn of reprisal.

We walk through the apartment block in the middle of the day. We’re scared of being caught acting as concerned members of our little community.

We slip an A4 sheet of paper in each letterbox, skipping ours. Looking like it’s a normal, natural thing, but with sidelong glances to check for watchers. We talk quietly, wondering whether our letters will stop the vandalism.

Out the back, into the car-park, one of us stands watch nearby. The other tucks a piece of paper into a plastic pocket, then tapes it down on a small metal box that holds the security gate’s motor. There’s a hole in the box big enough to fit two hands. Cables are visible through the gap.

“Look at that. They must’ve left a hole so maintenance can reach in. Fuck, anyone could come and rip out whatever. Shit. That’s not a safety box. It’s a joke. Jesus.”

A car arrives, they look at us inquiringly. Maybe they broke the gate last time. One of us explains we’re letting everyone know how to open the security gate, and who they can call if they don’t have the PIN or a remote. We don’t tell them we did the letter drop.

We stay outside for an hour as the sun sets, hidden up the back of the car-park, sitting on the boot of our car, just in case someone tries to break the gate despite our sign and letters.

Two days later, the security gate is broken. The torn cables hang out of the box. This is the second time in two weeks.

I park my scooter in three different spots over the week.

One at the front of our car space, leaving our car’s rear sticking out. This space works well enough, but the boot sits three feet over the line. I worry we might block people in.

I try another one out on the road. I’m worried the scooter will get knocked down. I sit indoors watching the news, turning down riots in Cairo to listen for the bang and shatter of my bike hitting bitumen.

I try a third spot next to the entranceway, between a car space and the walkway into the centre of the apartment block. This feels safe. It feels out of the way. Who could possibly object?

The next morning, one of the rearview mirrors has been twisted all the way around. It faces forward, instead of to the rear.

Was this an accident? Did someone bump it? How could they knock it in a way that twists it 180°?

Was it deliberate? Was it a warning that this isn’t a good place to park my scooter? I look all around me, trying to spot the spying neighbour. No one. I consider myself warned.

Apartment living can be a terrifying series of subtle signals and hesitant interpretations. This is our space as much as it’s everyone else’s. None of us has any idea what the other is capable of. In a world of suicide bombings, anthrax envelopes and flash floods, it’s only natural to assume the worst.

Afraid to risk it, I park my scooter at the front of our space that night and forever after.

Last year, I got an email from Erica Jong. Yes, that Erica Jong, noted author of the classic novel Fear of Flying. She was inviting me to submit an essay to an anthology she was editing about sex. “I am asking for your contribution, of course, because I so admire your writing.” My immediate thought was, “I’ve made it,” because this anthology was also going to house the writings of some very prominent female writers. It felt like the last ten years of sex writing, which I stumbled into while in law school with very little thought about its consequences, had culminated in this opportunity. The book was being published by a major publisher, and would pay $1,000.

For some of you that may be small potatoes, but in my world, that’s major money, both in terms of my usual rates, and in terms of what it could pay for: two-thirds of my monthly rent, almost seven therapy sessions, a few trips and hotel stays. I was so excited that I forgot about the hard part: the actual work.

I agonized over my essay. Well, before I agonized, I blabbed. I’ve since come to the conclusion that talking about my writing while it’s in progress, before there’s a contract for it. is the kiss of death. But at the time I was so honored I thought it would be a good idea to tell my boyfriend. I hadn’t quite thought through the process, though, of assuring him that no, I wasn’t writing about him…for an anthology centered around “the best sex I ever had.”

I was honestly stumped at first. What was the best sex I’d ever had? How could I rate that? Is there such an objective way to measure it? I had been chosen, presumably, for my years of writing a sex column for The Village Voice, for my ability to write about my personal life with no qualms about what others might think. Yet the more I tried to focus, the more elusive the topic seemed to be. It seemed audacious to suggest that some of the kinky sex I was having with my boyfriend might be the best; I know I’d scoff at someone who made it sound like her life was so glamorous and perfect.

Finally, I settled on a particular one-night stand that, as I titled my essay, “saved my life.” It was an over-the-top claim, and I flip-flopped while trying to describe—and disguise—my subject, changing his profession and appearance, while still maintaining heart of the story. Jong mailed me back extensive revisions, and while I stood outside the Au Bon Pain on Broad Street during a lunch break, took the time to go over those revisions by phone.

I should have been extremely honored that such a literary luminary wasn’t dismissing my words out of hand, but trying to teach me how to share something personal and powerful, something that would resonate with readers and reveal something I’d never revealed before. Instead, as I so often do, especially when any amount of money more than a pittance is offered to me, I got in my own way. I procrastinated. I thought about retackling my essay, and I wrote it on my to-do list for months. I woke up each morning determined that today would be the day…or tomorrow. Or the next day. Or, in reality, never, because I never did tackle the revision. Maybe I was so afraid that I would try again, and be rejected, that instead I rejected myself. Maybe I convinced myself that nothing I could possibly write would be worthwhile. I know that not trying will be something I regret for the rest of my life.

The bottom line is, when the book now titled, according to Amazon, Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex, comes out in June, my words won’t be in it. This, much more than the missed financial opportunity, serves as a daily reminder of my lack of follow-through, my lack of belief in myself. In the meantime, I’ve since submitted dozens of short stories, ones that usually pay around $50 each. I value writing erotica, and editing it, but I’m extremely ashamed that, through no one’s fault but my own, my words will not be nestled alongside those of Susie Bright, Fay Weldon, Gail Collins, Honor Moore and others.

This is not the first time I’ve flaked on an anthology assignment. There are several, but the ones I think about when I see them on my bookshelves are the ones where I let my fear get in the way. I assumed that, seen alongside real music writers in a book of musical rivalries, my idea to explore the rivalry between Madonna and Cyndi Lauper in the 1980’s would be seen as puny. My Bush twins erotica story for a collection on sex and politics? I let it wither after a few paragraphs on my computer screen out of what I told myself was some fear of White House reprisal.

While I did struggle with the topic, as the best editors do, Jong gave me guidance, told me how I could fix my meandering words into a proper story, one with not just a beginning, middle and end, but a point, a statement, a unique opinion. Instead of grappling with the red marks on those pages, I did the worst thing I could possibly do: I ignored them. I reverted to my childish habit, one that has lingered into adulthood, of abandoning any task that didn’t come easily to me (chess, law school, etc.).

I fear that perhaps my mother’s disapproval of almost everything I write, her belief that sex is a solely private topic, has somehow affected me, even though I clearly have staked my career on the idea that sex is both public and private, and fully worthy of discussion and exploration, in conversation and on the page. Jong gave a talk on a cruise my mother was on, and she related this dismissively; “I didn’t go to that.” I don’t think it’s just my poor relationship with my mother, though, because I write about sex all the time, revealing details and nuances about my erotic behavior. Yet when the stakes are high, I flee.

It hit me last night that perhaps the reason I couldn’t bring myself to face the topic head-on wasn’t just that I didn’t think I had anything original to say, but in that all too classic female way, I didn’t want to hurt anyone by what I might write. If I were to call X, even anonymously, the person who I’d had the “best,” most transformative sex with, would that put all my other lovers to shame?

Even now, I can’t simply produce off the top of my head a single night of passion or a person who seems entitled to wear this crown. But that is not an excuse, because the job of the writer is not to simply allow their mind’s first (or second or third) thought on a topic to prevail. My job, as I perceive it, is to push past those often incorrect first instincts and delve deeper, look farther, unearth things about myself I might not have realized. Maybe instead of a single “best,” I could’ve found patterns or connections, could’ve crafted not just a point A leading to point B lightbulb of an a-ha, but something thoughtful, something that took more than a few hours to produce. In hindsight (ha ha), I’m sure I could have pushed myself intellectually in a way that, whether the final product was published or not, I could have been proud of. Instead, I succumbed to my biggest fears, my inner bully who tells me more often than I’d like what a loser I am. I know that plenty of other people, maybe all of us, have at least a whisper of that voice in their heads, but the successful people, the ones I look up to, are the ones who’ve found ways of vanquishing that voice, at least for as long as they need to in order to create their art.

I write this not to beat a dead horse, because, believe me, I’ve thought about this many, many a time, wondered why I, who often struggle to pay my rent and other expenses, would so easily let go of a lucrative, exciting chance to truly be seen, in a book about sex that even those who probably would never touch—or hear about—the average sex book just may pick up when they see it front and center in their local bookstore or read about it in major newspapers.

I don’t have a precise answer as to why I’m my own worst writing enemy. I share this story for the same reason I write most of what I do: because I want to release some of the haunting thoughts that circle in my head around this topic of self-sabotage, because while I wouldn’t wish that same shame onto anyone else, I think it’s likely other writers have gotten in their own way too. Because I want to apologize to myself and forgive myself and move on. Because I want a public reminder that the next time I say yes to a writing project, no matter how big or small (and I fervently hope there’ll be another big one someday), I want to see it through.

I’ve been reading journalist Courtney E. Martin’s new book looking for inspiration in the lives of others. In it, she profiles eight activists who have forged new paths toward creating a world they’d like to see, and haven’t let their doubts stop them. Often, I hold onto a book’s title in my head even more than I do the words inside, and repeat it like a silent mantra. Sometimes, when I’m sick of my worst habits, it’s Dylan Landis’s Normal People Don’t Live Like This. Now, Martin’s title one of those phrases, so simple yet so often easy to ignore, that in three words sums up the advice I wish I could give myself, after taking over a thousand to to explain my failure: Do It Anyway. Next time I hope I will.

Taken from the Introduction of Unsuspecting Souls

Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle created two of history’s most memorable detectives: C. Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes. Detectives so captured the imagination in the nineteenth century that writers borrowed the word sleuth, which originally referred to the dog that did all the nose work, the bloodhound, for that new superhuman, the detective. Those two nineteenth-century sleuths, Dupin and Holmes, came up with solutions for the most intricately plotted crimes—mostly acts of grisly murder. But the greatest crime of the century took place, over a period of time, right under their highly calibrated noses: the slow and deliberate disappearance of the human being.

My greatest fear is no love/money/kindred

My greatest fear is that the faint broken sizzle
in my arm/appendix/scrotum means something

My greatest fear is a faultless July afternoon
wandering through City slang
without the proper phrasebook

My greatest fear is the desiccated cherries in milkshake
staring back in the mirror: three days awake,
three hours before punching in at work

My greatest fear is twenty years older
One peeling eggshell minifridge room
Squirreling away Social Security
for a night of
marybarthedoor passion
once every six months
with a faceless striated torso
from the back pages of the Bay Area Reporter

My greatest fear is that into which
I invest my energies
one day becomes nothing more than
a dusty thrift store ledge, shared with
broken laptops, celebrity illiterature,
and the battered scraped 45’s that kindled that energy

My greatest fear is a beer and no cigarettes

My greatest fear is being called on
this not really being poetry but therapy:
Hey! it worked for Poe, Plath and the Marquis de Sade

My greatest fear is that this life/art/love/world
is all constructed from fear:
Pressed into stationery, soaked in
apricot brandy and bummed smokes,
a construct all too flammable, set alight
set adrift off the North Beach seawall
mistaken for a child’s accidental arson
thirty minutes before the blossom sunset.

I’m a writer, and I’m scared to write. I’m gun shy. I’m weak in the ankles. I’m on the diving board, and I can certainly dive, but the water down there — well, there might be something down there. Something I’m afraid to discover.

See, I write for a living, but it’s never really my words. It’s re-words. Every day, I try to find another way to re-work my employer’s mission statement, fine tuning the language in order to grab the person who wasn’t listening the last time. Before this, a journalist, my own words popping up just long enough to momentarily glance around at the big wide world before burrowing underneath my subject’s quote.

And in the in-between times, I write for myself. Snippets, poems, a sentence that could spark a book, if not a revolution. So I think. So I think, be a writer, really own it. I’ve come this far.

But when I received Brad Listi’s email about becoming a TNB contributor, I freaked out. I couldn’t even open the email for a day, and when I did, his instructions were in bold and everything was official and important. Like I was just drafted, or sent a visa acceptance from a foreign embassy. We ask that you post, bare minimum, once per month, he said. I gulped. Which is hard to do since I don’t have any salivary glands. Wow, that’s not even true. I’m just making stuff up because I need to write one post this month and I don’t know what to write about and I’m…

scared to write.

On the website, everyone just seems so witty and creative and more plugged into the indie literary scene than the indie literary scene itself. I can’t even remember what it was I wanted to write about when I first approached TNB with my spiffy bio. Now, faced with the opportunity to let my words run wild, I’d like another mission statement, please. I can make it look all sparkly and new and sell your story to the next person who wasn’t even planning to buy anything today. Just browsin’, thanks.

If only I hadn’t already published that piece about my colonic experience back in 2008. I could re-purpose it, but there I am, re-wording again. Re-wording my own words. But that could be seen as meta, and meta’s very “in,” I think. Potentially genius.

Maybe I need to go to a cabin faraway from home and write for 24 hours straight. Yeah, a cabin, with no running water, and I’ll sit in a wooden chair with a back so straight it’ll change the natural curvature of my spine overnight. And I’ll look at nature and “reflect back.” And the humping animals in the woods will remind me of lost love and I’ll write something forlorn and tinged with despair, but with a hopefulness at the end, like a new dawn. The dawn I’ll see every morning when I wake up with it. Oh, and I’ll have to drink something strong that makes my muscles ache, and my forhead slip from my palm to nearly hit the keyboard of my computer. Scratch that. Typewriter. Ice cubes that clink in a glass. Where will I get the ice cubes? Don’t think about that.

Also, how can I drink if I don’t have any salivary glands?

Oh, I’ve got something. I’ve got something; I’ve got something. And I didn’t write this at the fake cabin. I thought of it just now. Inappropriate Facebook statuses! Like, here’s one: “Megan Tady learned that role playing ‘getting a pap smear’ with a partner isn’t actually hot. Turns out the word ‘swab’ is a real mood killer.” But then I Googled “inappropriate Facebook statuses” and it turns out everybody’s doing them. There are even entire websites devoted to this. Probably frat brothers. So I’ll write about something else…

Like how about words that have probably never been uttered together in the same sentence? The other night while my boyfriend and I were cuddling, I said, “I see Chelsea Clinton dragging a port-a-potty into the woods.” And he said, “Oh my God, those words have probably never been said on this planet before.” We had been talking about Chelsea Clinton’s outlandish wedding and the port-a-potties that cost $15 grand. And then we do the cutest thing ever that any couple has probably ever done, oh you would love it, this little bedtime ritual, where we stare off into the distance and say that we see something random dragging something else random into the woods. Like a tumbleweed dragging a pencil. It’s sort of an inside joke and you sorta have to be there. Also, my boyfriend probably wouldn’t want me to share this because it’s sacred.

How did the Obama administration go from bravely shunning Fox News to presenting them with the front-row seat in the White House press room? Oooh, throwing in some politics.

But I’m beating around the bush. I’m turning on a dime. I’m using every cliche in the book to get me out of writing. Because, sigh, writing your own stuff really is scary. I have high expectations for myself. I want to write a post so grand that the comments in the comment section overflow and the webmaster has to call me and beg me to stop writing because the server simply can’t take the traffic. I want to write a post so heavy in analysis of modern day affairs that pundits instantly quit their jobs. I want to write a post that heaves up buried traumas so eloquently that even people who never owned dogs – in fact, hate pets in general – cry along with me. Oh, I want to write a post.

But I’ll start with this one. I’ll start by saying this is scary, yet I’m still going to try. It’s time I used my own voice, coaxed it out from hiding, let it dance a little.

I guess what I’m saying is, I’m new here, so go easy.

He leaves his imprint on me still, six years later.

Laundry for instance.

I still toss socks and underwear in a pile, to be folded last. I still tie long socks into a knot rather than roll them in a ball since rolling them in a ball stretches out the elastic.

 

I go for my yearly

mammogram

and

the lady says

if I don’t get a call

in two or three days,

that means

everything is

fine

and then

a postcard comes

in a week.

 

But,

I do get a call

the very next day

in the car,

coming home

from volunteering

with the dogs.

 

The nurse says,

the radiologist

didn’t like

what

he saw.

 

She says,

you have to

come back

and get a

different

mammogram

and

if he doesn’t like

that one,

an ultrasound

too,

she says.

 

I say,

I’m in my car

passing

Mt. Sinai

right now.

I say,

 

I can drop my dogs

home

and

be there in

five minutes,

I say.

 

No,

that won’t work,

she says,

I don’t have any

radiologists

right now.

The soonest I

can get you in

is next

Wednesday,

she says,

at 2:00,

she says.

 

Okay,

I say,

but there’s

no way that

I can get in

earlier?

 

Well,

she says,

I can put you

on the

waiting list

for cancellations,

but,

you should know,

most people

just don’t

cancel

for this sort of

thing.

 

Okay,

I say.

 

I drive home.

 

I have a bad

feeling.

 

I call the

number back.

 

I say,

can you tell

me

which breast

he doesn’t

like?

I say.

 

She shuffles some

papers

and says

he doesn’t

like

the right one.

 

Oh,

I say,

 

thanks,

I say,

 

see you next

week,

I say.

 

Now

my right

breast

is hurting.

 

I know

it’s in my head

but

it’s hurting

anyhow.

 

The radiologist

doesn’t like

my

right

breast,

I say

to Victor.

 

Victor just

looks

at me.

He never

knows

what

to say.

 

He looks back

at the computer

and keeps

playing Sudoku

while

I talk.

 

If I have to

get a

mastectomy,

I say

to

Victor,

I’m getting

a reconstruction

and I want

it to be

perky

and

I want my

left breast

fixed

to be

perky too,

and

I want to keep my

nipple,

I say,

 

I like my

nipples,

I say.

 

If you have

to have

a mastectomy,

Victor says,

 

you

may not be

allowed

to keep

your nipple,

he says,

 

it depends

where the

cancer

is.

 

I’m

fond

of my

nipples,

I say.

 

That doesn’t

matter,

he says.

 

You’re probably

fine,

he says,

 

it’s probably

nothing,

he says.

 

I have

a

bad

feeling,

I say.

 

Just

don’t think

about

it,

he says.

 

Okay,

I say,

 

but

I am

still

thinking

about it.

 

I am

thinking

about

Vera

and

Pat

and

Ruthie

and

Marcia

and

Sally

and

Michelle.

 

I call

Cindy,

but

she has a

kidney stone

traveling through her

and

she is helping Ken

to move

his collection

of weird-ass mugs

from

one room to

another

and

she will

call me back.

 

She has a kidney

stone,

and it

hurts

and she doesn’t

know

why I called,

and she

probably wasn’t even

told

that

I called,

because they were

busy,

and Ken

always

forgets to tell her,

 

so she

doesn’t call

back,

so I call

back the

next day

but

there is no

answer

and

what could I put

on an answering machine?

 

Then I get

an e mail

from Cindy,

that they have

guests for a few days

and her

kidney stone

has

still

not passed

and

it has been over

two weeks now,

and

I tried and tried

but

I can’t get her

to go to see

a nephrologist,

and now

she has guests

so I know

she can’t

talk anyhow,

 

besides,

her kidney stone

is

100% real,

 

I only have

fear

of something

that

probably is

nothing.

 

At night,

Victor

examines

my breast.

 

Do you feel

anything?

I say,

 

I feel your

ribs,

Victor says,

 

it really isn’t

fair,

he says,

you hardly have

any breasts

at

all,

 

but,

it’s probably

nothing,

he says.

 

I am

trying

to read

but I am not

listening

to the words.

 

I am

trying to paint

but

my mind

is off on a

journey

of its own.

 

Now it’s a week

later,

I am

in the first

waiting room.

 

I feel shaky

and

my brain feels like

it is filled up with

cottonwool.

 

People speak

to me,

but

the people

talking

in my head

are making

so much noise

that I don’t

hear the real people

until the second

or

maybe

third time

they speak.

 

The nurse

takes me to a

different

changing room

than

last time.

 

She gives me

a nubly soft

white

bathrobe,

that is decidedly

small.

 

For a regular

mammogram,

you get a light cotton

bathrobe that is

dark blue.

 

I’m wearing

“the doctor

is not

happy

with your

mammogram”

robe,

just like

The Scarlet

Letter.

 

The X-ray tech

takes three

magnified

images

of the spot,

I can see

the pictures;

they are pretty,

like

the sky

at night.

 

If the doctor

likes what he sees,

she says,

then he will send you

home,

she says,

 

then

she takes me

to a different waiting room,

 

this is “the room

where you wait

to see if the doctor

likes

the new images”

room.

 

All the women

are wearing

the nubly white

tiny

bathrobes.

 

I realize

that no one

has a bathrobe

that remotely

fits.

 

The nurse says,

these were really

nice bathrobes

at first

but then

they came back

from the laundry,

now they are half the size

they started out

and all

crooked.

 

I wonder

why

they didn’t

send them

back.

 

The larger ladies

in the room

cannot close their

robes.

 

We all look

silly.

 

The sign on

every door

says,

TURN OFF ALL CELL PHONES!

but every single

woman gets

or makes

several calls

while in the room.

 

Who’s going to

yell at us?

 

Different nurses come

and call out names.

All these ladies

return to the room

after a while.

 

I realize I am

in “the doctor

doesn’t like

your new images

either”

room.

 

When the nurse

calls my name

I put away my

kindle

which is on the

same page

as when I

arrived

two hours before.

 

I follow her

to the

Ultrasound Room.

 

Okay then,

I say.

 

Vickie is nice

and

she talks to me.

She only does

breast ultrasounds;

she specialized.

She is looking for the

spot,

she says,

 

(Out

Out,

Damn Spot!

I whisper.)

 

but it’s small

and hard to

find,

she says.

 

My arm is above my head

for so long that my hand

falls asleep.

 

I just can’t seem

to find what

the doctor

sees

she says,

 

I say,

maybe it’s

nothing.

 

She says,

finally,

here it is!

 

I’ll show you

when we’re done.

She snaps

lots of pictures.

 

I say,

I saw the mammograms

and they just looked like

stars in a

constellation.

 

You’ll see this,

she says.

 

She pulls me up

by my hand that’s asleep

and I look

at the screen.

There is a

little teardrop shaped

spot

surrounded by dots.

 

It’s small,

but it has some

character,

I say.

 

I am shown back

to the

“this is where

you wait

to find out

what the

doctor sees

in your ultrasound”

room.

 

I open my

kindle,

but I can’t make out

the words.

 

A lady comes

after a while.

She is dressed

like a regular

person,

not like a

medical

person.

 

She says,

I’m Amy,

please come with me,

I am the

Patient Navigator.

 

I laugh,

I say,

your title is

actually

Patient Navigator?

 

She acts surprised

that I find it a

funny title,

I took her card

so people would

believe me.

 

She says,

the doctor saw a spot

that was there last year

but this year

it was bigger

so he wanted

to look at it

more closely.

 

She says,

two radiologists looked

at all your

images

and

they both think

your spot

is just an

errant

lymph node,

she says,

 

we need to see you

back in six months

for another

diagnostic mammogram,

she says.

 

I say,

if it got bigger,

why wait

six months

and

look again?

Why not

just biopsy it

and

be done

with it?

 

The Patient Navigator

stands up

and says,

follow me,

I’ll let you

talk to the

radiologist.

 

She navigates me

to another room.

 

I sit

and wait

again.

 

The doctor comes in.

He says he doesn’t

know why it’s gotten bigger

perhaps

it was because different people

did the

mammograms

a year apart,

but,

he says,

it looks like

a totally normal

lymph node.

 

I say,

are there usually

lymph nodes

inside

the breast tissue?

 

He says,

no,

if women have lymph nodes

in their breast tissue,

they are

usually along the side

and

you have them on the side

as well,

but this one is in the

middle,

which is

unusual.

 

Why not take

it out?

I say.

 

He says,

because it looks like

a totally normal

lymph node

that is in

an unusual place.

 

You come back

in six months

and

we’ll do this all

again,

he says,

it’s

probably

nothing,

if I thought

it were

something

I would tell you

and

we would

biopsy it.

 

I say,

okay,

thank you.

 

I go back to the changing

room and

change out of

the silly robe.

 

In the car

I call Victor

I tell him

what the doctor

said.

 

Victor says,

did you tell him that you fell

on that breast in January

hard enough to break

your ribs on that side?

 

I say,

no,

I didn’t say that.

 

He says,

you have to call

when you get home

and tell him;

that was

withholding

information!

 

So I call

when I get home.

After the phone mail,

I get a person

and I ask to leave a message

for the doctor.

 

I say,

I broke my ribs

on the right side

in January,

when I fell on a huge

glass sake bottle

onto the sidewalk

which also hurt my

breast.

She says she’ll

give him the note.

 

My phone is still silent

because of

the signs,

but I

forget

to turn it on again.

 

I notice a message

from the doctor.

 

He says,

falling really hard on

a large glass sake bottle

onto the sidewalk with

that breast

had absolutely

positively

nothing

to do with

this errant

lymph node.

 

He says,

call me

if you have

any questions

or concerns.

 

It is a nice message,

I decide to leave it

on my phone,

 

because,

it appears

it

really

is

nothing.

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.



That morning Jackson woke with an erection like an iron bar.He lay in bed with his eyes closed feeling it throb between his legs.He imagined Céline returning from work, unbuttoning her blouse and pulling the red regulation sash from around her waist with a practiced flick.She’d step down out of her shoes, unclip her metal nametag and toss it onto the kitchen table where it would land with a clatter. He could see her fingers sliding the zip down the side of her skirt, the fabric falling to the floor with that sweet familiar swish and then there she’d be, thin legs and her hands reaching up behind her, leaning forward, unfastening her bra the way she did.

I am naked in a bookstore near you.Big box, chain or indie.You can find me there.

The unflattering florescent lighting exposes all and opens me up for discussion, comment and speculation.I am less than a pound and 384 pages long.All those jiggly, messy bits of me that I am usually so good at masking are out there for all to see. I wanted this and now I am terrified. The enormity of the conundrum leaves me dry-mouthed with sweaty palms.

Whoops

By Kristen Elde

Essay

One Friday morning, I was running the streets of Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood when I tripped on some garbage and fell, bracing my fall with… my chin.

The sound was the worst: the dull internal clatter as top teeth met bottom. After lying prostrate in the middle of the dusty street for a split second, I scrambled to right myself. I made it to a sitting position and my thoughts went instantly to my mouth. My teeth: were they all there? A quick once-over with my tongue suggested they were. At the same time I brought my hand to my chin—but not before a nice crossing guard thrust a stack of napkins beneath it, urging me to apply pressure. “You hit the ground hard, honey. There’s blood—a lot of it.”

They tell me you should write about what you know. I’ve always had a problem with that. I may know some things other people don’t, but in writing that down, what good does that do me? Not much. I already know it. I want to write about things I don’t know about. I want to learn things about what I don’t think, how people I don’t know don’t act and why. Perhaps I say this because I don’t know much. I know a lot of facts about arcane things, but I already know them and I already know that nobody, unless they are short of Trivial Pursuit cards, wants to hear that kind of bilge. However, I don’t know one thing that I think will serve me well in my writing career: I don’t know how to write.

So, I reckon I’m sitting at my computer in good stead now, not knowing how to write. When I learn how to do that, I can stop writing and go on to a more noble pursuit like filming my relatives in Bakersfield, California doing their best interpretations of pro wrestling, then selling the tapes on what they like to call, the inter-tubes. If the nobility of this is called into question, I defy you to tell me that my cousin Bert leaping off the roof of his house and slamming a metal chair on the top of my younger cousin Stanley’s head is not tantamount in artistry to a Nureyev –Fonteyn showcase ofProkofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

I haven’t been able to write for as long as I can remember. Alas, I’ve always wanted too, but it never comes out quite right. It seems like everybody writes better than I do. I’ve always wanted to write a book that I’d like to read, but I’m always reading books I’d like to read, so what’s the point? You toil for years over this book, like your child. You like it when you first start raising it, feel you’ve done a bang-up job. Then, the book hits adolescence, its voice starts to crack, it wants its independence, then a car, then none of your time even though you want to give it all of your time. And finally, it flings itself into its own world and blows all your time and patience by spending its time (and still your money) on the hustling whores of the Mexican border and Quaaludes. To this, I have only one response:

It is to enact a sort of vengeful Golden Rule and to take up the qualities of your prodigal, ingrate book. Besides, all the books I would have liked to have written were written by full-blown, abject lunatics. There’s Salinger, speaking in tongues and drinking his own urine, Hemingway and Toole, blowing their minds out, Plath and her oven. Did she pre-heat that? Then Ambrose Bierce, gone without a trace. Que te vayas bien!, old boy. Where is Pynchon? And Mailer, always retching at parties and occasionally stabbing his wife. What a ship of old fools! It’s a good thing I can’t write. I see myself flinging my own feces over the rooftops of Paris, confused over the relationship between vector calculus and intransitive verbs. I swear, once I learn how to write, I never will. And who has the time to learn? There are too many distractions. This is one thing I know: How not to write.

Well, I see your point. You think I’m going to start talking about how not to write.

“But, hey,” you’ll say. “He said he didn’t want to write about things he knew about.” Then you will fold your arms contentedly and relish in my howling error. Aha! I also wrote that I didn’t know how to write, so it was okay to do so. In essence, I have canceled out both of these grandiose proclamations, and at the end of this, it will be like nothing ever happened. Nature frowns at my vacuum and smokes her first cigarette of the day, like Bette Davis…like she couldn’t give one damn. And although I’ve missed an episode of The Real World: Alpha Centauri, its like I haven’t.

One way not to write is to get an STD test. I have spent hours, days not writing because of these. If you think of all the melancholic things that could occur to your genitalia during the three or four agonizing days of waiting for the results, you really can’t be expected to do anything. However, while your wondering if your dick will drop off like an unwieldy stalactite when you’re in line for the movies, or if your partner’s vagina will gradually creep up and eat her belly button, you can think ofall the wonderful places you’d travel if faced with some harrowing disease. I decided that I would go to the south of Spain and just write. I mean, really write this time.

Now, here’s a really sly trick. Do you know that apocryphal probability of a bunch of baboons at a bunch of typewriters, who, if given long enough would eventually type out the entire works ofShakespeare? It’s something that gives writers hope.


http://www.writers-free-reference.com/baboon-at-computer.jpg

It also hints at immortality, as all faulty logic, and writing, must. Here is what you must do. If you can type, you must unlearn how to do that. Maybe turn your keyboard upside down. Then using sequences of one, two, three, four and up to, say, nine letters, type randomly, not looking at the keyboard. Then, when you have finished a few hundred pages, spell check or put the Thesaurus to your piece. Often, you will find there is no suggestion for your word. Sometimes, you will find you have actually typed a word in the lexicon, and sometimes you will find that the spell check divined the subconscious word you hammered out on the keyboard. (Note: If you try this with common penmanship, you will find yourself either cheating or your neurons will become so confused at your attempts to confuse them that your head will turn into eggs Benedict.) “kdfyfrt,” I write. I then use my computer’s thesaurus and find that “juvenile behavior” is an equivalent to “kdfyfrt.” (Seriously, try it.)

And there, I have the beginnings of Catcher in the Rye, or Lord of the Flies. I am that baboon that will succeed. Eventually. And on a side note, if you are interested in poetry, I suggest you type out a few turgid lines in your native tongue, then find a translation website and in translation, you may very well be the next Goethe, Neruda, Rimbaud, or Horace, depending on the language you select. Perhaps you translate better than you are, like Garcia-Lorca.

I want to make clear that, although I don’t know of any other treatise on how not to write, I assume that there must be a few out there. Fine. We all know that everything has already been written before and that the crucial thing is to say it better, or at least, differently. It’s like the idea of Genghis Cohen, the noted Jewish barbarian who went marauding through China slapping everybody with gefilte fish. It turns out, there is a Genghis Cohen’s restaurant at Fairfax and Melrose in LA and is also a character in a Thomas Pynchon novel, The Crying of Lot 49. But I thought of this name, independently, as I thought of the subject of writing on not writing, so be it. I wonder if anybody has done anything with The Origin of Feces, though. I must fact check. Why am I so defensive about this? Because I realize that many people must have sundry techniques for not writing, but I have found the following quite adept at keeping me away from the keyboard. That said, these are only some micro-suggestions.

The easiest way to not write is to start drinking. You may have a splash of inspiration after a few cocktails and look to put this, the framework of your magnum opus on paper. This feeling will pass. I will occasionally belly up to the keyboard after doing the same at the bar and find that while I think I can write, I still can’t (Thankfully. I would hate to learn I did something better drunk than sober, aside from falling down.). Just don’t drink whiskey. The only two things whiskey makes you want to do is fight or write. Both of these will get you into trouble. In defense of writing, though, the simian ogre at the bar ready to knock your block off doesn’t have a “delete” key. Stick with red wine and read a good book until you fall asleep. Or call up some friends and tell them how much you love and miss them. If you have no friends, watch a city council meeting on the public access channel and ask yourself why you are such a drip. Drinking is an easy out, and one determined to really not write should have salted away a number of other options. I’ll make this hasty, as writing about not writing is proving to be almost as exhausting as just writing. There’s something I didn’t know.

There is one particular flood of menstruum that dissolves the spirit and when instituted will assuage all pains related to not writing. This is called internet gambling. This is the knockout drop in the drink that keeps me alive, as Endymion. Rolled up jacks over trips, down and up, down and up. It is that kind of blessed monotony that I think keeps most people alive. And for the antsy creative type, you can really make an art out of losing money, which, I should add, has been my summer job. Losing money at the online casino. This is not as lucrative as a typical summer job, but the hours are flexible and I don’t have to talk to anybody, save my own ravaged conscious. When does anybody make or lose money on writing? Never. Writing just is as I am. Nobody can prove either postulate and only the fool might try. I have just lost $200. Really, I just did that. I sell bonds like cracker jacks and switch them like shell games. I am such a disappointment. I feel that way. Thinking, I am Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all of them. Pick my story, I’ll try not to write it. Matt, the realist. Too much on about His wisdom, Son of Sirach and all that drivel. Boring. Then Mark, snot-slinging drunk and bitch of Luke, holds forth on the Sabbath and then hits the middle-of-the-road. Why not Luke, the pretty-boy, the best writer of the bunch who learned how to write and kept it short, ofsorts. And finally, John, who gives the words appeal. Writes the bestseller. The clincher. No, I am none of them. I have created no universe, I have moved no man, no woman. Damnit, I tried, though. That is all I have ever wanted to do. Like McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “I tried.” There is nothing more stifling than knowing what to write and not writing it. I suppose that’s the point, though, not writing.

Maybe I’ll can it. I’m getting awfully invested about thinking about not writing. Change the ring on your phone to Dance of the Valkyries, think of titles for new books, old books. If you have that liberal guilt, see how far you can jam your thumb up your ass, while convincing yourself you’re really not that gay. Ok, then how interesting can you be? If you can see 3-D, try a hand at vector calculus. Make a sloppy Spanish tortilla. Put your brother to bed, again. And again. He’s getting old now. Memorize something. Like ketchup: Tomato concentrate, distilled vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, salt, onion powder, natural flavoring. I think I finally got it.

Enough. Writing, and not writing, is a brilliant ponzi scheme. You manufacture one word and the rest fall into rank. Any word engenders another, no matter how puerile, no matter how vacant. They will all, eventually, spill out in a brilliant splash of your own gore. But it is your gore. And you must believe it will withdraw from you some semblance of value. This is, of course, if you are able to write. I , of course, have a problem writing. I will sweat until my death in attempts to finish this odious trade. Until then, I can tell you only that one should never write about what one knows, one should never know what one truly feels, one should keep one’s thumb up one’s ass, constantly, in the hopes that one’s head will peer out from that unholy aperture long enough to realize that we must always try and hold our entrails, our souls out to ourselves long enough to realize that we can never, ever, learn to write. Jesus wept. I’m talking about me. But Godamnit, I try. I will try and take my TKO against the demiurge of words with grace, with nonchalance. With everything I have. I shall never write. I know that. That’s one thing I know. The thing I’ll never write about. Or not.

I confronted eschatology too young. Although benign compared to some beliefs, my Catholic upbringing placed me at the sidelines of Armageddon—strange references to a kingdom come, the Second Coming, Judgment Day. I got queasy at the mention of the Book of Revelations. Sermons and syntactically-strained Bible readings led me to infer a tremendous destructive end to all life, human, animal, insect, plant. There were drawings in books, filled with fire, angels and demons, a sea of the damned. For a child, it’s impossible to reconcile a loving Father with one who will kill every one of his children with wanton violence. Children also don’t grasp metaphor.

I don’t remember giving consent. Or protesting. Or having a choice, not with adult forces at work. A secret committee decided that I should represent my elementary school at the Little Miss Lafayette pageant. How I got the news, I’m not sure, but my guess is this:

My mother: “Ronlyn, you’re going to be in a beauty pageant. You were picked out of everyone from the whole school. Isn’t that wonderful?”

Me: I likely scowled. I likely pondered the real threat of dress-up clothes. It’s possible I asked, “Why me?”

Why me indeed. There had to be at least 150 girls in my school. Certainly someone else would have been thrilled by such attention, someone to whom strangers commented, “Oh, what a pretty little girl.” I was a cute kid, like the quirky type in cereal commercials. I was not a beautiful child, one born for pageants or hair product ads, tresses wavy and loose, eyes and cheekbones aglow with well-placed catch lights. I was no girly-girl.

I’ve only recently shaken off the trepidation associated with taking public transport after riding a local train through Atocha railway station on the morning of March 11th, 2004, but I still occasionally feel exactly the same kind of paralysing fear that I’m sure every Londoner, Madrileño and every New Yorker is acquainted with, if not every person in the world who is even cursorily aware of terrorism lore.

Photo by Christopher Doyle

Strapped into an international flight, delayed on the runway in Jakarta in November 2006, due to the fact that Air Force one was passing through the airport, I fixated on a Semitic man sitting opposite me who was holding a copy of The Economist open in front of him.

Working his way through the paper steadily, the man was spending an equal amount of time looking at each double-page spread. Eerily, he was staring just as intently at an advert for Continental tyres, and for just as long, as he was spending reading the longer pieces.

Over the space of about an hour, blasted with sleep deprivation, culture shock, beer, Valium and memories of the film, ‘Flight 93’, I’d convinced myself he was pretending to read the paper and was, therefore, attempting to appear like a normal passenger, when, in truth, he was actually a member of al-Qaeda.

In no time, I’d managed to work myself into such a state that I’d dismantled a pen I’d found in my pocket, and was vacillating between squeamish thoughts of just what plunging the improvised plastic shiv into the guy’s neck would actually feel like, and how to explain my suspicions to the stewardess without breaking down and/or causing some kind of paroxysm.

I even wrote it out on a napkin, leaving out the words, “let’s roll”. I was preparing to hand it off when the resignation to the fact that I was going to die began to set in. The only consolation was that in doing so, I would have a part in ridding the world of George W. Bush. This was surprisingly comforting.

At what point does social conscience become interference?

When I was 12 years-old, I witnessed what would now be termed a ‘racial attack’. Some might say I participated in it by proxy. Indeed, apparently “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

(Tell that to the Dalai Lama…)

A few seats down the bus from me, a friend of mine challenged a younger boy to specify his ethnic origin as among the people of one or the other of two neighbouring South Asian nation states; one of which he labeled with a racial epithet, the other of which he referred to with the standard demonym. My friend challenged this boy, the only non-Caucasian on a bus full of white people, clearly using the racial slur to antagonise him.

Another friend in attendance began laughing loudly and continued cackling throughout the provocation and the ensuing one-on-one fight. The public racial challenge meant that the onus was very much on the kid to escalate the conflict, and my friend certainly deserved a punch for his bigotry.

Should I also have been one to administer this, in addition to the kid’s justifiably violent reaction to what my friend had said to him? The answer is quite clearly in the affirmative: The influence I had with my friends was the power I had above and beyond that of this beleaguered kid.

A comment or an action from me may not have been able to stop the fight, but it would have certainly registered my horror and disapproval as some kind of ‘societal’ protest, and it certainly would have been easier for me to do this more effectively than he, and perhaps the fight could have been turned more in the kid’s favour.

A typically resonant line from ‘The Sopranos’ comes to mind here…

Character, J.T. Dolan returns to admonish the attendees of a Writer’s Guild seminar he has just been physically dragged out of by Mafia goons:

“An entire room full of writers, and you did nothing!”

I suspect people who weren’t on that bus are still disgusted with me for doing nothing. I don’t feel great about it. I think that the incident lies behind my obsession with ‘jobs’ that legitimise; indeed that require a passive, observatory stance. eg. writer. In both situations, I just sat there shocked into inaction.

I got off the bus well before my stop as a boy, and off the plane as a ‘man’.

I walked the rest of the way home in silence.

IMAGE: Screengrab from ‘The Sopranos’ from youtube.com